Monday, 24 February 2014

Complexity, creation and watchmakers

In this post I'll put aside any supernatural aspect of a god.  Let's just consider him (it's almost always 'him') as a being who has the power to create a universe and work what appear like miracles within that universe.

What is the point of there being such a being?  He is usually thought of as explaining the origin of our universe, and setting things up so that complex organisms such as humans will appear.  He also watches what humans do, and may contact them and change reality for them (which will be considered miracles).  There is this belief that the complexity around us needs a creator.

What kind of complexity would make us think of there being a creator?  We know from Darwin's work that biological complexity can arise by itself without any need for intervention.  Provide a source of low-entropy energy, such as sunlight, and biological systems can make use of the low entropy to grow and reproduce.  Biological systems are good at creating disorder through their activities and their metabolism, after having put the order in sunlight, chemical energy, or other organisms acting as food, to good use.  

So, complexity alone isn't enough to need a creator.  But what about something that has clearly been designed by a mind?  To use Paley's example:
 a watch found by itself on the ground would make us believe there was a watch maker.  This is not wrong.  (Where Paley went wrong was to use a watch as an analogy for life, but watches aren't alive, and they don't reproduce and they don't experience natural selection.)  But a watch, with a manufacturer's name inscribed on the back, would be a very good reason to believe in a watch maker.  There is an explanatory gap.  Why is there this gap?  Because it doesn't seem reasonable to believe that chance alone could produce such a watch.  We look for a cause of the watch.

However, there are situations where a watch maker isn't needed, and these situations are to do with beginnings.   Imagine a vast barren universe, filled with nothing but wandering atoms.  The universe is very dull, and is neither expanding or contracting.  Just atoms, wandering around at random.  In this situation bizarre things happen to principles that we usually consider to be laws of Nature.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that entropy will always increase to a maximum turns out to be a general guideline, not a Law.  Given disorder and enough time, order will appear.  The time involved may be hard even to write down mathematically let alone conceive, but order will happen.  Given enough time and a universe filled with particles moving randomly, a fully-operational watch will appear, even with a name apparently inscribed on the back.  The watch will run down, stop, and even decay due to quantum effects in a time brief beyond measure compared to the time taken for the watch to appear.  Given enough time, the watch will appear, again and again... because given eternity, anything physically possible can happen.  

The watch that appears out of chaos does not need a watchmaker.  It's possible (inevitable if you wait long enough) that a fully functional watchmaker could appear out of chaos and would live long enough to make a watch, but the combination of watchmaker and environment is so much more complex that a watch alone, and ill take so much longer, on average, to appear than a watch alone, that if you find a watch in the middle of chaos, it's vastly more likely that the watch appeared without the need for a watchmaker.  

So, when we deal with beginnings, simple arguments about design just don't work, and there is another possibility I have not mentioned for ending up with a watch: out of chaos a quantum fluctuation of the right kind occurs so as to create an inflationary state which expands vastly and then stops, dumping energy into newly created space and time, resulting in a Big Bang.  Galaxies and stars form, planets appear from dust and gas around stars,  Life appears on planets, and then evolves over billions of years.  Eventually, a technological civilization appears and someone decides to make a watch.  That sounds incredibly complicated, but it's likely that the quantum fluctuation that started it all off is much, much less complex than a watchmaker and enough life-sustaining environment to allow the making of a watch.  What this means is that if you find a watch and you have no other evidence, by far the most probable origin for that watch is a spontaneously-appearing universe - vastly more probable than a spontaneously-appearing watchmaker.
So, to insist on some original watchmaker is an extremely poor idea of how you ended up with a watch than to suggest that a universe appeared by itself.  Even if this universe does in some way resemble a watch with the manufacturer's sign engraved, the suggestion that this universe was the result of a cosmic watchmaker is still a very bad idea for how everything began - it's vastly more reasonable to suggest that the watchmaker arose through natural processes in his universe.

Gods really don't work as places for explanations of how things got started.  There are always vastly simpler alternatives, such as spontaneous universes.

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