I have never been a big fan of arcade games, but there is one that holds a special place in my heart: Whac-a-mole. I find something deeply satisfying about taking a heavy mallet and slamming it down on vaguely rodent-esque plastic creatures that pop out of holes at unpredictable intervals.
I share this violent aspect of my personality with you because I have been strongly reminded of this game over the past few months as I have been reading about Science and God. It is as though the atheist authors are trying to wield the mallet of science, hoping to whack down the idea of God, but God keeps popping up no matter how hard they try. The game seems to go something like this:
Look at all the amazing creatures on earth! There must have been some intelligent Creator who is responsible for all of this! Praise God!
No – actually – evolution is responsible for all of the flora and fauna you see around you – no higher power was necessary to create any of this. WHACK
No, they weren’t formed ‘just by chance’, they were formed by the powerful natural forces of random mutation and natural selection over an extraordinarily long period of time. Go back and read about evolution until you actually understand it. WHACK.
But how did life start on earth? Isn’t that completely miraculous? Can I praise God now?
No, you can’t, because life on earth makes sense when you look at it from a statistical point of view. While there is a low probability that all the conditions to support life will arise on any given planet, when you apply a tiny probability to the 30 -100 billion planets in the universe, you will still get a decent number of planets where the conditions to support life are just right. WHACK
But what about the fact that the universe itself is configured in such a way as to make life possible? What about the fact that if certain constants such as the force of gravity had been just slightly different from what it is, life as we know it would not have been sustainable in the universe? What about that one, smarty pants?
Well, actually, based on current quantum theory and the recognition that the origin of the universe was a quantum event, it is most likely that there are actually multiple universes. Therefore, the same statistical logic can be applied as was applied to life on earth: in some universes, the conditions for life exist, and on others, the conditions for life as we know it do not exist. WHACK.
OK – so my head hurts now – but you bring up the point of the origin of the universe/multiverse being a quantum event. So who got that multiverse going? Huh? Huh?
Well, OK – this stuff is now so confusing I have to quote directly from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s latest book The Grand Design. They say this:
In the early universe – when the universe was small enough to be governed by both general relativity and quantum theory – there were effectively four dimensions of space and none of time. That means that when we speak of the ‘beginning’ of the universe, we are skirting the subtle issue that as we look backward toward the very early universe, time as we know it does not exist! We must accept that our usual ideas of space and time do not apply to the very early universe.” (p. 134)
Oh, yeah: WHACK.
Wait – so did you just say that the origin of the universe occurred outside of time as we know it? Geeze, that sounds like God to me.
WHY – WHACK – WON’T YOU – WHACK – STAY DOWN?!? WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
Oh yeah, and while we’re at it – isn’t it kind of amazing that we have the consciousness and intelligence to have this conversation at all? I am so grateful to God for that.
OK – I give up. Give me my tickets and let me go get that bouncy ball thing from the glass case over there.
OK, so my apologies for those of you who now have a migraine as a result of this rapid-fire overview of evolution and quantum theory (which I may well have misrepresented in multiple ways given that I am not a scientist). I will just quickly recommend Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design as a very helpful overview of quantum theory and current thinking about the origins of the universe/multiverse, and also Francis Collins’ The Language of God for a scientist believer’s view on some of these ideas. The idea of multiverses is something that Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Victor Stenger (The New Atheism) and Francis Collins all discuss, but I found Hawking and Mlodinow’s book helpful in explaining the quantum foundations for multiverse theory.
However, that said, as you can see, I still don’t think any of these scientific arguments have killed God. In fact, my biggest gripe with The Grand Design is the fact that on a semi-regular basis it strays from explaining quantum mechanics to the scientifically challenged (for which I am very grateful), and moves into philosophical and theological territory where its claims just don’t logically follow. For example, in the last chapter they explain how entire universes can be created out of nothing, and then go on to say “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going”. (p. 180)
Really? It seems to me that if you acknowledge that the universe was spontaneously created in space or space-time or whatever it is you want to call it, then some folks are always going to be curious about who or what is behind that spontaneity. More importantly, none of this helps answer the question of why does any of it matter? As John Haught puts it, “Almost everything in our experience…admits of a plurality of levels of explanation in which the various accounts do not compete with one another.” (location 1045, Kindle edition of God and the New Atheism). The physical sciences have done, and continue to do, an incredible job of explaining how the universe and everything in it came to be. However, none of these discoveries help answer why my particular existence has meaning. In fact, it seems to me that it is the same human drive to understand our existence that motivates both our continuing scientific accomplishments as well as our tenacious faith in God. I guess you can’t kill curiosity.