If there's no God, what difference does anything make?

I recently watched a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson at the Westminster Theological Seminary, which I encourage you to view by clicking here. Wilson's opening salvo was one of the most common arguments for a belief in God — essentially the idea that if there is no God, then everything is just random chance, and nothing can mean anything. There can't be any means for saying that anything is true or untrue, right or wrong. We wouldn't have any reason to believe our representation of reality is worth anything. Without God, so we're told, nothing means anything. I thought the Hitch answered the issue quite well, but I wanted to respond with my own thoughts on the subject, as this is a frequent argument among theologians well-versed in apologetics.


"Random chance"

We know with quite a bit of certainty that a great many amazing things happen by sheer chance. Take for, example a snowflake seen under a microscope. Think about how absolutely stunning in detail each snowflake is, and how they are so exquisitely detailed and almost perfectly symmetrical. For a human being to create something like that would take a great deal hard work and deliberate design. But the breathtaking beauty of snowflakes is a random outcome (no two are alike, as the saying goes) of nonrandom natural processes. As it is described on Wikipedia:


Ice crystals formed in the appropriate conditions can often be thin and flat. These planar crystals may be simple hexagons, or if the supersaturation is high enough, develop branches and dendritic (fern-like) features and have six approximately identical arms, as per the iconic 'snowflake' popularised by Wilson Bentley. The 6-fold symmetry arises from the hexagonal crystal structure of ordinary ice, the branch formation is produced by unstable growth, with deposition occurring preferentially near the tips of branches.[1]


The shape of the snowflake is determined broadly by the temperature, and humidity at which it forms.[2] Rarely, at a temperature of around −2 °C (28 °F), snowflakes can form in threefold symmetry — triangular snowflakes.[3] The most common snow particles are visibly irregular, although near-perfect snowflakes may be more common in pictures because they are more visually appealing.


Planar crystals (thin and flat) grow in air between 0 °C (32 °F) and −3 °C (27 °F). Between −3 °C (27 °F) and −8 °C (18 °F), the crystals will form needles or hollow columns or prisms (long thin pencil-like shapes). From −8 °C (18 °F) to −22 °C (−8 °F) the habit goes back to plate like, often with branched or dendritic features. Note that the maximum difference in vapour pressure between liquid and ice is at approx. −15 °C (5 °F) where crystals grow most rapidly at the expense of the liquid droplets. At temperatures below −22 °C (−8 °F), the crystal habit again becomes column-like again, although many more complex habits also form such as side-planes, bullet-rosettes and also planar types depending on the conditions and ice nuclei.[4]


Interestingly, if a crystal has started forming in a column growth regime, say at around −5 °C (23 °F), and then falls into the warmer plate-like regime, plate or dendritic crystals sprout at the end of the column producing so called 'capped columns'.[2]


Chance, in itself, is a property of the ordered structure of the universe. In other words, if order itself were not an intrinsic property of the universe, there would be no such thing as "random chance". The term is somewhat illusory anyway — "randomness" exists in the sense that we cannot predict with 100% accuracy what, for example, a snowflake will look like. However, as the description above indicates, we can determine the probability of various patterns arising based on various environmental conditions. But while these outcomes are in a sense random, the processes that underlie them are very ordered. This means that, as another example, while biological evolution is random in the sense that it is not teleological and gene variations occur in ways that are determined to in probabilities rather than certainties, the physical laws of the universe that govern physics, chemistry, etc., are highly ordered and exact. Thus it's a fallacy to suggest that merely because "random chance" is a ubiquitous and fundamental property of our universe, everything is always random. A great many things are not random at all.


Where did order come from?

The most common follow-up I've been confronted with by theologians is this: if the universe is fundamentally ordered, how did it get that way? How can an ordered something arise out of nothing?

The question is best answered with another question: by what measure does one presume that the universe, or any property therein, came from something else? Carl Sagan once observed the logical conundrum of the infinite regress (if God created the universe, what created God?) by saying that if one attempts to arbitrarily escape the conundrum by arguing that God does not need to be created, why not save yourself a step and say the universe itself does not need to be created?

A study of modern cosmology will reveal, as I have discussed extensively in previous blogs, that there is no reason at all to presume that the universe came from something else; it is entirely possible, and indeed most modern cosmological models lean toward the idea, that the universe itself simply is. Thus, the underlying order that we see reflected in the randomness of the snowflake need not have come from God, or any or similarly unprovable ethereal cause; it may simply be a fundamental property of a universe that exists uncreated, uncaused, and absolute. I say "may" merely as a nod to the fact that there is so little that we know with certainty about the universe, and indeed it may have come from God or something else; but we have no rational basis for assuming such a thing.


Reality and objectivity

Because the universe itself is intrinsically ordered, we can observe order all around us, lending credence to the validity and reliability of our sensory perceptions. For example, I am sitting in a chair whilst typing this. I cannot be absolutely certain that the chair will remain where it is, or that it will not disappear into thin air, or even whether I am actually sitting here at — perhaps I am dreaming, or plugged into the Matrix. However, based upon my experience with chairs and with solid objects in general, I can be reasonably certain that it is not going anywhere.

In his book The Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins remarks, "Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when." In other words, our accounts of reality are reliable because we have the ability to see them borne out. If a chair were to suddenly disappear from underneath my backside, I might have to re-evaluate the reliability of my experience in what I know to be reality. But pragmatically, we know that such things do not happen. We know that when we let go of an apple, it will fall to the ground. This happens every time; not only that, but we can predict exactly the speed and trajectory of the apple based on numerous different factors calculated through our understanding of ordered physical laws.

Clearly, we can indeed know, with reasonable certainty, that our experience in reality is reliable and valid. But does this mean that things like beauty and morality are absolute, as Douglas Wilson wants to believe? Of course not. Something like "beauty" is measured not in objective terms in relation to some metaphysical absolute, but as an abstract human construct known only in relative terms; i.e., we call something "beautiful" because of how it appears to us relative to other things that we have seen. Morality, too, is neither wantonly relativistic nor monarchically absolute, but an innate and necessary part our being — without the ability to live cooperatively, our species would quickly perish.

Atheists reject any notion that there is some divinely imbued purpose to our existence. The universe existed long before we did, exists mostly without us, and will continue along just fine without us when we are long gone. As Carl Sagan said, "If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?" But we recognize that the time we have is still invaluable to us, that our experiences are real and meaningful to us, and that we have a profound ability to affect, for better or worse, the lives of those around us.

Comments

  1. Unbelievably insightful post as usual. I always feel like my IQ goes up a bit every time I read your work.

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