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Further Reading

Column

Sci-fi Apologetics

Who's Really Brighter: the Naturalist or the Supernaturalist?

by Regis Nicoll

A while back, I had a lively discussion with "Phil," an academic philosopher, a self-described atheist, and a "Bright." Never heard of Brights? Well, according to their website, Brights are people whose worldviews are "free of supernatural and mystical elements." In other words, they are naturalists, and among their brightest stars are Daniel Dennett, Michael Shermer, and Richard Dawkins.

Anyway, during our dialogue, Phil expressed unflagging admiration for his own Bright worldview. And before long, his admiration moved to paean: "Mighty in merit," "powerful," "a pinnacle of human thought," "so parsimonious": These were just a few of his superlatives. Wait a minute—parsimonious? That's right. Phil explained that naturalistic science, which is responsible for mankind's most breathtaking achievements, rests on the sparsest number of conjectures and surrenders nothing to what lies beyond empirical verification.

The supernatural worldview, on the other hand, inserts the "Cosmic Tinkerer" into every perceived dead end. As a placeholder for our ignorance, "God" is not an explanation, but rather an obstacle to progress. While naturalism is continually validated by the scientific method, supernaturalism is propped up by what Phil called "sci-fi apologetics."

Whether it's The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Star Trek, every sci-fi yarn contains departures from known physical laws, breaks in logic, and internal inconsistencies that devoted fans will either ignore or accept on the basis of flimsy rationalizations. The same goes for supernaturalists, Phil argued. They will discount or explain away any difficulty that threatens the cohesion of their worldview. Conversely, naturalism is free of any such blinkered commitment—or so Phil's argument went.

Eerie Coincidences

For some time now, scientists have known that our life-friendly cosmos depends on the delicate balancing of a host of universal constants: Newton's gravitational constant, the mass and charge of the electron, and the strengths of nuclear forces, just to name a few. If the value of any one of these constants was slightly different, questions about the universe wouldn't exist because intelligent beings wouldn't be around to ask them. This makes scientific naturalists edgy; for them, conditions that depend on fine-turning smack too much of a "set-up" job. Take the late Sir Fred Hoyle.

Hoyle, a mathematician and astronomer, once admitted that his atheism was shaken after realizing that the energy levels of the carbon atom were precisely those required for carbon-based life. Hoyle's conclusion? "A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics."

Common sense notwithstanding, Hoyle remained staunchly committed to naturalism. To deal with the seeming "superintellect" behind nature, Hoyle and DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick devised a theory rivaling anything ever imagined by H. G. Wells or Gene Roddenberry: Refuse containing the seeds of life was distributed throughout the cosmos by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. (You can't make this stuff up.) As to how those super seeds and their master producers came into existence—well, those are questions better left to the wind, lest they cause someone's sci-fi world to come apart at the seams.

Fantastic Theories

While Hoyle's panspermia is merely a fringe theory, another has achieved a much more mainstream following. Over the course of the last decade, the "multiverse" has become all the rage among the science illuminati. Its basic notion is that our world represents just one small part of a super-cosmos composed of an infinite number of universes, ensuring that the intricate network of coincidences necessary for life could be actualized in one of them. And you guessed it! We happen to inhabit the one universe where life and human thought evolved. How's that for ensuring the cohesion of one's worldview?

As to the birth of our cosmic home, the story goes something like this: Before time and space, there existed the "quantum vacuum"—a mysterium devoid of matter and energy, though brimming with "potentiality," such that virtual (as opposed to real) particles were continuously popping in and out of existence under the radar of conservation laws.

Out of this ineffable nothingness, a violent belch in the vacuum caused a colossal amount of energy to appear in a space much smaller than that of an atom. Instantly, the subatomic nugget exploded, spewing forth all the matter and energy of our fledgling universe.

Before this growing newborn was overcome by gravitational collapse, another strange thing happened: inflation. Inexplicably, something akin to antigravity kicked in, taking cosmic expansion into hyper-drive. The expansion was so rapid that if the primordial nugget had been a piece of sand, it would have grown to the size of the known universe within a trillionth of a second. At the same time, the rate and strength of inflation were in perfect pitch to keep the Big Bang from becoming either a Big Crunch or a runaway explosion.

By this exceptional process, the universe was "born" and placed on the razor's edge between immediate annihilation and unending expansion, thus becoming the birthing center of quarks, electrons, and muons—the building blocks of matter.

The upshot of this fantastic narrative? From that singular, irreproducible event, all of the matter in the universe materialized out of something that is neither physical nor material. Imagine a rabbit pulled out of a hat without the aid of a hat or a magician, and you've got the gist. It's enough to make even Captain Kirk do a double take.

After this cosmic "nativity," the equally speculative processes of self-organization, emergence, macroevolution, and memetics led to the arrival of DNA, the cell, multi-celled organisms, the human brain, thought, creativity, aspirations, and yearnings. Added to that was what's called the "quantum potential."

According to the Standard Model of physics, the quantum potential is an immaterial substrate that permeates the cosmos, "giving life" and stability to matter. (If it weren't for the quantum potential, an atom would implode within one microsecond due to the electromagnetic attraction between its negatively charged shell and its positively charged nucleus.) One way to look at it is that the quantum potential is the omnipresent wellspring of being. Hmm.

It is hard to imagine a theory with more flair and charm. At the same time, however, the multiplication of phenomena makes the materialistic narrative—contrary to the claim of advocates such as Phil—decidedly un-parsimonious.

A Little Comparison

Among these, the quantum vacuum, inflation, and the multiverse have neither been observed nor are they theoretically verifiable (a charge, it will be noted, regularly made against supernaturalism). The same goes for virtual particles, which are exactly what their name implies—theoretical abstractions that "explain" the bizarre behaviors of real particles. Similarly, the quantum potential is a label for "something" that mysteriously produces exotic particles and holds the atom intact. That leaves the remaining three placeholders (macroevolution, emergence, and self-organization) as likewise desperate—though admittedly clever—constructions used to keep a divine hand off the dials, which is all the more ironic in that a divine hand requires far fewer speculations.

To account for the existence and structure of the universe, a divine hand need only be invoked in two places: the beginning and the quantum realm of nature. Since these two areas are intrinsically opaque to empirical investigation, a supernatural placeholder will have no inhibiting effect on future scientific inquiry or achievement. They can call it "sci-fi" apologetics if they wish, but the explanatory power and parsimony of supernaturalism suggests that the Brights—with a minimum of eight wistful devices to keep their naturalistic worldview intact—might need to rethink either their worldview or their presumptuous name. 


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