Fine Tuning and Blunt Retooling

Horses, soldiers, mechanics, and the Angel of Annunciation
Leonardo da Vinci ca.1503

Lately I’ve been reading a lovely little book by Owen Gingerich, Harvard Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and History of Science. It’s titled God’s Universe, and – as you can guess – its aim is to make clear that faith and science, rightly understood, need not be enemies.

On the basis of what we now know about statistics and probability, Gingerich argues (here citing Pierre Lecomte du Nouy) that, were life and the formation of DNA on our planet to have come about by chance, “‘an infinitely longer time than the estimated duration of the earth’” would be required “‘in order to have one chance … to manifest themselves’” and the origin of life by chance should therefore “‘be considered as impossible in the human sense.‘”

Furthermore, there are “incredible odds … against the chance formation of a protein molecule.” To overcome those odds, we would have to postulate “the catalysts and unknown pathways that enable the formation of life… . But is not the [hypothetical] existence of such pathways also evidence of design?”

Long ago, Plato colorfully called the ancient war between contenders for a divine reality and the materialists as “the battle of the gods and the giants.”

The warriors haven’t changed much, but are we sure that the battle lines are rightly drawn at present? In the Gingerich version, we have the materialists on one side attributing all we see and are to the operations of impersonal (“blind”) forces plus chance. Whereas, on the opposing (providential) side, we suppose an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent (O-O-O) God whose eye is on the subatomic particles, on all the molecules, on every organ of every living body, on the sparrow, and you and me – everywhere with the same intensity and care.

Would there be any other way to analyze the battle?

Well, we could relax some of the claims of Providential control. Mark Twain depicts Noah’s Ark riding over the bounding waves while, behind the Ark, a dinosaur paddles desperately, having learned of the Flood too late to haul its huge body up the gangplank in time.

Doesn’t it rather seem as if God proceeds somewhat the way we do — by trial and error? If not, why create a planet populated with gigantic, terrifying reptiles and then — perhaps with a well-aimed asteroid? — consign that entire species to the dustbin of pre-history?

All over the planet, Jewish Torah Study classes are now rereading the Book of Genesis. It sure looks as if God starts the human story with Plan A, in a Garden where we’re practically on first-name terms with our Creator, run around naked and haven’t a care in the world.

And then somehow (never mind how, that would take too long) Plan A does not work out.

With Plan B in effect after that, God gives us scope to work, procreate, have sibling rivalry and lots of sexual sin. (At least, that seems to be how the rabbis interpreted the excesses of the generation before the Flood.) Plan B concludes with God’s promise to Noah not to wipe us out again despite our regrettable flaws. At this point, certain basic rules are laid down for the human race: the Noachide commandments. Don’t murder, steal, and so forth. You can look ’em up.

After the Flood, we’re on Plan C. Soon enough, human beings feel sufficiently revved up to combine their skills and speech into a human-engineered, piled-up superstructure — where elites can strut around like gods — in a system controlled and unified from the top down. With the aim of pulling down this political ziggurat — by generating diverse languages and cultures — God does what God can to prevent that delusive utopia from disfiguring the ancient world.

Where does that leave us and God? This is the moment when God calls out an individual — and descended from that individual a people – focusing the divine purpose on one singular pilot project. When Abram hears the Lech Lecha — “Get thee up and get thee out!” – he obeys it with what you might call discerning wholeheartedness. He fights when he has to, divvies up the spoils of war and later, disputed land use, with impartial fairness. He seems altogether a higher-order sort of man. And yet, when the ruler of Egypt covets his beautiful wife, Abram passes her off as his sister so as not to get killed on her account.

“Why,” asked one student, “didn’t God protect Sarai from Pharoah?”

“Because,” another student suggested, “God doesn’t solve all our problems for us. If God did, we’d have no need for our freedom.” 

In sum, if we credit the record in the Book of Genesis, we and God both proceed by trial and error. We and God have — 

a joint work-in-progress.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Fine Tuning and Blunt Retooling

  1. castaway5555 says:

    This is just one of the best of your many, many, fine pieces … and certainly one of the best ever on this subject … loved your “O O O God” … and the humor throughout; found myself chuckling, this early in the morning … thank you … a work in progress. For sure …

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