The Puzzle of Existence and a Puddle of Doubt

A very smart man once wrote a very stupid thing in a book.

The smart man’s name was Douglas Adams, and the book was his posthumously published The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (New York: Ballantine, 2002; pages 131-132). Adams died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara in May 2001; he was only 49. I’m a longtime fan of Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But in this instance, Adams’ analogy—known as The Puddle Analogy—is far less profound than he supposed.

Adams’ Puddle Analogy has been cited many times by various writers as a satirical demonstration of the “fallacy” of the “fine-tuned universe” argument. The Wikipedia article “Fine-Tuned Universe” quotes the Puddle Analogy and notes that the fine-tuned universe argument has been called “puddle thinking” by some critics. And Richard Dawkins quotes The Puddle Analogy in A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (page 169), adding that he had heard the Adams analogy numerous times and “thought it was more brilliant every time.”

Here is the stupid thing Douglas Adams wrote:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Here’s why The Puddle Analogy is stupid:

Adams begins: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking…” He doesn’t seem to realize that, in order for a puddle to wake up and think its first thought, a vast number of interconnected and incredibly unlikely coincidences have to occur.

The Big Bang had to happen, and the Big Bang had to explode with just the right amount of force to allow matter to disperse evenly and smoothly and allow galaxies to form. Had the Big Bang not been precisely fine-tuned, our universe might consist of nothing but tenuous hydrogen gas—or a single supermassive black hole. The laws of nature had to be laid down at the instant of the Big Bang, and had to be fine-tuned to an accuracy of one part in the trillions before the universe itself could exist, much less a contemplative puddle.

The electromagnetic force, the gravitational force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force all had to be perfectly balanced in order for stars to form and begin cooking up the elements needed to make planets—silicon, nickel, iron, oxygen, magnesium, and so forth. Adams’ pensive puddle could not find itself sitting in “an interesting hole” unless the hole was situated on a planet orbiting a star that was part of a galaxy that was created by the incredibly fine-tuned forces and conditions of the Big Bang.

And in order for that puddle to wake up one morning and think at all, it would need to be a lot more complex than a mere puddle of water. A thinking puddle would be a very complex puddle. Even if that puddle were comprised of exotic alien nerve cells suspended in a matrix of liquid ammonia, it would certainly need something like lipid molecules and protein structures and nucleic acids in order to become sufficiently evolved as to wake up and contemplate its own existence.

Such components require the existence of carbon. And if you know anything about where carbon comes from, you know that carbon doesn’t grow on trees. It is formed in an amazingly fine-tuned process involving the precise placement of a nuclear resonance level in a beryllium atom. Any enlightened plashet would have to conclude that a superintellect had monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and the biological composition of pools and puddles.

The rest of Douglas Adams’ scenario, in which “the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and … the puddle gets smaller and smaller” is meaningless in view of the fact that dozens and dozens of events, forces, and conditions have to interact in a fine-tuned way in order for the sun to exist, the air to exist, the sky to exist, and the hole in the ground to exist, so that a puddle can wake up one morning and wonder about its place in the cosmic order.

No analogy is perfect, of course, but The Puddle Analogy is downright misleading. It misrepresents the essence of the fine-tuning argument. An analogy should simplify, but not over-simplify.

And that’s why The Puddle Analogy that Richard Dawkins thinks is so brilliant is actually kinda dumb.

Lament for an Atheist (Part II) — or How Christopher Hitchens Got It Wrong About God

I’m a longtime admirer of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote numerous books plus many columns for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. I share his admiration for George Orwell, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens once described his antitheistic approach as “the view that we ought to be glad that none of the religious myths has any truth to it.”

Hitchens’ book God Is Not Great is not so much an argument against the existence of God as a caustic indictment of organized religion. Here’s a representative passage:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience. … Religion looks forward to the destruction of the world. By this I do not mean it “looks forward” in the purely eschatological sense of anticipating the end. I mean, rather, that it openly or covertly wishes that end to occur. Perhaps half aware that its unsupported arguments are not entirely persuasive, and perhaps uneasy about its own greedy accumulation of temporal power and wealth, religion has never ceased to proclaim the Apocalypse and the day of judgment. This has been a constant trope, ever since the first witch doctors and shamans learned to predict eclipses and to use their half-baked celestial knowledge to terrify the ignorant. It stretches from the epistles of Saint Paul… through the deranged fantasies of the book of Revelation … to the best-selling pulp-fiction Left Behind series.

Hitchens blames religion for misrepresenting the origin of humanity and the cosmos; for telling people they are “lowly sinners” (destroying their self-esteem); for telling them their Creator loves them (inflating their self-importance); for causing “dangerous sexual repression;” for promoting wishful, magical thinking; for killing millions of people through holy wars, inquisitions, pogroms, and terror attacks; for revering religious texts that are riddled, he says, with “contradictions and illiteracies;” for making claims of miracles and doctrines of heaven and hell based on myths; and for failing to make religious people behave virtuously.

He concludes that the human race needs a new Enlightenment, a new Age of Reason like that of 18th century Europe and America, when Newton, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson shaped the science, culture, and government of the Western world. Hitchens believes that a new 21st century Enlightenment is not just for intellectuals, but is “within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.”

Christopher Hitchens in 2010

By attacking organized religion, Hitchens (whose given name, Christopher, means “Christ-bearer”) ironically aligns himself with another caustic critic of institutional religion, Jesus of Nazareth. Read through the four gospels, and you find the Nazarene blasting organized religion at every turn. He breaks the Sabbath, thunders against the corrupt religious bosses, eludes their attempts to entrap him, tells parables that plainly condemn them, openly blasts them as frauds and hypocrites, and exposes their corruption in the temple courts. Jesus would likely find a lot to agree with in Hitchens’ book.

In 2007, when I heard that God Is Not Great would soon be released, I was eager to see what kinds of arguments Hitchens would level against the scientific case for God (see my earlier posts on the cosmological case for God here and here). Upon opening my copy of Hitchens’ book, however, I was astonished to find that Hitchens completely ignored the cosmological evidence.

Though Chapter 6 of God is Not Great is entitled “Arguments from Design,” he doesn’t devote even one word to the cosmological case for God. The evidence is hardly new or difficult to research. This concept has been around since 1973, when physicist Brandon Carter introduced an idea he called “the anthropic principle.” It has been explored extensively by such writers as Paul Davies, John Barrow, Frank Tipler, John Gribbin, Martin Rees, and others. I devoted an extensive section of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul to the subject.

Why, then, does Hitchens completely ignore the subject in God is Not Great? As I read Hitchens and his fellow “New Atheists,” I’m struck by the fact that they don’t seem merely unpersuaded by the evidence. They seem to either misunderstand the evidence—or worse, they seem altogether ignorant of it. Writing a chapter called “Arguments from Design” without even one mention of the cosmological evidence is like writing a book on the history of Apple Computers without any mention of Steve Jobs. It’s downright bizarre.

In my newest book, God and Soul, I present the cosmological evidence for the existence of God—the evidence that Hitchens oddly ignores. To me, the evidence is convincing, even overwhelming. I’ve often asked myself: If the evidence is as persuasive as I think it is, why are so many atheists unconvinced? I can’t escape the conclusion that most atheists, including Hitchens, simply haven’t gotten the memo.

They really don’t know.

Please don’t take my word for it. Read Hitchens’ book. And while you’re at it, read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. Compare their case for atheism alongside the case I present in God and Soul. Then you tell me who has presented the more intellectually honest case—the New Atheists or God and Soul. If you make that comparison, you’ll find that Dawkins and Dennett don’t present the evidence accurately—and that Harris and Hitchens don’t present it at all.

I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens ignored the cosmological case for God because he was unaware of it—or if he knew that it presented a deadly minefield for his atheist beliefs. What I do know for sure is that no one can claim to be a serious, intellectually honest, inquiring skeptic without fearlessly confronting the evidence I have assembled in God and Soul.

And it saddens me that Christopher Hitchens died without ever grappling with possibly the most important body of information that science has ever revealed.