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The Anthropic Principle and Creation Theology

A great deal of attention have recently been given the so-called "Anthropic Principle" (AP). As we have seen already, had the universe as a whole been slightly different, the evolution of life never have arisen in the first place! But does the apparent "fine-tuning" of our universe mean that we can invoke a divine Designer of the universe as a whole as the best explanation, or can the fine-tuning more aptly be explained away scientifically?

For most scientists, then answer is simple: given inflationary Big Bang cosmology or perhaps quantum cosmology, there may well be many universes ("many worlds") with varying values of the natural constants, even many of the laws of nature. If this is so, we simply exist in the one which is consistent with the eventual evolution of life. On the other hand, some writers favor a design argument, arguing that ours is the only universe and its fine-tuning must be explained by appeal to God. They see the appeal to inflation or quantum cosmology as dubious since these theories, especially quantum cosmology, are speculative and difficult to test empirically. Thus for cosmologist George Ellis and theologian Nancey Murphy, the fact that creatures capable of moral agency such as us have evolved in the universe is evidence that God designed the universe with the intention to create creatures capable of virtue, compassion, and self-surrendering love. They have thus made a major contribution to the Anthropic Principle in their recent work on the "moral universe".Nancey Murphy and George F. R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

I appreciate the intention of arguments like these, for they help us reconnect our human lives with the overall character of the universe itself. Rather than see life in the universe as meaningless and tragic, they suggest that life is a key to the meaning of the universe, and they shed light on fundamental Christian convictions about the love of God who creates and redeems the world. Still I am hesitant to push the argument too far towards a design argument for the existence of God.This is not the intention of Murphy/Ellis, and my criticisms are not directed to them at this point. To me it seems that both sides on this particular debate are precariously balanced and open to rapid shifts in science, philosophy and theology.

For example, even if one starts with inflation to explain the variation in the natural constants, a theist can still counter that God designed the entire set of universes, or the laws of nature which govern them all, etc. On the other hand let us suppose that ours is the only universe. If one already believes in the Biblical God, the close fit between the universe and the conditions for the evolution of life illuminate one’s understanding of God as the Creator ex nihilo of this universe.

However, if one attempts to start with the fine-tuning of the universe and use it as a basis for an argument that God exists, it raises several profound theological tangles - most of which trace back to the Enlightenment critiques of religion such as David Hume and apply to the ‘intelligent design’ arguments others are seeking to construct in the context of biological evolution. For example, it clearly begs the question whether the `Designer' one gets is what one wants: the Biblical God. In general, however, I am very dubiousabout turning to scientific data, instead of religious experience, tradition, and scripture, for primary theological evidence for God.

Finally, like the "direct support" argument about t=0, a too heavy reliance on the AP would seem to me to be basing a specific theological claim (the existence of God as designer) on a particular `fact' of science (the apparently fine-tuned features of the universe).

Should we therefore abandon the Anthropic Principle as irrelevant to theology and withdraw into a "two worlds" position? I don’t believe we need to take this option, either. Instead I suggest we reject both options: design and many world. Instead, I believe we can learn a great deal theologically if we start with belief in God the Creator and let the cosmological fine-tuning shape our theological language about God as Creator of both the world as a whole and all its parts. To see this, let us focus on one of the natural constants, Planck's constant, and study its relation to both the parts, and the whole structure, of the universe.

Planck's constant is linked intimately to each part of the universe through which life evolved. Quantum physics plays an essential role in genetic variation which in turn drives biological evolution. If the numerical value of Planck's constant were slightly different, life could not have arisen via evolution on a planet like ours. Thus Planck's constant is linked to the phenomenon of life and sentience; it is thus a part of the contingency of the biological processes of a universe that is filled with life and a sign of life's dependence on the God who creates life through biological evolution, including therein the role of quantum physics.

Planck's constant also contributes to the overall, physical character of the universe as a whole. During the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang the universe was governed by a single fundamental interaction; the very early universe, being microscopic, was a quantum phenomenon. Had the value of Planck's constant been different than it is, the universe may never have produced the right astrophysical and geological conditions for biological life to ever get started. Without this value the physical preconditions for evolution - cosmological production of helium, generation of galaxies, stars, and planets, etc. - might never have occurred. In this way the value of Planck's constant is essential to the global, physical character of the universe.

Hence it may be, as Wolfhart Pannenberg asserts, that "the universe as a whole and in all its parts is contingent." But what we have discovered through science is that these two philosophically distinct types of contingency are mutually constrained empirically by the role Planck's constant plays in each domain. Indeed Planck's constant, the common factor between the contingency of the whole and the contingency of the parts, connects them in a way which we could not have learned from pure philosophical speculation. Thus to use the philosophical tool of contingency properly in theology we must turn to science.

Our theological lesson must be this: when we speak of the contingency of the world as part of what a theology of creation entails, we must understand that the contingency of the universe as a whole is intimately connected with the contingency of the universe at each step in the process of evolution. It is not that the whole determines the parts or vice versa; rather the whole and the parts are co-determined by a single contingent fact, the value of Planck's constant. It is here that we can more correctly locate the effect of God's free, creative act.

If it is the case that the contingency of the universe as a whole is directly tied to the contingency of the universe in each part and process, then God's action in creating the universe through each process is related to God's action in shaping the universe as a whole; i.e., creatio ex nihilo is closely related to creatio continua. In essence, the action through which God creates the universe entails a dialectic of freedom and constraint. There is a contingent, free element in nature, represented here by the value of Planck's constant and the laws which contain it; they could have been other than what they are. Yet this value determines much of both the global and the microscopic features of nature. This means that if we talk about God's action in creating the world and human life in the context of the natural sciences we should speak about a single free divine creation (the creation of the value of Planck's constant) out of which emerged much of the physical character of the universe at large as well as the much of the biological character of evolution in time.

Granted that God might well be said to freely choose the values of the fundamental constants, including Planck's constant. Within this choice, however, the die is cast: God cannot independently choose the role for quantum physics at both the cosmic and the microscopic scales. God's freedom in choosing ex nihilo the value of Planck's constant and the laws in which it occurs has effects both globally and locally, shaping the meaning of God's continuing creation throughout the domain of the cosmos.

God's choice of Planck's constant both allows for the open character of the universe through which God can continually act (creatio continua) and conditions the kind of universe to be one which requires billions of years of evolutionary struggle, suffering, and slow emergence before producing sentience and spirit. (This would seem to offer new connections between creation and redemption, even touching on the theological problems of evil and theodicy.)

Thus even from this simple, preliminary example I believe we can see that science both gives meaning to, and critically shapes the meaning of, theological reflection on core assertions of Christian faith, without pre-preempting their legitimate bases in the religious experiences of the worshiping community.

It is not that the Anthropic Principle really serves as a basis for a design argument or proof of the existence of God, nor that it necessarily leads to a many-worlds argument that ignores religion. Rather what I believe we have learned is that as we think theologically about the universe and the emergence of life within it, science contributes a vital clue about the relationship between what otherwise seemed like very different domains of divine creativity: the vision of God framing the universe as a whole and the hand of God articulating its every inner fiber. If science can thus help us theologize more faithfully and with new insight, it surely deserves our growing attention.

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