Tuesday, September 5, 2017

ON THE ORDERLINESS OF NATURE

Here is a question for my fellow atheists:  Why is the world so orderly?

I don’t mean orderly in the way that many Christians think of it, giving credit to their god for creating the “glorious universe” in which we find ourselves.  In fact, on a macro level, the level at which we live our daily lives, the world is anything but orderly.  If nothing else, Hurricane Harvey is a recent case in point.  Then there are the other natural disasters, such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and droughts, as well as diseases such as TB, malaria, ebola, and cancer that are simply a consequence of the rules that govern the natural world.  On a grander scale, the universe is beset with supernovae, black holes, quasars, and colliding galaxies, again all part of the natural world that Christians credit their god with engineering.

No, I am referring to orderliness on a fundamental level.  One of the basic assumptions that science makes about the nature of the world is that whatever reality consists of is governed by laws that apply everywhere and at all times, past, present, and future.  Part of Newton’s genius was his assumption that the gravitational force that explains the path of a planet orbiting the sun is the same force that explains an apple falling from a tree.

Science has never had to abandon this fundamental assumption.  When we observe something that appears to contradict the rules that we have in place, we do not conclude that the observation violates those rules.  Instead, we assume that the existing set of rules do work and try to understand the observation by reconciling it with those rules.  If a stage magician seems able, with minimal effort, to bend a spoon between his thumb and index finger, we do not assume that he has a power that cannot be explained by the laws of physics.  Instead, we look for a mundane explanation, such as slight of hand or other trickery, that is consistent with those laws.

If we make observations that, after investigation, cannot be explained by existing rules, then ultimately we modify the rules so that, as revised, they do account not just for the observation in question but for all other observations both past and present.  Such modification is exactly what happened when Einstein’s theory of relativity superseded Newton’s laws of motion and of gravitation.

Things wouldn’t have to be that way.  There could be one set of rules that applies in one part of the universe and a different set that applies in another.  Or the rules could vary over time.  Or there could be no rules at all—pure chaos.  But, in fact, the world is not chaotic.  On a fundamental level there are rules and they appear to apply everywhere all the time.

Moreover, not only do we observe an orderliness in the laws of nature, on a micro, subatomic level we also observe a relative simplicity.  We now understand that there are a few dozen different elementary particles that are subject to just four fundamental forces.  Why not hundreds or thousands of particles subject to dozens of forces?  Why are all the forces describable by relatively elegant and straightforward formulas?  And why are all the particles of one kind identical?  Why, for example, are all electrons exactly alike, with the exact same mass and the exact same electrical charge?

Obviously, our understanding of the world is still primitive.  Now it appears that there are both dark matter and dark energy, neither of which we know a lot about except that we can observe that they have an effect on the observable universe.  But their existence has not forced us to abandon our assumption regarding the orderliness of nature.  

As an atheist I feel this orderliness and this relative simplicity raise questions for which I do not have confident answers.  And these questions join others that I have expressed earlier concerning why the universe exists at all and why it appears to be so young.  Thoughts, anyone?


© 2017 John M. Phillips

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