It’s Not Nothing: When Religion and Science Overreach

Geoffrey Lee Hodge


On Christmas Day 2014, the Wall Street Journal posted an online article titled, “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” It quickly made the rounds on social media. Its author, Eric Metaxas, is known for writing a plethora of books on religious topics. In the WSJ article, he states that the origin of life is dependent upon a growing list of criteria and that the odds of finding life on one of the roughly octillion (1027) other planets in the universe is shrinking, to the point that some people are now pessimistic that the search will ever be successful. Just for good measure, he throws in some observations about the fragile balance of forces required for the universe itself to come into existence. He concludes this argument by asking: “Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?”

No, not really. Among the several mistakes Metaxas makes in jumping to this conclusion, perhaps the most significant is confusing a very small number with zero. If the chance of life arising naturally were actually zero, it would be logical to invoke miracles, but any number larger than zero allows science to continue on its mission of searching for natural explanations for the origin of life. Even though there is admittedly a huge gap between a 100 percent, perfect chance and a one-in-an-octillion chance, there is an infinite gap between one-in-an-octillion odds and odds of zero.

The odds are also not as bad as they may first appear. Metaxas uses a bit of sophistry to imply that the failure to find evidence for life on other planets (so far) means that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, thus making the odds of life arising here, naturally, one in an octillion. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The search for life on other planets certainly has not been exhaustive, and it is premature to conclude that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life. Furthermore, the odds required for life to arise naturally are calculated based on our current understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology. Research may reveal new mechanisms that significantly change these odds.

ne such recent development may be the work of Jeremy England, an assistant professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has developed a model in which a system that receives a fluctuating energy input might select for molecular structures that are most capable of dissipating energy. Similar to natural selection, which drives evolution among organisms, England’s model could provide the chemical world with a driving force under which the ability to dissipate energy selects for increasingly complex molecular structures and possibly even replication, along the lines of that seen in RNA and DNA. Although this theory is still relatively new and untested, it hints at the types of ideas yet to be discovered that could help us provide a more complete explanation for how life arose naturally on Earth.

Lwrence Krauss, physicist, science advocate, and an honorary member of the Center for Inquiry board of directors, weighed in on Metaxas’s article in an unpublished letter to the WSJ editors that has circulated online, albeit among a very different readership. In this letter, Krauss corrects several points in the article, including the notion that neither life nor the universe itself could exist without the exact balance of forces we have observed. He also clarifies an out-of-context quote and challenges the premature conclusion that we will not find evidence of life on other planets. Finally, he calls out WSJ for enabling Metaxas to (mis)use science to promote his own religious agenda.

rnically, Krauss is guilty of doing something similar. His 2012 book, A Universe from Nothing, attempts to settle once and for all the philosophical question of how something could come from nothing. It is a noble goal. Krauss is trying to pave over the “God of the gaps,” addressing theologians who accept the big bang but then push the chain of causality back another notch by asking what created the prerequisite conditions. Throughout the relevant chapters, Krauss discusses concepts such as quantum fluctuations that are “essentially nothingness,” virtual particles with “essentially zero energy,” and a “slight excess of matter over antimatter,” as if being very small were equivalent to being nothing. Even the most compelling scenario—that of a spontaneously appearing zero-energy closed universe, followed by inflation—is contingent on certain “boundary conditions” (not specified in the book). This all makes for some interesting science and speculation, but it does not settle the philosophical question of how something could come from nothing. Nothing is a concept, a creation of the human mind, and it is absolute. As the absence of everything, “nothing” defies any sort of positive description. The very fact that boundary conditions for the creation of a universe can be described suggests that these conditions do not qualify as “nothing” in this conceptual sense. “Essentially nothing” and “essentially zero” are certainly not the same thing as nothing.

Tepoint here is that even for science, some questions are intractable. For centuries, we have been unable to prove or disprove the existence of God. Demonstrating that something can come from nothing likely falls into the same category. It would be better to challenge the question in the first place (which Krauss does do). Why assume that there ever was nothing? Ask a theologian about the origin of God, and the answer will be that God always existed. Why can the same claim not be made about the prerequisite conditions for forming the universe? The idea that we must establish a scientific explanation that traces the universe back to a genesis from nothing may be a wild goose chase created by an artifact of human thought, and if we ever do succeed it may reveal more about the human mind than it does about the universe.

usions about the origin of life and the creation of the universe are complex. We want answers to satisfy our natural curiosity, and the most satisfying answers are the ones that support our worldview, especially if they appear to have the weight of science behind them. For just this reason, we must be on guard that we do not use science to overreach. A scientist attempting to address a philosophical paradox must be held to the same standards as a Christian apologist citing science to achieve a theological agenda. We may be inclined to overlook minor leaps of logic when we are sympathetic to the point of view being argued, but we then risk arriving at unsupportable conclusions. Such leaps of logic may seem small, but they are not nothing.

 

Geoffrey Lee Hodge

Geoffrey Lee Hodge is a scientist working in the field of biotechnology and the author of the philosophical novel Between the Shadow and the Flame (Penumbra Invictus, 2012). Earlier this year, he became a humanist celebrant.


The author explains why scientists and Christian apologists need to be held to the same standards of argumentation.

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