Philosopher Emily Thomas is Wrong. The Universe is Not Too Big for God.

Emily Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Durham University.  She posted an argument for atheism – Does the Size of the Universe Prove God Doesn’t Exist?

She argues: God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly. 

The problem?

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

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

And quotes Nicholas Everitt

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 fatal flaw for both Thomas and Everitt is that they project their own subjective expectations without establishing why we are all supposed to think like them.  I find their argument to be incredibly weak.

The age of our universe is tied to the immense size of our universe. What if we lived in a universe that was the size of our solar system? And what if it was 6000 years old? For me personally, this would not speak to the existence of God. It would create a haunting suspicion that our creator was some alien intelligence and we lived in some terrarium, perhaps as part of some experiment. But a universe as large and old as ours? Now that’s a different ballgame. An alien creator doesn’t strike me as reasonable there.  The immense size and age of our universe speaks to the incredible power of its Creator.  The heavens declare the glory of God.  Of course, that would be my own subjective impression. But given the subjective nature of Thomas’s expectations, it is sufficient to cancel out her argument.  End of story.

But we can walk the extra mile.

The immense size of our universe speaks to our value.  How so?  No matter where you look among the 300 sextillion stars, you will only find us in the tiniest fraction of it, on a small planet that is a drop in this ocean of space.  Look everywhere else in the vast, immense universe and look as hard as you can.  You will not find us.   I’m not sure why Thomas confuses value with ubiquity, as I associate value with rarity.

Thomas gets the theology right – “human beings are like God, and he values us highly,” but hasn’t thought it through yet.  It’s not that God values “humans,” as if we are His favorite species.  It’s that he values us.  Not because we are representatives of something called “human.”  But because we are who we are.

Let’s remember that a “human” is an abstract conception – a word our brains use to try to categorize our reality. Yet you, and I, and everyone else around us,  are not abstract creations. We are flesh and blood beings whose identity is shaped by our biology, choices, experiences, and history.   To bring us into existence means all that is around us (time and space) must also be brought into existence. It’s a package deal.

Yet if we occupy such a tiny drop in this ocean of space,  isn’t it silly and arrogant to think what happens in this tiny drop is special and significant? I don’t think so. That’s like arguing there is nothing special and significant about your spouse, child, or best friend because 107 billion other people have lived on this planet. How can you dare think your loved one is of such great value when 107 billion other people have lived on this planet and you never knew 99.9999999995% of them?

Because each of us is unique.

We know this because if our spouse, child, or best friend dies, we mourn largely for one reason – we miss them. They are irreplaceable. We can have another child or marry someone else, but they never truly replace our lost ones.

Earth, and what is on it, regardless of the size of the universe, is likewise unique. We are irreplaceable. In fact, the sheer size of the universe actually works to underscore that point, not undermine it.

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17 Responses to Philosopher Emily Thomas is Wrong. The Universe is Not Too Big for God.

  1. David Robertson says:

    Great piece. I’ve often thought that the size of the universe is evidence of God, a physical reflection of his infinite nature. And with God as infinite, physical size isn’t a factor regarding the human race’s small place of occupation

  2. GRA says:

    Thomas’ argument for no God is shallow in my eyes. I expected more from a person who graduated from Cambridge and teaches at one of the top UK universities (slight sarcasm here). Hopefully as she ages her arguments become more sophisticated and worthwhile to ponder about.

  3. Featherfoot says:

    I always think of this quote when I hear people making that argument:

    “[Herbert Spencer] popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? … It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.”
    – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

    I have seen several arguments that seem to go something like this:

    1. If I were God, I would make the universe like x.
    2. The universe isn’t like x.
    3. Therefore, there is no God.

    It’s very different if you can show that God would actually be obligated to create the universe a certain way, but that’s not what the size argument does.

  4. Jon Garvey says:

    Mike, I appreciate the point you’re making about the limited scale of the “old” universe. But it was plenty big enough for people back in 1643 to think of it in terms of how it affects the smallness of mankind. Westminster Confession, ch.7:

    The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

    Absolutely appropriate as a reply to Everitt and Thomas.

  5. keithnoback says:

    “our creator was some alien intelligence and we lived in some terrarium, perhaps as part of some experiment”
    That isn’t what you are claiming, minus some sophistry? Or are you using ‘creator’ metaphorically?
    The concept that you gesture towards would only seem to differ from Thomas’ in magnitude.

  6. hikayamasan353 says:

    Your view is very identical to the one of Islamic cosmology. It says, that God (may He be exalted), as the Greatest, the Primary Creator, has created a big, really big universe, with a lot of very different lifeforms, including us. He created everything to prove He is the Greatest and everything comes from Him. http://aboutislam.net/science/faith-science/allahs-universe-filled-life/
    Praise be to God, the Primary Creator of everything and everybody, He is like nothing and nothing is like Him!

  7. pennywit says:

    Oddly, I would take an opposite tack if I were to argue against that thesis. I would argue that if the universe is so large, it likely contains more sentient life. And that sentient life probably has its own conception of the divine that differs from humans’ … and that perhaps the parable of the blind men and the elephant would come into play.

  8. FZM says:

    Oddly, I would take an opposite tack if I were to argue against that thesis. I would argue that if the universe is so large, it likely contains more sentient life. And that sentient life probably has its own conception of the divine that differs from humans’

    It would have to resemble the human conception of the divine to some extent otherwise humans being able to identify it as a conception of the divine wouldn’t be possible.

    I find their argument to be incredibly weak.

    It is incredibly weak. I pretty much agree with GRA:

    I expected more from a person who graduated from Cambridge and teaches at one of the top UK universities (slight sarcasm here). Hopefully as she ages her arguments become more sophisticated and worthwhile to ponder about.

  9. Kevin Wells says:

    Put as simply as possible: the size of the universe is not independent of the laws and constants which make complex life possible on (most likely only*) the earth. The geometric 4 dimensional size, as well as the precise amount of matter/energy is contingent on these values. Since cosmic fine tuning is a thing, then we know exactly what it takes to make a human: 13.6 billion years and enough matter to make 1×10^24 stars, give or take. So yes, humans are indeed the pinnacle of creation.

    *The Privileged Planet
    Richards and Gonzalez

    *Rare Earth
    Ward and Brownlee

  10. Dhay says:

    Kevin Wells > Put as simply as possible: the size of the universe is not independent of the laws and constants which make complex life possible on (most likely only*) the earth. …

    I agree wholeheartedly. Very elegantly put.

  11. Dhay says:

    > To bring us into existence means all that is around us (time and space) must also be brought into existence. It’s a package deal.

    Michael there puts it more elegantly still. And in a flow of paragraphs which remind me why I was first attracted to Shadow to Light and why I am here still.

    *

    Anyway, back to cynicism: it’s probably very cynical of me to observe that an article like that, even one so obviously at the philosophical level of Richard Dawkins, is more likely to get Emily Thomas’ name known and her career advanced than the sober, worthy and scholarly ‘history of ideas about time and space’ (“absolute time”) work she’s been doing so far.

    *

    Hers is of course a version of the argument from the absence of Teletubbies Land. The atheist says, in effect if not in these words “If I were God everything would be ideal according to my standards of ideal — but it isn’t ideal, therefore there is no God.”

    Usually it’s phrased in terms that there shouldn’t be earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes or hurricanes, and these ‘Science and Reason’ advocates conveniently forget — or never even knew such basics — that these are driven by the heat from nuclear reactions in the Sun and the Earth’s core, in combination with gravity. Which of these would they do away with; or, bearing in mind the extreme fine-tuning of the universe and the absence even of rock if the knobs are twiddled ever so slightly, what would they twiddle and by how much; or would they do away with the physical regularities which make science and reason possible at all, replacing regularity by — what, magic?

    Or it’s phrased in terms of death and disease; presumably without realising that to do away with these is to do away with evolution; not to mention children, family life and your spouse (and probably everything whatsoever that’s living including themself): it’s then no longer our world, it’s the land of the Telletubbies; or at any rate, it’s something comparably fantastical.

    Thomas’ ideal TelletubbyLand is a universe which is everywhere and everywhen a ‘sunny beach’ for life. Perhaps she could explain which knobs she would twiddle, and by how much, and confirm that doing so would achieve the desired result.

    (I fancy I read somewhere that a ‘sunny beach’ universe would be extremely short-lived, as little as fifteen minutes. But I could be mis-remembering.)

    It takes a village to raise a child, as the African proverb goes, and a universe vast in space and time to raise a human.

  12. Gary says:

    God is human-oriented, but what Thomas doesn’t understand is, why God is human-oriented. First, and foremost, everything that God does is for the ultimate purpose of bringing him glory, not to glorify man. As we discover more and more of the massive universe that He has created, we become more and more in awe of His power. As we praise him, He receives glory.

  13. Man of the West says:

    David Robertson said:

    “Great piece. I’ve often thought that the size of the universe is evidence of God, a physical reflection of his infinite nature.”

    David is quite right. The fact is, on Christian theism, and as per Romans 1, the universe is meant to be a reflection of God’s power and infinite nature. Thus, nature itself–meaning the universe and all that is in it–is actually meant to show us God’s nature and His infinite attributes. Well, a massively large and massively old universe displays the nature of an infinite and eternal God much better than a small and recent universe does. Thus, a massively large, massively old universe–essentially, the type of universe that makes us think of God as its creator, not just a god–is precisely what would be expected on Christian theism. And this is what we have.

    By contrast, on atheistic-naturalism, our universe would not be expected. In fact, no specific type of universe would be expected. Why? Because on atheistic-naturalism, any type of universe is as possible as the next (or no universe at all), and so we would have no reason to expect one type of universe over another. Ergo, this universe does not serve as evidence for atheistic-naturalism.

    So, not only does the size of the universe not serve as evidence for atheistic-naturalism, but it actually serves as evidence for Christian theism.

    Cheers,

    Man of the West

    PS – I will try to do a full series on this matter soon, as I have been thinking about it for some time.

  14. Jim says:

    I find this particular argument to be pretty ironic, given what Carl Sagan famously said:

    “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

    Yet now we have theists marveling at scientific discoveries and the scale of the universe declaring the glory of God, and the gnus are saying “No! Your God is a little God and has to stay that way!”

  15. Michael says:

    How could Prof. Thomas know we don’t live in a human-centric Universe? Because she’s extrapolated our knowledge of the relatively tiny number of planets we know of to those orbiting however many sextillion stars?
    A strong counter-argument is that life emerged within the Universe, and it’s said to have appeared on Earth relatively early in its history – this would indicate a Universe that’s actually teaming with life. There might be countless planets out there with human-like species, across countless galaxies.

  16. Vy says:

    You are spot on when you say Thomas’ argument is nothing more than projection but I don’t get you when you say this:

    The age of our universe is tied to the immense size of our universe. What if we lived in a universe that was the size of our solar system? And what if it was 6000 years old? For me personally, this would not speak to the existence of God. It would create a haunting suspicion that our creator was some alien intelligence and we lived in some terrarium, perhaps as part of some experiment. But a universe as large and old as ours? Now that’s a different ballgame. An alien creator doesn’t strike me as reasonable there. The immense size and age of our universe speaks to the incredible power of its Creator. The heavens declare the glory of God. Of course, that would be my own subjective impression

    AFAIK, irrespective of however you believe the universe came to be or how old you believe it is (a couple trillion years for the “electric universe” to a couple thousand for YEC), all of them relate size of the universe to age in their own convoluted way. And if being older meant it’s more likely that God did it, does that imply the electric universe not the BB Theory (with all its unsolvable and unsolved flaws) is more correct?

  17. Isaac says:

    I don’t recall a single passage of scripture invoking a smallish universe as evidence for God. However, there are plenty of them invoking the size and grandeur of the universe as evidence of his greatness.

    Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
    what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?”

    But wait, now we know that the universe is even BIGGER than the Psalmist thought! That means…God is less glorious somehow or something? I don’t see any logic there.

    From Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    But wait, the heavens are even HIGHER above the Earth that Isaiah thought! That means…that God is tiny or something? I don’t see the logic there either.

    Seems to me that God not only made it clear that He isn’t in any way a “tiny God” but also that the scientific revelations about the size of the universe confirm what the Bible said. This almost seems like an atheist attempt to seize the narrative at the expense of truth.

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