Friday, June 29, 2012

Theism, Atheism and the Uniformity of Nature

The universe exhibits certain laws of nature, e.g. gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak atomic forces.  There are three ways of explaining the uniformity of nature, where the uniformity of nature entails things that happen over and over again.

1. The uniformity of nature is either the result of chance, necessity or design. (Premise)

2. Whenever something happens over and over again, it is not the result of chance. (Premise)

3. Therefore, the uniformity of nature is either the result of necessity or design. (From 1 and 2)

Atheists obviously don't want to embrace the design alternative, but (2) appears rationally compelling.  Yet, I don't hear many atheists theorize that the uniformity of nature is the result of necessity.  My speculation on the matter is that atheists view the existence of anything necessary as too God-like.  After all, if the uniformity of nature is necessary, then we're left with Spinoza's pantheistic God, e.g. that God and Nature are identical.

I suggest that if the atheist is going to take seriously the need to explain the uniformity of nature, then he cannot possibly say it's the result of chance.  Why not simply adopt pantheism instead?  Not that I think there are good reasons to believe that the uniformity of nature is necessary, but I do think it's a vastly better explanation than chance.

If you were to win the lottery once, you might think you were lucky.  Imagine you win the lottery a thousand times in a row.  Surely you would conclude that this was not the result of chance, but you would also be reluctant to say it's the result of necessity.  You didn't have to win the lottery a thousand times in a row, which leads us to the design alternative: you win the lottery a thousand times in a row because someone chose to rig the lottery results.

Even so, necessity is a much better explanation than chance.  At least necessity can explain why things have predictable patterns of order and regularity.

I suggest the most viable option in explaining the uniformity of nature is design, and that necessity comes in at a distant second, but is still a much better explanation than chance.

If the uniformity of nature is by design, we might be asked the following rhetorical question: who designed the designer?

The question is misguided for at least two reasons.  In order for an explanation to be best, we don't have to have an explanation of the explanation.  If we did, then there would be an infinite regress of explanations, and then nothing could be explained at all.  Secondly, theists do say that the designer has an explanation of his existence.  As the designer of the universe, he would have to transcend the universe.  Since the universe is the sum total of all physical space, time, matter and energy, the designer must be timeless, changeless (for time is a measurement of change), and immaterial, in addition to being very powerful and very intelligent.

You will recall that the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) states:

PSR: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.

Therefore, the designer does have an explanation, and that explanation is found in the necessity of the designer's own nature.  After all, it's impossible to cause something timeless and changeless, since causing such a thing would mean that it changes from a state of non-existence to existence, which is a contradiction.  Therefore, if the objector insists that the designer must have an explanation, the theist is happy to comply, adding only that the designer's explanation is found in his own necessity.


  1. Couldn't the atheist reply that we wouldn't necessarily expect a designer to design uninformity? Or is that addressed somehow in your example?

  2. Good question. I think the designer's motive may have been to provide evidence of his own existence. After all, which is more likely to convince someone of a designer: laws of nature that are repeatedly confirmed by human (and possibly other) minds, or a universe that is entirely chaotic? Interesting, I'd argue that since chaos is intelligible, and intelligibility presupposes order, then we would still have to deal with the existence of order. In any case, I think people would be more persuaded that a designer exists in virtue of a universe that exhibits regularity.

  3. Besides, an intelligent designer is quite capable of developing a computer program that's generally reliable. Why not think the cosmic designer, who is very powerful and very intelligent (and much more so than any of us are) could be capable of developing a world with laws of nature?

  4. Interesting. What do you think of this sort of reply: we have, certainly with computers, empirical evidence of intelligent designers creating rules, even universes. But we have no evidence of "unguided nature" creating these things, and it's not possible in principle for us to get such evidence -- therefore some form of theism or design viewed is always to be preferred.

    Would that work with the reasoning you're developing here?

  5. That would be a type of argument from analogy. Usually I hear an inversion of the argument: "we observe computer makers, but we don't observe any cosmic designer."

    The problem I see with this argument is that it assumes that observation of the cause is always required. But, do we observe this principle? Surely not, so the skeptic's objection is self-defeating.

    What you say is somewhat different, though. Your example of a computer is much like my own lottery analogy. Even if we have no idea who designed these things, we observe the effects of design, so we're rationally justified in inferring the existence of a designer.

  6. I thought so as well re: the similarity, so I'm glad you see it too.

    Regarding the observation objection, I agree with you about the reply. I've not seen these arguments show up very much in popular philosophy, but hopefully that will change - I think ID proponents (and even some atheists) would find it interesting.

  7. Glad to hear you agree! The most popular teleological arguments today are probably the fine-tuning argument and arguments for apparent biological design. Richard Swinburne, however, defends an argument similar to mine in his paper, "Relations between Universals, or Divine Laws"? Here's a link to the pdf file:

  8. There's also an article written by Robin Collins entitled, "God and the Laws of Nature."