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.

Truth vs Comfort

While considering the beliefs of eccentrics like Garvan in his post “Right Not To Think“, yunshui recently questioned whether it would be morally right in every case to change the minds of those who believe falsehoods.

Most, like Garvan, have entwined religion so inextricably into their psyche that no amount of evidence or argument will ever convince them of their fallacy, but if one could unravel and break the faith-wire wrapped around their minds, would that be a kind thing to do?

To my mind, whether helping to de-convert someone is moral or not depends on the consequences of de-conversion for him and others. I think we can only guess at what they might be. If it was guaranteed to make him a happier and more tolerant person (as it does many people), then I’d say yes, of course.

But what extreme measures would be required to convert a devout and apparently deranged believer? Thoroughly educating them about the irrationality of their beliefs? Surrounding them by a community of non-believers? Isolating them from any religious influence? I suspect that in many cases a person’s beliefs are so deeply ingrained that the methods required to change their minds would be so extreme as to be immoral in themselves, never mind what the outcome might be.

Then again perhaps yunshui is thinking more along the lines of a thought-experiment. What if Garvan had grown up in a friendly, supportive and non-religious environment. What if he’d never heard of Jesus? What kind of person would he be? Again, I think we can only speculate.

It seems intuitively true that the world would be a better place if everyone believed only what was true. False beliefs lead people to bad decisions. That is why we should care about what people believe. But perhaps there are cases where delusions are helpful or at least have some beneficial effects. The superstitious rituals carried out by people in risky situations, such as gathering honey while dangling from a cliff, can make them feel safe when they’re not. That can have advantages and disadvantages.

One argument is to let people believe whatever makes them happy and not to challenge it. For instance, if they really need to go deep sea fishing in a small wooden boat or hunt wilderbeast so that their family can eat, then they might as well be made to feel comfortable while taking such huge risks. On the other hand, someone who has performed a meaningless ritual may be recklessly emboldened by the thought that they’ve done something useful to protect themselves. Far better that they are cautious and forced to look for practical ways to minimise the risk. For a start they could look at the weather before setting off.

But getting back to religious beliefs, in the majority of cases I see no reason not to question and challenge apparently false beliefs. Indeed, I think we all have a responsibility to work out what is true and to educate others as best we can.

However, in cases of religious mania (or at least extreme eccentricity) the results could be unpredictable and possibly detrimental. As yunshui points out, psychologists have considered this question already.

Many delusional patients actually need their strange beliefs in order to function, so removing the framework of their worldview can be unproductive and even dangerous.

So was Colonel Jessep right when he said, “You can’t handle the truth!”?  Those who’ve changed their minds in favour of atheism often report feelings of freedom and happiness as a result. However, de-conversion can be a traumatic process, even for those on a fairly even keel.

For those with a delusion related to mental illness the answer is more complicated and as a layperson I’d defer to the opinions of the psychologists involved.