Sunday, October 9, 2011

Guest Post: A Rational Response to the Theistic Approach

Following up from the guest post of September 27, another friend, Gale, has provided a very lovely rebuttal explaining why the Cosmological Argument presented by JB has problems.

While JB’s post didn’t mention it directly, he presented a type of argument known as the Cosmological Argument.  While I will respond directly to the arguments he actually made it is useful to know that there are many different flavors and variations of the Cosmological Argument.

The first premise (that whatever has a beginning is caused to exist) does indeed seem highly plausible.  This is because we extrapolate from our experiences with the world around us and make inferences about reality.  This simple extrapolation process (inductive reasoning at work) is highly pragmatic and makes for a valuable tool for understanding reality.  However, by its nature inductive reasoning cannot offer us absolute certainty.  It can merely give us degrees of confidence.  However, when we are considering causality, our record seems sufficient to allow the assumption that there are causes for everything we observe.

There are potential counterexamples to causality, most popularly quantum mechanics (as JB made mention).  Some activity at the level of quantum mechanics seems to offer evidence that may or may not counter our understandings of causality, dependant on factors that are as yet not entirely understood.  For the purposes of this discussion, though, I will accept the premise of causality in the universe, which seems highly likely if not absolutely certain, and certainly pragmatic.

Premise two was that the universe had a beginning. Current cosmology indicates that a beginning is likely, or at least a point in the past beyond which we are unable to extrapolate based on our current understanding of physics.  One of the problems we have here is that we cannot actually “see” beyond a certainly point in the past, and much of what we do “see” is from inference, not observation.  The nature of a “beginning” proposed by the big bang theory stretches our very understanding of what it means to have a beginning, and what that beginning may have been like.  The very notion of a big bang is itself an extrapolation back through time, rewinding the accelerating universe backwards.  At some point, we can’t rewind any further with our current understanding of the laws of physics.

It is believed or proposed that matter, energy, space, and time are interrelated and expressed as characteristics of our universe, with the big bang often described as the origin of space, time, matter, and energy.  All of which invites the question: What existed before the big bang?  But this very question is meaningless, as we cannot measure something as before, when the very time we use to measure such things is a property of the thing which we are trying to examine the before of.  In other words, how do we even talk about time and causality before the universe, when we have no frame of reference to determine the sequence of events?  Time is an essential element of causality, and without time we’re stuck.

Just so you understand, I’m not claiming that there was not time before the universe.  There may be such things as time, space, and matter external to the universe, or there may not be.  There may be additional dimensions, or there may not be.  There may be a limitless cosmos of which our universe is one small part, or we could occupy the only universe that exists.  We can speculate endlessly on the possibilities.  Theoretical physicists do just that, and create new math to describe the possibilities.  The problem is that they have not yet been able to develop experiments that could begin to give us clues about what the reality may actually be like, or which current ideas, if any, are correct.  I hope that they do, but at this point we have to acknowledge that we just don’t know.  The causality we addressed in the first premise can only be applied with certainly within the universe. Beyond the scope of the universe we are speculating, and thus far speculating is all we can do.

JB proposes that we can surmount the obstacle of identifying a beginning by citing the problem of infinite regress.  In short, infinite regress is the statement that a potential infinite is possible, i.e. infinite in one direction (forward), but a true infinite (backward as well as forward) is not possible because we’d have to traverse an infinite to get from the beginning to the present, and we could never traverse an infinite to arrive at the present.  Of course the argument does seem to self contradict in that it assumes the existence of a beginning (even when not expressly stated), when a beginning wouldn’t exist in an actual infinite.  In neither physics nor math is an actual infinite a problem, it only becomes problem when viewed from the intuition of a human mind.  The thing is, our minds are decent (not great, but decent) at intuiting things on our own scale (of space as well as time) because we developed in this middle ground.  We don’t intuitively grasp matters that happen at the very small or very large scales.  Neither do we intuitively grasp matters in the smallest measurements of time, or in the largest measurements of time, let alone in infinite time.  We continually attempt to apply concepts of the finite to the infinite.

JB stated that we cannot count down from infinity, but this again assumes that we can start at a beginning or end, or in other words that a beginning or end is a relevant concept when dealing with an infinite.  It would be better stated that you could start at any number above or below zero and count in either direction for as long as you like (or forever if you prefer).

The example given of the immortal figure recording his history is similarly flawed.  In the example it takes one year to record one day, so the figure can never “catch up” to the present but is always dreadfully behind in recording his history.  When you examine the most recent recording you would have to go back to a day infinitely in the past.  This, of course, assumes that the task was begun at “the beginning”, i.e. the history recording is also a task that has gone on infinitely in the past.  JB concludes that an infinite past is thus impossible, as opposed to the task within the infinite simply being meaningless in the context.  A set of all odd numbers is infinite.  A set of all integers is also infinite.  For any subset of numbers there are twice as many integers as odd numbers, but there are not twice as many integers as odd numbers in totality as both are infinite.  In the history example there is far more time occurring than history being recorded.  In many ways this is just like the numbers example I just referenced.  The difference is that with the numbers we can run in two directions infinitely, which if done with history would be prophesy for the eternities backwards and history in the eternities forward (assuming there was a point in which time lapsing and history recorded crossed).  Since in physics we can run time in either direction and everything works just as well, this doesn’t actually create a problem.  There is no reason why we must assume that the task of recording history has always been taking place, and there is no perceived conflict if there is an actual starting point within the infinite spectrum.  Within the laws of physics and math there could be a potential infinite going forward as well as a potential infinite going back. We only hit walls when we try to start at the end of infinity (in either direction) and move to the present, and that is because we are trying to restrict the infinite with properties of the finite.

I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea that the universe began.  Intuitively it is appealing (even if I understand that my intuition is not useful here).  I’m just not 100% accepting of the idea either.  It hasn’t been demonstrated or proven, logically or physically.  However, I’ll accept the conclusion about the universe beginning in order to proceed with the argument (and because I actually do believe it to be the case, even if I don’t have sufficient reason to conclude that it is).

At this point JB pauses to evaluate his arguments thus far, reminding us that he has not committed any logical fallacies.  I agree, but he spoke prematurely, since his logical fallacies follow this statement, they don’t precede it.

Having concluded (at least tentatively) that the universe had a beginning, and thus a cause, JB seeks to identify likely candidates.  He claims that there is no matter or time preceding the universe (or greater cosmos if there is more), so the ultimate cause must be immaterial and “eternal”.  This is where the first logical fallacy enters in.  After establishing that causality is an essential premise to his argument, and that the universe was caused, he claims to need something that is itself not caused (i.e. “eternal”) to provide us with a solid beginning point.  To make a generalized statement (one upon which the entire argument rests) and then later claim exception to the generalization is the fallacy of special pleading.  If causality must hold, then JB’s “first cause” must also be caused.  JB doesn’t like this as it raises concern about actual infinites, but we cannot have our cake and eat it too.  These problems are not easy, but we cannot shortcut our way through them.

If we are going to resolve infinite regress by claiming that one of the causes does itself not require a cause, why stop at a proposed idea of god?  Why not stop before that at the big bang itself, or back another generation to something else that caused god?  The reason is simple.  The Cosmological Argument in any form is not a reasoned approach to determining the origins or cause of existence, but rather a reasoned construction to reach an already held belief.

Even were special pleading not a problem, the solution offered is still problematic.  I personally hit a wall here.  JB proposes that there are things which exist outside of space, matter and time: abstract objects and minds.  This is given as a bold assertion, without evidence or argument to back it up, aside from relying on their assumed existence in order to draw a theistic conclusion.  I’d like to continue the discussion at this point, but to argue about the nature (or required definitional characteristics) of these immaterial non-evident objects and minds would be meaningless to me since I do not accept their existence.  I mean no offense, but it would seem to me like arguing about the disposition of unicorns or the flight speed of fairies.  It is just too far removed from a common point of agreement to bother trying to continue until we’ve gone back and established a foundation of evidence or reason.  In the mean time I will simply note that the statements made about this eternal immaterial mind (god, that is), seems to be a god by definition only.  In this way I see this as relying on the ontological argument, which is meant to define god into existence, making a premise the conclusion (or begging the question, logical fallacy two).

Perhaps JB does have it right and someday I’ll shake my head in wonder when I see the light, but if he is right it is not because of the arguments presented here, because arguments with serious logically fallacies cannot be used to demonstrate anything.  It doesn’t prove god, nor does it establish any degree of rational confidence in the existence of god.

I understand and respect the desire to provide a rational approach and basis for theology.  Indeed, I would love to be able to rationally demonstrate god’s existence.  It would be an earth shattering revelation to find a rational argument that demonstrates that god exists.  But even if JB’s approach is rational, the conclusion ultimately is not.  An argument that employs fallacies cannot prove anything, or lend weight to the conclusion.
I admire your desire to have these conversations, JB, and since you certainly disagree with much of what I have written here, I look forward to any responses you may wish to offer and the continuation of this dialogue.

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