Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Designer Universe

In a phone conversation my mother mentioned an article she had greatly enjoyed in the most recent issue of Columbia magazine (put out by the Knights of Columbus) which, it turns out, I liked a great deal also. Aside: My husband was unwittingly initiated into a chapter years ago [that's another story -- he thought he was just visiting a meeting to see what it was like and found out he was being initiated!]. Needless to say, he hasn't been the most active member over the years, but he does pay his dues and receives the magazine.

I am the reader of Catholic magazines around our house... my husband prefers to let me just give him a short synopsis of the worthier articles rather than going to the trouble of reading them himself... it is a good arrangement. It gives me a chance to talk to him about things I've read and enjoyed and he likes the shortened versions.

So, in this latest Columbia magazine the main article my mother and I enjoyed was the article by Dinesh D'Souza (author of What's So Great About Christianity). In it, D'Souza gives just a bit of information about how finely-tuned our universe is... and the fact that physics shows that we are here for a purpose... One particularly great part involves his refutation of the idea that "The universe is an accident." [attributed to Physicist Victor Stenger in his book Not By Design] . He also quotes Physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist Richard Dawkins (who seem to be in agreement with Stenger).

A small excerpt:

An accident? Physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist Richard Dawkins are not impressed by the improbability of this explanation. According to Weinberg, "You don't have to invoke a benevolent designer to explain why we are in one of the parts of the universe where life is possible: In all the other parts of the universe there is no one to raise the question." Dawkins concurs: "It is no accident that our kind of life finds itself on a planet whose temperature, rainfall and everything else are exactly right. If the planet were suitable for another kind of life, it is that kind of life that would have evolved here." In science this is called a "selection effect." Since we are here, we know that -- whatever the odds -- the game of cosmic chance must have worked in our favor.

There is a problem with this reasoning that I would like to dramatize by giving an example from the philosopher John Lesle. Imagine a man sentenced to death standing before a firing squad. The shooters discharge their rifles. Somehow they all miss. They shoot again, and again fail to hit their target. Repeatedly they fire and repeatedly they miss. Later the prisoner is approached by the warden who says, "I can't believe they all missed. Clearly there is some sort of conspiracy at work." Yet the prisoner laughs and says, "What on earth would make you suggest a conspiracy? It's no big deal. Obviously the marksmen missed because if they had not missed I would not be here to have this discussion." Such a prisoner would immediately, and rightly, be transferred to the mental ward.

Simply put, you cannot explain an improbability of this magnitude by simply point to our presence on the scene to ponder it. You must still account for the massive improbability. Remember that the anthropic principle does not say that, given the billions of stars in the universe, it is remarkable that life turned up on our planet. Rather, it says that the entire universe with all the galaxies and stars in it had to be formed in a certain way in order for it to contain life at all.

I have enjoyed other books and articles by D'Souza... I look forward to reading his new book... I'd also recommend another book about the ongoing debate between atheist Darwinists and those on the other side of the fence -- Michael J. Behe's The Edge of Evolution, The Search for the Limits of Darwinism. I read it awhile back and enjoyed his very detailed discussion of random mutation and selection.

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