Calculating God (Part 1 of 2)

If you have followed this blog for very long, you know that it’s not uncommon for me to cite from, or at least refer to, various books on the topics of science, politics, and religion. Non-fiction stuff. But, I also read, watch, and listen to a lot of fiction, as well. As it turns out, much of my fictional reading touches on the same topics, sometimes directly and other times indirectly. Science fiction, in particular, is known as a vehicle for examining real-life issues (e.g., philosophical, theological, socio-cultural, ethical/moral, political, scientific, etc.) in unusual, sometimes fantastical, contexts and circumstances. So, today, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before — cite a fictional novel in support of a non-fictional position.

cover of book "Calculating God"Recently, I “discovered” a popular, award-winning Canadian science-fiction author named Robert J. Sawyer. After reading a recommendation (I forget by whom), I sampled Sawyer’s writing in a selection of his short stories. Now, I just finished my second Sawyer novel — Calculating God (2000). From what I understand, Sawyer is a strong proponent of evolution, rationalism, and, I believe, an atheist. In what I’ve read so far, his “religious” characters are unfortunately, laughably stereotypical “fundamentalists”/creationists (even the real-life ones he mentions). Aside from that, he doesn’t come across as entirely antagonistic toward “religious” folk. In fact, just prior to finalizing this post, I read an interview in which he mentioned having met and “work[ed] with some really intelligent, thoughtful, scientifically literate, socially aware, well-read people, from across the faith spectrum —- Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and more. These were guys I respected, in most cases, and they believed in something I didn’t believe (and still don’t). That made me want to understand religion not in the straw-man sense that you so often hear it dismissed, but in the sense that can and does attract great thinkers.”

I find Sawyer’s writing enjoyable (including the many pop-culture references), the situations and characters very “human”, and he addresses both philosophical and socio-political (e.g., healthcare) issues in a way I find interesting, even if I disagree with the more liberal/skeptical positions he takes via his primary characters.

In Calculating God, the central character is a strongly Darwinian, atheist paleontologist who meets an alien species which, shocker of shockers, believes in God! Not the God of the Bible, of course. Not even a personal God. But, a “God” nonetheless. And, the central alien character argues for a form of design-centered theistic evolution. (Yes, that’s right. They recognize design in nature via scientific exploration, then, acknowledging the philosophical & theological implications, posit the existence of God. Amazing!) So, we have the ironic phenomenon of a non-theistic, Darwinist author (Sawyer) making the case for Intelligent Design Theory via an octopedal extraterrestrial (the Forhilnor scientist known as “Hollus”) to a fictional, non-theist Darwinist (“Dr. Tom Jericho”):

“I know, I know — I probably should have let it alone. But, dammitall, it had been keeping me up nights ever since Hollus mentioned it. “How do you know,” I said to him at last, “that the universe had a creator?”

Hollus’s eyestalks curved to look at me. “The universe was clearly designed; if it has a design, it must therefore have a designer.”

“It looks random to me,” I said. “I mean, it’s not as if the stars are arranged in geometric patterns.”

“There is a great beauty in randomness,” Hollus said. “But I speak about a much more basic design. This universe has had its fundamental parameters fine-tuned to an almost infinite degree so that it would support life.”

I was pretty sure I knew where he was going with this, but I said, “In what way?” anyway; I thought maybe he knew something I didn’t — and indeed, to my shock, that was precisely the case.

“The strengths of [the fundamental] forces have wildly varying values, and yet if the values were even slightly different from their current ones, the universe as we know it would not exist, and life could never have formed. Take gravity as an example: were it only somewhat stronger, the universe would have long since collapsed. If it were somewhat weaker, stars and planets never could have coalesced.”

“‘Somewhat,'” I echoed.

“For those two scenarios, yes; I am talking about a few orders of magnitude. You wish a better example? Very well. Stars, of course, must strike a balance between the gravitational force of their own mass, which tries to make them collapse, and the electromagnetic force of their own outpouring of light and heat. There is only a narrow range of values in which these forces are in sufficient equilibrium to allow a star to exist. At one extreme blue giants are produced, and at the other red dwarfs form — neither of which are conducive to the origin of life. Fortunately, almost all stars fall in between those two types — specifically because of an apparent numerical coincidence in the values of the fundamental constants in nature. If, for instance, the strength of gravity were different by one part in 10^40, this numerical coincidence would be disrupted, and every star in the universe would be either a blue giant or a red dwarf; no yellow suns would exist to shine down on Earthlike worlds.”

“Really? Just one part in ten to the fortieth?”

“Yes. Likewise the value of the strong nuclear force, which holds the nucleuses of atoms together even though the positively charged protons try to repel each other: if that force were only slightly weaker than it actually is, atoms would never form — the repulsion of protons would keep them from doing so. And if it were only slightly stronger than it actually is, the only atom that could exist would be hydrogen. Either way, we would have a universe devoid of stars and life and planets.”

“So, you’re saying that someone chose these values?”

“Exactly.”

“How do you know that these aren’t the only values those constants could possibly have?” I said. “Maybe they are simply that way because they couldn’t possibly be anything else?”

The alien’s round torso bobbed. “An interesting conjecture. But our physicists have proved that other values are indeed theoretically possible. And the odds of the current values arising by chance are one in the number six followed by so many zeros that if you could engrave a zero on each neutron and proton in the entire universe, you could still not write out the number in full.”

I nodded. I’d hear variations on all this before. It was time to play my trump card. “Maybe all the possible values for those constants do exist,” I said, “but in different universes. Maybe there are a limitless number of parallel universes, all of which are devoid of life because their physical parameters don’t allow it. If that’s the case, there’s nothing remarkable about us being in this universe, given that it’s the only one out of all the possible universes that we could be in.”

cover of "Who's Afraid of the Multiverse?"At this point, the Hollus character begins discussing a (still hypothetical) fifth fundamental force that his species discovered and the grand unified theory they were able to develop. One of the provisions of this theory was that “no parallel universes exist simultaneously with ours….” But, if you want a handle on the real-world reasons why Dr. Jericho’s “trump card” is not nearly so devastating as he (and his real-world analogs) think(s) it is, I suggest going to the Reasons to Believe website and doing a search on “multiverse”. Maybe even buy this book!

“Hollus bobbed. “You have intriguing tenacity,” he said. “But it is not just the five forces that have seemingly designed values; many other aspects of the way the universe works appear likewise to have been minutely adjusted.”

“For instance?”

“You and I are made up of heavy elements: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, potassium, iron, and so on. Practically the only elements that existed when the universe was born were hydrogen and helium, in a roughly three-to-one ratio. But in the nuclear furnaces of stars, hydrogen is fused into heavier elements, producing carbon, oxygen, and so on up the periodic table. All of the heavy elements that make up our bodies were forged in the cores of long-dead stars.”

“I know. ‘We are all star-stuff,’ as Carl Sagan used to say.”

“Precisely. Indeed, scientists from your world and mine refer to us as carbon-based lifeforms. But the fact that carbon is produced by stars depends critically on the resonance states of the carbon nucleus. To produce carbon, two helim nucleuses must stick together until they are struck by a third such nucleus — three helium nucleuses provide six neutrons and six protons, the recipe for carbon. But if the resonance level of carbon were only four percent lower, such intermediate pair-bonding could not occur, and no carbon would be produced, making organic chemistry impossible.” He paused. “But just producing carbon, and other heavy elements, is not enough, of course. Those heavy elements are here on Earth because some fraction of stars — what is the word? When a large star explodes?”

“Supernova,” I said.

“Yes. Those heavy elements are here because some fraction of stars become supernovas, spewing their fusion products into interstellar space.”

“And you’re saying that the fact that stars do go supernova is something that also must have been designed by a god?”

“It is not as simplistic as that.” A pause. “Do you know what would happen to Earth if a nearby star became a supernova?”

“If it were close enough, I suppose we’d be fried.” In the 1970s, Dale Russell had favored a nearby supernova explosion as the cause of the extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous.

“Exactly. If there had been a local supernova anytime in the last few billion years, you would not be here. Indeed, neither of us would be, since our worlds are quite close together.”

“So supernovas can’t be too common, and — ”

“Correct. But neither can they be too rare. It is shockwaves made by supernova explosions that cause planetary systems to start to coalesce from the dust clouds surrounding other stars. In other words, if there had been no supernovas ever anywhere near your sun, the ten planets that orbit it would never have formed.”

“Nine,” I said.

“Ten,” Hollus repeated firmly. “Keep looking.” His eyestalks waved. “Do you see the quandry? Some stars must become supernovas in order to make heavy elements available for the formation of life, but if too many do, they would wipe out any life that got started. Yet if not enough do, there would be precious few planetary systems. Just as with the fundamental physical constants and the resonance levels of carbon, the rate of supernova formation again seems precisely chosen, within a very narrow range of possibly acceptable values; any substantial deviation would mean a universe without life or even planets.”

I was struggling for footing, for stability. My head ached. “That could just be a coincidence, too,” I said.

“It is either coincidence piled on top of coincidence,” said Hollus, “or it is deliberate design. And there is more. Take water, for instance….”

Stoooooppp! Actually, I want to save the whole exploration of the wondrous properties of water for another post at a later date. So, I’ll jump forward a few paragraphs to finish up….

“The alien paused. “I could go on,” he said, “talking about the remarkable, carefully adjusted parameters that make life possible, but the reality is simply this: if any of them — any in this long chain — were different, there would be no life in this universe. We are either the most incredible fluke imaginable — something far, far more unlikely than you winning your provincial lottery every single week for a century — or the universe and its components were designed, purposefully and with great care, to give rise to life.”

You may be wondering why I am using a fictional discussion to make a case. That’s just fiction, isn’t it? But, these facts and pro-ID arguments are all based in reality — well, we can debate the number of planets later. There are many more like them, too, and I have touched on some of these and others in previous posts. I just thought this was a fun way to revisit a few, and considering who was making the argument made it all the more intriguing.

In part 2, we’ll visit a later part of the story, in which Dr. Jericho begins to have a “crisis of faith”.

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