Tilting at Eternity
On a clear, dark night, a gaggle of preteens find themselves leaning back against the hood of a family car on a tiny neighborhood road of no traffic, parents tucked safely inside watching the news. The kids look up past the telephone wires and treetops. Star-studded infinity stretches beyond. They stare. And marvel. And discuss. How far away is it? Wise Paul says light-years. How old it is? Paul knows: billions of years. How big? Paul declares it goes on forever. Little Jenny wants to know what’s on the other side. Paul is silent.
Nothing expands the mind like stargazing. We require no answers to be satisfied. Awe alone satiates in a mysterious way. Then along comes someone who explains it all: God did it. That corks the cask. The party’s over. Our awe is shunted from the most splendid spectacle of our young lives to trinkets – pulpits, pews, confessionals, offerings – required to worship a tedious God greedy of praise. The sudden confinement suffocates, and terrifies. Yet, we know it is ordained. Our parents bow to it. Everyone does. We submit, absorb, accept. We are children, after all. Terror and life, we realize, are the same.
We also become aware that the matter is not entirely settled.
Indeed, the debate about the existence of God rages on because it has never been anything but inconclusive. And so it is doomed to remain. Contemplating the existence of God requires us to use cognitive equipment we simply do not have. The cosmological argument tasks us to consider infinity, which we cannot do. The design argument asks us to weigh exceedingly small probabilities, which we cannot do. Yet, in their battle to win souls for Christ, theologians target those weaknesses time after time.
Since, as skilled rhetoricians, they are undoubtedly aware of what they are doing, it is rather for our benefit that I attempt to expose these ploys. In doing so, I draw on a fiery debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and atheist Christopher Hitchens held on Wednesday, July 21, 2010, at Biola University. We will see how silly the cosmological argument can get, while the design argument exposes us to a view of life most of us would rather be spared. Nonetheless, to the task.
Argument 1: Cosmological
Exploiting our inability to understand infinity, the cosmological argument declares:
We exist, therefore God must exist.
The reasoning goes like this:
- We exist in the universe, therefore the universe exists.
- The universe had a beginning because we live in present time. (This is where the fun comes in.)
- Since the universe had a beginning, it must have been created by something.
- Whatever created the universe could not be in the universe because it wouldn’t have existed to create it.
- Since the universe contains all space and time (and the number system! another fun item), a being outside of space and time (and the number system) must have created it.
- A being that is outside of space and time and can create a universe we call God.
- Hence, God exists.
No one’s going to like that argument. It boils the matter down to just about nothing and still has too many steps. But let’s go right to the fun part – why the universe had to have a beginning – and everything will become clear.
The Fun of Absolute Infinity
Craig’s cosmological argument requires that the universe had a beginning, as declared in Step 2. The proof is based on the overwhelmingly convincing evidence that we live in present time. This, in turn, means God exists, the point of Craig’s exercise.
So why does our living in present time prove the universe had a beginning? The answer lies in the monumental difference between potential infinity and absolute infinity.
Having a definite beginning but no end is a property called potential infinity. Our existence is possible because we live in a universe of potential infinity. Had the universe neither beginning nor end, that is to say, had it been a universe of absolute infinity, it would wipe us out. The reasoning goes like this:
Think of planting a pole in the ocean on which to build a platform that rests just above the ocean’s surface. That platform is where we are going to live. Think of the depth of the ocean as past time, in other words, how old the ocean is. Think of the seabed as the moment the ocean was created. We may need a very long pole to reach the seabed, but when we do, we can secure it there and erect our platform on top of the pole just above the waves, where we want to live. However, if the ocean didn’t have a beginning, its depth would be endless. We could never find a pole long enough to reach the bottom because there would be no bottom. Our pole, no matter how long, would continue to sink down, down, down, probing to find a seabed that didn’t exist. We would never be able to fix our pole in order to build our platform on top of the waves. We would never have anywhere to live.
In the same way, if the universe had no beginning, that is to say, if it had an infinite past, it would be impossible for us to live in present time because we would never get to present time. History would be consumed in sinking through an infinite regress of past time from which present time would never emerge. But present time did emerge. Here we are. Hence, Craig’s universe must have had a beginning.
Fun, isn’t it? There’s a logic to it that will make you giggle – but that doesn’t make it true, which raises a concern. How can a concept we don’t understand be used to prove the contrary? Craig does precisely that. Because absolute infinity is absurd to us, because we can’t wrap our heads around an infinite past, Craig argues the universe must have had a beginning and that God exists. Most of us agree.
Craig is happy to hoodwink his audience, and with that, we shall leave the cosmological argument.
Argument 2: Design
Exploiting our inability to calculate impossibly small probabilities, the design argument declares:
We exist, therefore God must exist.
This may strike you as queerly similar to the cosmological argument. The reasoning goes like this:
- Life-friendly conditions occurring in the universe is “astronomically inconceivably improbable.”
- Since life-friendly conditions do prevail, the universe must have been designed to support life.
- A force that can design a universe to support life we call God.
- Therefore, God exists.
Happily, we have managed to pare this argument down to three premises and a conclusion. It still seems too long and proves just about nothing – except that God exists if you accept Premise 3. We can only accept Premise 3 if we accept Premise 2. Since we can’t understand Premise 1 – it blasts way past our cognitive infrastructure – we cannot accept Premise 2. To cinch his argument, Craig needs us to accept Premise 1, so he batters us with facts like:
- The atomic weak force, if altered by as little as one part out of 10 to the 100th power, would not have permitted a life-permitting universe.
- String theory predicts there are around 10 to the 500th power different possible universes consistent with nature’s laws, rendering the odds against fine-tuning a world to support life so incomprehensibly great that they cannot be reasonably faced.
- Scientistscalculate the probability of the evolution of the human genome to be somewhere between four to the negative 180th power to the 110,000th power and four to the negative 360th power to the 110,000th power.
Stunning us with outsized numbers, Craig insists we accept the overwhelmingly improbable occurrence of life as a miracle. Miracles are evidence for the existence of God. Ipso facto, God exists.
Let’s leave it at that and take a closer look at why we consider a designer’s hand to be in evidence on Earth in the first place.
And Then God Created Cymothoa Exigua
If monotheists want to insist the universe was designed by God, they have some explaining to do. We perceive life as being “designed” because it fits so well together, an assessment based entirely on the ingeniously gruesome devices each life form has developed to eat other life forms and avoid being eaten by them.
Let’s look at Cymothoa Exigua, otherwise known as the tongue-eating louse, ostensibly christened by Adam along with the cows and the goats. Cymothoa Exigua is a parasite that enters a fish through its gills, lodges in the mouth, severs the tongue, and attaches itself to the stub to live there nourishing itself from the fish’s blood and mucus.
In short, this benevolent God, this cosmic designer, created life as a divinely articulated food chain. Insight into this truth was grasped in all its horror by the volcanic-tempered actor Klaus Kinski, who freaked out in the Amazon when he realized he had walked into a jungle teeming with creatures and the sounds of those creatures busy eating each other. As filmmaker Werner Herzog put it, “It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
The only way God’s apologists could possibly excuse that design is by inanely flattering themselves that God put them at the top as the stewards of it all. From the apex of this gory tangle of food and feeders, they understand that they are to proclaim the Good News to all and sundry and in worshipful obedience, they do. Would that those below had time to rejoice.
Let’s imagine for a moment God had been truly benevolent and created life but no food chain, no need to fight or flee. That would reduce all the beauty we see on earth – the color, the flutter, the fur, the pattern on the butterfly’s wings, the leopard’s spots, the sleek gazelle, the peacock spider’s dance, the eagle’s vision, the raven’s screech – to the idle showmanship of a manic God drafting life in endless variety of arbitrary form, color, sound, and movement to no purpose. All awe would needs be directed toward the clever designer.
Let’s go further: Imagine, if you dare, that after designing all the multifarious means of fight and flight he fancied, God then set these well-equipped creatures on Earth to see how well they sicked and devoured each other. That gives us a sadist at work. Imagine now that God devised life down to its cellular structure in such a way as to dupe Charles Darwin into “discovering” evolution along with the emergence of the fight-and-flight fate. That mockery of his star creature – the thing he gave a brain – would put God past the shades of Hades we reserve for Satan.
Conclusion: The Blind Watchmaker
I have a quibble with Richard Dawkins, an atheist, who refuted the design argument based on an analogy of a blind watchmaker in his book of that title. His take is misleading. A watchmaker, whether blind or sighted, makes watches. The forces at work in the universe had no watches or anything else in mind. There was no goal or plan. Life emerged from a raw, unknown dynamic, making the splendor that resulted all the more astounding and precious. The results are, in fact, so beautiful, elegant, and seemingly intelligent that we simply cannot believe it happened “by accident.” To cope, we must explain. To explain, we must place at the center of it all a designer who had grass and trees, oceans and heavens, the creeping, crawling, and flying creatures of the Earth in mind when he went to work, along with a worshipping humankind.
In packing the countless unknowns of the universe into one unknowable known, we render a God accommodated to our cramped imagination. Equipped to ponder a single unknown, we are satisfied we have found truth. Once aware of how we’re kitted out to understand the world, we can proclaim with conviction and without changing a word of the conclusions of the design and cosmological arguments:
We exist, therefore God must exist.
 Craig’s modest wording.
 English cosmologist John D. Barrow and American mathematical physicist Frank J. Tipler