Just A Stranger On The Bus: atheist ads and the Big Bang

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One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more humble and accepting of the wisdom of elders. It’s still December though, so today I’m arguing cosmology with a physicist.

Victoria University’s Dr Jeff Tallon writes in today’s Herald that the upcoming NZ Atheist Bus Campaign is ultimately a bit misguided.

I could be wrong, but the bus slogan “There’s probably no God” is probably, nay, almost certainly, incorrect. It is a purely dogmatic statement that is not informed by science.

Well, why should we believe there’s an intelligent creator? Dr Tallon argues the odds – the universe we live in, he writes, exists on a knife edge.

Its density, back at the first moments of the “big bang”, was critically balanced to better than one part in one billion billion billion billion.

A fraction more dense and it all would have collapsed again. A fraction less dense and it all would have evaporated – no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no mother Earth.

All the known forces of nature are tightly balanced relative to each other.

A little this way and protons do not form. A little that way and neutrons don’t form. Tweak another way and no particles at all. Tweak another way and everything is hydrogen only.

The good doctor goes on to cite the complexity of DNA, proteins and cellular structures, but it’s basically the same argument: the odds of these things happening at all are vanishingly small, even before we consider the chances of their confluence in a way that supports the existence of life forms like ourselves.

So far, so good: if I flip a single coin, the chances of it landing on its edge are incredibly unlikely. But what Dr Tallon overlooks is that we have no idea how many coins have already been tossed, are in the air now, or will be tossed in the future.

Actually, I misspeak – Dr Tallon hasn’t overlooked it.

The bus slogan is tantamount to saying “Gazillions of other universes probably exist, so enjoy yourself.” But the required number of universes is unimaginably huge for this to be the case.

Dr Tallon quickly moves on to the world of biology, but that’s exactly the point: we’re talking about the creation of universes, something so far beyond our frame of reference that we have to abandon any assumptions about the limitations of space or time. Without these physical limitations, probabilities are meaningless: literally any number of universes may exist, and therefore all of them.

When you consider existence from this perspective, our particular universe exists – with us in it – because somewhere along the line, it had to. It’s a supreme fallacy to assume that this is the only possible universe simply because it’s the only one we’ve seen.

So again – there’s probably no god. Now stop worrying about it and enjoy your holiday.

The field of cosmology tells us that the universe is exquisitely finely balanced.

Its density, back at the first moments of the “big bang”, was critically balanced to better than one part in one billion billion billion billion.

A fraction more dense and it all would have collapsed again. A fraction less dense and it all would have evaporated – no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no mother Earth.

All the known forces of nature are tightly balanced relative to each other.

A little this way and protons do not form. A little that way and neutrons don’t form. Tweak another way and no particles at all. Tweak another way and everything is hydrogen only.

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2 Comments on “Just A Stranger On The Bus: atheist ads and the Big Bang”

  1. Jeff Tallon says:

    A couple of corrections to Rory’s comments.

    First, I am no longer at Victoria University – that was a dual position with my present employer (with whom I have been for 42 years) and I retired from VUW 12 months ago.

    Second, I think that he has missed my point. The bus adverts say “There’s probably no God”. In other words “when you look at the Universe it has all the properties consistent with the absence of design”. In my article I showed that this is absolutely not the case. What is this bus advert claim based on? It is clearly not based on our modern scientific knowledge of the universe because the universe has precisely the opposite properties. It is fine tuned to an incredible precision. It has the appearance of createdness – it’s dripping with it.

    Third, in order to get around this (and avoid the God inference) Rory effectively invokes the supernatural. He appeals to gazillions of other universes outside of our own natural universe. But what is the scientific evidence for this? There is none. And the general conclusion is that there can never be any evidence because these posited universes are all by definition “beyond” our universe and subject to totally different laws. This is actually non-scientific. It is at heart a dogmatic religious position. The only justification for multi-universes is to attempt to eliminate God at all costs.

    Fourthly, let’s confine ourselves to the universe that we know – the natural world. Forget about the fine tuning of the universe, just accept that this universe exists with its marvellous properties. Now what is the probability of the biological world arising by chance in this one universe that exists. The odds are stacked hugely against it. It is straightforward to show that if you consider the universe as a giant computer and all the energy of the universe (by converting matter into energy – E=mc^2) is available to do nothing but computational steps; then the maximal number of computations is 10 raised to the 120th power. But to arrive at the protein nitrogenase the number of attempts you need to make is 10 raised to the 2600th power. Quite simply it will never happen. As I say the odds are stacked hugely against it. And that’s just one protein. Etc etc.

    So we need to be clear that the claim that there is no Designer, no Creator, is not one based on scientific deduction. It is a faith claim. I suggest that the God believer has more science on his side than the atheist believer.

    Professor Anthony Flew had been a very public atheist all his professional life as a professor of Philosophy. In the end he renounced his atheism for the very reasons I have stated above.

    • Josh says:

      So does your induction that there is probably a God who kicked off the universe – a Big Banger, if you will – apply to traditional religion? What, if anything, does it have to do with the crazy god of the Old Testament, or Brahma, or Thor, or the Great Cosmic Cow, or anyone? These are the beliefs the atheist buses are challenging, not your cosmic kick-off musings, which have nothing to do with them. These are not scientific positions, and neither is yours. Positing an unknown, adding the anthropic principle, and calling it God appears to me like ignorance.


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