The Determination Of The Universe

Question from Alejandro:
Message: I was debating (not formally) in my university about the existence of a god, and we ended up in the topic of determinism. My theist opposition argued that determinism would prove the existence of (their) god, that it would prove that, say, life was determined to exist by physics and chemistry, so there is a teleology in it.

In sum, they said the old adage: “Laws require a lawgiver”.

I believe this is a very common argument theists make to atheists, and some don’t know how to answer that.

Does determinism prove there is a god?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a common argument all right. Actually it’s two different ones mashed together, so let’s split them up.

Determinism means that everything that’s ever happened or will ever happened was destined to happen from the very beginning, if indeed there was a beginning. God’s plan is one interpretation of this, and a highly disturbing one because it implies that everything bad that’s ever happened was God’s plan, including all the people who’ve gone to hell. There was no way they could have done anything other than commit the sins that damned them.

Another valid interpretation of determinism is that it all simply happened because it had to, without any plan at all. Some very interesting stuff has happened, like the emergence of life and Beethoven’s Fifth and that amazing coincidence that happened to you last week, but in a universe as enormous as ours you would expect at least a few amazing things to happen by chance in a few corners of a few galaxies. If billions of people played the same lottery at million-to-one odds, you’d get thousands of winners.

Finally, regardless of any of the above, determinism can’t establish a god until determinism itself is shown to be true, and it hasn’t been. Decades ago quantum mechanics put paid to our self-assurance that every particle must have a plan, by telling us that a particle’s exact position can be a matter of probability, with no apparent reason why it’s in one spot and not another. Until the accurate predictions of quantum mechanics can all be explained by another completely different and intrinsically determined mechanism, determinism cannot be assumed to be reality.

The second argument is the argument from design, in this case applied to the origin of life. I covered it very broadly in my Great Big Arguments series, and I’ve written a few things on the fine-tuning argument which you might find relevant. Briefly, just because the universe supports life does not mean the universe was designed for life.

Quantum Golden Ratios. Whoa.

Question from Bill:
Why is the golden ratio found in the human body, DNA, the human genome, and in subatomic particles?

A pattern couldn’t just be found anywhere in the quantum world. So how do atheists respond to this?

Answer by SmartLX:
As I explained earlier, it is very simple to produce a Fibonacci sequence and therefore a golden ratio of 1.618 through basic, repeated, natural occurrences such as cell division, which is why it’s so common in biology. The fact that the same appears to occur in quantum mechanics in a specific case suggests that the underlying physical mechanisms that produce these effects may make use of similar recursions.

The key thing about the golden ratio is that it’s an emergent phenomenon. Like evolution, it emerges as a result when the starting conditions of a system happen to be conducive to it. Only after it’s happened do we notice the pattern; whatever the system is, it just looks like it’s going about its business until the effect appears. There’s no guidance and no direction necessary, it just happens – and it was already known to be so common that its emergence in the mysterious quantum world, though fascinating, is not that surprising. It says no more about the existence of a god than any other instance of a golden ratio, so atheists will respond with the same sort of interest as everyone else.

God’s Plan for the Multiverse?

Question from Devilush:
I am a devout Atheist. I enjoy documentaries, I recently watched one on PBS Nova and they were talking about a subject I know a little about, alternate universes. This made me think about the theist argument I always hear…god’s divine plan. To me it makes a strong argument that every choice is possible, therefore it is god’s plan because he does not make mistakes. So whatever we think is choice is in reality his plan because every choice is possible…personally I need measured evidence of [I think Devilush was possibly cut off there]

Answer by SmartLX:
If every choice is possible, and has happened in some universe or other, then every possible wrong choice has been made. Yes, there would be at least one universe where everything has always gone perfectly according to God’s supposed plan (maybe more, if nothing stops universes from being identical) but the larger multiverse would be littered with universes that had fallen by the wayside.

Crediting God for the one universe He got right would be like calling someone a good marksman for peppering the area around the target with stray bullets until one happened to hit the bullseye (close to the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, but really just simple confirmation bias). It would also be completely undeserved, because in a multiverse where everything happens somewhere, it’s a mathematical certainty that any given plan will be matched perfectly and God doesn’t actually need to do anything. So much for all-powerful. If He created the whole system in the first place, good for Him, but that makes him a deistic god, not the kind of interventionist theistic god the theists you’ve heard this from actually worship.

Of course this is all assuming there’s a god at all, which brings it into the area of theology and out of the area of consideration which is useful to atheists, except when they’re conversing with believers.

Ask from the Past: The EPR Paradox

“A quantum physicist I ain’t, but I know they get upset when quantum mechanics are essentially used as pseudoscience.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Linkinism:
You can find information on this and quantum mechanics in many books and websites. How do you interpret this information? One with faith may interpret these theories and postulates as proof of a higher beings existence, but how does an athiest view these things?

With great interest, but not a lot of concern.

A quantum physicist I ain’t, but I know they get upset when quantum mechanics are essentially used as pseudoscience. The usual formula is this: according to quantum mechanics, something extraordinary happens for which there is no explanation. Therefore, God (or whoever you want) makes it happen.

The EPR paradox goes a step further than claiming the extraordinary. I won’t go into the details, but not only does it imply that incredible things happen but the three scientists who came up with it used it to argue that quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory. As a bonus, the E in EPR was Albert Einstein.

Things have come along since 1935 but we know full well that quantum theory is currently incomplete. The most glaring omission is that it has no explanation for gravity. (A theory of quantum gravity is one of the big goals right now.) That means there’s lots of room for a God-of-the-gaps for those who want to insert one, but it hardly makes it necessary to do so.

Just because there’s no explanation for something yet doesn’t mean a god is the only possible explanation, so theists can’t make much of a proof out of the EPR paradox or any other area of science which is relatively poorly understood. That doesn’t stop some from trying, or at least declaring that there is a proof to be had.