Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 1

I stumbled onto a quiz that asks 12 questions to atheists.  I don’t know who the original author is, but it seemed to surface on the web sometime during mid-2012.  A lot of people have already answered this quiz, but I thought I’d give it a shot.  I’ll put this into multiple posts, because the answers can get long-winded

1. Does the universe have a beginning that requires a cause? If so, what was this cause?
The answer is a big fat I don’t know.  I don’t know what the cause looked like, or if it really needed a cause.  My understanding of what science has gathered so far is that an event that we call “the big bang” occurred about 13 billion years ago, which caused a still-occurring expansion to the size of the universe.  My understanding is that in an environment such as the ones we observe around black holes, which shares parallels with our big bang, gravity is so strong that it literally causes time to slow down.  So the question of what happened before the big bang is difficult for us to answer, because it might hold that there simply was no time before the big bang.

But even if we addressed this question directly, we could still respond without invoking God.  Maybe our universe is inside or parallel to other universes, and maybe all universes that exist come from black holes, and maybe all the black holes in our universe will create other universes, and eventually we’ll have so many universes that they start swallowing each other up.

It does create a problem of infinite regression when we say that a universe comes from a black hole in another universe, and might lead you back to the same question (what caused the original universe).  But I don’t think that’s particularly different than the infinite regression problem of what caused God.  The theist’s solution to that problem is to say that God is supernatural, but then, how do you know that?  And how can you observe and state that with any confidence?

So, I don’t know, but neither does anyone.  Some people have really good ideas, but an honest person will call it what it is:  a hypothesis.

Not knowing does not give us license to imagine supernatural nonsense and claim it as truth.  The best way we can answer questions like these is by saying we don’t know, and then trying to find honest ways to answer.

2. Is materialistic determinism compatible with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics?
–Begin Rant–
I have a lot of problems with this question.  First, it presupposes that a person who is an atheist must have a strong philosophical and scientific formulation of why they don’t believe in god; second, it presupposes that an atheist must be a strict materialist AND determinist; third, it presupposes that an atheist should be able to reconcile very complex philosophical and scientific matters that really aren’t at all related; fourth, most people have no fucking clue about any of this, yet this question assumes that only people who do understand the question have the right to reject the God delusion.

So, it’s a great big gotcha – the height of dishonesty, but I would not expect anything less from people who would formulate a quiz like this.

News flash:  a person doesn’t need to know jack squat about quantum mechanics or the various genres of materialism or determinism to reject the claim that all the natural complexity in the world must be attributed to some invisible supernatural being.
–End Rant–

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about materialistic determinism (or quantum mechanics for that matter), but since it’s a question, and I think that some atheists ought to be able to speak to it, this is me trying to do science with words – for any philosophers or physicists out there: feel free to correct any errors I make.  This is physics and philosophy from the perspective of a computer programmer, and by no means as elegant as some people can write this stuff.

I’ll start with some definitions:

Determinism:  all events, including human action, are determined by causes external to the will.
Materialism:  nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications

So materialistic determinism is the belief that we’re a collection of matter, and that everything that exists has a physical explanation, and the explanation to which we owe our existence is a collection of chemicals, atoms, etc.  In this doctrine, we don’t necessarily have free will.  If atheists are willing to engage in this sort of reductionist, strawman pigeon-holing, then the counter-argument put forward by theists might be that free will couldn’t exist if we owe our existence to a jumble of chemical equations.  Of course, not all atheists are adherents to this philosophy, nor is this philosophy necessarily a prerequisite of atheism.  Let me put it this way:  atheism is a rejection of a collection of claims, not a rigid adherence to fixed philosophical or scientific dogma.  Religion and faith rely on inconsistent and incompatible dogma; rejection of religion is, to me, the recognition that it’s impossible to honestly reconcile inconsistencies inherent in faith and religion.

In materialistic determinism, things like free will, a complex mind, and morality supposedly couldn’t exist without some supernatural string puller who endowed humans with these non-physical characteristics.  Of course, these things could exist, and I think it’s quite a dishonest stretch to claim that the mind and morality are proof for god, in the same ballpark as it is to say “I think, therefore my toaster created me.”

If you’re asking me if the mind and morality can be represented by a collection of hormones, electrical impulses, complex and evolved cellular behavior, and chemical reactions, then I suppose my answer would be:  maybe.  It seems like it.  It seems to me that 4 billion years of evolution could probably give rise to this complicated interplay between various types of cells (see endosymbiotic theory), and natural pressures seem perfectly capable of giving rise to genetic and behavioral changes.  I don’t see any evidence that there is some supernatural force that endows us with these characteristics, or that some transcendent being gives us insight into these matters before we’re born or while we’re alive, or that we have a soul that will outlive our bodies.  You’d think we’d have more evidence of things like this by now, if they were actually there.  I know there are a lot of religious folks who are horrified at the prospect that there may not have been some supernatural entity that made it all so, but despite an increasingly complex understanding of our universe, we haven’t found that supernatural explanations are needed to explain this complexity.

I could be wrong, but the evidence against my hypothesis is scant, and there don’t seem to be a lot of reasonable and testable hypotheses put forward to support the claim that our mind or morality is driven by things external of our physical bodies, brain, and learned experiences.

As far as comparing materialistic determinism with the “intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics”, it seems like quite a stretch to try to link the two concepts…sort of like trying to compare a slice of pizza with a space ship.  But I’ll rap on it for a little bit, even though I’m by no means an expert, and I think that attempting to draw someone into a debate on topics they’re unfamiliar with is quite a dishonest and cheap move.

But here’s some background:

At the quantum level (translation: very microscopic level, for instance, an electron), nature appears quite different than at the macro level (translation: the visually observable level).  Albert Einstein didn’t like some of the implications in quantum mechanics that scientists like Neils Bohr put forward in the early 1900s, because, he said, since behavior at the quantum level relies on statistical laws, it must hold that these quantum events cannot give the full description of nature by itself; in other words, there must be some other complex force that affects the probability of behavior at the quantum level.  So Einstein, along with Podolsky and Rosen, presented a paper in 1935 that claimed there was a paradox (violation of natural laws) to which quantum theory gave rise.

In 1964, John Stewart Bell demonstrated mathematically that there are no hidden variables behind the statistical nature in quantum processes, and therefore, proved Einstein and his colleagues wrong.  In other words, Bell demonstrated that quantum behavior was more-or-less a function of itself – no other natural phenomena were providing inputs in quantum processes, such as radioactive decay.  Even though in the observable world, we say that observable phenomenon have a cause, this does not hold in the quantum world.  To put it another way, events at the quantum level seem much more random than events we had previously described with mathematical equations in classical mechanics; in actuality, quantum behavior follows a series of behaviors that we have described mathematically, but those mathematical definitions are different than those found in classical mechanics.  Quantum mechanical probabilities are functions of the space, time, energy and momentum variables and give specific weights for specific measurements.

To swing back to the question of materialistic determinism, and whether it’s compatible with the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, I would say that the two are not compatible, nor do they need to be, nor would their compatibility (or incompatibility) prove God in any way, nor is it a reasonable exercise to try to draw parallels between the two, nor does one’s ability to stump non-scientific atheists add any weight or credibility to their argument, nor does the complexity at the quantum level need an external supernatural explanation.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

5 thoughts on “Answering a Stupid Quiz Part 1”

  1. Does an electron determine the structure and appearance of the Empire State Building by itself? No. It does however help define one very tiny part of that building. Quantum physics describes the universe which is smaller than electrons and so could have little consequence at the much larger scale. This problem of scale happens at many levels, most of which we accept without a problem. A grain of sand can redefine comfort of a shoe but cannot define a beach and so on. Like a deep sea creature asking “what is air?” we ask “what is space?” and the world goes on. To accept that matter is the only thing there is does not require fluent understanding of what matter is, only the understanding that there are no credible alternatives. Where full understanding of quantum theory is lacking we study and experiment. Where full understanding of the supernatural is lacking we are told only to have faith. There is a huge difference in the two.

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    1. Nicely put! Thank you for the mention of scale. There are so many ways to expose the faultiness of the assumptions in these questions…I struggle because I try to cap my blog posts to 1000 or 1500 words…

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      1. Learning to express an idea in less than 1500 words is not easy. I have struggled with it as well. I try to write a summary of the idea then explain only the parts that need explaining – if that is any help.

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  2. Something that might help is the Correspondence Principle (Neils Bohr) which states that the quantum world has a border with the world of classical physics. On one side of that border quantum mechanics rules and on the other side, they do not. This does not mean that all observable macroscopic phenomena cannot have a quantum mechanical cause, it just says that the quantum behaviors are limited by size (and we are talking very, very small masses and energies). This is similar to relativistic effects only occurring at high velocities. we structured answer, though.

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  3. One of the ironies of this quiz, that I don’t think I pieced together at the time, is that the alternative explanation this quiz’s author would have us accept is the conventional wisdom and philosophy of people who didn’t even know where the sun went during the night.

    There’s a quote by F. Bastiat (whom I don’t agree with on a lot of things, but I like the quote, anyway): “We must admit that our opponents in this argument have a marked advantage over us. They need only a few words to set forth a half-truth; whereas, in order to show that it is a half-truth, we have to resort to long and arid dissertations”

    Thanks for the comment!

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