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Coyne and Krauss’s cosmological comedy of errors


Any fair-minded person who read Thomist philosopher Edward Feser’s incisive and crushing refutation of physicist Lawrence Krauss’s article, “Why scientists should be militant atheists,” would have to conclude that New Atheism was on the ropes. But after reading Jerry Coyne’s spirited defense of Krauss, I was reminded of a line from Louisa Alcott’s Little Men: “’Come on, come on, I ain’t thrashed yet!’ cried Emil, who had been down five times, but did not know when he was beaten.”

Judging from the comments on his latest post, many of Professor Coyne’s readers seemed to share his view that the cosmological argument for the existence of God, which is based on the contingency of the world, was no better than the kalam cosmological argument defended by Dr. William Lane Craig, which attempts to show that the world must have had a Creator who brought it into existence. Some of these readers asked why, if everything has to have a cause, God doesn’t need to have one. To be fair, there were some atheists who pointed out that the cosmological argument doesn’t say that everything has to have a cause, but the general sentiment was that “God sustains the cosmos” was no better an explanation than “The cosmos just is, and that’s all we can say.” Readers also objected to what they saw as Feser’s switch-and-bait between the deistic, behind-the-scenes “God of the philosophers” (for Whom there could be no direct, empirical evidence) and the God of the Bible (Whom Feser believes in, and for Whom there could be direct evidence, in the form of miracles).

In today’s short post, I’d like to answer these readers’ top seven questions, which I have culled from the comments on Coyne’s post:

1. Why not just stop at Nature, and accept it as a brute fact? Wouldn’t that be simpler?

2. If you’re looking for explanations, then why stop at God? Why wouldn’t He require an explanation as well? And can’t we conceive of Him as non-existent, just as we can with the cosmos?

3. How could a Necessary Being explain a contingent cosmos, anyway? How could a necessary cause have a contingent effect?

4. How do we know that a Necessary Being would have to be intelligent?

5. How do we know that a Necessary Being would have to be infinite?

6. Wouldn’t the Creator and Sustainer of a complex cosmos have to be complex, too?

7. How does proving the existence of a Necessary Being get you any closer to the God of the Bible?

1. Why not just stop at Nature, and accept it as a brute fact? Wouldn’t that be simpler?

In a nutshell:

(a) a simple explanation is only superior if it’s an adequate one;

(b) scientists’ model of Nature leaves out many important facts about our world (such as the existence of matter and energy, the fact that there are any laws at all, and the existence of causation in the world), which require an explanation which science is incapable of providing, since science presupposes these general facts;

(c) the cosmos, however you slice it and dice it, isn’t self-explanatory: even if we understood its laws perfectly, that still wouldn’t explain the fact that it exists; and

(d) accepting the existence of “brute facts” (see also here) would be scientifically disastrous, as there would be nothing in principle to rule out the occurrence of undesirable “brute facts,” such as spontaneous events (e.g. naked singularities) in which the laws of Nature break down, wreaking havoc in our world. In short: if you allow the possibility of any kinds of brute facts, you’ve got to allow the possibility of all kinds – including the ones that could prevent us from doing science. Hence, if you believe in the scientific enterprise as a legitimate way of investigating reality, there can be no brute facts. Thus for scientists to admit that the universe “just is” would be self-defeating.

Many Scholastic philosophers – a term which includes Thomists, Scotists and Suarezians – also appeal to a modest form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) to justify their argument for the existence of a Necessary Being. (Note: the Scholastic version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, unlike Leibniz’s version, doesn’t insist that there has to be a necessary and sufficient explanation for each and every proposition, as well as each and every state of affairs. Rather, it is concerned with explaining the existence of each and every being.)

Scholastic philosophers begin by arguing that for anything that exists, there has to be an adequate explanation for the fact that it exists. This explanation may be either internal – i.e. the thing’s own nature explains the fact of its existence – or external: that is, something else causes the thing to exist. Second, these philosophers contend that it is perfectly legitimate to demand an explanation for the existence of anything whose nature doesn’t explain its own existence. In his essay, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe — A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009), philosopher Paul Herrick proposes what he calls a Principle of Daring Inquiry to capture this philosophical intuition:

When confronted with the existence of some unexplained phenomenon X, it is reasonable to seek an explanation for X if we can coherently conceive of a state of affairs in which it would not be the case that X exists.

Herrick is not arguing here that just because we can conceive of a thing as not existing, therefore it must be really possible for it not to exist. Rather, what he is arguing is that if we can conceive of a thing as not existing, then the thing in question cannot be self-explanatory. And since there must be some explanation for the fact that it exists, that explanation must lie in an external cause.

Finally, Scholastic philosophers point out that our cosmos is not the kind of thing that explains itself: regardless of whether you consider the cosmos as a whole, or focus on each of its parts, you will never find anything in the world that explains itself.

2. If you’re looking for explanations, then why stop at God? Why wouldn’t He require an explanation as well? And can’t we conceive of Him as non-existent, just as we can with the cosmos?

By “God,” we mean “a Reality which is self-explanatory.” Hence it would be impossible in principle for God to have an explanation.

Likewise, it makes no sense to say that we can conceive of God as non-existent, if God is defined as a self-explanatory Reality. For us to conceive of God as non-existent would then mean conceiving of a Being Whose very nature entails its existence, as not existing – a contradiction in terms. (I hasten to add, however, that our inability to conceive of God as non-existent does not prove that there actually is such a Being, as St. Anselm of Canterbury famously maintained in his Ontological Argument. Aquinas pointed this out in his criticism of the argument.)

3. How could a Necessary Being explain a contingent cosmos, anyway? How could a necessary cause have a contingent effect?

Atheists often argue that a Necessary Being cannot possibly explain the occurrence of a contingent state of affairs, such as the world we live in. For either the Necessary Being’s act of sustaining the world in existence is itself a contingent state of affairs – in which case, it also requires an explanation – or it’s a necessary state of affairs – in which case, the world is also necessary, which means that it doesn’t require an external cause to explain it, after all, and God is redundant.

However, theists have a ready response to this objection: the Principle of Sufficient Reason is meant to apply to beings rather than actions (such as the act of sustaining the world). It is perfectly legitimate to demand an explanation for the existence of a being which is incapable of explaining itself. However, the fact that every being requires an explanation doesn’t imply that all of a being’s actions require an explanation, as well. If there were a Necessary Being, there is no reason why its actions would all have to be necessary.

Another point the atheist objector overlooks is that typically, when we demand an explanation for a being’s actions, there’s no requirement that it should be a necessary and sufficient explanation. For instance, when we look for explanations of people’s behavior, we don’t try to explain why they had to act in the way that they did. We’re happy enough with an explanation that renders their actions intelligible, so that we can see why they acted in that way. And that’s enough. Even at the level of subatomic physics, scientists are happy enough if they can explain an event (e.g. the decay of a radioactive nucleus) in probabilistic terms.

In other words, the argument that a necessary cause can only have a necessary effect fallaciously assumes the truth of determinism – a worldview which modern science does not assume.

4. How do we know that a Necessary Being would have to be intelligent?

There are two ways in which one could argue that a Necessary Being must be intelligent.

First, if a Necessary Being is essentially infinite or unbounded (see question 5 below), then it follows that such a Being lacks nothing – including intelligence. To be sure, its Mind would be vastly different from ours, and we might wonder what it might mean to call such a Being “intelligent.” However, there is nothing anthropomorphic in ascribing to such a Being the capacity to select appropriate means for realizing its ends, and to direct those means accordingly. That’s a minimal definition of intelligence that nobody could object to, as it says nothing about the internal mental states (if any) of the enity to whom intelligence is being ascribed. (Indeed, a Thomist would deny that a Necessary Being has any such internal states.)

Second, if the cosmos possesses general properties which could only have been produced by an intelligent being, then it follows that the Sustainer of the cosmos (Whose existence we have already argued for) must be intelligent. Scholastic philosophers maintain that laws of Nature are properties of the world that could only have been designed by an intelligent being, and they construe these laws as descriptions of the causal powers of different sorts of things. In particular, Thomists such as Edward Feser argue that the causes we observe in Nature have built-in tendencies towards the production of their effects (e.g. the tendency of salt to dissolve in water), and that since it takes a finite amount of time for causes to bring about their effects, it follows that we must credit these causes with future-directed tendencies towards those effects. However, it makes no sense to say that things lacking in intelligence are capable of having future-directed tendencies, unless they are guided to those effects by a Cosmic Intelligence that sustains those causes in being.

Another reason why one might argue that the laws of Nature require a Cosmic Intelligence is that laws of Nature must be either purely descriptive statements about how things actually behave in our cosmos, or prescriptive statements abouthow things ought to behave. If they are purely descriptive, then we have no reason to believe that they will continue to hold in the future. (“Science works” is not a reason; it begs the question that what happened in the past will continue to happen in the future. Noether’s First Theorem won’t help us either, as it invites the further question of how we can be sure that the laws of Nature actually possess the perfect symmetry required for quantities such as energy or angular momentum to be conserved over time. And the epistemological principle that we should assume that an entity’s behavior here and now is a typical sample of what it does at other times and places, unless we have a strong reason for believing otherwise, won’t help us either, as we haven’t yet established that there is any behavior that can be called “typical” for that entity: for all we know, its behavior may vary wildly and randomly, according to time and place.) In other words, a purely descriptive account of laws won’t allow us to solve the problem of induction.

However, if the laws of Nature are prescriptive, and things – even fields and fundamental particles – contain built-in “oughts” dictating how they should behave, then these are surely properties that only a Mind could have implanted in them. In other words, prescriptions in Nature imply the existence of a Cosmic Prescriber.

5. How do we know that a Necessary Being would have to be infinite?

I’ll sketch two arguments that Thomist philosophers give, before offering my own comments on them.

Thomist philosophers argue that existence, per se, is something unbounded or umlimited. Being is inter-convertible with the transcendental properties of Unity, Truth and Goodness, all of which are free from any inherent limitations. Hence, in the case of a finite entity, there must be something else – i.e. the being’s specific essence – which makes it a being of a certain kind – which constrains its existence, rendering it finite. Readers who are fond of spatial metaphors, as I am, might like to think of existence as being like a vast and infinite sea, and to think of a thing’s essence as being like a container of a certain shape which is capable of holding water from that sea. On this way of thinking, to be finite is to have a specific shape – for instance, a spherical shape. Hence, a finite being would have to be a composite of essence [container] and existence [the water inside it]. As a composite, a finite being requires something outside itself to hold it together – in which case, it would no longer be a self-explanatory, Necessary Being, but a contingent one. If there were a Necessary Being, it would have to be unbounded, like the vast and infinite sea: that is, it would have to be Pure Existence, with no container of any shape to constrain its act of being. Does that mean that such a Being would have no essence? No; its essence would be to have no shape, and to be fully actualized.

Aquinas also argued for God’s infinity based on his conclusion (reached at the end of his First Way) that God is Pure Act. Contemporary readers may find it difficult to grasp this notion, so it might help if we consider mathematician Kurt Godel’s definition of God in his ontological proof: an individual x is God-like if x possesses every positive property. (Aquinas thinks he can demonstrate the existence of such a Being from an analysis of change, which involves things with potencies being actualized, or acquiring positive properties. I should also mention that for Aquinas, unlike Godel, God’s positive actualizations are not properties distinct from God; rather, they are attributes which are necessarily identical with His very essence, or else God would not be simple.)

Of course, there are some positive properties (or attributes) which a God-like individual would possess virtually (by being able to produce them), rather than actually: for instance, God Himself is not red or round, but He can make red and round things. The point is that a finite being does not possess every positive property, even virtually: I, for instance, am not only unable to fly to Alpha Centauri, but also unable to make a machine that can fly there for me. In a finite being, some positive properties – i.e. those which the being does not possess, even virtually – are switched off, while other properties are switched on. The essence of a finite being, in other words, is composite: it’s a mixture of “offs” and “ons.” Since a composite being cannot be necessary (since it requires something outside itself to hold it together), we can conclude that if there is a Necessary Being, then it must be infinite.

Personally, I feel that the Thomistic arguments for God’s infinity need more work. Skeptics might object that the concept of being, considered in itself, is not so much unbounded or unlimited, as undefined or indefinite. On this way of thinking, every existent being needs to have a specific essence that limits it, in order to define its character and distinguish it from other kinds of beings; and without such a limiting essence, a being would be totally undefined – in other words, nothing at all. The skeptic may also object that the concept of a fully switched-on Being (“Pure Act” in Aquinas’ terminology), possessing (at least virtually) every positive property, is a contradiction, if we grant (as religious believers do) that there are some possible worlds (e.g. Narnia) which the Being did not choose to create. The skeptic could then argue that a Being Who chooses to creates some worlds but not others cannot be fully “switched on,” for it has chosen to realize only some of its creative potential. Finally, there were some Scholastic philosophers who maintained that God is self-actualizing, or capable of (timelessly) “switching Himself on,” whenever He makes a free choice. It could be argued, however, that making a choice need not involve actualizing oneself in any additional way: when God creates, it is the things He creates which are actualized, but He still possesses the virtual attribute of being able to create, regardless of whether He exercises it or not.

Regarding the objection that a Being Who is “Pure Existence” would be nothing at all, it seems to me that the central question we need to resolve is what it means for something to be, in the first place. One way of resolving this question would be to ascertain precisely which attributes would be required in order to generate all of the positive properties (e.g. redness, roundness, being a cricket ball) that we see instantiated in this world, and to ask whether these attributes contain any built-in limitations. Aquinas and the other Scholastic philosophers considered intellect and will to be the key Divine attributes required to make our world, and they were happy to ascribe these attributes to God (in at least the minimal sense I described above). Many of them argued that intellect and will are notions which do not admit of any built-in limitations. Hence, if an entity (such as a human being) possesses intellect and will to a finite degree, it must be because of some external constraint – e.g. in the case of human beings, the limited size and complexity of their brains – which arises from the entity being composed of multiple parts. Since a Necessary Being is not composed of parts, its intellect and will must be infinite in capacity.

6. Wouldn’t the Creator and Sustainer of a complex cosmos have to be complex, too?

Professor Richard Dawkins, in his Ultimate 747 gambit, argues that since life on Earth is complex, the Intelligent Creator of life would have to be much more complex – and hence, much more improbable than the things it creates. Dawkins maintains that such a highly complex God is the “ultimate Boeing 747”: it requires the impossible to explain its existence.

But if we consider Godel’s definition of God as a Being possessing (virtually or actually) every positive property, then Dawkins’ assertion that a Creator would have to be even more complex than the complex entities it creates is far from obvious. For it is possible that God could possess a higher-level, virtual property (or attribute, as Aquinas would say), which encompasses a multitude of actual properties found in creatures: there might be one property P which grounds God’s power to produce creatures with properties X, Y and Z. And in the ultimate analysis, Thomists and other Scholastic philosophers would contend that God does indeed possess a single attribute (Intellect) which grounds His ability to produce creatures of all kinds.

Skeptics might object that the Divine Intellect would have to be complex, in order to contain a multitude of different ideas. Two replies can be made to this argument. First, although classical theists unanimously agree that God’s Being or Essence is absolutely simple, some theologians (especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) draw a distinction between God’s essence and His operations: the former, they say, is simple, while the latter is complex and multiple. God’s Intellect would need to perform complex and multiple operations in order to create a world like ours, but that does not necessitate any composition within the Divine Essence. Second, one could argue that God does not have any actual concept of a man, a dog or a bacterial flagellum, but only a virtual one: in reality, the only Being He has an actual concept of is Himself, and by knowing Himself, He comprehends His ability to generate any kind of creature. (This argument was advanced by Aquinas.) Whichever reply one opts for, it should be clear that Dawkins’ “Ultimate 747 gambit” poses no serious threat to the doctrine of Divine simplicity.

7. How does proving the existence of a Necessary Being get you any closer to the God of the Bible?

The short answer is that while a Necessary Being doesn’t have to be the God of the Bible, it would be infinite and also intelligent, and it would therefore have the power to manifest itself in the way that the God of the Bible is alleged to have done. That being the case, the only question that needs to be answered is whether it actually did so. That’s a historical question, not a metaphysical one. And philosophers such as Feser would contend that there is very good historical evidence for the occurrence of miracles. Jews, for instance, frequently appeal to the kuzari argument (see also here, here and here) to support their claim that God worked miracles in the Sinai desert which were witnessed by all the Israelites, while Christians appeal to the historical evidence for the Resurrection, and Catholic philosophers such as Feser would also contend that there is compelling evidence (see also here) for miracles worked since then.

I shall stop here, and throw the discussion open to readers, of all beliefs and none.

"So, it isn’t just science—even checkers proves atheism! Who knew?" Hehe. mike1962
Coyne and Kraus, are just stereotypical atheists who regard good and evil as fact. There is nothing more to it than that, 100 percent of atheists reject subjectivity, that is my experience. The stereotype of the atheist conceives of good and evil as fact. Like Sheldon in the big bang theory, who denotes the facts of which women are ugly, and which are beautiful, straight to their face, and designs a superior race of people. Or the emotionless mister Spock who calculates life and death issues, using the facts about good and evil to sort out the optimal result. Why you think Coyne and all other atheist intellectuals reject free will is real? It is because what the agency of a decisions is (what makes the decision turn out the way it does) is categorically a subjective issue. No free will, means no subjectivity, therefore get rid of free will. mohammadnursyamsu
Best quote from Feser's article:
The reason Krauss has so many critics is that every time he opens his mouth about religion or philosophy, he demonstrates conclusively only that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
The article by Feser was awesome. Mung
Again, the necessary being philosophical construct is wrong because it impedes on the proper domain of subjectivity. One can express a feeling of spiritual emptiness, for oneself, but also in regards to other people, for society, and for the spiritual domain entirely. If the necessary being construct is true, then this subjective expression of spiritual emptiness is wrong, and basically we are all forced to smile all day long like a communist, because of the necessary happiness associated to the necessary being. Expressions of spiritual emptiness are logically valid, eventhough they are highly immoral of course by any reasonable judgement. The proper domain of subjectivity is agency of a decision. Any terms defined in terms of agency is a subjective term, which means it does the job of making a decision turn out the way it does, and only by choosing can we conclude if it is real or not. For example "love", it makes a human being go right in stead of left, and the conclusion the love is real is just as valid as the conclusion the love is not real.The conclusion the painting is beautiful, is just as valid as the conclusion the painting is ugly. Love is therefore a proper subjective term. Choosing is also the mechanism of creation. So.... who supports the necessary being construct does not support science about how things are chosen, which is creationist / intelligent design science. One cannot make a logical progression from a necessary being, to this being choosing, and thus creating. One can make a logical progression from a being whose existence is categorically a matter of faith, to this being choosing, and thus creating. mohammadnursyamsu

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