Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Do I Believe Everything Happened By Chance?

One of the many misconceptions I have heard regarding those who have left religion is the view that atheists must believe that everything just happened by chance.

I think this idea is misleading at best and doesn't accurately represent my views. So I thought I would share some of my thoughts on this topic and hopefully that will be helpful to some of you.

What do you mean by chance?

The first question I want to raise is what is meant by the word "chance"? I imagine what is meant is a kind of chaotic randomness, kind of like what you might see in a violent storm or similar chaotic system. I think believers often imagine that without some intelligent agent calming such forces, this level of chaos is all there would ever be. And, they reason, how could anything ordered ever arise from such chaos?

In the beginning...

This thinking is not new. In fact most early origin stories, like that in Genesis and also in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, contain the themes of an early chaos being tamed by the gods and formed into something ordered, with regular cycles and a purpose behind it all. It's clear that there are regularities and patterns in the world and indeed the cosmos, but why do people including these ancient writers assume that there must have existed some kind of chaos before? What evidence would lead us to that conclusion?


I suspect it has something to do with the outworking of the 2nd law of thermodynamics (also known as entropy) in our everyday lives (although the ancient writers didn't know it as that). That is, the fact that things tend to deteriorate over time. Rooms get messier. Junk accumulates. And any attempt to maintain a state of order often involves a lot of work, by humans. So when the ancients looked out at the sky and saw stars and even planets moving in what looked like very ordered paths across the sky, and the seasons came and went with clockwork regularity, they no doubt imagined that there must be some great being keeping everything in order. Sir Isaac Newton famously struggled to understand the motions of the planets and was unable to completely explain how they maintained their stable orbits around the sun, and so he imagined that perhaps God needed to step in every now and then to adjust things.

No need for that hypothesis

This apparent difficulty in understanding the stable orbits of the planets was resolved (beginning in 1773) by Pierre-Simon Laplace, who discovered a way to apply Newton's theory of gravitation to the whole solar system rather than just looking at a single planet at a time. There is an apocryphal account of Napoleon saying to Laplace, "M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator". Laplace replied, "I had no need of that hypothesis".

This kind of discovery serves as a broad analogy for the overall advances in our scientific understanding of the universe. While the ancients may have seen chaos and order as opposites, forever locked in an ongoing battle throughout all of time, modern understandings of physics tend to view order as arising naturally from chaos without any need of help from an external force.

Order emerges from chaos

Probably the clearest example of order naturally arising from chaos comes from our understanding of quantum physics, the natural processes now believed to underpin everything we see happening around us. The quantum world is bizarre and quite chaotic.

On the tiniest scales, we have quantum entanglement, quantum tunnelling, and a whole lot of quantum jitter, and yet at larger scales we find ourselves in a highly predictable, almost clockwork universe. Scientists don't think there is any magic going on to create our classical-feeling world from its quantum source. Rather, even though the motion of any individual particle might be unpredictable (or "uncertain"), when you take the aggregate motion of a huge number of particles in a given region, a lot of the uncertainty cancels out, leaving us with a fairly predictable universe on larger and larger scales. So predictable in fact, that scientists can calculate the time and date of every solar and lunar eclipse for the next several thousand years! Out of interest, scientists can also retrodict the dates of solar eclipses back into the past as well, and depending on your view of which year Jesus died, well, that probably wasn't one.


While we are on the topic of uncertainty, I think this is probably the key to my entire world view and the aspect that has changed the most from my former beliefs until now. It is also most likely the largest difference between my world view and that of believers. I am far more accepting of uncertainty and "not knowing" than ever before.

While I accept the findings of science as "most likely" accurate within some margin of error, they are also always tentative, pending further research. It is, for better or worse, the best we can do. It has always been thus. The methods of science have proven to be the most successful so far when it comes to determining how nature and reality work. It involves testing our assumptions, collecting data and evidence, forming a model that can make predictions, and then systematically testing those predictions to see whether they are false. Those ideas that survive the testing are more likely to be correct. Such methods barely need any proof that they work. The fact you are reading this should be evidence enough. There is surely a lot we still don't know, but the increase in what we do know is testament to the methods that brought us here.

Scientific methodology

It is these same methods that I applied to the Bible years ago when trying to determine whether it was historically accurate. If there really was solid and compelling evidence to support the Bible's claims, then I was determined to find it. But what I found only led me either to evidence against the historical accuracy of the text, or simply greater uncertainty. In order to devote my life to this collection of books, I needed to know that they were reliable and accurate. It wasn't enough simply to blindly believe they were God's words. One could do that for any book, regardless of its origin - and many people do. This claim needed to be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. And that is where the house of cards collapsed. I have documented my findings elsewhere on this blog so I won't elaborate here. Feel free to read more here and here.

So where did it all come from then?

Ok, so if I don't believe the universe was designed by God, then what do I believe? Surely the only alternative is to believe it all just magically appeared by random chance?

Not so fast. This is a false dichotomy and it lies at the heart of this misunderstanding of the views of atheists.

Firstly, there are a potentially unlimited range of sufficient explanations for the origins of the universe, and everything in it. For things closer to home, scientists can study and measure them directly. They have a fairly good understanding of the origins of modern species, right back to the level of bacteria. The universe itself can be studied via powerful telescopes and theoretical models and simulations, and for that too scientists have a fairly good understanding of its origins right back to less than 1 second after the Big Bang. If you are a creationist you may doubt this, but I urge you to read the material and explanations anyway - at least to get an understanding of why scientists reached these conclusions.

I don't know

The bottom line is that when it all boils down to it, I don't know how the universe came to be. Neither do you, and neither does anyone. All we have are guesses, measurements, models, and mathematical frameworks. The latest scientific literature on the subject suggests that the universe may actually be eternal, whether cycling through several aeons or perhaps even spawning from a black hole in a parent universe, ad infinitum. There are models that fit all known observations, and many of these make predictions that are either being tested, or may be tested at some point in the future as our technology improves. It is remarkable to stop and consider that we even have the capability to test such things or at least come up with ways to test them!

There are other explanations also, such as the idea that we live in a simulation. This might still prompt a discussion about what environment the simulation is running in, and whether that too is itself a simulation and so on. Many people dislike the idea of an infinite regress, but I feel that these are probably unavoidable for the most part. One objection is that if time extends infinitely into the past, then no matter where we sit on the timeline, the chain of events would never actually reach us and thus it is claimed time cannot extend infinitely into the past. I think this reasoning is flawed. Even the notion of creation by a God involves infinite time. Was there an initial decision to create the universe? What was God doing before that? and before that? and so on? Positing a god does not resolve this apparent paradox. I personally think the flaw in the reasoning is that it takes our familiar notion of time within our universe and applies it to the universe as a whole, or to events beyond our universe. This is known as a composition fallacy.

Occam's Razor 

Something to consider when comparing these explanations is the idea of simplicity. Simple explanations are to be favoured over complex ones, along the lines of Occam's razor. And this is where the God hypothesis runs into trouble. The God hypothesis is too complex, far more complex than it needs to be to explain the origin of the universe or any other thing you might wish to explain with it. One could easily imagine a lesser being that is not all-powerful, nor all-knowing, and yet has the single ability of creating universes just like ours. Such a being might not be able to communicate with us in any way, and yet it provides a perfectly sufficient explanation for the origin of our universe, while also being much simpler than the all-powerful god concept. If we take the idea further, why even posit a being at all? Why not a tiny machine that does nothing except spawn universes? I don't find any of these explanations compelling of course, but I prefer their simplicity compared to the God explanation.

Turtles all the way down?

I tend to think that so far as we can tell, the universe operates via natural processes that behave in a consistent and somewhat regular fashion. We don't know whether these are fundamental or whether they merely emerge from yet more fundamental processes. But it seems reasonable to me that either there is some fundamental layer that "just is", or perhaps each layer extends indefinitely including back through time. Do I hold this view with any certainty? Of course not! Would it bother me at all to find out I was wrong? No. On the contrary I would welcome any evidence that could correct me and point me in the right direction.

As a flawed human with limited intellect on a random planet in our universe, I do not know the details of the true origin of said universe. And I find it absurd in the extreme that some people might expect me to know, or that I should hold some belief that I consider to be 100% correct. Why? What is it about human (lack of) rationality that leads these people to think we could be so certain about this? I think it's amazing that scientists have been able to figure out as much as they have, and no doubt they will discover a lot more in the future. But to expect we ought to know? What a preposterous idea!

Guess correctly, or die!

Equally preposterous is the notion that my inability to solve this cosmic riddle should somehow condemn me to miss out on a great prize in the future. That my inability to find any good evidence for the Bible's claims despite many years of trying, should find me condemned along with murderers and thieves, while a bunch of people who never so much as questioned what they were taught in Sunday School are granted immortality for such "virtue". Of course, it matters exactly which Sunday School, since Christadelphians will tell you that those poor unfortunate folk who never questioned what they learned in Catholic Sunday School are doomed to the same fate as me. And what about actual murderers and thieves who confessed the approved belief shortly before they died?

To top it all off, I am supposed to believe that this is all the great plan of a benevolent mastermind. Well, ok then.

Intellectual Honesty

As you may have noticed in reading this article and many others on my blog, I place extremely high value on intellectual honesty and freedom. When it comes to my world view and my beliefs about reality, I will happily admit there is a lot I do not know. If it turns out there really is some god out there that created everything and I am so mistaken, it was certainly not for lack of trying to find out the truth. At the same time, I do question why any loving being who wanted to be known would make people go through this at all? What would be the point?

I hope this article has given you more insight into the ways I have approached this topic. I think about origins a lot, probably more than most people, as it is a topic that fascinates me. But beyond this I care much more about living a good life and being a good human, and that involves constantly learning and being willing to change and even admit faults on occasion. Let's live the best life we know how and treat each other with respect. Take care :)