God Explodes the Wall Street JournalMarch 22, 2015 Time: 33:57
A recent article on the Fine-Tuning Argument for God in the Wall Street Journal set records for the publication! Dr. Craig comments on it and addresses some of the opposition.
God Explodes the Wall Street Journal
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, imagine you open up your Wall Street Journal over breakfast and there it is – “Science Increasingly Makes the Case For God.” This article is the most shared and liked article on the Wall Street Journal website in their history. It is from Eric Metaxas who is an author and television personality. He has written on Bonhoeffer. He wrote an article that a lot of people have sent to us – “Science Increasingly Makes the Case For God.” Obviously, this has blown up the blogosphere. We will look at some of the opposition to that from Lawrence Krauss and some others who have also written in New Yorker and some other prominent publications. You were sent this article as well, weren’t you?
Dr. Craig: Yes. I was. I had not yet read this when I participated in the Forum on Religion and Science at Biola University in late January. But I have since looked at it, and I must say I think it is a very credible piece. I think it is well written on a layman’s level and summarizes very nicely the evidence for a cosmic designer.
Kevin Harris: It is not a long article. It is very readable. He starts out:
In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.
Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.
With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researchers have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.
What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
Let’s stop there for just a moment. He is talking about how Sagan highlighted those two parameters and now there are beyond fifty.
Dr. Craig: Yes, he says in the article that there are now around 200 known parameters which are necessary for a planet to be life-supporting, and every one of them must be met or life would be impossible. These will include things like a solar system that has a large Jupiter-like planet in it which will act as a vacuum cleaner to suck away destructive asteroids and meteors. A moon. The correct distance from the star. The position in the galactic arm. The type of atmosphere. The mass. On and on it goes. His claim is that given these many parameters, there ought to be no planets in the universe that are life-supporting, not even our own. It is highly, highly improbable that even we should be here.
Kevin Harris: If he had stopped there, I think the article would have been incomplete. If he just talked about our particular solar system and the right distance from the sun and so on. But he goes on and gets into William Lane Craig territory here when he says, “There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all.”
Dr. Craig: Exactly. I was very gratified to see him include that in the article. I think the strength of the article is that it begins with the improbability of a life-supporting planet like the Earth, but then it goes to the absolutely incomprehensible improbability of a universe that has all of the cosmic parameters that are fine-tuned for the universe to be life-permitting. So the improbability of a life-supporting planet is just layered over or added onto an already incomprehensible improbability that arises from the fine-tuning of the constants and initial quantities in nature.
Kevin Harris: He talks about the fundamental forces – gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces. All of these things that cosmologists and scientists have known for so long that if they were just the tiniest fraction different the universe wouldn’t exist at all. Stars wouldn’t have formed.
Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions [like you just said, Bill], and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row.
He goes on to quote Fred Hoyle, theoretical physicist Paul Davies, John Lennox from Oxford. He says,
The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.
Dr. Craig: What Metaxas has done here is give a contemporary, concise formulation of a teleological argument for the existence of a cosmic designer. I am really thrilled to see this appearing in a major newspaper, and even more than that that this would become the most read op-ed piece in the history of the Wall Street Journal online.
Kevin Harris: Well, you just know that Lawrence Krauss has something to say about this! He writes a piece, “No. Astrobiology Has Not Made the Case For God.” Immediately that caught my attention that he is using the term astrobiology as opposed to science. The name of the Wall Street Journal article we’ve been looking at is “ Science Increasingly Makes the Case For God.” Krauss seems to be wanting to clarify and say “No, astrobiology has not made the case for God.” At least that is the name of it. What about his use of “astrobiology?”
Dr. Craig: I didn’t detect anything that was significant there. He defines that as “loosely stated, searches for signs of life elsewhere and explores the astrophysical and cosmological conditions that might allow for life to exist in our universe.” That does seem to me to be what the article was about.
Kevin Harris: The byline of Krauss’ article is “The absence of known life beyond Earth can’t be used as proof of a higher being.”
Dr. Craig: That is definitely a misrepresentation and a pejorative way of putting it. Metaxas did not argue from the absence of something for the existence of a higher intelligence. On the contrary, he argued on the basis of the evidence that we do have that in order for a planet to be life-sustaining it must have all of these different parameters in very narrow ranges, and moreover the entire universe must be fine-tuned to an incomprehensible delicacy and complexity if we are to have life evolve anywhere in the cosmos. This is not at all an argument based upon ignorance or absence of evidence as Krauss’ byline suggests.
Kevin Harris: Krauss begins his article:
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a piece with the surprising title “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” At least it was surprising to me, because I hadn’t heard the news. The piece argued that new scientific evidence bolsters the claim that the appearance of life in the universe requires a miracle, and it received almost four hundred thousand Facebook shares and likes.
Dr. Craig: He is being disingenuous there. He obviously has heard the news. He’s debated me on the subject of fine-tuning. He is aware of the literature. He just disagrees with the conclusion.
Kevin Harris: In looking at Krauss’ response, what are some of the highlights that you see here? What does Krauss’ first response . . .?
Dr. Craig: He claims the Metaxas article makes a number of missteps. He says, “The first is a familiar mistake of elaborating all the factors responsible for some specific event and calculating all the probabilities as if they were independent.”
His point there is that some of the factors could be mutually dependent upon one another so that if you change one, one of the others is changed as well. So you can’t calculate the probabilities independently and then add them all up. The problem is Krauss does nothing to show that these parameters are dependent in this way. To all appearances, the sorts of parameters Metaxas talks about are independent. For example, the distance from the sun, having a Jupiter-sized planet in the solar system, having a moon like the Earth, having a certain atmosphere. He doesn’t do anything to suggest that altering one of these would alter the other ones in such a way as to decrease the improbability significantly that a planet would have all of these factors in place. So the first misstep has not actually been identified as a misstep that those Metaxas appeals to actually make. With regard to the fine-tuning of the universe, I would reiterate the same thing. These are, to all appearances, largely independent of each other. That is what makes the case so compelling.
So the detractors of the argument need to make a case that all of these factors are significantly dependent upon one another so that life-supporting planets would in fact in the end be probable.
Kevin Harris: Krauss says,
An even more severe problem in Metaxas’s argument is the assumption of randomness, namely that physical processes do not naturally drive a system toward a certain state. This is the most common error among those who argue that, given the complexity of life on Earth, evolution is as implausible as a tornado ravaging a junkyard and producing a 747.
Comment on that because we do use that illustration.
Dr. Craig: Oh, but that is used to talk about the evolution of biological complexity. This is his example. He says, “natural selection implies that evolution is anything but random.” Animals or biological organisms are selected for their survivability and therefore it isn’t as though this is just a random process but it produces organisms that are better and better suited to their environment. There is nothing to suggest that there is something in the universe that would favor planets a certain distance from the star, a certain mass, having a Jupiter in the solar system, having a moon. I don’t know of any sort of natural laws that would suggest that these are somehow selected for. With regard to the fine-tuning parameters, because those are initial conditions they cannot be written off as the product of any sort of prior evolution. They are just there as initial conditions with which the universe begins, or they fall out as the result of quantum symmetry-breaking processes that are indeterminate and so cannot be the product of evolution or natural selection. Here I think he is really making desperate appeals in order to try to avoid the design inference.
Kevin Harris: Next he says,
Beyond this, two exciting scientific advances in recent decades have identified new ways in which life can evolve, and new locales where it can do so. First, we have discovered a surprisingly diverse group of new solar systems. And we now understand that, even in our solar system, there are a host of possible sites where life might have evolved that were long considered unlikely.
Dr. Craig: Yes. This is a very relevant factor. Maybe life can survive and flourish or evolve under much more hostile conditions than we might have imagined. But it seems to me that that doesn’t connect with Metaxas’ article because, according to the parameters that Metaxas cites, in the absence of these parameters, there wouldn’t even be stars much less planets where extreme forms of life could evolve. This, again, is an appeal to ignorance on Krauss’ part. He doesn’t grapple with the actual argument that Metaxas is giving, but just says life can flourish under extreme conditions.
Kevin Harris: Or maybe it would look different.
Dr. Craig: Right. But Metaxas’ article points out that absent these parameters, the conditions would be such that there wouldn’t even be sites for life to evolve and exist.
Kevin Harris: This is a good time to bring up that you do an end-run on most of this in your fine-tuning arguments. That was very refreshing to me when I first began to read that from you because I could always see that if you just want to start talking about the distance from the sun, the right mix of oxygen, and all these factors, that Fine, life could look different. Or because those factors are there, that is why life evolved. That wasn’t as impressive to me. In a certain context it is pretty impressive. When you see all this other stuff.
Dr. Craig: The fine-tuning you mean?
Kevin Harris: Yeah! But we got to get to the fine-tuning of the initial constants in the Big Bang itself.
Dr. Craig: Yes. And the credit of Metaxas’ article is that he does that. He says explicitly “The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe [by that he means a life-permitting universe] to exist at all." So he does present the argument in the proper context in a credible way, and Krauss’ points that life can exist in the deep oceans next to these volcanic vents or can exist in other extremes just doesn’t engage with the argument as Metaxas presents it.
Kevin Harris: To Krauss’ credit, he does try to go to these forces as well.
Dr. Craig: Yes, he mentions the fine-tuning.
Kevin Harris: Krauss says,
It is true that a small change in the strength of the four known forces (but nowhere near as small as Metaxas argues) would imply that stable protons and neutrons, the basis of atomic nuclei, might not exist. (The universe, however, would—a rather large error in the Metaxas piece.)
Dr. Craig: That’s not a large error. Clearly, Metaxas is talking about a life-permitting universe or the universe we observe. That wouldn’t exist is what he means. This is just snatching at words.
Kevin Harris: He says about these forces that are finely-tuned,
This is old news and, while it’s an interesting fact, it certainly does not require a deity.
Once again, it likely confuses cause and effect. The constants of the universe indeed allow the existence of life as we know it. However, it is much more likely that life is tuned to the universe rather than the other way around.
Dr. Craig: Now that is a bizarre argument. Of course the reason that life is able to evolve and exist in this universe is because the finely tuned necessary conditions were in place that allowed it to do so. There isn’t any reversal of cause and effect. To reverse cause and effect would be to say that the existence of life caused the initial conditions to be as they are – and that would be absurd. That would be both backward causation as well as vicious circularity since the life wouldn’t exist unless the initial conditions were there in the first place. So this is a horrible example of, I think, an attempt to provide a sort of philosophical argument about the direction of causality that is just completely confused. There is no difficulty in the argument in this regard. The idea is that these initial conditions are necessary conditions for life to evolve and exist.
Kevin Harris: Again, Krauss reiterates, “If the cosmological constant were different, perhaps vastly different kinds of life might have arisen.”
Dr. Craig: Part of the strength of the fine-tuning argument is that it is not dependent upon any single example of fine-tuning. It is in the conspiration of all of these different parameters that are necessary for life to exist in this universe. The cosmological constant, even if it can vary to a certain extent, still is a very narrow range for life to exist. In addition to that, there are all these other constants and quantities that need to be taken into effect. So there really isn’t, I think, much hope for denying the fact of fine-tuning, which is what this paragraph would seem to want to do. It doesn’t provide any explanation of the fine-tuning. It just wants to say maybe the universe isn’t fine-tuned after all. But Metaxas, I think, is quite right in saying that in the absence of fine-tuning there wouldn’t even be planets. There wouldn’t be stars. There wouldn’t even be matter. So the fact that the universe is fine-tuned – that is to say requires certain necessary conditions that fall within a very, very narrow range – seems to me to be largely uncontroversial today. The real controversy is how do you explain it? Do you say it had to be that way (physical necessity)? Do you advert to the metaphysical hypothesis of a multiverse to try to explain it by chance? Or do you have a cosmic intelligence or designer? I agree with Metaxas that the hypothesis of an intelligent designer is very credible compared to the other two.
In fact, I want to highlight a point in Metaxas’ original article that is not addressed by Krauss, and it is this question – Metaxas writes, “At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces?” At what point does the evidence suggest that there is more than just chance going on – that this is a result of design? I think that for somebody like Krauss who is committed to scientific naturalism, there is no point at which he would admit that. That just becomes question-begging. That is just an example of closed-mindedness. I want to know an answer in principle to Metaxas’ question. What point needs to be reached in order for it to be rational to say this is the result of some sort of designing intelligence? If you can’t give us some sort of idea of at what point the improbabilities would so accumulate that you would say all right this is where I think an inference to intelligent design would be tenable and legitimate. Then you are just begging the question against it assuming it cannot be true. That is just an exhibition of closed-mindedness.
Kevin Harris: How many pairs of bloody socks at the murder scene do you have to find? [laughter]
Dr. Craig: That is a tremendous question in the original op-ed piece that I think detractors need to be ready to answer.
Kevin Harris: I would like to see a lot of writing on it. Bill, as we are wrapping up today, one more objection from a rabbi, Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman. He wrote, “Sorry, Science Doesn’t Make a Case for God. But That’s OK.” He addresses Metaxas’ piece. It looks like he is giving two reasons why a fine-tuned universe is not a compelling argument for God.
Dr. Craig: Well, I don’t know, Kevin! It is very odd, his article. It is not a scientific response. It is more of a theological response. Notice what he says. He says, “A fine-tuned universe is a compelling argument for God.” But nevertheless, we ought not to use it. It is “deeply problematic” so we shouldn’t use it. This is really an odd response. It is a sort of religious horror or aversion to arguments for God’s existence. There is this compelling argument, but we shouldn’t use it. Then he gives these two reasons.
Kevin Harris: Reason 1: “Science is always changing.”
Dr. Craig: Yeah. Now, obviously science is always changing, but that doesn’t mean that science just sort of flip-flops around. Science progresses. The insights of earlier theories are not simply abolished, but their truths are taken up in the subsequent theories that supersede them. So Newtonian mechanics, for example, is still a perfectly viable and correct theory for describing low-velocity mechanics. It is only when you get to velocities near the speed of light that these relativistic effects become significant. So this Newtonian mechanics aren’t simply denied. They are taken up and put into a broader context. In fact, I remember reading a statement by one scientist where he said, I don’t really believe a scientific theory until it has been falsified, because once it has been falsified then you know the parameters in which it is tenable and usable and those where it is not. So I think the rabbi seems to misunderstand the nature of science in thinking that science just undoes itself every generation and doesn’t actually progress.
The other mistake here is, notice what he says, “So if we base our religious outlook on scientific findings, what will happen to our theology when the science changes?” He is concerned that if science changes and we base our religion on our science then our religion is going to need to change, too. Well, now, there is nothing in Metaxas’ article (was there?) that says we base our religious outlook on scientific findings. I don’t remember anything in his article saying that you base religious beliefs on scientific findings. What his claim was that science increasingly provides evidence for the truth of some of one’s religious beliefs; for example, that the world was created by an intelligent designer. I see nothing objectionable about that. If science were to somehow do a radical change, then you would no longer have that support from modern science for your religious beliefs. But that wouldn’t do anything to undermine those beliefs or falsify them. You just wouldn’t have that nice natural theological argument in your apologetic arsenal anymore.
Kevin Harris: He quotes Francis Collins warning against this. He says, “Like all apologetic arguments, it can be undermined by new discoveries and weakened by broad theological conversations.”
Dr. Craig: Let’s talk about those separately. Sure, it is possible for it to be undermined by new discoveries. But did they ever use this as an argument, for example, why we shouldn’t believe in Harvey’s theory of blood circulation? Or why we shouldn’t believe in the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, for example? No, of course not. In all of these other areas, science proceeds on the basis that you look at where the evidence properly and currently points.
Kevin Harris: Sometimes those arguments are strengthened by discovery.
Dr. Craig: Exactly. This has certainly been the pattern with fine-tuning isn’t it? The more we know, the stronger the argument gets! There is no reason to think that it is going to be undermined by new discoveries, nor does that possibility do anything to undermine what science currently says anymore than the possibility that Darwinian evolution could be overthrown undermines the confidence with which scientists embrace that theory. That is the first consideration.
The second one is the theological considerations that are problematic here. Here is this very odd objection: “. . . the fine-tuning of the universe is just as necessary to produce cockroaches as humans.” That is absolutely right. But how does that undermine the fine-tuning argument? I think the confusion here is that they are thinking that the fine-tuning argument is that the universe was designed for human beings. But that is no part of the argument. The argument does not issue in the conclusion, “Therefore the universe was designed for human beings.” What it is an argument for is there is a cosmic intelligence which has fine-tuned the universe for life. You can run that argument using cockroaches. A cockroach is an incomprehensibly complex organism which could not exist without this sort of fine-tuning that we’ve been describing. But it is no part of the argument to say therefore the universe was designed for cockroaches, nor is it an argument to say the universe was designed for human beings. They just don’t understand the fine-tuning argument. They think that the argument from fine-tuning is an argument about the purpose of the universe, and it is not that at all. There might be all kinds of other extra-terrestrial life that the cosmic designer has made that lies within the purview of his purposes for this universe besides us. That is simply not a part of the argument.
Kevin Harris: I see this all the time, Bill.
Dr. Craig: Oh, I do, too.
Kevin Harris: Also, you will see things like, Oh yeah? The universe is hospitable for life? You can’t breathe in space, you can’t live on the surface of the sun, and try to go to Antarctica on a vacation.
Dr. Craig: It is the same error. They are thinking that the argument is that the universe is designed for the purpose of Homo sapiens, or human beings.
Kevin Harris: A nice habitat.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, and that is just not the argument. It is an argument about necessary conditions for the universe to be life-permitting. It doesn’t say anything about what reasons the cosmic designer might have had for making a fine-tuned universe. How are we supposed to know that apart from divine revelation?
Kevin Harris: His other objection is “Science and religion are two different ways of thinking. Don't conflate them.”
Dr. Craig: Here I think is where he really shows his hand. He doesn’t think of religion as a search for truth about reality. He actually makes this statement: “science is a search for truth, while religion is a search for meaning.”
Kevin Harris: Rabbi!
Dr. Craig: Yeah, come on! He is thinking of religion as a way of finding existential significance to your life. He is not even talking about objective meaning. He is talking about your own subjective meaning. So he says later in the article, religion is “designed to help us improve ourselves and our world, here and now.” In other words, religion just serves these imminent purposes of kind of getting along in life, avoiding nihilism and despair, and giving us a reason for living, but it doesn’t have anything to do with truth. I would say, that may be his religion but that is certainly not the standard view of religious belief and certainly not classical theism which says that God is an objectively existing reality who has made the universe, has created human beings in his image, and who wants us to know him and find eternal life and a relationship with him forever. Religion is not just about a search for existential significance.
Kevin Harris: Bill, as we conclude, isn’t it amazing that this article has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, a prominent publication, and has broken records on it as far as social media and their website and caused all kinds of conversation to happen. It would behoove us to have a good working knowledge on these issues as good ambassadors for Christ.
Dr. Craig: That is absolutely right. And it is a tremendous encouragement to say that our culture is still vitally interested in these kinds of considerations and that secularism is not simply carrying the day in our culture. Otherwise, the kind of response and interest in an article like this would be inexplicable.
See http://www.wsj.com/articles/eric-metaxas-science-increasingly-makes-the-case-for-god-1419544568 (accessed March 25, 2015).
See http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/astrobiology-made-case-god (accessed March 25, 2015).
See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-geoffrey-a-mitelman/sorry-science-doesnt-make_b_6392000.html (accessed March 25, 2015).
Total Running Time: 33:56 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)
Total Running Time: 33:56 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)