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Opinion Michael Gerson: Design of the divine?

This artist's impression shows the planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth in this image released on October 17, 2012. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

The biographer Eric Metaxas recently made waves by arguing that modern science increasingly "makes the case for God."

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he framed some rather weak arguments about planetary science, claiming that the parameters for the emergence of life are so precise and unlikely that they point to divine design. We don’t really know what physical processes drive the development and remarkable resilience of life — which somehow includes moss on Mount Everest and tube worms in deep-sea hydrothermal vents — but it strikes me as likely that science will eventually find an explanation. Further research may reveal how the deck is stacked in favor of life by impersonal, natural forces. God is probably not needed to fill this particular gap.

But Metaxas goes on to make a broader, sounder point about the “fine-tuning” of physical constants that allow an observable universe to exist in the first place. After centuries of inquiry, we have found that everything that is — the whole shebang — balances precariously on the head of a pin. If electrons were a little lighter, there could be no stable stars. If protons were slightly heavier, no atoms could form. If the weak nuclear force were weaker, there would be no hydrogen. If the electromagnetic force were stronger, carbon would decay away. If a variety of physical constants were off by even a smidgen, we would not exist to engage in science or argue about God. This, presumably, requires an explanation.

Metaxas’s column brought a predictable reaction from a certain type of atheist who sees no need for an explanation. The universe is because it is. If it were otherwise, we wouldn’t be observing it.

But the belief that our precisely balanced universe is a fluke is in tension with the scientific method. Physicist Max Tegmark, for example, points to dark energy as a dramatic example of fine-tuning. If dark energy had a larger density, no galaxies would have formed. If it had a negative density, the universe would have collapsed back on itself before life could emerge. Tegmark imagines the full range of densities for dark energy represented on a dial. In order to get a habitable universe, the dial needs to be rotated past the halfway point by a precise, vanishingly minuscule amount. "The fine-tuning appears extreme enough to be quite embarrassing," Tegmark writes. "To me, an unexplained coincidence can be a telltale sign of a gap in our scientific understanding. Dismissing it by saying, 'We got lucky — now stop looking for an explanation!' is not only unsatisfactory, but also tantamount to ignoring a potentially crucial clue."

Tegmark is a leading advocate of the theory of the “multiverse.” He explains fine-tuning by postulating an infinite variety of other universes, in which physical constants have all possible values. We happen to be located in one of the habitable versions. The existence of an infinite number of universes has mind-bending implications. There would be one, for example, in which the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. In which Hitler died in World War I, or won World War II. In which the column you are reading differed by one word, or two.

The multiverse allows for fine-tuning without a divine tuner. But it would change and lower our view of the scientific enterprise. Newton and Einstein sought to describe the universe in terms of simple, elegant, physical laws and mathematical equations. "If the multiverse idea is correct," argued MIT physicist Alan Lightman in "The Accidental Universe," "then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles — to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are — is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn't true. Our universe is what it is simply because we are here."

Believing in the multiverse also seems to involve a considerable amount of faith. “Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable,” says Lightman. “In addition, we must believe in the existences of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.”

There is, of course, another option that explains much but can’t be proved. About a quarter of scientists at elite American universities believe in God.

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