The Quantum God of the Gaps
Throughout the centuries belief in gods has evolved in a great many ways. Though many core beliefs have remained more or less intact the advent of scientific progress has pushed the field of apologetics into new places. For every phenomenon we have a natural explanation for the superstitious explanations must find new places to hide and new questions that need answering.
Given this tendency, for God to become a God of the gaps as we learn more about ourselves and our Universe, it's no surprise that theists have taken a liking to certain fields of science, like quantum physics. Few fields in science are more mysterious and misunderstood by the public. And what's more even the scientists aren't always sure what to make of our Universe on the quantum level. The baffling and bizarre world of quantum mechanics provides fodder for theists attempting to justify their belief in God.
In this hub I want to talk about some of the common “gaps” in human knowledge that theists like to place God, both in regards to quantum mechanics, and other aspects of science and the Universe.
The Quantum Observer
The most common argument I've seen in conversations with theists is the Quantum Observer argument. This is based loosely on the famous double-slit experiment, which was a seminal experiment that helped solidify the existence of wave-particle duality amongst some particles. One interpretation of the experiment holds that the mere observation changed the results, this is known as the Observer Effect (often confused with the Heisenberg principle).
Theists will use this experiment to claim that the Universe exists in a state of flux and that the only thing which decides our existence, as opposed to our non-existence, is that everything is being observed by an omnipresent mind. This mind, to them, is whatever version of God they believe in.
Along with the dual-slit experiment they tend to lump in the idea of Quantum superposition (Schrodinger's Cat) which seems to suggest that, until observed or measured, particles exist in all of their theoretical states. An electron, for example, would be both a particle or a wave until observed, the act of observation presumably causing it to choose a state. Theists extrapolate this outward, claiming that someone must be observing everything. Believers also tend to use the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, where two particles that were once in contact now share a strange bond which makes them take on the same Quantum state, though entanglement is itself a form of superposition.
There are a few problems with the Quantum Observer hypothesis. For one thing if everything is constantly being observed by God how in the hell did we ever discover particle-wave duality to begin with? If the act of our measurement in the experiment influenced the state of the electrons than the electrons WEREN'T being observed BEFORE we observed them – they would have to be in a state of quantum superposition for our observation to affect them.
If we assume, for sake of argument, that such a Quantum Observer exists we're left with little or no information about this observer. In scientific experiments observations are typically conducted with high-tech measuring devices, not the naked eye of the scientists, especially in the case of quantum physics. So if there is some cosmic observer it might very well be some kind of machine, or measuring apparatus, with the builder long dead and not at all omnipresent or omnipotent.
This argument for god also doesn't preclude the idea of there being many gods, and it certainly seems more feasible to me for the Universe to be observed by many than to be observed by few. Of course this argument also bases itself on the idea that all observations inherently alter the state of the Universe on a macroscopic scale no matter how it is being observed. For example we can see pretty far with the hubble telescope, we can even see the vastness of the Universe, hundreds and hundreds of other galaxies with their light reaching us from billions of years in the past. So do our observations of this light alter the state of those galaxies? Does that observation happen instantaneously or must it too follow the Universal speed-limit-of-light? There are simply too many questions unanswered and too much confusion about what, if any, ramifications these ideas have on the macroscopic world, as opposed to the quantum one.
The Simulated Universe
Another popular argument made by theists is that we are living in a simulated Universe. The idea comes from the fact that technology is growing at an exceedingly rapid rate. At some point in the future it is likely we will be able to simulate entire Universes within a computer, complete with lifeforms. Presumably we will even be able to simulate intelligent life. The argument thus goes that if we accept that WE will be able to create a simulated Universe than there is also a good chance that WE ARE in a simulated Universe right now. There would only need be one actual Universe to spawn an infinite loop of Universes within Universes all of which would technically be stored on one master computer.
And who is seated at the controls of the master computer you might ask? Why God of course! Who else! Never mind that this version of God might be a neck-bearded gamer covered in the orange dust of a thousand cheese puffs playing out civilizations like just another Real-Time-Strategy game.
This argument plays into another favorite of theists, which is the argument from Natural Laws or the Argument from the Laws of Physics. For several centuries believers have been arguing that natural forces, like gravity for example, constitute evidence of a God, for someone had to make the Universe be so masterfully ordered. Why should the planets orbit each other so gracefully as they spin around the sun? The flaw here is that they are assuming the laws of nature are written down somewhere, penned by a heavenly legislature like actual laws, when in fact scientific “laws” are merely descriptions of how things work. There's no more evidence that the forces of the Universe were fine-tuned than there is evidence that Slartibartfast really did win an award for the coast of Norway.
So what is the problem with the simulated Universe argument? Well other than the assumption that we will be able to simulate Universe as complex as our own on a computer there's nothing wrong with it. Of course that's a big assumption to make and even if we make it we're still looking at a God who is nothing more than a computer programmer, hardly the God most monotheists believe in. Unless you think the story of Jesus is really just the story of a computer nerd sending his son into the game Tron-style.
The Fine-Tuning Argument
An argument that has a lot in common with the Simulated Universe argument the Argument from Fine-Tuning claims that the parameters of the Universe (physical laws, gravity and other forces, etc) are perfectly tuned to allow for life. Many theists have used this argument in conversation, some even claiming that the argument has persuaded atheists to become theists. The persuasiveness of this argument to some people has always left me kind of baffled because it's a pretty BAD argument all around.
For one thing the argument assumes that life could not have formed without the forces of the Universe turning out exactly the way they did. This is pretty presumptuous thinking as the only life we have yet to observe is here on Earth, a pale blue dot orbiting a medium sized sun amongst an endless sea of cosmic infinity. It would be just as blind of me to claim that there are no aliens, gods, or other lifeforms of any kind out there as it would to assume that we live under the only conditions where life could have even formed.
The gap being filled here is the question of why the four fundamental forces of the Universe turned out the way they did, how the operate and function, and the balance they seem to maintain. Like the natural laws argument this argument wants to concern itself not with how the Universe behaves but with WHY it behaves that way. It answers this question by inserting a supernatural WHO, a God who, like the clock-maker of Deism, sets the Universe in motion with all the pieces moving in proper order.
But that perfect order leads me to another flaw in the argument - as far as we can tell, the Universe is extremely INHOSPITABLE for life. Do you know what happens to an astronaut without a space-suit? The vacuum of space is not hospitable, and it surely makes up MOST of the Universe. Even most of planet Earth's surface is deadly to one form of life or another. Organisms evolve alongside their environments often occupying very specific niches. If the environment changes too rapidly, or the organism is pulled out of it's natural environment, the chances of it's survival are low. Life's grasp on, well, life, is tenuous at all times, extinctions are common. We've got asteroids, diseases, volcanoes, floods, quakes, gamma bursts, and each other to worry about, just to name a few of the threats to our continued survival. The argument from fine-tuning seems ludicrous in light of all of this.
Neil Degrasse Tyson demolishes the Fine-Tuning Argument
As I mentioned before we've only found life here on Earth thus far, this leaves us with a sample size of 1. We've barely gotten out of our cosmic backyard so it's impossible to say whether the Universe is almost barren or is completely teeming with life. We the living may be the odd balls of the bunch, an aberration, a rarity. Even assuming there is life out there on other planets it would likely exist in what's known as the “Goldilocks Zone”, not too close to the sun but not too far either.
The argument from Fine-Tuning is another example of theists putting the cart before the horse. I've seen the argument made that it's amazing that human beings fit their environment. We have an oxygen rich atmosphere, and we breathe oxygen, we eat fruits, vegetables and animals, and the world is rich with them. The idea that this is all engineered FOR US is a conclusion that many theists, and specifically creationists, tend to make. But as I said this is putting the cart before the horse. The environment is not adapted for us, we are adapted for the environment. This is why Europeans have less skin pigment than Africans and why Tibetans who live at high altitudes have developed special genes to thrive there. Traits that help survival are passed on while traits that hamper survival die out, it's called natural selection.
When we don't understand why the Universe turned out the way it did it's understandable to get these kinds of arguments. Any gap in our understanding and knowledge leaves room for all sorts of interesting and far-fetched ideas to be tossed in. Invariable there are those theists who will take advanced fields of science, or any of the bigger questions of philosophy and answer it with “God did it”. God, the supernatural wizard capable of all things, pat answer for every question.
Before we understood seasons people prayed to gods for rain. Before we understood Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and droughts people sacrificed animals and even people to appease the gods of nature. Before we understood thunder it seemed like the deep anger of a god, lashing out with a booming voice and fire from the sky. We cowered under superstition because we were frightened and because we didn't know the answers.
There will always be questions we don't know the answers to, mysteries that mankind will take centuries to unravel and even then, when we hit the bedrock of the Universe itself, our understanding may fail us. It is important, though, to value truth and to value the questions. Rushing to a comfortable conclusion, or opportunistically propping up ancient beliefs to make them seem modern, are hardly intellectually honest ways to seek the truth. Unfortunately “God did it” is a temptingly easy answer to even the hardest questions. We will likely see these arguments for centuries to come.
Thanks for reading.