Modern Cosmology and Theology
October 8, 2010 — 21:40

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 14

At the end of his discussion of fine-tuning arguments, Sobel briefly, and somewhat indirectly, discusses issues arising from attempts to combine theism with modern cosmology (pp. 285-287). In particular, many cosmologists now believe that the fundamental constants of nature were set by quantum fluctuations in the early universe. Stephen Hawking has suggested that such fluctuations might be very likely to produce a world like ours. If correct, the thought goes, this would undermine the fine-tuning argument. However, it would also do something more: if the laws of nature make it very likely, but not certain, that a world like ours, capable of supporting life, will come into being, this is a fact that theists will have difficulty explaining. Why did God make probabilistic laws? Would God have intervened if the early fluctuations had gone otherwise? If so, then why didn’t he set things up so as to ensure that they came off right without intervention? If not, why did he decide to take this risk? In short, can we make sense of the idea of a god – a literal god, not a figure of speech – who ‘plays dice’?
Here I think Sobel, following Quentin Smith, has put his finger on what is perhaps the deepest and most interesting question at the intersection of theology and modern science. (Certainly it is deeper and more interesting than any issue raised by evolution.) However, Sobel fails to mention any possible solution to it. I find it hard to believe that he can’t think of any possible solution: there’s one right under his nose. One of the main historical figures Sobel has been discussing is Hume, and it seems that if we can develop a Humean (descriptive) theory of natural law which is able to deal with probabilistic laws, then we will have solved, or at least greatly mitigated, the problem. (Of course, this is no easy task!) On such a descriptivist reading, it is possible that although the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics are the laws of our world, God chooses how each wave-function collapses, and chooses for reasons. All that is required is that those reasons do not lead to regularities of the sort that could displace the quantum laws as the laws of our world. For instance, we might make it a principle of our descriptive theory of laws that physical laws are not teleological. Thus if God chooses that the wave-function collapse a certain way in order that intelligent beings later arise, this does not threaten to replace quantum mechanics with a different set of physical laws.
Note that this is not a ‘hidden variable’ theory: hidden variable theories say that there is some more fundamental, deterministic physical law behind quantum mechanics, whereas on this view quantum mechanics (or we should rather say: whatever theory of quantum gravity physicists eventually work out, which will no doubt still be indeterministic) is the most fundamental physical law; it’s just that there are deeper explanations than physical laws.
This is just one solution. There are probably others. But I was impressed that Sobel pointed out the difficulty, because I think that it is one of the deepest and most interesting difficulties contemporary theists face, and it is far too often ignored.
[Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]

Comments:
  • Robert Russell has discussed this possible solution. I interviewed him on the topic here:
    http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=183

    October 8, 2010 — 22:04
  • Mike Almeida

    Thus if God chooses that the wave-function collapse a certain way in order that intelligent beings later arise, this does not threaten to replace quantum mechanics with a different set of physical laws.
    Maybe God can choose to create particles whose propensities are such that, were He to create them in circumstances C they would behave in way B. That is, B would be the outcome of a genuinely indeterministic process, and (perhaps) God knows this. But even if he can do that it will have to be true that the particles God chose to create would behave in ways that lead, for divine reasons, to divine goals and also behave in ways that appear to be genuinely indeterministic. But I doubt that God either would or could so govern an indetermnistic process to his goals for his reasons and disguise it in such a way that it looked genuinely random. What is inevitable is that the propensities of particles to behave in certain ways will begni to pull away from the frequencies of that behavior. That is, we would begin to notice that the frequencies are not matching up with the propensities. This would in fact be evidence that God is guiding the process. But the fact is that the frequencies and propensities do not pull apart and have not for millions of years. The propensity of radon to decay, for instance, has been the same as far back as we can detect radon.

    October 9, 2010 — 8:15
  • Kenny Pearce

    Mike, I’m not sure that’s right. Perhaps God set up the indeterministic process in such a way that his purposes were accomplished simply by ensuring that certain outcomes which, according to the indeterministic laws, are very unlikely, do not occur.
    There are, of course, divine deception worries in the neighborhood here, but I think that if we can preserve the claim that the physical laws are genuinely indeterministic, this won’t be so bad: it doesn’t seem to me that God is leading us to believe that there are things that happen for no reason at all.

    October 9, 2010 — 13:16
  • Mike Almeida

    There are, of course, divine deception worries in the neighborhood here, but I think that if we can preserve the claim that the physical laws are genuinely indeterministic, this won’t be so bad: it doesn’t seem to me that God is leading us to believe that there are things that happen for no reason at all.
    Hi Kenny,
    I’m actually not so worried about the deception; not as a morally worry. Let me illustrate with a toy model. Suppose God needs to achieve some goal in a genuinely indeterministic world. There are three coins he can create, each coin is fair, so each has a .5 propensity to fall heads. He knows that if he creates coin C1 in S, then it would be flipped and fall heads. He knows that if he creates coin C2 in S’, it would be flipped, and fall heads. He knows that if he creates C3 in S”, it would be flipped and fall heads. He also knows that this is just what would actualize some divine goal. The problem we find is that fair coins are falling heads too frequently! What God has to do, to fit the phenomena we actually observe, is arrange his choice of coins and situations so that the frequency of falling heads (for fair coins) is .5 (and similarly for unfair coins) AND also so that divine goals are achieved. My questions were (i) why would God care to keep frequency in line with propensity and (ii) how could he keep frequency in line with propensity and also achieve his goals? If God is governing an indeterministic world, would we find cool patterns in events that are unexpected? Why do we find, as in fact we do, just what we would expect if no one were governing the world?

    October 9, 2010 — 14:35
  • Kenny Pearce

    I would think that God would want to keep frequency in line with propensity because he would want his rational creatures to be able to make sense of the world around them by discovering its laws, etc. I don’t see any reason why God shouldn’t be able to achieve his goals while aligning frequency with propensity. Suppose he created a Hawking-style world where the quantum fluctuations in the early universe had a >90% chance of leading to fundamental constants that would very likely lead to cosmic evolution that would very likely lead to life. In this case, he would have set up the objective propensities in such a way as to accomplish his goals.

    October 9, 2010 — 17:23
  • hiero5ant

    Thus if God chooses that the wave-function collapse a certain way in order that intelligent beings later arise, this does not threaten to replace quantum mechanics with a different set of physical laws.
    On what possible concept of “physical” could this distinction possibly be made out? A conscientious descriptivist will just tell you that laws are descriptions, and descriptions are descriptions are descriptions.
    Every single instance you and I are familiar with in our descriptions of something resulting from someone’s choosing something are causal descriptions.
    Note that this is not a ‘hidden variable’ theory: hidden variable theories say that there is some more fundamental, deterministic physical law behind quantum mechanics…
    Do they? Do physicists who present them really say “physical”? Beware Hempel’s Dilemma!
    As far as I’m aware, variables in an empirical description do not come “toe-tagged” with “physical” and “not physical”. If you’re going to say that quantum physics might be indeterministic in every *possible* empirical sense, yet still claim to know that it’s “really” a function of some other variable, then I don’t see why that suggestion merits any more serious consideration than the metaphysics of the Eucharist that say it has every conceivable property of bread, but “really” it’s man-meat.
    …whereas on this view quantum mechanics (or we should rather say: whatever theory of quantum gravity physicists eventually work out, which will no doubt still be indeterministic) is the most fundamental physical law; it’s just that there are deeper explanations than physical laws.
    I’m not averse to the idea that what we want when we ask for an explanation is not exhausted by empirical description. But if I’m going to start talking about “laws” and something being the “result” of someone’s “choosing”, I’m going to want to play by the rules.

    October 9, 2010 — 22:05
  • Kenny Pearce

    hiero5ant, most descriptivists don’t think that just every true description is a law. Laws have to meet certain criteria (these differ depending on the specific theory). The only concern that I see that arises here is that, depending on the basis on which God chooses, God’s choice might give rise to a regularity in the phenomena which could count as a law.
    As far as whether my suggestion “merits serious consideration”, it’s a theological suggestion. If you don’t consider belief in God seriously, then you shouldn’t consider this seriously either. However, considering the existence of God seriously implies considering God as creator and sustainer of the physical world. Here I am asking whether quantum physics creates any special problems for the view that God exists and creates and sustains the physical world, and what responses might be given to those problems. The fact that you reject the presuppositions of the project doesn’t create a problem for my suggestion as such. (It does, I suppose, excuse you from any rational obligation to pay attention to me which you might, or might not, otherwise have.)

    October 9, 2010 — 23:19
  • Eric Silverman

    I don’t understand why I should believe that:
    P1 “the foundational laws of the universe LOOK like they are based on probability and random fluctuations from the limited temporal human knowledge base of a few hundred years of observation (well under less than 1% of the universe’s history)”
    somehow entails
    C2 “the foundational laws of the universe are not in fact guided by some higher intelligence, (perhaps, they only look random and probabilistic from the human view point).”
    I understand that scientists like Hawking want to make a stronger claim than P1, but I see no plausible way they could have compelling evidence for a stronger statement. (Perhaps, I really am a Kantian after all or I need to get an MA in Quantum Physics before developing a strong opinion on such matters)

    October 10, 2010 — 14:31
  • hiero5ant

    The only concern that I see that arises here is that, depending on the basis on which God chooses, God’s choice might give rise to a regularity in the phenomena which could count as a law.
    There are two potential regularities in play. The first is that the choices themselves conform to a recognizable pattern (say, that cities with gay pride parades get earthquakes and hurricanes within 24 hours), and the second that there must be a causal relation between the intentions of the agent and those outcomes. It does God no good at all if he wants to punish gay cities with meteors but the outcomes are random with respect to his will. Any claim of divine action must posit a lawlike relation of this second sort.
    I brought up Hempel in this connection to dispute the “not a hidden variable” claim. The distinction betwen physical and nonphysical in an empirical description can, I think, only amount to a merely notational move. Any number of regularities could secretly underlie what appears to be fundamental randomness. Either there is some actual regularity in the actual data or there isn’t; a hidden variable is a hidden variable. I don’t think claiming “but it’s not a physical variable” is a move that’s going to work.
    As far as whether my suggestion “merits serious consideration”, it’s a theological suggestion.
    Apologies if that came off as an attack; in person my inflection and body language perform an amelioration that often is lost in transcription.
    The “merits serious consideration” was meant to be taken given that I think you are making (or, less committally, outlining, speculating on, floating etc.) what *must* be a claim about a hidden variable in quantum mechanics. Inasmuch as this is true, then the appropriate standards of evaluation are whether you would confidently maintain to a newly-minted young physicist that this would be a productive area of research — that it would merit serious consideration as a new model of QM. My acquaintance with the field came to a dead halt with one high school AP physics course over a decade ago, with sporadic pop-sci books from Barnes & Noble. I wouldn’t dream of claiming to know something about quantum mechanics that no one else knows.
    There’s a brilliant short story by Canadian SF author Robert Charles Wilson called ‘Divided by Infinity’. The idea is, every possible world exists, so from a subjective standpoint no one ever dies — no matter how improbable your continued existence is (hit by a bus, decapitated, nuclear war etc.) there is some world in which you survive, look back on what happened, and go “wow!” And so the protagonist keeps trudging through life, with events becoming more and more improbable all the time…
    It’s awesome. Check out his _Darwinia_ or _Spin_, too.
    I think your proposal is worthy of serious consideration, in this second sense. But I worry, both for philosophy of religion’s sake as well as for political and cultural reasons, that people might confuse meriting consideration in this second sense with meriting it in the first sense.
    If you don’t consider belief in God seriously, then you shouldn’t consider this seriously either. However, considering the existence of God seriously implies considering God as creator and sustainer of the physical world. Here I am asking whether quantum physics creates any special problems for the view that God exists and creates and sustains the physical world, and what responses might be given to those problems. The fact that you reject the presuppositions of the project doesn’t create a problem for my suggestion as such.
    I have to say the “presuppositions” bit is (as always) a red herring. If there’s an earthquake coming in my city next time another gay bar opens, or if there’s a breakthrough hidden variable in quantum mechanics that the physics community isn’t aware of yet, then I darn well am extremely interested to know all about it!

    October 10, 2010 — 16:45
  • Kenny Pearce

    hiero5ant – By denying that my view is a hidden variable theory, I mean to deny that my suggestions should, even if accepted, have any effect on the practice of physics. Some parts of you comments sound like you recognize this, but others don’t. If God exists, then he is creator and sustainer of the world, and thus bears some causal relation to the world. It may be that we can only understand the notion of ’cause’ here by analogy to our ordinary notion of a physical cause, but this cannot be any more than an analogy; the relation God bears to the world cannot be precisely the same as physical causation.

    October 10, 2010 — 20:13
  • What about saying that sometimes God lets nature takes its stochastic course, and sometimes he directly determines which of the physically possible outcomes of a stochastic process actually takes place? Then we simply deny that the Hawking explanation is correct–it just looks correct, but in fact the stochastically likely outcome was directly produced by God.

    October 11, 2010 — 9:57
  • Interesting problem, and an interesting proposed solution to boot. The sort of “decision masquerading as chance” phenomenon you describe could do work for the theist in a number of places, e.g. in allowing for incompatibilist free will.
    In my opinion, though, quantum theory doesn’t sit well with a Humean view of laws in the first place. Tim Maudlin’s essay “Why Be Humean?” from his most recent book has a good discussion of this point.
    @Eric:
    I understand that scientists like Hawking want to make a stronger claim than P1, but I see no plausible way they could have compelling evidence for a stronger statement.
    This sounds like something only a scientific anti-realist would have grounds to say. For the realist, if the chancy-constants theory is the best available explanation, that’s compelling evidence right there.

    October 15, 2010 — 9:32
  • Kenny Pearce

    Sorry to be behind – I’ve been out of town at a conference all weekend.
    Alexander – I have broadly Leibnizian worries about this kind of irregularity. It just makes me wonder why God didn’t set up the laws to produce the outcome he wanted in the first place, rather than intervening.
    Dave – Maudlin’s book is fantastic, and provides very good reasons why it is probably no longer feasible for scientific realists to hold on to the Humean program (or perhaps we had better call it the Lewisian program, to avoid disputes about Hume interpretation). I don’t think, though, that it touches any kind of anti-realist view. Also, I think that his arguments against accepting the ‘Humean Mosaic’ ontology are much stronger than his arguments against descriptivism about laws. The arguments against descriptivism about laws mostly amount to pointing out that it has unsolved problems, and that his primitivism about laws solves or otherwise eliminates those problems. That’s not a bad argument, but it hardly renders descriptivism completely untenable.
    As I hope is clear from the post, this isn’t a solution I’m strongly committed to, it just strikes me as a solution that should be obvious to anyone familiar with the literature on laws (or anyone familiar with Hume), which made me wonder why Sobel didn’t address it. Also, you are definitely right that, if this approach works, it can be useful in other places, including free will.

    October 17, 2010 — 17:57
  • Eric Silverman

    @Eric:
    I understand that scientists like Hawking want to make a stronger claim than P1, but I see no plausible way they could have compelling evidence for a stronger statement.
    This sounds like something only a scientific anti-realist would have grounds to say. For the realist, if the chancy-constants theory is the best available explanation, that’s compelling evidence right there
    ———–
    Dave, how is noting that we are working from a very small data sample when compared to the age of the entire universe and concluding that claims based on such a sample are rather speculative anything like being a scientific anti-realist? I believe that science is very accurate when it focuses on things it can fit into a lab and test. But, it becomes speculative when it makes dogmatic claims about ‘eternal laws’ of the universe based on a tiny data set. What I’m suggesting isn’t anti-realist, but merely epistemically humble.
    Oh, and it is simply false that ‘the best available explanation’ = ‘compelling evidence’. Sometimes ‘the best available explanation’ is little more than a speculative guess. It is far wiser to accept that we don’t really know. I take this to be a very mainstream philosophical claim derived from Kant and Hume.

    October 19, 2010 — 9:46