I was ruminating about how many people who believe in god have no qualms about totally dismissing evidence that would seem to contradict their position. I won’t rehash the well-known arguments that go on between believers and nonbelievers, but eventually it comes down to them saying “I don’t believe in your proof”. It’s a bit like dropping something very heavy on your foot, and telling yourself that you don’t believe in gravity.

When you attempt to have a discussion or debate about issues like these, any point you try to make is overruled by appealing to a supernatural deity as the prime mover, or first cause of whatever phenomena is being considered. I recently had such a discussion with two late middle-aged ladies who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and rang my doorbell. It turned into a twenty-minute mini debate in which neither side was able to move the other. They were adamant that god designed the world around us. I tried to explain that instead, natural forces did it all without any apparent help from a creator. My main point was the ‘god of the gaps’ argument – god is used to fill in knowledge that we do not have about any particular physical process. When we have a natural explanation, god is summarily dismissed from the scene. As our knowledge about the world grows, the domain over which god can pull levers behind the curtain diminishes. But they persisted, nonetheless:

Me: What causes the tides?

Them: God!

Me: The Moon!

Them: Ah, but who created the Moon?

It was clear that we were not going to find any common ground. Several weeks later, I was thinking about this discussion, and many others I’ve read or heard about that ran along similar lines. I was struck by the fact that no matter what kind of proof you can offer that does not require a god, it can be summarily dismissed by believers. Of course, if you’re going to have ‘faith’ in something without proof, it’s probably easy to ignore anything that appears contrary to what you want to believe in. Why be swayed by facts if you don’t want to be? Although I find that sort of deceptive and a bit of a cheat.

Turning it over in my mind, I realized that what’s really going on here is not so much refusing to believe in something that can be demonstrated to be true, but denying the idea that ‘chance’ or ‘random’ occurrences can even exist. Many people believe evolution means plants and animals turning into new species or adding new features in a willy-nilly fashion; Biogenesis is often described as inert chemicals thrown together to suddenly become bacteria (both scenarios being grossly oversimplified and described in misleading terms to make the argument more credible to anyone without a scientific background). To people who believe in a created Universe, everything that happens in it, from the radioactive decay of Beta particles, to the outcome of a game of roulette, is the direct and conscious result of god deciding what happens next, according to his divine plan. Complexity, according to them, must arise from a mind, not by ‘blind chance’.

This should sound familiar to most people; it’s Determinism, and the last gasp of Newton’s Clockwork Universe. If we knew the location and movement of every particle in the Universe, we would in theory be able to track where those particles are at a later point in time, in effect knowing the future (or by working backwards, the past). And god of course, would be more than able to do so.  This also has implications for the concept of Free Will, but we’ll leave that can of worms for another time. Let’s stick with why god has to be in charge of this, instead of an unconscious unguided natural Universe.

I think the kind of people who believe in this, and accept faith over evidence, are afraid. They are terrified of existing in a world where nobody is in charge, because then life may not have any true meaning. Atheism is often accused of advocating anarchy because it’s seen as removing any moral weight behind the concepts of social order, justice, even the concepts of good and evil themselves. A random Universe would be one in which hedonism and chaos would dominate. Life would not be sacred, and existence would be meaningless (the fact that many atheists live perfectly moral, meaningful lives is often not noted).  So it’s not really the evidence itself against the existence of god that’s rejected; it’s the idea that the world around us could arise unaided by a creator to direct things. Chance and randomness are concepts that must be avoided at all costs. Thus, it’s not the moon that ‘just happens’ to cause tides; it’s god creating the moon that causes tides. If your worldview is that everything is ultimately traceable back to god, then obviously the entire notion of happenstance occurrences must implicitly be ruled out.

But there’s a problem with this. We know now that ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ are built into our reality at the deepest levels. The Newtonian Universe has been overthrown by the amazing realization that there are aspects of existence that not even an omniscient god would be able to divine. I’m speaking of course of Quantum Mechanics, the most successful scientific theory every devised, and an aspect of it that contains a locked door not even you-know-who can get into: the Uncertainty Principle.

As we know, the Uncertainty Principle means that by selecting an aspect of an elementary particle to measure, we cannot know with precision anything about a related aspect of the same particle. You can measure the exact position, but by doing so, you are unable to determine the exact velocity. Or vice-versa; if you measure the velocity, you cannot know the precise position. The best you can do is to make a statistical guess about the most likely value you can’t measure. But there is no way to know for sure. In a very real and literal sense, the property you cannot measure does not exist (as opposed to having a real value that can’t be determined, which is not the same thing). So you cannot ascertain the precise location and speed of any particle; Newton’s mechanistic Universe cannot be realized. It is slightly chaotic, and eventually unpredictable, even by god.

Position vs. velocity is the most often-cited aspect pair, but also spin axises and other properties fall under the umbrella of uncertainty. This made me try to recall the famous debate against the UP, and then I remembered: the EPR Paradox. A paper published in 1935 by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen argued that particles may have ‘hidden variables’ that Quantum Mechanics failed to account for. This led to many years of intense debate and thought experiments until 1964, when John Stewart Bell came up with a statistical method of measuring whether or not entangled particles did have hidden variables. The details of the method Bell came up with may be too complex to explain within the context of this discussion. Suffice it to say that the original paradox involved a way of trying to ascertain the properties of a particle indirectly, without actually disturbing it. Bell found a way to determine if the properties were built into the particles or not. It was not physically possible to run the experiment until the early 70’s, but eventually, it (and subsequently more sophisticated and detailed experiments) proved that particles do not have hidden variables. The information is not ‘pre-programmed’ into the particle from the beginning. You can approximate the speed, location, spin axis, etc., but the precise attribute is for all intents and purposes not there until you measure it. And once you determine one variable, the corresponding one (location vs. velocity, for example) cannot be known with the same level of precision. Therefore it is impossible (not just unknowable) to ascertain precise details about some aspects of a particle. Uncertainty rules in our Universe, and god cannot know enough to make the Cosmos a giant clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the ladies who come to my door to give me a copy of the Watchtower don’t know any of that, and wouldn’t accept it anyway. They need the idea of a creator, if only to keep anarchy at bay; but the Uncertainty Principle and the EPR Paradox would strongly suggest that we inhabit a Universe where a god could not track the path of even a single elementary particle. And amazingly enough, things seems to be running just fine without anyone in charge. Order from chaos, and not nearly as much hedonism as one might think. Whether that’s a good thing or not I will leave to the reader.