Thursday, November 16, 2017

God and Vast Spaces

Emily Thomas (best known for her work on early modern accounts of space and time) has a post at "RealClearScience", Does the Size of the Universe Prove God doesn't Exist? It looks at a kind of argument put forward by Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt, in which the size of the universe is taken as a reason for the conclusion that God does not exist. Based on claims in religious texts about God's care for human beings, about human persons being in the image of God, and the like, it draws the conclusion "that God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly." Given that foundation, the argument proceeds:

If God is human-oriented, wouldn’t you expect him to create a universe in which humans feature prominently? You’d expect humans to occupy most of the universe, existing across time. Yet that isn’t the kind of universe we live in. Humans are very small, and space, as Douglas Adams once put it, “is big, really really big”....

Clearly, there is a discrepancy between the kind of universe we would expect a human-oriented God to create, and the universe we live in. How can we explain it? Surely the simplest explanation is that God doesn’t exist. The spatial and temporal size of the universe gives us reason to be atheists.

To be honest, when I come across an atheist telling theists what one would expect if God exists, I have come to expect that a bit of fast sophistry is coming this way. That's not quite the case here, and yet there are reasons why this kind of argument is relatively little used (although I have been seeing it more often than usual in the past few years).

(1) The argument depends crucially on what one would expect given what religious texts say about God. This is reasonable, but it requires consistent application. The texts in question don't just talk about human importance; they also talk about the grandeur of the cosmos. The point of Job 38 and following is certainly not that the world is a small and cozy one. What is more, it's not as if this is entirely unaddressed in the texts themselves:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

The religious texts themselves, in other words, show no sign of expecting a small and cozy universe; given that "the heavens are telling the glory of God", they even at times insist on how extraordinary the world is in order to make the point that its Creator is even greater. The thing they portray as surprising is not that the universe is vast but that human beings are significant, and they affirm both. If you are going to talk about what can be expected on the basis of claims made in religious texts, one has to take in the whole; and there is another strand of those texts which plays up the vastness and power displayed in creation precisely in order to speak about the power and wisdom of God.

(2) More seriously, however, talk of what God can be expected to do is either dangerously ambiguous or an outright violation of the principle of remotion. When we talk about what can be 'expected', we can be taking the term either objectively or subjectively. Subjective expectation is irrelevant here (why would one's feeling be determinative here?), so the only thing that can be meant is that there is some causal requirement that God create a small universe if human beings are important. This point is always at least handwaved.

And it at least appears to violate the principle of remotion. As I've noted before, the principle of remotion is roughtly that God is known only by causal inference from effects and in such a way as not to fall under a genus. Thus anything that is said about God needs to be warranted by some causal pathway, taking the world or something else (like a religious text) as an effect. What is the actual causal warrant for saying that God would create a universe in which humans occupy most of the universe? The texts used to start the argument off can at most justify the claim that human beings are important; they don't even strictly require taking God to be "human-oriented", as opposed to simply caring about humans among many other things. So what causal reasoning is supporting these claims about what God would do? This is always glided over very quickly; and that suggests that the argument violates the principle of remotion.

(3) But perhaps the most problematic element of the argument is not what it says about God but what it says about human beings; it depends on a crabbed and limited view of human persons, and especially a crabbed and limited view of the excellence of human reason. Kant, on this point, at least, is far more accurate: the starry heavens above display the smallness of the human body, but the greatness of the human mind that is able to contemplate them. We know the vastness of the universe because we can study it; we are awed by the vastness of the universe because we are not merely crushed by an expanse of over two trillion galaxies but exhilarated by its awesomeness. Far from being unsuited to a vast universe, the human mind is immensely more at home in such a universe than in a universe supposed small, which is why people are so fascinated by astronomy, and, indeed, why we have astronomers at all.

Nor is this a new point. Ovid has the famous story that the distinctive feature of the human animal is that, unlike other animals, we stand upright in order to look at the stars, the point being that far from being intimidated by the starry skies, we are in some sense more at home taking as much of it in as we can than we are just rooting around in the earth. We have minds fascinated by apparently infinite expanse, exhilarated by countlessness, drawn on by endless vistas.

And this is where the argument most goes wrong. For it depends not merely on the claim that God, taking humans to be important, would create a world to fit humans, but also on the claim that a world to fit humans would have to be a small world. This derogatory view of the human mind is simply false of human beings as we actually know them. Give us a vast ocean of stars, with endless new and surprising things; that's the universe appropriate to our minds, where we find ourselves at our best. There is no mismatch at all.

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