The period between Christmas and new year is an odd time. It feels almost like a waiting room. We have arrived somewhere at the end of the year , and now we’re waiting to re-start the journey. The steady slope of the new year beckons. Managing this dark and rather cold waiting takes some skill. This year, with so little travel, I’m glad to be able to turn to books.
I’ve been enjoying is a rather intellectually saucy, almost racy book on Atheism, by the American author Eric Metaxas, called “Is atheism dead?”
I first came across him though a book he wrote powerfully about the great dissident anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The last 20 years or so have seen an avalanche of books by the new atheist, Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens et al, so it was a bit of a relief to have someone put the other side of the argument so colourfully.
Metaxas began with the goldilocks conundrum. Why are the conditions for life on earth so unimaginably perfect? What are the odds it happened by chance? And that turns out to the nub of everything. Chance versus intention. The odds are so inconceivably high against it being chance that we can’t conceive it. And yet, some people are emotionally dead set against being accountable to a moral intelligence they would rather stick with the mathematically inconceivable
Paul Davies, the physicist who as it happens is not a believer, wrote:
“Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth—the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient “co-incidences” and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal.”
He continues reluctantly,
“It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in numbers, has been rather carefully thought out. The seemingly miraculous concurrence of these numerical values that nature has assigned to her fundamental constants must remain the most compelling evidence for cosmic design.”
The early part of the book is full of some rather wonderful quotes from scientists who while not actually believing in God are nonetheless awestruck by the exquisite balances that lie in the cosmos.
Even Stephen Hawking conceded “ if the overall density of the universe were changed by even 0.0000000000001 %, no stars or galaxies could be formed. If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it reached its present size.”
The fine balancing of things is everywhere.
If the earth was slightly smaller in mass, the magnetic field would be slightly weaker, and if it was, solar wind would strip our atmosphere down to almost nothing leaving us dead and cold like Mars. Mars is only slightly smaller than the earth, but that difference caused its loss of life protecting atmosphere. If the earth were any larger, the stronger gravity would hold in water methane and carbon dioxide, making the atmosphere so viscous the air would be too thick to breathe. It turns out our planet is precisely calibrated for life.
If the earth was only slightly closer to the sun, water, which is absolutely critical for life would all evaporate. If we were only slightly further away, the water would remain solidly an inhospitably ice. Always.
Jupiter and Saturn play an essential role in protecting the earth from asteroid hits. Their precise position provides a gravitational shield from meteorites and asteroids.
The creation of the moon, wholly vital for life on earth, and only recently understood, is breath-taking in its precision. It is as if there were an unimaginably perfect billiard shot were executed on a table light years in length. The power of the collision, the size of the planets and the constituency of the material had to be exactly right. The early earth, sometimes called Theia, was smaller than now. It had a much thicker atmosphere – (it would have been like trying to breathe through sand).
A Mars like planet hit Theia at exactly the right speed (no total destruction or alternatively bouncing off each other) and angle, to produce a mingling of the constituent materials of the two planets, leaving a larger earth behind with the residue producing a moon of enormous size (compared to other planetary moons.) But, just the right size to provide sufficient stabilisation of the axis of the earth to reduce wobble and produce regular and reliable seasons and save us from wild fluctuations of temperature making life impossible.
The new earth now had a thinner atmosphere. Theia’s had been forty to a hundred times denser, making life impossible. Sunlight could now penetrate allowing plants to grow, and mammals to breathe. The (new) moon was exactly the right size to have the necessary gravitational pull to produce tides on the new earth.
And all this exquisite precision wholly independent of the two other questions: ‘how (by chance) do you get something (the universe) from nothing; and (by chance) life from non-life?
At the other end of the book lie new accounts of the journeys of famous twentieth century atheists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Anthon Flew. I discovered much to my surprise that at the end of his life Camus was preparing for baptism and Sartre (yes Jen-Paul Sartre!) wrote: “I don’t feel I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared prefigured. In short a being that could be here thanks only to a creator…God.”