Pete Edwards of Durham University On The Scale of the Universe
Edwards says we cannot get our heads around how big the universe is. Matthew Cobb at Why Evolution is True corrects his numbers, which are out of date:
Here’s how astronomers breakout the visible universe within 14 billion light years:
Superclusters in the visible universe = 10 million
Galaxy groups in the visible universe = 25 billion
Large galaxies in the visible universe = 350 billion
Dwarf galaxies in the visible universe = 7 trillion
Stars in the visible universe = 30 billion trillion (3×10²²)
A new study suggests that 90% of the most distant (and therefore oldest) galaxies in the universe could be unseen, hidden by clouds of dust. That would mean that – assuming the same number of stars in each galaxy, and that older galaxies don’t deviate from this rule – that the number of stars in the visible universe would be 270 billion trillion or 2.7 x 10 to the power of 24).
With this as a backdrop I want to discuss Jeff Lowder’s criticisms of my argument that the size of the universe leads to atheism. I have looked in vain to see if Lowder has any educational credentials at all, so I look forward to him sharing them with us if he responds.
Lowder criticizes what I wrote right here. He criticizes ineffective atheist arguments in order to keep atheists from embarrassing themselves. He said this in reference to one lone post of mine out of more than 4000 of them. His exact words were:
Because John is a prominent critic of Christianity, if I see him using an argument I think is weak, I think it’s valuable to point that out, for two reasons. First, it will help other critics of Christianity avoid embarrassing themselves by using weak arguments. Second, it will prevent Christian apologists from appealing to an argument from silence: “Well, John Loftus used argument X; his fellow atheists don’t seem to object; argument X is awful; therefore, look how silly you have to be to reject Christianity!”
Well then, just how ineffective and embarrassing is this argument? Since he insists, let’s see.
I do not intend to go back and forth with Lowder on this. I previously said I would no more spend time constructing arguments against other atheists than I would spend time baking cookies I had no intention of doing anything with. Why bother? I’m not interested in a discussion for discussion’s sake. There is no need for it. The case against religion is closed, slammed shut by the overwhelming evidence. So nitpicking about this or that atheist argument, as if it matters to the case against Christianity as a whole, is like helping to rearranging chairs on the Titanic. Why bother doing this? Why waste my time? If there is an ineffective atheist argument then let Christians deal with it. There are other, more productive things to do with my time. I have even made a really good case in a four part series of posts where I argued that there isn’t any bad personal reason for rejecting Christianity at all (yep, you read that right!). I’ve called it the Argument From Ignorance, or AFI (the alter-ego of Victor Reppert’s Argument From Reason). In fact, atheists, or skeptics, or doubters, or non-believers don’t even need to make an argument for not believing at all. They merely have to say “Show me the evidence.” Or better, “Provide a good argument based on good evidence.” That’s it. Nothing more is required of us.
Lowder argues that I’m relying upon “noseeum” (NO_SEE_EM) arguments, that is, arguments based on whether or not I (or rather human beings in general) should be able to see (or understand) what a given God would create if he exists. That’s not true. While I do indeed think we should be able to see enough of God’s ways to know that his ways are reasonable and good, and that we cannot conclude this of God, it isn’t the argument I’m making. My argument is based on what Nicholas Everitt first wrote, but goes beyond it. The question Everitt broaches is whether, prior to the rise of modern science, we would expect to find this vast universe given a description of the Christian God of theism. We are to imagine asking what we would expect of such a God before the rise of modern science. What would we expect? Nicholas Everitt argues as follows:
Theism tells us that God is a being who is omnipotent and omniscient, wholly self-sufficient, with no needs, or lacks, or deficiencies of any kind. For reasons that are not entirely clear, God decides to create a universe in which human beings will be the jewel. Although he will have a care for the whole of his creation, God will have an especial care for human beings. He will give these creatures the power of free choice. Exactly what this power is, no one can agree…Because humans are the jewel of creation, the rest of the universe will be at least not unremittingly hostile or even indifferent to human flourishing. Even if the universe will not make such flourishing immediately and easily and painlessly accessible, it will make it at least accessible in principle for humanity at large. The question then to ask is: given this much information about God and his nature and his purposes, what sort of a universe would you expect to find? Which of all the possible worlds that God could create would you expect him to create, given this much knowledge of his nature and of his overall plan?
The description of God is so sketchy, and in particular the theistic hypothesis gives us so little information about his aims, that a large number of possible worlds are left equally likely. But among the more likely scenarios is a universe somewhat like the one presented to us in the story of Genesis. In particular, traditional theism would lead you to expect human beings to appear fairly soon after the start of the universe. For, given the central role of humanity, what would be the point of a universe which came into existence and then existed for unimaginable aeons without the presence of the very species that supplied its rationale? You would expect humans to appear after a great many animals, since the animals are subordinate species available for human utilisation, and there would be no point in having humans arrive on the scene needing animals (e.g. as a source of food, or clothing, or companionship) only for them to discover that animals had not yet been created. But equally, you would not expect humans to arrive very long after the animals, for what would be the point of a universe existing for aeons full of animals created for humanity’s delectation, in the absence of any humans? Further, you would expect the earth to be fairly near the centre of the universe if it had one, or at some similarly significant location if it did not have an actual centre. You would expect the total universe to be not many orders of magnitude greater than the size of the earth. The universe would be on a human scale. You would expect that even if there are regions of the created world which are hostile to human life, and which perhaps are incompatible with it, the greater part of the universe would be accessible to human exploration. If this were not so, what would the point be of God creating it?
These expectations are largely what we find in the Genesis story (or strictly, stories) of creation. There is, then, a logic to the picture of the universe with which the Genesis story presents us: given the initial assumptions about God, his nature, and his intentions, the Genesis universe is pretty much how it would be reasonable for God to proceed. Given the hypothesis of theism and no scientific knowledge [Emphasis is mine, John], and then asked to construct a picture of the universe and its creation, it is not surprising that the author(s) of Genesis came up with the account which they did. It is not that God would have had to proceed in the Genesis way, and it is not that every non-Genesis way would be extremely puzzling. There is in fact a wide range of possible universes which God could have created and about which there would not be a puzzle of the form ‘But how could a universe like that be an expression of a set of intentions like those?’ Nevertheless, we can still draw a distinction between universes which would be apt, given the initial hypothesis, and universes which would be inapt. The Genesis universe is clearly an apt one, given the theistic hypothesis; but a universe in which (say) most humans could survive only by leading lives of great and endless pain would be a surprising one for God to choose, given the other assumptions we make about him.
The question now to raise is ‘Is the universe as it is revealed to us by modern science roughly the sort of universe which we would antecedently expect a God of traditional theism to create? Is it an apt universe, given the admittedly sketchy conception we have of his nature and his intentions?’ The short answer to this is ‘No’. In almost every respect, the universe as it is revealed to us by modern science is hugely unlike the sort of universe which the traditional thesis would lead us to expect.
Nicholas Everitt, The Non-existence of God, pp. 215-16, seen in chapter 11 Arguments From Scale (pdf).
I think Everitt’s argument works. More importantly I have strengthened it quite a bit in chapter 24 of my book, Why I became an Atheist: Personal Reflections and Additional Arguments.That’s where someone can find my particular argument, which represents 2/3rds of that chapter. Lowder has chosen not to dispute my particular argument, only the part where I explicate Everitt’s argument that serves as an introduction to mine. I wonder why?
The best way to know what people would expect to find prior to the rise of modern science is to investigate what people thought of the universe before its rise. Lowder shows no awareness that this is what’s required to defend his argument. He’s doing uniformed philosophy. With a little patience and ingenuity almost anything can be defended philosophically, or denied. That’s why I have no use for it, especially scientifically uniformed philosophy.
Western believers used to claim God (or Zeus) lived on Mt. Olympus. But then someone climbed up there and he wasn’t to be found. Then they claimed God lived just beyond the sky dome that supported the water, called the firmament. But we flew planes and space ships up into the air and found he wasn’t there either. Believers now claim God exists in a spiritual sense everywhere. What best explains this continual retreat? Doesn’t it sound more like the attempt to defend one’s faith as science progresses, rather than progressively understanding what God is like? Lowder’s argument falls to the ground unless he can show historically that there were a majority of Christians who concluded the universe could be as vast as it ended up being. Philosophy won’t solve this problem. Historical evidence will. Dante’s Divine Comedy says otherwise, most emphatically. Just look at how he described the heavens. Do some research on how popular his work was. Hint: it was so popular he is even called the “Father of the Italian language,” more influential than Shakespeare was on the English language, and we know his influence was immense.
Lowder turns to “The Size of the Universe and God’s Relationship to Time,” saying,
In the combox, Loftus suggested that God’s relationship to time in a universe as big as ours is another problem for theism. He writes: “If [God is] in time then he’s subject to time.” [Edit from John: My rhetorical question was how could God know what time it is in two different parts of the universe.]
Let’s unpack this for a moment. What, precisely, does it mean to be “subject to time”? I think that means “to be subject to the laws of physics, including general and special relativity.” Here’s the point: if God created the universe and designed the laws of physics, then it’s unclear why God couldn’t “violate” one of the laws He made. In short, it seems to me that Loftus is coming dangerously close to begging the question against theism by assuming that God cannot perform miracles.
I don’t understand what danger I’m in if I deny that God can perform miracles. I actually do deny this. Miracles are very very improbable, to the point of being virtually impossible, if not impossible. If God is pure spirit then in order to do miracles he must interact within the natural material world. That means God must be able to move matter. In order to move matter God must share some property with matter in the natural world. But if God shares some property with matter then God is not pure spirit. Something’s got to give. So if Lowder is not prepared to give up the notion of God as a pure spirit, then God cannot act in the universe. If he is prepared to give up the notion that God is pure spirit, then God cannot act in different parts of the universe at the same time. Choose Jeff, I care not which. While you are at it Jeff, show how I have even remotely come close to begging the question. What’s left unresolved in all of this is why Lowder is in a position to decide what theists believe about such things in the first place. When did they get together to confer upon him this status as their collective spokesperson? But on this point I digress.
Lowder finally turns to “The Size of the Universe and God’s Purpose for Creating the Universe,” where he quotes me as saying,
I think it’s even more damaging when it comes to an omnipotent God who supposedly created the universe for the specific purpose of gaining the affections of people on this lone planet of ours. If this is what he desired (for some irrational egotistical reason) he could have simply created us on a flat disk in a much smaller universe like the one the ancients believed existed. The size of the universe is even more damaging to the God we find in the Bible, a tribal deity with a body, one of the members of a pantheon of gods which included a wife and sons. Hey, we know he had sons, so we know he also had a wife.
Lowder comments as follows:
I partially agree and partially disagree with this argument. I agree that, if God’s sole purpose for creating the universe was to gain the affections of people on this lone planet of ours, then the size of the universe would seem to be evidence against God’s existence.
Full stop. So if I can show this then my argument isn’t an embarrassment after all? Lowder has read my chapter on this topic by now, and by now he knows I spent a great deal of space arguing that the main reason why it was believed God created the universe (as it was known) was for mankind, not angels (Hebrews 1, Psalm 8) and not for any other reason. Human beings are the apex or pinnacle of his creation according to the Bible (Genesis 1-2), and only human beings are believed to rule the universe such that the whole universe suffers because of what the first pair did in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Only human beings were made in the image of God for whom the Savior of the world became incarnate and died for their sins alone, and only they will be rewarded in heaven with angels forever ministering to their needs. This was the overwhelming consensus of Christian theologians before science discovered how vast the universe was, which is causing Christian theologians to change their tune on this matter. What does Lowder think now? That’s what I’d like to know. No wonder Lowder doesn’t want to deal with MY arguments.
I disagree, however, with the (unstated) notion that theism entails (or makes probable) that that is/was God’s sole purpose for creating the universe. On the assumption that God exists, it’s quite possible that God had multiple purposes for creating our universe. (Indeed, on the assumption that God exists, it’s quite possible that God created a multiverse!) I can’t think of any way to show that these possibilities are unlikely, given theism. That doesn’t mean they are unlikely, of course. If Loftus has a supporting argument here, it would be great if he could post it.
Now remember that this argument of Everitt’s (which he’s talking about now) concerns what we would expect to find before the rise of modern science, so how can Lowder say this since it’s based on what modern science has taught him? Does Lowder really think he could travel back in time five hundred years or more and say these things, that he would be the exception to the rule? He needs to show this, not assert it.
Even if we’re not talking specifically about Christianity it doesn’t change a thing. We never see theism in the abstract. Theism is always instantiated in a group of believers who worship together and who try to follow a holy ancient book. Theism, like mere Christianity, simply does not exist. Any real theism is represented in actually existing Muslims, Jews, or Christians. And historically I would bet you each group throughout their history up until the rise of science would think their God loves them best, that non-believers in their sect were not favored by their God, that they were the most important creatures on earth and that with a geocentric universe this meant the earth with them on it was the reason for their existence. We know people built their temples for their gods in a location they thought was the center of the earth.
Which bring me to my main point. Lowder revels in granting the Christian way too much as I’ve argued here. What Lowder is basically doing by trying to save atheism from atheists like Everitt and myself who produce “embarrassing” arguments, is unashamedly arguing like a Christian. He has spent so much time trying to reach across this great divide of ours that he is no real threat to them, and in so doing he doesn’t represent atheists either.
When saying the scale of the universe is not incompatible with an omnipotent omniscient personal omnipresent deity Lowder is playing the Devil’s Advocate. He’s been doing that for so long he probably doesn’t even know this is what he’s doing. He’s arguing as a Christian would. The present scale of the universe is exactly what we would expect to find if such a God does not exist, whether I can convince him of this or not. Hell, I cannot convince Christians of much at all so why should I be expected to convince Lowder if he’s thinking like one of them?
Do anyone else understand this? I don’t care what the particular argument is. It could be about slavery, fine tuning, the superstitious nature of the Bible, the unreliability of the Bible, the barbaric nature of the God of the Bible, or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and none of our arguments would have much of an effect on Christians. I could probably show that most any argument Lowder defends is an ineffective one. All I have to do is think and argue like a Christian. I have seen how Christians argue on a daily basis for seven years of blogging, and I could do likewise, especially because of my education as a Christian apologist. So if Lowder wants to play the Devil’s Advocate I could no more convince him than I could a Christian since he’s arguing like one. That is no feather in his cap, I assure you. What I want to see is Lowder the atheist. Where is he? What does Lowder the atheist think about the scale of the universe?
Most arguments are convincing ones if the people hearing them have the necessary background knowledge. That is to say, most arguments only convince the already convinced. That does not make them bad arguments just because they cannot convince those who are not already convinced. Or else, there are probably no such arguments at all when it comes to the issues that divide us. Almost all of the arguments that convince people on these kinds of issues do so cumulatively. That is, people do not see the force of any of them until they see the force of them all. There is probably not a singe argument that can bear the weight of being a convincing argument to Christian theists. So to judge Everitt’s argument as if it must bear this weight is asking it to do the impossible.
Can we attempt to judge the strength of arguments like this anyway? Can we evaluate arguments like these based on how much force they have individually? And if so, where would Everitt’s argument be placed on a scale of 1-10, with 10 having the most force and 1 having the least amount of force? I’m not sure we can even do this. Personal reasons are, after all, personal reasons. Just refresh yourselves with my AFI in the above link. For me this argument had a great deal of force as I was thinking about my former Christian faith, probably ranked 1.5 on that scale. Now if you imagine 1.5 as a really small amount of force, think again. Since there isn’t an argument that would score a 10 let’s say the most forceful argument would rank 3.0 on that scale. Come on, do you really think any one atheist argument could be ranked higher? As I said, the case is cumulative whereby we add up the arguments before we come to reject faith.
Now for the record, I do not take kindly to a non-credentialed atheist saying I’m making an argument that should be an embarrassment to atheists when in order to do so he must argue like a Christian. There are some people on my side I wish were on the other side. To say I’m upset with Lowder is a gross understatement. Because of his ignorance I have spent hours dealing with him. I could have been doing more productive things, things that would advance the cause of atheism. I could even have spent time trying to earn some money, a lack of which is a habitual problem for me. I spend enormous amounts of time writing in support of atheist causes while non-credentialed people like Lowder not only do not donate to help me, they actually make it more difficult on me. Additionally Lowder can turn people away from me because, after all, I have produced an “embarrassing” argument for atheism. So I had to respond. I would like to demand a public apology but I doubt very much he’d ever give it. Only if he apologizes is there any hope at all I’ll consider him a valuable contributor to atheism. Ignorant people like him do more harm to the cause of atheism than Christians do, since we expect Christians to argue like this. Therefore, I conclude it is Jeffery Jay Lowder who is making an argument that is embarrassing to atheists.