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Essay donated by Alen Rogers

On Neo-Deism

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On Neo-Deism:

Thomas Paine was an heroic if also a tragic personality. The 200th anniversary of his lonely death in 1809 will probably be little remembered in this year but he played a major part in securing the success of the American Revolution. Two of his books "The Rights of Man" 1 and "The Age of Reason" 2 are still in print.

Tom Paine was a Deist, neither the first nor the last and possibly not even the most distinguished. In "The Age of Reason" he expresses the contrast between Deism and Revealed Religion with devastating clarity. This is important because there is a modern trend to argue the case for a theistic world view (implying the validity of revealed religion) from a Deist (or rather neo-Deist) point of view. As Tom Paine would have said - this is an imposition (an archaic meaning related to imposter) . Evidence of a deity is a necessary but not sufficient proof of the truth of a revealed religion (like Christianity or Islam). Such revealed religions not only posit the existence of a creator god, they find it necessary that this supernatural entity is able to and indeed has communicated in a comprehensible way with humanity. In the case of Islam via the angel Gabriel and the prophet Mohammed and in the case of Christianity through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The Deist only posits the existence of a creator god, claiming that this is established by the existence and the nature of the universe and that no other evidence is required.

I use the term neo-Deist because although the evidence that both Deists and neo-Deists claim demonstrates the existence of a deity are observations of design, the 18th century Deist (like Tom Paine) would use the complexity of the biological world and the existence of laws of the universe (as provided by Isaac Newton) to make the case. The reputable present day neo-Deist (following the publication of Darwin?s "The Origin of Species") is unable to use the former.

In the 19th century a fashion for Natural Theology emerged. This group of theologians were not Deists, they were adherents of revealed religion but hoped to find a convincing argument for the existence of a creator god in the discoveries of science. In this they were at one with Deists. They claimed that the "laws" of physics and chemistry and the discovered complexity of biology required a creative designer. The strongest evidence for their position, they believed, lay in biology. Hence their dismay and anger when "The Origin of Species" was published. Since the late 19th century, Deists seem to have vanished but the Natural Theologians remain. When in debate with skeptics, they become neo-Deists because this is an easier case to argue than the creed of revealed religion.

The "existence of laws of the universe" argument has been refined in the past few decades and now consists of pointing out the critical nature of a few universal constants to the existence of a universe in which life might arise. Typical of these are the fine structure constant and the "flatness" of the universe.

Before the discovery of the size of the observable universe 18th century Deists could make a similar argument since the Earth?s orbit lies in the Goldilocks Zone? not too hot and not too cold therefore it must have been placed there by a benevolent god. The discovery that our sun is a fairly ordinary star of which there are more than 100 billion in our galaxy alone (and more recently that planets in orbit about stars are not a very rare phenomenon) means that what Brandon Carter called "the weak anthropic principle" may be applied. Certainly the Earth is in a suitable orbit for the support of life, but if it were not we would not be here observing it. There must be millions of planets which are not so fortunate (seven or eight in our solar system for a start) but at least one (Earth) in our galaxy which is so placed. The observation of benevolent, life-supporting characteristics is the result of the requirements for life which is a requirement for a sentient observer. If the observable universe contained only one star (ours) and one planet (Earth) then the existence of life and therefore humanity would indeed require some explaining. In a universe of 100 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars the weak anthropic principle is the only explanation required.

The neo-Deist understands this, and so doesn?t rely on the Goldilocks idea in terms of the astronomy of the solar system. It is necessary to move to the position where the Goldilocks idea can apply to a unique entity. If that is not to be a planetary system then it must be the entire observable universe. This is where the critical nature of some of the constants of the universe come to the neo-Deist?s rescue. A key issue arises from the fact that the heavy elements that are required for organic chemistry, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen iron and so on are not produced by the "big bang". They are manufactured in stars which then must explode in a nova. Dust containing these elements is ejected into space then after a considerable time gravitation causes the formation of planetary bodies orbiting other stars. All of this requires a significant passage of time so the universe must persist for a considerable time before organic chemistry emerge and life can evolve to the point where sentient observers become conscious of the existence of the universe.

If the gravitational constant G or the mass density of the universe were too high then the universe would collapse too soon after the big bang for this lengthy process to be completed. If G or the mass density were too small the original stars which produce heavy elements and the concretion of dust into planets would not be formed. The observed "flatness" of the universe provides the required time and adequate gravitation to create stars.

Even the manufacture of carbon requires specific relative energy levels in the atoms of carbon and oxygen to be present. If this were not the case then carbon would be converted to oxygen, its abundance in the universe billions of years after the big bang would be negligible and organic chemistry and life would not be possible.

The neo-Deist sees this as evidence of design, purpose and possibly a teleology.

Well, that is possible but a similar hope based upon the biological world was dashed in 1859 and it is also possible that this "god of the universal constants" will meet a similar fate. I sometimes think that this is like arguing that if the value of were not 3.14159265?? then we would not be able to draw circles: true but somehow meaningless.

The universal constants offered by neo-Deists as evidence of design are dimensionless values. They are obtained only by measurement since no one yet knows how they might be computed from first principles. However, they may be computed (to any given approximation) from the sum of an infinite series. This doesn?t make seem any less mysterious if you think in the way given above.

Well, in summary, the neo-Deists may be correct in that a few universal constants were "fixed" but they could only be fixed by an entity incredibly more complex than the whole observable universe which includes life at least as complex as that on Earth and that entity has to exist in some greater universe. Some people like the image of the big bang being the product of an experiment carried out by a super-civilization (which perhaps went wrong!). This is at least as plausible as the supernatural creator god hypothesis. Alternatively and with increasing likelihood, our universe may be just one component in a multiverse. This multiverse may contain "universes" with an infinite variety of universal constants . Ours is one with the constants such that life is possible and the weak anthropic argument applies again.

Just suppose the neo-Deists are right in that the observable universe is unique and that the universal constants were determined by a supernatural entity that exists outside our space-time continuum. Nothing that I have observed or experienced in my life would suggest that the "supernatural universal constant setter" has the least regard for humanity or any other species on this planet. Remember that the neo-Deist has given up claiming "? He made their glowing colors, He made their tiny wings" that was achieved by designer-less evolution. "All things Bright and Beautiful" was written in 1848, eleven years before publication of "The Origin of Species".

When a twitch in a tectonic plate can kill a quarter of a million decent human beings including a large proportion of children as happened with the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean tsunami you have to hypothesize either an evil deity (as does an Austrian Catholic priest in connection with the New Orleans flood) indifference, impotence or non-existence. The latter seems to be the most charitable.

To summarize, even if the existence of the neo-Deist "supernatural universal constant setter" could be proven this would say nothing about the truth or otherwise of revealed religion. This depends upon two things. Historical "proof" of the revelation and evidence of ongoing interference in the physical universe by the hypothesized entity. In addition one has to prove the veracity of one particular revealed religion or that they are all manifestations of the same underlying interaction between the "supernatural universal constant setter" and the physical world.

If millions of people were not brought up to take revealed religion seriously the conjecture would be laughable. The 21st Century version of one particular revealed religion is quite complicated. It proposes that a "supernatural universal constant setter" established several dimensionless constants that appear (at the moment) to be arbitrary and by that means established a physics that makes life possible. It then waited 10 billion years while 100 billion galaxies each containing 100 billion stars evolve from the big bang. Then waited a further 4 billion years while the Earth cooled, seas formed and organisms evolved until one particular species of the ape genus appears. Then waited a further quarter million years until it suddenly decided to interfere in the reproductive physiology of a Levantine virgin to produce a kind of man-god (in violation of what we now know of the genetics and the developmental embryology of mammals) knowing that this man-god will be tortured to death so that the man-god can briefly and ambiguously return to state of non-death then ambiguously disappear leaving behind a slightly puzzled group of followers who are supposed to convert the whole world to the cult engendered by this bizarre sequence of events.

The main purpose of this strange activity being to allow the evolved ape to somehow "be with" the "supernatural universal constant setter" after the death and decomposition of the evolved ape?s brain. What do you mean implausible?? Millions believe this stuff even though it makes Scientology look quite credible by comparison.

Tom Paine dealt with this "revelation" much better than I. Charles Darwin pushed the "designer conjecture" back from biology into physics and I suspect that future physicists and cosmologists will push the "supernatural universal constant setter" into oblivion.

References used:

  1. Thomas Paine, "The Rights of Man," General Books. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store, or from Amazon Kindle. It is online at: http://www.infidels.org/

  2. Thomas Paine, "The Age of Reason," Book Jungle. Read reviews or order this book or from Amazon Kindle. It is online at:  http://www.infidels.org/

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Initial posting: 2009-SEP-30
Latest update: 2009-SEP-30
Author: Alan Rogers BSc, CEng, MBCS

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