Contingency and the detectability of creation

I remember a cartoon in Punch many years ago (sadly all the cartoons in Punch were many years ago now), in which a sudden new display of stars in the night sky spelled out, in evenly spaced Roman capitals, “GOD IS DEAD”. The caption underneath read, “Official Humanist Miracle Declared.”

Just imagine such a thing actually occurring. Over the course of several months, 60 or so supernovae appear, at varying astronomical distances, until one could see with the naked eye, the message “GOD IS DEAD.” After a month or two the message begins to fade until it’s only visible as remnants in giant telescopes. What kind of problems would that cause for atheists? Well actually, not much greater problems than those it would cause for believers.

The latter would have questions about the message itself. Would God lie? Or joke on such a scale? And why put the message in English, for goodness sake, so that half the world wouldn’t get the message?

For atheists there would be a different set of problems. How likely is it that there would be so many visible supernovae in such a short period? That it spelled out an English message was not in doubt. That it should, like the constellations, only be visible in that form on the planet where it made semantic sense was even more fortuitous. But, as in evolution, God must not get a foot in the door, and any good scientist must take such a phenomenon as a basis for further research, not surrender to superstition. In any case, they might point out, the thing caused as much problem for theists as for themselves.

So each side could proceed on its metaphysical assumptions. The semantic content of the message could be dismissed, according to the naturalists. It was not language, but the illusion of language. Support for that would come from the Copernican priciple. Since the earth has no special significance, there is no reason why it should receive a privileged message, and to any observer in another stellar system, the illusion wouldn’t even be visible, because of parallax.

The only question, then, is the matter of an unusual number of supernovae in naked-eye range in such a short time. The number crunching would not be too challenging, and no doubt the odds would be reduced by the fact that the actual stellar explosions were spread across thousands of years, the coincidence being the arrival of their light on earth at more or less the same time. The Universe is 14.5 billion years old, so once in a while the average rate of supernovae is bound to show exceptional peaks. Nevertheless, however slim the odds the event happened: if the probability were so far off the curve as to be incredible, then “incredible” does not mean “impossible”. And if there’s a multiverse, “impossible” is a meaningless concept anyway – we just happened to be in the one Universe where such an event occurred, and have to get over it.

As for theists, some would no doubt go along with such reasoning, maybe bolstered with the certainty that God would not have any valid reason for creating such a display deliberately, even were one to admit that he interferes in the natural Universe at all. But I’m most interested in those Christians holding an orthodox, traditional view of God. To them, nothing happens apart from God’s will and for his purposes. The fact that the most careful theologians could not agree on what that purpose might be in this case merely shows that God’s providence may sometimes be inscrutable.

Furthermore, Scripture is replete with the teaching that God is ultimately behind even the events attributed to chance. Both the Old and New Testaments cite the casting of lots as examples, and whilst this might suggest special intervention, many other examples suggest that chance is always subordinate to God’s will. Even Jesus himself uses the example of sparrows falling to the ground. But if chance is in his hands, then low as well as high probabilities are under his control.

So an event that is so uncommon as to be infeasible in the usual run of things, and which focuses a recognisable message about God on the only place in the Universe it would be understood as a message (however many questions that poses for theodicy), has to be understood in a teleological manner, rather than purely in terms of cause and effect. To the Christian, God must know the effect such an event would have on people in the world to which he sent his Son, and so it must be designed, and designed for a purpose, even if that purpose is confusing.

But here we see that low probability has a direct bearing on the matter, theologically. Humans see patterns in clouds and vegetables all the time. They even imagine constellations in the heavens. If English text were more like natural shapes, or supernovae more common, or the “message” more ambiguously recognisable, the probabilities would be higher. We’d be as used to fancying written messages in nature as we are to seeing resemblances to faces in rock formations. But those things are not so, and we don’t usually see such clear messages.

In this case, then, the very low probability of the event, knowing as we do that God rules providence, is very supportive evidence for the teleological conclusion we drew: God intended the supernovae to spell out a message in English. The “why” would be another matter, and fortunately we can draw the illustration to a close without troubling ourselves over such hypotheticals.

The parallel, obviously, is contingency in evolution. If it turns out that the low probabilities suggested by ID scientists and others for events like biogenesis, protein synthesis and evolution etc, are not actually so low, then my cartoon is not relevant. Some Christians believe that natural selection, even with purely random mutation, lowers the odds within evolution to manageable levels. Some believe that biochemistry or some other properties of matter will provide a law-based explanation which, again, increases the probabilities. Some believe that some emergent “forces” will turn out to be a hidden result of the Universe’s fine-tuning. So far, there is no good evidence to support these hopes, but we cannot know what the future will bring.

But others accept that we are dealing, at least to a significant degree, with “chance” events with extremely low probabilities, even if there are arguments about the exact orders of magnitude involved. I remind such Christians that if God is agreed to be the ultimate arbiter of chance, then even without invoking contentious concepts like “complex specified information”, admitting such low probabilities is exactly equivalent to affirmation that one has detected God’s creating hand. The only alternative is the theologically incoherent bald statement that “Stuff Happens.”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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