Just Random Chance?

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Jeremiah Traeger

One of the most common arguments (I won’t dignify it with calling it an apologetic) against atheism is, surprisingly, to rail against our existence under naturalism and mere physical laws as just a product of chance or an accident. The argument inevitably sounds something like, “How does an atheist find meaning in life? If all we are is just molecules and physical laws interacting, then we’re just here randomly! There’s no ultimate meaning if we’re all just an accident!” Of course, many, many, atheists have expressed how they find meaning and purpose in their life. It’s almost a cliché for atheists to have to answer this question, because the religious think our lives must be so pitiful and hopeless without a cosmic ruler of the universe for some reason. There’s even a whole book/film project by Chris Johnson dedicated entirely to this question for atheists. It’s safe to say that this question has been answered, and that we still find meaning and happiness, and can often find more than in our previously theistic worldviews. I’m not going to talk about that here.

I wanted to address the part of the argument that insists that under a naturalist worldview that, “we’re just here by chance, and that we’re an accident.” As someone who understands natural laws, probabilities, and statistics, the statement seems almost ludicrous to me on multiple levels, and trivial on other levels. The theists have tried to reduce a scientific perspective our existence as just being “up to chance”, yet even at a basic scientific level that claim is just nonsense.

On one level, we know that everything is due to chance. Quantum mechanics, for those who are unfamiliar, has shown us that at a fundamental level basic particles exist in the world of probability. They don’t behave the way we expect everyday objects to behave, sitting in one location unless acted upon by a force. Instead, they exist as a sort of “cloud of probability”, where an electron is 50% likely to be in one space and 50% likely to be in another. We also know that sometimes particles will “tunnel”, where they have a small probability of jumping from one location to another in a way that doesn’t make sense in classical “everyday” physics. It’s the equivalent of tossing a baseball into a concrete sheet and it ending up on the other side. This happens all the time in nature, and is why radioactive atoms decay despite the force inside the nucleus being so ridiculously strong. It happens to our DNA, giving us mutations in our genes every day. Everything is made up of these ångström and nanometer-sized particles at a basic fundamental level, so chance affects the universe and subsequently us whether or not there is a god to design the physical laws that create it.

On a slightly more everyday example, the laws of thermodynamics operate in this way too. Due to the quantum mechanics described above, atoms and molecules are always in a state of motion, constantly jiggling around and bumping into each other randomly. Even objects that appear to be sitting still have chemicals vibrating rapidly at the atomic and subatomic levels. The objects where the molecules are jiggling rapidly and at high energy are objects we call hot, and the ones with small vibrations are ones we call cold. The random behavior and subsequent vibrations actually describe a surprisingly large amount of the world we inhabit. It explains why we are able to suck air into our lungs by expanding them, since the random air molecules in the atmosphere will end up pushing each other into empty space by random collisions. It explains chemical reactions, since when molecules collide with high enough speed in random motion they are able to break and change chemical structure. It even explains why hot things heat up cold things, as the random movements of the molecules will cause the high-energy chemicals to transfer energy to low-energy chemicals. To illustrate this idea, imagine a box of atoms (pictured on the left), where all of the particles are on one side of the box. If all of the atoms are moving around at high speed in random directions and colliding into each other, it’s easy to see that they will eventually spread out evenly as shown on the right. This random thermal motion of things bumping into each other has a profound effect on us biologically, chemically, and physically. It would take a graduate-level thermodynamics class to explain this to a lay person, but these processes explain so many phenomena in our life, from the function of cells in our body to the wind outside.

Spreading molecules

[Image: a box of molecules starts with all molecules on one side, where the second box shows that they have spread out]

Random motion and chaos is everywhere as part of the world. Even Biblical literalists will have to accept this fundamental science theory, as so many fields of science rely on it. Creationists, likely unknowingly, rely on the truth of this behavior whenever they invoke the Second Law of Thermodynamics to try and refute evolution or abiogenesis. It’s safe to assume that any knowledgeable Christian would have to accept that this random motion and behavior is there. In this sense, everyone can accept that “mere chance” is an inextricable part of the universe. It creates things that are trivially true: the rain, the sunlight, the distribution of flora across the planet, etc. and it’s not very difficult to describe how it works. In this sense, stating that the atheists’ view of the universe is “just chance” is equivalent to saying that the atheists’ world is “just one where people breathe oxygen” or “just one where people sit on chairs”. It’s obvious and tells us nothing new about the universe, and this aspect of the universe does not differ from the Christian worldview anyway.

There is another way that stating that the universe is “just up to chance” doesn’t really make any sense. As we’ve established, everything is up to chance, but “chance” means a lot of things. It doesn’t just mean that all things are equally likely. There’s a chance that tomorrow I will get struck by lightning and killed. There’s also a chance that that won’t happen. The chance that I won’t is higher than 99.9999% but it is still up to chance. Nothing is guaranteed in the universe, which is another way of saying that absolute certainty is unattainable. I can’t even absolutely guarantee as I type this that I will be sitting here one second from now.

This is not to nitpick at words, since at some point we have a high enough certainty to say we “know” something will happen. It’s to illustrate strongly that not all things “up to chance” are up to the same trivial probability. There are lots of things in nature that govern whether things are more likely or not. The factors that go into these are all the physical laws of the universe and the way the universe is arranged as the matter and energy interacts. For example, we know that electrons are attracted to the positive charge of the atomic nucleus. If an electron flies towards a nucleus, they are more likely to collide than two neutral particles, since the attractive charge causes the two to be attractive to each other. This changes the probability of an event occurring, all due to the presence of a physical law. It wasn’t just chance that caused the two to collide, it was the way the universe works!

When creationists talk about chance, they are likely referring to abiogenesis or evolution (the same thing according to many of them), and both of these are consequences of natural laws shifting the probabilities in our favor. Let’s talk about abiogenesis for a bit. One component of abiogenesis is the formation of the cell wall, which is composed of lipids. Lipids are fatty molecules, where one part of the molecule is attracted to water (hydrophilic) and another part is water-repellant (hydrophobic). In the primordial Earth, when pre-biological chemicals were floating around ancient shorelines, the lipids were likely to be floating around like any other molecule, just as randomly as the atoms in the box from above. However, when two lipids interact, the hydrophobic ends of both of the molecules attract each other, until two lipids stick together. The two lipids will likely attract a third lipid, until they aggregate more and more. This process continues until a bunch of lipids “randomly” interact, but end up forming a wall where the hydrophilic parts interact with the water while the hydrophobic parts are comfortable on the inside. This creates a sort of bubble called a “vesicle”, which becomes the basis for the actual cell. This random process occurred “all by chance”, yet led to a structure guided by physical laws. For more talk on the probability of protein and RNA sequences forming for abiogenesis, I recommend this TalkOrigins page.

vescicle

CC: Wikipedia [Image: a vesicle comprised of lipids, illustrating hydrophilic heads on the outer walls and hydrophobic tails on the inner walls]

Evolution describes how humans got here in a different way. Of course, there are two parts to evolution: random mutation and selection, and we got here after a long, long, long, looooooong string of repetitions of these two parts from an uncountable amount of generations. Each generation led to slight changes in DNA sequences, almost unnoticeable from one organism to the next, and every generation had predators and/or environmental pressures that were more likely to prevent the ones outside of our evolutionary chain from reproducing. If it seems so improbable that so many trials of randomly altering gene sequences would somehow end up to form us naked primates today, that’s because it is. The probability that the actual sequences that would be altered would slowly but surely approximate our own genome, and the environmental pressures (including mass extinction events) were right enough to push the “fit” organisms into our direction is astronomically low. Yet here we are? Why? Because it had to lead somewhere. Assuming there’s at least some life on Earth, evolution will continue to change the organisms over time. Even though the probability of any given genetic sequence in particular is unlikely, the probability of any sequence is inevitable. Just like you have less than a one in a million chance of winning the lottery, eventually some person will win. In the lottery of random mutation and selection, we are currently one of the winners, along with our other species currently alive today. We’re here despite odds astronomically lower than any lottery we will ever set up. If that isn’t inspiring and meaningful, I know very few things that are.

Ultimately, the claim that under the naturalist worldview we are just some cosmic accident is an appeal to emotion, with the goal to make us feel worthless or hopeless despite not actually providing any evidence of a god’s existence. This is a cold, calculated response to an emotional argument, showing that there’s so much to unpack when someone gives the offhanded comment of our existence being merely “just chance”. We are a product of chance, but we’re also a product of the way the universe functions, and we’re a product of a sea of quadrillions of quadrillions of molecules on billions of planets on billions of stars in practically infinite galaxy. We’re here because of how large numbers work, and because of how basic rules about how matter functions shape the way nature behaves. Even from a worldview that only considers natural non-supernatural behaviors, we are chance, but also so much more.

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