This blog post from Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman has been visualized by Zander Harpel, a first-year student at Hamilton College.
For some religious people, a scientific argument called “fine-tuning” helps them make the case for God.
Indeed, a few years ago, author Eric Metaxas wrote a very popular piece for the Wall Street Journal with that title, saying that the parameters for human life are so precise that they are indicators of God’s existence. As he phrases it,
At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? 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?
A fine-tuned universe is a compelling argument for God, but it’s also deeply problematic.
Why? For two reasons.
First, science is always changing.
Science is in constant flux. New discoveries are made. New insights arise. New paradigms overturn previous ways of thinking. So if we base our religious outlook on scientific findings, what will happen to our theology when the science changes?
Think about what happened to religion when the Copernican revolution occurred, or when Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. They forced religion to change. Most people either denied these findings and held onto their deeply-held beliefs, or used these findings to reject religion entirely.
So what would happen if, say, we discover that the parameters for life are not quite as amazing as they seemed? Or if we discovered that humanity was not unique in the universe? If you were using science to support your religious outlook, unless you have a very sophisticated theology, you’d be in deep trouble, and would need to do quite a bit of mental gymnastics.
That’s why scientists and Christians Francis Collins and Karl Giberson warn about using fine-tuning as an argument for God. As they say,
Yes, it truly is amazing that all of the needed requirements for life on earth are so precise. But science is a search for an accurate understanding of our world, which means that it can change. And if we’re basing our view of God on the latest scientific research, we’re going to have a very fragile theology.
The second reason this is problematic is that science and religion are two different ways of thinking, and we shouldn’t conflate them.
Using science to prove God’s existence confuses two very different ways of thinking. Science is a search for truth, while religion is really a search for meaning.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it:
There is absolutely nothing in science to suggest that the universe is bereft of meaning, nor could there be, since the search for meaning has nothing to do with science and everything to do with religion. (The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, 25, 27)
In other words, religion doesn’t need science to prove God’s existence, because the question of God is not a scientific one.
Science is the best method we have for understanding how we got here. But religion isn’t science. It is not (or at least shouldn’t be) about provable or disprovable claims, because that’s not its purpose. Instead, it should be designed to help us improve ourselves and our world, here and now.
For me, as I look out at the universe, I am in complete awe of the fact that we are living here on this earth. But that awe wouldn’t change for me if the parameters for life are actually one in a hundred rather than one in a septillion.
Instead, I am guided by the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
I know that no matter what new scientific findings arise, I will never be able to prove it. Science won’t help make that case for me. But that’s OK. Because the most important thing is that I try to live it.