The Wall Street Journal recently published an online opinion piece with the headline “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” In the article, author Eric Metaxas emphasizes the improbability of human beings not only coming into existence, but also becoming aware of our existence and of the universe in which we find ourselves. According to Metaxas, the odds against the universe meeting the physical conditions required in order for human existence and awareness to be possible are so astronomically and mind-bogglingly huge that we are justified in inserting our favorite creator deity in order to account for life, the universe, and everything.
This is hardly a new idea. Metaxas is simply rehashing the old anthropic principle argument. But Metaxas’s piece has nevertheless been gaining much traction over the past few weeks, having made many rounds on Facebook and Twitter feeds as well as religious websites and forums. The online article itself has generated nearly 6,000 comments.
Metaxas begins his article by discussing a prediction made in 1966 by the famous astronomer Carl Sagan about the number of life-supporting planets that should exist throughout the universe:
Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline [“Is God Dead?”], 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 27 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.
Metaxas believes that Sagan’s calculation is now untenable in light of new knowledge that has been gained since the late 1960s of many more parameters necessary for planets to support life:
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.
Metaxas provides no reference or citation indicating where he came up with his “200 known parameters,” but instead presents that number as if it’s a well-known and widely accepted scientific fact. What are all these parameters? Metaxas mentions only two: Our planet is located at just the right distance from the right kind of star, and our planet benefits from gas giants in the outer solar system that protect us from asteroid collisions. According to Metaxas, there are 198 other parameters necessary for terrestrial life that our planet just happens to meet, but he does not tell us what they are.
Metaxas also commits the fallacy of only taking one kind of life into account, namely the complex carbon-based life with which we are most familiar. What about the many examples of microbial extremophile life that have been discovered? There exist a wide range of conditions under which life can adapt and evolve, beyond just the conditions that are congenial for the only kind of life we know about. Dr. Steven Novella sets the record straight for us in his takedown of Metaxas’s article: “In fact if anything over the recent decades scientists have discovered that life can probably exist over a much wider range of conditions than previously imagined. Life in the universe is getting more likely, not less.”
The wide diversity of conditions under which life can flourish is not the only fact that Metaxas’s made-up equation completely ignores. While biologists have been finding more and more instances of extremophile life, astronomers over the past three decades have discovered hundreds of exoplanets that orbit other stars and rogue planets that orbit whole galaxies rather than suns within a galaxy. More and more scientists are beginning to acknowledge the need to broaden the scope of physical conditions that allow life to exist, not narrow them down further as Metaxas is trying to do.
In his next paragraph, Metaxas attributes the fact of our self-aware existence to a supernatural miracle via a series of rhetorical questions:
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?
It is true that certain physical conditions and parameters must obtain in order for self-aware life to arise on any planet. But the relevant parameters (of which there are far less than 200) are only “perfect” for our particular kind of life on our particular planet. Metaxas is again discounting the possibility that forms of life unknown to us may plausibly exist under any set of different physical parameters.
Assuming that “intelligence created these perfect conditions” is not only completely unnecessary, it raises far more problems than it aims to solve. Who or what created the intelligent agent of creation? Where do the intelligent faculties of this agent come from, and what infrastructure sustains the operation of its mind? And what specific mechanism did this intelligence use to create?
Even granting the questionable assertion that the Earth beat many “inconceivable odds” to come into being does not warrant the intelligent design hypothesis. Mathematician John Allen Paulos uses a good analogy in his bestselling book Innumeracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) to show us why this is the case:
. . . rarity by itself shouldn’t necessarily be evidence of anything. When one is dealt a bridge hand of thirteen cards, the probability of being dealt that particular hand is less than one in 600 billion. Still, it would be absurd for someone to be dealt a hand, examine it carefully, calculate that the probability of getting it is less than one in 600 billion, and then conclude that he must not have been dealt that very hand because it is so very improbable. (p. 54)
Toward the end of his article, Metaxas extends the anthropic principle beyond the Earth and applies it to the universe as a whole:
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?
Metaxas’s coin-flipping analogy assumes a false dichotomy. We do not currently know why our universe has the particular constants it does, and so there is no empirical justification for limiting our options to either random accident or intelligent design.
The most we can definitively say at this point is that as a species, we humans just happened to evolve in the kind of universe that features the constants that make our existence possible. If we were not suited for the world in which we find ourselves, we would not exist. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss made this point in an open letter to the Wall Street Journal responding to Metaxas’s article. He writes, “This is more likely an example of life being fine-tuned for the universe in which it evolved, rather than the other way around.”
We humans exist on planet Earth because we can exist. It is self-evident that anything that exists in any universe is compatible with the physical laws of that universe. Life is fine-tuned to whatever environment in which to develops, on whatever planet it comes into being. It would be absurd to say, for example, that the “reason” our sun sends out light in the extremely narrow region of the electromagnetic spectrum we call “visible light” through an atmosphere transparent to that spectrum is because our human eyes are sensitive to that region alone, and not the other way around. But this is exactly the kind of silly reasoning underlying Metaxas’s argument.