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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Size and Structure of the Universe is More Consistent with Atheism than with Theism

Randal Rauser asks the question “Does the size of the universe support atheism or Christianity?” Specifically, the question regards the debate over whether the size of the universe is more consistent with the existence of some sort of deity who created it, or if it’s consistent with the complete lack of a deity. According to Rauser, it all depends on how you interpret the data. He writes:
“…Is the atheist right to think the universe says we’re not special? Or is the Christian right to think it shows that God is great?” The answer is both and neither. In other words, if you begin with atheistic assumptions then you will predictably (but not necessarily) draw the conclusion that the size of the universe supports atheism. If you start with Christian assumptions then you will predictably (but not necessarily) draw the conclusion that the size of the universe supports Christian theism.
So both.
And as I said, also neither. Given that different presuppositions can interpret the data differently we have good reason to believe that the data itself underdetermines its own interpretation. Simply learning that the universe is vastly large and that there are huge objects within it doesn’t provide any evidence in and of itself either for atheism or (Christian) theism. The evidence, such as it is, awaits interpretation relative to a set of presuppositions.
I, of course, am an atheist, and I believe that the size of the universe is consistent with the idea that there is no God and that we are not special. But do I only believe that because I’m an atheist? Is that the only way I can interpret the universe due to my presuppositions? It’s true that it can be hard to separate our biases at times. However, I have found that one useful way for us to overcome these biases is to imagine another scenario—completely independent of the issue at hand—that is similar enough to the present issue, and make similar determinations. With that said, let me present a scenario that we can make judgments about. Let us say, for the sake of discussion, that we come across a house, whose interior is almost completely covered in mold. Virtually every inch of the house’s interior is covered in slimy, greenish-gray mold that shows no signs of going away anytime soon. This mold is also very toxic, and prolonged exposure to it is very deadly and can potentially kill you. But looking throughout the house, you come across one tiny section of a wall that seems to have no mold covering it. The amount of wall not covered in mold is roughly the size of your thumb.
Now, based on these facts, here’s the question I would pose regarding this small area of mold-free wall: Was this house intentionally designed to produce this enormous amount of mold so that only this tiny area could exist mold-free? Or, is it more likely that the mold simply grew throughout the house due to the lack of any human care, and that by chance we find a lucky area of the house not covered in mold?
Now I would say the latter scenario makes more sense. But how do I come to that conclusion? Well for starters, we would know from previous experiences that houses that contain this level of mold usually only get that way because of insufficient care by the owners, or if the house is simply abandoned and no care is given at all. While it is certainly possible that the owners might deliberately plant this mold within their house, this is usually never the case. The scenario that we find happens far more often is that the house simply is not taken care of.
But why wouldn’t anyone want to plant mold throughout their home? As we established, mold can be very unhealthy and has the potential to kill people who are exposed to it for prolonged periods of time.
But how do we know the mold is deadly to begin with? Obviously we would need to see cases where mold caused health problems in living creatures. Once any living creature was eventually exposed to this, and once the effects of this prolonged exposure were observed and documented, it wouldn’t take long to realize that this mold is harmful and we want to avoid it as much as possible.
It should be noted that up to this point, the factor of a presupposed worldview has not come into play at all. It has simply been about establishing what the facts are, and drawing inferences from those facts that logically make sense. So here are the established facts:
Premise A: We know that mold can be very unhealthy to living creatures that are exposed to it for prolonged periods of time (an assessment made only after seeing previous instances of this happening).
Premise B: People would not normally plant mold intentionally throughout their home, due to the reasons given in Premise A.
Premise C: Therefore, when mold is seen to be growing throughout a house, we know that it is far more likely because the house either has insufficient care by the owners, or the house is abandoned and therefore has no care at all.
Premise D: If we find a small area of the house that is not covered in mold, we would not come to the conclusion that this house was made to support this one small area, due to the reasons given in the previous premises. It is far more likely that this is just a lucky area of the house that has not yet been covered in mold.
(I hope I haven’t bored you with all this. I promise there is a point I am making here.)
To carry this whole analogy over to the issue at hand, the universe we observe is extremely large. How large? Essentially, the universe is to the earth what the earth itself is to a speck of dust laying on the floor. It’s that big. But it isn’t just that the universe is really, REALLY big. It’s also that the vast majority of it is deadly to all living creatures. This is a point strangely absent from Rauser’s post on the subject. It would be one thing if the universe was just really big and didn’t have any life in it except for earth-life. The other side to the issue is that most of the universe (and I mean most, like 99.99999% of it) cannot support the life seen on earth, which is obviously why there is no other life observable in it. Our universe is like the hypothetical house with large amounts of mold growing throughout it. And the earth is simply a rare area of the house that hasn’t yet been covered in mold. I say “hasn’t yet” because at some point in the future the earth itself will not be able to support life either. The problem is actually far worse than my hypothetical scenario is making it out to be. For in my scenario, I describe mold as being the threatening factor, which usually takes some time to take full effect and do any real harm to you. But when it comes to the universe, we know that kills you instantly. And we know this, again, because of past experiences. Once we actually got up into space, it didn’t take us long to realize “oh shit, we can’t survive out there.” And once we learned just how big the universe really is, it didn’t take us long to realize “holy shit, there’s a TON of universe we can’t survive in!”
I also described the area of mold-free house as being roughly the size of your thumb. But in ratio to the whole universe, the earth is even smaller than that. Richard Carrier himself notes this point, writing that:
A universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain it. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that is not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life—in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life. Would you conclude that the house was built to serve and benefit that subatomic speck? Hardly. Yet that is the house we live in. The Christian theory completely fails to predict this—while atheism predicts exactly this.
Logically, the smaller the area of mold-free house you find, the less likely you are to conclude that it was intentionally put there for the house to sustain. If the area of mold-free house were instead, say, as large as an entire wall, then you might conclude that someone has taken the time to clean that section for some reason. If the area were, say, the size of a baseball, you would find it even less likely someone was specifically cleaning that area for a purpose. If instead the area was so small that a penny turned sideways was just able to slide through and fit into it, then you would be certain that that area was not specifically made to exist there by anyone. That is what logically would make the most sense. And that is exactly what we see in the case of the earth in relation to the rest of the universe. This is not committing the “pale blue dot fallacy,” as Rauser asserts in another of his posts on the topic. It’s looking at things in full perspective. If you actually would argue that an extremely small mold-free area of a house was specifically made that way by someone, why would you believe that? If you offer a reason for believing that, then your reason had better be testable, something we can check. If we can’t, then it follows that your reason is totally ad hoc, and only serves to explain away the far more likely scenario, that it just happens to be a rare area of the house that the mold hasn’t yet covered.
Likewise, if you believe that God had some reason for creating a universe this big and making only one extremely small area of it capable of sustaining life, then why would you believe that? Again, you can offer a reason, but it had better be testable and checkable. Otherwise, that reason will also be purely ad hoc, and only serve to explain away the evidence which points toward the idea that there is no God. Rauser himself briefly gives an ad hoc assumption for why God would make the universe this way; "there could be a creator God who doesn’t care about us." Of course, this scenario is certainly possible. I have no way to prove it’s not. But what we should ask is if this scenario is probable. I’m always baffled by theists who consider the possibility that God simply doesn’t care about us. If that were true, then why would God bother making us in the first place? Now Rauser obviously doesn’t think this is the case. I’m sure he thinks God cares about us very much. He only considers the idea that God is indifferent to us as a possibility. But that’s the point. It’s only a possibility that’s conveniently put out there as an alternative scenario, relying on ad hoc assumptions. But, if there was in fact no God, then we wouldn’t need to invent any ad hoc assumptions to explain why the universe appears indifferent to us. The reason the universe doesn’t care about us is the same reason a rock doesn’t care about us. Or that a speck of dust doesn’t care about us. Or that the computer keys I’m typing on at this very moment don’t care about us. They all lack any sort of conscious cognitive functions. No intelligence, no feelings, no agendas. Nothing. The universe behaves exactly the way we would expect it to behave if there was absolutely no intelligence behind it at all.
But that leaves open a very important question; what would the universe look like if there was a God? I can think of two scenarios:
1.   The universe wouldn’t be this big. There would only be one solar system, containing the earth, moon and sun (and perhaps not even the moon, if God could make it so that we wouldn’t need it in the first place). This would make total sense on the assumption that there is a God. He would only have us in mind, and therefore would make a universe with only us in mind as well.
2.   Or, with the universe being the size it actually is, the vast majority of the universe should have life in it. Life-bearing planets should be everywhere. For if there is a point to the universe, why shouldn’t God use it to its full potential?
Again, there obviously could be a reason why God would make the universe the way it actually is. But no scenario I am aware of has ever logically shown why that would be the case. However, if there was no God, then this is exactly the kind of universe we would expect to see. So unless you can show why God would go to the trouble of making the universe this way (a way that, incidentally, looks the way it would have to look if nobody designed it), then we simply have no reason to believe God or any other sort of creator had a hand in creating it at all. Our planet is simply a tiny speck of clean house that hasn’t yet been devoured by the deadly mold that spreads throughout our home. I’m grateful that hasn’t happened yet, and I plan on enjoying however much time I have left on earth.
The truth is simply inescapable: the kind of universe we live in, given its size and structure, is more consistent with atheism than with theism.
See also:


  1. Let's suppose that most of the universe was hospitable to life. Would this mean that atheism was less probable? If so, why?

    1. By definition, yes. A universe as big as this one that was filled with life would be far more consistent with there being a God. It shows that the universe is being used to its full potential. But with only an extremely small amount of the universe containing life, it seems highly improbable that God would bother making the rest of it. It's like building an entire skyscraper and only using a single desk drawer.

  2. But that's assuming that the only purpose of the universe was to produce and/or sustain life.

    1) Life is abundant in the universe.
    2) ?
    3) Therefore, theism is more probable than atheism.

    4) The universe is abundantly inhospitable to life.
    6) Therefore, atheism is more probable than theism.

    Fill in the missing premises.

    1. 1) Life is abundant in the universe.
      2) This shows that the universe is being used to its full potential, e.i. nothing going to waste.
      3) Therefore, theism is more probable than atheism.

      4) The universe is abundantly inhospitable to life.
      5) This shows that the universe is NOT being used to its full potential, meaning most of it is being wasted.
      6) Therefore, atheism is more probable than theism.

      Keep in mind that premise 1 depends on what kind of universe we're talking about. As I say above, if the universe were very small--only one solar system--and only contained us, that would make sense. Or, if the universe, as it currently exists, was vastly filled with life all over, that would make sense too. But having only one tiny speck of the universe containing life and letting the rest go completely to waste is highly unlikely.

      Like I say in the above post, there could be a reason God is being so wasteful, but I haven't heard anything that makes logical sense. But if there's no God, there's no one to care about the fact that the vast majority of the universe is going to waste.

      It could be that there are other purposes being served in the universe. But obviously only living beings that posses cognitive functions would actually comprehend that and care. So it would seem that, if there were a God behind all this, we would be, if not God's only purpose, certainly we would be the most important purpose.

  3. But a clever atheist could offer an alternative to (2), which would be:

    2') If life is abundant in the universe, then this is evidence that life is very easy to produce, just like stars and planets.

    And the atheist could then deny that (3) follows from (1) and (2').

    Likewise a clever theist could offer an alternative to (5), which would be:

    5') If the universe if abundantly inhospitable to life, then this is evidence that God has some other purpose for the universe besides filling it with life.

    And the theist could then deny (6) follows from (1) and (5').

    1. If life was abundant throughout the universe, this would show that life was not rare. In most cases, when an event happens only very rarely, we usually do not assume there is any great purpose to it. It's only when something happens too frequently that we think something more is going on and there is a pattern.

      Take the lottery for example. If the odds of winning the lottery were, say, 1 in a billion, and a billion people played the lottery and every single person won, you'd be certain something fishy was going on. However, if only one person wins the lottery (as it usually happens) you would obviously know that was purely accidental.

      Our planet is the only one out of billions that we've seen that actually harbors life. Life is what our planet has that other planets don't. But based on the fact we know that life can exist on a planet, it follows that all other planets in the universe have at least the potential to harbor life as well.

      It may show that life is easy to produce if it was fully inhabited. But if it was that easy for the universe to produce life, that would indicate to us that that is what the universe is for. That's the universe's purpose. The fact that life is so rare throughout the universe indicates that is NOT what it's for. Instead, we see that the universe is far better at producing stars, black holes, inhospitable planets and solar systems, etc. So logically what we'd have to conclude is that THAT is what the universe is for.

      After all, if you found a fork but didn't know what it was, but then came to the conclusion that it could be used for digging, you would probably conclude that is what it's for. But then if someone comes along and shows you that a fork is much better at being used as an eating utensil, you certainly wouldn't still maintain that it was meant for digging. That's our universe. It's much better at producing stuff that kills life rather than producing life.

      And again, it could be that God has other purposes for the universe other than just creating life. But the only things that could actually care about these purposes would be us. We need not be the only purpose, but we obviously are a very big--if not the biggest--purpose God would have in mind. After all, God would have given us what no other objects have--cognitive functions, something only God himself posses as well. For God to give us what he apparently has and to nothing else, would show that we are obviously a top priority.

      But by not putting this life on every other planet he's made throughout his universe, he is obviously letting his universe go to waste. And what are these other purposes supposed to be? To say that God might have some other purpose in mind is exhibiting the exact kind of ad hoc reasoning I discuss in my post. Whereas the assumption that we are just a lucky accident requires no ad hoc assumptions at all. We look like we're an accident, so I say that's probably what we are. A universe filled with life would not look like an accident. But we don't see that.

      Since the vast majority of the universe IS inhospitable to life, do you think that is more consistent with theism? If so, why? I spent an entire post explaining my opposite position. So what are your reasons for believing that this universe is more consistent with theism? If that is your position.

  4. Hi Adam -- I just blogged about your graphic, but not your post, here:


    1. Hi Jefferey. Thanks. I do agree that it's certainly possible God may have other purposes in mind other than just creating life. Though I also argue that creating billions of planets and not putting life on the vast majority of them is extremely wasteful, and odd for God to do. I guess I would argue a universe like this one is not necessarily inconsistent with theism, but rather atheism is just more consistent.

      And the graphic itself was just something that I found on facebook a while back.

    2. Adam -- It's a category error to say that a process could be wasteful for God, since God, if He were to exist, would have unlimited creative resources.

      On the other than hand, I agree with you that it does seem odd.