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Beyond God and atheism

What are we doing here? What’s the point of existence?

Traditionally, the West has been dominated by two very different answers to these big questions. On the one hand, there is belief in the traditional God of the Abrahamic faiths, a supreme being who created the universe for a good purpose. On the other hand, there is the meaningless, purposeless universe of secular atheism. However, I’ve come to think both views are inadequate, as both have things they can’t explain about reality. In my view, the evidence we currently have points to the universe having purpose but one that exists in the absence of the traditional God.

The theistic worldview struggles to explain suffering, particularly in the natural world. Why would a loving, all-powerful God choose to create the North American long-tailed shrew that paralyses its prey and then slowly eats it alive over several days before it dies from its wounds? Theologians have tried to argue that there are certain good things that exist in our world that couldn’t exist in a world with less suffering, such as serious moral choices, or opportunities to show courage or compassion. But even if that’s right, it’s not clear that our creator has the right to kill and maim—by choosing to create hurricanes and disease, for example—in order, say, to provide the opportunity to show courage. A classic objection to crude forms of utilitarianism considers the possibility of a doctor who has the option of kidnapping and killing one healthy patient in order to save the lives of five other patients: giving the heart to one, the kidneys to another, and so on. Perhaps this doctor could increase the amount of well-being in the world through this action: saving five lives at the cost of one. Even so, many feel that the doctor doesn’t have the right to take the life of the healthy person, even for a good purpose. Likewise, I think it would be wrong for a cosmic creator to infringe on the right to life and security of so many by creating earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters.

Looking at the other side of the coin, the secular atheist belief in a meaningless, purposeless universe struggles to explain the fine-tuning of physics for life. This is the recent discovery that for life to be possible, certain numbers in physics had to fall in a certain, very narrow range. If the strength of dark energy—the force that powers the expansion of the universe—had been a little bit stronger, no two particles would have ever met, meaning no stars, no planets, no structural complexity at all. If, on the other hand, it had been significantly weaker, it would not have counteracted gravity, and the universe would have collapsed back on itself a split second after the big bang. For life to be possible, the strength of dark energy had to be—like Goldilocks’ porridge—just right.

For a long time, I thought the multiverse was the best explanation of the fine-tuning of physics for life. If enough people play the lottery, it becomes likely that someone’s going to get the right numbers to win. Likewise, if there are enough universes, with enough variety in the numbers in their ‘local physics,’ then statistically it becomes highly probable that one of them is going to fluke the right numbers for life to exist.

However, I have been persuaded by philosophers of probability that the attempt to explain fine-tuning in terms of a multiverse violates a very important principle in probabilistic reasoning, known as the “Total Evidence Requirement.” This is the principle that you should always work with the most specific evidence you have. If the prosecution tells the jury that Jack always carries a knife around with him, when they know full well that he always carries a butter knife around with him, then they have misled to jury—not by lying, but by giving them less specific evidence than is available.

The multiverse theorist violates this principle by working with the evidence that a universe is fine-tuned, rather than the more specific evidence we have available, namely that this universe is fine-tuned. According to the standard account of the multiverse, the numbers in our physics were determined by probabilistic processes very early in its existence. These probabilistic processes make it highly unlikely that any particular universe will be fine-tuned, even though if there are enough universes one of them will probably end up fine-tuned. However, we are obliged by the Total Evidence Requirement to work with the evidence that this universe in particular is fine-tuned, and the multiverse theory fails to explain this data.

This is all a bit abstract, so let’s take a concrete example. Suppose you walk into a forest and happen upon a monkey typing in perfect English. This needs explaining. Maybe it’s a trained monkey. Maybe it’s a robot. Maybe you’re hallucinating. What would not explain the data is postulating millions of other monkeys on other planets elsewhere in the universe, who are mostly typing nonsense. Why not? Because, in line with the Requirement of Total Evidence, your evidence is not that some monkey is typing English but that this monkey is typing in English.

In my view, we face a stark choice. Either it is an incredible fluke that these numbers in our physics are just right for life, or these numbers are as they are because they are the right numbers for life, in other words, that there is some kind of “cosmic purpose” or goal-directedness towards life at the fundamental level of reality. The former option is too improbable to take seriously. The only rational option remaining is to embrace cosmic purpose.

Theism cannot explain suffering. Atheism cannot explain fine-tuning. Only cosmic purpose in the absence of God can accommodate both of these data-points.

Recent Comments

  1. Roger Nathan

    It’s a pity that even Professors of Philosophy don’t seem to recognize that these so called conflcists have been resolved hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. Please truly try to understand Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism.

  2. Jorge Tzvi

    Thanks,very interest,,every 50 or 100 years, humans ,need to change theory’s for new discovery’s ,means no one have the last word abaut life porpoise, if eny exist .
    Consciuosness,panpsy chism,I never thought you are part of ,,but yes we are part, and connected,
    Our genetic code is a document of that ,connected maybe with other civilization that write that ,abaut God ,you are right ,its not explain suffering ,but what if our evolution is not complete, for some reason was interrupted,and they we are,,a incomplete entity without porpoise.

  3. Martin Smith

    I think you are looking at the problem from the wrong end. The fact that the universe is what it is gives the possibility of our existence. It doesn’t need a purpose for that. If it were different there’d be no us, and therefore no question.

  4. Bobinette

    Hmmm… votre hypothèse, intéressante pour le jeu intellectuel, ne répond pas vraiment à l’invraisemblance concrète d’une situation -disons- de la personne qui gagnerait des milliards de fois, en cascade, à la loterie. Ni aux corollaires, car tout l’existant fonctionne sous forme de systèmes complexes intégrés en cascades dans d’autre systèmes complexes… Je ne suis pas une intellectuelle il est vrai. Mais j’adhère à la pensée d’une création planifiée, intelligente, et des grains de sable introduits dans les rouages du projet par une des créatures intelligentes… Ces actes et bugs de haker sont sans doute en cours de correction, dans le respect des paramètres et objectifs du programme voulu et conçu par son créateur. On en reparlera après correction.
    Oui mon système de pensée de “paysanne” introduit des paramètres différents des vôtres…

  5. Philip Heath

    The first sentence is misleading: for a very long time not only the ‘West’, but everywhere that spoke an Indo-European language, shared reflexes of a common IE polytheism.

  6. Wylie Cox

    One could get around the problem with the theistic worldview by simply proposing a primordial Source (deity or otherwise) that isn’t concerned with whether or not any sentient creature suffers, one that has no interest in rewards or punishments, and whose intention is only that myriad forms of life come into being and experience being alive in as many possible ways for whatever finite periods are appropriate for each form. Whether or not this Source’s purpose for establishing the myriad forms of life is comprehensible to we humans doesn’t really matter. It’s most likely incomprehensible to us, as would be the Source itself.

  7. Iftekhar Sayeed

    The suffering in Gaza has a cosmic purpose.

    Also, the extinction of the dinosaurs and other species has a cosmic purpose.

    Our extinction will have, no doubt, a cosmic purpose.

    As will nuclear annihilation.

    Believers can maintain that life has a purpose unknown to limited humans.

    But cosmic purpose does not tell us what the purpose is: purpose itself is a human concept. How a universe, or any universe, can have purpose beyond the human must remain incredibly confused.


  8. Alex Douglas

    I’ve read and recommend Philip Goff’s latest book, which is both fun to read and philosophically deep.

    But I still don’t get this particular point. That THIS universe is fine-tuned doesn’t seem like an objective fact requiring scientific explanation.

    Suppose Usain Bolt asks why he can run so fast, and a geneticist answers that there’s enough variation in the human genome to make it likely that some people will have this ability. If Bolt replies: “No, I’m asking you why the person who can run so fast is ME”, the geneticist can only reply that he’s mistaking something that’s only true relative to his own subjective point of view for an objective fact requiring scientific explanation.

    Likewise, it seems to me, the alleged fact that THIS universe is fine-tuned. It’s only THIS universe to us in it. To inhabitants of another universe, our universe is just one among many. There is no such objective fact as “this universe is fine-tuned”; in objective, absolute terms there is only the fact that *some* universe is fine-tuned. But the latter is what the multiverse theory explains.

  9. Sasha Kanthan

    “ Please truly try to understand Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism.”

    Absolutely nonsensical prehistoric language game. You’re not going to get away with that poor attitude.

    My two cents would be to argue that theology can indeed explain human suffering and that the confusion here is in your interpretative conceptual framework when you yourself as an individual are defining “God”. An objection that most theologians could not make the philosophical case will not serve as a defence against my claim either. That being said, Total Evidence Hypothesis itself is a fascinating and to my perspective, completely legitimate philosophical tool. When I use it I will give you credit by name.

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