April 27, 2009

A Question of Cosmic Origins

This is part 1 of a 10 part series. The introduction can be found here.

The first topic relates to the great historical question of origins and trades on concepts found in the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

1. Creation

The overwhelming consensus of science is that the entire cosmos (including space and time) came into existence at a finite point in the past. All of our observations, equations, and physical laws testify to a point of origin for this universe.

In light of the troubling evidence for a beginning, and that we may not even be able to find a natural cause in principle, what explanation is given to the questions, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and "Where did it all come from?"

Francois Tremblay proceeds to take issue primarily with the logical composition of my question.

Asking "why is there something rather than nothing" is a fallacious question since "is" implies existence and "nothing" implies non-existence. It's a question that Christians like to ask because it's by definition unanswerable, not because atheists have no ready answer but because the question itself is contradictory.

Roderick T. Long further elaborates the objection.

It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of the whole of existence – whether that whole includes a God or not. Any attempt to explain existence has to appeal either to something in existence or something not in existence. If it appeals to something that’s already in existence (be it God, quarks, or whatever you like), then you’re not explaining all of existence; and if it appeals to something not in existence, then you’ve offered no explanation at all.

My point was not to ask a trick question, but to seek a reaction to the fact that this universe gives evidence of a beginning. When I speak of something and nothing I am speaking from the materialist's perspective. Of course, as a theist, I believe that "something" has always existed; I have a "first cause" or "prime mover."

Long basically understands this, as he continues:

The concept of explanation applies only within the realm of existence; that’s why both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.

This is a good observation, and actually is the kernel of the response I would make to George Self when he asks, "If a xian wants to take the beginnings back to some god that made it all, I would ask, 'but who made god?'" Something has to eternally exist or there would be nothing right now. Something cannot come from nothing. We suggest that this something is God, whose very definition includes the idea of self-existence and eternality. If the atheist will not allow an eternal God to stand as an acceptable first cause, even in theory, then the atheist has no grounds to lean upon an eternal universe (or energy) either.

The problem that I point out with this question is that even if it might be conceptually possible to have an eternal universe (which I could argue against as well), by all indications this one had a beginning. I am not asking for an explanation for the universe, which might lead to the counter-question of why there is a God; I am asking the atheist what he (or she) does with the evidence for an origin to the universe.

Alison Randall takes (in my mind) the sensible position that "nothing does not and has never existed . . . because you can't have anything come into existence from nothing."{1} This serves to underscore the problem of our current observation that all space, time, matter, and energy burst onto the scene at a finite point in history. If it can ever be said to have come from "nothing," or no prior state can be identified, then materialism will have hit a dead end in one of its most important avenues of justification.

Randall then goes on to postulate that "everything always existed . . . as a dense singularity of energy-matter." Here's where we could get into an arcane scientific discussion and I could ask things like, how "infinitely small" (as the singularity is often described) is distinguishable from "nothing," how something natural could exist prior to the space-time continuum in which existence is defined, and why a gravity well isn't happy eternally staying that way.

But I don't need to go here, because there is not even agreement on the idea of the origin of the singularity. For instance, inflationary theory, which is the prevailing big bang model, says that the singularity was generated by something like a "quantum fluctuation." Membrane theory doesn't even have a place for a singularity, and one of its advantages is the very fact that it doesn't have to wrestle with the difficulties associated with one. As this physics article explains about one of the big bang models that require a singularity,

The problem with the Big Crunch/Big Bang model is that the mathematical laws of classical general relativity do not work at a singularity. And if scientists cannot mathematically understand the singularity, they cannot, in theory, fully understand the geometry of spacetime, either before the Big Crunch or after the Big Bang.

Randall continues her response:

I don't pretend to know a lot about it, but [the Singularity/Big Bang model] seems to be one of the best explanations we have right now, along with other ideas . . . like string theory, multiverses, and such.

Umm, which theory was it that is the "best explanation?" She lists these other things because there is NOT an explanation right now, only theories, else we wouldn't have other contenders vying for dominance. I think Randall knows this, but she adds this parting shot to show where her preferences lie:

The theories that are made from observable evidence are a lot more juicy and intriguing than ancient mythologies.

Unfortunately, the only observations and evidences we have say nothing more than that there was a beginning to this universe. There are not so much theories made from observable evidence as there are only theories seeking evidences as to how that happened by "natural" means. This is exactly why there is so much excitement over things like the Large Hadron Collider and Planck satellite, which are hoped to offer supporting evidence for one or another idea (though how we can prove the nature and events of something "outside" this universe using observations born of the laws contained within it I do not know).{2}

The bottom line is that there's really not an explanation for the origin of the universe, and naturalistic explanations are simply occasions to engage in sci-fi narratives. As Leon Lederman (Nobel Prize winner in physics) says in his book, The God Particle:

A story logically begins at the beginning. But this story is about the universe and unfortunately there are no data for the very beginning. None, zero! We don't know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second — that is, some very short time after the creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. We are in the realm of philosophy.

This is where the discussion must ultimately end. As George Self concludes, "I'm quite comfortable saying, 'I don't know, and neither does anyone else.'" And one blog commenter summed up the responses by saying, "I don't know, but science is looking into it."

Fine. That is an honest and somewhat acceptable answer. Every worldview must be permitted some mysteries. But if this is a satisfactory response for all the intractable problems of materialism, then atheists shall forever be free to think themselves rational, since science will always be "looking into it." However, I doubt they would be so kind as to allow us to reply to their tough questions with, "I don't know, but our theologians are looking into it."

Without overstating my case, it seems reasonable to say that evidence for a beginning to this universe is at least problematic for materialistic atheism. And even while atheists can avoid a proof for God by eternally leaving the question open to scientific investigation, we should be able to say that a cosmic origin is at least consistent with theism, particularly classical Christian theism.{3}

After offering his shrug to the problem of cosmic origins, Self adds this addendum:

Even if I wanted to assume that time had a beginning at some point in the distant past that still does not prove that the xian "god" created that point. Perhaps the cosmos was started by a unicorn or a magic genie.

Unfortunately, this does not at all avoid the problem for the atheist. A magic genie or unicorn with the power and knowledge to create our universe would still be a god, for all practical purposes. What Self does do is touch on the fact that the Cosmological Argument is limited in the work that it can accomplish. Even if the atheist were to concede the need of a creator, it is another thing to demonstrate the nature of that creator. For this reason, the Cosmological Argument can never be more than an argument for theism in general{4}, and must work in conjunction with other arguments to arrive at the God of Christian theism.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Notes:

  1. There are some who disagree with Alison and are bold enough to accept the premise that there once indeed was nothing. Dr. Peter W. Atkins (himself an atheist) holds that the "nothing" managed to split itself into the positively and negatively charged universe that we enjoy today. Tada! The Force stays in balance, since "nothing" has yielded a universe with a net charge of nothing, and may return to such in the future. It's all virtual nothingness with no gross explanation required. It all sounds rather artful as a high level theory, but explaining exactly how "nothing" managed to send itself on an extended holiday is where it begins to unravel.
  2. I might conversely say to Randall, "Theories with a long philosophical pedigree are a lot more juicy and intriguing than ideas from sci-fi movies."
  3. You can expect this to emerge as a recurring theme in each of my questions.
  4. In fact, cosmological arguments have been in play since long before Christianity was founded.
Part 2 can be found here.

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39 Comments:

At 4/28/2009 2:59 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

I am following with great attention your series of answers here. I must note with great disappointment that you've turned an a priori interesting question into the "god of the gaps"/presuppositionalist syndrome that many of your other questions suffer from.

The trouble with questions that veer into a "god of the gaps"/presup argument is that there is not much to say in answer except "your failure (or our failure) to understand does not entail a philosophical problem on our part." Ignorance of some fact is not a philosophical problem for materialism. The fact that we don't know "every single detail" about the origins of matter as we know it does not create a problem on our part, although you seem to believe it does, for some reason. it is not clear from your entry what that reason is exactly. You just claim that it is. To me, that basic flaw will reflect badly on all your answers of the presup variety.

Another point I'd like your position on:

"If the atheist will not allow an eternal God to stand as an acceptable first cause, even in theory, then the atheist has no grounds to lean upon an eternal universe (or energy) either."

Can you justify this statement?

 
At 4/28/2009 6:05 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Francois, most versions of the cosmological argument I've seen rely on what we do know rather than what we don't know in order to conclude that some kind of god exists. It isn't simply that we don't know where the universe came from, so God must've done it. It's that we do know (or at least we have good reason to believe) that the universe had a beginning, and we do know that things don't just happen without a cause. It follows inescapably that something existed independently of the universe and brought the universe into existence. And we can infer some of the properties of this entity. It's necessary for the entity to have the ability to bring about the effect, so we can infer that the entity has some kind of extraordinary power. It's also necessary that the entity is immaterial since it brought everything material into existence. And, a good argument can be made that the entity is sentient. If the entity is not sentient, then it requires a prior cause to get it to bring the universe about, and you would get into an infinite regress of causes. But since time came into existence with the beginning of the universe, whatever brought the universe into existence could not have had an infinite regress of causes. The only way to have an action that is not determined by antecedent causes is if the action is initiated by a personal agent. A personal agent can initiate a cause simply by having a pre-existing desire or motive to initiate the action. Since the beginning of the universe is the beginning of time, then whatever brought the universe into existence must have been timeless without the universe. If we have an enormously powerful, timeless, immaterial person who chose to bring the universe into existence, what else is that but some kind of god? This isn't a god of the gaps theory. It's not an arbitrary explanation for the unknown. It's arrived at deductively from things we do know.

The common objection that since require a cause of the universe, we also ought to require a cause for God doesn't work because, as I've said, there can be no chain of causes in a state of timelessness.

But it fails for another reason, too, which the argument from contingency brings out. If there were ever a situation where nothing at all existed, then nothing would exist now because if nothing existed, then there wouldn't even be the potential for anything to come into existence. Potentiality or probability depend on initial conditions, which entails there being properties. But there really were nothing, then no properties could be instantiated, and there could be no set of initial conditions that would create any sort of probability that anything would come into existence. The fact that some things do exist shows that something must've always existed. And whatever that something is, everything else that exists must have its origin in that something since it could not have had its origin from absolute nothingness. If it turns out that the whole universe is contingent or it hasn't always existed, then it depends on something else for its existence. And even if we supposed that there could've been a long change of prior causes leading up to the beginning of the universe, we would eventually have to root the existence of all things, whether before or after the universe, in a necessary being.

If both of these arguments are sound, it follows that there is a first cause, the first cause is a necessary, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal being who chose to bring everything else into existence.

If it turns out that the universe had a beginning, and an atheist doesn't think anything exists outside the universe, then the atheist ought to, at the very least, give us some reason to think such a thing is even possible. But it would follow deductively that the universe came into existence uncaused out of nothing, which doesn't even seem metaphysically possible.

Of course atheists who are not materialists don't have that problem. They could say some sort of spirit brought the universe into existence. But then the rest of us would be scratching our heads wondering why they call themselves atheists.

 
At 4/28/2009 6:15 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

Thank you for your answer.

Also, could you answer my other question (the one at the end of my first comment)?

 
At 4/28/2009 10:14 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Sam. Nice to have a thoughtful and friendly voice in here (not that Franc is being neither, but you know what I mean). I had already compiled much of what I wanted to say and was just getting ready to review it when I noticed your comment. I'll go ahead and post mine in full, even though there is some overlap with your response.

You are pressing the argument further than I was originally intending, but I think it is justified to go into reasons why it is philosophically problematic to have an eternal, mindless, "natural" world alone.

 
At 4/28/2009 10:16 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Hello and welcome, Franc. A lot to respond to in that short comment, so I'll just jump in.

Regarding the god-of-the-gaps charge, I understand the concern, as I hear it in every debate with Christians. Even while I think it is a valid concern that justifies soft methodological naturalism, I think it is a much over-played card. The problem for the theist is that every single evidence offered can always, in theory, be the target of god-of-the-gaps thinking, no matter how compelling it might be.

Pretend for a moment that there was a God who had created the universe. Is it not reasonable to say that one piece of evidence for this would be that we had detected an origin event for the universe? Wouldn't it still be possible for scientists to busily work on theories about what natural thing might have been prior to the universe and the cause of its existence? Couldn't we find naturalistic scientists charging theists with god-of-the-gaps thinking, even though God really did create the universe? If the theists wanted to appeal to God as the direct cause for lightning they might be guilty of this, but their appeal to God for the creation of the universe in which lightning existed would be justified. And if we could never even postulate a creator God, then we should never know that one existed.

The god-of-the-gaps charge is not a logical defeater for the arguments I make, nor is it subjectively compelling to us. It is somewhat like the theist claiming that the atheist just doesn't believe because the devil is blinding him or he likes sin over truth. While this may or may not be true, it is meaningless (even agitating) to the atheist, and it is beside the point of the topic at hand.

Each argument must stand on its own merit. Is the cosmological issue like lightning, where there is precedence of finding analogous natural (or at least secondary) causes? Or is it something of a different order where the problem is intractable or a cause is unprovable in principle? My contention is that the cosmological argument, and many of the other issues I raise, is of a categorically different nature than merely pressing science one little step farther. Some of these problems are not a matter of simply bridging another ravine, but of connecting two planets.

You say: your failure (or our failure) to understand does not entail a philosophical problem on our part.First, I will assure you that I have some appreciation for the science related to this. I am no PhD. in physics, but astronomy is one of my first loves. It's not what we don't know that makes this argument compelling; it is what we do know. In fact, the cosmological argument has seen something of a renaissance in modern times for this very reason.

You said: Ignorance of some fact is not a philosophical problem for materialism. The fact that we don't know "every single detail" about the origins of matter as we know it does not create a problem on our part, although you seem to believe it does, for some reason.Again, I wouldn't say this is a matter of getting the details ironed out. There is a theoretical lacuna here (I've always liked that word :). They are still working out the theory upon which they might hope to hang the details.

I said originally: If the atheist will not allow an eternal God to stand as an acceptable first cause, even in theory, then the atheist has no grounds to lean upon an eternal universe (or energy) either.You asked: Can you justify this statement?Let me repeat Long's statement:
The concept of explanation applies only within the realm of existence; that’s why both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.I am sympathetic with the atheist who wants to hold the position that the metaverse is eternal (though I have grounds to argue against that on a philosophic basis). Something had to always exist or else there would be nothing now. If the atheist is willing to accept that the universe/metaverse was eternal, and indeed must be eternal (that it "just is"), then it seems that the atheist should be willing to accept our assertion that God is eternal. If the theist must answer where God came from, then the atheist must also give an answer. Conversely, if the atheist is immune from justification, then so is the theist. The problem is that the universe looks like the kind of thing that had a beginning, and so we cannot appeal to eternality until such time as we have some indication that the creation was just a localized event.

I should point out that my case for God does not hinge upon a single argument. I agree with philosopher Terry L. Miethe, who was asked (in my presence) the question, "Which is your favorite argument for the existence of God?" He responded that he does not depend upon proofs, but prefers to make the case that the Christian worldview is the best fit for the kind of world we find ourselves to inhabit, and he challenges all comers to prove themselves competitive in the marketplace of ideas.

Sam has pressed the argument further, as it rightly can be, but I'm offering a rather modest argument with this and many of the other questions, which builds to a sort of climax by the last question. If I can get the atheist to concede that theism is at least a rational contender, then I will consider this time well spent.

 
At 4/28/2009 10:23 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

Sorry, I must have confused the two of you. At first I thought Sam was the writer of this blog. Please ignore my previous comment. I will properly answer Paul in my next comment.

 
At 4/28/2009 10:48 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

Just to be clear, your response is, simply expressed, that the level of ignorance involved is (qualitatively) greater than I assume, therefore the issue is problematic for the materialist (a source of epistemic pessimism?)? Is that the essence of your response?

Is it also your argument that "God as first cause" (Christian view) and "proto-universe as first cause" (materialist view) are positions which cannot be distinguished in any remarkable way?

Please note that it is not my intention to argue with you on comments, not because I am being nice or conciliating, but because I have made it a personal policy of never arguing on comments. I do intend to write one or many entries on your responses later on. This is why I am giving you my reactions and asking for more details.
(if you'd rather I not do this, then tell me and I will refrain in the future)


"Sam has pressed the argument further, as it rightly can be, but I'm offering a rather modest argument with this and many of the other questions, which builds to a sort of climax by the last question. If I can get the atheist to concede that theism is at least a rational contender, then I will consider this time well spent."

Yes, I've realized that was the point of your step-by-step approach. You're using a cumulative case rather than an attempt to formulate syllogisms that come to some definite logical end (which why Sam's response, whom I thought was you, confused me: he just plain used the standard cosmological argument, a ham-fisted manuever which didn't seem concordant with your approach).

This is why I answered the way I did in my answer to your final question: by giving my strongest case for the immorality of Christianity as a whole instead of delving into specific arguments or points. Although I suppose that, given your quote, perhaps a more appropriate ending would have been to compare my worldview to the Christian worldview. I'll have to keep that in mind for the aforementioned future entry.

Just for my reference: on what basis would you declare one worldview or the other a "best fit" "for the kind of world we find ourselves to inhabit"? Is this a purely epistemic standard, or do you include moral considerations, political considerations, and so on?

 
At 4/29/2009 4:02 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Hi Paul

Wow! You've emerged from blog-silence with gusto!

Some brief points:

- Belief in God as Creator is not necessarily inconsistent with the existence of an eternal universe (or universes). The question at the heart of the matter is whether there is an Origin to the material universe that is beyond time and space. If there is such a God, outside time and space, He can in principle be eternally creating. Being outside time, He is both Alpha and Omega to us, the beginning and the end (purpose) of our existence.

- So far as I can make out the "atheist" position its essential feature seems to be that the wonders of the universe, including human intelligence, have emerged by a mechanical process of blind chance with no intelligence behind it. Believers in God see that the features of an ordered universe that gives rise to intelligent life -- point to an Origin that is the Fountainhead of intelligence itself.

- Belief in God is really incomplete without belief in Divine Revelation -- the Word of God conveyed to humanity by His Messengers. An intelligent/personal God can be expected to speak to His creatures.

I hope this is some kind of useful contribution.

Best wishes!

 
At 4/29/2009 12:32 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Sorry. I was just trying to demonstrate by example that "God" is not an arbitrary explanation for what we don't know, but is deduced from what we do know.

But Paul made me think of something. It seems like whenever we propose some entity to explain some observation, we could be accused of an "entity of the gaps." Take the electron for example. Nobody has ever seen one. We just suppose their existence because it does a good job of explaining what we DO see. Why not accuse scientists of an "electron of the gaps" argument? The same thing is true of black holes.

 
At 4/29/2009 7:00 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

I normally stay away. But if you don’t mind, Paul, I will give you my take on this particular question, leaving it to the lurkers to make their own choices….

Remember College entrance tests? Or standardized placement tests we took in school? The multiple choices with the little ovals, the No. 2 Pencil, and a timed moderator? What happened if time became short, but the number of questions became long? Invariably, the hurried student would start to fill in one answer---“C” “C” “C”—realizing by virtue of sheer guesswork, some hapless “C” would be the right answer.

We knew better to put something than leave it blank. A Blank would always be marked wrong.

Unfortunately, human life is much like those tests. We only have a few short years, perhaps a century at best, in order to find answers. And, invariably, we realize we won’t make it in time. We won’t know the answers by the end of the test.

The cosmological argument has the same nuance. (yep—this is a long way to call it “god-of-the-gaps.”) We don’t know, so the theist fills in the same answer, “C” or “God”—because the feeling is some answer is better than no answer. The argument appears to be, “Well, at least I put SOMETHING; so it has to be better than ‘We don’t know.’”

Not if it is wrong answer.

See, I look back on other humans, who equally were running out of time. Who equally filled in the blank with “God,” in order to have an answer. And upon learning new information, the answer turns out to be wrong. We couldn’t understand how the sun moved about the earth—so God did it. Then we discovered how, and the “God” answer receded back to naturalism. Couldn’t understand how earthquakes occurred—so God did it. Then we discovered plate tectonics, and the “God” answer receded back to naturalism. Couldn’t figure out why the planets orbited in a flat plane—so God did it. Then we discovered why and the “God” answer receded back.

Over and over (you know the historic problems with this as well as I) in the past when science encountered “We don’t know,” the theist inserted, “God.” Then science said, “Wait—we discovered why” and the theist looked for another “Don’t know” to insert God.

I take from this three things. (Some you may not agree.)

1. We don’t know everything. We know more than we did yesterday; less than we will tomorrow. But we will never know everything.

2. In the past, theists have used the method of inserting “God” where we don’t know. That certain events required supernatural intervention. This method has turned out to be wrong on numerous, repeated occasions when “tomorrow’s knowledge” comes.

3. No situation has ever been proven to have been caused by a God; at best it is possibly caused by a God, or we don’t know yet. (This is the one I suspect you would disagree. Obviously, if I thought an event was proven more likely than not to be caused by a God, then I would be a theist! If you view this from the light of an atheist, though, you would understand why this is something I hold as true.)

So…the cosmological argument asks me to use a method (insert “God” where we don’t know) that I see has been proven inaccurate repeatedly in the past, and has never been proven accurate once. I question the reasonableness of using such a poor method.

I think the method is too error-prone to be useful.

Secondly, I think the results cause more difficulties for the God-believer than for the materialist.

You are right to say the origin of our known universe is a problem for the atheist. It is a problem for the agnostic, deist, theist, pagan, pantheist and every in-between. Why? Because we don’t know how it happened! It is silly to say it is not a problem—otherwise we wouldn’t be looking for a solution. The question of whether the earth is flat or round is NOT a problem—no one is looking for a solution to that particular quandary.

But by proposing an entity unlike anything we have any remote concept of, ability to verify, or even consistent ability to make determinations about, only ADDS to the problem—it does not subtract or diminish it.

We, the atheist are left with the problem of how our universe came into being. You, the theists are left with problem of how a God brought the universe into being. We both have the same problem—you have the additional problem of explaining the “God” part.

We both are stuck using the universe as our laboratory. As the tools and means to make conclusions. The problem with creating a non-natural entity—a “supernatural”—is that you must still use the same natural world we have. You have the additional problem of developing a method as to how we make determinations of what is “supernatural” using only “natural.” Is it similar? The same? Completely dissimilar? Sam pointed out a few items commonly utilized in the cosmological argument.

Since our world is bound by time—the supernatural is timeless. O.K.—the method is what is in our world is dissimilar to what is in the supernatural world. Our world is also bound by energy/matter. Is the supernatural? To stay consistent, are we going to say there is no energy, just like there is no time? Or is there boundless energy? What is boundless time? We have a sense of justice—does the supernatural have the same, different or completely different?

Where does the theist pick-and-choose what things are in the natural world that MUST be reflective in the supernatural world? Must NOT be reflective? The same? Different? What method does the theist propose using? How can we possibly verify in a world we cannot see, whether the method is accurate or not?

The problem with the Cosmological Argument is greater for the theist, in my opinion. It uses a method that has proven extremely inaccurate in the past, and never satisfactorily accurate. It introduces an element we have less ability to verify or develop a method of determination than even what the materialist proposes. It doesn’t answer any more questions and presents further questions.

 
At 4/29/2009 7:20 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Hi Dagoods

You raise some good questions. Some comments in response:

It seems there's a contradiction between the first half of your argument and the second.

First you set out to show that everything eventually becomes explainable through science. But then the admission appears that the origin of the universe is in principle unexplainable by science. So there is after all a "gap" in the end that is always a mystery. Theists call this gap, God, indicating an awesome mystery. Atheists call this gap not-God, indicating a trivial mystery.

I'm on the side of the awesome mystery.

 
At 4/29/2009 7:35 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

John Bryden,

I apologize if I gave the impression everything eventually becomes explainable by science. To clarify, first of all, something things will never be explained by science. Why a person prefers dogs to cats, for example. Science may categorize, create statistics and even make predictions in this regard, but I don’t know if it will ever explain it.

Even things within the scientific realm may never become explainable. In 10,000 years, we may never obtain the means to see “beyond” the Big Bang. The universe is so vast, we will always have “we don’t know.”

You are more than welcome to hold to awesome mystery. I was really addressing this more from a materialistic standpoint. Why an atheistic materialist does not find this to be the “issue” a theist thinks we should.

 
At 4/29/2009 7:40 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Dagoods, I have read your wortwhile comment and hope to reply -- but it will have to be later as I am currently in the middle of a working day so had better not become further involved right now. Best wishes.

 
At 4/29/2009 10:57 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Dagoods, you write as if the fact that some conclusion raises additional questions is a good reason to doubt the conclusion. Since the conclusion "God did it" raises questions about God, you seem to think this diminishes the viability of the God conclusion. Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding you.

But if I'm understanding you correctly, this seems obviously mistaken. If we reasoned this way, science would be impossible. We could never arrive at any conclusion simply because each conclusion raises new questions. We couldn't know the universe is expanding since that raises additional questions such as "Why is it expanding?" We couldn't know that protons have positive charges since we couldn't explain how they have positive charges. Almost anything you can think of that we've learned raises additional questions.

It seems to me that we can rightly discover that something is true without knowing how or why it is true. In fact, it's because we know that certain things are true that raises the question of how or why to begin with. It would make no sense to ask how or why God created the universe unless we had reason to believe he did. So obviously, we must discover that God created the universe before we could begin asking questions about how or why.

If you just mean to say that since theists have this additional answer that atheists don't have that theists therefore have more questions than atheists do, that's fine. But questions are not a problem for a worldview unless there is some difficulty in answering those questions in a way that is consistent with ones worldview. "How did God create the universe?" is not a problem for the Christian worldview unless there is some reason to think he couldn't have. Likewise, "How did the universe come into being?" is not a problem for the atheist worldview unless there is some reason to think it couldn't have without the agency of a god. I see no reason to think an all-powerful being couldn't have brought the universe into being, but I see an obvious reason why a universe couldn't have spontaneously come into being uncaused out of nothing. So it seems to me that atheists really do have a problem.

Do you see that there's a difference between a question and a problem? Theists have questions, but atheists have problems.

 
At 4/30/2009 10:15 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam,

The idea, in science, is to propose new theories. The new theory may supplement, or even supplant a previous theory. The key being the new theory must not only answer all the questions the previous theory did, but provide answers to questions the previous theory did not.

We have the Big Bang theory. But with our current knowledge, we cannot ascertain what happened between t=0 and the first Planck time. Our understanding of our laws of nature completely break down during this period. Including relativity, quantum physics and the philosopher’s claim of “law of causality.” To talk of what happened “before” t=0 is meaningless; there was no “before” t=0. (To claim a God caused something necessarily includes an element of time. Therefore, saying “God caused the Big Bang” is actually a non-sensical statement, as “causing” requires time, which did not exist!)

We are left with speculative theories.

Now the theist proposes a “new” theory—“God did it.” The problem is that this doesn’t answer anything more than any other speculative theory! No more questions are answered; yet new questions are introduced.

That is why I find the God hypothesis lacking. (I understand the theist may find utilizing their previously-held belief in this entity as “answering a question”—but the essay is directed at materialists and their worldview. Without a prior belief in God, the proposed solution of “God” is seen as no answer at all. It is similar to that cartoon, where the professor has mapped out a huge proof, and a colleague points out, “You may have a problem at step two” that states, “A miracle happens.” All the theist can offer is the same thing. The same limitations as to what physically happened, and the theist can merely state, “God made a miracle happen.” This does not advance our knowledge any and…as previously pointed out…has been demonstrated as a poor method in the past.)

 
At 4/30/2009 5:46 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Dagoods

Its refreshing to come across a thinker such as yourself who applies such persistence in sticking to the issues, coupled with courtesy.

You wrote:

"Even things within the scientific realm may never become explainable. In 10,000 years, we may never obtain the means to see 'beyond' the Big Bang. The universe is so vast, we will always have 'we don’t know.'"

My point is that all things within the natural world are in principle explainable in scientific terms, even if it takes 10,000 years, as you say. It may be possible indeed to say what happened before the Big Bang. There is speculation amongst physicists concerning multiple universes, universes collapsing and then expanding out again infinitely, etc. These questions might be able to be determined by mathematical and scientific investigations.

But there always remains a question that in principle can never be answered, because we are inside the system and can't see it from an outside vantage point. It is at this point where the atheist is inclined so say it is "nonsensical" to even ask the question. And indeed the religious person similarly says that God is a "mystery". The atheist and the religious person are on common ground so far as agreeing that the ultimate origin of things is incomprehensible to the human mind.

The religious person uses the word God to refer to the Ultimate Mystery Behind All Things. And this word God causes bafflement to a sector of western intellectuals, presumably because of cultural and religious baggage attached to the word. But recognition by the skeptic that God is not an answer (scientifically) but a word for that which never ever can be answered, might be the beginning of "getting" what religious people mean by the word.

It seems to me that theists and atheists are agreed that ultimate reality is incomprehensible. But there is a difference in orientation. The theist feels that whatever is out there is the source and guarantor of meaning, goodness and intelligence. The quintessence of all things at their highest and best. But ultimate reality for the atheist is, in the words of Richard Dawkins, a "blind watchmaker".

I personally find belief in God provides a much more positive outlook on life. It is also at the heart of the whole history of thought in the Middle East and the West from at least the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. There are correlates in Indian religion and Chinese religion, and even in the traditional beliefs of the peoples of the Pacific. So atheism is not the default position. It challenges established wisdom.

Skepticism is healthy and necessary in the process of discovering truth, and I think you are courageous in not taking things at face value. (By the way I have perused your blog.) I find your insights well worth considering.

 
At 4/30/2009 9:24 PM, Blogger Sam said...

Paul, I'm sorry I keep deleting my posts. Every time I post, something goes wrong. Hopefully this time things will go my way.

Dagoods,

Our understanding of our laws of nature completely break down during this period. Including relativity, quantum physics and the philosopher’s claim of “law of causality.”

The law of causality is a philosophical claim, as you say. It's a metaphysical claim--a sort of necessary truth. It isn't merely a property of matter that could have been otherwise. So, no, I don't think the law of causality breaks down at any point.

Even David Hume, in his book, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, argued that causality is not something that can be demonstrated. It is just like the uniformity of nature, which he also addressed in the same book. Neither can be proved. Hume called them habits of the mind. So they are not natural laws discovered by science. Rather, they are the philosophical presuppositions that science rests on. The law of causality is not a law in the same sense that the law of gravitation is.

Quentin Smith advanced a similar argument in Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. He argued that at the singularity, all things are possible, so it could not have been caused. The reason I never found that argument persuasive is because, ultimately, he was arguing that the universe came into being spontaneously, uncaused, out of nothing. I don't think that's even possible.

To claim a God caused something necessarily includes an element of time.

I agree. It seems to follow that time began with God's act of creating the universe. It was simultaneous. The simultaneity of cause and effect seems to be consistent with the equation, F=ma, where F is force, m is mass, and a is acceleration. As soon as you apply a force to a mass, it instantly begins to accelerate. There is no delay. But that doesn't require a prior time. One can start the clock simultaneously with the beginning of the cause.

Some of these issues are like Xeno's paradox to me. Parmenides attempted to prove that the external world doesn't exist by appealing to Xeno's paradoxes. Since Xeno's paradoxes prove that motion is impossible, and since it seems that the external world is nothing but motion, it follows that the external world cannot be real. But in spite of how difficult it may be to find the flaw in Xeno's paradoxes, I nevertheless have no doubt that motion is possible. Even if the external world is an illusion, our thoughts are obviously in motion. Xeno's paradox seems that it would apply to both the appearance of motion and to motion itself. In fact, you could also apply it to time to "prove" that time doesn't exist, but I have no doubt that it does.

In the same way, I don't think it's possible for something to come from nothing without a cause. And since the universe came into being, it follows necessarily that the universe had a cause. However difficult that may be to conceptualize, it seems to be unmistakably true.

Sometimes people ask me how sure I am that Christianity is true. I always tell them that I'm more sure of some things than others. The numbers change between the telling because it's kind of a subjective thing putting a number on it, but I might say I'm about 89% sure Jesus rose from the dead, but I'm only about 60% sure that the Bible is the infallible word of God, or something like that. Well, the existence of God is something I'm about 99% sure of. And the only thing that keeps me from being 100% sure is just the mere possibility that I've made a mistake somewhere in my thinking or there's something I haven't thought of.

 
At 4/30/2009 9:39 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

No problem (I deleted them), and sorry to leave you to take heat. I'll get caught up eventually.

I think your connections are valid and not "ham fisted," only succinct. Even so, a ham fist can succeed in flattening an opponent :) I like to summarize the problem of the eternal, non-personal cause by asking if it is possible to count backward from negative infinity.

Models for subatomic particles, like quarks and photons, sound almost like ad-hoc, convoluted, nonsense that no one would ever believe if they didn't explain natural observations (and remember, the Ptolemaic model explained a lot, but it was incorrect). Even where we "observe" certain particles it is not with our eyes; it is by instruments that map the effects to a visible form. It's funny to me why impersonal entities are infinitely preferred, since we know that mind is a conceptual entity, and we even have indication that mind may supersede matter in the way quantum particles can be affected by the observer.

 
At 4/30/2009 9:40 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Franc,

I like your style of seeking clarity before engaging the debate. I'll be happy to offer further thoughts and allow you to respond elsewhere at your leisure. Perhaps this will even allow me to move on faster. Usually I have time each day either to write a little or to respond to a question or two, but not both.

Just to be clear, your response is, simply expressed, that the level of ignorance involved is (qualitatively) greater than I assume, therefore the issue is problematic for the materialist (a source of epistemic pessimism?)? Is that the essence of your response?I don't think I could say "qualitatively greater," since "greater" implies quantity, not quality. I might be tempted to agree with the characterization of "qualitatively different." Let me try an analogy.

Science and technology had nicely progressed through various simple to sophisticated machines and modes of transportation up to the automobile. Next on the agenda was the airplane. While there were some (I presume) who thought it couldn't be done, it was unwarranted skepticism given the natural progression of tools and knowledge in which this breakthrough could be achieved. Even space flight was a conceivable objective. But faster-than-light travel is a whole different thing. It's not just a matter of going faster than before; it's a matter of overcoming the limitations of physics.

Interesting theories may be proposed for things like faster-than-light and time travel, but if they only live on paper or require, say, the energy of 1000 suns, then they will forever remain in the realm of sci-fi even if they are true. Trying to prove what is "before" the universe or "outside" the universe seems even more problematic to me, even while we might justify the need for something to be.

Is it also your argument that "God as first cause" (Christian view) and "proto-universe as first cause" (materialist view) are positions which cannot be distinguished in any remarkable way?I might be tempted to say yes if I were to disregard observations about the effect itself. You see, I might wonder what had stacked wood up against my fence one morning. Perhaps it was the strong winds from the night before, or perhaps it was my neighbor seeking to help me out. I would probably have to inspect the wood itself to tell the difference. If it were just limbs randomly heaped up against the fence, then I'd opt for nature, but if it were neatly stacked cords of firewood, then my neighbor gets my vote. I'm not seeking to make a complete case for God from the fact of a cosmic origin alone. I'd want to buttress with other things, starting with the design argument.

Just for my reference: on what basis would you declare one worldview or the other a "best fit" "for the kind of world we find ourselves to inhabit"? Is this a purely epistemic standard, or do you include moral considerations, political considerations, and so on?I would not confine it to one area, and I would not bother to descent into presumptive discussions of how this or that Christian precept is superior to some other secular idea. I prefer comparing things, like which view even gives us the best justification for assuming that our minds are equipped to perceive and apprehend truth, or that there is such a thing as truth, or that truth matters at all, or that morality is more than glorified preference, or that we have a moral obligation to be concerned with political or any other kind of considerations.

Every belief you have and assertion you make rests upon various presuppositions. The best worldview grants the best grounding and justification for those presuppositions. If your strategy is to demonstrate the moral superiority of atheism without first being able to ground morality as a tangible, fixed rod against which to measure the warp of Christianity, then I shall eat your lunch :)

 
At 4/30/2009 9:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

Glad to have you in the discussion. It's good to have some variety on this topic from another brand of theist. I think your comments speak to the nature of our apparent theistic intuitions.

 
At 4/30/2009 9:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag,

Please don't feel it necessary to apologize every time you comment here. It sounds like either condescension or genuflection. Neither is worthy of a fine old adversary like you.

I'm attempting to get caught up here. I'll try to jump into your comments tomorrow.

 
At 5/01/2009 2:17 AM, Blogger Francois Tremblay said...

Thank you for the answers, I have no further questions on this entry. Please don't let us slow you down in posting your next response.

 
At 5/01/2009 8:51 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

This will be my last responses to this entry. I am copying Francois Tremblay in avoiding debate (in this set of comments) as well as avoiding delay for the next in this 10-part series.

John Bryden,

You (inadvertently) touched on my great predicament in god-belief debate. The question I continually wrestle with is whether the good in god-belief (and there is some) outweighs the bad in god-belief (and there is some.) I see far too much what I consider unhealthy, unwarranted and untrue in god-belief to justify any good it provides. Although that is far too simplistic of a generalization and this is not the place to fully flesh out the valid points made for each contention.

I can fully appreciate how others view God-belief providing a more positive outlook on life. I wish God-believers could appreciate how we view non-god-belief as being a more positive outlook on life.

 
At 5/01/2009 8:51 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam,

I agree with the idea “law of causality” is not the same thing as a law of nature—it still puzzles me how one can “start” a clock if there is no time to go from an “unstarted clock” to a “started clock.” “Time” is a measurement of change. Without time—there can be no change.

If you don’t mind, I will try this from a slightly different tact, to clarify my point.

I like reason, and using reasonable intuition based upon observations. I think this has presented pragmatically beneficial results in the past, and anticipate it will in the future. However, there is a downside to reasonable intuition—it is influenced by our limited knowledge, culture, ability to observe, own bias and general humanity.

Think back a few thousand years. Standing on the earth, we observe the sun at dawn in the east sky. At 9 a.m. it is not in the same position, but farther away from the Earth’s horizon. At 10 a.m, even farther and so on until late in the evening, it is so far from the eastern Earth horizon, it disappears on the western horizon.

Day after day, we observe the sun move across the sky. Reasonable intuition and inference would say (based on the best knowledge we have) the sun is moving and we are standing still. This is even apparently confirmed by virtue of, at night, we have another astronomical object—the moon—that similarly moves across the sky. And stars that appear to move across the sky.

As it turns out, of course, we were wrong about the sun, based upon our reason, but correct as to the moon. And a bit of a punt with the stars, as they are moving independently of both us and the sun.

We saw that fire gave off light. And we could see fires from a long distance. Reasonably, it would seem the sun was making light. And seeing the moon—it, too, was making light. Here, we were correct about the sun, but wrong about the moon.

At the time of Christ, “light” was considered a “thing”—something that existed. Since “dark” was the opposite of “light,” it too was considered a “thing.” Not the absence of light, as we understand it, but rather something else entirely. This seemed reasonable.

In short, as great as reason is, and perceiving what is “reasonable”—at times this has produced incorrect results. On a personal note, at one time what seemed so reasonable…so obvious…so intimately CORRECT…I later discovered was quite incorrect. I have had to learn to take even what seems reasonable with a grain of salt.

So how do I get around this? I have no intention of becoming a mystic, I can assure you! The best way I could find is to focus on methodology. To come up with a system of determination and sticking with it—even when part of my gut says, “That doesn’t seem right.” Because I don’t want to think with my guts.

The cosmological argument is a great debating tool. It is concise. Obvious. Intuitively reasonable. Obviously things that begin to exist have a cause. Clearly our observable universe began to exist. How could anyone not see the reasonable intuitive nature of this cogent argument?

Worse, I have not found a clever argument in response that is quite as condensed and pithy. By the time we have spent arguing out all the problems, the audience is bored, we seem to be rationalizing, and the theist has prevailed.

Where I struggle with the cosmological argument is in the methodology. HOW do make the leap of determining supernatural characteristics from solely natural material? This is where I abandon reasonable intuition in search of a consistent method:

What method do we use to derive determinations about an unverifiable supernatural plane, using solely the natural world? How can we determine whether it is similar, alike or completely dissimilar?

And every single time I ask for a method, the theist leaps past the question and starts giving examples of determination, without providing a method first. Over my dealing with theists, I have heard [and please, dear lurker, Sam is NOT saying all these things! Do NOT attribute these to Sam or any other theist who has commented.]:

A. Natural world has time so the supernatural world does not.
B. Natural world has time so the supernatural world is timeless.
C. Natural world has time so the God is out of time.
D. Natural world has time so God is eternal.
E. Natural world has material, so the supernatural world is immaterial.
F. Natural world has “mind” so the supernatural world has “mind.”
G. In the natural world, choices require personality, so God has personality.
H. Humans have morals so God has morals.
I. But humans can commit immoral acts so God cannot commit immoral acts.
J. Because humans have love—God has love. But not like ours.
K. Because humans have justice—God has justice. But not like ours.
L. Because humans have mercy—God has mercy. But not like ours.
M. Humans have souls; God does not.
N. Humans are bound by logic; God must be as well.
O. Since God is not bound by anything, he is not bound by such human frailties as logic.
Q. What we think is moral, God thinks is moral. Unless God doesn’t.
R. Natural world has entropy; supernatural must not.
S. Natural world has joy; so does supernatural.
T. Natural world has sorrow; not the supernatural.

Need I go on? Simply put, the theist, by the complete lack of ability to verify can say, with a straight face:

1. “Because we have ______, so does the supernatural.”
2. “Because we have ______, the supernatural does not”

And ANYTHING can go in either or both those blanks, and we have no means of determining whether it is true!

The cosmological argument does the same thing—makes declarations about supernatural using natural determinations in the hopes its audience will presume they are the same. Sure, we see that things beginning to exist have a cause. Everything we know has a cause—since the only thing we know is the universe we observe! So initially, the proponent of the argument wants us to presume the supernatural reflects the natural—i.e. that things “beginning to exist” require a cause on both planes. But then the proponent switches to a “thing” that exists without a beginning—a god. Now, all of a sudden, we are to presume that things on the supernatural plane are different than things on the natural plane. We have “beginnings” so the supernatural plane does not.

This is a (subtle and clever) switch in methodology without justification. Rather than use the “top-down” idea of obtaining a conclusion about God (and what God is/is not/might be), I would rather we first use a “bottom-up” method of determining a consistent methodology of how we use what is on the natural plane to make determinations of what is on the supernatural plane. A place of non-verifiable existence.

I bring all this up, Sam, NOT to convince you, or to debate you. I bring it up in the hopes you can understand why we atheists are not convinced by the cosmological argument. In the hopes you can say, “Well, atheists—your counter-argument does not convince me. But I can see why the cosmological argument is not persuasive to you.”

I can see why the cosmological argument is persuasive to some; can you understand why it is not persuasive to others?

 
At 5/01/2009 8:52 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Paul,

The equilibrium of internet ethics is still very much in flux. The rules of polite society in face-to-face interactions modify slowly and are generally firmly established. Here, we at a bizarre world where people take offense, anonymous posters say things they would never say to you in person, and we constantly talk about how inappropriate a blog or post or comment or remark or article or statement is. What is “acceptable” at one forum is considered reprehensible at another blog.

To wend my way through this with as little difficulty as possible in blogdom, I try to respect the blogger’s preference. If a blogger wants to post daily devotionals, I have no business plowing in with comments about how prayer doesn’t work, or a mis-translation of a Bible verse. None.

[Curiously, this has raised the ethical dilemma of what to do with Pastor’s blogs? I have read a few humorous interactions where Pastors invite skeptics to provide comments and then immediately regret it when we do!]

Obviously, it is not always easy to tell what a blogger desires. Do they want confrontation? Do they want believer-support? I try to take the clues provided as best as (humanly) possible and respond in like manner. You once said to me: “I've spent the last 6 years seeking out and dialoging with skeptics; it's certainly not something I've avoided. However, in all that time I've discovered the truth in the words of Jesus that it is only those who have "ears to hear" who will be compelled by anything that I have to say (whenever I manage to say anything truthful). No matter how flawed or eccentric someone's beliefs are, if they are not of a certain disposition, then the best I can do is make them refine their arguments (or avoid them) and realize that Christianity is not just a refuge for mindless and bigoted "fundamentalists." For this reason, I have settled in to the alternate mode of posting my thoughts (blogging) for those who might find them interesting, and trying to confine my dialog to those whom I think might give it a hearing.

“As you might imagine, based on my knowledge of your past history and your present position, I have no delusions that I will be changing your mind in any substantial way. And the reasons for my own worldview are at least as broad and rooted as are your own. Consequently, that leaves the question of what we will be accomplishing here. Are you proselytizing me or simply entertaining yourself by matching wits with the silly Christian? Perhaps you are merely proselytizing my readers. Perhaps you are so concerned for "truth" that you believe that it must be defended at the expense of your valuable time. Very noble. If only there were a God to be impressed :-)

Since then, if you will look back, I have confined myself to ONLY responding when you refer directly to skeptics or atheists, as to what we think or do. (With one exception, as I thought you might be interested in a better argument on abortion.) I have tried to do less debate and more responding to give the atheist’s point of view.

The reason I apologize, is that I am attempting to stay within the framework of what you desire in a blog. I recognize I will most likely fail (knowing me *grin*), and make such a statement so at least you are aware of my intention to do the moral thing. Whatever that may be in our internet world…

I take refuge in common courtesy to avoid offense.

 
At 5/01/2009 4:15 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

In view of the need to move on that Franc and Dagoods have rightly noted, I'll confine myself to a few points made as briefly as possible. These are not "answers" to debating points but suggestions on areas of study where illumination may be discovered. The following points are necessarily enigmatic. With reference to Dagoods' recent comments:

* On the question as to whether belief does more good or harm, an historical / evolutionary approach to the study of religion is required.

* As to untangling the positive and negative statements that are made about God, "Negative Theology" is helpful. See Wikipedia article of this title, especially the section on Judaism. Moses Maimonides was a superb exponent of this subject.

* As to the discussion on developments in thought that render older ideas "wrong", an understanding of the relativity of truth is called for. I don't mean the extreme relativism of postmodernist persuasion. Because of human limitations, whatever we know at any given moment is provisional and subject to further refinement. We do not so much move from "wrong" ideas to "correct" ideas, as from limited conceptions to those which describe reality more adequately and comprehensively.

* For an understanding of the significance of the idea of God in the Abrahamic religions, I recommend "Jewish Philosophy: An Historical Introduction", by Norbert M. Samuelson, London 2003. Also, "The Theological Origins of Modernity", by Michael Allen Gillespie, Chicago 2008.

 
At 5/01/2009 4:26 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Addendum: the books I mentioned reveal not only the significance of God in religion and how beliefs about God have evolved up to the present day. They also show the interactions between religion and philosophy and the central role that theology has played in creating the whole western world-view.

 
At 5/01/2009 10:04 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Unfortunately, I have to take a sabbatical from the excitement here. I have to run out of town for a while to visit a sister who is very sick and to see 2 new grand nephews. Afterward, I intend to make a comment or two on some things raised here, and then move on to the next "question." I hope the new visitors following these posts will not be too disappointed at the leisurely pace that I often take by choice and necessity.

 
At 5/04/2009 4:20 PM, Blogger Sam said...

it still puzzles me how one can “start” a clock if there is no time to go from an “unstarted clock” to a “started clock.”

Are you saying you have a difficulty imagining that time could have a beginning at all just because you'd have to first have time before you could have a change from "no time" to "time"?

I have to admit that sometimes it is hard for me to imagine time having a beginning. But it's equally hard for me to imagine time not having a beginning. It's got to be one or the other, though. Since there seems to be a correlation between physical motion and time, I buy into the whole idea that space and time are part of the same thing, and that a beginning of the physical universe would entail a beginning of time. But I don't think it's impossible that there was time before the beginning of the universe in which God or other spiritual creatures acted. I don't think it's possible that time could be beginningless, though.

I like reason, and using reasonable intuition based upon observations.

We are likely using "intuition" in different ways. When I use the word "intuition," at least in a philosophical context, I'm talking about information we have that is not based on observation.

I think this has presented pragmatically beneficial results in the past, and anticipate it will in the future.

This assumption that the future will resemble the past is, as I said before, something that cannot be demonstrated. No observation could lead you to this assumption. The information is just sort of built into our minds. Hume called this a habit of the mind. I call it an intuition.

However, there is a downside to reasonable intuition—it is influenced by our limited knowledge, culture, ability to observe, own bias and general humanity.

If you just mean to say it's possible we could be wrong, I agree with you as far as the uniformity of nature is concerned. But there are other intuitions I don't think it's possible for me to be wrong about. I don't think it's possible for me to be wrong about the fact that I'm perceiving what I take to be an external world, that 2+2=4 and that when two straight lines intersect, opposite angles are equal.

Reasonable intuition and inference would say (based on the best knowledge we have) the sun is moving and we are standing still.

Why do you refer to this as an "intuition"? This just seems like an inference based on observation.

Since “dark” was the opposite of “light,” it too was considered a “thing.”

But "dark" is a "thing"! :-) j/k

I have had to learn to take even what seems reasonable with a grain of salt.

Then why do you seem so sure when you argue with theists? It sounds almost like you're arguing for universal skepticism and that you can't be sure of much of anything. Why not take the reasonablness of atheism with a grain of salt?

The best way I could find is to focus on methodology.

I think I'm going to make a blog post on methodism and particularism. I'd like to get your thoughts on that.

Where I struggle with the cosmological argument is in the methodology. HOW do make the leap of determining supernatural characteristics from solely natural material? This is where I abandon reasonable intuition in search of a consistent method:

What method do we use to derive determinations about an unverifiable supernatural plane, using solely the natural world? How can we determine whether it is similar, alike or completely dissimilar?


I think I understand where you're coming from now. You're wondering if there's some method to determine how alike/unalike the natural and supernatural are. On the one hand, we say the natural and supernatural are alike in the fact that the causal principle applies to both. But then we say they are unalike in that one is extended in space and the other isn't. And since we say they are alike in same ways and unalike in other ways, these determinations seem arbitrary to you since we have no clear method by which to make these determinations. Is that it in a nutshell?

Everything we know has a cause—since the only thing we know is the universe we observe!

Now see, I don't think that's how we know that everything has a cause. I don't think we infer that from observation at all. The causal principle is just like our knowledge of the uniformity of nature. It's something we assume prior to observation and that we apply to what we observe. As David Hume said, nobody ever observes causation; we only observe contiguity in space and time and assume causation.

If causation is something we discover about the universe by observing it, I could understand why somebody might doubt it. Everything we learn about the universe by observing it is necessarily probablistic and contingent. It's probablistic because it's based on experience and extrapolation. It's contingent because it merely describes the universe, which is contingent. That means things could've been otherwise. Another universe may have yielded a different set of laws, including the law of causation. And why think this law of causation has anything to do with anything outside the universe?

But then the proponent switches to a “thing” that exists without a beginning—a god. Now, all of a sudden, we are to presume that things on the supernatural plane are different than things on the natural plane. We have “beginnings” so the supernatural plane does not.

This distinction is easy to make. We know that something must exist without a beginning or otherwise nothing would exist at all. But we have good reason to believe the universe had a beginning. It follows that something other than the universe has existed without a beginning.

I bring it up in the hopes you can understand why we atheists are not convinced by the cosmological argument.

It might be easier for me if you would deal with the specific premises in the argument or the specific inferences. Do you doubt that the universe had a beginning? Why? Do you doubt that anything that begins to exist has a cause to its existence? Why? Do you doubt that it follows from those two premises that the universe has a cause to its existence? If so, what's the fallacy?

I can only guess, based on what you said, that you doubt the causal principle. Or, at least, you doubt that the causal principle is universally applicable--that there are no exceptions to it. You doubt that it's a necessary truth. And you seem to doubt that it is known by intuition in the sense that I defined "intuition" above. Am I guessing correctly?

I can see why the cosmological argument is persuasive to some; can you understand why it is not persuasive to others?

I think I can. There was a time when I didn't understand why the pythagorean theorem had to be true or that the interior angles of any triangle necessarily added up to 180 degrees. I didn't "see" it. I just memorized the rules, applied them, and discovered that they worked. I suppose the same thing could be true with this law of causation. Some people just don't "see" it. That's why they think our knowledge of causation is something we learn through observation. Anything we learn from observation could be wrong.

For me, causation is like the pythagorean theorem. I got out a piece of paper one time, drew a bunch of triangles, and proved to myself that not only did the pythagorean theorem happen to be true, but it is necessarily true. When you learn something by observation, you can only increase probability by increasing observation. If I knew the pythagorean theorem because it always worked in solving problems in the past, I would have to keep solving more and more different problems in order to get closer and closer to certainty. I could never reach certainty unless I observed every possible triangle and verified it. But now that I see the pythagorean theorem is a necessary truth, I have 100% certainty that is not based on observation. I know that even with triangles I have not observed, the pythagorean theorem will apply to those as well. It's the same thing with the law of causation. I don't think it's even possible for something to begin without a cause. This seems just as clear to me as anything else I know by intuition. But I can understand how it might escape people, or how they might not "see" it.

It seems like I wrote a blog on this subject at some point, but I can't find it. I'll post a link sometime if I can find it.

I think the major difference between us is in our epistemology and our presuppositions. Maybe if I could win you over to my epistemology, I could convert you to theism. :-)

By the way, y'all, I've noticed that if you try to italicize somebody else's quote and then respond to it, it'll put their quote and your response in the same paragraph, even though you double spaced. You can fix that by putting [br][br], only use < and > instead of [ and ].

 
At 5/04/2009 4:39 PM, Blogger Sam said...

It seems like I wrote a blog on this subject at some point, but I can't find it. I'll post a link sometime if I can find it.

I found it! The reason I couldn't find it before is because it's a video blog, so none of the word searches were working.

 
At 5/05/2009 11:11 AM, Blogger DagoodS said...

Sam,

As our host has been delayed due to unfortunate circumstances anyway, and I enjoy discussing with you, I will violate my self-imposed restriction and respond to your comment. Hopefully with any clarification you desire.

First—yes you have my question correct regarding methodology in deriving concepts about what a spiritual plane is like from using solely natural plane material. Thanks.

Secondly—I do try to take the reasonableness of atheism with a grain of salt, understanding my own prejudices preclude me from doing so. It is why I prefer methodologies—so when I veer from them, I can hopefully shed light on where such biases are found. I ask myself, “why?” I am veering from my own method.

In the recent issue of Skeptic, there was an article regarding how people think about scientific claims. One brief mention was on a study how people who were against a certain religion could pick out the unfounded claims in a paragraph, whereas those who were neutral or biases toward the religion could not. How non-smokers were more likely to believe claims linking smoking to cancer than smokers were, in reading the same material.

Simply put—we all have biases tending to favor certain claims, and scrutinize others more closely. We tend to favor things we already believe; I am sure I fall prey to such human characteristics.

I prefer atheism because I see it as presenting fewer questions. As soon as a God is introduced in the picture, my mind starts to question the why, when, where, what and how of this thing called “God” and how we can ever derive a reasonable methodology regarding its existence and characteristics, when verification of “God” is removed. I see the errors of “God” in the past. Plus, the thing doesn’t really help us on our way, because “God” is so malleable. Like the cartoon where the scientist has a complicated proof on the chalkboard and the words “A miracle occurs” in the middle. Another scientist says, “I think we need a bit more clarity at Step Two.”

“God” is exactly like that. Whenever any difficulty or issue comes it, due to its lack of verification and clarification, it can easily be inserted into the proof. It can do anything, solve anything, be anything.

This makes me a bit dogmatic discussing theism. *grin*

Finally, as to the cosmological argument. Let me lay it out, in response to the colloquial:

P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist
C: The universe has a cause.

Starting with P1: “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.” Again, on first blush this seems pretty reasonable. Regardless of whether causation is derived from observing the universe, or is assumed a priori--it is a workable hypothesis pragmatically proven over again.

BUT, I know where this is heading—we are talking about the Big Bang. A unique situation where the parameters of my universe are not in place. No law of gravity. No law of thermodynamics. No theory of relativity. No atomic theory. No speed of light. And of course—no time.

When looking at the phrase “Whatever begins to exist…” we are referring to a change happening over time! At 12:01:00 the “thing” did not exist, and at 12:01:01 the “thing” does. It has a “beginning” within this one second.

The Cosmological Argument is subtly deceptive, because in the first premise, it is utilizing the concept of time to argue for something when there was no time! Yes, I remember (after you pointed it out a few weeks back) Dr. Craig refers to this time problem, but there are issues with that, particularly the conflation between relational time and the concept of infinity.

I can (sorta) get a handle on time having a beginning; the idea of infinite time is equally hard to grasp. (And to get an idea as to why “God” seems to add problems, you indicated you had a hard time imagining time having a beginning; yet it was equally hard to imagine time not having a beginning. Curiously, if a theist introduces a supernatural plane without time, then they are left with BOTH problems—on in our world and one in the supernatural world! This is why “God” seems to create more problems than solutions. To me.)

What I can’t get a grasp on is how we went from no time to time having a beginning. How can that clock move from 12:00:00 to 12:00:01 if there is no time to let the hands move forward? And I should note, this is a problem for both naturalist and supernaturalist alike. Simply saying, “A Miracle Occurs” doesn’t present any new information.

That is such a big “How” and such a problematic puzzle, to merely brush it over with “Whatever begins to exist…” almost appears to not grasp the complexity of the problem! Not that I am saying you or Dr. Craig is doing so…I am just not comfortable with making it all seem so easy.

The second part of P1 is “…has a cause.” Using the great philosopher Sam’s perspective on “cause:” *wink*

Now see, I don't think that's how we know that everything has a cause. I don't think we infer that from observation at all. The causal principle is just like our knowledge of the uniformity of nature. It's something we assume prior to observation and that we apply to what we observe. As David Hume said, nobody ever observes causation; we only observe contiguity in space and time and assume causation.

Look at the tools we are using to make the assumption of causation—“time” and “space.” Things that did not exist at the moment the theist is telling me something “caused” the Big Bang! The only reason we assume causation prior to observation, is based upon observation in the past. Otherwise, why this complicated run-around of a cosmological argument? Why not simply say, “We assume a God…therefore one exists?” Because it is not nearly as rhetorically effective.

Sam, withOUT using space or time, how can one demonstrate “cause”? Because that is the situation at the Big Bang.

Now looking at P2: “The universe began to exist.”

I would agree, but think the language should be tightened up a bit for clarity sake. “Our observable universe began to exist.” This does not mean all things that ever existed began to exist—we simply don’t know! We cannot observe past the 1 Planck second to even get to the Big Bang, let alone know what exists “before” (horrible choice of words—please excuse the human language limitation) the Big Bang.

The theory of multiverse would claim there were other things in existence, other than our universe. (I have the same problems with mutliverse as I do with the God hypothesis.) I find P2 to be slightly disingenuous and overreaching to give the impression the only thing ever in existence is our universe (albeit, to us it is) when in actually the only thing we know in existence is what we observe, and there is a possibility of other things existing.

Since I find both premises to be in error, both in statement and method, it is little surprise I find the conclusion to be in error.

In conclusion, a personal note.

I once had a relative-in-law emphatically tell me what the law was on a particular subject. It happened in be in an area of law I practiced quite a bit. Thinking they would be interested in the truth, I informed them what the law actually was.

Hardy Har Har. This person berated me up one side and down the other as to how SHE knew the law and SHE was very knowledgeable and SHE didn’t need some young pup telling HER what the law was and who did I think I was?

Now…I wanted to say, “Gee…I’m the guy who went to law school for three years to study the subject, passed the bar, entered the practice and have appeared in court 100’s of times on this area. Both as Plaintiff’s counsel and Defendant’s counsel. I have sat as a Case evaluator on this subject, and can site you the Michigan law, the Michigan court rules, the case law. I can even tell you how and when the law has changed over the past 10 years in this area. I can tell you the arguments for the law, against the law, and how judges in different jurisdictions will rule on the law.”

But I didn’t. I exerted discretion and kept my mouth shut. (On the few occasions we have met since, she makes it a point to tell me what the Law is on some subject or another.)

I wonder about these people who tell lawyers how wrong they are about what the law is. What is it they think we do for a living?

Why is it cosmologists are not persuaded by the cosmological argument? If this was such a slam dunk, you would think the idea of a naturalist cosmologist would be a rare anomaly. Why is it the only people using the cosmological argument are Christian apologists talking to Christian audiences?

Yes, I am sure there is some Christian cosmologist out there—the fact you have to search for that one tree through the forest proves the point.

To me, this is like the woman telling the lawyer what the law is. And the lawyer politely disregarding her. The person with a PhD in Philosophy and PhD in theology is telling cosmologists how they are doing it wrong.

I question the strength of such an argument.

 
At 5/07/2009 12:41 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag,

Without revisiting the conditions that elicited my comment to you, I'll just take at face value your desire to be polite and thank you.

Let my just get back to your original comment and address something that wasn't touched on by Sam or John. I understand that you're looking to move on from this topic, but you've raised an objection worth some attention.

You made a very good case for what I'll call, for lack of a better name, the science-of-the-gaps defense. Since this seems to be at the heart of the response to the cosmological argument (from many responders I've seen), I'd like to offer some thoughts before I move on to "question" two.

Let me first attempt to summarize the argument:

1) Ignorance of the cause of natural phenomena in the past has often been credited to God.
2) Science has a history of finding the actual causes of such phenomena.
3) No phenomenon has ever been proved to be caused by God.
4) Therefore we should assume that all phenomena have scientific explanations.

There were fewer Christians pressing the Goddunnit theory than we are commonly led to believe. In fact, most of the scientists making the discoveries were themselves Christians who believed that God was the author of order and law that would result in things like secondary causes.

One reason why science will never find "proof" for God as the cause of any effect is because this argument is used in a circular fashion. Any natural explanation will be preferred over a miraculous one, so anything that would be a candidate for the divine or supernatural is shrugged off or put in the queue for future scientific explanation. For example, just last week a friend told me a story about the time he was diagnosed with Leukemia. Before his chemotherapy was to begin a group of church elders came and gathered around his bed to lay hands on him in prayer. Remarkably, before treatment, his condition cleared up. Science-of-the-gaps thinking will not allow this to be a candidate for divine intervention. It will forever be left to the natural mysteries of mistaken diagnosis, false test results, or disbelief that this story is real.

Before we get too cocky about science it should be understood that it hasn't really explained anything; it just identifies patterns of behavior. (Don't buy it? Try to explain gravity, not just describe its effects.) Even the breakthroughs of science do not ultimately refute a God who may be the ultimate cause behind every regular behavior that we take to be a product of "law."

Explanatory advances in science are seldom in areas that relate to "proofs" for God. Whether or not the earth is round or tectonic forces underlay earth tremors says very little about the existence of God. This is why evolutionary theory has Dawkins feeling "intellectually fulfilled" as an atheist, but not electrostatic or tectonic theory. Evolution is one of the few things that actually seem to be relevant. Of course you know I could argue against that theory on scientific grounds, and often have (I should return to that series I started).

And finally, explaining the behaviors of those things within nature are mundane accomplishments by comparison to an explanation for the origin of nature. Let me close with a little parable that might serve to capture the points that we are each trying to make.

Long, long ago in a land far, far away there were two friends named Matt and Theo. One day while hiking through the forest they happened upon a clearing. In that clearing, to their utter amazement, was a shiny red machine, which we moderns would know as a corvette.

Upon inspection Theo's reaction was to appeal to some sort of magic to explain the
machine. Matt, however, held out for a further look and managed to find and work the door handle. Viola! It had seats in there! It must be a carriage of some sort. Matt then proceeded to discover the key and started it up. He discovered the pedals, the steering wheel, the gearshift: soon he could drive it!

Matt's confidence grew even while Theo invoked sorcery to explain each feature and effect. Matt even found the hood and began to unravel something of the workings of the engine. Theo was mystified and skeptical at every turn that a mechanical explanation could be found. Matt spent the next week reverse-engineering the car. He was quite pleased with himself and equally annoyed with Theo.

By this time Theo's skepticism had lost all credibility — so much so that Matt failed to see the gravity of his final concern. Asked Theo, "By what natural means did such a finely crafted machine arrive here? Surely there must be some creator, beyond the simple means of this world, that brought it here." But Matt dismissively offered all kinds of explanations, from popping out of nothing, to growing from a heretofore unknown seed, to the forces of nature randomly forming it. In Theo's mind some of the explanations seemed no less objectionable than the sorcery that Matt was hoping to avoid.

In the end, Matt was completely unconcerned with the question. He had been so successful in explaining the magical workings of the corvette that his faith was strong that he should never have to appeal to sorcery or fairies. Surely there is some natural explanation out there, even if he never finds it. On the other hand, Theo is humbled by all the wondrous knowledge and possibilities opened up by Matt's investigation, but he can't help thinking that there's actually something to his last question.

 
At 5/07/2009 5:07 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul

In the interests of not delaying your next instalment, I'll resist the temptation to comment substantively, and content myself with complimenting you on your latest comment.
Lucid and makes many good points.
Cheers
John

 
At 5/08/2009 2:35 PM, Blogger DagoodS said...

FYI, I wrote a blog entry regarding the parable only. Completely off-topic from this discussion, but I figured it would be impolite to not tell you.

 
At 5/08/2009 8:06 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Dag,

It seems that you missed my lead-in to this parable. As I said, this is "a little parable that might serve to capture the points that we are each trying to make." I am trying to be sympathetic to your view on this. Theo is representative of your characterization of how we Christians are supposed to have treated science all these centuries. My earlier comments spoke to that issue, but I thought that even on your own terms you might see that poor, naïve Theo might have stumbled upon a fairly obvious point: explaining the workings of the car says nothing about its origin. It is similar to a response I might make to a parable that Antony Flew made about the garden in the jungle. Even though there was no gardener ("Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from ... no gardener at all?") the garden was still left unexplained.

As far as Matt abandoning his methodology, this is where the parable became awkward for me, since naturalistic explanations were a bit hard to concoct (as per my point). Even so, Matt's answers were not so "superstitious" in reality. In fact, they have some analogs to materialistic explanations given for the appearance of the cosmos and the first lifeform as well.

 
At 5/08/2009 10:48 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul & Dagoods

One point of the parable is of course that one can become so obsessed with immediate particulars that the fundamentals of a situation elude consideration. This is a not uncommon failing of people's attempts at problem-solving, summed up in the phrase, "can't see the wood for the trees". And it points up the ability of a "simpleton" sometimes to see to the heart of a matter that experts failed to notice.

A similar parable (with a darker edge), might relate the story of a herd of cattle. They enjoy the pleasant fields where they live out their existence. They become familiar with the habits of the farm workers who come to rotate them to a new field when the present field has been grazed to its limit. They notice that the fields are treated with fertilizer from time to time so that the grass will grow better for them. Conversing among themselves, they develop a rudimentary science explaining the patterns of activity around them that sustain their comfort. In time, it seems indeed to them that they are entitled to the ministrations of the farm workers. But they neglect to consider the owner of the farm, whom they have never seen, and what the owner's purpose might be in making the all the arrangements that so nicely suit them. Until the day a cattle truck arrives to take them to the meat works ....

 
At 5/09/2009 10:20 AM, Blogger Paul said...

A commenter on DagoodS blog offered something worth considering:

It seems to me that the essence of belief in "God" is an inability or unwillingness to confess "I don't know" when it comes to the question of why/how life as we know it came to be.

But regardless, 'I don't know' is the ultimate wall one runs into with the "first cause" argument. You simply cannot use the same method of logic that leads to the conclusion of "intelligent design" beyond the so-called intelligent designer... you still only shift the "I don't know" factor.


So, if it's "I don't know" in both cases, then the willingness to confess it is not the defining factor. I would say instead that it is the inability or unwillingness to allow for a personal cause to ever be on the table, no matter how many "I don't knows" its presence would play to.

Even if we had materialist answers all the way back, there would still be an "I don't know" point in the equation, since something like how an infinite regress of causes could "begin" or why an eternal quantum vacuum existed would only be unquestionable brute givens. For this reason, the materialist cannot begrudge any "I don't knows" that are inherent in the theistic model, just as they cannot begrudge a self-existent first cause that is just a brute given. At least theism resolves the final cause up front. Atheists have only a big bang to stare at and wonder where their final cause lay.

As far as "I don't knows" regarding the personal cause, if we were left with only the Cosmological Argument as indicator of its existence and nature, then we would certainly not have much to add to the conversation. However, we believe that "it" has spoken and revealed something further in that regard.

 
At 5/11/2009 2:46 AM, Blogger faithlessgod said...

I have not read the comments but my reply to Pruett's response to atheist answers to question 1 is here

 
At 9/23/2009 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You fellows argue and spew the same thing over and over, what a fruitless exercise. Looks like you would run down sooner or later.

 

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