Some Things Never Change

Question from Caleb:
In an atheistic worldview why are there laws of logic, uniformity of nature, and absolute morality?

Answer by SmartLX:
If you search the site for the above terms you’ll find quite a few relevant pieces already written, and some very long discussions in the comments. These subjects crop up often because many theists think they have the authority on each. This time I’ll try to answer as straightforwardly as possible; if you look through the rest of the material and think I haven’t covered something, do let me know.

There do appear to be many types of total consistency in the universe, primarily physical and logical. The laws of each don’t seem to change, so we have the kind of stable universe where beings like us can develop over billions of years and create civilisations without everything spontaneously collapsing in on itself every few minutes, or turning into chocolate pudding and back.

None of us know why this is. Some think they know, because if they believe the universe was created by an intelligent god then it sounds sensible that this god would make the universe stable enough to support life and eventually cognition, as most worshipped gods have apparently created humanity for some unknown purpose. To one who has not already accepted the existence of such a being (which hypothetically is more exotic and incredible than anything the universe has to offer, and is thus a dismal working assumption for the purpose of explanation) it seems more likely that, somewhat in the manner of Newton’s first law, there is simply no influence upon the universe causing it to change its fundamental qualities and therefore it doesn’t. The absence of a god does not make the reality impossible, merely unexplained. To go any further is to commit the all-too-common fallacy of an argument from ignorance, or else to claim omniscience.

Absolute morality is different from the other two because we don’t know whether it exists in the first place. Morality is disputed all the time, so any absolute morality makes up a very small part of it. Anything we might think of as a moral absolute might just be something the entire human race agrees upon, but is wrong. Any such supposed absolute might also be regarded with the total opposite of its implication for humans when considered from the perspective of other animals, for example ants. Texts like the Bible declare moral absolutes on the authority of a being whose existence is itself in question. This last point is important, because when you’re using the existence of absolute morality to argue for the existence of a god, you can’t use the latter to argue for the former first.

The Poorly-Tuned Universe?

Question from Alex:
Hi, this question has the intention to find if there are direct counter-examples of the fine-tuning argument, by this I mean constants that could be adjustable without impeding the emergence of life in the universe; are there such constants?

If the universe was designed by an intelligent creator, we should expect things like the fine-tunings for life we observe, but what if we find there are examples of non-fine tuning? Or have we finally found the evidence for a creator?


Answer by SmartLX:
In Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, he brings up one direct counter-example: the value of the gravitational constant could vary by up to a factor of 3,000 before it precluded the formation of stars and thus the emergence of life. Some of the other constants would throw out the balance if they changed by themselves, even slightly, but if other constants were also different it could compensate very well. If you consider only the six most well-known constants, and the idea that any of them could be any value positive or negative, that presents an enormous six-dimensional sample space of possibilities which isn’t even close to being exhausted as a source of other viable “settings”.

Even if there were no counter-examples, and every constant had to be exactly what it is for life to emerge, it wouldn’t be evidence for a creator until all other possibilities were eliminated. Contrary to the sample space I’ve described, maybe the nature of the early universe was that each constant could only have been within a small range. Maybe each constant influences the others, such that the current constants are in stable equilibrium for purely physical reasons. Maybe we’re in the one universe out of billions of billions of universes with varying constants where they all came out just right. There are also counter-arguments like the idea that if the universe were actually fine-tuned, such a mind-bogglingly huge percentage of it wouldn’t be empty and/or uninhabitable – it would likely be friendlier or smaller.

To say that the universe supports life is not to say that the universe is fine-tuned for life, because one can happen without a “tuner” and one can’t. Keep an eye out, because many arguments for God based on this idea try to pull that particular switcheroo.

The Consistent Electron

Question from Andrew:
How do atheists explain the existence of symmetry?

How do you explain for example; that all electrons have the same charge and mass, and that they are all negative if they are the product of blind chance, and purposeless mechanisms?

How do you explain this, if blind chance and purposeless mechanisms don’t know that this is necessary for life to exist?

Answer by SmartLX:
When a hose or a faucet is dripping, why is every droplet the same size? Because in that particular situation, the weight of the water that gathers at the lowest point of the opening overcomes the surface tension holding it on when it reaches a specific volume, and unless you move things around that volume doesn’t change. Similarly, all the nearby droplets in a given rainstorm are about the same size because each one begins to fall when a specific amount of water vapour precipitates at one point inside a cloud. No one is there inspecting all the droplets on a production line before they fall, they just all end up being alike because conditions are constant.

So it is with the universe as a whole. Outside of certain extremely rare conditions, some properties of matter and energy are exactly the same no matter where you are: the gravitational constant, the strong and weak nuclear forces, the number of spatial dimensions and so on. This means that the amount of matter that forms a proton or the amount of energy that forms a discrete electron is the same everywhere. They don’t need an auditor to check that every particle is built to code, because they simply can’t be any other way.

We don’t know why these properties have the numerical values they do, but as it turns out they are hardly “fine-tuned” for life. In his book Just Six Numbers, Martin Rees finds that the force of gravity for example could vary by up to a factor of 3000 before stars couldn’t form, so there’s a wide range of gravitational constants that would still allow the building blocks of life (carbon, oxygen, etc.) to form and gather. I did a piece on this a while ago, so here it is.

We also don’t know why these properties stay constant and homogenous, but we do know that life couldn’t exist for long if they weren’t. So if there are multiple universes where they may or not be constant, we’re in one of the ones where they are. That’s one possible explanation; another is that a universe simply has that property as part of what holds it together. If you prefer the idea that God ensured and continues to ensure that the fundamental constants of the universe don’t budge, then you’re assuming the existence of an eternal, powerful, purposeful entity which has stayed constant for even longer than the universe without outside help, and should by your reasoning be regarded as even more unlikely. Asserting something unexplained or inexplicable to explain something else does not increase understanding, when there is otherwise no clear evidence that the explanatory entity even exists.