The Ant Argument

I received some great feedback in response to the article I wrote in December, “The (Unsurprising) Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (read it here). Thank you everyone! Two comments in particular (one on this blog and another offsite) have prompted me to pursue the topic a little further, if for no other reason than to address their striking similarities. For the sake of clarity, I’ve pasted the relevant excerpts below:

“A bacterium (let’s call him Jim) that lives under my tongue could equally believe that the universe has been constructed precisely for his benefit. He doesn’t need to do any maths, because my saliva is just acidic enough to break down food into protein for Jim to eat, but not so acidic that it will dissolve him…” -Mr. T____

“I am sure the ant, if sentient, thinks the hill and the yard to be exquisitely fine-tuned. Drop him in Antarctica and see how quickly he loses religion. Similarly, move a human being even a few feet up or down and life is impossible (dying in caves, falling from a high perch)…” –Mr. C____

Both of these responses implicitly pose the same question. What’s so special about us? I’ll refer to this as “the ant argument”.

Firstly, the argument is itself somewhat self-defeating. Citing lower organisms like ants and bacteria as a means of challenging our place in the universe is akin to denying a large miracle by pointing to a smaller miracle. Or put another way, we can’t argue that the game of basketball wasn’t invented on the basis that my grandmother plays it less impressively than the L.A. Lakers.

Secondly, the ant argument reveals a misunderstanding of the Christian’s view of man and nature. Christians don’t claim that the universe is finely tuned for humans at the exclusion of other lifeforms. Man was created in God’s image, but the ultimate purpose of Creation is to glorify God…not us.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the ant argument doesn’t actually speak to the issue of our universe being finely tuned. Consider the four fundamental forces of nature (the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity). If any of these forces were stronger or weaker by just a tiny amount, then life would almost certainly be unable to exist.

Or consider the exact amount of dark matter present in the universe. Of all the possible amounts of dark matter that could exist, the actual amount happens to lie in that infinitesimally small range that allows stars to form and life to exist. Just a little less or a little more, and the universe would have either rapidly re-collapsed or accelerated into oblivion.

Dr. Francis Collins, who once spearheaded the Human Genome Project and is currently director of the NIH, speaks to this issue as well:

“To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…You have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”

Francis Collins

I should stop here to make an important point. The size and age of the universe are irrelevant to the issue of our universe’s fundamental constants being finely tuned. This is the problem with arguments along the lines of, “the universe is so huge and so ancient that life was bound to eventually arise somewhere…therefore, fine tuning is most likely just an illusion.” This kind of reasoning might be applicable to a discussion on our planet’s ability to support life, but it fails to address fine tuning. It doesn’t explain why the fundamental qualities of the universe are the way they are. It’s analogous to claiming that enough hands of poker will eventually result in a royal flush…without actually answering the question of where the rules of poker came from, or what a “royal flush” even means!

This is precisely why so many physicists – unwilling to accept a Designer yet unable to explain the appearance of Design – have embraced the idea of a multiverse. But as I pointed out in my original post, a belief in multiple universes is by no means a more scientifically defensible position. In fact, using Occam’s razor, it can be compellingly argued that belief in a Designer is eminently more scientific. Proponents of a multiverse are, after all, proposing an infinite (or near-infinite) number of unobservable universes just to explain the existence of our own.

Concerning the Problem of Evil

At some point, most Christians have probably encountered questions such as, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” or “If God is perfectly good, then where does evil come from?” These are challenging questions that don’t necessarily have simple or easy answers. But they do have answers.

This post is by no means intended to be a thorough critique of the problem of evil. That would require several books, at least. Instead, by falling back on minds greater than my own, I hope to probe some of the chinks in its armor. More specifically, I want to address the Epicurean Paradox (given below).

“If God is willing to prevent evil, but unable to
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?”

To this day, I occasionally hear friends and acquaintances refer to these few lines as if they were a fatal knockout punch to the Abrahamic religions. There is, however, an obvious element that seems to be missing. What about free will?

Renowned philosopher and apologist Alvin Plantinga tackled this very issue in his free will defense. I won’t bother spelling it out here, but it’s worth reading up on.

Alvin Plantinga

While the Epicurean Paradox seems intimidating, there is clearly some important information that it fails to account for. One might say that God is willing to prevent evil…and able to prevent evil…but unwilling to achieve this state by creating puppets or robots instead of children.

“Then whence cometh evil?” 

Rather than being “the opposite of good”, I sometimes think of evil as being “the absence of God”. It’s what happens when we rebel against our Creator…and most of us intuitively recognize that rebellion involves collateral damage (ask Alderaan). Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. C.S. Lewis probably explained it most eloquently:

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free. Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk.”

C.S. Lewis

As a final point, I think there is another issue here that people have a tendency to overlook. There are many who view God as a detached, indifferent ruler looking down on human suffering from his comfortable throne up in the clouds. Yet this image stands in direct contradiction to the Christian narrative. I once again give the floor to Dr. Plantinga:

“…as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours.”

So although God allows evil to exist, he doesn’t just stand by and watch us suffer from it. Rather, he chooses to share in the suffering with us (and for us).

And to me, that in itself says a lot.