When I go to the gym I get easily bored, so I listen to either music or, more likely, audiobooks. Recently, I’ve spent exercise time with a couple of scifi entries by author Robert Sawyer. I started out with Flashforward, then moved to Calculating God.

Both books are based on clever premises, unfold nicely, but are — in my opinion — ruined by the author’s penchant for invoking deus-ex-machina scenarios near the end. And they both preach a bit too much science, to the point of feeling like a lecture to the reader, especially Calculating God. Nonetheless, they do make the time at the gym pass significantly faster...

The reason for this post is that I wanted to bring Calculating God to the attention of my fellow atheists, skeptics and freethinkers. It will challenge you to think outside your established worldview, which I think is the type of mental exercise that can benefit everyone, at least a few times in their life.

SPOILER ALERT: I will provide a few details about the novel in order to make my points. No major spoiler is forthcoming, as the material I will be citing is presented by Sawyer very close to the beginning of the book. Still, reader be warned...

The premise of Calculating God is that an arachnoid type alien named Hollus one bright day lands her spaceship in front of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, walks to the entrance and asks the guard to be introduced to a paleontologist. [The guard, thinking this is a joke played by someone in a rubber suit, politely asks whether the arachnoid wishes to see a vertebrate or an invertebrate paleontologist, to which a puzzled Hollus replies that she thought all paleontologists on earth were humans, and therefore vertebrate...]

At any rate, Hollus begins her working relationship (and eventual friendship) with a paleontologist named Thomas Jericho, who is an atheist (like many scientists, he points out). But Jericho is stunned and disturbed when Hollus reveals the reason she and a few other aliens from two different solar systems are visiting earth: you see, their scientists have discovered that five mass extinctions have hit several inhabited planets in the sector, at the same time, and she wants to verify whether the same was true on earth (it was). Jericho is dumbfounded by the discovery, but Hollus nonchalantly explains that clearly God had something to do with the events, and that indeed the goal of the expedition is to find out what exactly God had in mind.

That’s the part of the book (still early on in the novel) where things become challenging for the atheist reader. Jericho initially scoffs at Hollus’ talk of God, genuinely surprised that aliens who are clearly significantly more technologically advanced than us are still thinking in somewhat Medieval terms. So Hollus patiently engages in a debate with Jericho, where on the one hand we have evidence of intelligent design in the universe — largely in the form of the fine tuning argument — and on the other the usual counterarguments by atheists — largely the idea of a multiverse as an explanation for the said, apparent, fine tuning (though there are other possibilities, see below).

Let’s first get both arguments straight here in the real world, then we’ll re-enter Sawyer’s parallel universe and see what happens.

The basic idea of the fine tuning argument is that too many natural constants appear to somehow have taken very specific values which just happen to be compatible with the emergence of a complex universe containing life. For instance, if the nuclear force had been just 2% stronger than it is, this would have resulted in the likely consumption (by nuclear fusion) of all the hydrogen in the universe shortly after the Big Bang, leading to a very different (and life-unfriendly) universe from the one we know.

Astronomer Martin Rees has famously written about a number of these special natural constants, which include the ratio of the strengths of gravity and electromagnetism, the strength of the force binding nucleons, the relative importance of gravity and the expansion energy of the universe, the famous cosmological constant, the ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a galaxy apart compared to the energy equivalent of its mass, and the number of dimensions in spacetime. The idea, again, is that all of the above (and a few others) could have only varied by fairly narrow margins if anything like a complex universe with life was to evolve. (Interestingly, a number of other physical constants don’t seem to make much difference to the structural characteristics of the universe, for example the properties of some quarks and of the mu and tau leptons.)

You can see the logic of the inference:

Premise 1: A number of physical constants have to have very narrow ranges if life is to evolve.
Premise 2: The chance of those narrow ranges occurring simultaneously by natural accident are extremely low.
Premise 3: The chance of those narrow ranges occurring simultaneously by intelligent design are much higher.
Conclusion: The universe was fine tuned by an intelligent designer (let’s call him/her/it “God”).

Before we consider the standard counter-arguments, let’s be clear on one thing: this is a serious challenge, not to be easily dismissed. A typical counter often heard in atheist circles is that of course we find ourselves in a type of universe that sustains life, if we were in a different one we wouldn’t exist: the fine tuning argument, therefore, gets the causality exactly reversed. This response is known as the weak anthropic principle (as opposed to the strong AP, which relies on the fine tuning argument), but it’s not convincing.

To see why, imagine yourself in front of a firing squad of, say, ten soldiers. They fire, and you open your eyes and find you are still alive. What happened? It is possible, but definitely very very unlikely, that all soldiers simultaneously just happened to miss their target. More likely, someone arranged things so that you would survive, for instance by bribing the soldiers, or by replacing their cartridges with blanks. In other words, your survival was intelligently engineered. The odds that need to be explained if the fine tuning argument goes through are much, much worse than the firing squad somehow missing its target.

That said, there are a number of reasonable, indeed, pretty compelling objections to the fine tuning argument. One way is to point out a crucial hidden assumption: advocates of the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP) seem to think that the statistical distribution from which each of the above mentioned natural constants is drawn is both infinite and uniform, i.e. that there are infinite possible values for each constant, all equally likely. But that’s a huge assumption. For all we know, the distribution could be very narrow, or the likelihoods of different values very skewed. We just don’t know, at the moment.

Indeed, this is one of the major promises of superstring theory: to give us an elegant explanation for why the universe had to be the way it is. To stretch our analogy with the firing squad, if string theorists are right, then it turns out that the soldiers where constrained by the geometry of the situation to shoot in directions that would not hit you. They didn’t miss by chance, there was no chance they wouldn’t miss to begin with.

But of course the problem with this answer is that, at the moment, it is speculative. String theory is a very sophisticated mathematical treatment of the basic structure of the universe, but it has not yet been confirmed by novel empirical evidence, and there is a good chance that it never will (because its novel predictions manifest themselves only at such high levels of energy that human experimenters may never be able to replicate them under controlled conditions). In the words of some of its critics, string theory is not even wrong (which, of course, does not at all imply that the fine tuning argument is correct).

The other major rebuttal to the SAP is the idea of a multiverse. This is the suggestion, originating from certain versions of modern cosmological theories, that our universe is but one in a very very large (perhaps infinite) number of universes, each governed by different laws and characterized by different combinations of constants. (This is not to be confused with the many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is a different thing altogether.)

You can easily see why the multiverse would be a good response to the fine tuning argument: while string theory says that the statistical distribution of the natural constants is very narrow, the multiverse says that even if that distribution should turn out to be very broad the chances of a particular universe (ours) existing are still very high, because a near infinite (or perhaps actually infinite) number of possibilities are encompassed by the full multiverse. If that is the case, one then only needs the above mentioned Weak AP to settle the matter, no intelligent designers need apply.

Before we proceed, I should note that there are also versions of the ID argument that do not in fact invoke Gods, for instance Nick Bostrom’s “simulation hypothesis,” according to which we are somebody else’s video game, or virtual reality research project.

So, to recap, if you are an atheist faced with the fine tuning argument, you have at least three responses available to you:

a) The universe is not actually fine tuned, because it simply couldn’t have originated otherwise (string theory).

b) The universe is not actually fine tuned, because it is one among a huge number of actually existing universes, each with different combinations of the natural constants (the multiverse).

c) The universe is fine tuned, but that’s because intelligent beings just like us (i.e., not “gods”) figured a way to simulate worlds within their computers, and they are currently either having fun with us or studying us as a way to understand how complex life evolves (the simulation hypothesis).

Take your pick, and these three aren’t the only conceivable possibilities either (for instance, Victor Stenger has proposed that a broadened definition of life would actually be compatible with a wider range of values for several of the above mentioned natural constants, though I find this less convincing than the above mentioned scenarios).

What about the discussion between Hollus and Jericho, you say? Well, early in the book the paleontologist goes through exactly the counter-arguments I have presented above (focusing on the multiverse, really), all the while increasingly puzzled by the fact that Hollus and his kind haven’t figured this out yet, despite their obviously more advanced science. But Hollus drops a game changer: she explains to Jericho that their scientists have indeed explored naturalistic explanations of fine tuning, but have actually made discoveries — yet to be made by human science — that categorically exclude the possibility of a multiverse. Indeed, Hollus insists that at this point the only logical explanation for fine tuning is a super- or extra-natural entity, and that it would be downright irrational, and certainly unscientific, to negate that conclusion.[1] Oops.

My question to my fellow skeptics / atheists / freethinkers then is this: imagine yourself as Thomas Jericho, befriended by an alien from an advanced civilization who has just demolished all your naturalistic explanations for the apparent fine tuning of the universe. What then?

Reprinted from Rationally Speaking, Sept. 27, 2013