Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nicholas Everitt's Argument from Scale (Part 2)

     In a previous post we examined -- and found wanting -- premise (4) of Nicholas Everitt's argument from scale.  In this argument, Everitt attempts to demonstrate the non-existence of God based on the size of the universe.  By way of review, the argument runs as follows:

(4)  If the God of traditional theism exists, then God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe.
(5)  If God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe, then God would create a universe on a human scale (that is, one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially).
(6)  The universe does not display a human scale.
(7)  The God of traditional theism does not exist. (from 4, 5, and 6 by modus tollens twice)

     The argument is, of course, logically valid (which is just to say that if its premises are true, then we must accept the truth of the conclusion).  Moreover, premise (6) seems to be true.  However, as we saw in Part 1 of this post, premise (4) is simply untenable -- and we have no reason to think that theism (neither generic theism nor Christian theism) entails that humans are the most important thing in the universe.  We now turn our attention to premise (5) of the argument.  Even if it is true that God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe, would that entail that the universe be created on a human scale?

Does Traditional Theism Entail the Universe Built on a Human Scale?

     While the size of the universe may be beyond our ability to imagine, it certainly isn’t beyond our ability to quantitatively comprehend and understand in broad terms.  We, in fact, possess a general understanding of the quantitative scale of the universe (given that understanding is not co-extensive with the faculty of imagination).

     The fact that we have some understanding of the scale of the universe is clearly illustrated by a few passages from Everitt’s book where he describes, at some length, the enormous scale of the universe. We will begin by looking at his comments concerning the size of the universe. 
The sun is about 8 light minutes from us, the next nearest star is about 4.3 light years, the next nearest galaxy to the Milky Way is scores of light years away.  Current findings indicate that the furthest star visible from earth is about 3 billion light years away.  In other words, the most distant [visible] star is very roughly some 200,000,000,000,000,000 times (two hundred thousand trillions times) as far away as the sun.  This sort of scale to the universe makes no conceivable sense on the theistic hypothesis.[1]
Everitt adds that, assuming that the expansion of the universe was at less than the speed of light, the overall size of the universe is between 10 and 30 billion light years across, and he asks, “Why would God make it that big? … But what would be the point of the superabundance of celestial matter, especially given the fact that the very great majority of humanity will never be aware of most of it?”[2]  So, we have two questions before us: (a) Why would God make the universe as big at it is? and (b) Why is a the majority of the human race unaware of the size of the universe and the amount of celestial matter?   We can address the second question first. 

     It isn’t clear why the vast majority of humanity will (or must) remain unaware, as Everitt seems to think, that there is a superabundance of celestial matter (even if that currently is the case) – unless, perhaps, Everitt thinks that the human race is soon coming to an end (or that the future of the human race will remain educationally impoverished).  However, if the human race persists for a sufficiently long period of time and if education becomes sufficiently widespread, then most humans will become aware of the great abundance of celestial matter (and of the immense size of the universe).  Nevertheless, there are interesting questions in the vicinity -- as indicated by his first question.  Why is the universe so unimaginably large?  Why the vast empty distances between stars (and even vaster emptier distances between galaxies)?  

     In considering these sorts of questions, one has to keep in mind a few other questions before trying to answer them: What reason is there to think that we would need to know (or could even understand) the answer to such questions if there were a God?  There is some reason for thinking that the answers to these particular question might be beyond our kin.  Yet, even if we are capable of understanding the answers to these particular questions, what pressing need is there for us to know their answers?  Will knowing why the universe is between 10 and 30 billion light years across invariably produce good fathers and honest politicians?  It does not seem so.  Would a knowledge of the vast age of the universe promote the welfare of orphans and widows?  It is not clear that it would.  Perhaps Everitt is simply asking the theist to speculate (or generate a few hypotheses) in response.  Well, that is easy enough (but it will have to wait until the next section of this post below). 

     Nevertheless, and more importantly, even if humans are the most important thing in creation, there are no grounds stemming from that supposition alone that would entail that there are no good reasons for creating an unimaginably large universe – reasons which have nothing at all to do with humans.  The only way that Everitt could reach that conclusion is to say not only that humans are the most important object of God creation, but that nothing else in creation (other than humanity) is of any importance at all to God.  Putting Everitt’s unstated assumption in other terms: If the God of traditional theism exists, then nothing but humans have value.  But why think that?  Everitt is entirely silent on why we should think that his unstated assumption is true.  However, without that assumption, we have no reason to suppose that creating an unimaginably immense universe is problematic for theism.  Everitt gives us no reason at all for thinking that the only things of any value in the universe are humans.  In fact, most traditional theists would deny Everitt’s assumption – and some Christian theists would certainly deny Everitt’s assumption that the universe (excepting humans) is without value (especially given the statement of Genesis 1:31 that all of creation is “very good”).[3]  In short, Everitt seems to be confused about what is implied by traditional theism – even granting the unfounded and unsupported claim that humans are the most important thing in the universe.

     Next we turn to his comments about the vast age of the universe and Earth:
…our best estimates are that the universe itself is very roughly 15 billion years, and the Earth is 5 billion years old.  How long humans have existed will depend partly on what we take a human to be.  But if we take humans to be homo sapiens, and if we take them to be creatures with some sort of language and some sort of social culture, then realistic estimates would allow that they have existed for no more than 100,000 years.  So, if we imagine the history of the universe represented by a line which is roughly 24 miles long, human life would occupy only the last inch.[4]
The point here is that “for something more than 99.999 per cent of the history of the universe, the creatures which are meant to be the jewel of creation have been absent from it.”[5]  This, Everitt thinks, is unfitting.  Again, as already demonstrated, we have no reason to suppose that traditional theism entails that humans are the most important thing in the universe nor do we have any reason to think that anything found in Christian scriptures entail that humans are the most important thing in the universe.  But contrary to all this, let us suppose that traditional theism, or some reading of Genesis (or some other portion of Christian Scripture), entails that humans are the most important thing in the universe.  Would that supposition get Everitt his desired conclusion when combined with the age (and size) of the universe?  It is hard to see why it would.  If all of creation is “very good,” then why would mere human absence for the vast majority of that history diminish that intrinsic goodness?  Everitt doesn’t say.  So, again, we see Everitt’s unstated assumption operating in the background as the true engine driving his argument – namely, that traditional theism entails that the only thing with any value at all in the universe is humanity (and nothing else).  As should be obvious by now, such a claim is an implausible and entirely unsupported assumption that would be rejected by many or most traditional theists (if not by all Christian theists) – and Everitt says nothing in its favor.  In other words, even if premise (4) were true (i.e., if it were true that God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe), premise (5) of the argument remains false – because, even if humans are more important than anything else in the universe (despite our having no theological or philosophical reason for thinking this) it wouldn’t follow that humanity was the only thing in the universe with value.  Thus, there is simply  no reason to think that the universe needs to be (or should be) created on a human scale (either in terms of its size or its age). 

     As an additional aside, Everitt seems to believe (with respect to the age of the universe) that humans will only last a short while.  If humans persist for eons to come, then this will (as a matter of empirical fact) invalidate his appeal to the age of the universe.  Of course, nothing in the previous rebuttal to Everitt hinges on this.  In any case, Everitt’s argument is terrifically implausible, since two of its crucial premises -- namely, premise (4) and premise (5) are undeniably false.

Additional Speculations

     Despite the fact that Everitt’s argument has been shown to be entirely implausible and entirely lacking in evidential merit, we can here venture forth a few conjectures as to why the universe might be so large in size.  However, one must keep in mind that even if everything that follows turns out to be false, that will have no impact on the prior critique of Everitt’s fallacious argument.  That argument has already been demonstrated to be faulty, and what follows is merely imaginative speculation.   

     On the issue of inter-cultural contact, one doesn’t have to go too far back in history to find examples of such contact going horribly wrong – not that such contact always goes wrong, but examples of potential pitfalls and opportunities for abuse and exploitation are numerous and easy to come by.  Moreover, this is the case in which humans are dealing with other humans.  How much more dangerous, and potentially disastrous, might be the complexities of extraterrestrial cultural exchange and contact?  In the case of mere terrestrial cultural conflict – even within a culture – the stakes can be high and the conflicts can be bitter, acrimonious and sometimes violent.  For instance, think of the acrimony and violence that has been spurred on by the conflict over abortion in contemporary North America.  Moreover, reflect upon the result of cultural entanglements when Cortez decided to “visit” Mexico.  A first-person account of the ensuing death, destruction and violence is vividly portrayed by Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his memoirs, The Conquest of New Spain, which chronicle the blood-achieved ambitions of Cortez at the expense of the brutal cannibal inhabitants of the new world.[6]  Think, again, of the Vikings and their bloody and lively interactions with the cultures of England and Western Europe in the 900’s AD.[7]  There is a long and detailed record of cultural exchange embodied in human history – and more often than not, while there are a few bright exceptions, it seems that things do not turn out well. 
     The potential for intercultural disaster on an interstellar scale is explored imaginatively in the science fiction book, The Sparrow.[8]  In the book, radio waves are intercepted that indicate the presence of intelligent extraterrestrial life orbiting a nearby star.  In response, the United Nations (in its typically inept fashion) begins a multi-year debate on what do to about it.  However, the Vatican immediately commences their own space program and launches a bunch of Jesuits into space in order to make first contact.  The book  begins with the return of their spaceship to Earth.  There is one remaining Jesuit on board, he is prone to violence, will not speak to others, and all of his fingers have been “elongated” (leaving him, essentially, handicapped).  The imagination of the reader can determine how that bit of “cultural exchange” went down – and whether or not is was an agreeable process.  The story brings to mind the words of Stephen Hawking:
We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.  I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet.  Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach…  If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the native Americans.[9]
In short, given our inductive evidence drawn from human history, the idea of pursuing intercultural contact with alien intelligence (if there be any) might not be such a grand idea.  Let us suppose that, in fact, it is a terrible idea.

     Suppose that the universe is teeming with intelligent life.  On the the question of whether it is or is not, I venture no opinion.  Merely supposes that it is.  Further, suppose that, as we have been considering, that intercultural exchange with an alien race might not be altogether splendid – but, rather, something likely to be dreadful.  Now we have a perfectly good explanation at hand for the unimaginably vast size and age of the universe.  Supposing that there is one only intelligent civilization per galaxy (or perhaps a number slightly less that this – say, one intelligent civilization per every 1.5 galaxies).  The odds of any two of these civilizations being near on another is quite remote.  This, it may turn out, is a very great mercy – especially given what we know about the very poor intercultural interactions among humans within the history of our own species.  One might even find the idea that one would have to cross the inconceivably vast distances between galaxies to reach to the next nearest technologically advanced alien race to be downright comforting.  For those who are more optimistic about the potential benevolence of intergalactic alien races (if there are any such races), one might carefully consider words from the essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” by the atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell:
In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying; …  If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, “After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.”[10]

[1]  Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 217.
[2]  Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 217.
[3]  There are, of course, traditional theists who have given philosophical arguments that would entail that Everitt’s unstated assumption is false.  According to Thomism, for instance, Being is innermost in each thing, but God is being.  Therefore, God is innermost in each thing.  This is called by Gilson, “the great syllogism.”  If correct, it would follow that the Good, which just is God, is innermost in each thing – thus, by imparting being to each thing, God imparts the Good to each thing.  Hence, the being everything would be of intrinsic value – even if the expression of that being were without intrinsic value.   For more on this, see Peter Kreeft, A Shorter Summa (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pages 70-71; footnote 9.
[4]  Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 216.
[5]  Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 216-217.  
[6]  Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Conquest of New Spain (Stellar Publishing, 2013; first published in 1632).
[7]  See, for example, Martina Sprague, Norse Warfare: Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Viking (New York, Hippocrene Book, 2997); Ian Stephenson, Viking Warfare (Gloucestershire: Amberley, 2012); and
[8]  Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow: A Novel (New York: Ballantine), 1996.
[9]  Stephen Hawking's Universe: Season 1, Episode 1: “Aliens,” Director Martin Williams (April 25, 2010; first aired on the Discovery Channel).  See also Josh Duboff, “Stephen Hawking: When Aliens Visit Earth, We’re in Trouble,” New York News and Politics (4/25/2010):
[10]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Allen and Unwin, 1957), page 13.  

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  1. Thanks, this was very helpful. I'll have to get around to reading The Sparrow some time.

  2. This is an interesting argument similar to what I have believed since reading Everitt's argument for myself. In fact, the only arguments ai have heard in response to his argument are this and the one used by Mulsims when asked why God made the universe so big. The answer to the latter was simply "Because He wished to". There's no answer to the latter, but I am keen to see how Everitt answers you, if he does at all.

  3. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find some references which provide an Illuminated Understanding of Truth & Reality - there is some overlap with the first 2 references