A rational universe?

Christian apologists are not known for their logic – or rather they are known for their faulty logic. And for their misrepresentation and opportunist use of science. They actually study philosophy and logic and hone these skills so as to argue for the one thing they try to “prove” – the existence of their god.

Their “arguments” are often so mechanical and rehearsed they give them names – eg. “the argument from cosmology”, “the argument from morality”, etc.

An argument local apologists seem to use a lot is the argument from rationality. This is often used childishly to claim that atheists, materialists, etc. (apologists often resort to name calling) have no basis for science because a god is required to confer order on the universe and rationality on our brains.20080501ae2

“Argument” from rationality.

This from a recent post on the Thinking Matters apologetics website (see The “god-of-the-gaps” argument):

“The theistic worldview provides not only motivation for good science, but the necessary philosophical underpinnings for the continuance of science. For instance, on theism God has endowed humans with cognitive faculties sufficient to understand the world, whereas on naturalism there is no such confidence. Similarly, theism guarantees rationality imbues the universe so that it is possible to discover laws in nature, whereas on atheism there is no such assurance. Alvin Plantinga manages to show that on naturalism there is no way to be assured about the reality of even physical objects, let alone that naturalism is itself true, for on naturalism our cognitive faculties are selected by evolution not for truth but for survival. Thus naturalism is at root self-defeating.”

Forget about the name-calling (atheist, naturalist, naturalism) or lack of supporting evidence for these bold assertions (“God has endowed humans …” and “theism guarantees rationality imbues the universe”). The author is essentially claiming that no scientist has the ability to understand reality without a god. And that a god is required to inject order into reality anyway. Apologists often seem to then go on to sneer at scientists as being unable to really do proper science unless they accept their god.

But I don’t see the problem. I don’t see the need for a god before I can be assured of reality, let alone investigating how that reality works.

Our “cognitive facilities”

How can we ever know if humans have “cognitive facilities sufficient to understand the world?” At least until we come up with some issue that really stumps us and then we will know we don’t. Mind you, the author seems to believe that issue is already here – the “big bang” and the formation of our local universe (see β€œScientism” in the eyes of the beholder). He declares those subjects as out-of bounds for scientific investigation. Not that any scientist is listening to him – they are just getting on and doing the work in these areas, with intriguing results.

Despite the incredible success of modern science, the benefits it has given humanity and the optimism of the scientific community we all acknowledge that there could well be questions we potentially cannot investigate, understand or answer. They may well be beyond our cognitive abilities, or our technological possibilities. However, until that happens we remain optimistic and there have been many cases of naysayers claiming issues are beyond science only to be proved wrong.

Our cognitive facilities are indeed the result of natural selection. But this surely does not mean they can be used only for survival. However, it does mean that we are not the rational animals that we sometimes kid ourselves that we are. We are prone to forming mistaken models of reality. We are inhibited by our adaption to a “middle earth” – a world of medium sized objects, energies and velocities. We are overly prone to subjective interpretations, wishing to confirm existing preconceived patterns.

This is why “common sense” is usually no help in understanding the rest of reality. And why so much of our knowledge about the very small, very large, very energetic and very fast conflicts with “common sense.”

However, our intelligence has enabled us to develop scientific methodologies and logic for wider investigations. We use these to probe and observe the invisible (to us) worlds of bacteria, electrons, atoms, quarks and beyond. We can look into the deep past and understand the origins and evolution of life on earth and what happened in the earliest fractions of a second of our local universe. We currently speculate beyond these limits and develop procedures for testing these speculations.

So while we are not the god-created ideal rational creatures envisaged by this article we have achieved a lot and will achieve more. And the scientific process, which must be seen as one of the greatest products of our evolved, non-rational but intelligent brain, has played a key role in this. I am sure it will long into the future.

Order in the universe

It is mechanical and naΓ―ve to think that a creator is required to somehow inject order into the universe. Some people do see order as a mystery. However, I think two important aspects of reality is its objective existence and the ability of its components (I won’t use “matter” here as some people have a problem defining that word) to interact. It seems to me that interaction, no matter how random, inevitably produces order. That was a glaringly obvious to me when I studied statistical thermodynamics in my student days. Starting with the random activity of molecules it is possible to derive extremely accurate and universally widely applicable thermodynamic laws.

Objective interaction provides a basis for the rationality of the universe.

I sometimes wonder if interaction is an unwarranted assumption. However, components which don’t interact would never affect us (or the rest of reality) and we just couldn’t detect them. So I am happy to assume interaction for all practical purposes.

Humanity’s investigation of these interactions (made possible by our own interactions with the rest of reality) has enabled us to develop scientific laws and other knowledge describing reality. Thus we have been able to modify our environment and improve our lives.

So, I am not a god-created, rational being. But I am intelligent and this, together with the social activity of other intelligent humans, has helped me understand my environment. Reality has its own inherent order arising from the natural properties of its components and their interaction.

All this without a god!

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4 responses to “A rational universe?

  1. I seem to have trouble getting the following point across:

    It seems to me that interaction, no matter how random, inevitably produces order. That was a glaringly obvious to me when I studied statistical thermodynamics in my student days. Starting with the random activity of molecules it is possible to derive extremely accurate and universally applicable thermodynamic laws.

    You were okay until you said, “universally applicable”:


    The *most naturally* expected universe looks like this:


    If you read the abstract, then it should be clear that “exploring increasingly ambitious ideas” means that you can only appeal to random quantum fluctuations, (and a multiverse), as a last resort to explaining the structure of the universe from first principles that also explains the apparent “rationality”.

    A thermodynamic energy conservation law, for example, because this provides a logical necessity to the the structure of the universe.

    The fact that you can’t use randomness to explain it without resorting to “increasingly ambitious ideas” means that you are reaching further than IDists who can laugh in your face for thinking that “increasingly ambitious ideas” are more plausible than exactly what it looks like, if you don’t have a final theory, or possibly a complete theory of quantum gravity that justifies it.

    And you don’t, so you should not appeal to this argument in lieu of a bio-oriented cosmological structure principle, (a “life-principle”), or you will look like a fool to anyone who actually understands this stuff that doesn’t play significance-denial games with the observation.


  2. Thanks for the comment Island – In retrospect I did cringe a bit at the use of “universally”. I meant “widely” – but of course not that widely.

    Quite coincidentally, I had read Carroll’s paper just a few days ago and found it much more understandable than most papers in this field.


  3. It seems to me that interaction, no matter how random, inevitably produces order.

    This would only be true for positive interactions, surely? If only negative interactions (i.e. repulsions) were present, this would perpetuate disorder, I would have thought. (I’m thinking of a closed system containing an homogenic collection of a substance, not heterogenic; for the latter, repulsions can induce partitioning, etc.)

    I’ve have to read your full post later as I’m out of time!


  4. I’m extremely torn by Sean Carroll, who does a great job of putting stuff out there, but is extremely closed about how the solutions to these problems will play out. That requires that he take literally for granted many unproven and semi-established assumptions, but that also keeps him in-line with the “consensus” of his profession, and that’s how he stays in the good graces of the people that he works for who strongly support string theory.

    I understand why, but I also see this as intentionally avoiding the obvious when it comes to the “rationality” of the universe.

    That was exactly the point of my guest post to Dorigo’s blog:


    One and One equals simple-stupid obvious stuff.

    1) We have this desperate need for a cosmological structure principle that resolves the problem from first principles.

    2) We have the anthropic observation, (which is arguably, highly pointed at carbon based life via the falsifiable goldilocks enigma, and in a manner that is common to the structure of the universe itself!).

    But “god” forbid that we add one and one to equal a bio-oriented cosmological principle, which absolutely is the most obvious solution to the problem that is available.

    THAT is willful ignorance to the nth^, and there is no excuse for scientists to play dogmatic politics with the consensus of opinion in the face of evidence that indicates exactly the opposite of what they *WANT* the world to be about.

    whew!… I feel better now that I got that off my chest!… again… πŸ˜‰


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