thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #8

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Chapter 6 (DID THE UNIVERSE KNOW WE WERE COMING?)1 starts with another parable. Flew (or ‘Flew’?) asks you to imagine arriving at your hotel room at the start of a holiday, and finding everything about the room matching your own idiosyncratic tastes. Your favourite music is playing; your favourite author’s latest book is on the desk; the mini-bar and the bathroom are stocked with products you would have bought yourself. It could not be a coincidence. The hotel must have known everything about you – but how?

Eighth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #5

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #6

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7

What the universe knew

Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

The story is presented as a ‘clumsy, limited parallel’ to the ‘fine-tuning argument’, addressing in particular the two remaining questions of the three raised in the previous post:

2 Why are the laws of nature the ones they are?

3 Why is it that the laws of nature which do exist are ones that support life and consciousness?

Flew quotes physicist Freeman Dyson:

The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming.3

Flew gives some examples:

It has been calculated that if the value of even one of the fundamental constants – the speed of light or the mass of an electron, for instance – had been to the slightest degree different, then no planet capable of permitting the evolution of human life could have formed.

I wish I understood more about cosmology, because I do not see what warrants the speculation that ‘the universe… knew we were coming’. Why the values and settings are as they are is mind-boggling and mysterious. But I am not convinced this suggests foresight. If an improbable event x allows another improbable event y to happen, that does not necessarily mean event x happened in order that event y could happen.

It smacks of those completely understandable but ultimately illogical ‘God was protecting me’ responses after improbable (and therefore seemingly miraculous) life-saving events – illogical I mean when you consider the countless tragic deaths where the victims were every bit as ‘deserving’ but just not so lucky.

Do we, for example, know for a fact that the following did not happen: in the first few moments of, or ‘after’ the Big Bang, a series of events took place in which laws and constants were originally fluid but finally set in such a way that the universe was created (or continued to be created) in the way it now is? That is, the laws and values were fixed as constants because they led to a universe being created (ie the subsequent creation of the universe was what ‘fixed’ them), not the other way round (it was an enormous stroke of luck that the constants were as they are, because otherwise a coherent universe would not have resulted)?

This is perhaps a ‘sequential’ variant of the ‘multiple parallel universe’ or ‘multiverse’ theory which Flew mentions as being proposed by eg Martin Rees. (It is difficult to know what if anything words like ‘parallel’ and ‘sequential’ mean in this kind of context.)

Paul Davies rejects the multiverse theory:

Davies… writes that “it is trivially true that, in an infinite universe, anything that can happen will happen.” But this is not an explanation at all. If we are trying to understand why the universe is bio-friendly, we are not helped by being told that all possible universes exist. “Like a blunderbuss, it explains everything and nothing.”

There is undoubtedly a whole lot more to it than this, but as an explanation it seems no less vacuous than an alternative god hypothesis. If the universe is infinite and, in an infinite universe anything possible will happen, then one of those possible things is the setting of constants and laws in such a way that life and consciousness can be supported. Since we are an example of that life and that consciousness we come at the end of a causal chain that started with that setting of constants and laws. All other causal chains which started from different settings are irrelevant. The logic seems sound – the problem surely is in the premise that the universe is infinite?

Richard Swinburne is also against the multiverse:

It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally unconnected) universes to explain the features of one universe, when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.4

I think I can see why Swinburne thinks it is crazy, but that does not mean I agree it is crazy. To prefer the god hypothesis to the multiverse hypothesis is to prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar. To someone not familiar with the god hypothesis, both explanations are weird.

Once again we seem to be up against a brick wall separating two kinds of minds: see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #7. There is the kind which seems comfortable with positing an entity so defined that it explains the puzzle in front of you, does not need its own explanation, and in fact resists its own explanation. And there is the kind of mind which sees a move like this as a self-serving cop-out.

Flew again:

[T]he fact that it is logically possible that there are multiple universes with their own laws of nature does not show that such universes do exist. There is currently no evidence in support of a multiverse. It remains a speculative idea.

I could not agree more. Ditto god.

Flew then argues that the multiverse theory still does not explain the origin of the laws of nature. But nor does the god hypothesis. In respect of the laws of nature, a god is an invention designed to play the role of explanation. That is where the design originates: we design an entity to play the role of designer.

As well as different universes with their own laws there could be laws governing the entire multiverse. Flew quotes Martin Rees:

The underlying laws governing the entire multiverse may allow variety among the universes… Some of what we call ‘laws of nature’ may in this grander perspective be local bylaws, consistent with some overarching theory governing the ensemble, but not uniquely fixed by that theory.5

But, argues Paul Davies (quoted by Flew),

If there is a “law of laws” describing how parameter values are assigned as one slips from one universe to the next, then we have only shifted the problem of cosmic biophilicity up one level… [Because] we need to explain where the law of laws comes from.6

Flew concludes:

[M]ultiverse or not, we still have to come to terms with the origin of the laws of nature. And the only viable explanation here is the Divine Mind.

Well, for a start there is no law that says the laws of nature must have an explanation. And maybe we assume the originator is a mind because we have minds and think we know what having a mind is like? But there is no reason why, if there was a thing which originated the laws of nature, that thing had to be a mind. Maybe it was something like us but much more powerful; and then maybe it was not.

Ultimately though, the problem seems to be this. Even if we are uncomfortable with leaving the laws of nature unexplained, and we therefore posit an explanation; and because of the fortuitous features of those laws of nature we speculate that the originator must have been a mind which deliberately originated those laws of nature; even given this, it is hard to characterise that originator as benevolent – considering what happened subsequently. I am referring again to the pain and suffering and waste and destruction which the development of biological diversity has entailed and still entails. A ‘cosmological’ god which originated the laws of nature offers only partial and very problematic support for (eg) the kind of god the major monotheistic religions espouse. So problematic that they would surely be better advised to steer clear of cosmological speculation?

One last point. This series of posts is about Antony Flew’s book, not about cosmology in general – on which I am supremely unqualified to comment. However I found and read the Paul Davies paper7 Flew quotes from, and was surprised to discover that Davies rejects both the multiverse theory and the alternative

crude idea of a Cosmic Designer who contemplates a “shopping list” of possible universes, figures out one that will contain life and observers, and then sets to work creating it, discarding the alternatives. The central objection to the hypothesis is its ad hoc nature. Unless one already has some other reason to believe in the existence of the Designer, then merely declaring “God did it!” tells us nothing at all.

Davies’s objective was actually to

challenge the false dichotomy that fine-tuning requires the existence of either a multiverse or some sort of traditional cosmic architect… [and] …explore the possibility of a “third way”, involving a radical reappraisal of the notion of physical law.

In the next post we get on to the origin of life…


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

3 Freeman J Dyson, Disturbing the universe, Harper & Row, 1979.

4 Richard Swinburne, ‘Design defended’, in: Think, Spring 2004.

5 Martin Rees, ‘Numerical coincidences and “tuning” in cosmology’, in: Astrophysics and Space Science 285, 2003.

6 Paul Davies, Universes galore: where will it end?, retrieved 20 February 2009 from

7 Paul Davies, 2009: 6 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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