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Telling Theists What They Think: Philosopher Versus Philosopher at the New York Times

Do you ever notice how often arguments against design in biology and the cosmos involve our being told what we think -- unrecognizably so -- and then told why that  is foolish, backward, or anti-science, rather than the critic stating accurately the case for intelligent design and then arguing with that?

Philosopher Gary Gutting at the University of Notre Dame seemed to notice in a conversation with NYU philosopher Tim Maudlin at The Stone on the New York Times website. They couch the discussion in terms of cosmology versus theology ("Modern Cosmology Versus God's Creation") though the subjects they talk about -- cosmic fine-tuning, for example -- don't necessarily imply theism or creation. Evidence of design isn't necessarily evidence for God and certainly not for any particular conception of God.

That aside, see how Maudlin keeps setting up a primitive straw man and knocking it down, while Gutting keeps keep calling him on it, not that Maudlin acknowledges the point. This is typical.

Gary Gutting: Could you begin by noting aspects of recent scientific cosmology that are particularly relevant to theological questions?

Tim Maudlin: That depends on the given theological account. The biblical account of the origin of the cosmos in Genesis, for example, posits that a god created the physical universe particularly with human beings in mind, and so unsurprisingly placed the Earth at the center of creation.

Modern cosmological knowledge has refuted such an account. We are living in the golden age of cosmology: More has been discovered about the large-scale structure and history of the visible cosmos in the last 20 years than in the whole of prior human history. We now have precise knowledge of the distribution of galaxies and know that ours is nowhere near the center of the universe, just as we know that our planetary system has no privileged place among the billions of such systems in our galaxy and that Earth is not even at the center of our planetary system. We also know that the Big Bang, the beginning of our universe, occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, whereas Earth didn't even exist until about 10 billion years later.

No one looking at the vast extent of the universe and the completely random location of homo sapiens within it (in both space and time) could seriously maintain that the whole thing was intentionally created for us.

But whoever said that for theism to be true we have to be located at any particular set of physical coordinates?

G.G.: I don't see why the extent of the universe and our nonprivileged spatio-temporal position within it says anything about whether we have some special role in the universe. The major monotheistic religions maintain that there is a special spiritual relationship between us and the creator. But that doesn't imply that this is the only purpose of the universe or that we're the only creatures with a special relationship to the creator.

Repeatedly, Gutting reminds Maudlin that his problem is with assumptions he makes about theism: What Maudlin thinks that the God he doesn't believe in would do if that God did exist.

T.M.: ...If we have any understanding at all of how an intelligent agent capable of creating the material universe would act if it had such an intention, we would say it would not create the huge structure we see, most of it completely irrelevant for life on Earth, with the Earth in such a seemingly random location, and with humans appearing only after a long and rather random course of evolution.

G.G.: Maybe, but that conclusion doesn't follow from scientific cosmology; it's based on further assumptions about what a creator would want -- and how the creator would go about achieving it.

Gutting asks about the fine-tuning of the physical constants. Are they "designed to support living beings and, in particular, humans"? Maudlin says at one point:

T.M.: One thing is for sure: If there were some deity who desired that we know of its existence, there would be simple, clear ways to convey that information. I would say that any theistic argument that starts with the constants of nature cannot end with a deity who is interested in us knowing of its existence.

G.G.: Once again, that's assuming we are good judges of how the deity would behave.

The conversation is worth a read. It's like some of these guys are conducting a disputation in their head against the ghost of childhood religion, what they half-remember from being a kid and listening to some droning Sunday School teacher.

With all the talk of a "privileged place" in the cosmos, or a "nonprivileged spatio-temporal position within it," it would help Maudlin if he read Jay Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez's The Privileged Planet. Our forthcoming documentary Privileged Species, focusing on Michael Denton's research, will shed further light. The trailer is here:

I'm on Twitter. Follow me @d_klinghoffer.