Comments on John Leslie's Modern Cosmology and Philosophy

Jim Gerrie,
University of Guelph

In Modern Cosmology and Philosophy John Leslie does a wonderful job of clarifying the complex implications of the anthropic principle, fine tuning, multiple universes and Carter's doomsday argument. These four concepts are incredibly intriguing. No philosopher doing metaphysics today can afford to ignore them. Many, myself included, have John to thank for their awareness and understanding of these ideas.

I don't know what I can say of a constructive nature about John's most recent writings on these issues. He writes clearly about them and he makes them interesting. My own limited experience of metaphysics and cosmology prevents me from being able to speak with authority about most of the details of his arguments so I will limit my remarks to some general observations of an interested non-specialist.

In my own life, I cannot separate theoretical questions of metaphysics from more practical questions about my own religious life. It seems to me ultimately vain to engage in metaphysical thinking only for the pure joy of it. As Aristotle says, "All men begin by wondering that things are as they are . . . But we must end in the contrary and the better state" (Aristotle's Metaphysics 983a15). Ultimately, metaphysical thinking must also consider questions about the good life.

As a student in Religious Studies at Mount Allison University I was exposed to the ideas of Douglas John Hall, and his argument that Christians have failed to break out of what he calls "the Constantinian mold" (Hall 1988, 10). Many Christians still believe they are part of a majority. However, although the cultural heritage lingers, Christianity is now a dead tradition for many Canadians. Reginald Bibby's work certainly would indicate that this is so. All of this I mention only in the way of prefacing my first question. Although I am a Christian I experience this faith as a waning faith and therefore take it as a given that we live in a religiously pluralistic age. I suspect, however, that sometimes John has been frustrated by people who do not make such an assumption and instead assume that any who engage in cosmological speculation must be of a traditional religious ilk. For instance he comments, "Theists have insufficiently appreciated that others besides theists can believe such things [as fine tuning]" (Leslie 1998, 306). I am curious to know whether John considers himself a theist? And if not, has he frequently been mistaken for one?

I guess what I really want to know is what John considers himself to be religiously speaking. It is hard to discern from his writing exactly where he stands. He is very even handed in his treatment of theistic and atheistic views and the implications of his ideas for these outlooks. He also seems committed to neo-Platonist and Spinozian ideas, but then again in the most recent Bulletin of this society I noticed that his address was listed among the members. Is joining the society required of invited guests? On the occasions we have chatted back at Guelph John has led me to believe that he views himself as somewhat of a threat to orthodoxy. Am I correct in this perception? And if so, I would be interested hearing about how John would describe his own religious position and of his experiences of how this position has been interpreted by others.

My main question, though, involves whether he thinks one can hold a traditional theistic understanding of providence in light of his ideas about the anthropic principle, multiple universes, and Carter's doomsday argument. He suggests that "theism does not automatically give us a cosy cosmology" (Leslie 2000, 10). It would seem to me that this is true but only to a certain extent in light of the doctrine of providence. In giving up a belief in a "cosy cosmology" should Christians go so far as to give up any idea that God can act beyond simply creating the world?

A secondary set of questions I have involves his motivations for championing the doomsday argument. I am curious to know if John suspects that too many people believe we live in too cosy a universe? In other words, is he battling the bastard child of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of providence--the notion of progress? Does he think that by whittling away at the foundations of providence that he might helpfully erode some of the naive cultural faith so many have in the inevitability of progress and the environmentally cavalier attitude which can attend such faith? And if so, does he think that any notion of providence must inevitably support such a cavalier attitude? In short, is John in fundamental agreement with the historian Lynn White Jr. that "what people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them?" (White 1967, 18)

I would like to elaborate a little more, though, on my first line of questioning regarding the doctrine of providence. In John's essay in Cosmology and Philosophy I find a tension between two kinds of theism. On the one hand there is a kind which views our world as a unique and special creation, on the other, there is a kind which views God as creating universes in large numbers while relying on chance to throw up living beings like us. In regards to the latter kind, John states in another essay the following:

Even if wanting the existence of intelligent living beings in large numbers, God could see to this without securing humankind against annihilation. God's eggs need not be all in a single basket. Perhaps God created infinitely many universes. Thus even believers in God might be interested in a 'doomsday argument' which Brandon Carter originated and which he views as a natural application of anthropic reasoning (Leslie 2000, 10). In short, Theists can picture God as creating immensely many universes and relying on chance to create life-containing ones, or they can picture God as creating a unique universe in which our existence is planned. But are these two possibilities necessarily incompatible? Could not God create an immense or infinite number of universes to suit the existence of observers, like us?

The reason I ask this is because I wonder if one accepts the type of theism that embraces multiple universes, is one then obliged to reject any notion of God interacting with the cosmos beyond simply setting the major perimeters for the operation of chance? John seems to suggest that there is a tension between holding the many universes hypothesis and holding a view of providence in which God at least in some respects is capable of the kind of fellowship with human beings discussed by John Polkinghorn (Leslie 1998, 306). Or as he seems to put this dichotomy,

Some would argue that God would have grounds to protect the human race, perhaps by making ours a universe in which no vacuum instability disaster would occur; yet might we instead reason that God would create hugely or infinitely many universes so that there would be no lack of living-space even if one of them came to be uninhabitable? (Leslie 1998, 307) Are we forced to choose between a view of a singular "cosy cosmos" type universe in which providence operates and universes which can be completely and arbitrarily hostile to us? Or is there room for a middle ground between these two extremes?

The Doomsday argument John presents seems to suggest that we should be significantly more sceptical than we have been that our species will not come to an end soon because of random or uncontrollable forces of destruction. In other words, forms of conscious life in our universe are not guaranteed to have long runs. As a theist I would agree that human existence can end either by natural disaster or by environmental malfeasance at any time. But I think there is possibly an ethical reason for believing that we have slightly weaker grounds than John suggests for believing this will happen sooner rather than later.

I believe that God should not create a universe in which the bad outweighs the good. But if we imagine a universe, perhaps our own might be an example, in which there is only one species of conscious life but in which that species is snuffed out early in its development, I would consider this to be an example of a universe stunted in its potential. If every living conscious being in that universe had led a morally exemplary life in perfect natural harmony with its surroundings up to the point of being wiped out, for whatever reason, then wouldn't we have to consider this to be an injustice in itself? Or as Job is reported to have accused God "Thy hands fashioned and made me; and now thou dost turn about and destroy me" (Job 10:8). And if that species had an immensely promising potential for good, wouldn't the loss of that potential possibly make the loss of that species into a catastrophic injustice? If the good of that universe, both potential and realized, were to be so exceedingly lessened, might not a point be reached which one could consider that universe to be a terrible waste of effort? And if such a point were reached, shouldn't God have avoided creating it altogether? Or as Job is also reported to have asked, "Why dids't thou bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to grave" (Job 10:16-19). In other words, does not God have some obligation to create only universes which can actually make a contribution to the overall good of the cosmos rather than detract from it?

This means that if one were to feel confident that one's species might disappear fairly soon, one would also have to have reasonable grounds for believing that the net good that one's universe could contribute to the cosmos, including all potential good, was reaching a point at which the continued survival of one's species could only turn that contribution into a negative. In other words, the only just reason God can have for allowing species of conscious beings to go extinct quite early in their development would be if their subsequent development would push the balance of the good of that universe into the red. The implication of this position is the belief that the Apocalypse should only come when a point is reached in which the continued existence of our species would mean that this universe would become irretrievably depraved. This strikes me as a conclusion that would be very difficult to reach with certainty. Perhaps a proper assessment of our knowledge of the character of our universe should have us accept the outlook of eschatological agnosticism presented in the New Testament idea that the End will come like "a thief in the night" (1 Thess 5, 2 Peter 3, Rev 3, 6).

I take this conclusion about human potential and human limitation to be the lesson of the story of the flood and the whole Biblical concept of a faithful remnant, and also the lesson of hopeful humility presented by Douglas John Hall for Canadian Christians Today. Here is how the story of the flood ends: "And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odour [of Noah's offering], the Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Genesis 8 20-22). I would be interested to know what John makes of such apparent promises on the part of the Judeo-Christian God.


Hall, Douglas John. The Future of Religion in Canada: The 1988 Ebbutt Lecture. Sackville NB: Department of Religious Studies, Mount Allison University, 1988.

Leslie, John, ed. Modern Cosmology and Philosophy. Amherst NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Leslie, John. "Our Place in the Cosmos." Philosophy. (January 2000): pp. 4-24.

White, Lynn., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, " Science, Vol. 155 (10 March 1967): pp. 1203-1207. Reprinted in Pojman, Environmental Ethics, pp. 15-20.