A story went around my old prep school that a student in an existential philosophy class had submitted a one-sentence term paper that read in its entirety: “Anything can happen, but it never does.” The student supposedly got a C+ on his paper. I have no idea whether the story is true, much less what his contribution had to do with existentialism. True or not, the anecdote has stuck in my mind ever since – mostly, I think, because the student managed in his own way to capture the spirit of the age. That is, we all pay lip service to possibility, but in our heart of hearts we don’t for a moment believe that anything truly unheard of will ever happen.
Of course, merely extraordinary things happen all the time, but what about things that literally defy belief? Start with something unprecedented, like contact with an alien civilization. In my own lifetime, such an event has gone from the realm of pure science fiction to government-funded research. The scientific community now estimates there are some ten thousand billion habitable planets in the universe, including billions in our galaxy alone, which means that eventual contact with aliens is hardly beyond the realm of possibility. To defy belief, we must shift our thinking from the possible to the impossible. Objects would have to fall up rather than down, the sun would have to rise in the west and time would have to run backward. Unless you believe in miracles, such things can never happen – or can they?
Starting in the 17th century, scientists began formulating laws of nature to explain why we should not expect things to be otherwise than they are. These include Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Newton’s laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, the laws of conservation of mass and energy and Darwin’s principles of natural selection. Scientific laws, by definition, are absolute and inviolate, operating uniformly throughout the universe. In effect, they have come to define the boundaries between the possible and the impossible.
Whether God is bound by such distinctions is a matter of faith, not science. The French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace famously told Napoleon that he “had no need of that hypothesis” when asked why he made no mention of a Creator in his work on celestial mechanics. The contention was the universe would run by itself, operating on nothing more than the laws of nature. In theory, you could start out with elementary particles and wind up with intelligent life through the action of physical laws and matter alone.
The only problem is that the four billion years our planet has been in existence may not have been enough time to allow intelligent life to arise randomly from inorganic matter. That remains the subject of furious debate. So far no one has succeeded in intentionally producing organic compounds from nonliving elements, never mind by accident. The odds are vanishingly small. One possibility is that our planet was seeded with organic matter from a passing meteor or comet; however, that leaves begging the question of how life arose elsewhere, since presumably the same difficulties would apply.
Evolutionary biologists will tell you that life did not, in fact, arise by random action alone but according to principles of natural selection, as well as by scientific laws that created the preconditions for life. The odds seem daunting only because we leap from elementary particles to intelligent life in a single bound rather than through the many successive steps that actually took place. The process was not, as Fred Hoyle once characterized it, like a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a 747. The 747 was assembled one rivet at a time by painstaking trial and error over billions of years.
Life is still admittedly a long shot. And notwithstanding all those billions of habitable planets that might be out there, we know of only one that is actually inhabited, and it may eventually prove to be the only one. But before we mark all this down as some sort of incredible fluke, we have to consider a new wrinkle in the fabric of the universe. When we talk about laws of nature explaining why things cannot be otherwise than they are, we have to consider life itself. In recent decades, scientists began to notice that the fundamental forces and basic parameters of the universe all appear to be fine-tuned to support life. If such properties as the masses of elementary particles or the strengths of fundamental forces were even slightly different than they are, there would be no galaxies, no planets and no life. The British physicist Brandon Carter coined the term “anthropic principle” for this phenomenon, arguing that the universe must have the physical constants it does for intelligent life to arise at all.
It is one thing to concede that life is a long shot in an accidental universe, and quite another to explain how dozens of physical parameters and fundamental forces were precisely calibrated to make life possible. The latter, of course, would strongly suggest the odds were somehow stacked in our favor, which strikes at the heart of the entire scientific enterprise. You might be able to persuade yourself that a 747 assembled itself from junkyard parts over billions of years, but now it looks like someone might have been working from a blueprint.
Faced with the prospect that the emergence of intelligent life in the universe was not a random throw of the dice, scientists began to speculate that perhaps the universe itself was a throw of the dice. What if our universe were merely one of countless other universes, each of which has radically different fundamental properties? Life happened to arise in our universe because the underlying conditions permitted it, whereas other universes remained sterile.
The so-called multiverse theory preserves randomness, but at what cost? Its proponents have essentially tossed out the entire notion that a single set of physical laws and parameters defines reality. In effect, there is no longer a distinction between possible and impossible, because another universe might exist where objects fall up and time runs backward. We no longer need to ask whether God is bound by such distinctions if the universe is not. The realm of faith and the realm of science appear to be one and the same.