Why doesn’t the universe require an agent level explanation?

Everything a computer program does can ultimately be explained using nothing but binary mathematics – it would be foolish to say “I don’t know how this piece of software works therefore magic must be involved!” Yet to suggest that computer programmers don’t exist because programmers aren’t binary numbers would be equally foolish: we need to differentiate between providing an algorithmic level explanation for a piece of software (i.e. what are the rules and instructions that make it work?) and providing an agent level explanation (i.e. who wrote it?) To suggest that science disproves God would be as irrational as a schoolboy finding a cake recipe and concluding that bakers don’t exist. Professor John Lennox likens naturalism to asking people to choose between Henry Ford and the theory of combustion to explain the motor car. So does atheism recognise the difference between explaining how something works and providing an agent level explanation for it? If so, why doesn’t the universe require an agent level explanation?

Posted: September 7th 2010

Mike the Infidel www

“to suggest that computer programmers don’t exist because programmers aren’t binary numbers would be equally foolish”

We know that computer programs require programmers. We do not, despite protestations to the contrary, know that a universe requires a designer.

Science doesn’t need to disprove God. Disbelief in the absence of evidence is the default position for any claim made. It’s up to those who assert his existence to give us a reason to accept their claims.

“why doesn’t the universe require an agent level explanation?”

Because we have no experience with the beginning of a universe. We have no reason to assume it requires an agent.

Posted: September 13th 2010

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Blaise www

Your whole question is predicated on the assumption that atheism is trying to prove something. That is a mistake. Atheism “says” nothing at all, other than that the atheist has seen no proof of the existence of a god, and therefore does not believe in one.

To suggest that atheism requires proof that a god does not exist would be as irrational as suggesting that a christian must require proof that Thor does not exist before believing in the christian god.

As for the nominal question asked, “Why doesn’t the universe require an agent level explanation?”, let’s turn it around. Why would it require an agent level explanation? Every physical process we know of operates just fine without the presumption of a supernatural, intelligent cause. Why would the “ultimate” cause have to be one then?

Posted: September 9th 2010

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Well, very simply, because we don’t know that the universe is designed. We know that computer programs are designed (well, some of them are, others seem to be created by fairly random processes…), we know that cars are designed.

As far as knowing why the universe exists, the only answer we have right now is “we don’t know”. It may be that universes just pop up randomly (and if you say assert that nothing is random, you’ll need to explain how a specific atom of a radioactive substance knows when to decay).

To say that god created the universe just pushes the issue back a level – if god created the universe, then what created god? If you say that god doesn’t need a creator, then you need to explain why the universe needs one but god doesn’t.

Finally, it would help a bunch if you had explained what you meant by “agent level explanation”. That sounds like a term that people use to obfuscate their position.

Posted: September 8th 2010

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George Locke

You suppose that the laws of nature are analogous to a recipe for cake, or a computer program, and you ask, “who wrote it?” Given that universal rules govern the world, you assert, baldly, that there must be an “agent” responsible for setting those rules. If you expect anyone to take this seriously, then you’ll have to do better than pointing to obvious irrelevancies. (Yes, I am aware that cake recipes are written by bakers!)

Why do we have these natural laws and not others? Well, I can’t say for certain, but why should I expect that someone chose them? Your opener is quite apropos: you don’t know why nature behaves the way it does, therefore goddidit, or so you say. But how do you know that ours are not the only possible natural laws? How do you know that there aren’t other universes with other natural laws? Even supposing that some external cause were required to establish which laws we had, how could you identify this cause as an “agent” (with personhood, intentionality, etc.)? Unless you can answer each of these questions, you have no grounds to assert the existence of a god, hence no grounds for belief in god.

Now, I wanted to address one of the assumptions you make about atheism: that we believe “science disproves God”. Science can disprove some assertions about God, e.g. that God answers prayers or any basically other intercession. So, depending on how you define God, science can disprove it. Since it’s possible to define God as being unfalsifiable, science can’t disprove all conceivable gods. What science does do is dismantle many arguments that God must exist (c.f. God of the gaps).

Posted: September 8th 2010

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Atheism is simply the lack of god belief because there is no evidence to support such a belief. The contrived need for an agent is not evidence for god(s).

Evolution, which elegantly and potently explains how common descent happens requires no intelligent agent. It is not random, because of natural selection, but it is unintended and not directed. Therefore we already have an solid and longstanding scientific theory which can explain fully the variations of living creatures and their common ancestry, making divine design redundant.

Going back to your focus on that the universe requiring an agent and likening such a need to the need for a programmer falls short just like Paley’s Watchmaker argument does. You are comparing apples (nature) and oranges (man-made artifacts). Humanity has evolved to the point where it can design intelligently. No reason to project that need onto nature.

The agent approach also answers nothing—who made the agent? With humans, there is direct lineage that can be traced which shows why a computer programmer is nothing like god (and via the fact and scientific theory of Evolution we know that human ancestry is traced back to an unicellular organism along with all other creatures). Why pretend that such an analogy makes any sense? Presenting such an angle is intellectual dishonesty.

As for how the unicellular entity got a start, abiogenesis is a field that is focusing on that angle with several hypotheses available at present with work continuing energetically.

In addition, we now know through neuroscience and related fields that we have evolved to see agency where there is none. Couple that innate tendency with good natural explanations already existing, and the god hypothesis is just useless and stale. The only thing that is keeping that hypothesis alive is faith, that is, belief without evidence. Atheists have no faith, they demand evidence. The believer instead offers faith, along with circular and contorted rationalizations which claim that an intelligent agent is required.

Science in general does not prove negatives, but instead gives us a much better explanatory and a non-agency basis for reality than the god hypothesis does. Without faith, the god hypothesis is not viable. Atheists find no reason to have such faith, so they do not. Atheists do not have to prove that god does not exist, it is the job of the religious believers to prove it does. And they can’t do that, they just offer faith—one must believe because one must because it is the only explanation that makes sense. But it does not make any sense, it is just faith, that is, non-evidential belief seen through a subjective experience lens.

Some atheists never had faith, like myself (I was seven when I asked who made god when I was told god made me—even at an early age faith made no sense to me) and other atheists are former religious believers who have lost their faith, realizing they had no real good reason to have faith that an god exists. Atheists just don’t bother with the god hypothesis; it is dead to us at present, but we do have to focus on the reality of god belief because it causes so many severe problems in our societies. If religious beliefs were not so dangerous to global stability, most atheists would not talk about god belief, because, really, it is mind-numbingly boring, trite, and old hat. Goddidit, in other words, offering no explanatory or predicting capabilities.

Posted: September 8th 2010

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Leeta www

Good question.

As Carl Sagan once famously quipped, “To make an apple pie from scratch, first you must create the universe.”

Your “agent level” response of “computer programmer” is incorrect, or at least, incomplete. First, the universe came to be. Then, stars were born. Then, galaxies were born. Then, planets were born. Then, the elements formed simple organisms. Then, simple organisms became complex organisms. Then, animals/plants/all life flourished and evolved into what you see around you today. Then, we invented computer programming.

In other words, we know not only where computer programming came from, but where the brain in the person that created it came from as well.

None of it needs a supernatural explanation. The only remaining scientific realm in which a god can now be a “placeholder” is the driver behind the creation of the universe, for which we actually have several theories that do not need a supernatural explanation – hence the term “god of the (knowledge) gaps”.

I assume you’re not arguing that god necessarily created the universe, but rather why couldn’t s/he have. I suppose s/he could have, but it’s highly unlikely, improbable, and unnecessary to assume so. Why assume a creator god when this god isn’t necessary to explain anything else in the natural world? It is unsatisfactory to science.

Besides, no matter what knowledge we come to have, there will always be those who insist “well what before that?” As the gaps in knowledge become smaller and smaller (or, perhaps, larger, depending on what we discover!) then the god of the gaps will fluctuate in need and size. But will ultimately be unnecessary.

Posted: September 8th 2010

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Dave Hitt www

“Agent Level Explanation” is just another fancy, roundabout reiteration of the tired old argument that everything requires a creator, so the universe must require a creator. Which requires the tired old response of “who created the creator.”

Nice try, though.

Posted: September 8th 2010

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