Cosmic designer – simpler or easier to understand?

Cosmology is hard to get your head around. So is evolution. For a start the time-scales involved are mind blowing for even the smartest creatures with a mere 80-odd years to get their heads around it. Frankly, it’s humbling to consider.

I think this might be part of the reason why some people end up believing creation stories with a simpler narrative structure. We like stories. Our whole culture is based on stories. They’re easy to remember and pass on. Much easier to follow than, “Big bang, abiogenesis, evolution”. Much more satisfying than, “I don’t know”.

But are creation myths actually simpler? Consider, if you will, the following analogy.

Why do sub-atomic particles hang around together?

Let’s say we’re wondering why it is that protons and neutrons stick together in the nucleus of an atom, while electrons orbit much further out. For the sake of argument let’s pretend that we genuinely don’t know why this happens. We could suggest a few hypotheses. For example,

  1. The particles are held together or repelled by some kind of forces, like gravity or magnetism.
  2. The neutrons and protons stick together because they are friendly to each other, but the electrons are unfriendly, so they keep further away.

For now I’m not concerned with which hypothesis is closer to the truth, so all you eager physicists can put your hands down. I’m interested in which hypothesis is simpler. The reason I am considering this is because of Ockam’s Razor which suggests that simpler explanations should be preferred.

“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”

At first glance, hypothesis one is far from simple to me. I’m not a physicist and I don’t have a thorough understanding of sub-atomic particle and forces. However, in my experience, gravity doesn’t repel objects and only has a small effect on lightweight objects. Secondly magnetism only affects certain metallic materials like iron, and this sub-atomic effect occurs in all atoms, not just iron.

The second hypothesis however, I get completely. I could tell my friends about it over a drink and I’m sure they’d get it too. Surely that makes it simpler. Wouldn’t Ockam approve?

In one sense, perhaps.

The trouble with hypothesis two as an explanation for why neutrons and protons stick together is that we need to assume a whole raft of things to make it work. We need to assume that sub-atomic particles have desires and feelings, personalities even. We need to assume a whole new level of complexity to explain these personalities and apparent conciousness on such a minute scale. Suddenly this explanation is looking anything but simple. As a result we’ve added more complexity to the problem. There are even more explanations needed than before. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but an extraordinary claim like hypothesis two would need a lot of evidence to back it up.

As it turns out, we can explain the motion of the electron in terms of the electromagnetic force. The discovery of the residual strong force allows us to understand how the nucleus of an atom staying together. It’s not child’s play by any means (in fact if any real physicists would like to refine my crude understanding please do so below!), but it does mean we don’t have to invent a whole new field of sub-atomic psychology to account for it.

Who designed the designer?

hubble-deep-space-clipThis seems relevant to the argument from design which uses the apparent design of living things or the universe to infer the existence of a designer. Believers say that all the order and complexity in the world seems unlikely to have come about by chance. So they infer the existence of an intelligent being who brought it about intentionally with some great purpose in mind.

Unfortunately the thinking stops there; for some reason they don’t wonder at how the complexity of this intelligent being came about? Such a hypothetical being, with purpose, intent, goals and obviously huge power is quite a complex thing. At least as complex as the universe it is alleged to have created. So the intelligent designer hypothesis doesn’t explain anything, it only adds to the complexity. I’m sure he can’t have been the first, but Richard Dawkins expresses this more succinctly as “Who designed the designer?”.

In the general case, a hypothesis or theory can be said to be powerful or useful according to what it explains versus what it has to assume in order to work. This observation was reported in the context of evolution by Dawkins recently, so I recommend his article on the explanatory power of theories.

(Hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist).

Many apparently simple theories demand large numbers of additional, complex assumptions. We should be careful not to confuse the ease of understanding something with its simplicity. Being easy to understand does not make something more likely to be true.

4 thoughts on “Cosmic designer – simpler or easier to understand?

  1. In the general case, a hypothesis or theory can be said to be powerful or useful according to what it explains versus what it has to assume in order to work.

    I agree. If we’re talking (a)theism, I think atheism has to assume at least as much as theism.

    Believers say that all the order and complexity in the world seems unlikely to have come about by chance. So they infer the existence of an intelligent being who brought it about intentionally with some great purpose in mind. Unfortunately the thinking stops there; for some reason they don’t wonder at how the complexity of this intelligent being came about? Such a hypothetical being, with purpose, intent, goals and obviously huge power is quite a complex thing. At least as complex as the universe it is alleged to have created. So the intelligent designer hypothesis doesn’t explain anything, it only adds to the complexity. I’m sure he can’t have been the first, but Richard Dawkins expresses this more succinctly as “Who designed the designer?”.

    Although some believers do stop thinking here, I wouldn’t necessarily say the thinking stops there. As an aside, I say the inference of an intelligent being is perfectly reasonable given existence. What I ask Dawkins or whoever’s using his argument at the moment is why must we assume that a cause must be more complex than its effect? Something as simple as water caused something as grand as the Grand Canyon. That’s where the professor befalls himself if you ask me. That the being must be “at least as complex as the universe it created” is an unjustified assumption. It could very well be that the cause of the universe is somehow much simpler than the universe.

    Then we have the question of whether something uncaused can exist at all. If we decide it can – and one would think that we must – then that takes care of “who designed the designer” just fine.

    Further, even if it were true that whatever created the universe must be more complex than the universe, still, that’s not a cogent argument against God’s existence. Not that you’ve necessarily said as much, either, it’s just that I do hear some people mistakenly trot Dawkins argument here as a disproof.

  2. Hi cl,

    If we’re talking (a)theism, I think atheism has to assume at least as much as theism.

    I disagree. All atheism has to assume is that there is some cause other than a god.

    What I ask Dawkins or whoever’s using his argument at the moment is why must we assume that a cause must be more complex than its effect? Something as simple as water caused something as grand as the Grand Canyon.

    Good point, you’re quite right about the water, it is indeed simple.

    However, you’re quite wrong about the argument that Dawkins made. He didn’t say it must be complex, quite the opposite in fact. Dawkins said that the first cause must be something simple.

    The point is that a god, like my subatomic particles with personalities, is not a simple thing.

    Then we have the question of whether something uncaused can exist at all. If we decide it can – and one would think that we must – then that takes care of “who designed the designer” just fine.

    Yes, and it would also take care of the “Who designed the universe?” question, so there’s no need to ask “Who designed the designer?”, or “Who designed the designer’s designer?” and so on.

  3. Hey there. I replied to you at DaylightAtheism.

    All atheism has to assume is that there is some cause other than a god.

    Likewise, all theism has to assume is that there is some cause that is a God.

    However, you’re quite wrong about the argument that Dawkins made. He didn’t say it must be complex, quite the opposite in fact. Dawkins said that the first cause must be something simple.

    You’re conflating two separate arguments Dawkins made. Yes, he argues that the first cause must be something simple, and I agree. Where you’re wrong is that Dawkins did argue that if we posit a complex designer, that designer also requires an explanation. (TGD p.107) As a response to Aristotle, Aquinas, et al., that is a false argument.

    The point is that a god, like my subatomic particles with personalities, is not a simple thing.

    I could just as easily assert God is simple.

    Yes, and it would also take care of the “Who designed the universe?” question, so there’s no need to ask “Who designed the designer?”, or “Who designed the designer’s designer?” and so on.

    If by this you mean to imply that allowing for uncaused entities allows us to posit the universe as an uncaused entity, I’d ask you to define a “caused entity” – then likely disagree.

  4. Hello, I would like to see if I can add anything to this debate.

    I could just as easily assert God is simple.

    God is anything but simple. It might seem simple at first, but once you really get deep into theology, you’ll see that God is not simple. There are many good questions about God to really sink your teeth into. I guess you could assert God is simple, but if so you could assert anything simple.