Kurtis McCathern on Virtual Worlds, Watchmakers, and Other Speculations: Reactions to Eric Metaxas

One thing is sure, Eric Metaxas has people talking. His Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article titled “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” has been liked over 370,000 times on Facebook  and has been retweeted over 5700 times. Obviously, the topic is of great interest to many people. 
After I read the WSJ article, I reached out to a few people with questions about some of the claims. I will report on most of the answers tomorrow. However, today I want to post a reaction to Metaxas’ article from good friend and computer engineer Kurtis McCathern. Kurtis has a BA from Rice University in computer science and math and works at Blizzard Entertainment on the World of Warcraft franchise. This piece is not exactly a rebuttal but he jumps off of the WSJ article with reflections on our assumptions about God’s creativity. Yesterday, I linked to an article by Peter Enns which ended with the following observation:

Bottom line, as I see it: God’s “existence” (pardon the metaphorical language) and consequently knowing this God are not proven or disproven by the amazing advances in recent generations concerning our knowledge of the physical universe–even if those advances challenge how we think of God and speak of God.

God is not at stake. Our metaphors are.

Metaxas selectively addressed what science has to say about the origins of the universe, failing to address opposing arguments and data. Along with Enns and McCathern, I think it is too soon to know what science makes the case for.
Virtual Worlds, Watchmakers, and Other Speculations
by Kurtis McCathern
I literally create worlds for a living. Not by myself, of course: a large team of designers, artists, and programmers work together to create the lands, flora, fauna, and characters that make up World of Warcraft. In fact, my part as a programmer is barely recognizable as creation as all. My code runs below the trees and rocks a player would see in the world, as dozens of computers fly messages back and forth to simulate the world of Azeroth. In ancient Greece, my fellow programmers and I would play the roles of Erebus and Nyx, bringing forth the Aether which would bind creation together.
It is from this perspective that I wonder why we as Christians are so fascinated with watchmaker arguments.
The canonical watchmaker analogy was made by William Paley in “Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity”, and goes more or less like this: you are walking along, you come across a watch. A watch is intricate in design, with several tiny pieces that must be made with exacting tolerances all to work together. When you come across this watch, you don’t think the watch has been there forever, or that it just spontaneously occurred. You assume the origin of the watch is a watchmaker.
Other teleological arguments predate this by thousands of years, and are not unique to Christianity, but they do seem to come up a lot in evolution vs. creation debates. They are popular because they are easy to understand and engage that most dangerous of human skills: intuition. Every time another complex, interrelated, seemingly irreducible system is described by science, the bookies of the debate stand ready to argue that the odds are irresistible. Science, do you really want to believe that you are here by a chance of one in a billion billion billons (or worse)? How big a gambler are you?
Pieces like Eric Metaxas’s recent effort in the Wall Street Journal seem to crop up whenever there’s a shiny new hard-to-explain-the-odds bit of science. They claim: science has now discovered the universe is not like a watch, it’s more complex, like a race car engine. Or a rocketship! Or the entire internet! If you came across the entire internet by chance you would assume an intelligent designer, right? (Don’t answer that.)
The odds are certainly very long, but on closer inspection you see the argument isn’t really about odds at all.
A strong argument against the watchmaker analogy already exists: it’s called the anthropic principle. It states that you can’t really worry about the odds that led to you existing, because you already do exist. You can only observe the outcome that led to you. Put it this way: if you are walking along a garden path, and you come across five dice with the number 4 facing up, you might assume that somebody set the dice like that, because it’s an extremely unlikely result. But another possibility is that the person who owns the path rolls those dice every day, and only opens it up for people to come in if all the dice come up 4’s. Thus every one who has ever seen the dice has seen them as 4’s. No other observation exists because no one was there to observe.
In other words, we as intelligent creatures can speculate on our origins only because we happen to be here. In other universes, there’s no “us” to do the speculating, or even to have the origins about which to speculate. But that doesn’t mean the universe was carefully scripted for us to arrive on stage.
The watchmaker argument hasn’t really changed; it’s just a matter of scale. Unfortunately, greater odds don’t necessarily mean there was a designer anymore than smaller odds would mean there couldn’t be.
But there’s a greater problem with watchmaker analogies for Christians: we know how to build watches, but we don’t know how to build worlds. In Greek antiquity, a speculation on origins only had to explain the ground, the air, the water, and the stars you could see. Aether seems pretty good in that light. Now we know more about experiential reality, so we have to add black holes and dark matter and Einstein’s favorite fudge factor: the cosmological constant. As a result, popular scientific opinion currently seems centered around string theory and the bubbly multiverse.
To clarify, look at another popular video game: Minecraft. Unlike World of Warcraft, where every rock or tree is placed carefully by a designer or artist, in Minecraft the entire world you inhabit is generated randomly from a single number, and millions or more unique possible worlds can result. Just constrain your equation a bit here and a bit there and suddenly you’re chopping wood in a blocky forest.
It’s a strange idea, even to science. In fact, scientists are arguing now if it’s even possible to determine the validity of string theory experimentally, since the multiverse idea means anything you don’t understand or doesn’t fit can pushed out into places you can never observe. Some, like Paul Steinhardt, are worried about losing the integrity of science as a result of trying. Given the discussion within the scientific community, it’s understandable that a non-scientist could be overwhelmed.
Yet I fear the watchmaker analogy feels compelling exactly because this strange random new world feels foreign. We know how to build watches, and we’re comfortable culturally with God the careful craftsman. Like those theologians of Galileo’s day who were unwilling to believe they weren’t the center of the universe, we don’t like the idea that God’s creative process might be less Da Vinci and more Jackson Pollock — messier and harder to understand than the knitting described in Psalm 139. Augustine reminded us that turning water into wine instantaneously at a wedding is really no more miraculous than doing it in barrels and casks over years, and likewise creation is no less miraculous if it requires a bubbly multiverse instead of scripted design. A bubbly multiverse would mean less focus on our individuality and more on God’s overall design: God as curator of creation, instead of craftsman.
Remember: a God who can create the universe by placing every tree and rock World of Warcraft style could also have written the code for the universe Minecraft style and created a billion billion billion other ones at the same time.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Isaiah 55:8