In order for atheism to survive the advance of science, it must come up with a natural explanation for the origin of the universe, the incredible fine-tuning required for the universe to support life, and the origin of life itself.
As our knowledge of physics and cosmology has advanced, scientists have pointed out that the universe appears to be unbelievably fine-tuned to be able to support life. For example, mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose has estimated that the “accuracy of the creator’s aim” would have had to been one chance in 10^(10^123).1 This evidence for the intelligent design of the universe thus poses a significant challenge to atheism.
One solution has been to promote the idea of a multiverse composed of a near infinite number of universes, each with its own particular set of laws of physics. If this is granted, then even those highly improbable universes capable of sustaining life will occur. Recently, mathematician George Ellis and cosmologist Joseph Silk wrote, “The multiverse is motivated by a puzzle; why fundamental constants of nature … have values that lie in the small range that allows life to exist.“
Science is also advancing our understanding of just how fantastically improbable the origin of life is. Evolutionary biologist, Eugene Koonin, looking at the possibility that life arose through the popular “RNA-world” scenario, calculates that the probability of just RNA replication and translation is 1 chance in 10 with 1,017 zeros after it. Koonin’s solution is to propose an infinite multiverse. With an infinite number of possible universes, the emergence of life will becomes inevitable, no matter how improbable.2,3
So the multiverse has become atheism’s “god of the gaps” but some scientists point out that multiverse “science” is not science at all. Mathematician George Ellis wrote of multiverse models, “they are not observationally or experimentally testable — and never will be.”4
Responding to the testability issue, physicist Sean Carroll proposes that we put less scientific emphasis on testable, falsifiable predictions, suggesting that a theory should be evaluated by how well it explains the data. Silk and Ellis point out that multiverse theories, unfortunately, can be adjusted to fit anyobservation. Mark Buchanan, in his review of multiverse enthusiast and physicist Max Tegmark’s book Our Mathematical Universe, writes, “In the end, this isn’t science so much as philosophy using the language of science.
Silk and Ellis, in their concern for the damage that string and multiverse theories are doing to the integrity of physics, write:
The consequences of overclaiming the significance of certain theories are profound — the scientific method is at stake. To state that a theory is so good that its existence supplants the need for data and testing in our opinion risks misleading students and the public as to how science should be done and could open the door for pseudoscientists to claim that their ideas meet similar requirements.
So what is the solution? As I proposed earlier, a return to the scientific method. As Silk and Ellis put it:
In our view, the issue boils down to clarifying one question: what potential observational or experimental evidence is there that would persuade you that the theory is wrong and lead you to abandoning it? If there is none, it is not a scientific theory.
(1) Hawking, S. and Penrose, R., The Nature of Space and Time, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1996), 34,35.
(2) Eugene Koonin, “The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life,” Biology Direct, 6/27/2007.
(3) Eugene Koonin, The Logic of Chance: The nature and origin of biological evolution, Pearson Education, 2011.
(4) “Cosmology: The untestable multiverse,” Nature, Volume 469, Issue 7330, pp. 294-295 (2011).