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Are Infinities More Scientific Than God?

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July 8, 2011 Tags: Divine Action & Purpose
Are Infinities More Scientific Than God?

Today's entry was written by Matt J. Rossano. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

Suppose you have some marbles rolling around randomly at the bottom of a box. Now take the box and tilt it so that the marbles roll to one corner. Jiggle a bit so that they come to rest in a reasonably stable pattern and, more than likely, some of the marbles will collect into a "snowflake" configuration such as this:

This arrangement is referred to as "hexagonal closest packing;" something often seen in honeycombs or oranges stacked at a fruit stand. There's nothing magical about this: it's simply gravity pushing spherical objects into a stable pattern. A little order out of chaos. But that's the deceiving part according to University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr. In his book, "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith" (2003, University of Norte Dame Press, pp. 77-78), Barr uses this simple example to show that what looks like order out of chaos is actually order out of even greater order. This, he contends, ought to give one pause before concluding that science has unquestionably vindicated a materialistic view of the universe.

So how do the marbles show order out of greater order? The orderliness of the snowflake pattern can be measured by counting its symmetries -- that is, how many ways can you rotate it and still have the identical pattern. For example, if rotated five degrees it won't be exactly the same, but if rotated 60 degrees it will be. Rotating the pattern in sixty degree increments (60º, 120º, 180º, etc.) produces identical patterns, thus it has six symmetries. But since you can flip it and then repeat the rotations the actual total comes to 12 symmetries.

The underlying reason for these 12 symmetries is the spherical shape of the marbles. If you started with other shapes, say seven forks or mini Jack Daniels bottles or whatever, they would not have fallen into the snowflake pattern to begin with and thus the symmetries (if any) would be different. So these 12 symmetries arise because of the particular properties of spheres being acted upon by gravity. So how many symmetries do spheres have? Since you can rotate a sphere by any amount and it will still be the same, it has an infinite number of symmetries. Thus, the order seen at the "higher" snowflake level (12 symmetries) is only a miniscule fraction of the unseen order at the "deeper," spherical level (infinite symmetry).

The marble example has a more natural analogue in crystal formation. When the pressure and temperature are right, crystals form in substances such as diamond, calcite or mica. The crystals arrange themselves into a lattice pattern. A diamond lattice, for example, is called a "hex-octahedral group," and it contains 48 symmetries. However, the order of the diamond lattice is but a small fraction of the order found in the carbon atoms composing the lattice. As with the marbles, there is a "spherical" sameness about the carbon atoms that lead to a nearly infinite number of symmetries at the atomic level. Thus, once again, the order that we observe at the higher crystal level is but a minute fraction of what exists at the deeper atomic level.

This idea that the deeper we go in the physical universe the more order we find is repeated over and over again, according to Barr, in such things as naturally occurring geometric patterns (e.g. a nautilus shell), planetary motions and the properties of elementary particles (protons, neutrons, etc.). In every case the observable order is only a tiny surface manifestation of an even greater order at a deeper, more obscure level. Order does not arise from chaos, nor does it arise from nothing. It arises from an even richer order "below."

So from where does the deepest order originate? From a naturalistic standpoint, we don't know because we have yet to uncover nature's deepest laws. However, even if we reveal these laws, the question of why they give rise to such profound order will still remain a puzzle. The pervasive order of our universe appears to go beyond necessity into the gratuitous. "Life could have evolved just as it did even if there had been occasional lapses in the orderliness of nature," claims Barr (p. 108). Life has already managed to survive numerous cosmic, climatic and ecological challenges; occasional small-scale violations of the law of conservation or angular momentum would unlikely have proved prohibitive.

To avoid an immaterial Creator as the ultimate explanation for the universe's deep order, the materialist, argues Barr, must either accept the laws of physics as "brute facts" (i.e. they just are and we don't ask why they are) or he (she) must appeal to chance (usually in the form of multiple universes with variable laws of physics). If ours is but one of an infinity of universes (or possibly "domains" within a multiverse) then simply by chance a universe will arise with physical laws such as ours. While this is certainly possible, a critical point Barr emphasizes is that proposing an infinity of unobservable entities is no more scientifically defensible than proposing a single unobservable one (God). Indeed, sustaining a purely materialistic view of the universe, Barr asserts, requires repeatedly pleading for a multiplicity of envisioned infinities -- of universes, planets, durations, realities, observers, etc. -- a habit that severely undercuts the materialist position.

"...the materialist, in order to avoid drawing unpalatable conclusions from scientific discoveries, has to postulate unobservable infinities of things. How ironic that, having renounced belief in God because God is not material or observable ... the atheist may be driven to postulate not one but an infinitude of unobservables in the material world itself!" (p. 75).

Ultimate questions, such as the ones Barr poses, stand outside of scientific certainty and even if they undermine materialism, they do not immediately or necessarily validate the Christian God or any God for that matter. But I don't take Barr's arguments as religious evangelism. Rather, I take them as scientific evangelism. The spirit of inquiry animates science. That spirit is equally violated whether we stop asking questions out of fear that God might be the answer or we stop out of fear that God might not be the answer. Just keep asking questions and follow honestly where the argument leads.

Matt J. Rossano is Professor of Psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University and author of Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved.

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Olavi - #63298

July 13th 2011

Roger, in order to see why ethics are not dependent upon God, just answer this question: hypothetically, if you somehow found out for certain that there was no God, would you immediately begin murdering, raping, and pillaging?

Please don’t interrupt my discussion with Dan with this side topic.

DanB - #63301

July 13th 2011

Actually, this is one of the arguements that people like Dawkins use and that I have found to be inadequate and really besides the point.  Whether a great many people act in a “moral” fashion is besides the point.  What we are talking about is without a God is there any reason to be upset about, judge, condem as immoral, etc. people who do murder, rape and pillage?

Not to give myself away I won’t say what I personally would do
But clearly there are a great many people who do murder, rape and pillage among other things.  We can see that all around us, even in societies where we have laws against those things and spend a lot of money on police and security guards and prisons trying to stop it.  Worse still, some times whole societies will engage in mass murder - the Khemer Rouge for example.
Should we think that those things are wrong and maybe even try to stop them? Or should we be disinterested about murders, rape, theft, ect. and simply regard them as acts of nature, just like earthquakes or volcanoes or epidemics, which is what they are in a Godless universe?
It’s not clear to me why if a tourist bus gets stopped by armed men who then rape and kill the passengers that is something that has a moral component (ie, it is “evil” or “wrong”) any more than if the bus gets caught in a landslide from a mountain that kills all the passengers.  In a world with no God saying the former is “wrong” seems strange - aren’t they both equivalent?  And doesn’t the fact, if we think there is no God, that we say the former is “evil” while we would never say the latter is “evil” just mean that we never thought our beliefs through?  That is Clifford would not be happy with us  
Olavi - #63305

July 13th 2011

I am a bit surprised this issue even comes up. Are you really suggesting that the East Asian countries—which are predominantly non-theist—are populated by immoral people?

In fact studies have shown that higher religiosity correlates with societal dysfunction, measured by aggregating the number of homicides, incarcerations, suicides, and other factors. The healthiest societies are the predominantly atheist ones. Correlation does not equal causation, of course, but this at least refutes the idea that atheism somehow leads to immorality.

See http://i.imgur.com/tIqzI.jpg—“U” is the United States at 63% absolute belief; “W” is Sweden at 12%. Full paper: http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf

Ashe - #63307

July 14th 2011

I haven’t seen that newer reference, but his first paper was criticized here:


And the conclusion of this follow-up paper is contradicted by other research such as this one:


Olavi - #63341

July 15th 2011

Of course, Paul’s 2006 paper is a different paper.

It’s not difficult to do a simple comparison yourself. Take Norway and the United States, for example, and compare dysfunction indicators. You can use the 2006 paper, the 2009 paper, or start from scratch. We should be surprised if Norway does not come out on top. This alone calls into question the claim that atheism leads to immorality, which was the only point I was addressing. Even a stalemate would be sufficient to make the point.

But it is instructive to look at the rebuttal of the 2006 paper anyway. It chides Paul for using surveys, saying that doing so constitutes the individualistic fallacy. Sure, with more time and dollars a more comprehensive cross-cultural study could be done. However given the scope and the number of countries studied, that would have likely been infeasible. (For some reason, rebuttal papers often assume unlimited funding.)

But how relevant is the individualistic fallacy or the criticisms pointing to deficiencies in cross-cultural analysis? When you ask people, “Do you absolutely believe in a God?” and tally the responses, the results are indicative of something. Nobody says polls are precise, but nobody says they are useless either. Even though better (and much more expensive) measurements might exist, and even though the definition of God varies from country to country, the results provide at least a first-order approximation. The variety of questions posed provides some protection against those kinds of errors.

Note that all three contributors were from Cedarville University, a fundamentalist Baptist school where faculty adherence to young earth creationism is required. While this is not detrimental in itself, it least suggests that we should approach their claims with a critical eye. Mark Caleb Smith is Director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville, which was “founded to articulate a biblical view of government through the study of politics, law, history, and public policy”. The three authors are required by their employer to endorse a certain viewpoint, while Gregory Paul’s employer does not.

Paul’s conclusions are confirmed elsewhere, being “in line with other recent sociological research such as Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart’s Sacred and Secular (2004) and Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God (2009).” (Wikipedia)

The first listed author of the book given in the Amazon link is Peter Berger, a sociologist and theologian. It would seem that he’s pointing to the rise of religion in previously underdeveloped countries among the educated population. It’s not immediately clear how this is supposed to contradict Paul’s findings. At first glance it appears to be more of a complication than a contradiction—caused for example by vastly different native religions and socioeconomic conditions—but until I learn more I’ll withhold judgment.

DanB - #63312

July 14th 2011


You aren’t addressing the question.  The question is why, in a completely material and godless universe, there is such a thing as a universal morality?  Why do we use the word “morality” as if there is supposed to be some agreed upon standard between people.  I would seem to me that in an entirely material universe there is no “good” or “evil” simply things that happen or don’t happen.

Every atheist I’ve read or spoken to ignores or avoids this question which suggests they don’t have an answer.  Do you?

Olavi - #63318

July 14th 2011

There are many books which examine the moral impulse in humans from a scientific perspective. Maybe you could read one?

Is it really difficult to imagine that murder would not have been a beneficial behavioral trait in hunter-gatherer tribes during the Pleistocene era? From a cold economic perspective, the murdered individual represents a catastrophic loss of resources. A tribe consisting of murderers would soon die off—they wouldn’t be our ancestors. This is a stupid example. I have no interest in defending it. Read books instead.

It’s strange that you have concluded there is no answer to why there is morality, apart from religious ones. Maybe you were looking for one, absolute answer. If so then only religion can provide it for you.

DanB - #63321

July 14th 2011

The issue at hand, again, is not “moral impulses”; it is does morality even exist except as individually held beliefs that have no significance beyond the person who holds them.
I have read a number of books on this by non-religious people and they continiously either ignore the issue or just do a bunch of handwaving.  This really seems to be a quite significant problem for the materialist world view which is why I am not surprised that you didn’t really have a simple answer to it after all.
I still have some important atheist authors to read who might possibly have answers to it such as Dennet and Nagle.  I will soon see if they have a pursausive answer to it though I doubt they do for if they did others such as Dawkins and Stenger would also state it.
Personally, I think the issue of universal morality is for the atheistic world view what natural evil is for the theistic world view - a major unsolved problem.

Olavi - #63327

July 14th 2011

I promise I’m not dodging anything.

Does morality even exist except as individually held beliefs that have no significance beyond the person who holds them?

So you’re looking for some kind of metaphysical platonic concept of morality? We see hexagons in nature, but is there a metaphysical hexagon existing purely in the platonic realm? Are all existing physical hexagons the embodiments of the single platonic hexagon? Something like that?

Why, in a completely material and godless universe, there is such a thing as a universal morality?

Because we are the same species. The structure and function of our brains is universal. Does that help?

DanB - #63329

July 14th 2011

“So you’re looking for some kind of metaphysical platonic concept of
morality? We see hexagons in nature, but is there a metaphysical hexagon
existing purely in the platonic realm? Are all existing physical
hexagons the embodiments of the single platonic hexagon? Something like

Let me make this simpler for you.  I am looking for a reason why YOUR conception of what is moral, what your conception of what is “right” or “wrong”, is anything anyone else should accept or feel bound to. 

“Because we are the same species. The structure and function of our
brains is universal. Does that help?”

Actually, it does NOT help at all.  I may happen to enjoy stealing money from my own species and raping my own species.  Am I not supposed to?  Certainly there are many people who do steal and rape.  I am really looking for an answer, in the absence of a God, why it is wrong for them to do those things.  I myself can come up with no reason even though I’ve thought about it alot and I haven’t seen anyone else present a reason either.

Olavi - #63333

July 14th 2011

Here is my assessment of what has happened in our conversation. Having presumably grown up in Western society, you are using a “Moses model” for morality, perhaps without realizing it: Moses walks up the mountain, receives the moral code from God, and returns.

The model has since been modernized, but the basic idea remains. There is an eternal moral code out there somewhere, and human minds receive it. Either God places it there directly, or God designed the natural laws such that the moral code spontaneously appears there, or some other delivery method is used.

Thus if there isn’t a God, then where does the moral code come from? We are left hanging—the Moses model demands a source, and without a source it falls apart. In this model atheism is doomed, as your conversations with atheists have no doubt proved to you.

I am not using the Moses model. My model is that morality is encompassed by moral philosophy, which is an emergent property of language and culture. Morality is not received from an external source, but “grows” organically from all the constituents which culminated in philosophy. It is not an unchanging entity, but is in a continual state of growth.

In this view, the Ten Commandments were the result of ancient moral philosophers, created during a time when philosophy was fused with religion. The process was the same as in other religions which developed their own moral codes.

That is why I can be an atheist and endorse Christian ethics, which is the outcome of a lot of philosophical work. We see moral philosophy grow throughout history, for instance in how Christianity borrowed from Greek philosophy. Remember the Gospels were written in Greek.

Moral philosophy binds together a group of people, providing benefits to its members which would be otherwise unavailable to uncommitted, lone individuals. Perhaps the most basic form of moral philosophy is the Golden Rule (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Rule).

Earlier in this thread I had proposed that believing in an imminent Second Coming is immoral. I really mean that. It is spectacularly selfish and lazy to allow the environment to be destroyed on the excuse that Jesus is coming anyway. This is an example of why I do not believe morals are received from God. Moral philosophy must continue to grow, as it has done for thousands of years. I expect that Second Comingism will be one day be widely accepted as immoral, though I fear it may take a century of widespread famine for it to sink in.

Am I getting closer to answering your question?

DanB - #63336

July 14th 2011

div>You are still not really getting to the point of this I don’t believe.  In your above argument you seem to be saying that morality has grown up naturally, or through evolution, within people and which most people have or accept and therefore we can simply accept it as universal.

Olavi - #63338

July 14th 2011

The reason stealing is deemed wrong is because you don’t like to be stolen from. In a community where each individual recognizes this, each individual benefits from not being stolen from. Those who unfairly take advantage of this arrangement by stealing are ostracised somehow.

The reason everyone doesn’t like to be stolen from—not just you—is because our minds are, roughly, similar. This is because our brains are all built the same way, and the mind is an emergent property of the brain.

To some degree these social contracts are innate because we are hard-wired for compassion and sympathy (see for example mirror neurons). The function of moral philosophy is to bring them to fruition.

The “reason to be upset about, judge, condemn as immoral, etc. people who do murder, rape and pillage” is because such actions cause suffering in others. Those are “cheating” moves which violate the Golden Rule by the which the suffering of all is reduced through everyone agreeing not to inflict suffering. Even chimpanzees seem to have a sense of justness and fairness.

You say you have a question which no atheist has answered—one that all of them have dodged. I suspect, however, that they simply did not understand the question, just as I still do not understand it.

DanB - #63343

July 15th 2011

The problem here is my comment was somehow truncated when I posted and doesn’t appear.
So let me reiterate the points I was making.
You assert, if I understand you correctly, that morality is something we inately have, that it evolved or whatever, and we simply know it because it is what the majority of us presumabely think.
I see two problems with this:
a) why does the majority get to impose upon the minority.  Sure, you may think it is bad for me to steel money or committ adultery but for myself, as a person who will only exist here and now and then never more, it makes total sense for me to do those thinks (again, I am assuming free will here which without a god seems pretty unlikely and without it there is still less to talk about in terms of morality).
b) further, it would appear that majorities often do things you consider “immoral”.  For example, you started off this thread saying that so many people don’t care that the environment is being damanaged and that is “clearly immoral” in viewpoint.  But if that is the majority of people on what basis then are you saying you are right and they wrong.  Your arguement of morality just appearing by nature of its own seems to fall apart.
And the examples of this are endless.  Even in the U.S. many, many people steal.  Probably most people under pay their taxes and maybe 100% would if the IRS didn’t have coercive systems to stop it.  So is stealing from the government “immoral” or not “immoral”?  In Middle Eastern countries woman are often compelled to where head scarfs.  I have heard some say that is immoral.  But why if most want it?
Is genocide immoral?  If not again that contradicts the “it just evolves” or we are simply “hardwired” for it assertions.  Was slavery “immoral”?  The majority seemed to want it.
Finally, you can think of reverse examples that also show this problem.  My neihbor is a vegitarian and thinks it is wrong to eat meat on moral grounds of not killing animals.  Do you feel obliged to follow that morality?  Some think it is wrong for us to allow our actions to make certain species of animals extinct?  Why?  On what basis?
Anyways, hopefully this doesn’t get truncated

DanB - #63346

July 15th 2011

yikes, sorry for all the typos above.  I was writing fast and didn’t proof read.

Olavi - #63358

July 15th 2011

Dan, how could you possibly think my position is that morality is determined by what the majority believes? I said no such thing. Moreover, since I’m obviously in the minority in saying that Second Comingism is immoral, majority rule could not possibly be how I define morality.

Moreover, how could anyoneever—think that morality is what the majority believes? Literal lynch mobs would be moral. Nazi Germany would be moral.

I said that I still didn’t understand what your issue was. I quoted verbatim one of your previous questions and answered it directly. I thought that might help ameliorate the confusion, but you’ve given no response to that or to my other answers.

Instead of responding to my answers, you move on to something else, and then something else. There’s no exchange of ideas here. In your last post you asked questions which were answered in my previous post, so not only are my comments left unaddressed, but I wonder if you read them.

I said that I still didn’t understand what your special question is—the one question that atheists dodge. No clarification was forthcoming. Now more than ever I have no idea what it is.

Olavi - #63359

July 15th 2011

Bwahaha. N-a-z-i Germany is censored. Newspeak has arrived at last!

DanB - #63364

July 15th 2011

We are arguing past each other at this point.  So there is probably no point going further at this time.  Nevertheless I think it has been a helpful discussion - I know it has been to me I hope at it was of some value to you to.  

Maybe in the future when either you or I have a different or new perspective on part of this that we might think helpful we can resume the discussion.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #63382

July 16th 2011

Olavi wrote:

The reason everyone doesn’t like to be stolen from—not just you—is because our minds are, roughly, similar. This is because our brains are all built the same way, and the mind is an emergent property of the brain.

Your rationale that we should respect others because we have basically similar brains seems similar to me as the rational that all persons are created equal.  In this sense the Biblical view would not be different from what you are saying.  This would not disprove the reality of God, but would reinforce it because science agrees with theological view established long before science.

Your rationale is based on the similarity between “emergent” human minds.  However other scientific world views are based on differences between humans.  For instance Darwinian evolution is based on the fact that individuals are not the same, but are variations.  According to this view change is brought about by competition for scarce resources, survival of the fittest.  Since Darwinism is established scientific theory how can argue with libertarians and racists who claim that might makes right?

Another issue has come up.  Some people have come up with the concept that those who see reality different from themselves are mentally ill.  We know that the Soviets confined dissidents to mental wards diagnosed with mental illness, and in some Muslim countries converts to Christianity are similarly confined.  Now some atheists claim that people who believe in God are delusional or are otherwise sick.  How can one say that minds are roughly the same if some are delusional?        

To some degree these social contracts are innate because we are hard-wired for compassion and sympathy (see for example mirror neurons). The function of moral philosophy is to bring them to fruition.

If we are “hard-wired for compassion and sympathy,” why doesn’t everyone demonstrate this?  Why do we need laws against murder? 

Who determines the correct moral philosophy?  If the universe is only physical, what is the function of laws and ideas, which are not physical?

What you don’t seem to recognize is that there are two types of moral law.  One is negative and basically legalistic.  One should not steal, lie, cheat, and murder.  That is good, but it is not really enough.  The real moral law must be positive.  Humans are made to help one another.  Thus you cannot legislate or even enforce.  People must be motivated to want to help others. 

Atheism being by its nature negative cannot do this.  Theism, in particularly non-legalistic Christianity, based on grace and love can.       


Olavi - #63407

July 18th 2011

I had not realized this thread was still alive.

I would suggest revisiting my original answer #63305, which was dodged. Atheism is correlated with healthy societies, while belief in God is correlated with dysfunctional societies.

You are just asserting that morality is grounded in some invisible deity, but there is no reason to believe this is even remotely true. Or if it is then atheists seem more able to follow the deity’s unspoken commandments than theists.

Please excuse me as I leave this thread to die.

DanB - #63408

July 18th 2011

Atheism is correlated with healthy societies?!?!?!?  really?

Can you name any country that has been atheistic and been a democracy and respected basic human rights?

Olavi - #63416

July 18th 2011

Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are among the most atheistic societies with 12%, 14%, and 18% belief in God, respectively. They are also the healthiest. As I just mentioned, see #63305.

DanB - #63419

July 18th 2011

Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden are all officially christian countries.  Their state churches are generally Lutheran and have 77% of population as members in Iceland, 80% of population as members in Norway, and 71% as members in Sweden.  


Now under state atheism we have:

the ex Soviet Union
the People’s Republic of China
North Korea


I think I’d prefer to live in one of the officially christian countries as opposed to one of the officially atheistic countries
Olavi - #63423

July 18th 2011

Just taking the example of Sweden, 12% of the population professes a belief in God and 7% attend religious services. I fail to see how the proportion of citizens registered with a state church would be relevant to whatever you are trying to say. Registration does not mean what you think it means. And by the way, Sweden no longer has a state church.

Strangely, you labeled the lack of a state religion as “state atheism”. Yes, those countries lack a state religion, but again, that does not mean what you think it means. For example Cuba is 70% Catholic—are you old enough to remember the Pope’s visit to Cuba? But most significantly, the United States is included in your list of “officially atheistic countries”.

Sorry, I am going to stop responding to you now.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #63309

July 14th 2011


It is hard to say what I would do if I knew that there was no God, but clearly I would have to reevaluate my world view. 

I might decide that atheistic Marxist-Leninism is the most rational view and that view has sponsored ravaging and pillaging.   

Or I might take the path of the recent Harvard student who wrote a long dissertation on atheism and took his own life as an “experiment in nihilism.”

Random Arrow - #63395

July 17th 2011

Matt (posting or not)—

It’s a Rorschach preference. Cosmologists’ big “oops” on the hologram. Emergency room doctors use decision trees. Fast and frugal. Backed by priors. Bayesian.

Less than that outside clinic, ignorance-based decision making. Interesting to see the data for this in mate selection. And for choice-of-gods.

Ecological reasoning. Fit to scales if we’re lucky. And work hard.

Do we really read Newton’s Principia to reassure ourselves of the inverse-square law before bouncing off the hallway walls to the head at 3:00 a.m.? Hard-wired proprioception meets Newton more than half-way.

There’s an off-the-horizon vanishing point where meta becomes useless. It’s not like the emotional satisfaction of so-called deep order generates a new large number theory which predicts. Like the extensions of relativity predicted black holes where no one was ever looking (see Wigner, “Unreasonable Effectiveness ...”).

Thanks for the article. A good chew. Still chewing.

Cheers, ~ Jim

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