2. Was the universe designed, or random?

August 5th, 2019

People tend to take a lot for granted. The sun keeps shining, the earth is full of useful minerals and gravity keeps us from flying off into space. We don’t think about it much, but what if things were different?

What if gravity repulsed rather than attracted? What if we couldn’t sit on a chair because the space between the molecules that make up the chair allowed the molecules in our backsides to fall right through? What if the only atom in the periodic table was hydrogen, and so there was no chemistry?

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1. Why does the universe exist?

July 31st, 2019

When thinking about possible evidence for the existence of God, it seems logical to start with the big picture, and work our way down to the more personal. So we start by considering the universe and the explanation of its existence.

What is the universe?

This may sound like the dumbest of questions, for we know our universe is all the matter and energy that inhabits space and time. It began with the big bang almost 14 billion years ago.

But many cosmologists now believe there are other “universes”, and perhaps our universe arose from one of them. The whole group of universes, if there are indeed more than one, is commonly called the multiverse.

So what caused it all?

It is a natural question to ask where did our universe come from? What caused it? Most people in the world believe in a God or some supernatural force, and I suppose most think that God had something to do with it all. But it isn’t quite that simple.

So let’s consider the bigger picture. What could be the explanation for all the matter and energy existing in space and time? What are the possibilities?

Cause or no cause?

Either something caused the universe to exist, or else it exists without any cause. That is simple logic. And it seems that there are two ways each of these possibilities could be imagined. Let’s look at the four possibilities:

1. No cause, it has always existed

Perhaps the multiverse doesn’t have a cause because it never began, it has always existed from infinite time past? But there are a number of reasons to think this isn’t the answer:

  1. There are many scientific hypotheses or models that address the beginning of the universe, and it turns out that most of them entail a beginning.
  2. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, everything is slowly running down, moving from a state of highly uneven temperature and distribution of matter, to a state of being homogeneous. If the universe was infinitely old, the universe would have already reached this state. The fact that it hasn’t shows that it cannot be infinitely old.
  3. Mathematically, it is impossible to count to infinity, so it seems to be equally impossible to count down from an infinite past time to now (though not all mathematicians agree on this). It seems that a chain of events like the universe cannot be infinitely old.
  4. Even if the universe was infinitely old, we still wouldn’t have an explanation of why it exists. And a hypothesis which cannot explain the facts is generally considered to be a poor hypothesis.

So this option doesn’t appear to help us answer the question of why the universe exists.

2. No cause, no explanation, it just happened

Perhaps the universe just began for no particular reason. In quantum physics, fundamental particles can appear apparently out of nothing for no apparent cause. So couldn’t the universe have been one gigantic quantum event?

Again, there are good reasons to suppose this isn’t a reasonable explanation.

In quantum events, the particle doesn’t appear out of nothing for no reason (despite some people portraying it this way). A quantum event happens because of a fluctuation in a quantum field, which is composed of energy and occupies space. So a quantum field, especially one powerful enough to create a universe, is far from nothing! A quantum field is already part of the universe or multiverse, and thus part of what we are trying to explain.

So this “explanation” turns out to be no explanation at all. It simply says that the universe appeared out of nothing for no reason. This is contrary to everything we know about the universe, where everything that happens has a cause of some kind. The idea of cause and effect is logical, and there is no reason to suppose that the beginning of the universe should be any different.

3. Perhaps the universe caused itself?

So it seems that the universe probably had a cause, but could it have caused itself?

It is hard to take this bizarre idea seriously. How could anything cause something if the cause doesn’t exist to do any causing? (That sentence is a bit of a mouthful! Perhaps you should read it again, slowly?)

Surely the universe had to first exist to cause something else …. or itself?

4. So perhaps something caused it?

This is the intuitive and simplest answer to our question. Something outside the universe or multiverse caused it to come into being. And because the multiverse contains all the physical matter and physical energy that exists in space and time (by our definition), then this cause must be non-physical and outside space and time.

Most people would call this “God”, but we might more carefully say it would have to be some kind of god or supernatural force (I can’t think of any other options). He, she or it would have created the universe out of nothing, which provides a sensible and understandable explanation for why the universe exists. Of course it’s not a total explanation, because we still don’t know why such a being might create. There’s more to come in this story!

This explanation make sense. It conforms to our experience that everything in this universe has a cause, and so it satisfies our sense of logic. But there are still unanswered questions, like ….

So what caused God?

If everything we experience has a cause, surely God also must have a cause, right? Doesn’t this take us right back to square 1? There are two answers to this.

(1) Our experience is of the physical world. Everything in the physical world has a cause. But we don’t know if this applies to something non-physical like God.

(2) Everything we experience is “contingent”. That is, it had a beginning, it was caused by something else, and it could have been different. We can always ask why is it the way it is? The only way we are going to find an explanation for the universe is to find something that isn’t contingent, isn’t dependent on something else and couldn’t have been different. Clearly this isn’t the universe, which (the cosmologists tell us) could have been different for all we know, and is (as we have seen) dependent on whatever caused it. But it seems much more plausible that an eternal God, outside the universe, might be non-contingent, not dependent on anything else for its existence.

So it seems to make more sense to look to God as the ultimate explanation or ultimate fact than to look to the universe.

So where does this leave us?

We have looked at four options. None of them is certain, but I can’t think of any other options, so we must choose from among them. Most of them provide no explanation at all, have little or no evidence to support them, seem wildly improbable.

But the “God” explanation is at least based on logic and our common experience of cause and effect. It provides an explanation of why the universe exists. Thus it makes more sense, and surely must be more likely, than any of the other options.

Putting it another way: if there is no God, there’d be no reason to expect a universe to exist, but if there is a God, it wouldn’t be a surprise that the universe exists.

As Terence McKenna said: “Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.”

One step at a time

It would be an enormous overstatement to consider this a “proof” of God’s existence. But the universe is one piece of evidence that seems to make God’s existence more probable.

Photo: NASA

Free will and determinism: are they compatible?

May 19th, 2019

This page in brief ….

Neuroscientists tend to conclude that the processes in our brains follow known physical laws, and so our thinking is determined by physics – meaning we don’t have genuine free choice. But our experience is that we do indeed make choices and they seem to be free most of the time, meaning when we make a choice, we have the possibility of making a different choice.

How can we resolve this apparent dilemma?

Our conclusion shapes our views of human nature, ethics and even the existence of God, so it is important to try to determine what’s true.

I have been having an interesting discussion on this with Travis (see Can we be human without free will?). I thought I’d share with other readers where the discussion has taken me, and why I think it is important.

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Did the universe have a beginning? Did it arise from nothing?

February 24th, 2019

I suppose it is quite natural to look at the night sky, especially away from city lights, and be in awe. When we learn that the universe apparently contains something like 100 billion galaxies, each with about 100 billion stars, our amazement and awe increase.

It is also natural to ask where it all came from. Has the universe always existed? What caused it?

And of course these questions lead naturally to the question: Is this all evidence of God?

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An ultimate explanation for everything?

January 10th, 2019

Humans are a curious species, and we like to answer the question “Why?”

Some of the really big questions concern why does the universe exist and what is the purpose of life? Some say God is the answer to those questions. Others say there is no answer to the questions.

Still others say that science will hopefully one day give us answers. One day we may understand that the universe just is because it could never have been otherwise.

But if God is the answer, or if science tells us the answer, does that end the questions?

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Stereoscopic vision and God

December 17th, 2018

Stereoscopic vision is a useful and subtle aspect of how we, and some animals, see. Because our two eyes both face the front (unlike some animals and insects whose eyes face more left and right), they both see similar but subtly different views. For example, if two objects are in line, one behind the other, our left eye will see the object furthest away slightly to the left, while the right eye sees it slightly to the right.

The brain is able to notice this difference, and correctly infer that the distance to the rear object is greater. Without this stereoscopic vision it would be harder to estimate how far away objects are, and whether they are moving towards us, or away.

You see this in this stereo photo of a man in a narrow laneway. The two pictures are almost the same, but the left photo (which is what the left eye would see) shows more of the lane to the left of the man (as we see it) than what the right photo shows.

Award-winning physicist Aron Wall observes that knowing God may require something analogous to stereoscopic vision.

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Are we alone in the universe?

July 22nd, 2018

Contact with aliens is a popular theme in science fiction stories. Some people even think they have seen, or been contacted by, aliens.

But so far, despite more than 30 years of a scientific Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), no evidence has been found that there is any intelligent life “out there”.

But some new analysis may point to an answer.

The story so far …..

At first thought, life elsewhere in the universe seems likely. There are believed to be 100 million planets in our galaxy, about a tenth of them of similar size to earth. With an estimated 100-200 billion galaxies in the known universe, that’s an astonishing number of earth-sized planets.

So, it is argued, if even a small fraction of these planets have other characteristics that would support life, it seems likely that life has evolved on many other planets throughout the universe.

And if life has evolved, perhaps intelligent life has evolved in some of those locations too. But can science give us a better answer than this?

Drake equation

Almost 60 years ago, astrophysicist Frank Drake developed the Drake Equation, which tried to estimate the probable number of civilisations in our galaxy that we could possibly contact. The equation summarises the factors thought most important in the evolution of intelligent life.

However the equation proved to be problematic. The possible ranges of some of the parameters was so large that subjective opinion tended to determine the result more than facts did. Too often people got the answer they were looking for.

Rare earth equation

Other scientists have pointed to over 200 specific characteristics that make earth “special”, which may not occur very commonly elsewhere, and may mean that life has evolved far less often that we might imagine.

So almost 20 years ago, Ward & Brownlee developed their own equation that was more sceptical about the evolution of life. They calculated that while microbial life might be common in the universe, intelligent life was extremely rare.

So two different attempts to calculate the probability of intelligent life gave completely different answers.

The Fermi Paradox

Back in 1950, famed physicist Enrico Fermi posed the question, “Where are everybody?” If there were so many solar systems and planets out there, and intelligent life was so likely, why hadn’t we found any? Or any contacted us, if they are further advanced that us?

After all, we have sent men to the moon, sent out spaceships and radio waves galore into deep space, probed the universe for signals – but nothing.

Doesn’t this show that the Drake equation is wrong?

Dissolving the Fermi Paradox?

Just this year, Sandberg, Drexler and Ord from the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, re-analysed the Drake equation, and arrived at a much better-based answer.

As they set out in their June 2018 paper, Dissolving the Fermi Paradox, there are ways to make the Drake equation more statistically and scientifically reliable. They made two significant new steps.

Assessing the variables

Since there is a wide range of estimates for most of the variables in the Drake equation, how to determine the value within the range to plug into the equation is an important question.

Sandberg, Drexler and Ord show that using a point estimate for a variable (e.g. taking an average of several estimates, or using the mid point of the possible range) gives unreliable results that are often over-estimates.

Instead, they used a probability distribution based on the uncertainty of the various estimates for each variable, and used these to calculate a range of probabilities for intelligent life.

Accounting for the Fermi Paradox

Bayesian probability allows a probability estimate to be updated when new information is received. So Sandberg, Drexler and Ord modified the probability estimates they had calculated to account for the fact that no contact had been made with an alien civilisation, not any evidence found for one.

And the ‘winner’ is …. !

This revised Drake equation calculation indicated that another civilisation is very unlikely in our galaxy and not very likely in the entire observable universe.

The calculated probability range for us being alone in the galaxy was 53% to 99.6%, and 39% to 85% for the observable universe.

Does this mean anything?

I can’t think that even this revised calculation is reliable – there are too many factors which we cannot possible know or assess. But it is interesting to allow this latest information to inform our imaginations.

Some sceptics consider the inhospitality of most of the universe to be a reason to reject belief in God, so this result may reinforce that view.

However this result may equally support the view that life is not a natural or normal occurrence, and so strengthen the case that God created.

I don’t think either argument is very strong, although I think the first may be the weaker of the two.

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Photo: Galaxy cluster Abell 2537, courtesy of NASA.

Atheism vs religion: is there a scientific explanation for why we believe or disbelieve?

July 9th, 2018

Last post I looked at the differences between scientific thinking and religious thinking, at least as one social scientist sees it.

But where does religious thinking come from? Religious belief has been an important component in virtually every culture in human history. Why is this so?

Social scientists have studied this question extensively. Whether you believe in God, as I do, or you don’t, their conclusions help us understand religious belief and disbelief.

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