Part 2 of 2THE ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE: PLANETARY VERSION
Gap theologians who may have given up on eyes and wings, flagellar motors and immune systems, often pin their remaining hopes on the origin of life. The root of evolution in non-biological chemistry somehow seems to present a bigger gap than any particular transition during subsequent evolution. And in one sense it is a bigger gap. That one sense is quite specific, and it offers no comfort to the religious apologist. The origin of life only had to happen once. We therefore can allow it to have been an extremely improbable event, many orders of magnitude more improbable than most people realize, as I shall show. Subsequent evolutionary steps are duplicated, in more or less similar ways, throughout millions and millions of species independently, and continually and repeatedly throughout geological time. Therefore, to explain the evolution of complex life, we cannot resort to the same kind of statistical reasoning as we are able to apply to the origin of life. The events that constitute run-of-the-mill evolution, as distinct from its singular origin (and perhaps a few special cases), cannot have been very improbable.
This distinction may seem puzzling, and I must explain it further, using the so-called anthropic principle. The anthropic principle was named by the mathematician Brandon Carter in 1974 and expanded by the physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler in their book on the subject.  The anthropic argument is usually applied to the cosmos, and I'll come to that. But I'll introduce the idea on a smaller, planetary scale. We exist here on Earth. Therefore Earth must be the kind of planet that is capable of generating and supporting us, however unusual, even unique, that kind of planet might be. For example, our kind of life cannot survive without liquid water. Indeed, exobiologists searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life are scanning the heavens, in practice, for signs of water. Around a typical star like our sun, there is a so-called Goldilocks zone -- not too hot and not too cold, but just right -- for planets with liquid water. A thin band of orbits lies between those that are too far from the star, where water freezes, and too close, where it boils.
Presumably, too, a life-friendly orbit has to be nearly circular. A fiercely elliptical orbit, like that of the newly discovered tenth planet informally known as Xena, would at best allow the planet to whizz briefly through the Goldilocks zone once every few (Earth) decades or centuries. Xena itself doesn't get into the Goldilocks zone at all, even at its closest approach to the sun, which it reaches once every 560 Earth years. The temperature of Halley's Comet varies between about 47°C at perihelion and minus 270°C at aphelion. Earth's orbit, like those of all the planets, is technically an ellipse (it is closest to the sun in January and furthest away in July [vi]); but a circle is a special case of an ellipse, and Earth's orbit is so close to circular that it never strays out of the Goldilocks zone. Earth's situation in the solar system is propitious in other ways that singled it out for the evolution of life. The massive gravitational vacuum cleaner of Jupiter is well placed to intercept asteroids that might otherwise threaten us with lethal collision. Earth's single relatively large moon serves to stabilize our axis of rotation,  and helps to foster life in various other ways. Our sun is unusual in not being a binary, locked in mutual orbit with a companion star. It is possible for binary stars to have planets, but their orbits are likely to be too chaotically variable to encourage the evolution of life.
Two main explanations have been offered for our planet's peculiar friendliness to life. The design theory says that God made the world, placed it in the Goldilocks zone, and deliberately set up all the details for our benefit. The anthropic approach is very different, and it has a faintly Darwinian feel. The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and not suitable for life. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it.
It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.
Liquid water is a necessary condition for life as we know it, but it is far from sufficient. Life still has to originate in the water, and the origin of life may have been a highly improbable occurrence. Darwinian evolution proceeds merrily once life has originated. But how does life get started? The origin of life was the chemical event, or series of events, whereby the vital conditions for natural selection first came about. The major ingredient was heredity, either DNA or (more probably) something that copies like DNA but less accurately, perhaps the related molecule RNA. Once the vital ingredient -- some kind of genetic molecule -- is in place, true Darwinian natural selection can follow, and complex life emerges as the eventual consequence. But the spontaneous arising by chance of the first hereditary molecule strikes many as improbable. Maybe it is -- very very improbable, and I shall dwell on this, for it is central to this section of the book.
The origin of life is a flourishing, if speculative, subject for research. The expertise required for it is chemistry and it is not mine. I watch from the sidelines with engaged curiosity, and I shall not be surprised if, within the next few years, chemists report that they have successfully midwifed a new origin of life in the laboratory. Nevertheless it hasn't happened yet, and it is still possible to maintain that the probability of its happening is, and always was, exceedingly low -- although it did happen once!
Just as we did with the Goldilocks orbits, we can make the point that, however improbable the origin of life might be, we know it happened on Earth because we are here. Again as with temperature, there are two hypotheses to explain what happened -- the design hypothesis and the scientific or 'anthropic' hypothesis. The design approach postulates a God who wrought a deliberate miracle, struck the prebiotic soup with divine fire and launched DNA, or something equivalent, on its momentous career.
Again, as with Goldilocks, the anthropic alternative to the design hypothesis is statistical. Scientists invoke the magic of large numbers. It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a quite staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. A grant-giving body would laugh at any chemist who admitted that the chance of his proposed research succeeding was only one in a hundred. But here we are talking about odds of one in a billion. And yet ... even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets -- of which Earth, of course, is one. 
This conclusion is so surprising, I'll say it again. If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless that stupefyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets. The chance of finding anyone of those billion life-bearing planets recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. But we don't have to go out of our way to find a needle because (back to the anthropic principle) any beings capable of looking must necessarily be sitting on one of those prodigiously rare needles' before they even start the search.
Any probability statement is made in the context of a certain level of ignorance. If we know nothing about a planet, we may postulate the odds of life's arising on it as, say, one in a billion. But if we now import some new assumptions into our estimate, things change. A particular planet may have some peculiar properties, perhaps a special profile of element abundances in its rocks, which shift the odds in favour of life's emerging. Some planets, in other words, are more 'Earth-like' than others. Earth itself, of course, is especially Earth-like! This should give encouragement to our chemists trying to recreate the event in the lab, for it could shorten the odds against their success. But my earlier calculation demonstrated that even a chemical model with odds of success as low as one in a billion would still predict that life would arise on a billion planets in the universe. And the beauty of the anthropic principle is that it tells us, against all intuition, that a chemical model need only predict that life will arise on one planet in a billion billion to give us a good and entirely satisfying explanation for the presence of life here. I do not for a moment believe the origin of life was anywhere near so improbable in practice. I think it is definitely worth spending money on trying to duplicate the event in the lab and -- by the same token, on SETI, because I think it is likely that there is intelligent life elsewhere.
Even accepting the most pessimistic estimate of the probability that life might spontaneously originate, this statistical argument completely demolishes any suggestion that we should postulate design to fill the gap. Of all the apparent gaps in the evolutionary story, the origin of life gap can seem unbridgeable to brains calibrated to assess likelihood and risk on an everyday scale: the scale on which grant-giving bodies assess research proposals submitted by chemists. Yet even so big a gap as this is easily filled by statistically informed science, while the very same statistical science rules out a divine creator on the 'Ultimate 747' grounds we met earlier.
But now, to return to the interesting point that launched this section. Suppose somebody tried to explain the general phenomenon of biological adaptation along the same lines as we have just applied to the origin of life: appealing to an immense number of available planets. The observed fact is that every species, and every organ that has ever been looked at within every species, is-good at what it does. The wings of birds, bees and bats are good at flying. Eyes are good at seeing. Leaves are good at photosynthesizing. We live on a planet where we are surrounded by perhaps ten million species, each one of which independently displays a powerful illusion of apparent design. Each species is well fitted to its particular way of life. Could we get away with the 'huge numbers of planets' argument to explain all these separate illusions of design? No, we could not, repeat not. Don't even think about it. This is important, for it goes to the heart of the most serious misunderstanding of Darwinism.
It doesn't matter how many planets we have to play with, lucky chance could never be enough to explain the lush diversity of living complexity on Earth in the same way as we used it to explain the existence of life here in the first place. The evolution of life is a completely different case from the origin of life because, to repeat, the origin of life was (or could have been) a unique event which had to happen only once. The adaptive fit of species to their separate environments, on the other hand, is million fold, and ongoing.
It is clear that here on Earth we are dealing with a generalized process for optimizing biological species, a process that works all over the planet, on all continents and islands, and at all times. We can safely predict that, if we wait another ten million years, a whole new set of species will be as well adapted to their ways of life as today's species are to theirs. This is a recurrent, predictable, multiple phenomenon, not a piece of statistical luck recognized with hindsight. And, thanks to Darwin, we know how it is brought about: by natural selection.
The anthropic principle is impotent to explain the multifarious details of living creatures. We really need Darwin's powerful crane to account for the diversity of life on Earth, and especially the persuasive illusion of design. The origin of life, by contrast, lies outside the reach of that crane, because natural selection cannot proceed without it. Here the anthropic principle comes into its own. We can deal with the unique origin of life by postulating a very large number of planetary opportunities. Once that initial stroke of luck has been granted -- and the anthropic principle most decisively grants it to us -- natural selection takes over: and natural selection is emphatically not a matter of luck.
Nevertheless, it may be that the origin of life is not the only major gap in the evolutionary story that is bridged by sheer luck, anthropically justified. For example, my colleague Mark Ridley in Mendel's Demon (gratuitously and confusingly retitled The Cooperative Gene by his American publishers) has suggested that the origin of the eucaryotic cell (our kind of cell, with a nucleus and various other complicated features such as mitochondria, which are not present in bacteria) was an even more momentous, difficult and statistically improbable step tha!1 the origin of life. The origin of consciousness might be another major gap whose bridging was of the same order of improbability. One-off events like this might be explained by the anthropic principle, along the following lines. There are billions of planets that have developed life at the level of bacteria, but only a fraction of these life forms ever made it across the gap to something like the eucaryotic cell. And of these, a yet smaller fraction managed to cross the later Rubicon to consciousness. If both of these are one-off events, we are not dealing with a ubiquitous and all-pervading process, as we are with ordinary, run-of-the-mill biological adaptation. The anthropic principle states that, since we are alive, eucaryotic and conscious, our planet has to be one of the intensely rare planets that has bridged all three gaps.
Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement. It needs some luck to get started, and the 'billions of planets' anthropic principle grants it that luck. Maybe a few later gaps in the evolutionary story also need major infusions of luck, with anthropic justification. But whatever else we may say, design certainly does not work as an explanation for life, because design is ultimately not cumulative and it therefore raises bigger questions than it answers -- it takes us straight back along the Ultimate 747 infinite regress.
We live on a planet that is friendly to our kind of life, and we have seen two reasons why this is so. One is that life has evolved to flourish in the conditions provided by the planet. This is because of natural selection. The other reason is the anthropic one. There are billions of planets in the universe, and, however small the minority of evolution-friendly planets may be, our planet necessarily has to be one of them. Now it is time to take the anthropic principle back to an earlier stage, from biology back to cosmology.THE ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE: COSMOLOGICAL VERSION
We live not only on a friendly planet but also in a friendly universe. It follows from the fact of our existence that the laws of physics must be friendly enough to allow life to arise. It is no accident that when we look at the night sky we see stars, for stars are a necessary prerequisite for the existence of most of the chemical elements, and without chemistry there could be no life. Physicists have calculated that, if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible. Different physicists put it in different ways, but the conclusion is always much the same. [vii] Martin Rees, in Just Six Numbers, lists six fundamental constants, which are believed to hold all around the universe. Each of these six numbers is finely tuned in the sense that, if it were slightly different, the universe would be comprehensively different and presumably unfriendly to life. [viii]
An example of Rees's six numbers is the magnitude of the so-called 'strong' force, the force that binds the components of an atomic nucleus: the nuclear force that has to be overcome when one 'splits' the atom. It is measured as E, the proportion of the mass of a hydrogen nucleus that is converted to energy when hydrogen fuses to form helium. The value of this number in our universe is 0.007, and it looks as though it had to be very close to this value in order for any chemistry (which is a prerequisite for life) to exist. Chemistry as we know it consists of the combination and recombination of the ninety or so naturally occurring elements of the periodic table. Hydrogen is the simplest and commonest of the elements. All the other elements in the universe are made ultimately from hydrogen by nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is a difficult process which occurs in the intensely hot conditions of the interiors of stars (and in hydrogen bombs). Relatively small stars, such as our sun, can make only light elements such as helium, the second lightest in the periodic table after hydrogen. It takes larger and hotter stars to develop the high temperatures needed to forge most of the heavier elements, in a cascade of nuclear fusion processes whose details were worked out by Fred Hoyle and two colleagues (an achievement for which, mysteriously, Hoyle was not given a share of the Nobel Prize received by the others). These big stars may explode as supernovas, scattering their materials, including the elements of the periodic table, in dust clouds. These dust clouds eventually condense to form new stars and planets, including our own. This is why Earth is rich in elements over and above the ubiquitous hydrogen: elements without which chemistry, and life, would be impossible.
The relevant point here is that the value of the strong force crucially determines how far up the periodic table the nuclear fusion cascade goes. If the strong force were too small, say 0.006 instead of 0.007, the universe would contain nothing but hydrogen, and no interesting chemistry could result. If it were too large, say 0.008, all the hydrogen would have fused to make heavier elements. A chemistry without hydrogen could not generate life as we know it. For one thing, there would be no water. The Goldilocks value -- 0.007 -- is just right for yielding the richness of elements that we need for an interesting and life-supporting chemistry.
I won't go through the rest of Rees's six numbers. The bottom line for each of them is the same. The actual number sits in a Goldilocks band of values outside which life would not have been possible. How should we respond to this? Yet again, we have the theist's answer on the one hand, and the anthropic answer on the other. The theist says that God, when setting up the universe, tuned the fundamental constants of the universe so that each one lay in its Goldilocks zone for the production of life. It is as though God had six knobs that he could twiddle, and he carefully tuned each knob to its Goldilocks value. As ever, the theist's answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that's very improbable indeed. This is exactly the premise of the whole discussion we are having. It follows that the theist's answer has utterly failed to make any headway towards solving the problem at hand. I see no alternative but to dismiss it, while at the same time marvelling at the number of people who can't see the problem and seem genuinely satisfied by the 'Divine Knob-Twiddler' argument.
Maybe the psychological reason for this amazing blindness has something to do with the fact that many people have not had their consciousness raised, as biologists have, by natural selection and its power to tame improbability. J. Anderson Thomson, from his perspective as an evolutionary psychiatrist, points me to an additional reason, the psychological bias that we all have towards personifying inanimate objects as agents. As Thomson says, we are more inclined to mistake a shadow for a burglar than a burglar for a shadow. A false positive might be a waste of time. A false negative could be fatal. In a letter to me, he suggested that, in our ancestral past, our greatest challenge in our environment came from each other. 'The legacy of that is the default assumption, often fear, of human intention. We have a great deal of difficulty seeing anything other than human causation.' We naturally generalized that to divine intention. I shall return to the seductiveness of 'agents' in Chapter 5.
Biologists, with their raised consciousness of the power of natural selection to explain the rise of improbable things, are unlikely to be satisfied with any theory that evades the problem of improbability altogether. And the theistic response to the riddle of improbability is an evasion of stupendous proportions. It is more than a restatement of the problem, it is a grotesque amplification of it. Let's turn, then, to the anthropic alternative. The anthropic answer, in its most general form, is that we could only be discussing the question in the kind of universe that was capable of producing us. Our existence therefore determines that the fundamental constants of physics had to be in their respective Goldilocks zones. Different physicists espouse different kinds of anthropic solutions to the riddle of our existence.
Hard-nosed physicists say that the six knobs were never free to vary in the first place. When we finally reach the long-hoped-for Theory of Everything, we shall see that the six key numbers depend upon each other, or on something else as yet unknown, in ways that we today cannot imagine. The six numbers may turn out to be no freer to vary than is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. It will turn out that there is only one way for a universe to be. Far from God being needed to twiddle six knobs, there are no knobs to twiddle.
Other physicists (Martin Rees himself would be an example) find this unsatisfying, and I think I agree with them. It is indeed perfectly plausible that there is only one way for a universe to be. But why did that one way have to be such a set-up for our eventual evolution? Why did it have to be the kind of universe which seems almost as if, in the words of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, it 'must have known we were coming'? The philosopher John Leslie uses the analogy of a man sentenced to death by firing squad. It is just possible that all ten men of the firing squad will miss their victim. With hindsight, the survivor who finds himself in a position to reflect upon his luck can cheerfully say, 'Well, obviously they all missed, or I wouldn't be here thinking about it.' But he could still, forgivably, wonder why they all missed, and toy with the hypothesis that they were bribed, or drunk.
This objection can be answered by the suggestion, which Martin Rees himself supports, that there are many universes, co-existing like bubbles of foam, in a 'multiverse' (or 'megaverse', as Leonard Susskind prefers to call it). [ix] The laws and constants of anyone universe, such as our observable universe, are by-laws. The multiverse as a whole has a plethora of alternative sets of by-laws. The anthropic principle kicks in to explain that we have to be in one of those universes (presumably a minority) whose by-laws happened to be propitious to our eventual evolution and hence contemplation of the problem.
An intriguing version of the multiverse theory arises out of considerations of the ultimate fate of our universe. Depending upon the values of numbers such as Martin Rees's six constants, our universe may be destined to expand indefinitely, or it may stabilize at an equilibrium, or the expansion may reverse itself and go into contraction, culminating in the so-called 'big crunch'. Some big crunch models have the universe then bouncing back into expansion, and so on indefinitely with, say, a 20-billion-year cycle time. The standard model of our universe says that time itself began in the big bang, along with space, some 13 billion years ago. The serial big crunch model would amend that statement: our time and space did indeed begin in our big bang, but this was just the latest in a long series of big bangs, each one initiated by the big crunch that terminated the previous universe in the series. Nobody understands what goes on in singularities such as the big bang, so it is conceivable that the laws and constants are reset to new values, each time. If bang-expansion-contraction-crunch cycles have been going on for ever like a cosmic accordion, we have a serial, rather than a parallel, version of the multiverse. Once again, the anthropic principle does its explanatory duty. Of all the universes in the series, only a minority have their 'dials' tuned to biogenic conditions. And, of course, the present universe has to be one of that minority, because we are in it. As it turns out, this serial version of the multiverse must now be judged less likely than it once was, because recent evidence is starting to steer us away from the big crunch model. It now looks as though our own universe is destined to expand for ever.
Another theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin, has developed a tantalizingly Darwinian variant on the multiverse theory, including both serial and parallel elements. Smolin's idea, expounded in The Life of the Cosmos, hinges on the theory that daughter universes are born of parent universes, not in a fully fledged big crunch but more locally in black holes. Smolin adds a form of heredity: the fundamental constants of a daughter universe are slightly 'mutated' versions of the constants of its parent. Heredity is the essential ingredient of Darwinian natural selection, and the rest of Smolin's theory follows naturally. Those universes that have what it takes to 'survive' and 'reproduce' come to predominate in the multiverse. 'What it takes' includes lasting long enough to 'reproduce'. Because the act of reproduction takes place in black holes, successful universes must have what it takes to make black holes. This ability entails various other properties. For example, the tendency for matter to condense into clouds and then stars is a prerequisite to making black holes. Stars also, as we have seen, are the precursors to the development of interesting chemistry, and hence life. So, Smolin suggests, there has been a Darwinian natural selection of universes in the multiverse, directly favouring the evolution of black hole fecundity and indirectly favouring the production of life. Not all physicists are enthusiastic about Smolin's idea, although the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann is quoted as saying: 'Smolin? Is he that young guy with those crazy ideas? He may not be wrong.'70 A mischievous biologist might wonder whether some other physicists are in need of Darwinian consciousness-raising.
It is tempting to think (and many have succumbed) that to postulate a plethora of universes is a profligate luxury which should not be allowed. If we are going to permit the extravagance of a multiverse, so the argument runs, we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and allow a God. Aren't they both equally uparsimonious ad hoc hypotheses, and equally unsatisfactory? People who think that have not had their consciousness raised by natural selection. The key difference between the genuinely extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis is one of statistical improbability. The multiverse, for all that it is extravagant, is simple. God, or any intelligent, decision-taking, calculating agent, would have to be highly improbable in the very same statistical sense as the entities he is supposed to explain. The multiverse may seem extravagant in sheer number of universes. But if each one of those universes is simple in its fundamental laws, we are still not postulating anything highly improbable. The very opposite has to be said of any kind of intelligence.
Some physicists are known to be religious (Russell Stannard and the Reverend John Polkinghorne are the two British examples I have mentioned). Predictably, they seize upon the improbability of the physical constants all being tuned in their more or less narrow Goldilocks zones, and suggest that there must be a cosmic intelligence who deliberately did the tuning. I have already dismissed all such suggestions as raising bigger problems than they solve. But what attempts have theists made to reply? How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?
The theologian Richard Swinburne, as we have learned to expect, thinks he has an answer to this problem, and' he expounds it in his book Is There a God? He begins by showing that his heart is in the right place by convincingly demonstrating why we should always prefer the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts. Science explains complex things in terms of the interactions of simpler things, ultimately the interactions of fundamental particles. I (and I dare say you) think it a beautifully simple idea that all things are made of fundamental particles which, although exceedingly numerous, are drawn from a small, finite set of types of particle. If we are sceptical, it is likely to be because we think the idea too simple. But for Swinburne it is not simple at all, quite the reverse.
Given that the number of particles of anyone type, say electrons, is large, Swinburne thinks it too much of a coincidence that so many should have the same properties. One electron, he could stomach. But billions and billions of electrons, all with the same properties, that is what really excites his incredulity. For him it would be simpler, more natural, less demanding of explanation, if all electrons were different from each other. Worse, no one electron should naturally retain its properties for more than an instant at a time; each should change capriciously, haphazardly and fleetingly from moment to moment. That is Swinburne's view of the simple, native state of affairs. Anything more uniform (what you or I would call more simple) requires a special explanation. 'It is only because electrons and bits of copper and all other material objects have the same powers in the twentieth century as they did in the nineteenth century that things are as they are now.'
Enter God. God comes to the rescue by deliberately and continuously sustaining the properties of all those billions of electrons and bits of copper, and neutralizing their otherwise ingrained inclination to wild and erratic fluctuation. That is why when you've seen one electron you've seen them all; that is why bits of copper all behave like bits of copper, and that is why each electron and each bit of copper stays the same as itself from microsecond to microsecond and from century to century. It is because God constantly keeps a finger on each and every particle, curbing its reckless excesses and whipping it into line with its colleagues to keep them all the same.
But how can Swinburne possibly maintain that this hypothesis of God simultaneously keeping a gazillion fingers on wayward electrons is a simple hypothesis? It is, of course, precisely the opposite of simple. Swinburne pulls off the trick to his own satisfaction by a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah. He asserts, without justification, that God is only a single substance. What brilliant economy of explanatory causes, compared with all those gigazillions of independent electrons all just happening to be the same!
Theism claims that every other object which exists is caused to exist and kept in existence by just one substance, God. And it claims that every property which every substance has is due to God causing or permitting it to exist. It is a hallmark of a simple explanation to postulate few causes. There could in this respect be no simpler explanation than one which postulated only one cause. Theism is simpler than polytheism. And theism postulates for its one cause, a person [with] infinite power (God can do anything logically possible), infinite knowledge (God knows everything logically possible to know), and infinite freedom.
Swinburne generously concedes that God cannot accomplish feats that are logically impossible, and one feels grateful for this forbearance. Having said that, there is no limit to the explanatory purposes to which God's infinite power is put. Is science having a little difficulty explaining X? No problem. Don't give X another glance. God's infinite power is effortlessly wheeled in to explain X (along with everything else), and it is always a supremely simple explanation because, after all, there is only one God. What could be simpler than that?
Well, actually, almost everything. A God capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple. His existence is going to need a mammoth explanation in its own right. Worse (from the point of view of simplicity), other corners of God's giant consciousness are simultaneously preoccupied with the doings and emotions and prayers of every single human being -- and whatever intelligent aliens there might be on other planets in this and 100 billion other galaxies. He even, according to Swinburne, has to decide continuously not to intervene miraculously to save us when we get cancer. That would never do, for, 'If God answered most prayers for a relative to recover from cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.' And then what would we find to do with our time?
Not all theologians go as far as Swinburne. Nevertheless, the remarkable suggestion that the God Hypothesis is simple can be found in other modern theological writings. Keith Ward, then Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, was very clear on the matter in his 1996 book God, Chance and Necessity:
As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself. It is elegant because from one key idea -- the idea of the most perfect possible being -- the whole nature of God and the existence of the universe can be intelligibly explicated.
Like Swinburne, Ward mistakes what it means to explain something, and he also seems not to understand what it means to say of something that it is simple. I am not clear whether Ward really thinks God is simple, or whether the above passage represented a temporary 'for the sake of argument' exercise. Sir John Polkinghorne, in Science and Christian Belief, quotes Ward's earlier criticism of the thought of Thomas Aquinas: 'Its basic error is in supposing that God is logically simple -- simple not just in the sense that his being is indivisible, but in the much stronger sense that what is true of any part of God is true of the whole. It is quite coherent, however, to suppose that God, while indivisible, is internally complex.' Ward gets it right here. Indeed, the biologist Julian Huxley, in 1912, defined complexity in terms of 'heterogeneity of parts', by which he meant a particular kind of functional indivisibility. 
Elsewhere, Ward gives evidence of the difficulty the theological mind has in grasping where the complexity of life comes from. He quotes another theologian-scientist, the biochemist Arthur Peacocke (the third member of my trio of British religious scientists), as postulating the existence in living matter of a 'propensity for increased complexity'. Ward characterizes this as 'some inherent weighting of evolutionary change which favours complexity'. He goes on to suggest that such a bias 'might be some weighting of the mutational process, to ensure that more complex mutations occurred'. Ward is sceptical of this, as well he should be. The evolutionary drive towards complexity comes, in those lineages where it comes at all, not from any inherent propensity for increased complexity, and not from biased mutation. It comes from natural selection: the process which, as far as we know, is the only process ultimately capable of generating complexity out of simplicity. The theory of natural selection is genuinely simple. So is the origin from which it starts. That which it explains, on the other hand, is complex almost beyond telling: more complex than anything we can imagine, save a God capable of designing it.AN INTERLUDE AT CAMBRIDGE
At a recent Cambridge conference on science and religion, where I put forward the argument I am here calling the Ultimate 747 argument, I encountered what, to say the least, was a cordial failure to achieve a meeting of minds on the question of God's simplicity. The experience was a revealing one, and I'd like to share it.
First I should confess (that is probably the right word) that the conference was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. The audience was a small number of hand-picked science journalists from Britain and America. I was the token atheist among the eighteen invited speakers. One of the journalists, John Horgan, reported that they had each been paid the handsome sum of $15,000 to attend the conference, on top of all expenses. This surprised me. My long experience of academic conferences included no instances where the audience (as opposed to the speakers) was paid to attend. If I had known, my suspicions would immediately have been aroused. Was Templeton using his money to suborn science journalists and subvert their scientific integrity? John Horgan later wondered the same thing and wrote an article about his whole experience.  In it he revealed, to my chagrin, that my advertised involvement as a speaker had helped him and others to overcome their doubts:
The British biologist Richard Dawkins, whose participation in the meeting helped convince me and other fellows of its legitimacy, was the only speaker who denounced' religious beliefs as incompatible with science, irrational, and harmful. The other speakers -- three agnostics, one Jew, a deist, and 12 Christians (a Muslim philosopher canceled at the last minute) -- offered a perspective clearly skewed in favor of religion and Christianity.
Horgan's article is itself endearingly ambivalent. Despite his misgivings, there were aspects of the experience that he clearly valued (and so did I, as will become apparent below). Horgan wrote:
My conversations with the faithful deepened my appreciation of why some intelligent, well-educated people embrace religion. One reporter discussed the experience of speaking in tongues, and another described having an intimate relationship with Jesus. My convictions did not change, but others' did. At least one fellow said that his faith was wavering as a result of Dawkins's dissection of religion. And if the Templeton Foundation can help bring about even such a tiny step toward my vision of a world without religion, how bad can it be?
Horgan's article was given a second airing by the literary agent John Brockman on his 'Edge' website (often described as an on-line scientific salon) where it elicited varying responses, including one from the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. I responded to Dyson, quoting from his acceptance speech when he won the Templeton Prize. Whether he liked it or not, by accepting the Templeton Prize Dyson had sent a powerful signal to the world. It would be taken as an endorsement of religion by one of the world's most distinguished physicists.
'I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels.'
But isn't that exactly what any atheistic scientist would say, if he wanted to sound Christian? I gave further quotations from Dyson's acceptance speech, satirically interspersing them with imagined questions (in italics) to a Templeton official:
Oh, you want something a bit more profound, as well? How about ...
'I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.'
Have I said enough yet, and can I get back to doing physics now? Oh, not enough yet? OK then, how about this:
'Even in the gruesome history of the twentieth century, 1see some evidence of progress in religion. The two individuals who epitomized the evils of our century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, were both avowed atheists.' [x]
Can I go now?
Dyson could easily refute the implication of these quotations from his Templeton acceptance speech, if only he would explain dearly what evidence he finds to believe in God, in something more than just the Einsteinian sense which, as I explained in Chapter 1, we can all trivially subscribe to. If I understand Horgan's point, it is that Templeton's money corrupts science. I am sure Freeman Dyson is way above being corrupted. But his acceptance speech is still unfortunate if it seems to set an example to others. The Templeton Prize is two orders of magnitude larger than the inducements offered to the journalists at Cambridge, having been explicitly set up to be larger than the Nobel Prize. In Faustian vein, my friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett once joked to me, 'Richard, if ever you fall on hard times ...'
For better or worse, I attended two days at the Cambridge conference, giving a talk of my own and taking part in the discussion of several other talks. I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology. [xi] Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex? Scientific arguments, such as those I was accustomed to deploying in my own field, were inappropriate since theologians had always maintained that God lay outside science.
I did not gain the impression that the theologians who mounted this evasive defence were being wilfully dishonest. I think they were sincere. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly reminded of Peter Medawar's comment on Father Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, in the course of what is possibly the greatest negative book review of all time: 'its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.'  The theologians of my Cambridge encounter were defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not. Who was I to say that rational argument was the only admissible kind of argument? There are other ways of knowing besides the scientific, and it is one of these other ways of knowing that must be deployed to know God.
The most important of these other ways of knowing turned out to be personal, subjective experience of God. Several discussants at Cambridge claimed that God spoke to them, inside their heads, just as vividly and as personally as another human might. I have dealt with illusion and hallucination in Chapter 3 ('The argument from personal experience'), but at the Cambridge conference I added two points. First, that if God really did communicate with humans that fact would emphatically not lie outside science. God comes bursting through from whatever other-worldly domain is his natural abode, crashing through into our world where his messages can be intercepted by human brains -- and that phenomenon has nothing to do with science? Second, a God who is capable of sending intelligible signals to millions of people simultaneously, and of receiving messages from all of them simultaneously, cannot be, whatever else he might be, simple. Such bandwidth! God may not have a brain made of neurones, or a CPU made of silicon, but if he has the powers attributed to him he must have something far more elaborately and non-randomly constructed than the largest brain or the largest computer we know.
Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word 'God' carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence. To suggest that the original prime mover was complicated enough to indulge in intelligent design, to say nothing of mindreading millions of humans simultaneously, is tantamount to dealing yourself a perfect hand at bridge. Look around at the world of life, at the Amazon rainforest with its rich interlacement of lianas, bromeliads, roots and flying buttresses; its army ants and its jaguars, its tapirs and peccaries, treefrogs and parrots. What you are looking at is the statistical equivalent of a perfect' hand of cards (think of all the other ways you could permute the parts, none of which would work) -- except that we know how it came about: by the gradualistic crane of natural selection. It is not just scientists who revolt at mute acceptance of such improbability arising spontaneously; common sense baulks too. To suggest that the first cause, the great unknown which is responsible for something existing rather than nothing, is a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously, is a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation. It is a dreadful exhibition of self-indulgent, thought-denying skyhookery.
I am not advocating some sort of narrowly scientistic way of thinking. But the very least that any honest quest for truth must have in setting out to explain such monstrosities of improbability as a rainforest, a coral reef, or a universe is a crane and not a skyhook. The crane doesn't have to be natural selection. Admittedly, nobody has ever thought of a better one. But there could be others yet to be discovered. Maybe the 'inflation' that physicists postulate as occupying some fraction of the first yoctosecond of the universe's existence will turn out, when it is better understood, to be a cosmological crane to stand alongside Darwin's biological one. Or maybe the elusive crane that cosmologists seek will be a version of Darwin's idea itself: either Smolin's model or something similar. Or maybe it will be the multiverse plus anthropic principle espoused by Martin Rees and others. It may even be a superhuman designer -- but, if so, it will most certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed. If (which I don't believe for a moment) our universe was designed, and a fortiori if the designer reads our thoughts and hands out omniscient advice, forgiveness and redemption, the designer himself must be the end product of some kind of cumulative escalator or crane, perhaps a version of Darwinism in another universe.
The last-ditch defence by my critics in Cambridge was attack. My whole world-view was condemned as 'nineteenth-century'. This is such a bad argument that I almost omitted to mention it. But regrettably I encounter it rather frequently. Needless to say, to call an argument nineteenth-century is not the same as explaining what is wrong with it. Some nineteenth-century ideas were very good ideas, not least Darwin's own dangerous idea. In any case, this particular piece of name-calling seemed a bit rich coming, as it did, from an individual (a distinguished Cambridge geologist, surely well advanced along the Faustian road to a future Templeton Prize) who justified his own Christian belief by invoking what he called the historicity of the New Testament. It was precisely in the nineteenth century that theologians, especially in Germany, called into grave doubt that alleged historicity, using the evidence-based methods of history to do so. This was, indeed, swiftly pointed out by the theologians at the Cambridge conference.
In any case, I know the 'nineteenth-century' taunt of old. It goes with the 'village atheist' gibe. It goes with 'Contrary to what you seem to think Ha Ha Ha we don't believe in an old man with a long white beard any more Ha Ha Ha.' All three jokes are code for something else, just as, when I lived in America in the late 1960s, 'law and order' was politicians' code for anti-black prejudice. [xii] What, then, is the coded meaning of 'You are so nineteenth-century' in the context of an argument about religion? It is code for: 'You are so crude and unsubtle, how could you be so insensitive and ill-mannered as to ask me a direct, point-blank question like "Do you believe in miracles?" or "Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?" Don't you know that in polite society we don't ask such questions? That sort of question went out in the nineteenth century: But think about why it is impolite to ask such direct, factual questions of religious people today. It is because it is embarrassing! But it is the answer that is embarrassing, if it is yes.
The nineteenth-century connection is now clear. The nineteenth century is the fast time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians today are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked. Hence, if somebody like me insists on asking the question, it is I who am accused of being 'nineteenth-century'. It is really quite funny, when you think about it.
I left the conference stimulated and invigorated, and reinforced in my conviction that the argument from improbability -- the 'Ultimate 747' gambit -- is a very serious argument against the existence of God, and one to which I have yet to hear a theologian give a convincing answer despite numerous opportunities and invitations to do so. Dan Dennett rightly describes it as 'an unrebuttable refutation, as devastating today as when Philo used it to trounce Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues two centuries earlier. A skyhook would at best simply postpone the solution to the problem, but Hume couldn't think of any cranes, so he caved in.'  Darwin, of course, supplied the vital crane. How Hume would have loved it.
This chapter has contained the central argument of my book, and so, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I shall summarize it as a series of six numbered points.
1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a 'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that -- an illusion.
5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.
6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.
If the argument of this chapter is accepted, the factual premise of religion -- the God Hypothesis -- is untenable. God almost certainly does not exist. This is the main conclusion of the book so far. Various questions now follow. Even if we accept that God doesn't exist, doesn't religion still have a lot going for it? Isn't it consoling? Doesn't it motivate people to do good?' If it weren't for religion, how would we know what is good? Why, in any case, be so hostile? Why, if it is false, does every culture in the world have religion? True or false, religion is ubiquitous, so where does it come from? It is to this last question that we turn next.
i. Intelligent design has been unkindly described as creationism in a cheap tuxedo.
ii. Classical Latin and Greek were better equipped. Latin homo (Greek anthropo-) means human, as opposed to vir (andro-) which means man, and femina (gyne-) which means woman. Thus anthropology pertains to all humanity, where andrology and gynecology are sexually exclusive branches of medicine.
iii. See also his 2007 book God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist.
iv. There is an example in fiction. The children's writer Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, imagines a species of animals, the 'mulefa', that co-exist with trees that produce perfectly round seedpods with a hole in the centre. These pods the mulefa adopt as wheels. The wheels, not being part of the body, have no nerves or blood vessels to get twisted around the 'axle' (a strong claw of horn or bone). Pullman perceptively notes an additional point: the system works only because the planet is paved with natural basalt ribbons, which serve as 'roads'. Wheels are no good over rough country.
v. Fascinatingly, the muscle principle is deployed in yet a third mode in some insects such as flies, bees and bugs, in which the flight muscle is intrinsically oscillatory, like a reciprocating engine. Whereas other insects such as locusts send nervous instructions for each wing stroke (as a bird does), bees send an instruction to switch on (or switch off) the oscillatory motor. Bacteria have a mechanism which is neither a simple contractor (like a bird's flight muscle) nor a reciprocator (like a bee's flight muscle), but a true rotator: in that respect it is like an electric motor or a Wankel engine.
vi. If you find that surprising, you may be suffering from northern hemisphere chauvinism, as described on page 139.
vii. The physicist Victor Stenger (in e.g. God, the Failed Hypothesis) dissents from this consensus, and is unpersuaded that the physical laws and constants are particularly friendly to life. Nevertheless, I shall bend over backwards to accept the 'friendly universe' consensus, in order to show that, in any case, it cannot be used to support theism.
viii. I say 'presumably', partly because we don't know how different alien forms of life might be, and partly because it is possible that we make a mistake if we consider only the consequences of changing one constant at a time. Could there be other combinations of values of the six numbers which would turn out to be friendly to life, in ways that we do not discover if we consider them only one at a time? Nevertheless, I shall proceed, for simplicity, as though we really do have a big problem to explain in the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants.
ix. Susskind (2006) gives a splendid advocacy of the anthropic principle in the megaverse. He says the idea is hated by most physicists. I can't understand why. I think it is beautiful -- perhaps because my consciousness has been raised by Darwin.
x. This calumny is dealt with in Chapter 7.
xi. This accusation is reminiscent of 'NOMA', whose overblown claims I dealt with in Chapter 2.
xii. In Britain 'inner cities' had the equivalent coded meaning, prompting Auberon Waugh's wickedly hilarious reference to 'inner cities of both sexes'.