Posted by jlwile on January 7, 2010
In the first part of my review of Dr. Bradley Monton’s Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, I discussed Dr. Monton’s excellent defense of intelligent design as a legitimate scientific pursuit. However, I also mentioned the fact that his book makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I want to address that now.
First, Dr. Monton’s sharp intellect makes it hard for me to forget that there are intellectual atheists out there. Most of the “new atheists” are such buffoons that it lulls one into the false idea that atheists are mostly irrational. While this may be true about many atheists, it is certainly not the case for Dr. Monton.
He displays his intellect in no uncertain terms, for example, when he sets out to formulate a statement of what intelligent design is. He starts with the Discovery Institute’s statement of intelligent design:
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
He then makes the obvious point that everyone must agree with that statement. An athlete’s strong muscles (a feature of a living thing) are not the result of an undirected process such as natural selection – they are the result of the athlete’s intelligently-designed workout regime. Similarly, a building like the Empire State Building (a feature that is in the universe) is not the result of an undirected process such as natural selection. It is the result of design. Thus, he rightly points out that this description of intelligent design doesn’t really state what the proponents of intelligent design want their own theory to mean. He spends several pages coming up with a much more intellectually rigorous statement of intelligent design:
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain global features of the universe provide evidence for the existence of an intelligent cause, or that certain biologically innate features of living things provide evidence for the doctrine that the features are the result of the intentional actions of an intelligent cause which is not biologically related to the living things, and provide evidence against the doctrine that the features are the result of an undirected process such as natural selection. (p. 39)
While this statement is much harder to read than the Discovery Institute’s statement, it is significantly more scientifically rigorous. He also says that in principle, he agrees with that statement. He thinks there is some evidence for the doctrine that certain global features of the universe provide evidence for the existence of an intelligent cause. In fact, he thinks that the “fine-tuning” argument is probably the best argument given by ID proponents.
In short, the “fine-tuning” argument says that there are many fundamental constants that govern global features of the universe, such as the mass of a neutron. These constants seem finely-tuned for life to exist. If the value of even one of those constants was just slightly different from its current value, life could not exist. For example, if the mass of the neutron were higher by a mere 0.15%, no element heavier than hydrogen could exist. Alternatively, if it were just 0.08% lighter, there would be no atoms in the universe at all – everything would be composed of neutrons. If the universe were the result of chance, you just wouldn’t expect so many fundamental constants to be right at the values necessary to allow for life to exist. While Dr. Monton does say the “fine-tuning” argument holds some sway, it is not enough to make him give up his atheism. Nevertheless, he admits that it holds some water.
The second aspect of the book that makes me quite uncomfortable is the result of his discussion of the origin of life. While Dr. Monton correctly states that the origin of life (as we know it) is an incredibly, ridiculously improbable event, this doesn’t give him pause. As he sees it, we live in a spatially infinite universe. In a spatially infinite universe, even absurdly improbable events will happen frequently. Thus, one would simply expect the universe to contain life in many places, regardless of its ridiculous improbability.
Now I have a problem with this argument, but that’s not what makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think there is compelling evidence for a spatially infinite universe. You see, Dr. Monton is convinced by the consensus view in astronomy right now, which is based on essentially three assumptions:
1. General relativity is a good description of the universe on a large scale.
2. The universe is relatively homogeneous (The Cosmological Principle).
3. The expansion of the universe is properly described in all its essential features by the Big Bang Theory.
If you agree with these three assumptions, then yes the universe is spatially infinite. I agree with #1, but I think both #2 and #3 are wrong. Certainly observations of the known universe are inconsistent with #2. For example, here is a typical “map” of the known universe, where each point represents a galaxy:
This doesn’t look homogeneous to me. Of course, astrophysicists who want to believe in #2 hope that the voids between galaxies are filled with as much mass as what is found in the galaxies, and they think the “missing mass” is probably in the form of “dark matter.” However, the evidence for that hope is not there, at least not yet.
Even if #2 turns out to be correct, #3 almost certainly isn’t. There are a lot of problems with the Big Bang model, and there are several serious astrophysicists who think those problems are insurmountable. Thus, to “explain away” the improbability of the origin of life based on a set of assumptions that includes #3 is not very tenable, at least not in my opinion.
Here’s the part that makes me uncomfortable: Let’s say the universe is spatially infinite. Then there are lots of places where life exists. In some subset of those places, there are advanced beings. Some subset of those advanced beings are even more advanced than us.
Now…what is one thing that advanced beings probably do? They run simulations of reality in order to learn more about it. Many scientist in our world, for example, run simulations of global weather, nuclear reactions, plate tectonics, etc., etc. Some of the simulations are more accurate than others, but suffice it to say that running simulations is probably a trait shared by many advanced civilizations. Well, in a really advanced civilization, they probably run simulations of life. Dr. Monton is one who believes that you can have consciousness without a physical body, so it is possible (not very possible, but still possible) that some advanced civilizations have come up with a way to simulate consciousness.
In a spatially infinite universe, then, there must be advanced civilizations running simulations of consciousness, because in a spatially infinite universe, even ridiculously improbable events (like the origin of life or an advanced race simulating consciousness) happen regularly. Now…because advanced beings like ourselves tend to run many, many simulations, there are a lot more simulated consciousnesses than there are real consciousness. As a result, if we are living in a spatially infinite universe such that life can arise spontaneously, it is more likely that we are a part of a simulation than a real civilization!
I know this sounds strange, but it is logically consistent, given the premise of a spatially infinite universe and the possibility that consciousness can be simulated. As Dr. Monton says:
So that’s the simulation argument. If your attitude is incredulousness, I’m on your side. But expressing incredulousness doesn’t show that the argument is wrong.** (p. 119)
Now Dr. Monton wants the simulation argument to be wrong, so he goes through some objections. However, he doesn’t find any of the objections to be wholly satisfying. Thus, he is left to conclude that there is at least some chance we are in a simulation and are not even “real” beings.
I don’t think we are in a simulation, because I don’t think the premise of a spatially infinite universe is correct. However, I am more than ready to admit I could be wrong about that. I seriously doubt that the Big Bang is correct, or that the Cosmological Principle is correct. Nevertheless, some clever person might find all the “missing matter” in the voids between galaxies, and some other clever person might come up with “fixes” to the big bang model or replace it with a more accurate model that essentially leads to the same conclusion. Thus, there is at least some tiny possibility that the simulation argument might be right.
So while I enjoyed Dr. Monton’s book immensely, it left me a bit uncomfortable. Of course, this discomfort might be just what the alien who is running my simulation is looking for…
**People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens could learn a lot from the last sentence of this quote!