Things unseen

Which is less likely: life after death or life after the Big Bang?

Issue: "Tax man's terror," April 14, 2001

The NCAA basketball tournament ended on April 2 with a hardly surprising result: Players from No. 1 seed Duke cut down the net in the now-traditional victory celebration, with each player keeping a strand or two. I was cheering for No. 15 seed Hampton (the college that educated Booker T. Washington 130 years ago) to go all the way, but that's something for fantasy films.

Is the Resurrection that many of us will celebrate on Sunday a fantasy? It's a surprising occurrence, sure, but other events are far more improbable. To name a few: that an orderly universe exists at all, that earth is a place where life can exist, that complex organs such as eyes would emerge.

From a materialist perspective, the odds against our being here are enormous. John Blanchard's Does God Believe in Atheists? provides some of the numbers: He notes that Roger Penrose, who helped to develop Black Hole theories, estimated as one in one hundred billion to the 123rd power the odds of a Big Bang producing by accident an orderly universe as opposed to chaos.

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Big Bang theorists argue that the universe one second after its purported start had to expand at a rate rapid enough to keep in check the gravitational attraction of galaxies. Stephen Hawking has noted that if the rate of expansion had been smaller by an infinitesimal amount, the universe would have collapsed.

Mr. Blanchard quotes useful analogies about the likelihood of the universe allowing for the existence of life: hitting a target an inch wide on the other side of the observable universe, or expecting a pole vaulter's pole to remain standing, poised on its tip, for centuries following his vault.

Of course, even if the universe by chance came out right for human purposes, we would need a livable home in space. Earth's size, distance from the sun, and rotational speed had to be just right. We need the air above not only for breathing but to protect us from cosmic rays and meteorites. We need light (but not much ultraviolet), heat (but not too much), and so on.

Does Christ's resurrection seem incredible? What about the origin of life? A chance of one out of 1,000,000,000,000,000 is considered a virtual impossibility, but when DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick calculated the possibility of a simple protein sequence of 200 amino-acids (much simpler than a DNA molecule) originating spontaneously, his figure was 10 with 260 zeroes after it.

Those who remember one past fad will appreciate British scientist Fred Hoyle's view of the odds against evolved life. "Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the Rubik cube," he wrote, "will concede the near impossibility of a solution being obtained by a blind person moving the cube faces at random. Now imagine 10 to the fiftieth blind persons (standing shoulder to shoulder, these would more than fill our entire planetary system) each with a scrambled Rubik cube ... simultaneously arriving at the solved form."

Mr. Hoyle's best-known analogy has a tornado in a junkyard taking all the pieces of metal lying there and turning them into a Boeing 747. It would be amazing but possible for two pieces to be naturally welded together, and then two pieces more in a later whirlwind, but production of even a simple organic molecule would require all of the pieces to come together at one time.

Three decades ago Frank Salisbury of Utah State described the odds this way: Imagine one hundred million trillion planets, each with an ocean with lots of DNA fragments that reproduce one million times per second, with a mutation occurring each time. In four billion years it would still take trillions of universes to produce a single gene-if they got lucky.

During these recent decades, however, the odds have not inhibited the true believers in evolution-or are they true believers in avoiding at all costs the alternative? The late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov acknowledged that he did not "have the information to prove that God doesn't exist," but "emotionally, I'm an atheist." Aldous Huxley wrote of the philosopher trying "to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do.... We don't know because we don't want to know."

Do we want to know whether Christ rose from the dead? God provides the grace to believe in that, but note: Such belief requires less faith in things unseen than believing in atheistic macroevolution. Resurrection is an easy task for a God who created the entire world out of nothing. But believing in time-plus-chance explanations is like believing that the now-scattered strands of the championship basketball net will suddenly fly together and form a pristine net for the next tournament.

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