The Raving Theist

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April 25, 2006 | 13 Comments

Does the uniformity of physical laws throughout the universe prove the existence of God? Richard Swinburne thinks so:

The same laws of nature govern the most distant galaxies we can observe through our telescopes as operate on earth, and the same laws govern the earliest events in time to which we can infer as operate today. Or, as I prefer to put it, every object, however distant in time and space from ourselves, has the same powers and the same liabilities to exercise those powers as do the electrons and protons of which our own bodies are made. If there is no cause of this, it would be a most extraordinary coincidence — too extraordinary for any rational person to believe. But science cannot explain why every object has the same powers and liabilities.

Many atheists misunderstand the point of this argument or underestimate its force. The confusion arises because most physical laws have been reduced to fixed equations — a fact that creates a sense that those formulae actually dictate the behavior of matter in the same way that algebraic equations generate numbers. With cold, blind mathematics running the show, the godless rationalist concludes, there’s no need for a deity. In other words, it is the uniformity itself which dispenses with the need for a god. The universe is simply a big machine running on autopilot.

But as Hume pointed out, there is no principle of logic which supports the scientific process of induction and requires uniformity. We could certainly conceive of the physical laws being different than they are, changing from year to year or instant to instant, being so inconstant and chaotic that no law could ever be derived. Past performance has thus far predicted future results, but that is an observational rather than rational principle. There is no guarantee that E will equal MC2 tomorrow. So the fact that math does apparently dictate how matter behaves — everywhere and at every time — is in some sense remarkable.

And it is a fact seemingly at odds with certain atheistic arguments. In particular, atheists who argue against the argument from design (of which Swinburne’s argument is a part) frequently appeal to notions of disorder in making their points. They will argue that humans and animals and everything is poorly, haphazardly or even “accidentally” constructed, and that the universe is largely empty and very clumpy and blotchy. But despite these complaints, they still embrace the assumption that every particle involved in process was simply fulfilling its unalterable mathematical destiny. Indeed, to allow for a deviation from the strict determinist scheme would be to admit of the possibility of miracles.

These difficulties, however, do not drive us into the arms of God. The movement of matter may mimic math, but Swinburne’s theological explanation for this is less satisfactory that any atheistic account. He suggests that God is a giant juggler with His hands on everything, guiding the movements of every atom with clock-like precision. There are two problems with this formulation. First, it makes God more or less a math-mule, enslaved to numbers — His power, consciousness and discretion count for nothing because He’s just carrying out a set of rules and making sure none of the balls drop. Second, the theory that the balls would drop without God presupposes another set of laws, the laws governing how everything would splatter, or at least the law that everything would indeed splatter without a God. And beyond that, a law that would prevent the balls from splattering into anything like you, me, or the universe.


13 Responses to “Uniformity”

  1. Los Pepes
    April 25th, 2006 @ 4:01 pm

    So larger units behaving in the same fashion as conglomerations of smaller units of the same thing is proof for the existence of god?

    *WOW* My dollar is just like my dime, except it has another zero! Praise be to jesus!

  2. Mookie
    April 25th, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

    Its a matter of presuppositions. If I assume there is a god, and I think that the universe being an ordered, predictable place means there is a god, then I have confirmed my own assumption. No discovery, no searching, no doubting. All based on internal assumptions. I thought people were smarter than that.

  3. Brad
    April 25th, 2006 @ 4:15 pm

    “No discovery, no searching, no doubting. All based on internal assumptions. I thought people were smarter than that.” – Mookie

    You’re obvisious on the wrong internet :P

  4. Aaron Kinney
    April 25th, 2006 @ 5:45 pm

    The problem of induction is a mistake of identity and causality. In addition, the PoI uses induction in its very argument. The PoI also fails to recognize that characteristics of an entity are independent of time. Time is temporal. Matter/energy is not. The PoI embarassingly flips the two around and presupposes that time is a constant, while arguing that matter/energy are temporal.

    The PoI can easily be refuted, among other methods, by pointing out that it uses INDUCTION to ASSUME things about time in its argument. Not much good in utilizing — and presupposing the validity of — induction when you are trying to argue against it.

    Hume didnt know that time was temporal. If he existed today, and knew what we know today about time, he would never have proposed such a hare-brained idea.

  5. Choobus
    April 25th, 2006 @ 7:01 pm

    there are theories that c has changed over time, and there was a paper just the other day in which it looks like the proton electron mass ratio has changed

    so fucking what? The real question is, does god do anal, and is the earth just a giant ben wa ball for the supreme being?

  6. glenstonecottage
    April 26th, 2006 @ 6:18 am

    And consider the flip side of this theological “same all over the universe” principle:

    Since all earthly sentient beings have bodily functions like digestion, urination, defecation, flatulence, etc. then “God” must have those same functions as well.

    And that’s not even mentioning death. If there ever was a “God” how do we know he/she hasn’t already died?

  7. Rocketman
    April 26th, 2006 @ 7:32 am

    As Douglas Adams said–and I’m paraphrasing–this argument is equivalent to a puddle amazed that the hole it is in was created to exactly match the contours of its form.

  8. Severalspecies
    April 26th, 2006 @ 8:34 am

    “If there is no cause of this, it would be a most extraordinary coincidence — too extraordinary for any rational person to believe.”

    God doesn’t have a cause according to ‘God believers”, therefore God is too extraordinary for any rational person to believe. Therefore ‘God believers’ are irrational.

  9. The Raving Atheist
    April 26th, 2006 @ 8:39 am

    this argument is equivalent to a puddle amazed that the hole it is in was created to exactly match the contours of its form.

    No, it’s not. The hole fits its contours by definition — it’s logically impossible for it not to, just as it’s logically impossible for a square not to have four equal sides. But nothing in logic requires the physical laws to be what they are.

  10. sdanielmorgan
    April 26th, 2006 @ 8:52 am

    I would agree with Aaron’s analysis of the importance of recognizing matter/energy as without beginning or end.

    I still agree that Swinburne’s argument is a valid argument, even if the premises are weak [the idea that without a sustaining/ordering force, order is not an intrinsic part of the cosmos]

  11. Choobus
    April 26th, 2006 @ 11:33 am

    This is nothing more than the (so very tired) anthropic argument. What’s next on the agenda? President Bush: great president, or greatest president…..

  12. Rocketman
    April 26th, 2006 @ 2:23 pm

    Man maybe I’m wrong–but wondering about why the universe is ultimately the way it is, is inherently pointless. It is a question of inclusion resulting in the reality we know. We are what we are because the universe is what it is. Human thought is simply an improbable occurance–given enough time –we think–in another situation we wouldn’t.

    To argue why things are the way they are is tantamount to asking why water conforms to the shape of the hole in the ground.

    It’s a nice thing to think about–but not specifically surprising. Inquiry is fine–discovery of discrete causes and effects are useful but it seems that the question you are asking is the big ultimate why?

    Why does not have a final answer-only one that will be answerable when you have decided it has reached a satisfactory limit.

  13. Choobus
    April 26th, 2006 @ 4:06 pm

    asI said rocketman, it’s just the anthropic argument.

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