A Guide to Reality, Part 9

Alex Rosenberg begins chapter 4 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by pointing out how wasteful biological processes are. For example, a frog or fish may lay thousands or even millions of eggs and only produce a few offspring. Many organisms go through an entire life cycle without having any offspring at all. In addition, 99% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct, partly as the result of various prehistoric cataclysms (like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs).

Rosenberg says this is what we should expect from the Second Law of Thermodynamics: “a lot of order relentlessly turned into entropy” [75]: 

Can any process produce entropy as fast as natural selection?… Build a lot of complicated devices out of simpler things and then destroy all of them except the few you need to build more such devices… [Adaptations] persistently get more complicated and so use even more energy to build and maintain themselves…. Any process competing with natural selection as the source of adaptations has to produce adaptations from non-adaptations and every one of the adaptations it produces will have to be rare, expensive and wasteful [77].

However, Rosenberg’s main thesis in this chapter is that it’s logically impossible to reconcile God and Darwin (although many have tried). He begins with the traditional idea that God is omniscient and omnipotent (aside from being unable to perform impossible tasks like creating a rock so heavy He or She can’t lift it). Rosenberg also assumes for the sake of argument that God intended to create us or something like us “in His image”.

So, assuming that God knows everything, can do anything, and wanted us to exist, how can we harmonize God and evolution? The common approach is to suggest that God used evolution to make us, either by kicking off the process long ago, knowing it would eventually lead to us, or by manipulating evolution at key points, with the same result. In other words, evolution is part of God’s plan.

A problem with this idea, as Rosenberg explains, is that natural selection is a matter of probabilities. That’s what we should expect from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Mutations just happen. Organisms that might do very well never get the chance because of some random event (like being eaten while still in the nest). There is no guarantee that particular species will evolve. That’s what science tells us.

If God cooked the evolutionary books, therefore, interfering with the randomness of evolution, Darwin got it wrong. We didn’t evolve in the way the theory predicts. On the other hand, if God let evolution take its random course, He or She didn’t know what the result would be. Our evolution wasn’t planned. Either evolution is a random, probabilistic process or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.

My guess is that a proponent of intelligent design or creationism would say “so much for evolution”. It doesn’t work exactly like the biologists say. So what? Or that God in His infinite wisdom can arrange things any way He wants. It’s all way beyond our understanding.

Personally, I don’t have any religious faith that needs to be reconciled with Darwinism. But what if you’re serious about reconciling your faith and your scientific views? Is there a good response to Rosenberg’s argument?

I think there is. My first reaction to Rosenberg’s argument in chapter 4 is that he seems to be ignoring something he discussed in chapter 2, namely, the “multiverse”. As Rosenberg pointed out, many theoretical physicists, perhaps most of them, think that our universe is just one among many, where “many” could be a truly vast number, even an infinite number. But if there really is a multiverse, it seems beyond question that people like us were certain to evolve in universes here or there, given enough time and randomness. God, being omniscient, could have initiated the multiverse knowing full well that people just like us would eventually exist in some of its parts. If anyone would, God would understand that if you roll the dice often enough, you’ll eventually get all the combinations.

Along with Rosenberg, we can accept the fact that evolution is a truly random process in our universe. It might even be a random process in every universe. But if there are enough universes around, pretty much everything will end up evolving somewhere or other many, many times. If that’s God’s plan, there is no conflict with the Second Law or the theory of evolution. God and Darwin can be reconciled.

My other reaction to Rosenberg’s argument is that he should take into account what physicists and many philosophers say about the nature of time. I have trouble with the idea, but the current scientific view of time is that all moments are equally real. Ours is a “block” universe in which there is no past, present or future; there is merely earlier and later. It isn’t clear to me at all how the universe can be probabilistic and physical events truly random if what’s going to happen is just as real as what did happen, but that’s what physicists believe. I guess it just means the past doesn’t fully determine the future at the quantum level, even though future events are just as real as past events. 

Anyway, if anyone can reconcile quantum indeterminacy and a block universe, it’s God. After all, according to the theologians, God is outside of time (whatever that means). God isn’t sitting around, waiting to see what happens. As Rosenberg says, God is “omnipresent”, which means there is nothing in space or time that is off-limits to God. Being omniscient as well, God knows the whole story. That should be especially easy for God if earlier and later events in the story are equally real.

For that reason, even if evolution is random and inherently unpredictable, God is fully informed. Every event, earlier or later, is right there in the history of the universe for God to know about. If what physics tells us is true, it’s a perfect setup for someone like God, being outside of time, to know how evolution eventually leads to people like us. Randomness prevails, Darwinism is correct and God knows the whole story anyway. If indeterminacy and the supposed nature of time are in harmony, so are physics, Darwin and God. 

Rosenberg ends chapter 4 with some remarks on purpose:

Scientism means that we have to be nihilists about the purpose of things in general, about the purpose of biological life in particular, and the purpose of human life as well….There isn’t any rhyme or reason to the universe. It’s just one damn thing after another. Real purpose has been ruled out by physics [92].

I don’t think he’s right about that, but to avoid repeating myself, we’re going to move on. In our next installment, we’ll consider chapter 5. It’s called “Morality: the Bad News” (the good news supposedly comes later).

2 thoughts on “A Guide to Reality, Part 9

  1. Rosenburg’s argument is based on speculating about endless possibilities.

    It isn’t logical to confront reality with endless speculation.

    Orthodox Christianity as opposed to postmodern Protestantism, is firmly rooted in the solid ground of Mother Earth.

    The world is what it is and we can only understand the past be it history or ancient biology, by tracing it back and back through reality.

  2. I don’t agree with your interpretation of Rosenberg’s perspective, but thank you for your comment.

    It’s true that Rosenberg is interested in endless or almost endless possibilities in one sense: he believes that the history of the universe might have taken many different paths at the quantum level, which would have resulted in many different paths at the level of human existence. Homo sapiens, for example, might not have existed at all if “some improbable event in one large family or small group [hadn’t] prompted a handful of its members – certainly less than 150 people – to begin wandering north toward the Horn of Africa” [ 86].

    But his entire program in “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality” is based on the assumption or rather his conclusion that scientists have investigated the past and present, thereby coming to a relatively complete understanding of the world we live in. He then proceeds to draw conclusions (correct or not) from what science tells us, especially physics. In this sense, he is clearly opposed to endless speculation.

    Of course, since he’s a philosopher, some speculation is a job requirement. I just don’t think he’s being speculative in this book.

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