Essay donated by Alen Rogers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Thomas Paine, "The Rights of Man," General Books.
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Thomas Paine, "The Age of Reason," Book Jungle.
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Initial posting: 2009-SEP-30
Latest update: 2009-SEP-30
Author: Alan Rogers BSc, CEng, MBCS