Bigger is Better!

B

The bigness and ubiquity of things obviously demonstrates their importance. The proof of this axiom is evident in that we treasure huge rocks that sit in the ocean more than a single faded photo of a long-deceased loved one. Or perhaps because of how giving someone a rough, plentiful and thus easily attainable rock out of the garden is a more important gesture than a precious stone that is comparably more rare.

We humans tend to get into trouble when we judge relative importance by means of quantity, and this doesn’t change even when it comes to the universe. The question posed by the article Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist? falls into some of the same mistakes, and along the way butchers even some of the premises upon which it is based.

Original in quotes, my responses following.

Scientists now know that the universe contains at least two trillion galaxies. It’s a mind-scrunchingly big place, very different to the conception of the universe we had when the world’s major religions were founded. So do the astronomical discoveries of the last few centuries have implications for religion?

No doubt, although it should be noted that there is an immediate anachronism at play here, in that pre-modern cultures did not perceive the universe primarily (or even at all) through the quantitative notions that accompany the scientific presuppositions of the modern world. Thus, there is a (at least potential) discontinuity between our understanding of “bigness” which is mediated through a far more scientistic conception of the universe and that of the ancient world. Any implications brought to bear would need to be conversant with these modes of perceiving the universe.

Over the last few decades, a new way of arguing for atheism has emerged. Philosophers of religion such as Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt have asked us to consider the kind of universe we would expect the Christian God to have created, and compare it with the universe we actually live in. They argue there is a mismatch. Everitt focuses on how big the universe is, and argues this gives us reason to believe the God of classical Christianity doesn’t exist.

This thesis strains credulity from the outset. Not only does it presume to understand the nature of the universe we live in (so as to presumably compare it to something else) but requires a wholly unnecessary and impossible hypothetical that presumes to know what sort of universe might be required or expected by Y if X.

To articulate a mismatch thus does not even carry forward the uncertainties involved in the premises, which is the least of its conceptual difficulties. 

To explain why, we need a little theology.

As will become clear, it would have been helpful if more than “a little” theology had been applied.

Traditionally, the Christian God is held to be deeply concerned with human beings. Genesis (1:27) states: “God created mankind in his own image.” Psalms (8:1-5) says: “O Lord … What is man that You take thought of him … Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!” And, of course, John (3:16) explains God gave humans his son out of love for us.

These texts show that God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly. Although we’re focusing on Christianity, these claims can be found in other monotheistic religions, too.

There is, of course, much truth to this in that the God of classical Christianity is indeed concerned with human beings. However, the truth goes deeper in that this concern is not exhausted in nor exclusive of human beings. And while in a certain sense God could be described as human-oriented, the reality of how classical Christianity conceives of God and the divine relation to creation would be better and more accurately stated as human beings (and everything exists, for that matter) are God-oriented. 

For example, in Colossians 1 St. Paul states:

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

And elsewhere:

For from him and through him and for him are all things.

Romans 11:36

St. Thomas more explicitly draws this out:

It must be said that every being in any way existing is from God. For whatever is found in anything by participation, must be caused in it by that to which it belongs essentially… Therefore all beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation.

ST, Prima Pars, Q 44.

The implication of this theological understanding of God’s relationship to creation is that creation is oriented to God due to its necessity of deriving being from God. Creation is thus ultimately about God, by God and for God.

There is a subjective dimension in which it appears that God is particularly concerned about humanity, seen in the texts adduced. However, to take that without considering the whole of the theological conception of God’s relation to creation tends to commit what I call the God-too-small fallacy, in which our limitations concerning importance, size, quantity and the like serve as a stand-in for how God perceives things or, as is the case here, what we might expect a universe to look like. 

 

If God is human-oriented, wouldn’t you expect him to create a universe in which humans feature prominently?

This assumption, of course, flows from a faulty premise concerning the nature of the relation of God to creation, essentially inverting the orientation that classical Christian theology perceives of that relation. 

It is important to not pass this point by too quickly, for the implications of classical Christian thought vis-a-vis God’s relation to creation go even further.

The premise advanced here implicitly presumes that God’s human-oriented-ness as experienced in human subjectivity forms the defining (or at least preeminent) characteristic of God’s relation to creation. This is accomplished by means of “a little theology” that isolates a particular understanding of God’s relatedness to creation from the greater theological construct of this relatedness that puts this isolated proportion in context.

Understood within the greater whole (of which I have sketched a very brief outline) the so-called human-oriented nature of God is better understood as a God-orientated nature of humanity, as humanity (and all creation) proceeds from God as a cause from an effect. Classical Christian theology understands God as Being itself, not simply a being among other beings. Everything in creation that exists does so only because God has created it and only remains in existence because God sustains that existence. The being that any created being has does not stand outside of God as if it is wholly separate unto itself, but exists through participation in God’s being, which grounds its existence.

Further, God is understood as infinite, extended neither spatially nor temporally nor in any other way in which created things can be conceived of in terms of the quantification of their existence. The extent (in whatever way that might be actualized or conceived) of any existent thing’s being is thus ultimately circumscribed, bounded and predicated on the infinitude of God’s being as Being itself. 

As such, it would be proper to say that all of space, time and whatever terms of extension we might apply to existent things stand before God immediately and without succession, duration, distance, etc. Unlike finite intellects, God does not perceive “things” in quantitative terms relative to himself (or even in respect to other things) since God is the infinitude of Being and Existence. 

The implications of this are that yes, God is “human-oriented,” but it is also not only theologically appropriate but also theologically necessary to affirm that God is “rock-oriented” and “lepton-oriented” and “that-one-quark-in-that-one-place-12.625436786734605438658746365430-billion-years-ago-oriented.” 

This orientated-ness of God to creatures is, of course, the way of describing the reception of being from God and dependence upon God for that being by means of its participation in God’s being. Any existing thing thus subjectively “experiences” God’s orientation to it by means of this intrinsic related-ness. In an analogous way that an effect could not logically exist without a cause, we might say that the cause is “effect-oriented,” even though the reality is that the effect logically depends upon the cause for its existence by participating in its causal powers, and thus is ultimately cause-oriented.

God’s “concern” with one created thing or another does not therefore entail any necessary preference of one thing to another (at least not in the terms of quantification inherent in the premise), nor any relative relation of one thing to another vis-a-vis its relation to God. In less precise terms, God doesn’t “think” about this thing now and this other thing later. For God to show “concern” for one thing doesn’t take away concern for another thing. All beings are equally dependent upon God for being, and thus in that respect exist in the same relation to God in their God-oriented-ness.

In consequence, within classical Christian theology the size, duration, point in succession, etc., of a thing is not what gives it its prominence, as such things- while they may have meaning for limited intellects- have no purchase for God, who is both infinite being and the source and cause of all beings.

As such, the meaningfulness of quantity vis-a-vis God’s relation to creation is a faulty premise, at least in respect to classical Christianity. These articulations of course could be disagreed with, but if the premise is going to argue along the lines of classical Christianity, it is vital to understand what classical Christianity actually understands in respect to these things, rather than what a caricatured theological construct might assert.

You’d expect humans to occupy most of the universe, existing across time. Yet that isn’t the kind of universe we live in. Humans are very small, and space, as Douglas Adams once put it, “is big, really really big”.

Even if the faulty assumption is granted, this conclusion is non-sequitur, in that it assumes that “prominence” equates to “ubiquity.” It’s not clear even from our own limited experience that this is the case; in fact, things which are often considered “prominent” are often so specifically because of the uniqueness and lack of ubiquity.

The truncated quotation of Psalm 8 employed earlier actually draws this out somewhat. While the author shortens it to draw out the importance of man and God’s concern for him, behind the ellipses the Psalmist is contemplating the contrast between man’s seeming non-importance in the universe and God’s seemingly lopsided concern for him:

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.

The point being drawn out here is that the Psalmist is overwhelmed by the scope of what he perceives in the heavens, wondering of what account man is in comparison to that. It is the contrast struck between the perceived lowliness of man and the perceived loftiness of creation that creates the tension and resolution of this psalm. In comparison to the cosmos man is nothing, as the psalmist even in his ancient understanding knows too well, but it is because of God’s intention towards man that gives him his “prominence.” It has little to nothing to do with a conception of the universe as human-centric or with comparing size or ubiquity, but rather with understanding  humanity’s relation to God as one of receiving and participating in being that gives it its meaning and importance.  

Clearly, there is a discrepancy between the kind of universe we would expect a human-oriented God to create, and the universe we live in. How can we explain it?

It’s difficult to see where the “clearly” part of this is brought to bear, as the argument has been a series of faulty premises stacked on top of each other buttressed by some incomplete theological concepts. 

The faulty premise aside, it also is a rather question-begging premise, as it presumes that a certain type of universe would issue forth from a human-oriented God. How would one go about formulating what such a universe would be expected to look like, when limited intellects cannot even hold the totality of the existent universe in their minds, much less grasp or understand even the rather limited portions of it that we can?

Further, the premise smuggles in an epistemological presumption that the aspects of the universe which can be quantified by means of a specific methodology (i.e., the tools of scientific inquiry and measurement) provide the best understanding of the universe vis-a-vis the premise in question. That is, of course, not to say they are not valuable, but neither should they be presumed to be exhaustive.

Surely the simplest explanation is that God doesn’t exist. The spatial and temporal size of the universe gives us reason to be atheists.

The term “surely” here carries far more weight than it is capable of, as nothing that has been advanced so far causes any of this to logically follow, save for building upon faulty premises. However, even that does not make God’s non-existence a logical consequence of the spatial and temporal size of the universe, but rather begs the question in that it a priori presumes that God’s existence entails a certain kind of universe and, since (presumably) that universe doesn’t exist, entails that God does not exist. 

As Everitt puts it:

The findings of modern science significantly reduce the probability that theism is true, because the universe is turning out to be very unlike the sort of universe which we would have expected, had theism been true.

The fallacy in reasoning noted above is very much on display in this quotation, and the smuggling in of specific methodological premises is hard to miss.

It is also left unstated how one would possibly apply a probability to:

A. the potential of a universe existing which one must conceive of (i.e., that which we would “expect” if God existed)

B. the still massive uncertainty respective of the universe that actually exists (as much of the universe and its properties is beyond our understanding and even capability to understand)

C. The quantitative relation of specific theological construct to a potential universe that would allow one to make a meaningful comparison between A and B

If one wants to take the silly route of determining probabilities, there is at least enough uncertainty in respect to all parts of the argument that would need to be carried forward in the calculation of the probabilities as to make the entire project as subject to guess or intuition as to calculation, as in at least two of the legs that is the best that could be hoped for. 

The fact that atheism is the simplest reply to the mismatch doesn’t mean that other explanations aren’t possible. Perhaps God exists but his motives for not creating humans sooner, or on a bigger scale, are unknowable. The divine is, after all, mysterious.

Left unsaid is that atheism is being presented as a simple answer to a contrived contradiction predicated on several faulty premises. That there are other potential explanations to resolve this series of fallacious reasoning is rather beside the point.

Also left unsaid is what exactly the expected-if-theism-is-true-and-God-cares-about-humanity universe would be presumed to look like. What is the precise ratio of time to en-human-ment in that universe that would suddenly make atheism a less probable supposition than theism? And what reason would one have to definitively assert more or less? What size would humans need to be (bigger? smaller?), how many star systems would they need to people, how small (or why not bigger?) would the universe need to be, how few (why not more?) galaxies would have to exist, what sorts of physical laws and properties would need to be actualized for this hypothetical expected universe to obtain and tip the scales towards theism? 

These, questions, of course, are not only inherently unanswerable, but are also only the briefest foray into the types of questions that would need to be answered for one to even begin to conceive of this hypothetical universe, in which every answer would actually have to be infallibly known so as to provide sufficient certainty to assure that this universe and only this universe is what God’s existence would entail vis-a-vis God’s expected creative activity.

Perhaps the swathes of space strung with gossamer nebulae serve some aesthetic purpose, beauty wrought on an inhuman scale. 

Taking my previous reply as read, what is interesting here is the methodological presumption that forms the basis of this system of reasoning. The valuation of something as important or prominent is evaluated on a purely quantitative level, which is why something like aesthetics is simply waved aside as a possible explanation or as providing a compelling means of applying valuation to things.

Instead, the bigness of extension in time or space or whatever serves as the unspoken a priori value in respect to existing things, primarily because it is the quantitative aspect of the universe that can be approached by the scientific methodology.

That is of course not to say that such a methodology is not valuable or that it doesn’t give us an accurate description of the universe as far as its methodological competence goes. Rather, it simply hasn’t been made clear that a purely quantitative evaluation of the universe would even necessarily be capable of bringing one to a value of one thing in respect to another, which is something that only minds can bring to bear upon things in respect to each other or in respect to themselves. And as we know even within our limited experience (as alluded to in my opening paragraphs), the value we attach to things is not always in line with their size or ubiquity, but often is inversely so.

Or, perhaps, God exists but isn’t as human-oriented as we thought. Perhaps God values rocks and cosmic dust more highly than humans.

The “as we thought” bit is the important part, as it has formed much of the false premise upon which this article has been based. However, the creeping methodological bias continues to make its presence felt, as the tacit assumption that bigness or ubiquity equates to importance is again reiterated.

As aforementioned, it would have been helpful for this article if more than “a little theology” would have been brought to bear, as it might have cleared up a lot of the conceptual confusion within. 

The problem with these rival explanations is that, as they stand, they are unsatisfying. They hint at reasons why God might create tiny humans in a gargantuan place but are a million miles away from fully explaining why. The weight of galaxies, and the press of years, seem to sweep us towards atheism.

The difficulty with these rival explanations is that they are force-fit into the same assumptions, methodological presumptions and faulty premises as the prevailing thesis, and thus suffer the precise same defects. They are ultimately unsatisfying (from the author’s POV) because they attempt to say why bigness and ubiquity do not equal importance when the underlying starting premise to be proved is that bigness and ubiquity equal importance. 

Of course they would be unsatisfying, and of course a conclusion that effectively restates the premise would seem compelling.  

The author then doubles down on this premise in the language employed, articulating smallness (tiny humans) in relation to bigness (gargantuan!) in relation to big-bigness (million miles away!).

However, as has been demonstrated, the entire premise is a faulty one that relies upon a methodological a priori, caricatured theological conceptions, presumptions of valuation that flow out of the methodological a priori and are actually non sequitur in respect to that methodology, presumptions of hypothetical universes, and probabilistic determinations that don’t account for the extreme uncertainty inherent in the premises. 

If that causes an explanation outside of its presuppositions to fail to be intellectually satisfying according to those same presuppositions, that is hardly surprising.

I would actually expect the explanation to seem quintillions of miles away, for, as those presuppositions assume: bigger is always better!

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Jason Watson

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