Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

The atheist’s other crutch: Breaking the laws of physics

In my last post, I addressed a common excuse atheists use to avoid dealing with testimony of God’s interactions with history: misuse of prior probability. Just because a particular event does not have precedent doesn’t mean it can be handwaved; a prior probability that is undefined cannot be treated as a prior probability of zero. Before July 16, 1945, there had never been such thing as a nuclear bomb, but that didn’t stop Trinity from going off.

As an example, I suggested a botched alien landing, evidenced for archeologists in the testimonies of a prehistoric people and a handful of complex mathematical engravings. Now, whether that is sufficient evidence doesn’t matter; the point is that we’d theoretically be willing to evaluate this evidence despite having no prior experience with alien landings and no reasonable way to estimate the prior probability of an alien landing.

However, several commenters responded by arguing that the analogy of an alien landing was improper, that these hypothetical aliens would necessarily be part of nature. An alien landing, while unprecedented, wouldn’t break any of the laws of physics, and so it’s not on the same level with a miracle. Allallt commented as follows:

An alien landing has never ever been confirmed. But if aliens were to land it wouldn’t be a violation of anything we know. Like alien landings, a resurrection has never ever been confirmed. But it does violate what we know about biology.

Now, this is missing the point, really. I wasn’t talking about standards of evidence (e.g., what evidence we would need to show that natural laws were violated); I was showing why you can’t dismiss an event simply because it has no precedent. However, the “breaking the laws of physics” argument is a common one, and so I decided to address it.

The history of the industrial revolution (and, indeed, the history of science preceding it) is rife with claims of perpetual motion. Invariably, none of them have proven successful. But there are a few anomalies, like Johann Bessler’s “Orffyreus Wheel”. In 1717, the 12′ wheel was spun up and left in a sealed room for fifty-three days, after which it was found to still be revolving at the same rate as when it was left. A panel of acclaimed skeptical scientists examined it and found no evidence of fraud.

But I’m not convinced. Nor should anyone be. Perpetual motion of any substantive sort would violate everything we know about machines and energy and thermodynamics; we would indeed need extraordinary evidence to substantiate such a claim. It’s far more likely that Bessler’s demonstrations involved some sort of fraud or deception.

It’s important to specify exactly what it means for such a claim to violate the laws of physics. A purported perpetual motion device constitutes a claim that physical objects can be arranged so as to function in a manner contrary to how they are observed to function. It requires belief that tens of thousands of rigorous experiments have all been fundamentally flawed.

That’s important because a miracle claim is completely different. A miracle claim may involve events which are not physically possible, but that’s the point; the appeal is not to physical causes. A miracle does not require that nature operate in a manner contrary to observations, because nature is not what’s doing the operation. Miracles do not challenge our observations about the world. Physical laws describe what we know about physical reality; by definition, a nonphysical cause cannot break physical laws because it is not described by them.

. . . . . . . .

A few commenters objected to my alien landing analogy because it describes something which could in principle happen without requiring any alterations to our understanding of reality. So here’s another analogy, one which does involve alterations to our understanding of reality but (like a supernatural cause) doesn’t break any physical laws.

Suppose, if you will, that we discover time travel at some point in the next few decades. You get to decide what era of history you will first visit. Where—or, shall we say, when—will you go?

To start with, you don’t want to be caught, so you should go far enough back in time that no one will expect papers or identification. Photography became widespread in the first decade of the twentieth century, so you’ll want to head to a point earlier than that.

However, you don’t want to go too far back in time. Not only will your accent give you away immediately, but you’ll be in deep trouble if any accidents happen. You want enough modern medicine that a stubbed toe won’t result in amputation above the knee. The biggest leaps toward modern medical practices took place during the American Civil War; that’s when doctors began using anesthesia and triage and antiseptics. These practices really got the most momentum after Reconstruction ended in 1877.

So the ideal period for an inaugural time traveling jaunt would be between 1880 and 1900, give or take a few years. And that’s quite interesting. Because, between 1882 and 1895, we find the first novels ever written about time travel:

  • The Fortunate Island (1882) by Charles Heber Clark
  • The Chronic Argonauts (1888) by H. G. Wells
  • Looking Backward (1888) by Edward Bellamy
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) by Mark Twain
  • The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells

It’s all very interesting to think about. But it’s not half as interesting as our next discovery.

In 1898, Morgan Robertson wrote a novella titled Futility, or the Wreck of the Titan. This novella described a massive passenger ocean liner christened Titan. At over 800 feet long, the triple-screw-propelled Titan was one of the largest ships ever built and was considered “practically unsinkable”.

In the novella, the Titan is making a voyage across the Atlantic, trying to break a speed record. It’s traveling at 25 knots when it strikes an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its starboard side on an April night, 400 nautical miles away from Newfoundland. Because it carried less than half the lifeboats necessary (having a passenger and crew capacity of 3000), more than half of its 2500 passengers and crew drown when it sinks.

Fourteen years after Robertson’s book was published, the triple-screw-propelled Titanic, one of the largest ocean liners ever built up to that point at over 800 feet long, is built and deemed “virtually unsinkable”. In its maiden voyage through the North Atlantic on an April night, traveling just over 22 knots, it strikes an iceberg on the starboard side. It is carrying less than half the necessary lifeboats for its capacity of 3000, and more than half of its 2200 passengers and crew drown when it sinks 400 nautical miles from Newfoundland.

It’s a string of coincidences long enough to make most skeptics blush. But that’s all they are: coincidences. Though it certainly makes a fascinating topic of conversation over a few glasses of scotch, it’s not quite enough to evidence anything.

But how many coincidences would be enough?

What if there were four or five or a dozen other books like Futility published by three or four other authors, all of which were written close to the end of the 19th century and closely matched events from the 20th century? Would that be enough to make you start to wonder?

Suppose it was discovered that all of these authors privately and independently wrote about a mysterious stranger with an odd accent and a dry sense of humor who gave them ideas for their novels? What if it was mentioned that this individual first appeared in Great Britain (where H. G. Wells lived) before moving to Massachusetts (the home of Edward Bellamy), then Connecticut (the home of Mark Twain)? What if some of H. G. Wells’s memoirs described a mysterious acquaintance with an odd accent who talked about “quantum mechanisms” and “nucleus bombs” before moving to the United States?

Maybe this would be enough to convince you that time travel actually happened, and maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe you’d need more evidence.

But here’s my point. Whether this evidence would convince you or not, no one is going to refuse to examine the evidence simply because “time travel violates the laws of physics”. Time travel would certainly be outside our realm of experience, but that doesn’t make it impossible. Most importantly, it doesn’t (in principle) contradict any body of observations we’ve made. Time travel could be quite possible and simply outside the realm of our present understanding.

Perpetual motion breaks the laws of physics. Time travel doesn’t, and neither do miracles.


42 responses to “The atheist’s other crutch: Breaking the laws of physics

  1. john zande 2013/05/23 at 11:33

    Seriously, don’t you find making all these excuses tiresome, PeW?

  2. john zande 2013/05/23 at 11:34

    And BTW…. Considering you’ve acknowledged the accuracy of my last post, how do you explain your god-man making a right royal fool of himself by mentioning both Noah and Abraham?

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 11:44

      Those were his beliefs, I’d assume.

      And while it’s possible that neither Noah nor Abraham existed, I doubt very much that no one by that name ever existed.

      • john zande 2013/05/23 at 11:54

        His beliefs!!??? Damn, that’s a huge excuse!! So, let me get this straight…. its ok for you that your god-man didn’t know history…. a history he (as god) performed.

        Damn…. you’ve outdone yourself here, PeW!

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 11:57

        We’ve been over this. Incarnation does not necessitate omniscience.

        Omniscience means you know all propositions; consequently, you cannot learn. Jesus learned. QED.

      • john zande 2013/05/23 at 12:01

        E.X.C.U.S.E 😉

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 12:09

        If you can’t win, always remember to redefine your opponent’s terms so that they end up being contradictory no matter what. If he objects, claim he’s making excuses. Victory by fiat!

      • john zande 2013/05/23 at 12:16

        Ha! Are you seriously trying to say you’re not making excuses?

        Face it, your god-man made clear statements to mythological characters he (as god) supposedly played with and did remarkable things with. You’d imagine he might have wanted to clear things up…

      • john zande 2013/05/23 at 12:19

        To those around him…. ie. the Jews.

        Come on, Jesus wasn’t exactly preaching Judaism, was he… so letting everyone know Moses and Abraham never existed would have been keeping in character.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 12:21

        The Jews were mythological?

        How was he supposed to do that if he didn’t know Moses and Abraham never existed?

        I’d like to see a warrant for your belief that Jesus ought to be expected to have omniscience, please.

      • Allallt 2013/05/23 at 12:07

        I’m writing this out of sync, but I thought God, the LORD, YAHWEH was the author (or divine inspiration) of the Bible, not Jesus. I thought the passages about Abraham and Noah were written before Jesus was born. I certainly have never heard it said that the Bible is a list of things that Jesus believed. Else the whole of Christianity can be dismissed as ‘what some guy believed’.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 12:11

        John was referring to things stated by Jesus in the gospels. I was pointing out that there’s no reason to assume Jesus was somehow omniscient; he almost certainly had some false beliefs. John didn’t know anyone accepted that.

  3. Allallt 2013/05/23 at 12:01

    I’d like to defend myself, because I feel I either failed to express myself in the other thread or I have been misrepresented.
    There is nothing with a high prior probability stopping aliens landing.
    Assuming Jesus did actually die on the cross (as opposed to being one of the few that survived) there is something with a high prior probability that would stop Jesus coming back to life: biology.
    Now, I’m not confident in working out prior probabilities, but biology ALWAYS works a certain way.

    The point was that I was not question begging to have have put the probability of Jesus resurrection at a near-0 level. Some thought went into it.

    As for this post, can you explain what a nonphysical cause it, without question begging on the existence of a God? Maybe I’m just overly tired, but I can’t think what you might mean.

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 12:13

      A nonphysical cause is a cause arising outside of our temporal and physical reality. Something like time travel could arguably be included in this, inasmuch as we have never seen it happen and have no idea how it could happen. Same with miracles. A miracle claim doesn’t say that something impossible happened naturally; it says something impossible happened supernaturally.

      • Allallt 2013/05/23 at 12:21

        Okay, but I take your subset of “nonphysical causes” and I point out that they are unsubstantiated guess work in order for your to shoehorn miracles into the narrative of our history, and you respond with…?

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 12:27

        Sure, nonphysical causes are unsubstantiated. Which is why we need to explore what sort of evidence we would require to substantiate them. What evidence would you accept for a time traveler sometime in the late 19th century?

      • Allallt 2013/05/23 at 12:39

        First, I don’t want to lose track of the conversation I’m trying to have… nonphysical causes are unsubstantiated, but you are calling on them (whatever they are, I’m not going to pretend to know what you mean) to account for miracles. It looks to be like you are asserting a loophole.

        Secondly, to answer your question, I don’t know. I’ve never given any thought to what evidence a time-traveller might leave behind, besides prophetic warnings and accounts.

        But I am very cynical of the idea time-travel has happened (do tenses make sense any more?) because, even if you could turn the time dimension into a degree of freedom (instead of something we are just riding through) I don’t see how you could reappear on Earth. If you reappear in the same space coordinate Earth will have moved around the sun, through the galaxy. I’ll give it a ponder…

        (Also, why does John call you “PeW” when it should be “PaW”?)

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 13:13

        “Nonphysical causes are unsubstantiated, but you are calling on them to account for miracles.”

        No, they’re implicit in the definition of miracles. A miracle is an event that is ascribed to God or some other supernatural force; by definition, then, a miracle arises from a nonphysical cause. This has always been the definition of miracles.

        I’m also quite suspicious of any claims of time travel. But I’d be open to evaluating evidence for it. I wouldn’t claim that it’s physically impossible and thus can be dismissed out of hand.

        Perhaps John thinks PeW is humorous?

      • Allallt 2013/05/23 at 13:22

        Perhaps he does, I don’t get it.
        I have no idea what I think about the possibility of time travel, but on my cursor thoughts, evidence for it would be littering of human bodies in the trajectory of the Earth around the galaxy because someone got the space coordinate wrong (actually, that wouldn’t convince me either…)

        I’ve always had a more vague definition of a miracle. If two boulders collided and the collision showered delicious Skittles for mile around making children everywhere happy, that would be a miracle.

        But, on your definition, miracles are question begging on God, and vice versa. It’s an elegant little bit of circular reasoning.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/23 at 13:48

        There are certainly some serious logistical challenges to successfully executing time travel. I imagine you’d have to define everything within the contra-rotating reference phrase of the Earth-Sun system.

        In any case, the how is not really the most important question. What’s more important is what historical evidence we ought to expect from a time travel event. We don’t need to know exactly how it works if it actually happened.

        What degree of discovered historical anachronism would justify belief in some sort of time travel?

        It’s not question-begging to say that God would be responsible for miracles any more than it is question-begging to say that time travel would be responsible for a time travel event. There’s no circular reasoning here because I’m just framing the argument.

      • Allallt 2013/05/24 at 12:32

        Still haven’t given enough thought to the time travel issue.
        But asserting that miracles have happened, and they depend on a god, and therefore God exists then you are question begging.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/24 at 12:34

        If I assert that miracles have happened without offering evidence, then yes, that would be question-begging. But asserting that God-dependent miracles are the best explanation for a particular body of evidence is not question-begging.

      • Allallt 2013/05/24 at 18:08

        I must have missed the bit where you had a body of evidence.

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/24 at 18:33

        Nah, you didn’t miss anything. The question is about standards of evidence, not specific examples.

      • Allallt 2013/05/24 at 19:05

        You can see how it looks desperate, right? ‘what standard of evidence would you accept for this unconfirmed set of phenomena, from a nonphysical cause–definition and example unavailable–that violates the laws of physics?’
        And, using Noah’s flood as an example, they do violate physics: more water than exists on the planet appeared from nowhere and disappeared to nowhere, without leaving predictable archaeological evidence (or appropriate societal destruction).
        Resurrection violates entropy; once dead a biological system becomes closed, and a closed system cannot become more ordered (healthy and alive).
        Extraordinary claims; extraordinary evidence.

      • Mark Hamilton 2013/05/23 at 12:49

        I’d just like to throw in my two cents. Saying that miracles happen does assume that God exists. If God exists, then miracles are very possible. If God doesn’t exist then miracles are the least probable thing imaginable. Now the question at hand is, does God exist or not? Physics is asking the questions “If God does exist, and he has performed miracles, then what standard of historical evidence would be necessary to support that?” To say that no standard of historical evidence could support the existence of a miracle is to assume that God does not exist. I’m pretty sure that is his main point. He isn’t saying “Miracles happened, so God must be real.” He’s saying “If God is real and miracles have happened, what standard of evidence would be acceptable to believe in their existence?”

        Though it’s not strictly relevant, I do have another thing to say. In your first comment you said “biology ALWAYS works in a certain way.” This is true, but it’s missing the point. Biology teaches us that a dead body, if left alone, will stay dead, just as a moving machine, if left alone, will come to a stop. But Christians don’t claim that Jesus came back from the dead on his own. They claim that God brought him back to life. Even human doctors can bring people back from the dead if they have the right equipment and they get to the body quick enough. God, if he exists, is an agent with much, much more power and knowledge than the greatest surgeon who ever brought back a patient who “died on the table.” So if the resurrection happened, it did not have break the laws of biology any more than a surgeon breaks it by resuscitating a patient.

  4. violetwisp 2013/05/25 at 15:48

    I really enjoyed that post PeW! You make your point really well and it was an entertaining read. For anyone who thinks that belief Christianity is in any way hanging in the balance due only to the possibility of magical tricks occurring, I’m sure it’s really rather compelling. (Although I suspect that’s no-one …) I did a post about supernatural tricks that you’ve not commented on. What an uppity muse!

  5. Allallt 2013/05/27 at 15:53

    I’ve given it some thought, then all of a sudden I had an epiphone so obvious I’m almost embarrassed to admit it took me this long: a time traveller would bring back a working time machine.

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/27 at 16:04

      We’re talking about evaluating an instance of time travel that supposedly happened in the past.

      Unless time travel is not logically possible, there’s no particular reason to assume that the 21st century is the only time a time traveler would want to visit. In fact, our lifetimes are only a very narrow slice of the history of the cosmos. So our question needs to be: what standard of proof would we require to evaluate a claim that time travel happened at some point in history?

  6. Pingback: Letting Go of the Crutch: Probability and physics are on the atheists’ side | Allallt in discussion

  7. taosah 2013/05/30 at 18:07

    I’m not hugely conversant on any of this, but I’ll have a stab at what I think are the flaws in the argument here. Also apologies for how long and rambling a post this will, inevitably, be.

    First of all there seems to be some confusion between probability and plausibility. The question to address is not, what is the probability that x could happen that (as the previous post on Bayesian statistics showed) can’t be answered. However we can construct stories, based on the known evidence, and decide which one or the other is the more plausible to have occurred.

    I’ll focus on the alien thought experiment from before, rather than time-travel (as that’s a really messy area and everyone could be talking in circles until its actually invented). Take this part:

    “Now, it’s entirely possible that all the elements of this discovery are all purely coincidental. Perhaps this branch of the Mayans had more knowledge of advanced mathematics than we had thought, and perhaps the whole “great metal coconut” was a myth that sprang up following a meteor impact that mysteriously left no fragments. Perhaps the depictions of a Dyson sphere are coincidences as well. It’s wildly unlikely, but it’s theoretically possible.”

    Of course its ridiculous to go against the notion that aliens were involved – no other explanation can provide a plausible account that fits the facts. But this falls down, because this is a thought experiment designed to make rejecting the argument ridiculous. There is no comparable event (such as Noah’s Ark) that can be proved or disproved from the Bible on the basis of this probability (nobody has, to my knowledge, discovered a massive ship at any rate).

    There is, however, another argument that operates on the alien mould though; that of the ancient astronauts. Essentially the argument is that structures, like pyramids, occur in different regions in the world, that there are drawings (in Egyptian tombs) that depict the first Pharaohs as being more than human (they have extended craniums and are taller) and that humans in that era could not have had the knowledge necessary to build such structures.

    So the alien story runs that extraterrestrials landed on Earth, taught humans many of their trades and technologies and kick-started civilization and they did this in different regions (hence pyramids appearing in more than one place) and humans built such things as monuments to them.

    However, it has been demonstrated that humans would have had the know-how for that technology. The other story, then, has it that humans built the monuments for their leaders (or I believe in the case of the Pharaohs it was a good way of employing people) and that the depictions of the leaders as being greater than human were just idealized portraits to represent their semi-divine status.

    The question is then, which story is more plausible? That aliens travelled light-years across the galaxy, kick-started civilization and the left? Or that humans managed to do such things on their own and depicted their leaders in idealized ways? Ocam’s razor would suggest going for the second story, as it suitably explains all the facts without having to conjecture that extraterrestrials visited Earth.

    Likewise with time-travel: which is the more plausible story; that anyone would be allowed to time-travel and drop hints to various people and do various things that would put all of causality and history into potential jeopardy? Or that there would be strict rules on what could and could not be done and a strict selecting policy on who could and could not go back in time?

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/05/31 at 16:11

      Hey, taosah, thanks for commenting. And for being a loyal reader of, well, you know what.

      we can construct stories, based on the known evidence, and decide which one or the other is the more plausible to have occurred.

      The question we’re faced with is how we determine plausibility. At some point, there’s probably going to be an element of subjectivity in determining plausibility. That’s unfortunate, but it’s just how it is. Different topic, though, so we won’t go there.

      It’s ridiculous to go against the notion that aliens were involved — no other explanation can provide a plausible account that fits the facts. But this falls down, because this is a thought experiment designed to make rejecting the argument ridiculous.

      Certainly. But I wasn’t trying to say that this is the level of certainty we have about any given event in the Bible. Rather, I was making a point about how we approach things that we don’t have precedent for.

      Even your example of alien structures (Chariots of the Gods stuff) fits. We don’t have to bother with a complicated analysis of the prior probability of extraterrestrial landing; we can evaluate claims of “alien architects” on the merit of plausibility without any need to defer to questions of prior probability or precedent.

      The same is true with the time travel. We would look at the evidence to determine what the most plausible explanation is, not bicker over prior probability and whether time travel is “physically possible”. The best proof that time travel is possible would be evidence of it, after all.

      • taosah 2013/06/02 at 14:20

        Ah, I suspect I may have barked up the wrong tree a little.

        On the question of formulating prior probability for events without precedent, I agree entirely. It makes no sense to try and calculate a value for that, as there is no way of assigning the likelier notion (the probability that there is a God vs there not being). Besides which it only makes sense in a case where it has happened and it is possible that it could happen again (financial crises would seem to be a case in point.)

        I suppose the point I was sort of trying to make with the plausibility argument is that we can’t, relative to historical events, ever really say for certain what happened; it may well be that aliens were involved in the construction of the pyramids. However we don’t need to postulate aliens to explain their construction – so its an unnecessary addition. I suspect that you’d largely agree with this as well.

        We appear to have arrived at the unusual circumstance of discovering we don’t have a disagreement 🙂

      • physicsandwhiskey 2013/06/04 at 11:18

        The appeal to Ockham’s Razor is a tried-and-true one. But I think the razor is double-edged. If it appears that the complexities and divergences of history can be explained more simply in the context of a single divine metanarrative, then arguably it is this metanarrative which would be selected by Ockham.

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