Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 5b

In part one of my review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Miracles I covered chapters 1-3, a section featuring Strobel’s interview of the skeptic Michael Shermer. In part two I covered chapters 4-6 featuring his interview with Craig Keener. In part three I covered chapter 7 which featured an interview Strobel had with Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University. In part four I covered chapter 8 featuring his interview with missionary Tom Doyle. Strobel’s fifth interview is with Michael Strauss and covers chapters 9-10. In part 5a I covered Strauss’ discussion of the origin of the universe, focusing on whether Genesis portrays creation ex nihilo. Today’s post covers chapter 10 which dives into the fine-tuning argument for God’s existence.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.


INTERVIEW #5b – MICHAEL STRAUSS

“In the beginning the Universe was created,” wrote Douglas Adams in his book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. “This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”1 That the universe exists may or may not be surprising depending on your view of the laws of physics. But that life – including people to be very angry at the “bad move” of the universe’s creation – exists is a different story altogether. Why should we or monkeys or roses or amoeba exist at all? Why isn’t the universe populated entirely with inanimate dead stuff? Why is there at least one planet that we know of upon which life exists?

A “Miraculous” World

For theists like Michael Strauss, the existence of life is evidence for fine-tuning. As he explains to Strobel, “Over the last five decades, physicists have discovered that the numbers which govern the operation of the universe are calibrated with mind-boggling precision so intelligent life can exist” (175). Strauss overs Strobel two main examples: the amount of matter in the universe (176-177) and the strength of the strong nuclear force (177). In the former, an increase or decrease results in a universe wherein planets never form upon which life could proliferate. In the latter, a slight increase in strength results in a universe filled with elements that are “radioactive and life destroying” (177) while a slight decrease in strength would result in a world made up of hydrogen and only hydrogen.

And it is not just the universe at large which exhibits signs of fine-tuning. Strauss observes that our planet too seems to be in a very special condition for life to flourish. He lists the following conditions that need to be met to have life (179-180):

  • The planet should be in orbit around a Class G star like our sun.
  • That star should be middle-aged so that “its luminosity is stabilized.”
  • That star should be a “bachelor star,” i.e. not a binary or in some other less stable configuration.
  • That star should be a third-generation star, i.e. a star with enough material to create rocky planets like earth.
  • The planet should be one that is in the “Goldilocks Zone” so that it isn’t too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist.
  • That planet needs to have a particular rotation rate, tilt, and size.
  • That planet needs a moon to stabilize the planet’s tilt.
  • That planet needs to have active tectonic plates.
  • That planet needs to be near larger planets to keep comets and meteors at bay (i.e. Jupiter).

If accurate, this list makes an impressive case for fine-tuning. But what explanations are there for this apparent fine-tuning?

Explanations for Fine-Tuning

After rightly dismissing notions that the fine-tuning is best explained by self-creating humans (181) or that we exist in some kind of simulation like we find in the movie The Matrix (182), Strauss offers two possible explanations. First, some scientists have speculated that our universe is one of many universes and that we are in what has come to be known as a “multiverse.” Strauss notes that the late Stephen Hawking suggested what is known as “M-theory,” an idea derived from the highly speculative string theory. M-theory, says Strauss, “may be untestable and nonfalsifiable, and there’s no observational evidence for it” (183). And despite the varied attempts by scientists to explain the origin of the multiverse, “there is no observational or experimental evidence for it” and “there is likely no way for us to discover something that’s beyond our universe” (183). To believe in such a multiverse, Strauss contends, “you basically need blind faith” (183).

The other possible explanation Strauss offers is that God is behind fine-tuning and that from the evidence of fine-tuning we can figure out some pretty interesting things about him (186-187):

  • He is transcendent (i.e. he exists apart from creation).
  • He is immaterial (i.e. he existed before physical creation).
  • He is timeless (i.e. he existed before time was created).
  • He is powerful (i.e. he had the ability to create the cosmos in the Big Bang).
  • He is intelligent (i.e. he has fine-tuned the world for life).
  • He is personal (i.e. he made a decision to create).
  • He is creative (i.e. he has made some pretty impressive stuff).
  • He is caring (i.e. he has “purposefully crafted a habitat for us”).

So which God performed this universe creation and fine-tuning? “All the qualities we’ve elicited from the evidence,” Strauss tells Strobel, “are consistent with the God of the Bible” (186). And this God is an artist: “I can look deeply into the universe and the subatomic world and see the soul of the Artist” (187-188). In fact, Strauss is able to look at the world with all its “nuances and subtleties and intricacies” and see that they can only point to “one conclusion: the God hypothesis has no competitors” (188).

Not So Fast!

Strauss’ case for fine-tuning is at once compelling and problematic. It is compelling in that he lays out the case that it does exist. What is problematic about it is his conclusion that it must have been God and that it was the God of Christianity.

For example, consider the claim that God is “caring” because he has “purposefully crafted a habitat for us” (186). But the existence of a world that is habitable does not imply that it was created by a deity who is caring. In fact, given human biology, nearly three-quarters of the planet is inhospitable to human life by virtue of the fact that humans lack gills to breathe underwater. And over ninety percent of all that water cannot be consumed by humans. Humans are also unable to operate in geographic locales with extreme temperatures, at least not without serious modifications. This information doesn’t suggest a deity who is caring but rather one who is restrictive.

We might also consider Strauss’ contention that God is also “personal” because “a decision had to be made to create” (186). But doesn’t this beg the question? Isn’t Strauss assuming the Big Bang was an intentional act and then reasoning to it being so? Perhaps the Big Bang was not intentional and was triggered accidentally by a deity. We simply do not have any evidence to suggest God is personal, at least not from looking at the universe.

Or consider the claim that God is “timeless or eternal, since he existed before physical time was created” (186). How is it possible for a mind to exist outside of a temporal existence? We certainly have no examples of such a thing and if a mind like God’s was able also to create, would not this imply a temporal existence? For at one moment God was not creating the universe and in another he was creating it. This, to me, suggests God experiences some sort of temporal existence. And if this is the case, how then is he “timeless”?2  

We could, in some form or fashion, contest each of Strauss’ contentions. The point is, I do not find it plausible to infer a specific deity from the fine-tuning argument. If we assume that there is some kind of consciousness behind the universe’s alleged design, the nature of that evidence prohibits us from declaring with any degree of certainty that it is this or that deity.

Alternative Explanations

So if not God, then who or what? While many subscribe to the idea of a multiverse, I find it to be too hypothetical and without sufficient empirical grounds. As far as I’m concerned, it is on par with the God hypothesis at this time. So then how do I explain the fine-tuning of the universe?

I don’t know. I honestly do not have any good explanation for it. This may trouble some who need to have some degree of certainty on such matters. But I am content with not knowing and holding out until such time as more evidence comes in from which we may draw conclusions. I feel this way about the origin of the universe itself. I do not find any version of the cosmological argument to be persuasive nor do I find non-theistic explanations compelling. I am comfortable saying the universe has always existed and I am comfortable saying that the universe has not always existed. Since I do not think there is sufficient evidence either way, I reserve judgment.

For me, evidence for God must lie elsewhere. Strauss’ God is one I simply cannot find.

NOTES

1 Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, in The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide (Wings Books, 1996), 149.

2 For an overview of the debates on God’s relationship to time, see Gregory E. Ganssle, “God and Time” (n.d.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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