Thursday, August 8, 2013

Incarnation and the Anthropic Principle

I made the image a bit bigger than usual this time so you could see it better. It still isn't quite big enough. What it says there in the red is "Local Superclusters." That means that that tiny little piece of the universe contains the "superclusters" that are in our "neighborhood." To give you some perspective, a supercluster is (appropriately) a group of clusters, which in turn is a group of galaxies. Within these "local superclusters" is one called the "Virgo Supercluster," which contains the "Local Galactic Group," which contains our Milky Way galaxy. Within the galaxy, our "interstellar neighborhood" lies on the outskirts of one of the Milky Way's spiral arms, and within that neighborhood is our solar system, i.e. our sun and (now eight) planets. The distance from earth to the nearest star in our interstellar neighborhood other than our own sun—called "Proxima Centauri"—is 4.243 light years. That means it takes light over four years to get from there to here. In case you forgot, nothing in the universe is faster than light (that we know of). The distance from us to something like another supercluster is too vast to even begin to comprehend.

Obviously, the universe is pretty stinking big. Big enough, in fact, to make one wonder how humans could ever have thought they had a significant place in it. This is perhaps especially true for Christians, who, historically, have not only thought we were significant, but the very purpose of the universe. Heck, we even had a hard time letting go of the idea that we weren't the center of it. 1

Now, a lot of folks (theists, mostly, but others too) have noted that as big as the universe is, things in it sure seem to be just right for life to occur. Take the "cosmological constant," for example. It is one of a list of about 26 or so " fundamental constants." These are basically values describing things like how fundamental particles interact in the universe, and the important thing is that they have to be very precise in order for the universe to permit life. If the cosmological constant, for example, were changed by one part in 10120, no life. The others are similarly mind-boggling.

In response to these numbers, and the claims of theists that they suggest something about our place in the universe, astronomers came up with what is now called the "anthropic principle." I don't really want to go into a lot of detail here about what exactly that means, or the various versions of the principle and how they affect theism. For that, I recommend this paper. 2

Basically, the principle says that in order to observe the conditions required for our existence (like we do with the constants), we have to already be existing in a universe compatible with our existence.

Pretty simple right? Of course, atheists want to use this rather obvious observation as a weapon against theists who use fine-tuning arguments, and then theists have to make a bunch of clarifications and use fun thought experiments like in that paper I just cited. 3

I, however, want to do something completely different.

When atheists use the anthropic principle to attack theists, they are ultimately saying that we shouldn't be surprised that we exist or that our appearance in the universe needs no explanation, certainly no divine one. In effect, we are utterly insignificant in the vast, empty blackness that is our universe.

In response to this, I suggest that instead of replying by trying to correct their use of the anthropic principle, we cut to the heart of their claim, and just agree with it.

Atheist: You Christians are so dumb. Don't you know that the size of the universe and the anthropic principle show conclusively that we are tiny, insignificant specks in the universe? We mean nothing.

Christian: I know right!?
Isn't it amazing that God chose to become one of us?!

See what I did there? The fact that we are relatively small, seemingly insignificant inhabitants of a cosmos so big we can't even think about it clearly, should not be a surprise to Christians. I've written here before about incarnation. It is the very center of the Christian worldview, and it means, crudely, that God loved us so much that He voluntarily relinquished His position as creator and sustainer of that whole vast conglomerate in that picture up there, so that He could become a human being. Someone who itches and poops and gets sick and dies. The very thought is scandalous. We (the church) have been thinking about it for over 2,000 years now, and we still find it hard to believe.

Some atheist telling us the universe is big and that we shouldn't be surprised to be observing it really isn't big news to us.

So to the atheist who likes to use the anthropic principle to bash Christians: we already know God must love us an awful lot. But thanks for reiterating our point!

1 In case you're thinking, "Well, in that picture, it sure looks like we might be in the center of the whole thing," remember that that's the observable universe, which happens to look pretty much the same, regardless of where we point our telescopes. Naturally, if the universe is bigger than we can see, then when we chart the part we can see, it will look like we're in the center. Actually, this might not be a bad illustration of the anthropic principle...something like, "Since the universe is so big that any part of it we see will place us in the middle, we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves there..."

2 In it, Craig helpfully separates the Anthropic Principle, which is a kind of meta-scientific claim, from what he calls the "Anthropic Philosophy," which adds claims to the Principle, such as that the fine-tuning of the universe ought not surprise us. Here's an excerpt:

Now it needs to be emphasized that what the Anthropic Philosophy does not hold, despite the sloppy statements on this head often made by scientists, is that our existence as observers explains the basic features of the universe. The answer to the question "Why is the universe isotropic?" given by Collins and Hawking, ". . . the isotropy of the Universe is a consequence of our existence," is simply irresponsible and brings the Anthropic Philosophy into undeserved disrepute, for literally taken, such an answer would require some form of backward causation whereby the conditions of the early universe were brought about by us acting as efficient causes merely by our observing the heavens. But WAP neither asserts nor implies this; rather WAP holds that we must observe the universe to possess certain features (not that the universe must possess certain features) and the Anthropic Philosophy says that therefore these features ought not to surprise us or cry out for explanation. The self-selection effect affects our observations, not the basic features of the universe itself. If the Anthropic Philosophy held that the basic features of the universe were themselves brought about by our observations, then it could be rightly dismissed as fanciful. But the Anthropic Philosophy is much more subtle: it does not try to explain why the universe has the basic features it does, but contends that no explanation is needed, since we should not be surprised at observing what we do, our observations of those basic features being restricted by our own existence as observers. 
3 See my own brief treatment of it here.

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