Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is the fine tuning of the universe an evidence for God?

I don't know if readers have come across Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable, aired on Saturday afternoons. In each programme Justin Brierley hosts a discussion between a Christian and a non-believer. It is often a really thought provoking show. The latest one is on the subject, 'Fine Tuning of the Universe - is it evidence of God?' Nicholas Beale, co-author with Christian physicist John Polkinghorne of Questions of Truth (WJK), argues that fine tuning is an evidence for God. The atheist Julian Baggini disagrees. You can catch up with this week's programme and previous shows online. Here are some critical reflections on the discussion as it developed.
Nicholas Beale, a mathematician by trade makes a good case for God on the basis of fine tuning and the so-called "anthropic principle", which is concerned with the question, "Why is the universe just right for human life?" Beale avoids falling into a "God of the gaps" approach, insisting that we see God at work in the understandable "laws of nature" as well as in the mysterious aspects of science that we have yet to comprehend. But he comes a little unstuck because he accepts a Darwinian theory of origins. In his view, God made the world complete with suffering and death because that is what was necessary for evolution by natural selection to work. Beale tries to get round the problem that this means a good God created an imperfect world, "red in tooth and claw", by saying that God took the suffering of the world upon himself in Christ. However this makes redemption seem like another act of fine tuning, as God acted in Christ to remove the suffering and evil that were present in the world as originally created.
A more biblical approach to the problem of suffering will insist that God made the world "very good" as Genesis 1 declares. Suffering and death are consequent upon the fall of man into sin (Genesis 3). Redemption in that case is not the Creator correctively fine tuning his flawed-by-design creation. It is an act of free, undeserved and astonishing grace towards rebellious sinners, who have brought his just wrath upon themselves and his curse upon the creation. Neal's approach shows the accommodation that theistic evolution makes with Darwinism plays havoc with the Bible's essential plot line of Creation/Ruin/Redemption/Re-creation. Now, I'm not saying that natural selection has no explanatory power when it comes to describing how the "kinds" of creatures God originally made developed into the diverse and varied species that exist today. In creating life, it seems that God made living organisms flexible enough to adapt to differing environments and so on. But the wholesale acceptance of a Darwinian explanation of origins seriously skews the basic plot line of biblical revelation.
Another thing that struck me was the atheist Julian Baggini's point that believers only see the fine tuning of the universe as an evidence for God because they begin with the prior assumption that he exists. As the philosopher argued, the existence of a loving Creator cannot simply be "read off" the data of science. That is true enough. Baggini helpfully reminds us of the importance of presuppositions. Evidentialist apologetics assumes that the data of science is neutral ground that the believer and unbeliever can examine together without prejudice. But that is not the case. The believer starts with the basic presupposition that God exists. It is from that standpoint he views the phenomenon of the universe. The consistent Christian theist does not argue from design to a designer. He begins with the God who has revealed himself in creation, the human heart and Scripture and understands everything in that light. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom! The Christian therefore is able to make sense of this originally good, yet fallen world which God created, and that he has acted in Christ to redeem. The heavens declare his glory and the earth is full of his goodness, even while the whole creation groans with frustration, awaiting its liberation from disorder and entropy. The unbeliever however views exactly the same data from the presupposition that God does not exist. The truth concerning his existence is suppressed (Romans 1:18ff). Conclusions drawn from the data are therefore faulty. It's all in the presuppositions.
Baggini claims that the theistic approach to science takes the mystery out of it all because every time believers see something unexplainable, they invoke God. That is a slight oversimplification. Besides, God is the ultimate mystery. He is beyond even the mystery of a finely tuned universe that is fit for human life. He is the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is sovereign, yet we are accountable to him for our actions. The triune God loves fallen human beings. In Christ, the infinite embraced the finite and became one of us to rescue us from our sin. There is no greater mystery than the mystery of God's love revealed at Calvary, and poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. "Tis mystery all, the immortal dies/who can explore his strange design?" Throughout eternity we shall remain baffled, amazed and surprised by the mystery of the triune God who is love. The task of theology is not to explain the mystery of God, but to set out the limits of God's self-revelation in Scripture. In the words of Augustine, the purpose of doctrine is to "erect a fence around the mystery" that will keep the faithful from attempting to pry into the hidden depths of God's being.
To conclude, arguments concerning the fine tuning of the universe and the anthropic principle may be used by believers as they seek to witness to their non-Christian friends. But such arguments only make sense once we have made it clear that we are arguing from the presupposition that God exists to show that the world as it is is consistent with biblical revelation. The function of apologetics in this context is to demonstrate that reality is in keeping with the presuppositions of Christian theism - the universe looks just as we might expect given that is was designed and made by a loving Creator. But that is not all we have to say. The fall has to be factored in to explain the presence of evil and suffering, death and decay in God's world. And we gladly proclaim what could never be deduced from observing the natural world; the revelation of God in a mystery that is the gospel of salvation. The ultimate anthropic principle is that God became man in Christ to rescue human beings from sin and death. In Jesus' incarnation, atoning death and bodily resurrection, God has acted not only to save individual human beings, but to renew the whole cosmos, Romans 8:18-22. We can only see all this when we start with the presupposition that God is there, and he is not silent. We believe in order to understand. There is no other way, Hebrews 11:3, 1 John 5:20.
On the next edition of Unbelievable, David Robertson will be discussing his book The Dawkins Letters, with an atheist blogger.

No comments: