RESPONDblog: Doesn’t Order in Nature Provide Circumstantial Evidence for God?

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I listened to a great discussion between James Croft and Calum Miller recently on the highly recommended “Unbelievable” Podcast. The topic of the discussion was, “Does theism or atheism best explain the universe?”. You can find and listen to their episode of the podcast here…  http://tinyurl.com/nxbqoxm

 

During the discussion, an interesting quote from Cosmologist Paul Davies was mentioned:

People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible. The underlying order in nature – the Laws of Physics – is simply accepted as given … as brute fact. Nobody asks where the Laws come from. However – even the most atheistic Scientist accepts as a point of faith the existence of a law like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us. So Science can proceed only if the Scientist adopts an essentially Theological world view.” – Paul Davies

 

James Croft, who describes himself as a Humanist community leader (and he’s a jolly nice chap to boot!) responded to this quote with a fascinating rebuttal to it. He said…

 

Interesting arguments. But I think they rely on some false premises. The person said that Scientists accept as an act of faith the law like regularity of nature without which they couldn’t do their work. I think this is flatly false. I think our ability to construct models which bring order to our experience…we do not discover order in the universe…we construct models to bring order to our experience. That does not speak to a faith in the inherent intelligibility and ordered-ness of the universe. Scientists can proceed in their work without assuming at any point that the Universe is ordered or inherently intelligible.

 

If I rephrase what I think James is saying here – he is proposing that Natural Laws and order in our Universe is the last thing on the mind of a Scientist. Rather – Science is all about OBSERVATION of phenomena and CREATION OF A MODEL which helps Scientists understand that phenomena. This is a completely human centric perspective.

 

Well – this is very interesting to me and I’ve got some thoughts on the subject.

 

I think that – in a very real and practical sense, James is absolutely right. But – in my humble opinion – I also think he is proposing a form of circular reasoning that takes us back to an assumption that our Universe is ordered. Let me explain.

As James says, an important and creative task for Science is first to observe something in Nature (a phenomena). And second, the construction of abstract models to help Scientists understand and make future predictions on that observed phenomena.

I think a great example of this is – weather forecasts. In the UK, the Met Office has constructed complex models to help them interpret weather patterns today for the purpose of predicting what the climate might do next Wednesday (and every day). They also use these techniques to better understand our planet’s unfolding climate change. The models help them understand what is happening now, and help them predict future outcomes. So that they can warn us what might be coming. Of course this all depends on how good the model is and how well they are interpreting the model. (I’m not going to mention Michael Fish…woops, sorry…I did!)

All this is true and necessary. And – frankly – the Met Office’s practice assumes the order and predictability of the planet’s climate. For the Met Office model to be useful in predicting outcomes (the weather next Wednesday), the climate IS assumed to be ordered and predictable. If the planet’s weather patterns were truly random (and British weather so often gives a convincing impression of this) then there would be no need for a model at all. Because you cannot predict random. That’s the nature of random. If weather is random then we are all just at the mercy of what it decides to do next.

I think James is right – we do construct models that bring order to our experience. And the models we construct are complex ones.

But I think James might be missing an important point. Surely the underlying reason for thinking in terms of models…not to mention the reason for people’s sheer hard graft of programming them…points to an underlying assumption of the order and predictability of nature?

Moving on from the weather – Science is discovering all the time that its models are simplistic at best and only apply in certain conditions. As James and Calum mentioned during their discussion – the Newtonian Laws of Physics might apply when we are driving a car, but not when we are watching the behavior of sub-atomic particles; like Mesons and their Quarks which are hard to understand. Yet we are able to build models and principles. For example, Schrodinger’s Cat points to problems we face when understanding Quantum reality. And Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle describes the effect of wave particle duality at the subatomic level.

I imagine both Mr Schrodinger and Mr Heisenberg came to nature just as they observed it…and I imagine they decided that, “I’m going to give my life to understand the Quantum reality whether or not it is understandable”. But I’m pretty sure they bet their life on an assumption that the Universe IS actually and truly ordered and understandable; not random. Why? Because if Quantum Mechanics turns out to be ultimately unpredictable then the end of their life’s work will simply be a confused shrug of the shoulders! I suspect they and many Scientists working today are betting on their ability to discover some order amidst observable and apparent Quantum chaos. And some will be driven by the hope that they will be recognized for discovering that order.

So – what I am saying is – I agree with James that Science builds models to bring order to our observations and experience. But for those models to hold up in the real world – and for the models to be ultimately useful to us – surely there must be a natural order in our Universe to begin with?

So we are back where we started… “Science can proceed only if the Scientist adopts an essentially Theological world view.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

13 thoughts on “RESPONDblog: Doesn’t Order in Nature Provide Circumstantial Evidence for God?”

  1. There is a natural order, but I don’t see accepting this as a “theological world view”, and I especially don’t see it as a reason to assume the existence of an entity the laws “came from”.

    From my perspective, you are essentially suggesting “God exists because there AREN’T any miracles”.

    1. Hey there –

      Let me reply with a question. When you see order – what do you assume?

      Now – take that thought process and apply it to nature. What happens when you do that?

      Hope you don’t mind that I answer you with a question – I am curious and interested…

      1. There are different kinds of order.

        The laws of physics are “order” in the sense of predictability and consistency. And one thing that their consistency leads me to assume is that nothing that DOESN’T follow them interacts with the observable world.

      2. Hey there –

        Agreed. There are different kinds of order. When we empty the bathtub, the water swirls in a particular direction and the funnel has a particular shape. Natures physical laws have a lot to do with that. But why are they there? Why is there something rather than nothing, is the famous question.

        As scientists of various stripes, we have a tendency to think – it’s just the result of the Big Bang. But we’ve simply given a name to something we don’t understand how and why. BUT – and here is the interesting thing – we slip into supposing nature itself must have God like powers in order to make sense of things.

        We might be atheist in our outlook – but we prescribe god like powers to nature, to evolution, to natural selection…or whatever.

        This is the essentially Theological outlook that I think Paul Davies is talking about.

        Personally as a Christian, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. He’s the personification of God – and our understanding of God comes thru him. So I too have a Theological perspective on nature.

        Yet I would suggest that proposing a personal God as creator – rather than prescribing god like powers to nature (when we don’t claim to suggest how nature came about in the first place) is a lot more rational an approach.

        What are your thoughts?

      3. I don’t see accepting the fact that what is and isn’t possible and/or likely can be described with a set of generalizations that we’re sure enough about to call “laws” (perhaps it was a mistake to ever give them the same name as rules set by authorities) as giving nature “god-like powers”.

        Instead, I would say that to suggest that consistent, unguided laws make more sense as the action of an intelligent deity is to prescribe nature-like qualities to a god.

        “GOD-LIKE power” would be the ability to act against or change natural law, not the apparent obligation to “enforce” it.
        Why the laws are the specific ones that they are is a question that may or may not have a satisfactory answer, but a place with no physical laws at all doesn’t seem like a logically consistent concept to me, so there’s no need for a explanation for why there ARE laws.

        Actually, this reminds me of something that I wrote about on my own blog a month ago: http://novasaber.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/the-world-of-chance-and-crocoducks/

      4. Great – ill read your blog post!

        “Prescribe nature like qualities to a god” – hey I smiled at that. Like it. So where does nature come from? Why is there something rather than nothing?

        Actually come to think of it…you might be illustrating the point I was making. Naturalism replaces a creator God with creative natural processes. So we are swapping one agency for another. That’s pretty convenient IMHO. But Naturalism avoids the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” It just assumes nature is, it’s powerful and it’s creative. That’s close to the opening description of God in Genesis. It’s the Naturalists “Theological” outlook? 🙂

        Yet personally I don’t believe it’s a rational outlook.

        Everything that had a beginning also has a cause. The Universe had a beginning. Therefore the Universe has a cause…and that cause is by definition greater than…and external to…the Universe. Sounds a lot like God to me!

      5. Why does the cause “by definition” have to be greater than the effect? Both science and history seem to provide examples to the contrary.

        As for “external”, if the laws of physics were older than the universe, wouldn’t they count as external to it?

        Also, if time itself ever had a beginning, then at least one thing began without a cause.

      6. Hi mate – how are you doing?

        “Why does the cause ‘by definition’ have to be greater than the effect? Both science and history seem to provide examples to the contrary.”

        I’m really interested in what you are saying here. Could you provide some of these examples so we can talk about them? It’s an honest question from me – I’m genuinely interested to know what you are referring to here.

        “…the laws of physics were older than the universe, wouldn’t they count as external to it?”
        It is mind bending, isn’t it? The physical laws appear to come as part of the universe. So what was there before hand? Before the Universe existed? We find it difficult to think in those terms because it’s beyond our experience.

        What we are discovering tho – is that the physical laws we have in our universe are finely tuned for the existence of life IN our universe. Take the forces within an atom that keep electrons and protons together…take the rate at which energy is consumed by the average star…the observable expansion rate of the universe itself. There are many many carefully fine tuned parameters we are discovering in our universe that mean that life forms can exist. These numbers are incredibly and inexplicably specific.

        Now – when you look at the laws of physics this way – you can’t view them as external to the universe. Because they are part of its internal mechanisms. And you certainly can’t do the old naturalism trick of ascribing god like powers to the laws of physics…because the laws themselves bear the hallmarks of fine tuning in our universe. This suggests the physical laws come from somewhere else…they have been setup for us by an external agency. As one atheist scientist put it…”it very much looks like the universe knew we were coming!” Another way to say this – that makes more sense to me – is to say the maker of the universe knew we were coming…so he set things up appropriately.

        “If time itself ever had a beginning, then at least one thing began without a cause”
        Einstein’s theory of relativity (which I certainly don’t fully understand!) was all about the connection between space and time. The rate at which time passes depends on the speed we are travelling thru the universe…and all that mind bending stuff. So again…time is intimately tied to the fabric of our universe.

        The cause of the universe has to be external to the universe itself. And – I think the cause has to be greater THAN the universe. Why do I think that?

        Because
        – a universe was formed that is fine tuned for life to exist, and containing all the necessary ingredients for life itself
        – organic life itself began to exist
        – at the core of that life lies a staggering wealth of information which had to be provided before organic life could exist

        It’s a fascinating discussion tho – isn’t it? What do you think?

  2. ‘People take it for granted that the physical world is both ordered and intelligible.’

    In other words, things happen randomly and there is a lot of chaos in the world, and the author of Job can take it for granted that his god can taunt humanity with the fact that mere Earthlings will never find out what the laws of the universe are.

  3. Sorry, Stuart, this is based on misunderstanding. Firstly your examples like weather models and 20th Century physics merely obscure the key point. The simplest model of all is that the observable universe is ordered and predictable. We don’t take that as an assumption according to James, rather we use that model and keep using it because it works. The more complex models then use the simple model and it builds and builds. (My personal view is closer to Calum here in that I see it as a truth we ‘know’ about reality. My view is that we have now established this hypothesis to near certainty by repeated observation .)

    Secondly you are confused in your use of random. Randomness is often highly predictable: when you toss a fair coin 1000 times, the number of heads will be fairly close to 500. Quantum physics has this effect as well, such as predictable half-lives. That would not be the case in a true random universe in the terminolgy agreed by Calum and James.

    Now the real issue is: “Is order in the universe more probable under theism than under atheism?” Calum and James covered it very well and was the focus of their discussion.

    1. Hi Ed – thanks for taking the time to respond. I’m not sure I agree with you that the statement “the observable universe is ordered and predictable” counts as a model. It sounds more like an assumption to me – and a reason to construct models.

      A random number is a number generated by a process, whose outcome is unpredictable, and which cannot be subsequentially reliably reproduced. We rely on these in Computer Science all the time. This is the definition of “random” that I am assuming in my blog, I think!

      Thanks again.

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