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Introduction to Section Three: Science and the Cosmos (2008)

Paul Draper

 

Sometimes philosophers defend conventional wisdom, but it's always more fun when they challenge it; and that's exactly what both of the interlocutors do in our third debate. Consider the following two examples of conventional wisdom about religion. (1) According to conventional (proreligious) wisdom, if there is no God, then the existence of the universe is just a big accident. Many philosophers of religion (including both theists and naturalists) agree, though they would put the point a little differently. They would say that, if naturalism is true, then the existence of the natural world (whether it is a universe or a multiverse) is a "brute fact"--that is, a fact that has no explanation. (2) According to conventional (antireligious) wisdom, the design argument for God's existence died when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species. Again, many philosophers of religion (including both naturalists and theists) agree, though some would claim that the argument was already on its deathbed in 1779 when David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was published. Quentin Smith challenges the first of these philosophical sacred cows, and Robin Collins challenges the second.

Smith challenges the view that naturalism leaves nature unexplained by arguing that the universe explains itself. To be more precise, he argues that the parts of the universe and the causal relations between them provide a complete explanation of the existence of the universe, an explanation that leaves no room for chance or for supernatural design. His argument depends on showing that, even if the Big Bang Theory is true and the universe is finitely old, there was no first instant of time, no t0 at which the Big Bang took place. Instead, no matter how close a real instant of time t1 is to the imaginary t0, there will be another instant of time (e.g., t½), indeed infinitely many instants of time t½, t¼, t, etc.), that are even closer. Thus, there is no earliest instant of time, and thus no instant of time at which the state of the universe at that time can't be explained by earlier states of the universe, which means that every state of the universe can be causally explained without appealing to causes "outside" of the universe. Smith adds that the existence of the universe as a whole is entailed by, and so is logically explained by, the existence of the infinitely many states that compose it. Thus, since all the states of the universe are explained by earlier states and the universe as a whole is explained by the existence of the states that compose it, it follows that the universe explains itself and that this explanation is complete. And since this explanation is complete, no logical space remains for a God or for any other external cause of the universe, and this implies that theism is false.

In Collins' opening case, he offers three design arguments in support of theism. Not one of these arguments appeals to the sort of biological order that evolutionary biology can explain. Indeed, Collins' main argument is based on data that wasn't discovered until long after Darwin's death and that was discovered, not by biologists, but by physicists. Specifically, scientists learned in the twentieth century that our universe is "fine-tuned" for life. In other words, life or intelligent life depends for its existence on the fact that a number of physical parameters of the universe have (numerical) values that fall within a range of life-permitting values that is very narrow. (This range is "very narrow, not in some absolute sense, but in the relative sense that the range is very small when compared to the range of values that are compatible with current physical theory). Collins maintains that, given this fine-tuning, the existence of life is much more surprising given naturalism than it is given theism. Whether or not he's right about that, it is clear that Darwin's theory is not directly relevant to this sort of design argument, and it's hard to see how that theory could be adapted so as to make it relevant.[1] So, like Smith, Collins threatens to undermine conventional wisdom about religion. And speaking of challenging popular views, another reason Collins' opening case is so interesting is that, if any of his three arguments succeed, then many scientists and most of the media will need to rethink their views on the relationship of science to religion. No longer will it be possible to hold that religion and science are so isolated from each other that neither could ever confirm or disconfirm the other.

Proceed to the Debate

Table of Contents

Notes

[1] Perhaps, however, it is not impossible to use Darwinian resources here, as I explain in "Where Does Teleological Thinking Stand Today? A Reinterpretation of Michael Ruse's Darwin and Design, Florida Philosophical Review 4(1): 5-11 (Summer 2004), <http://www.cah.ucf.edu/philosophy/fpr/journals/volume4/issue1/draper7.pdf>


Copyright ©2008 Paul Draper. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Paul Draper. All rights reserved.

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