Friday, April 13, 2012

Review Shmeview: Calculating God

Calculating God is a book about an atheist presented with a compelling case for God and eventually converting to theism. Not something you’d think I’d like, right? Turns out I did, very much so.

In fact, the pages hold a case for God so solid, that I too would leave atheism...if this wasn’t a science fiction novel. Calculating God is by Robert J. Sawyer, the guy who penned the story on which the post-LOST drama Flashforward was based. In it, two alien races visit earth to investigate human psychology and dinosaur fossils to further their theory that God is real. Sound interesting? If so, I recommend you read it. From here on out I’ll give my take on the book revealing the kind of spoilers that may ruin a purely fresh experience, but shouldn’t take away the enjoyment of Sawyer’s universe. I will avoid any spoilery material that may or may not be revealed in the third and final act of the book. You’ve been warned.

The book reads as an excuse for the main characters, atheist paleontologist Thomas Jericho and theist alien Hollus, to sit down and chat. Sure, other interesting things happen, like the public response to first contact, but this dialogue is all that matters for the first two-thirds of the novel. Hollus lays out to Jericho that the advanced science of his world has actually confirmed an intelligent creator that governs the universe. I won’t get into all the details of the argument, but I will end the post with the part that would make me a theist. Actually, I would have converted before Jericho. He needed a “smoking gun”--to actually witness a miracle, before he made up his mind.

One criticism I have over the fictional discussion is that there was a lot of muddled talk about intelligent design. The paleontologist obviously believed in evolution, and the alien seemed to most of the time, but other times she talked of a designer. I think that was just the author working in all the issues of the religion vs. science debate that he could, but I feel like he failed here. Sawyer has a great grasp of science, but popularizing the ID concept in this book is sending a mixed message. That said, the alien certainly wasn’t a creationist, nor did she have a holy book. She, as well as the rest of the aliens, only believed in a vague sense of an imperfect god. The type of god I would believe in if I did indeed believe.

The argument for God that I found most convincing is one believers already use, the Fine-Tuning Argument. The premise is that the universe is set with fundamental physical constants that, if any were tweaked slightly, would not be able to support life and/or form matter. You can read more about the argument and the specific constants in question here. In our non-fiction world, this argument doesn’t close the book on atheism. We are also on a “fine-tuned” planet of sorts. Life probably wouldn’t have evolved here if we were closer to or farther from the sun, for instance. The anthropic principle states that we must live somewhere that can support life because we are, in fact, here to observe it. We couldn’t be anywhere else.

This principle explains why living on one of the few planets that can support us isn’t that special. However, it needs another element before it can explain why we are in a universe that supports us. There are probably trillions of planets in our galaxy alone, it’s reasonable to assume that at least one would beat the odds and meet human-friendly conditions. For the anthropic principle to work for the fine tuning of the universe, we’d need a well populated multiverse.

Luckily, atheists don’t have to pull the multiverse concept out of our collective, infidel asses to maintain the intellectual high ground. Quantum mechanics also lends itself to a many-worlds interpretation. It’s possible that very universe that could exist, does exist--including many with physical constants that don’t allow life and many that do. As long as this is possible, the “fine-tuning” of the universe requires no god.

In Calculating God, the alien Hollus reveals that their science discovered that there have only been eight universes, a number not sufficiently large enough to account for the astronomical odds that our universe in livable. They also discovered that the constants of the universe could, in theory, be different, but are not. I don’t know if our real-world science could determine for certain whether or not we live in a multiverse and how many universes it contained. If somehow they could discover something similar to this fictional account, The intellectually honest thing to do would be to give up atheism.

Note: It is important for atheists to keep in mind new evidence that would change their mind on the existence of a deity. It is what separates our informed belief from blind faith. I liked this book, in part, because it brought to light one more thing that would convert me.


  1. Enjoyed the novel but I can clearly tell you did as well, a little biased but understandable . Good review.

  2. The many worlds theory of quantum physics can't be used to explain fine tuning of cosmological constants as it would be the same 'settings' across every universe. That's the reason why "atheists pull the multiverse concept out of [their] collective, infidel asses" to try to explain it away rather than deal with it. They need a multiverse with all possible constants, which quantum physics doesn't supply. David Deutsch in "The Beginning of Infinity" does a good job explain why even the multiverse concept (alone at least) can't explain the fine tuning of the universe. Deutsch is, of course, an atheist. So this isn't an argument you can dismiss because its coming from "the enemy", so to speak. Roger Penrose -- also an atheist -- points out that all fine tuning aside, the universe is so low entropy that we need a serious explanation just for that. It's so improbable (as a matter of just chance) that atoms colliding together and forming life by chance is more likely. So why do we even need evolution at all? (So Penrose asks, though of course he believes in it entirely.) Both are right, fine tuning currently has no known explanation or even a really good conjecture of why its happened.