Archive for September, 2009

The Anthropomorphic Argument for a “higher power”

September 26, 2009

I met a guy last night who made this argument: it’s been calculated that if, for example, the strength of gravity were a teensy bit greater or smaller, our universe with stars and planets, and life, could not exist; and similarly for twenty-odd other parameters in physics; so, in sum, our existence defies astronomical odds against it. Therefore some “higher power” must have manipulated all these parameters, intentionally, to produce a life-friendly universe.

This has been called the “anthropomorphic argument.” It’s been around for a long time. It’s nonsense. Here’s why:

When I was conceived in 1947, the odds that, 62 years later, I would be sitting in this particular chair, writing these particular words, would have been practically infinity-to-one. Exceedingly improbable. Yet here I am — so calling this outcome “improbable” is meaningless. And for exactly the same reason, because the Universe is the way it is, to talk about its being in any sense improbable is meaningless too.

Further: let’s suppose it were possible for the Universe to have been born with a slightly different gravity strength, etc., in which case life could not occur. That possibility might make it seem plausible to talk about improbability in connection with our existence — IF our universe were the only one. But why assume that the birth of our universe was a unique, one-off occurrence? Nature never works that way. All natural phenomena recur. If a big bang happened once, it’s a reasonable bet that it happened other times — zillions of times, given the vastness (if not infinitude) of time and space.

This idea that ours is only one universe of many can’t be proven, of course, but because of its obvious logicality it has actually been the subject of a lot of scientific thought. (And in fact, it turns out to be remarkably consistent with what we do understand about the cosmos.)

This is another answer to the anthropomorphic argument. If lots of varying universes occur, then even if the odds against one particular variant are great, it should exist. Out of a million lottery tickets, it’s no surprise that one has the one-in-a-million number. And it’s likewise unsurprising that we could have drawn that lucky number — the one-in-a-million universe — because only in that universe could there be people thinking about this.

While the Universe’s big bang origin is well-founded, science cannot really explain the big bang’s origin — yet. But we’re on our way. Today’s understanding is vastly greater than a century ago. Certainly there is a naturalistic explanation capable of being understood. We used to explain a lot of things in mystical, supernatural terms, but in every case where the truth emerged, the supernatural idea proved wrong. No different outcome should be expected for any remaining questions.

The cosmos can do everything it does by the operation of natural laws, with no “higher power” needed. The reality that I experience is, indeed, completely consistent with the absence of any “higher power” and completely inconsistent with its presence. In the face of this, only through torturous casuistry can religion be sustained.

I admit that I can’t answer the ultimate question — why is there something and not nothing? But neither can any religion. “God did it” is an answer satisfactory only to those who can avoid asking where God came from. Are arguments like this — and the anthropomorphic argument — the best that “higher power” advocates can do?

Hypocrisy writ large

September 15, 2009

David Owen’s new book is titled Green Metropolis. It argues that people living in densely populated cities, in many different ways, cause less stress on the environment than people living in spread-out suburbs, and he argues for all sorts of policy initiatives to push people into abandoning the suburbs and moving back downtown.

The book is reviewed in the September 13 N.Y. Times Book Review (click here for the review). The reviewer seems to think this is all very daring and new and thought-provoking, etc. But excuse me: new? Really? Haven’t we been hearing this kind of stuff, like, relentlessly over the last couple of decades? Anyone heard of James Howard Kunstler, among many others, writing to similar effect?

The problem with writers like Owen and Kunstler is that they seem to overlook one very salient point: people move to the suburbs because they like it. In fact, in an earlier era, this exact species of social critic was arguing against urban living with all its societal ills and in favor of all the benefits of suburbia. People like to have spacious homes instead of cramped apartments. They want some grass and gardens and not just asphalt. And so forth. Sure, there are some benefits of urban living they must give up; everything in life involves trade-offs. But people who live in the suburbs do so because they have evaluated those trade-offs and made rational choices.

Now here is the delicious kicker: where do you suppose David Owen himself lives? Yup – according to the review, “Owen and his wife . . . left Manhattan for a leafy Connecticut town more than 20 years ago.” In the concluding paragraph, the reviewer notes, “We all yearn for our own personal space, a little fresh air an elbow room. Owen doesn’t want to give up his charming but energy-inefficient house in rural Connecticut any more than I would (if I had one).”

Owen doesn’t want to give up his – but his book says everyone else should give up theirs.