My 3rd Letter to Brian Cox

Background: Inspired by David Robertson’s “The Dawkins Letters”, I’m writing a series of short letters to Brian Cox in light of his new series, The Human Universe.

Read 1st letter here, and 2nd letter here.

Dear Brian Cox,

I do hope you’re still with me.  I’m writing several letters to try and keep things brief – addressing just a couple of points at a time.  Seeking to persuade people is a funny old thing.  I read with interest your recent admission that, when you went on Newsnight, you used a special underhand trick your friend had told you about – that whenever you wanted to make a point, you waved and thrashed your arms around exasperatedly so that the camera would find you again.  I’ll bear that in mind if I’m every on the telly.  I can’t do it in a letter.  But I hope you’re still with me.  So, on we go…

What I wanted to address was the point you made so well, that it is so extraordinarily unlikely that we are here.  You were very clear in The Human Universe that the chances of us being in a universe that could sustain stars and planets, and the conditions to generate intelligent life, are statistically negligible.

This point can be hard to grasp, and yet you explained it brilliantly clearly.  Thank you.  Let me set out here some of the ways you helped us with it:

We appear to live on a perfect planet in a perfect universe.  It feels as if it’s been made for us. 

The earth orbits at just the right distance around just the right star, for the temperatures on its surface to be just right to permit liquid water to exist. 

And those temperatures have remained just right for 4 billion years, which is just the right amount of time for us to have evolved.

And this seeming luck continues beyond our solar system. 

We live in a universe that’s expanding at just the right rate for stars and galaxies to form.

And within those stars, the forces of nature are just the right strength to allow them to assemble the elements of life – carbon, oxygen and iron – in their cores.

If you trace it right back, the odds of you existing in this universe don’t just look small – they seem almost infinitesimally small.

You then showed us the art of making a samurai sword.  It’s not a perfect illustration, of course, but I’m sympathetic – how could we illustrate the making of a universe?  Interesting, though, that the swords require precision, and are crafted by intelligent people.  In that way, I must say I quite liked it as an illustration of the universe being skillfully crafted, because for that too I believe there was a craftsman.  Anyway, you explained that the essential elements for the universe are a set of constants.  Let me quote you again:

The ingredients of the universe are a set of numbers called constants. 

They require precision – they have to be set in just the right way if you want a universe that supports life.  The universe might be unable to support life is the constants of nature are somehow altered.  Imagine some great big control board – how much freedom do I have if I want living things to exist?

The answer is, “Not very much freedom at all.”

If at the big bang the strength of gravity were increased, the universe would have collapsed in on itself. But if the strength of gravity were decreased, stars wouldn’t’ form so there’d be no planets, no stars and no life.

If you decreased the speed of light by just a few percent, our universe would have no carbon in it.  Increase it by about the same amount and our universe would have no oxygen.

Because we have no idea why the constants are the values that they are, then we’re presented with something of a mystery.  Because you can ask, “If it’s just random, if indeed the universe just began and somehow these random numbers got chosen, then how lucky we are that we exist?  How lucky are we that we live in a universe where those constants are just right to allow galaxies to form and stars to shine and elements like carbon to form in stars?

So what can account for the uncanny precision of these set of numbers?”

This is brilliant.  Isn’t it incredible that the universe is like this? No wonder you said that the universe “feels as if it’s been made for us”.  What an interesting thing to say.

Andrew Wilson gives us a good example of the kind of improbabilities you were referring to in his book, “If God, then what?”:

“If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant was altered by on part in 1040,the types of stars that would form would be incapable of sustaining planets with life.  That’s ten with 40 noughts after it, which is roughly equivalent to covering America, and a billion other continents the same size, with piles of coins stretching to the moon, hiding one red coin in one of the piles, and a blindfolded friend picking it out by chance.”

I’ll be honest – I tried to check the maths on this, and it seemed right to me, but I got a bit mixed up.  But whatever the right figures, it’s bewildering, isn’t it?  Brian, if this “fine-tuning” of our universe ultimately persuades you to believe that there’s a God out there, you won’t be the first person to have had their mind changed by it.

But in your episode, you then gave us your alternative theory as to how we got here, with the universe we have.  You bought a lottery ticket (in Japan, naturally, though in fairness you were already there).  You explained that though the chances of winning from your one ticket are very small, we expect there to be a winner or two somewhere because they print so many millions of tickets.  And you speculated that our universe is like that.  The chances of it having the conditions for life to form are almost infinitesimally small, but there might be an infinite number of universes in a multiverse, and we just happen to be lucky enough to be in the right one.

This is possibly true.  So the absolutely incredible fine-tuning of our universe does not prove, in a scientific understanding of proof, that there is a God.  But as far as I could see, there is no compelling evidence for the multiverse – to put your faith in the idea that all these millions of other lottery tickets have been printed.

And so I just want to ask, what if the God of the Bible really is there? In that case, is this fine-tuning of our universe not an absolutely remarkable clue to His reality?  One that we would be foolish to explain away with an unprovable theory?

I want to summarise where I feel we’ve got to so far, but before I do it’s probably worth mentioning the issue of proof, and how we can know things with any degree of certainty.  The danger is that, coming at things from a science background, people think we can and should apply the same standards of proof to every area of life.  But that’s simply not how we come to know things with certainty.  We believe lots of things that we can’t prove scientifically.  To take just one example, I was a lawyer, and our whole justice system is based on the assumption that we can find out the truth about what’s happened without necessarily having scientific proof.

What we do need to do, to find out the truth about something, is to look at individual pieces of evidence, and weigh them up together.  We look for clues.

The same is true when it comes to God.  We can’t prove or disprove that there is a God.  But the clues are out there.

So with that in mind, I wonder if you’d please just let me give my own opinion on a number of these clues.

None of these things individually provide cast-iron scientific proof of the existence of God.

But at the same time, cumulatively, a remarkable case is building…

–          There is something rather than nothing, and we have a Big Bang theory.  These seem to my mind far better explained by belief in a creator God than by anything else.

–          Science works.  There is a regularity to the universe. It seems to obey natural laws, that we expect will work tomorrow in the same way they did today and yesterday.  This makes perfect sense if you believe in God, but philosophers find it at least a bit puzzling without Him.

–          And now, very compellingly, we discover that the chances of our universe sustaining life if it just came into being by chance seem to be almost infinitesimally small.   Our universe seems to have known we were coming.

Of course, even if this persuades you that there probably is a God, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that supreme being is the God of the Bible.

But for my money, it does at least mean this:

that if we hear of a man in the ancient near east who claimed that he himself was God, come to bring the saving reign of God to earth;

and that if that man lived a matchless life of such ineffable beauty and unparalleled love that he actually persuaded the people who knew him best that his claims were true;

and that if his followers went out into the world so convinced that they saw him – first hand – alive again after died, that they were willing to die for that claim as though they had no fear of death;

that if we hear of a man like that, then given what we’re seeing about the origins of our universe, we should be willing to look at the evidence about who that man really was in a very different light indeed.

His explanation of ultimate reality, if it were true, would make sense of the world.

The universe “feels as if it’s been made for us”.

What if it really was?