I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Master Plan

Back in my "Ten Reasons to Believe in God: or Why I am an Athiest" post I gave a list of what I thought were the ten best non-strawmen arguments for believing in God. Some of these reasons I've tackled in various posts over the years, but today I'm going to take a stab at one of the more interesting ones: The Master Plan.

The Master Plan argument takes two forms. First, there is the grand scale argument that overlaps with the Argument by Design. Our world exists through such an unlikely combination of chance events, it's difficult to look at it and not suspect that there must have been some sort of plan behind it all. For instance, consider the amazing oddity of solar eclipses. The sun and the moon are very different sizes and very different distances. The odds that they should have the exact same diameter in our sky are, if you'll pardon the expression, astronomical. Yet, against all odds, the sun and the moon exist at the same apparent size in our sky, to the degree that the moon can perfectly block out the sun save for a tiny, perfect circle of fire.

And here's further food for thought about eclipses: They weren't the same in pre-human history. The moon is slowly moving away from earth. When dinosaurs roamed the world, the moon was larger in they sky than the sun. In a few million years, the moon will be far enough away that it will no longer be able to produce a total eclipse. So, it's not only an amazing coincidence that the sun and the moon are the same size--they just happen to be the same size at the moment that a species on earth is capable of witnessing them and understanding them.

The unliklihood of the solar eclipse seems too amazing for it not to mean something. I feels almost like God signing his work. Yet: If God wished to sign his work, and was willing to put in the effort of building a sun and moon and earth of exactly the right sizes and positions to make this possible... couldn't he have been a little less obscure? Why leave a calling card that, while unlikely, isn't impossible to produce by pure chance? It's unlikely that you or I will ever win a lottery, yet, it's inevitible that some people win. It's unlikely that any given planet around a star will have a moon and a sun with the same apparent size, yet, since there are likely trillions of planets, it's inevitable that this alignment will happen somewhere in the universe. Our number came up.

For the possible to occur, even against long odds, requires no leaps of faith. So, I find the grand scale version of the Master Plan ultimately unpersuasive; until someone shows me something that truly could not have happened by pure chance, even if that chance was a billion to one, chance still remains a more plausible explanation than God.

The small scale argument is, I think, a more difficult one to refute. Not on a logical level, perhaps. But, on a gut level, almost everyone finds that there are events that occur in their lives that feel as if a guiding power brought them to a significant moment. I've mentioned before that I got served my divorce papers on Valentine's Day, and the official court date for the end of the marriage was April Fool's Day. It just feels so literary and appropriate that it must have some meaning; one could argue that God appreciates irony, if nothing else.

Once, while rock-climbing, the climber above dislodged a stone almost exactly the size of my head. It fell about fifty feet toward me, hit the rock in front of me, richocheted, and passed over my left shoulder, close enough to snag stray hairs sticking out from under my helmet. A few inches to the right, and it might have killed me. I almost certainly would have needed significant dental work. I know dozens of other people who share similar close calls; probably more people have these close calls than don't. It's unsatisfying to think: I was a coin flip away from being dead. You don't want to think that life can end due to such random, pointless events. It makes the world seem scary that you can die for no reason at all.

On the other hand, a close call like this can impart meaning on a life. I know people who feel that their close calls were actually wake up calls. God shakes you up a little now and then, gives you a little slap to get your attention, then steers you back onto the right path.

This is a tough argument to refute because, on some levels, I don't want to refute it. I know people who have used close calls as a reason to turn their lives around. In college I had a friend who was an alcoholic; finally, he got scared enough that he turned to God instead of a bottle. What kind of cad would I be to tell him that's the wrong path? I know another friend who told me point blank that, without his knowing that there was a loving God watching out for him, he wouldn't be able to handle all the tragedies in his life. I think of God as a product of imagination... but if this product of imagination is sufficient to give some people the strength to get out of bed in the morning, why should I make it my duty to go around kicking away people's crutches?

I don't believe that any higher power is communicating with us when we have these close calls, or the weird literary twists like a Valentine's Day divorce. Chance events happen. We may not be happy at the thought that our lives are in the hands of purely random events, yet, time and again, it's been proven that they are. It doesn't mean you can't draw lessons from them. From some of my own close calls, I don't need a higher power to draw a message: Life is short and precious. Keep moving foward while you can.

As to why I might be tempted to kick away the crutch that is God... I think that there's a certain inherent value in learning that you can stand on your own two feet. There's a famous schmaltzy fable about footprints on a beach. There are two sets of foot prints, but when the going gets rough, there's only one. The sinner knows the second set of foot prints belongs to God and says, "God, when times are tough, I see you abandoned me." God says, "No, when times were tough, that is when I carried you."

Is it such a crime to think that healthy adults don't need to be carried through their difficulties? That there's a dignity to walking the whole way through sheer will and toughness? Discovering that you are strong enough to achieve things without the support of imaginary friends is, I think, an important step toward living a fulfilling life. And if you need a master plan to give your life meaning, do what I did: Write your own.


Hel said...

I don't like God as crutch because the second half of that seems to be "I don't need to help myself because God will come along and save me!"

Eric James Stone said...

> until someone shows me something
> that truly could not have happened
> by pure chance, even if that
> chance was a billion to one,
> chance still remains a more
> plausible explanation than God.

This part of your argument is flawed.

Let's say that you come across 31 coins scattered on the ground, and all of them are showing heads. The chances that 31 randomly dropped coins would all land the same side up are one in a billion (1,073,741,824 to be exact). Since such a thing could happen by chance, does that mean chance is a more plausible explanation than some being deliberately turning the coins so they all had the same face up?

In reality, you are far more likely to find 31 coins face up due to someone placing them that way than due to pure chance.

I know what you're trying to say: that an event which has a local probability of only one in a billion (like the moon/sun apparent diameter, etc.) has a universe-wide probability near certainty. Therefore, its occurrence is no evidence of intentional causation rather than random causation.

However, if an event for which the universe-wide probability of a chance occurrence was one in a billion occurred -- for example, two pulsars separated by billions of light years sending identical anomalous pulses that arrive simultaneously to radio telescopes on Earth spelling out "John 3:16" in Morse Code -- it would be more plausible to believe it was intentionally caused than random.

James Maxey said...

Hel, this attitude can also lead to rejecting the help of other people. For instance, certain strands of fundamentalists reject certain modern medical treatments like blood transfusions or vaccinations. And, truthfully, I think they should have that right; it's one of the trade-offs of living in a free society.

Eric, your two specific examples are interesting. If I found a bunch of pennies sitting on a table all face up, I'd choose to assume a human being had placed them that way, because I have direct evidence of the existence of humans and placing coins heads up is well within their range of abilities. If I found piles of stones in a jungle that formed walls and buildings, I'd think it likely that people had stacked them that way rather than volcanic action (though there are places where geological forces can produce things that looked designed, such as the various "faces" in mountains found around the world, none of which look all that much like faces when compared with, say, Mt. Rushmore).

So perhaps my argument should be amended to say that if an unlikely event can be explained by human intervention, that's a possibility that should be examined. However, the placement of the moon and sun in the sky can't be explained by human actions. We are left choosing between chance or an unknown intelligence with undefined powers and motives attempting to communicate something to us by the manipulation of heavenly bodies.

As for the pulsar argument... I am unaware that such an event has occured. Should it one day happen, let's chat further.

Loren Eaton said...

I always enjoy these posts, James. Your tone is measured and your conclusions interesting. I think you're right with your solar-eclipse example, but its conclusion contains a disturbing implication. If settled knowledge means knowing that something absolutely could not have been caused by chance, then we must ferret out every corner of existence to make sure there isn’t some small fact we’ve missed, some overlooked clencher -- an admitted impossibility. Though most limit such a supposition about knowledge to the existence of God, there are no stopgaps to keep it from spilling out into ethics or morality or what have you. If that’s the case, what hope do we have for making any judgments at all? How can our senses hope to plumb reality?

James Maxey said...

Loren, I'm not certain we do have to ferret out all possibilities that would rule out chance in order to make reasonable assumptions about how the world works. If lightning strikes and kills a man, we can attribute it to chance or attribute it to God. The fact is, I can never completely disprove the possibility that God isn't picking and choosing who he will slay with a bolt from the blue. However, I can make what I think are reasonable choices as to the best path to follow to avoid getting struck by lightning. I can try to live a Godly life free of sin and still go out and play golf with storm clouds off on the horizon... or, I can just live life the way I normally do and have the sense to come indoors when a storm is approaching. I don't need absolute certainty... I just need a working model of reality that gives me the ability to function in a reasonable manner in the world.

As for ethics and morality, I see no need to reinvent the wheel. Prohibitions against murder, theft, and sassing back to your folks have been around for a while. Let's keep doing what works. On the flip side, there are other moral prohibitions that may have once made sense but probably have lost most of their actual value in today's world. The ban on eating shellfish, for example.

Morality seems not so difficult to slice up into three categories:

1: Bans on actions that cause actual physical harm to a person and/or his property.

2: Certain limits on actions that may not harm others directly, but still may damage the person doing these actions. Some drug laws make sense under this justification.

3: A set of agreed upon manners and practices that allow disputes to be avoided or at least resolved without violence.

I think that humans are perfectly cabable of building a functional system of ethics without the intervention of a higher power. Unfortunately, some people believe in this higher power, and the ethics that flow from His authoritative edicts, which interferes in building a moral foundation based on the simple question of "What good does this rule do?"

Loren Eaton said...

Let's keep doing what works.

Ah, I knew there was a little Rorty-esque pragmatism in you, James! In all seriousness, thanks for your response. Its nice when folks on the Interwebz try to have reasoned conversations instead of just yelling at each other.

Izgad said...

"When dinosaurs roamed the world, the moon was larger in they sky than the sun"

in the sky

rastronomicals said...

"In college I had a friend who was an alcoholic; finally, he got scared enough that he turned to God instead of a bottle. What kind of cad would I be to tell him that's the wrong path?"

I'm assuming that despite your deeply held atheism, you held your tongue.

Holding your tongue is certainly the right thing to do, though I wouldn't find fault if you did so with a certain feeling of superiority . . .

Interesting how the seeds of God always find such furrow in the fields sown by those who had been addicts. Almost as if God and ethanol, or God and certain alkaloids, each fit into the same keyhole in the brain . . .

Yet even the most nihilistic of us atheists would never recommend habitual cocaine use over the habitual attendance of Sunday morning mass.

Getting away from issues of biochemistry, I usually walk around feeling superior to many of the good people around me, simply because I have developed my well-defined moral code even in the absence of the Ten Commandments, and they most likely could not say the same.

I'd hate to think what walking the streets would be like in the absence of that particular crutch . . . .

In short, I think atheism is the right choice, but for altruistic and selfish reasons both, I think it is best not to proseletyze, and to let the believers believe.


Wendy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Maxey said...

Ras wrote: "Yet even the most nihilistic of us atheists would never recommend habitual cocaine use over the habitual attendance of Sunday morning mass."

To which I say, "This is America. Can't a man do both?"

I actually signed on to respond to a post that briefly flashed into existence, then, just as quickly, vanished. I'm not sure why the mystery author removed it, because it was actually a really good point: In my example of the eclipse, we would likely read meaning into it no matter how it appeared in the sky. For instance, if the moon completely blocked it out, we would find a message in the total darkness. If the moon were smaller and left a larger ring, we would no doubt imbue meaning on this quite visible circle. Hopefully the postee will consider revisiting the point.

James Maxey said...

Actually, I mean poster, not postee. It's been a long day.

Matthew said...

After reading your argument, I agree with most of it. The possibility of chance and causality makes anything possible, even to a very minuscule degree.

I think the only way to really prove there is a god is using science. We've already determined that something can't come from nothing. the cause-effect argument can only go so far back into "well, what cause THAT?" before you have to say "it came from nothing".

Since that is impossible, unless science is flawed, which I don't believe, something beyond scientific description must have caused/created it.

Its not your judeo-christian god, but its a higher power of some sort. Its just not in a book for people to worship. Heck, It could be some guy who likes flicking his wrists and putting series of events into motion that no one could have predicted.

James Maxey said...

Matthew, the problem with the "something can't come from nothing" argument is that it mistates the scientific position. When science turns the clock backwards to try to deduce the origins of the universe, it reaches a point at which all the math and theories break down. We can't know what came before the big bang (though some would argue with this). It may have been a collapsing universe, or colliding universes, or just a vast sea of quantum mechanical possibility that eventually sloshed out a reality. It's not nothing; it's simply unknowable.

But the God/Creator argument makes no sense to me logically as an extension of "you can't make something from nothing." Where did God come from? What existed before him? How was he made? Most modern religions would say, "Nothing made God. God just is, and always has been." You can just as easily argue that an uncaring, unguided system of physics has always been and always will be; and, in fact, I find this to be much more plausible.

If someone wants to make a serious scientific argument in favor of a creator, I'm more than willing to listen. What are his properties? How was he made? Is he matter, or energy, or some exotic substance that it neither? If he's the exotic substance, what are the laws that govern this substance? Where can it be found? Where's the evidence?

Anyone can propose a theory. It could be the universe is the back of a giant turtle. It could be it's the the dream of a drowning man. It could be that it's all a simulation in some giant computer (since, isn't it curious that so much of reality can be boiled down to math)? Or, it could be that a bearded white guy in a robe got bored and spoke us all into existance. I'm willing to consider any of these things... but I won't believe them unless you can show me some evidence, or at least provide me some testable spin-offs of the theory.

Modern cosmology has shown me the cosmic back ground radiation. It's sent up telescopes and peered back into time for billions of years and shown me uncountable multitudes of galaxies. It's made predictions, such as planets around other suns and supernovas and black holes that it's then sought out evidence for in order to test the theory. I've seen it discard theories when the evidence wasn't there, and adopt new theories to better fit the evidence.

The god stuff is interesting to imagine, but it just doesn't pass the most basic tests of plausibility. Bring me some evidence, and I'll think about your argument. Without evidence, all you have is entertaining fiction.

rastronomicals said...

I would note that some pretty smart scientists believe that something CAN be produced from nothing, even under the conditions that currently prevail in our universe.

It even appears there are at least a couple ways it does so, if you can stand the Wikipedia references:


Mr. Maxey correctly notes that the something from nothing argument mistakes conditions as they were during the Planck epoch and before; I would simply add that the argument is most likely invalid even if it didn't.

James Maxey said...

Mr. Maxey? Ras, we've never met, but you're free to address me the same way my friends do: Lord. (At least, I think they're addressing me. All I know is that whenever I say something clever around them, they are constantly responding, "Oh, Lord.")

I just read both your wiki links and have to say: My head hurts. I love this quantum mechanical stuff but I have to admit, I truly don't understand it. I've heard the fine scale universe described as quantum foam before, with countless particles and antiparticles spontaneously bursting into existence then, just as rapidly, anihilating one another. As I understand it, this spontaneous creation and distruction gives rise to something called vacuum energy. Some science fiction writers posit that vacuum energy, should it be tapped, is a free, endless source of power. I actually use a vacuum energy bomb to destroy the universe in Nobody Gets the Girl.

However, while I have fun with it on a fictional level, on a pure common sense level I find I have trouble grasping it. It doesn't seem like the particles and antiparticles actually arise out of pure nothingness. Don't they require energy to be created? The creation of matter results in a net subtraction of energy from the universe--which is then instantly replaced by the anihilation of the mirror particles, leaving everything in balance.

Not to put you on the spot, Ras, but are you aware of any experiments that prove the existence of this vacuum energy? How close have we ever gotten on earth to creating actual vacuum? Not just interplanetary levels of vacuum, which is actually thinly contaminated with dust and particles and radiation, but an actual bottle of nothingness?

And if you had a bottle of nothing, and watched it long enough... would it eventually become a bottle of something?

Eric James Stone said...

> but are you aware of any
> experiments that prove the
> existence of this vacuum energy?

I believe the Casimir Effect is considered to be observed evidence for vacuum energy.