Category Archives: God

Bruce Charlton’s case that atheism is incoherent

In a recent blog post, Bruce Charlton makes the case that Atheism is always incoherent, incompetent or unserious; coherent thinkers *must be* theists. Now I am no longer the atheist I once was — I am willing to entertain theism as a working hypothesis (which is of course still a long way from actually believing it). However, I do think that atheism is a reasonably coherent point of view — or, at any rate, that its inherent problems as a philosophy are no worse than the problems inherent in theism. I therefore want to go through Dr. Charlton’s points one by one and analyze them.

In what follows, italicized paragraphs represent summaries or paraphrases of points made by Dr. Charlton. Paragraphs in roman type present my own ideas.

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1. The terms of the debate

Theism and atheism are metaphysical assumptions, not empirical conclusions. They should be judged not by comparing the evidence for and against each view, but by comparing the positive and negative consequences of believing them.

I think it is probably true that there can be no empirical evidence for or against theism simply as such, because it is such a vague proposition. However, the more specific theological claims of individual religions often do have implications which are subject to empirical testing and/or logical disproof.

Where empirical evidence is unavailable or inadequate, it is indeed appropriate to evaluate competing beliefs by their probable consequences — i.e., by criteria of expediency as opposed to truth. This is what lies behind the principle of presumption of innocence without proof of guilt; lacking conclusive evidence, we judge it more expedient to risk one kind of error than the other. My assumption that I have free will (see You should believe in free will) is also based on expediency rather than evidence (since there can be no empirical evidence regarding the ontological status of things that don’t happen). Pascal’s wager is yet another example of this kind of reasoning.

Bare theism, though, is a very vague proposition indeed, and just as there can probably be no real evidence for or against theism-as-such, it’s not clear that theism-as-such has any particular consequences, either. Specific religions have specific consequences and can thus be judged as expedient or inexpedient belief systems, but I confess to being at a loss to think of any specific practical consequences of “mere theism.” Rather than passing judgment on theism first and only afterwards (should the judgment be positive) considering which brand of theism is the best, perhaps it makes more sense to consider specific religions right from the start.

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2. The pathology of sub-replacement fertility

One of the negative consequences of atheism is “sub-replacement fertility under modern conditions (where there is access to a range of fertility regulating technologies).” This is objectively pathological, and seriously so. Dr. Charlton admits that most religions also lead to sub-replacement fertility; however, there are a few religious exceptions to this rule (e.g., Mormons, Orthodox Jews) but no known non-religious exceptions. (Some individual atheists may be exceptions, of course, but no predominantly secular society is.)

Well, the fact that atheists and the vast majority of theists suffer from this pathology is a strong indication that belief in God is not the determining factor. That every member of this tiny group of élite cultures — those which reproduce themselves under modern conditions — should be theistic is hardly a surprise, since virtually all cultures are theistic. To understand the secret of their immunity to the otherwise universal plague of Malignant Modernity, we should be looking at what they have in common which makes them different from other cultures — not at the near cultural universal of theism.

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When I look at the modern pathology of voluntary infertility — and, as Dr. Charlton says, it is very definitely a pathology and a serious one — I see a pathology of motives, not beliefs. It’s not that our fundamental motives have changed, but that our technology has changed the world in such a way that the old, one-serviceable motives are no longer productive of fitness. (See my discussion of this in The Genie scenario.)

Consider the situation with food: We still have the same old food-motives as before — a desire for sugar and fat and salt and so on — but those motives, which once kept us alive, are now fitness-reducing in a world where technology has made these things too readily available, and in refined form.

A similar pathology of outdated motives seems to be in play vis-à-vis reproduction. Most people do have a natural desire to have children — but compared to our other natural desires, it’s not a very strong one. Other desires — for sex, status, comfort, security, pleasure — are much stronger and more immediate, and when they are pitted against the desire for children, the latter tends to lose out. In pre-modern times, those stronger desires tended naturally to lead people to have children — either as side-effect of pursuing sex, or as means of acquiring wealth, status, and security. Under modern conditions, these indirect inducements to reproduction no longer work properly. It is quite easy to have plenty of sex without ever having children, and children tend to be a net negative in economic terms. As for security, the modern welfare state makes it unnecessary to have children to provide for one in one’s old age; and easy divorce means that women cannot feel secure without a “career” — which generally entails a ridiculously protracted period of education, with predictable consequences for fertility. Without the assistance of these ancillary motives, modern people are inadequately motivated to reproduce.

In all of this there is no indication that people’s incorrect beliefs (about the existence of God or about anything else) are at the root of the pathology — just as the obesity epidemic probably cannot be attributed to incorrect beliefs about nutrition. In both cases, once-effective motives are wreaking havoc in an environment which no longer resembles the one in which they evolved.

Certain beliefs may turn out to be effective antidotes to these motivational pathologies — but these need not (indeed, probably will not be) factually correct beliefs. Wrong beliefs can be tailored to fit wrong motives so as to produce the desired result — throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch, as it were. To use a hypothetical example, a firm belief that eating refined grains results in eternal damnation would probably lead to better health consequences than true beliefs (coupled with woefully inadequate motives) would. Those few religions which succeed in motivating their adherents to choose above-replacement fertility may be not-so-hypothetical examples of the same thing.

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3. Justifying norms

Another consequence of atheism is that laws and other norms have nothing to back them up. They are either confessedly arbitrary — enforced by bare, unjustified power — or else they are justified by utilitarian criteria (maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain “overall”). However, there is no intelligible calculus for summing up individual pains and pleasures and deriving the overall hedonic value of any particular state of affairs, so in practice utilitarianism is used as a post hoc justification for whatever those in power find expedient.

Yes, but the “will of God” is no more provable than the “greatest good for the greatest number,” and both of these principles have been used to justify all sorts of different norms — including ones which strike most people as grotesquely evil.

In theory, theists humble submit to the will of God. In practice, they simply assume that God agrees with their own conscience, or their own culture’s norms, or whatever happens to be expedient at the moment — which is pretty much the same thing that utilitarians do. (See my old post Arrogance and humility, which was also written in response to Dr. Charlton.)

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4. Objective meaning and purpose

Under atheism, there is no objective purpose or meaning of life. Atheists respond that they can create their own meaning and purpose. However, if this is true, it means no particular meaning or purpose can be objectively right or wrong. This implies either solipsism or nihilism — but nihilism is self-contradictory “because it is a non-arbitrary metaphysical belief which claims that beliefs are arbitrary.”

Actually, this form of nihilism is not technically self-contradictory. It states merely that all “meanings” and “purposes” — not all beliefs — are arbitrary. But that’s of little importance; I think most people will agree that solipsism and (any form of) nihilism are things to be avoided, and that atheism has serious problems if it entails either of the two.

However, it’s not clear to me how theism saves us from this species of nihilism. Various intelligent beings have various goals and purposes, and if God exists then he has goals and purposes as well — but why should God’s purposes be considered the purposes, inherently valid in a way that others are not? Is it because he is so powerful? (Might makes right?) Or because he is good and wise? (See the Euthyphro dilemma.) Or because he created us? (But if we had been created by a mad scientist instead, would his mad purposes therefore be automatically and uniquely valid?)

In fact, non-theistic Darwinism also proposes that there is an objective “purpose of life” — namely, to maximize our inclusive fitness, i.e., to keep copies of our genes in existence for as long as possible — but that is obviously an inadequate reason for any human to accept that as his own purpose in life. Theists accept the purposes attributed to God, not because they are the purposes for which life was created and as such necessarily valid, but because they are purposes which humans already find attractive for other reasons. Whatever “objectivity” those purposes may have is derived from their status as human psychological universals, a status which is unaffected by the existence or nonexistence of God.

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George MacDonald’s vision of outer darkness

This is from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. I have nothing to say about it except that it rings true, truer than anything in Dante.

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe; I will endeavor to convey what I think it may be.

It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light — where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has its signs, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more — nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness — such a loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him. All is dark, dark and dumb; no motion — not the breath of a wind! never a dream of change! not a scent from far-off field! nothing to suggest being or things besides the man himself, no sign of God anywhere. God has so far withdrawn from the man, that he is conscious only of that from which he has withdrawn. In the midst of the live world he cared for nothing but himself; now in the dead world he is in God’s prison, his own separated self. He would not believe in God because he never saw God; now he doubts if there be such a thing as the face of a man — doubts if he ever really saw one, ever anything more than dreamed of such a thing: — he never came near enough to human being, to know what human being really was — so may well doubt if human beings ever were, if ever he was one of them.

Next after doubt comes reasoning on the doubt: “The only one must be God! I know no one but myself: I must myself be God — none else!” Poor helpless dumb devil! — his own glorious lord god! Yea, he will imagine himself that same resistless force which, without his will, without his knowledge, is the law by which the sun burns, and the stars keep their courses, the strength that drives all the engines of the world. His fancy will give birth to a thousand fancies, which will run riot like the mice in a house but just deserted: he will call it creation, and his. Having no reality to set them beside, nothing to correct them by; the measured order, harmonious relations, and sweet graces of God’s world nowhere for him; what he thinks, will be, for lack of what God thinks, the man’s realities: what others can he have! Soon, misery will beget on imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences — a whole world of miserable contradictions and cold-fever-dreams.

But no liveliest human imagination could supply an adequate representation of what it would be to be left without a shadow of the presence of God. If God gave it, man could not understand it: he knows neither God nor himself in the way of the understanding. For not he who cares least about God was in this world ever left as God could leave him. I doubt if any man could continue following his wickedness from whom God had withdrawn. [. . .]

I suppose the man so left that he seems to himself utterly alone, yet, alas! with himself — smallest interchange of thought, feeblest contact of existence, dullest reflection from other being, impossible: in such evil case I believe the man would be glad to come in contact with the worst-loathed insect: it would be a shape of life, something beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being! I imagine some such feeling in the prayer of the devils for leave to go into the swine. His worst enemy, could he but be aware of him, he would be ready to worship. For the misery would be not merely the absence of all being other than his own self, but the fearful, endless, unavoidable presence of that self.

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Erasmus vs. Luther, intellect vs. faith

From James Anthony Froude’s lectures on Erasmus and Luther, in Short Studies on Great Subjects:

Erasmus considered that, for the vulgar, a lie might be as good as truth, and often better. A lie, ascertained to be a lie, to Luther was deadly poison — poison to him, and poison to all who meddled with it. In his own genuine greatness, he was too humble to draw insolent distinctions in his own favour; or to believe that any one class on earth is of more importance than another in the eyes of the Great Maker of them all.

Well, then, you know what I mean by faith, and what I mean by intellect. It was not that Luther was without intellect. He was less subtle, less learned, than Erasmus; but in mother wit, in elasticity, in force, and imaginative power, he was as able a man as ever lived. Luther created the German language as an instrument of literature. His translation of the Bible is as rich and grand as our own, and his table talk as full of matter as Shakespeare’s plays.

Again; you will mistake me if you think I represent Erasmus as a man without conscience, or belief in God and goodness. But in Luther that belief was a certainty; in Erasmus it was only a high probability — and the difference between the two is not merely great, it is infinite. In Luther, it was the root; in Erasmus, it was the flower. In Luther, it was the first principle of life; in Erasmus, it was an inference which might be taken away, and yet leave the world a very tolerable and habitable place after all.

There can be little doubt that Froude considered Luther to be the greater of the two men, and Luther’s relation to God and goodness to be the better one — and equally little doubt that Froude himself was much more akin to Erasmus in this regard.

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As for myself, “belief in God and goodness” is not with me a single belief, but two more-or-less independent beliefs — and I am Erasmian with respect to the one but Lutheran with respect to the other.

Nothing can be more certain than the reality of good and evil. That some things ought to be and other ought not, is as undeniable as that some things are and others are not.. While the specifics of what precisely is, and what precisely ought to be, are often matters of uncertainty, the validity of the concepts of existence and goodness — as fundamental aspects reality, irreducible to anything else —  is a matter of absolute certainty. Through 12 years of atheism, I never doubted that, nor have I ever been able to take seriously the joke-philosophy of “moral relativism” which so often accompanies irreligion.

The existence of God, on the other hand, has never been more than a probability — estimated at various times in my life, based on the available evidence and my interpretation of it, as a very high probability or as a very low one — but always infinitely distant from Luther’s absolute certainty. Even at the height of my religious belief, I always thought of myself as someone who was fundamentally more akin to so-called “freethinkers” than to most religious people; it was just that I happened to have had certain experiences, providing me with evidence to which most freethinkers were not privy, and had therefore reached different conclusions. Given the ease with which I transitioned to atheism when exposed to new evidence, I think I was correct in this analysis of myself.

Recently, philosophical reflection has led me once again to reevaluate the probability of God’s existence to the extent that theist is probably now a more accurate label than atheist (just barely more accurate), but I remain about as far from certainty as it is possible to be.  To borrow the tagline from Seijio Arakawa’s blog, “The fool says in his heart, ‘and why not?'” I suppose I believe in God to about the same degree that I “believe” that there is life on other planets. That is, if I had to guess, I’d probably guess “yes” — but I’d still be absolutely astonished to discover firsthand that my guess had been right!

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People tell me — have told me repeatedly — that if I would only follow my belief in goodness to its logical conclusion I would find that it entails belief in God. Apparently I’m just not smart enough to understand that particular chain of reasoning, though God knows I’ve tried.

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Aquinas’s argument from distinction

Reading Aquinas, I’ve found another argument for the existence of God to add to my list:

The distinctions between things can’t result from chance since they are stably ordered; so they must result from some causal tendency. But not that of a cause acting by necessity of its nature, for nature is determined to one course, and so nothing that acts by necessity of its nature can intend distinction of things as such. So their distinction must result from the intention of a knowing cause; the consideration of distinction seems to be intellect’s prerogative, and Anaxagoras attributed distinction to intellect. But the universal distinction of things can’t result from some secondary cause’s intention, since all such causes are themselves part of the universe of distinct causes. So there must exist a first cause [i.e. God] — as such distinguished from all others — intending the distinction of all things.

— Summa contra Gentiles, 1.50 (McDermott translation)

I’ll comment on this line of argument later, since at this point I am only able to understand it in a very shallow manner, but it seems worth pursuing, and I think it ties into some of my recent epiphanies on the subject of agency.

I am interested in this mainly as an argument for the existence of God, but the secondary conclusion (actually the primary one in the context of the larger text), that God intends the distinction of all things, is also striking. Seijio Arakawa makes a similar point in his Brief Experimental Theology of Heaven and Earth:

The purpose of Earthly human existence (or, at least, the aim to which Earthly existence has been repurposed after the Fall) is not only to produce a number of saved individuals; it is to produce an unimaginable variety of them. (Otherwise, we would have to believe that human variations are always a product of sin or corruption, or at best irrelevant; such a belief certainly interferes with the commandment to love thy neighbour.)

The idea that distinction as such is good and is intended by God could be seen as one of the main things that differentiates Western religion from Eastern.

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The necessity of agency (continued)

I will attempt to make sense here, but don’t get your hopes up. I can feel as I write what follows that I am being neither eloquent nor clear, that my subject is defeating me. Nevertheless I will try.

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It is necessary to assume the reality of cause and effect. Although, as Hume demonstrated, there can be no proof — nor even any evidence — that there is such a thing as causation, any philosophy that dispensed with the concept would be a dysfunctional philosophy, one incapable of doing what a philosophy is supposed to do, namely, to serve as a guide to action. One could not say that such a philosophy would be “false” necessarily, but it would be wrong and unacceptable at a level deeper than, and prior to, the level at which the concepts of truth and falsehood become relevant. As John R. Harris says in Climbing Backward Out of Caves, “causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen” — but despite the lack of, the impossibility of, evidence for causation, it is nevertheless philosophically necessary for us to process things in this way.

The concept of mechanistic causation is incomplete without the concept of agency. Without agency, events are caused, but nothing is caused by anything. Each link in the chain of causation merely passively passes on what it has received. Such a model of the world — all dominoes and no fingers — is incoherent and philosophically useless. In a world with no agency, there can be no real causation, either. Such a world would contain intelligible patterns — it would not be a mere chaos — but it would be an abuse of language to say it contained causes and effects. And causes and effects are philosophically necessary.

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What is agency, then? Agency causes things but is not caused by things. It has a relationship with prior events which is intelligible — it is not mere randomness — but does not amount to cause-and-effect. What exactly that means is admittedly hard to grasp. The concept of agency is (to borrow a simile from G. K. Chesterton) like the sun; it illuminates other things, but looking at it directly is not advisable.

Agency is what makes it possible for contingent things to exist. Without it, it would be impossible for necessary things to give rise to contingent things.

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I should mention that, as a sort of corollary to my acceptance of agency, I also now accept the existence of God. I hasten to add, lest my religious friends get too excited, that at this point my tentative theism/deism is of the barebones god-of-the-philosophers variety — i.e., I don’t yet believe in anything that looks much like Jehovah — but it is nevertheless a significant step for me. This card-carrying atheist has turned in his card.

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My sign from God

In his book Climbing Backward Out of Caves (pdf), John R. Harris discusses why apparent miracles and other empirical phenomena cannot be used to prove religious claims:

There are no [empirical] arguments for faith, properly speaking, nor can there be. If you could pray to be placed atop the church’s steeple and then, miraculously, your body rose through thin air to the lofty perch desired, what would you have proved to the scientist? He would examine your shoulders for ropes or cords. He would investigate the church’s structure for a small elevator concealed from a certain perspective. He would search the premises for cleverly installed mirrors that project stable images over some ladder or mechanism. If brought to his last resort, he would have his own blood tested for hallucinogens and his own brain for neurological disorders. In a last last defense, he would perhaps found a new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time.

Your miracle, having been perceived, would be scientifically explicable, and hence no miracle at all. The trick would be finding the answer… but the presence of an answer could be presupposed, since causation is not a sight but a way of processing things seen. All that we perceive immediately incurs the possibility of explanation. Those who should choose not to investigate your levitation beyond a certain point — to accept you as a true miracle-worker and prophet — would have made an arbitrary decision to desist from the search. Their resignation would not be justified by any objective evidence: it would only demonstrate that they had grown weary of searching, and perhaps that they were already predisposed to see wonders all around them.

I experienced the truth of this firsthand a couple of years ago (Friday, October 15, 2010, to be exact) when I asked God for a very specific sign, received exactly what I asked for that very same day — and came out of the experience not appreciably less of an atheist than I had been before.

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I was living in Changhua, Taiwan, at the time, and working mostly in that city, but twice a week I took a train to Yuanlin and taught some classes at the university’s branch there. One day I was sitting in Changhua Station waiting for the train when something popped into my head and (subaudibly) out my mouth: “God, if you’re there, give me a sign.” Then, realizing that it might be nice to be a little less vague than that, I added, “Make someone give me a cicada.”

I can’t really say what prompted me to say such a thing. It’s not as if I had been particularly wondering whether God existed or hoping that he might. I had been an atheist for nearly 10 years, and I was quite confident in my unbelief. I had recently started reading and commenting on a few blogs by Christians (Bruce Charlton, John C. Wright, maybe a few others), and I suppose that’s what put it into my head. I had also had a few recent experiences where I had thought to myself, “You know, I could really use ___ right now,” and then the thing I had wished for had immediately (but otherwise quite non-miraculously) appeared.

Why a cicada? I don’t know. I had the idea that I should ask for something improbable but not actually miraculous, and that’s what came into my mind. The idea seemed to come from nowhere, and I thought at the time that it might be an inspiration — God telling me what sign he intended to give, rather than the other way around.

The request wasn’t quite as random as it probably seems, though. Those who remember the old header image from this blog will be aware that I’ve made the cicada a personal emblem of sorts, and that Friday morning in the station I was actually wearing a jade cicada pendant around my neck. (I had a second such pendant at home, but the cord had been broken for some time.) Cicadas are a reasonably common decorative motif in Taiwan, comparable to, say, unicorns in America. You don’t see them every day, but they’re not unheard of.

All day I was on the lookout for cicadas and was trying to guess what form the sign might take. (“Give me a cicada” is actually pretty vague.) Maybe I would see someone with a cicada T-shirt on the train. (I’ve never seen a cicada T-shirt before, but it could happen.) In addition to my regular classes in Yuanlin, I also did one-on-one tutoring with a little kid who loved insects and occasionally brought rhinoceros beetles and things to class with him — so maybe he would literally give me a live cicada. (His class was on Wednesdays, not Fridays, but it could still happen.) But nothing like that happened. All day I found nothing even remotely cicada-related, and that night on the train back home to Changhua I scolded myself for even entertaining the idea of a “sign” and said to myself, “Forget it. No one’s going to give you a cicada.”

I arrived home quite late that night, as I usually do. Ordinarily my wife would be waiting for me with dinner, but this time she met me at the door and suggested that we go out to the night market to eat and to get the broken cord on my other cicada pendant fixed. (I had bought both of the cicada pendants from the same vendor at the night market.) Her mentioning a cicada out of the blue (it had been broken for a long time, and it had been months since we had said anything about fixing it) got my attention, but it still wasn’t really the sign I had asked for, since I already owned the cicada in question and wasn’t being “given” anything.

At the market, I gave the jade vendor my pendant for repairs, and she showed me something new that she thought I might be interested in: a small white jade key chain in the shape of a cicada. Now we were getting closer to the sign, but not close enough — because of course I was going to buy the thing, which isn’t the same as being given it.

She needed some time to fix the cord, though, and while she worked and my wife chatted with her I wandered around the market a bit. When I came back, the vendor gave me the two cicadae. I reached for my wallet, but my wife stopped me and said, “That’s okay. I paid already.” So the new cicada did in fact end up being a gift rather than a purchase.

I was suitably impressed. For all the vague things I would have been willing to accept as a sign (seeing a T-shirt with a cicada on it!), what I received was precisely what I had asked for: someone gave me a cicada.

At that point I thought of Gideon’s asking for a second sign to confirm the first, and it occurred to me to do the same thing. Again I asked for the first thing that came to mind, and again I can’t really explain why I chose what I did: “Make someone say the word rabbit” (again I was shooting for something relatively improbable but not at all miraculous).

Within a minute or two of this request, a woman walked past me carrying a live rabbit in her arms. (Had I seem this woman before without consciously noticing her? Is that what put the “rabbit” idea into my head. It’s entirely possible.) Frustratingly, though, no one said anything about it. The word rabbit was not spoken. I felt almost as if I were being taunted, as if the intended message were, “See how easy it would be for me to grant that request? Well, I’m going to make a point of not granting it.”

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In the following weeks I made a few half-hearted attempts at repeating the experiment — asking for other specific signs, trying to choose the first thing that came to mind — but nothing came of it — which is not surprising. “We do not satisfy men’s curiosity in that manner.” It’s not as if further signs would have served any useful purpose anyway. Repetitions would have decreased the odds that the original request had been fulfilled by mere chance — but the odds of that are already quite low enough. A billion to one or a trillion to one, what difference does it make? Mere coincidence is not an explanation I am seriously entertaining.

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But neither — obviously — did the experience turn me into a theist. I think most people, believers and non-believers alike, would agree that it would be a pretty stupid reason to start believing in God. There are just too many other possible explanations. It could have been subconscious precognition on my part. It could have been subconscious mind-reading on the part of my wife. It could have been the work of some supernormal but subdivine being who wanted either to make me believe in God or to pass itself of as the same. It could have been “synchroncity,” whatever that is. It could have been any number of different things — far-fetched, all of them, but not obviously any more far-fetched than the idea that the omnipotent Creator of the universe decided to intervene in our world to grant a pointless request I had made on a mere whim.

I know I sound like Harris’s hypothetical scientist, founding his risible “new science devoted to the study of unknown mental powers capable of concentrating intense amounts of energy upon very specific objects for very brief periods of time” — but the point is that Harris’s scientist, however silly he may sound, is right. An explanation is always possible. There can be no empirical argument for God. And thus asking for a sign is a fundamentally foolish thing to do, since a sign alone can never convince an unbeliever, but can only increase his condemnation should there turn out to be a God after all. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida!

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The Kalam Argument

The next argument for God on my list is the Kalam Argument — the argument that the universe cannot always have existed and therefore must have been created. Kreeft & Tacelli summarize it as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its coming into being.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being.

In establishing the first premise, K & T rest content with the dubious assertion that most people “outside of asylums and graduate schools” consider it obvious — a one-liner which (to quote C. S. Lewis, who was speaking of someone who had named his country after himself) “was meant to be witty but really only showed his conceit.”

For the second premise, the argument is as follows:

  1. Time elapses finite step by finite step — one day at a time.
  2. No number of finite things can add up to something infinite; therefore, it is impossible for an infinite amount of time to elapse.
  3. But if the universe is infinitely old, an infinite amount of time must have elapsed before the present.
  4. Therefore, the universe is not infinitely old.

So something must have caused the universe to come into existence. And that something must be outside of the universe, non-spatial and non-temporal in nature, and must therefore exist eternally. But is the cause personal? Can we really call it God? K & T argue that it must be personal.

Suppose the cause of the universe has existed eternally. Suppose further that this cause is not personal: that it has given rise to the universe, not through any choice, but simply through its being. In that case it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old, since all the conditions needed for the being of the universe would exist from all eternity. But the kalam argument has shown that the universe cannot be infinitely old. So the hypothesis of an eternal impersonal cause seems to lead to an inconsistency.

Is there a way out? Yes, if the universe is the result of a free personal choice. Then at least we have some way of seeing how an eternal cause could give rise to a temporally limited effect.

I was very impressed with this part when I first read it, since it’s the first real argument I’ve found for the paradoxical idea of free will — of causation without determinism. If the rest of the kalam argument holds, then, yes, it would seem to follow that the universe must be the result of free will. It must have been caused by conditions which could just as well not have caused it — by conditions which did in fact hold for an eternity without causing the universe to come into existence, but which then suddenly did cause the universe to come into existence. (The very same conditions, mind you. Nothing changed. Nothing could have changed, since we are talking about non-temporal things here.) This sounds an awful lot like complete gibberish, a gross abuse of the word cause, but it nevertheless has two things going for it: (1) it fits with many people’s intuitive idea of “free will” and (2) it seems to be the only way out of the corner the kalam argument paints us into.

But is the kalam argument valid? Here are a couple of criticisms.

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Does everything that begins have a cause?

Certainly it’s common sense that every change has a cause, and that the change from no-universe to universe should be no exception. But in fact it’s not clear that the logic of change and causation really applies in this particular case.

If the universe (that is, the system of space-time and matter-energy) had a beginning, that means that time itself had a beginning. The commonsense idea of causation (which is what is being appealed to here) is that any given change must have caused by something which took place before the change occurred. But if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, there was no “before the change occurred.” The logic of causation — that B was preceded by A, and that B would not have happened if it had not been preceded by A — simply doesn’t apply here. No time, no causation — at least, not as we understand it. There may of course be some obscure atemporal mechanism which is analogous to causation, but if that’s what we’re talking about K & T need to make a case for it; it’s not enough to appeal to the common knowledge of all non-institutionalized persons.

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Does time need to “elapse”?

We experience time as “passing,” but actually (according to one theory) time is just another dimension, not fundamentally different from the spatial dimensions. A particular dimension can be infinite, even if it is not possible for any actual thing to traverse an infinite distance. No “traversing” needs to have taken place.

A temporally infinite universe is no more or less problematic than a spatially infinite one. Of course the latter is problematic as well, since there are philosophical problems with the idea of an actually existing infinity. All in all, I think I agree that the universe probably has to be finite (I’m not entirely confident in that judgment) — but K & T’s particular argument for its temporal finiteness is not a good one.

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