My heading might sound like a line from Fight Club;
“Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
But I mean it in a slightly less poetic way. The universe exists the way it does and we happen to live on a vanishingly small splash of it. It always bothers me when, involved in a theological debate, I am accused of being arrogant for questioning the existence of the divine creator who made this amazing universe perfectly suitable for me to live within it.
Can you spot the irony it that? Isn’t it more arrogant to assume that this incredibly vast and complex universe, with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, its uncountable trillions of stars – all of this – was made just for us?
I was listening to the January 13th episode of NPR’s Science Friday podcast and a listener called in and asked how we can question the existence of God when the sun shines at the perfect temperature for us.
I have seen many examples of this argument (the teleological argument (also known as the argument from design)) and they all echo the same mantra: “X is perfect for humans, therefore God (or some other creator) made the universe.”
Ray Comfort’s “Atheists Nightmare” is the perfect example. Comfort claims that bananas are perfectly created for human consumption, they fit just right in your hand, they have a tab for easy opening and they are curved towards you mouth to make sure you don’t put them in the wrong orifice. Comfort doesn’t mention watermelons though…
The sun, the planet, our crops, animals, the whole shebang. If it makes life more comfortable you can probably find somebody, somewhere, claiming that it is evidence that the universe was designed to suit our specific requirements.
And it’s all complete and unadulterated bullshit.
I am not particularly well suited to debate the philosophical inaccuracy of the teleological argument. But that’s okay because there are LOTS of people who are perfect for the task, and they have done it.
The only one of the traditional arguments for God that is widely used today is the teleological argument, sometimes called the Argument from Design although — since the name begs the question of its validity — it should better be called the Argument for Design. It is the familiar ‘watchmaker’ argument, which is surely one of the most superficially plausible bad arguments ever discovered — and it is rediscovered by just about everybody until they are taught the logical fallacy and Darwin’s brilliant alternative.
In the familiar world of human artifacts, complicated things that look designed are designed. To naíve observers, it seems to follow that similarly complicated things in the natural world that look designed — things like eyes and hearts — are designed too. It isn’t just an argument by analogy. There is a semblance of statistical reasoning here too — fallacious, but carrying an illusion of plausibility. If you randomly scramble the fragments of an eye or a leg or a heart a million times, you’d be lucky to hit even one combination that could see, walk or pump. This demonstrates that such devices could not have been put together by chance. And of course, no sensible scientist ever said they could. Lamentably, the scientific education of most British and American students omits all mention of Darwinism, and therefore the only alternative to chance that most people can imagine is design.
Even before Darwin’s time, the illogicality was glaring: how could it ever have been a good idea to postulate, in explanation for the existence of improbable things, a designer who would have to be even more improbable? The entire argument is a logical non-starter, as David Hume realized before Darwin was born. What Hume didn’t know was the supremely elegant alternative to both chance and design that Darwin was to give us. Natural selection is so stunningly powerful and elegant, it not only explains the whole of life, it raises our consciousness and boosts our confidence in science’s future ability to explain everything else.
- Richard Dawkins
Evolution really is the answer to this question in most of its incarnations. Why is the sun perfect for us? It isn’t, we have evolved to make use of the sun as it is. Plants have evolved to convert solar energy into food through chlorophyll. Humans and animals have evolved to harness solar energy for warmth. We have adapted to the environment in which we live. People who live in northern Europe are fair skinned, their bodies have evolved to absorb as much light as possible by minimising the amount of melanin in their skins. People who live in the mid-latitudes, around the equator, have evolved to have far more melanin in their skins and they absorb less solar energy, they don’t need to capitalise on every sunbeam that reaches them, like their northern cousins.
The same goes for all the animals and all the plants that live, or have ever lived, on the planet. If a fruit with a sticky-out peel was easier to eat, it would get eaten more often and it’s seeds would be more widely-spread. This, in turn, would supercharge the plant’s ability to spread it’s genes and crowd out competitors.
To argue that the universe was made for us also shows a supreme lack of understanding of the statistics of very large numbers. Proponents of the teleological argument often state that it is statistically impossible for life to evolve on Earth, from inorganic molecules to the complex life forms which crawl between the planet’s crust and its upper atmosphere.
And as far as I understand it, this is, in fact, true. It is vanishingly unlikely. BUT! Given the staggeringly long time scales of the life of the universe (13.7 billion years to our best estimate) and the incredible number of planets in the universe, it is almost certain that life will evolve on one of them during the time between the beginning and the end of the universe. We just happen to be on one such planet. In a study published in the January 11 edition of Nature, astronomer Kailash Sahu of the Space Telescope Science Institute says that:
We find that, on average, every star has a planet, and since there are at least 100 billion stars, there are at least 100 billion planets.
It is, correspondingly, incredibly arrogant to believe that we are the only sentient life forms in the milky way, let alone the entire universe. This belief is implicit in the “God made the universe just for us” argument.
I would much rather persist in my “arrogance” by questioning the blind faith which encourages the denial of knowledge in order to cling to beliefs that make us feel special.
I will embrace the face that, despite being highly improbable, I exist, and I have a mind equipped with the tools to help me know the universe around me as it truely is.
It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, no matter how satisfying and reassuring.
- Carl Sagan