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Arguments Involving Cosmology and Quantum Physics

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An evaluation of the implications of the physics in current cosmology and quantum mechanics for arguments concerning gods.
paranormal perception occurs during OBEs or NDEs, why the failure to find it in all of the con-
trolled experiments that have been undertaken to document it thus far? Various explanations can
be put forward (Augustine and Fishman 2015), but in the absence of ad hoc maneuvering, the hal-
lucination hypothesis predicts only one set of possible results: the results actually found. Until the
time that properly controlled NDE target-identification experiments yield replicable positive results,
they will take their place as historical curiosities akin to similarly unsuccessful tests of survival after
death (Augustine and Fishman 2015; Berger 1996; Fox 2007; Gay et al. 1955; Journal of the Amer-
ican Society for Psychical Research 1989; Lodge 1905; Perry and Fontana 2009; Schwartz and Russek
2001; Stevenson, Oram, and Markwick 1989). While some eagerly await the results of the follow-
up AWARE II study (which is recruiting subjects until 2020), at the moment the unsuccessful his-
tory of comparably easier-to-implement research into the paranormality of non-near-death OBEs
does not bode well for those results.
ARGUMENTS INVOLVING COSMOLOGY AND QUANTUM PHYSICS
Taner Edis, Truman State University
PHYSICAL COSMOLOGY
Before modern physics, arguments about the creation or design of the universe depended on every-
day, intuitive ideas of space and time. Creation has often been understood as an event in time
linked to supernatural agency. Hence the notion of divine causation involved in creation has also
been an intuitive, social concept of causality. Theistic traditions have placed creation and the design
of the cosmos within a richly layered story, in which a god interacts with humans and reveals some-
thing about its purposes. In the context of such a story, supernatural agents have genuine explana-
tory roles. Abstract discussions about a god of the philosophers have still depended on background
stories and intuitive notions of time and causality to anchor the metaphysical intuitions in play.
Historically, critical responses to creation claims have preserved everyday intuitions while
attempting to deny divinity any explanatory role. With the doctrine of creation from nothing
becoming dominant in established theologies, critics have often defended an infinitely old universe,
denying that there was a creation event. Ideas of an always existing universe have typically been asso-
ciated with pagan philosophy, heterodoxy, and doubt.
Skeptics have also had to respond to the suggestion that cosmic order was due to intelligent
design. They have typically intensified the perception of order to an extent where the flexibility
implied in personal causation became implausible. The laws of physics, in such a view, are where
natural explanations come to an end, while divine agency could be manifest in miraculous violations
of an otherwise rigidly impersonal order of nature.
Modern Views. Todays skepticism about theistic cosmology has been shaped by the way modern
physics has undermined intuitive views of time and causality and the collapse in plausibility of the
traditional stories that provided a context for divine agency. Cosmology has become a subfield of
physics devoted to impersonal forms of explanation, so that supernatural agency has no productive
role in advancing cosmological understanding.
Therefore, in an inversion of the historical pattern, in todays cosmology, supernatural creation
and design have become marginalized claims. Conservative religious thinkers loyal to the traditional
stories assert failures or limitations in physical cosmology to be remedied by divine agency. The big
bang might be best understood as a creation event. Possible fine-tuning of physical constants or the
low entropy of the early universe might indicate a universe intelligently designed to favor the pres-
ence of life and mind. Liberal theologians tend not to seek such direct employment for their gods;
they more often point out that cosmology cannot decisively rule out personal supernatural powers.
If there are reasons to think gods exist, these reasons may be found outside cosmology.
In this environment, atheists often point out either that physical cosmology has good candi-
dates for solutions to the problems theistic apologists bring up or that the prospects for physics to
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596 THEISM AND ATHEISM: OPPOSING ARGUMENTS IN PHILOSOPHY
make progress are good. If the gods are unemployed in as important an area as making the universe,
this casts doubt on their existence (Carroll 2005). Occasionally, a more ambitious atheist may argue
that physical cosmology can more rigorously formulate concepts such as nothingand supplant tra-
ditionally metaphysical debates about how anything happens to exist (Krauss 2013).
Beginnings. The modern theoretical context for doing cosmology begins with general relativity.
Time is mixed with space when changing reference frames; no such thing as a nowis common
to all observers, and physicists are compelled to think of space-time as a single geometric object, past
and future included. Relativity and astronomy also indicate that time can be extended backward
only until a point where all space-time and all matter and energy collapse into a singularity.
For physicists, this suggests a breakdown in the applicability of general relativity; for some religious
thinkers, it indicates a creation event.
It is, however, misleading to think of the big bang as a beginning or as an explosion into a pre-
existing empty space. Space and time cannot be extended earlier from the big bang in much the way
that it makes no sense to speak of a point north of the North Pole. Attaching a divine cause to the
big bang is motivated by metaphysical intuitions, not physics. Moreover, general relativity is a
classical theory. It cannot be applied in circumstances close to the big bang, where quantum
gravitational effects dominate.
No adequate theory of quantum gravity is yet available. Nevertheless, cosmologists have
approximate models that, while speculative, promise better understanding of the early universe.
With only weak theoretical and experimental constraints on such models, however, there are a wide
variety of scenarios. Some models take quantum uncertainties to smear out the big bang, retaining a
space-time that cannot be extended infinitely backward while discarding the big bang as a unique
infinite-density point in space-time. Some models rely on inflationary cosmology to generate many,
perhaps an infinity of universes. Models that depend on string theory also can extend time back
infinitely, because the string-length scale provides a limit beyond which the universe cannot become
smaller.
In any case, quantum cosmology inherits the randomness in quantum mechanics. Macroscopic
causality emerges from a quantum substrate where uncaused microscopic events are the rule. There-
fore physical cosmology does not support traditional ideas either of creation or of an infinitely old
universe with time understood in everyday terms (Edis 2002; Halper and Nayeri 2016). Some theo-
logians advocate atemporal gods, avoiding some of the difficulties with the concept of a creation in
time, but such views are also detached from physics and irrelevant to cosmology.
Fine-Tuning. Theists sometimes claim that physical constants have been fine-tuned for a universe
that allows the development of complex structures, which is best explained as a divine design. In
some circumstances, the fine-tuning appears exaggerated; regardless of the details, a theoretical con-
text that would allow us to reliably assign probabilities to fundamental constants does not yet exist.
Fine-tuning is highly model-dependent, and cosmological models are not always well constrained.
Indeed, fine-tuning problems are known from many areas of physics and often indicate a need for
novel physical approaches. Even within cosmology, solving fine-tuning problems has partially moti-
vated important developments such as inflationary cosmology. From a physical point of view, there-
fore, fine-tuning appears as one of the many puzzles to be expected in a cutting-edge, highly unset-
tled area of physics (Stenger 2011).
The low entropy of the early universe may also suggest design, but again this is a physics prob-
lem on which science can claim progressfor example, noting that an expanding universe is driven
away from equilibrium as the maximum possible entropy grows faster than the actual entropy. The
arrow of time is not a completely solved puzzle, but it does not call for supernatural intervention
(Carroll 2010).
Design as an explanation for fine-tuning or low-entropy states has its own weaknesses. A highly
abstract god of the philosophers implies almost nothing about what sort of universe such a god
might design. A more traditional divinity dressed up in stories does not help either, because the tra-
ditional stories are radically misinformed about the sort of universe human beings inhabit. A claim
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THEISM AND ATHEISM: OPPOSING ARGUMENTS IN PHILOSOPHY 597
of supernatural design responds to a puzzle with God did it,without engaging in the explanatory
work relevant to a physical puzzle.
Cosmology as Physics. The present state of cosmology supports nontheistic views but only weakly
and mainly through cosmology becoming a specialization within physics, where supernatural claims
are not useful. If it is not part of a broader evidence-based argument against supernatural agency,
cosmology has little significance on its own. Therefore, emphasis on physical cosmology tends to
accompany more broadly naturalist and physicalist views. While such views are often associated with
atheism, they are not strictly necessary for doubting the gods.
QUANTUM MECHANICS
Quantum mechanics appears in debates about religion because some believe that quantum physics
supports the possibility of supernatural action or that it shows that consciousness is not reducible
to mindless processes. In the nineteenth century, many thought that classical physics depicted a
causally closed universe. Theists could therefore look for signs of the supernatural in exceptions to
this closure. If miracles that violated the laws of physics took place, this indicated a power beyond
the natural order. Free will meant that human beings are not determined by prior physical condi-
tions, which shows that consciousness is not bound by the laws of physics. Skeptics, however, have
usually thought that the case for miracles is weak. Determinism is not a comfortable position, but
the rigidly impersonal order glimpsed in fundamental physics strongly contrasts with ideas of a uni-
verse subject to the whims of capricious gods.
Quantum Loopholes. The advent of quantum mechanics challenged the hyperrationalistic picture
of rigid natural order. After all, the results of quantum measurements were random, and the equa-
tions of classical physics now referred to expectation values rather than completely determined out-
comes. Moreover, quantum measurements were defined by a classical, macroscopic limit, where a
superposition state randomly collapsedonto one of many possible outcomes. To some of the phy-
sicists working to formulate the early versions of quantum theory, state collapse in measurement
suggested a fundamental role for consciousness in physics, because definite results were associated
with the presence of an observer.
Quantum mechanics, therefore, changed the debate about supernatural intervention. In classi-
cal physics, an interaction between the universe and an outside agent would violate fundamental
laws such as the conservation of energy and momentum. Quantum randomness, however, means
that conservation laws apply not to the result of any single measurement but to the expectation
values that are approached over a long run of identical measurements. A god could, for example,
intervene in any particular event or in any small set of events. As long as the magnitude of the inter-
vention is small enough to be lost in the statistical noise, no violation of conservation laws could be
measured. If a god wanted to create humans by way of evolution, that god could make sure just the
right mutations took place over a long timescale, and this intervention would be undetectable by
physical means.
New Age Magic. In popular culture, quantum means magic.The supernaturalism that claims
support from quantum mechanics is closer to that of Hindu religions or the more occult or mystical
variants of the Middle Eastern religious traditions; its allegedly scientific basis is parapsychology
rather than physics.
Neither New Age religious movements nor the more intellectual varieties of quantum mysti-
cism currently enjoy mainstream scientific support (Stenger 1995). Parapsychology has not pro-
duced reliable experimental evidence for psychic phenomena and has not established robust theoret-
ical links with the sciencesparticularly not with quantum mechanics. Cognitive neuroscience
makes progress in understanding minds without taking seriously speculations about quantum con-
sciousness.
The measurement problem in quantum mechanics is genuinely interesting, because state col-
lapse is not invertible, whereas all time evolution in quantum mechanics is invertible. This is not
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598 THEISM AND ATHEISM: OPPOSING ARGUMENTS IN PHILOSOPHY
a question unique to quantum mechanics, however; it is very closely related to the problem in sta-
tistical mechanics of macroscopic irreversibility deriving from microscopically reversible dynamics.
While questions remain outstanding, this is at least a partially solved problem. Quantum measure-
ments involve interactions with extremely complex, noisy environments, which lead to noninvertible
macroscopic approximate descriptions or a time evolution toward states with classical properties.
Schrödingers cat will be either dead or alive long before any observer investigates. Conscious obser-
vers are not special to the measurement processthey are just another part of a messy environment
(Edis 2002).
Miracles. The claim that quantum randomness covers up supernatural intervention without violat-
ing conservation laws is associated with more conventional forms of theism. It is also scientifically
sterile (Sansbury 2007).
If any set of quantum measurements is to be claimed as evidence for intervention, it would
mean that the results of the measurements were not randomthat there was discernible structure
in the data and that therefore quantum mechanics was violated. Currently there is not even the
smallest experimental hint of violations of quantum mechanics. If, on the other hand, the interven-
tions claimed are very few and lost in the statistical noise, they would not produce a discernible pat-
tern, and therefore the data alone could not support supernatural intervention as an explanation.
There could still be reasons to believe in intelligent design, but these reasons would have to come
entirely from outside the data and theories of physics. With undetectable interventions following
a purpose revealed only to those privy to special knowledge, we end up with a cosmic conspiracy
theory (Edis 2018).
In other words, the current state of affairs is not very different from that with classical physics.
Quantum randomness means humans live in a universe of uncaused events, which undermines
older notions of causal closure. Randomness, however, does not open up the universe to alleged
nonphysical interventions. Physical evidence for supernatural agency still requires robust signals
combined with a successful theory of intelligent design.
Chance-and-Necessity Physicalism. The fundamental randomness manifested in quantum
mechanics also affects how we conceive of physical explanations. In current physics, even the low-
temperature laws of physics are often seen as an outcome of a cascade of spontaneous symmetry-
breaking events, with random results. The most fundamental laws of physics, as in the standard
model of particle physics, are statements about highly symmetric conditions with very low informa-
tion content, while the complexities of our universe arise from symmetry breaking. Highly symmet-
ric fundamental laws, in other words, describe the dice that were rolled to generate our universe
(Edis 2002).
Acknowledging the centrality of randomness in modern physics can lead to arguments that cast
doubt on all supernatural and theistic claims. Physical explanations combine rules and randomness,
both of which are mindless. Therefore, as some intelligent design proponents also recognize, the sig-
nature of an agent not reducible to physical processes would be data that could not be produced by
any combination of rules and randomness. In fact, possible functions exist that require infinite
computational resources, which would be available to gods with traditional omni-attributes. Data
that fit such functions might best be explained by an agent that is not limited by rules and random-
ness and therefore is beyond fundamentally mindless physical processes. Such data would not just
violate quantum mechanics but also defeat any physical theory. However, none of the data available
to science even remotely suggests such a possibility.
Hence quantum mechanics has an important role in formulating chance-and-necessity physical-
ism, according to which everything is physical, a combination of rule-bound and random processes,
regardless of whether the most fundamental physical theory has yet been formulated (Edis and Bou-
dry 2014). Religions usually take a top-down view, starting with an irreducible mind to shape the
material world from above. Physicalism, whatever form it takes, supports a bottom-up understand-
ing of the world, where life and mind are the results of complex interactions of fundamentally
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THEISM AND ATHEISM: OPPOSING ARGUMENTS IN PHILOSOPHY 599
mindless components. The current state of science, including quantum mechanics, supports chance-
and-necessity physicalism.
If physicalism appears plausible, this does not imply certainty that there are no gods. Future
data may come to support nonphysical agents. Arguments that make no reference to publicly avail-
able information may yet seem compelling. Today, however, humans live in an environment where
the successful sciences have no use for the supernatural. This state of affairs puts claims for divine
agency on the defensive, and it means that the burden of proof for such claims is very high.
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Chapter
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