Objective Moral Values: Two Views

This is essentially a rewording of last week’s poem, in the form of an argument.

The Naturalist’s View

1. The purpose of an object or entity is defined as the reason for which that object or entity exists.

2. The reason for which an object or entity exists can be inferred from its eventual outcome, determinable at some sufficiently distant future.

3. On naturalism, from 1 and 2, the purpose of the universe is to achieve heat death.

4. Objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to achieve or advance the purpose of our universe.

5. On naturalism, objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to increase entropy (from 3 and 4).

The Christian’s View

1. The purpose of an object or entity is defined as the reason for which that object or entity exists.

2, The reason for which an object or entity exists can be inferred from its eventual outcome, determinable at some sufficiently distant future.

3. On Christianity, from 1 and 2, the purpose of the universe is to bring glory to God, through its redemption and renewal.

4. Objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to achieve or advance the purpose of our universe.

5. On Christianity, objective moral values – if they exist within our universe – must serve to glorify God (from 3 and 4).

Fine Tuning and Retrospective Probabilities

The fine tuning argument for the existence of God is based on the observation that there are numerous physical parameters (the mass and charge of a proton, the gravitational constant, matter-antimatter asymmetry, etc.) which appear “finely tuned” to produce a universe capable of harboring life. What fine tuning effectively shows is that, given random chance, it seems astronomically improbable that these parameters would align in such a way as to produce a universe with galaxies, stars, planets, and life.

I recently asked 23 atheists how they account for fine tuning (question #3 in the survey). Several respondents made a point that I found interesting, and wanted to address. They compared fine tuning to “winning the lottery”, and our own existence to that of “lottery winners”. For the lottery winner, the odds against winning the lottery are meaningless in retrospect…because he’s obviously already won. Thus, probability arguments like fine-tuning are worthless, because they can’t be applied to events that have already been actualized. One respondent put it this way:

“The term ‘finely tuned’ is an anthropomorphic spin on ‘it just is the way it is’. If things were any different we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. We have the power of hindsight and from our point of view, can see what looks like impossible odds of our existence. However, with any possibility of it being the way it is, no matter how small the chance is, then it’s possible. And since we are here to ask the question, the possibility was obviously realized, no matter the odds.”

The problem with this “lottery objection” is that it discounts alternative explanations, and assumes that we MUST have overcome these astronomical probabilities. But that puts the cart before the horse by presupposing a naturalistic explanation.

Imagine that your buddy Joe shows up to work one day, and starts throwing stacks of hundred dollar bills at everyone he sees. You know he’s not a rich guy, so clearly he recently acquired a huge sum of money. It’s possible that Joe just won the lottery (because even though the odds of winning are small, someone obviously has to win). Yet it’s also possible that Joe stole the money, or received it as a gift, or inherited it from a relative, or found it in a suitcase next to a dead guy in the middle of the desert.

Seems legit.

Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. The point is that none of us can really “know” with empirical certainty exactly how our life-permitting universe got here. The statistical improbability of fine tuning can’t be waved off as “inevitable good luck” unless one has already ruled out the alternative explanation to “luck”. So the fine tuning argument is effective because it (indirectly) lends credence to this “alternative explanation”: that these fundamental physical constants were intentionally and intelligently set by a Fine Tuner.

Evidence for God: A Fine-Tuned Universe

Note: This article is inspired by a lecture given by Dr. John Bloom at the 2012 EPS Apologetics Conference. Dr. Bloom is a physics professor at Biola University. He holds a PhD in physics from Cornell University, a PhD in ancient near eastern studies from the Annenberg Research Institute, and a Masters of Divinity from Biblical Theological Seminary.

Dr. John Bloom

On my own “Evidence for Christianity” page, I mention that there are a number of physical parameters which appear “finely tuned” to produce a universe capable of harboring life. Described below are four examples of fine tuning…but there are many, many more.

Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry

Quarks and anti-quarks form via matter-antimatter pair production. Because of their nature, these particles instantly annihilate each other. However, during the Big Bang, a slight asymmetry in this pair production resulted in approximately 1 extra particle of matter for every 10 billion produced.

Matter-Antimatter Asymmetry

It turns out that this 1 in 10 billion ratio of “leftover particles” happens to be the exact amount of mass necessary for the formation of stars, galaxies, and planets. As much as 2 in 10 billion, and the universe would have just been filled with black holes. As little as 0.5 in 10 billion, and there wouldn’t have been enough density for galaxies to form.

Uneven Temperature Distribution in Space

The temperature of space is cold – REALLY cold – but it hovers slightly above absolute zero (approximately 2.73 K). It’s theorized that this is residual warmth from the Big Bang. What’s noteworthy is that this temperature isn’t evenly distributed throughout the universe. There is actually a “speckle pattern” consisting of variations on the order of 1/10,000th of a degree.

Temperature Variations Across Space

There is also a correlation between the temperature of a region of space and the amount of matter in that region of space. Colder regions have more matter; warmer regions have less matter. According to physicists, a 1 in 100,000 level of imperfection is needed in order to have properly-sized objects (stars, galaxies, etc.). Our universe once again stands on a razor’s edge. If there were a tiny variation one way or the other, the universe would be made up of either black holes or dispersed hydrogen.

The Universe is Electrically Neutral

Most people know that protons and electrons carry equal-and-opposite charges (+1 and -1, respectively). What many people DON’T know is that protons are composed of 3 quarks, with charges of +2/3, +2/3, and -1/3, adding up to a +1 elementary charge. Electrons are entirely different fundamental particles…that happen to EXACTLY cancel out the net charge of the proton.

Quark Structure of the Proton

Protons and electrons have completely different compositions, and were formed at different times during the Big Bang. As far as we can measure, there are equal numbers of protons and electrons in the universe. If these charges didn’t precisely balance out, then the force of gravity (which is vanishingly weak by comparison) would be inconsequential. We would once again be left with a universe devoid of stars, planets, and galaxies.

The Nuclear Binding Force

The nuclear binding force is essentially what counterbalances the electrical repulsion of protons within nuclei. It’s the “glue” that holds a nucleus together. If the value of this force were ~5% weaker, then every atom in the universe would be hydrogen. If the value of this force were ~2% stronger, then the presence of “mega-atoms” would result in a universe composed of neutron stars and black holes.

So where does this leave us?

Sir Fred Hoyle

The well-known English astronomer Fred Hoyle – a lifelong atheist – puts it this way:

“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

In order to escape the obvious Theistic implications of fine tuning, many physicists have proposed that we inhabit only a single universe in a much larger multiverse.

Aside from being entirely ad hoc, the multiverse hypothesis – by its very nature – cannot be evaluated empirically. One might label it a philosophy, but it certainly falls outside the realm of science. (There’s also the problem of the Boltzmann brain paradox, which I may discuss in a future post.)

Dr. Robert Jastrow

In conclusion, Dr. Bloom shared the following quote from NASA physicist Robert Jastrow:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Free Will and Uncaused Causes

Given the overwhelming consensus that our universe at some point began to exist, there would seem to be three explanations for its existence:

1. The universe had no cause.
2. The universe had a cause, which was impersonal.
3. The universe had a cause, which was personal.

Although there are some who may disagree (and I welcome your disagreements in the comment section), I believe the first explanation can be convincingly ruled out using the Kalam cosmological argument. This argument is widely employed by followers of the major monotheistic religions. It can be presented as follows:

– Whatever begins to exist has a cause
– The universe began to exist
– Therefore, the universe has a cause

In order to serve as a valid explanation, this cause must itself be uncaused (or at least trace its origins to a cause that was uncaused). Hence, we have the definition of God as the Prime Mover. The first domino in the chain. And this is where religious and non-religious individuals often reach an impasse. “If God caused the universe to exist,” the skeptic asks, “then what caused God to exist?” To the non-religious, defining God as a Prime Mover seems like special pleading – an attempt to dodge the implications of turtles all the way down.

As I was thinking about this issue the other day, I realized that much of this debate might actually stem from one’s views on free will.

DISCLAIMER: I’m a scientist, not a philosopher. The following is my own amateurish speculation, so I welcome your feedback and criticism. I’ll update the post if I learn something new.

Anyway, it would seem that the belief in free will actually entails the belief in uncaused causes. Those of us who accept the idea of free will believe that human consciousness stems from an interaction between the brain (a physical entity) and the soul (a non-physical entity). Our thoughts and actions are not simply the inevitable byproduct of physical events in the brain. When I decide to purchase chocolate ice cream, this decision is influenced by a variety of tangible factors (it’s 90°F outside; my parents served me ice cream as a child; etc.). Yet the decision is ultimately a byproduct of my free will, which generates the decision in a non-physical manner. This can be (clumsily) described as an “uncaused cause”, which would be unique to creatures possessing a will.

Given a belief in free will, we have grounds for believing that a timeless and spaceless Entity, possessing will, could indeed fill the role of Prime Mover. This Entity – God – provides the ontologically prior “cause” for the universe. This leads us to conclude option 3: “the universe had a cause, which was personal”.

For the determinist, free will is an illusion. All of our thoughts and actions are the inevitable result of physical events. Given this view, it makes sense to ask the question, “If God caused the universe to exist, then what caused God to exist?” The entire concept of a Prime Mover seems preposterous, because the determinist has no precedent for believing in uncaused causes.

The Empty Secular “Sense of Awe”

Let me introduce you to a fictional boy named Johnny.

Johnny grew up in a very typical, middle-class family with loving parents and a good education. His family was nominally Christian – meaning that Johnny grew up going to Sunday school and learning to recite prayers before dinner and bedtime. Aside from that, his parents seldom discussed religion. Johnny enjoyed the social aspect of going to church and the sense of community that it brought, but could never really understand those odd “fundamentalist” types who took the Bible so seriously.

When he went off to college, Johnny’s tentatively-held identity as a “Christian” melted away after just a few weeks of classes. He began identifying as “spiritual, but not religious”. He spent his sophomore year as an agnostic and his junior year as “sort of a Buddhist”, before finally succumbing to the inevitability of atheism and secular humanism.

Although confident in the logical framework for his beliefs, Johnny nonetheless found himself yearning for the community and the sense of purpose he remembered seeing during his churchgoing days. So he set about looking for a substitute for religion – a way to appreciate the beauty and mystery of life without all that outdated “religious baggage”.

This substitute is what I refer to as a “sense of awe”, which seeks to replace religious beliefs with a generic feeling of wonder, mystery, and humble respect for our place in the universe. To illustrate this, I’ve included below a couple of short videos. You might recognize them, as they’ve both made the social media rounds. They’re actually very similar.

The first is a poetic monologue from Carl Sagan, in which he cleverly inserts his naturalist worldview and criticizes “the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe”. Sagan paints a rather bleak portrait of humanity’s place in the cosmos, yet his soothing voice – assisted by some soft background music – helps to establish the desired sense of awe and beauty.

The second video is from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who champions a similar brand of humanism. His tone is soft – almost spiritual – and the background music aims straight for the heartstrings. “The universe is in us,” you see. Sadly, atheists who crave a sense of wonder and “connectedness” eat this stuff up.

I do think Tyson hit on something important in the video, when he said, “That’s really what you want in life; you want to feel connected; you want to feel relevant.” This innate human desire for a sense of meaning is exactly what fuels the popularity of this “awe-oriented” outlook among many of the non-religious. They are seeking to regain a sense of relevance in a universe devoid of true, objective meaning.

The truth is that humans were created for a specific role – to bring glory to God. It’s tragic, then, to witness people like Johnny basking in the wonder of Creation while willfully refusing to acknowledge or credit his Creator.