John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Ambiguity of the Universe

Although most in today's academic world begin with an assumption of naturalism/materialism, Hick argues that the Universe is, in fact, ambiguous.  That is, it can be interpreted in a variety of ways including those which presume a God/Spiritual Reality, and those which do not.

In his chapter entitled The Big Bang and the Ambiguity of the Universe, Hick talks about the current scientific understanding of the creation of the Universe – the Big Bang.  In the process he references what some have called the teleological argument for the existence of God – the idea that the Universe shows design or that it leads to a telos, an end goal, which includes the development of intelligent life.  

"We know now that the form that the expansion has taken was determined by basic conditions which, if they had been even slightly different, would not have produced galaxies, including planets, including life, including us. There had to be very precise values for a number of basic constants for the universe as it is to have come about. One example is that in order for a universe of galaxies to develop there had to be just the right degree of non-uniformity in the initial state. The astrophysicists refer to this degree of non-uniformity, consisting in the energy difference between peaks and troughs in the density of matter, as Q. Q has to be very close to 0.00001 in order to account for the present-day galaxies and clusters. To quote Martin Rees,

If Q were much smaller than 0.00001, galactic ‘ecosystems’ would never form: aggregations would take longer to develop, and their gravity would be too weak to retain gas. A very smooth universe would remain forever dark and featureless ... On the other hand, a rougher universe, with Q much larger than 0.00001, would be turbulent and violent. Lumps far bigger than galaxies would condense early in its history. They would not fragment into stars.

Other such conditions include the electric charge of the electron, the ratio of the electron and proton masses, the strength of the strong force between nuclei. These are some – and only some – of the precise conditions needed if the universe as we know it, with ourselves as part of it, was to come about. In fact it looks as though our universe has been precisely designed to produce intelligent life. Martin Rees does not himself believe in a creator God, but he does acknowledge the extraordinary series of coincidences that has been necessary to produce ourselves:

A universe hospitable to life – what we might call a biophilic universe – has to be very special in many ways. The prerequisites for any life – long-lived stable stars, a periodic table of atoms with complex chemistry, and so on – are sensitive to physical laws and could not have emerged from a Big Bang with a recipe that was even slightly different. Many recipes would lead to stillborn universes with no atoms, no chemistry, and no planets; or to universes too short lived or too empty to allow anything to evolve beyond sterile uniformity. This distinctive and special-seeming recipe seems to me a fundamental mystery that should not be brushed aside as merely a brute fact."

Hick's point in this chapter by citing the possible teleology of the cosmos is simply to argue that the Universe can be interpreted theistically.  The reality we find ourselves in is open to a host of explanations, not just explanations that assume materialism.  As Hick notes below, each worldview can be internally consistent while taking into account the other side(s).

"So in the west today religious faith is on the defensive in the public mind. This is a reversal of roles. A couple of hundred years ago it was the naturalistic thinker who had to show the dogmatic religious believer that the universe is ambiguous and does not have to be understood religiously, whereas today it is the other way round. It is now the religious person who has to show the dogmatic naturalistic humanist that the universe does not have to be understood as solely purposeless matter. The reality is that the universe is to us at present ambiguous as between religious and naturalistic interpretations. There can in principle be both complete and consistent naturalistic and also complete and consistent religious accounts of it, each including an account of the other."