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A New Creation Story

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The God of the Gaps must be feeling mightily squeezed these days. Is it any surprise that someone wants to give him/her/it a whole new universe in which to hang out?

Clay Farris Naff tries to do just that in a post today on the Scientific American guest blog titled, "A Secular Case for Intentional Creation." The post isn't about the creation of Earth or humanity, which Naff kindly considers settled, but about the creation of our universe itself. It's one of those happy-middle arguments that insists that both extremes must be wrong.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with these arguments, the position of one side is pushed a bit further in order to make room in that middle.

In this case, Naff is unhappy with the usual suspects, the New Atheists. (In the interests of disclosure, I consider myself a New Atheist and derive a small income from blogging as one.) Where are the New Atheists wrong about the origin of the universe?

The “New Atheist” position, by contrast, demands serious consideration. It has every advantage that science can provide, yet it overreaches for its conclusion. The trouble with the “New Atheist” position, as defined above, is this: it commits the fallacy of the excluded middle. I will explain.

After presenting his credentials as a nonreligious person in the hopes that he will be taken more seriously, Naff does so.

Science indeed excludes many possibilities. The conservation laws rule out ghosts who deploy photons to be visible, electromagnetic force to hurl objects, and kinetic wave energy to moan. Miracles are bunk. Like LaPlace, we’ve no need for a Creator to explain how the world works. But we might in searching for our ultimate origins.

The claim I aim to rebut is that science forces us to conclude that life is accidental, purposeless, and doomed. It’s a stance with quite a claque.

There, in the "might," is that pesky God of the Gaps. It's there, too, in the idea that science is a process of exclusion.

Excluding possibilities that don't fit our observations is, of course, part of science. Just as critical, however, is making the observations to begin with, so that our hypotheses and our tests are based in the best approximation of reality we have. Science is a finite enterprise; it behooves us to manage it well. We do not have so many scientists and so much funding that anyone is writing grant proposals aimed at finding the orbit of Russell's china teapot.

Note that we don't say the teapot has been proven to not exist. We simply say that without evidence, we are comfortable dismissing it as one person's fantasy, unworthy of the time and attention of scientists as they work to uncover the reality behind those events we can and do observe.

So what observations does Naff make or cite that would require us to spend time and attention on the idea of intentional creation? Well, actually, none at all. What we are presented with instead is a story about one possible creation scenario.

Darwinian evolution compels most of us to act as if the persistence of life into the future is good. In fact, for those of us in advanced nations, life has become really good in just the last few generations. (Consider how few of us starve to death, lose a child to infectious disease, or risk enslavement.) Assuming that civilization persists, it is reasonable to infer that life will be even better in the future, and that our descendants will want to keep it going.

In the long run, that will require moving beyond Earth (Brace yourselves, Trekkies!), and eventually into the kind of galactic colonization whose absence Fermi famously noted. (“Where are they?”/a>)

But in the very long run, as John Maynard Keynes wryly observed, we are all dead. Everything we know about the Universe, with its dark energy and its goshdarn Second Law, tells us so.

Faced with this inevitability, what will our descendants do? If possible, they will follow the Darwinian imperative: Keep life alive! They will attempt to create a Baby Universe capable of giving rise to life like us.

That's it. A little science fictional story is the reason we shouldn't dismiss the idea of a creator for our universe as a fantasy. Sadly, it isn't even a story based in good science. Evolution doesn't "compel" us to do anything. Standards of life in modern industrial nations rely on a use of resources that appears to be unsustainable. Stories of galactic travel rely on hand-waving to get around the problems of moving astronomical distances with only the resources we can carry. Similar hand-waving is required to move from the need for a new universe to the possibility of creating one.

All that is fine for a science fiction story, but Nash isn't asking us simply to be entertained. For making a compelling case that an intelligent creator may be more than fiction? Well, like Russell's teapot, there just isn't much here to go chasing after. It's just a story.

I could write you a story about accidental creation of the universe, rather than intentional. I could posit a grand orgy of energy beings creating so much tension that its release cannot be contained in a single universe and creates a new one. I could also write you a story about a universe that is collapsing, with a single strain of life that tragically views events backward and doesn't understand that it's actually in decline. I could write about a petulant child who creates a universe because no one else wants to spend time with it.

I can write all the stories I want (though they're not likely to get published, as creation is a hoary old science fiction trope). That doesn't make any of them true. It doesn't make any of them worth paying particular attention to, except as artistic endeavors that tell us more about us than about the nature of the world. It doesn't give us any means to choose between them. The only thing that can do that is our observations of the real world, which is where we come back to Naff's irritation with us New Atheists.

Naff can't seem to understand why more scientists don't entertain the possibilities he mentions, unless it is because they fear ridicule. He's particularly unhappy with Dawkins on this score:

Indeed, any talk of teleology seems to infuriate Dawkins: “What is the purpose of a mountain? What is the purpose of a tsunami? What is the purpose of bubonic plague? Surely you can see that these are just silly questions? Same with the universe.”

Even granting for the sake of argument that this typed text is Dawkins being infuriated, Naff is mischaracterizing this as "any talk of teleology." The question to which Dawkins was responding was, "Richard, one might as well ask, equally, why assume there is no purpose?" That question is central to the debate in which Naff is inserting himself. It is, in fact, the question on which his entire post hinges. Why not assume there is a purpose instead of none?

Naff's answer is, in essence, that we can imagine a purpose. So why not assume a purpose exists and study it?

The best reason not to go chasing about after a purpose for the universe is simple. It's already there in Dawkins' answer, if you read it for content instead of simply as an emotional outburst.

The universe is, according to everything we have already observed and tested, a natural phenomenon, like a mountain or a tsunami or Yersinia pestis. At one time, we considered mountains to be gods or the abodes of gods. Tsunamis and plague were considered the visitations of unhappy spirits. We imagined many things about these natural phenomena. It was then, as it is now, easy to do.

What we did not do was learn much. Knowledge didn't come until we began to treat all these things as natural occurrences. Until then, all we had was imagination.

Don't get me wrong. Imagination is a very powerful tool of science, but science puts constraints on imagination, requires it to work within the bounds of observation. And like many an artist, science does its best work under constraint.

We could, as Naff does, create stories about the origin of our universe, because we hope that we have a purpose, or in order to get along better with those who are certain that we do. However, if we want to know how the natural phenomenon of the universe came into being--to understand those origins rather than to gaze at them wistfully or chat about them free of conflict--then we are better off doing what we do when we study all natural phenomena and reining in our imagination. We are better off treating other stories as fantasies until they are supported by observation.

Even if someone thinks we're overreaching when we do so.

Related:

A Secular Case for Intentional Creation.

Physics and the Immortality of the Soul

Forgotten dreams? A call to investigate the mysteries of humanity

What does it mean that a nation is 'Unscientific'?

Dubitable Darwin? Why Some Smart, Nonreligious People Doubt the Theory of Evolution

The deity by any other name: Army resilience program gets a thumbs down from atheists

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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