Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.
— Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s admonition came to my mind several times while reading Calculating God. Sawyer’s book is foremost a piece of entertainment and should be treated as such. On this count, it is not a bad read, and maybe even deserved the Hugo nomination it received. Nonetheless, Calculating God presents an abundance of philosophical annoyances.
Calculating God follows a Canadian paleontologist, Thomas Jericho, as he is contacted by an alien named Hollus. Hollus is on a mission to find corroborating evidence of God’s intervention in cosmic history. Simultaneously, our doubting Thomas struggles with cancer.
Calculating God is at times surprisingly funny and touching. For example, this is a passage from the first encounter between the alien Hollus and Thomas:
“I have been studying your world; that is why I am here.”
“You’re an explorer?”
The eyestalks moved closer to each other, then held their position there. “Not exactly,” said Hollus.
“Then what? You’re not…you’re not an invader are you?”
The eyestalks rippled in an S-shaped motion. Laughter? “No.” And the two arms spread wide. “Forgive me, but you possess little my associates or I might desire.” Hollus paused, as if thinking. Then he made a twirling gesture with one of his hands, as though motioning for me to turn around. “Of course, if you want, I could give you an anal probe…”
There were gasps from the small crowd that had assembled in the lobby. I tried to raise my nonexistent eyebrows.
Hollus’s eyestalks did their S-ripple again. “Sorry–just kidding. You humans do have some crazy mythology about extraterrestrial visitations. Honestly, I will not hurt you–or your cattle, for that matter.”
Nonetheless, Sawyer’s Deus ex alienus is simply unconvincing and Sawyer comes off as a man with a word in desperate need of a referent, if even only for a plot point.
!PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW!
Sawyer wants to perform something of a thought experiment with the scenario of an agnostic and a world coming to grips with material evidence of a God. Hollus presents astonishing evidence of a guiding intelligence in the universe– the major extinction events in earths history are coincident with those on many other other planets. Furthermore, Hollus reveals, a fifth fundamental force has been discovered by the advanced aliens, thus ruling out the multiple-universe hypothesis and leaving God as the only explanation for the fine tuned nature of the universe. According to Sawyer’s alien, “[t]hat we live in a created universe is apparent to anyone with sufficient intelligence and information.”
Sawyer, I should note, is no young earth creationist, or Christian fundamentalist of any stripe. His stance is that everything sensible, including god, must be discoverable by science, specifically through anthropic reasoning. This is both profoundly optimistic and naive.
Anthropic reasoning is notoriously shaky, while the inference of design from anthropic reasoning is positively gauche. Here are just a few criticisms: philosopher Nick Bostrom’s charge of anthropic bias, mathematician Michael Ikeda and astronomer Bill Jefferys prosecutors fallacy (full treatment)and philosopher of science, Ian Hacking’s inverse gambler’s fallacy criticism.
Leaving the aforementioned criticisms aside, Sawyer believes that if the multiple-universe hypothesis is ruled out that “we’ll know whether or not God ever existed.” So, by supplying a fictitious fifth fundamental force that rules out the multiple-universe hypothesis leaving, he implies, God as the only explanation for the improbably fine tuned nature of the universe. This just doesn’t follow. The inference of a designer, as the only alternative is basically an argument from failure of imagination. He cannot imagine another alternative, therefor there must be none.
How improbable are the constants of the universe we need explained? Sawyer, elsewhere, quotes physicist Paul Davies‘ conclusion (borrowed from Roger Penrose) that “the odds of our universe, with its specific, ultimately life-generating properties, arising by chance are one in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.” Such back of the envelope calculations mean very little; with enough ignorance of the features relevant possibility space, nearly anything can be made to appear astronomically improbable.
Furthermore, though Sawyer is well aware of the problem of empirical emptiness (“[i]f both perfection and imperfection are taken as proof of God’s existence, then the whole idea of proof simply falls apart“), he doesn’t see that “goddidit” (even by his finite God) is a poor explanation for other reasons, including it begging important origin questions. As I have put it before, explaining one mystery by appealing to a greater one is no explanation at all.
Even the eventual appearance of “God” in the form of a massive organism to avert another extinction event precipitated by extropean-like aliens does little to establish the existence of what most of us would consider God. Where did this cosmic being come from? How did it fine-tune the constants of the universe? You will find no answers in Calculating God.
Having admittedly attacked a hot fudge sundae, I end with an admonition for Sawyer, courtesy of Richard Dawkins:
Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the easy assumption that design is the only alternative to chance, and to seek out graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity. Before Darwin, philosophers such as Hume understood that the improbability of life did not mean it had to be designed, but they couldn’t imagine the alternative. After Darwin, we all should feel, deep in our bones, suspicious of the very idea of design. The illusion of design is a trap that has caught us before, and Darwin should have immunised us by raising our consciousness. Would that he had succeeded with all of us. (from The God Delusion)
1. I am not alone in my irritation, both skeptics and religious fundamentalists have given Sawyer flack for Calculating God.
2. For an extensive analysis of anthropic reasoning, see Self-Location and Observation Selection Theory
– An Advanced Introduction and Observational Selection Effects and Probability Anthropic Bias (Review) both by Nick Bostrom.
3. See Intelligent Design: Humans, Cockroaches, and the Laws of Physics, Victor J. Stenger and On Universes and Firing Squads or “How I Learned To Stop Worrying About the Origin of the Cosmos”, Michael J. Hurben