Friday, December 26, 2014

Eric Metaxas: Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God - WSJ

Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God

The odds of life existing on another planet grow ever longer. Intelligent design, anyone?

By Eric Metaxas

Dec. 25, 2014 4:56 p.m. ET


In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead?

Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.

Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.

With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.

What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.

Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem.

Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.”

As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.

Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?

There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp.

Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really?

Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”

The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.

Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” (Dutton Adult, 2014).


  1. This article is not of much value without discussing Multiverse theories or the Anthropic Principle.

  2. This comment is not of much value without explaining Multiverse theories or the Anthropic Principle.

  3. To the best of my understanding, Multiverse theories and the Anthropic Principle are elaborate and elegant nonsense.

  4. Could well be; after all, I am a maamin. But the article talking about the fine tuning of constants as though scientists don't have possible responses doesn't go very for. It pretty much sets up a strawman.

    There are other reasons for multiverse theory, but I think String "Theory", from which they derive, is elegant nonsense.

    1. Of course, sir, some plausible physics must be proposed that could support a multiverse existence. Currently, the proposed mechanisms for generating a world ensemble are so vague, that it's far from clear that the physics of the multiverse will not involve any fine-tuning.

      For example, if M-theory is the physics of the multiverse, then it remains unexplained, as we've seen, why exactly eleven dimensions exist. And the mechanism that actualizes all the possibilities in the cosmic landscape may involve fine-tuning.

      The face that scientists are turning to an infinite number of unobservable universes that randomly vary in their fundamental constants and quantities is, in my opinion, a backhanded compliment to design.

    2. Well, if there is a multiverse, then only this corner of the multiverse has 11 dimensions.

      Yes, I would agree with your basic point, the argument just takes things one level meta. Now there are meta laws of nature that hold true for the entire multiverse which have to be explained. But they have no constants, never mind a find tuning problem.

      I would instead argue that the multiverse is itself a theology. Think about it: an infinite existence that lays outside the reach of our physical detection? All they're "gaining" is freedom from the burden of owing anything to a Creator.

    3. If by theology, you mean a set of beliefs in something that is, for the most part, unobservable, then I agree (though of course that's not what theology means).

      However, everything here with the multiverse is pure conjecture, whereas there exist several other good arguments for a Creator (the cosmological argument, the moral argument).

    4. I mean that positing a kind of existence to every coherent possibility is pretty much the same as positing a Mind of G-d. What differs is their refusal to use the word "god", not the concepts under discussion. And therefore, I do mean theology, literally.

      The multiverse hypothesis actually has a number of arguments. I am not enough of a physicist to say whether or not they're good. But the fact that more than one aspect of current physics can be pointed in that direction is itself an indicator. Time will tell.

  5. Even the slimmest chance is still a chance - but seems like a miracle - God resides in the infinite regress, so will always be just out of our reach

    1. Well, I'm not 100% sure about this, but I heard that the scientific community considers anything with odds worse than 10^60 as impossible. So the fact that a change in the value of the so-called cosmological constant, which drives the acceleration of the universe's expansion, by as little as one part in 10^120 would have rendered the universe live prohibiting....well...I'll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

      Tell us about your infinite regress

  6. How Contemporary Physics Points to God

    The essay begins:

    Does modern physics provide evidence for the existence of God? This article presents a general overview of the answer to that question (a more thorough treatment may be found in my recent book, New Proofs for the Existence of God). I will divide the topic into three parts:
    1. Can Science Give Evidence of Creation and Supernatural Design?
    2. What is the Evidence for a Beginning and What are the Implications for Creation?
    3. What is the Evidence of Supernatural Intelligence from Anthropic Fine-Tuning?

    1. I think is more on target.

  7. Over Shabbos, it came to me that the irrationality of pi is a manifestation of the supernatural origin of the universe. ודוק.

    1. First, I'm not sure pi is of the universe. It's a mathematical abstraction about idealized circles in an idealized space (Euclidean) that doesn't describe real space.

      Second, the overwhelming majority of numbers are irrational. The cardinality of the number of points in a line is of a different kind of infinity (C) than the number of rationals (aleph-sub-null). Meaning, for every rational number, there are an infinite number of irrational ones.

      Or to put it another way... If you pick a point on a line randomly, it's going to be an irrational distance from the origin.

      If a scientist finds two values that are in rational proportion, this proves that there is a cause -- either directly for the proportion, or a common cause for each of the values that explains it. Because they don't happen by chance.

      So, I need more than your "vedoq" here; without design, one would expect irrational numbers.

  8. It was brought to my attention that the Tzemach Tzedek makes a similar point about square roots. Baruch she'kivanti!

    1. I don't get the TT's point either. After all, what makes sqrt(2) special? That one fact that it's the sqrt(2). The fact that every time you need a sqrt(2) it comes to the same incalculable value is just a fact about that number. Add to that the reality that only a negligable fraction of numbers are calculable, and there is nothing surprising at all.

  9. BTW, by going from science to math, you have entered the machloqes about whether HQBH can create the round square or any other paradox. The Rambam, as the canonical rishon on the "can't" side of that machloqes, would apparently consider pi and sqrt(2) to be of G-d, as He and Truth are one (yichud haYodei'ah vehaYadu'ah), and not things He made.

  10. Micha, I don't think the Rambam would hold that way.

    Here, BTW, is a very nice vort:

    The Mystical Number Seven

    Perhaps the numeral seven is considered the most mystical of all numbers because it is the one number which cannot be divided evenly into the circle. This is always a dividend as the following chart illustrates:































    Further references to the numeral seven:

    The dividend from the division of the circle by the number seven is intriguingly close to the outer angle of the Great Pyramid: 51 degrees and 51 minutes.

    The mystical nature of Pi: The number 22 is considered symbolic of a complete circle, or the circle, because this is reflected by the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the twenty-two keys in the Major Arcana of the Tarot (Keys 1 - 21, plus the Fool) and indicating the full circle of experience. The function 22/7, one cycle of human experience divided by the spiritual Seven or Divinity within. This function is the value of Pi; or, the closet to it as can be expressed in whole digits. The discovery of Pi was a significant breakthrough in mathematics because its value is the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its radius and diameter; Pi presented humankind with a formula by which these things might be easily measured. A.G.H.

    Bunker, Dusty, Numerology, Astrology and Dreams, West Chester, PA, Whitford Press, 1987.

    1. 360 is not "the circle". The reason for 360 degrees is that Babylonian math didn't have fractions. So, they tended to use as perfect numbers as possible -- the more divisors the better. So, with 12 hours in a day, 6 is 1/2 a day, 4 is 1/3, 3 is a 1/4, 2 is 1/6... You don't have 1/5, though, so for more nitpicky things they used sexigecimal -- base 60. 60 min in an hour (or degree), 60 sec in a min. And 60 is great -- 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 1/10, 1/12, 1/15, 1/20th can all be handled without fractions. And similarly 360.

      In their calendar, the "molad" isn't given to the nearest cheileq, at least, not under that name. To the Bavliim, it was 29 d 31' 50'' 8''' 20'''' (29 + 31/60 + 50 / 360 + ....)

      In fact, the Bavliim wouldn't work on Shabbos because to them 7 was unlucky. It's a prime, so it has no divisors, and (as your quote notes), won't go into the standard Babylonian proportions (1/12, 1/60, 1/360). But that's not something cosmic about circles, it's about the way Babylonians chose to represent numbers.

    2. First, the 22/7 remains cool regardless!

      Second, from the Reb Tzadokian perspective it is obviously not a coincidence that they chose 360... Right? ;-)

      Third, the incapacity to relate the measurable line to the measurable circle seems - as is its name implies - transcendent. The notion that one needs to go beyond the physical universe to correlate two measurable physical phenomena is in and of itself supernatural (although I should have used the term transcendent).

  11. I like how this forum grappled with irrational and transcendental numbers and God:

  12. Someone on the forum above mentions the movie Pi and its discussion of religious themes. I saw the movie, it stinks. Don't waste your time. The "religious" component of it is a Lubavitcher spouting forth gematriyas (and not good ones like the Lemech/Melech ones in "the Chosen".)

    About numbers and the divine - I gave a public talk on this concering the differences between Simchas Torah and Shavuous. The former is Word, the latter is Excel. The former is words, the latter is numbers. There's a lot to talk about, VIACOM"L.

  13. The Word/Excel analogy is intriguing if you would care to elaborate.