In my last post, Does scientific knowledge presuppose God?, I endeavored to show that there can be no scientific knowledge if there is no God. In this post, I’ll be responding to physicist Sean Carroll’s video, Is God a good theory?, which is about the best defense of atheism I’ve ever seen by a scientist. Professor Carroll’s presentation is clear, persuasive, refreshingly free of jargon, and very professional. Carroll is unfailingly polite, even when criticizing views he strongly disagrees with; there is not even a hint of sarcasm or condescension in his 53-minute talk, which is part of an Oxford-Cambridge Mini Series entitled, Is ‘God’ Explanatory? (This symposium, the second of its kind, was held from January 9-11, 2013.)
Before I go on, I’d just like to say briefly what I mean by “God.” By God I mean Someone, not some thing, or some state or some process. More specifically, I mean Someone (beyond space and time) Whose nature it is to know and love in a perfect and unlimited way, Whose mode of acting is simply to know, love and choose (without anything more basic underlying these acts), Who is the Creator and Conserver of the natural world, and Who is therefore capable of making anything He wishes to, provided that it’s consistent with His nature as a perfectly intelligent and loving being, and with His other choices. (UPDATE: Skeptic John Loftus has objected that I failed to argue that God is perfectly loving in my previous post. On this point he is correct: I merely argued for “an Intelligent Author of Nature, Who is one, simple, supernatural and infinite.” Loftus asks how I can be sure that God isn’t some kind of cosmic trickster. My answer, in brief, is that any verbal description of such a trickster’s character necessarily involves an element of ad-hoc-ery. And anything with ad hoc characteristics is composite, and hence not self-explanatory. Since God is self-explanatory, as the Ultimate Cause, He cannot possess any ad hoc features, like being a trickster. Nor can God be totally evil, since evil is a privation, and God is an infinite and unbounded Being. Hence we are forced to suppose that God is good. As to whether God is loving in a personal sense: each and every person is an end-in-itself, and for God to treat a person in an impersonal fashion would reflect a deficiency on His part; and since we know God is free from deficiencies, it follows that He must be personal.)
When I apply the term “know” to God, I’m using the word in a fairly strong sense. By “knowledge” I mean the ability to: (i) direct things towards long-term ends (which requires foresight); (ii) adapt means to various ends (which requires the ability to reason); and (iii) communicate one’s reasons for acting to other intelligent beings (which presupposes not only the ability to use language but also an awareness of other minds). (Of course, a knowledgeable agent does not have to communicate its reasons for acting to anyone; my point is simply that it could do so, if asked to justify its actions.) I define the term “love” as follows: A loves B if A has made a commitment to promote the good of B, and shows a consistent tendency to act in a way that will promote the good of B (based on what A knows about B), unless constrained by an over-riding commitment.
Finally, while I maintain that God’s decision to make a cosmos – and in particular, to make this cosmos – was an entirely free one, I would also maintain that if God were to make a cosmos at all, He would surely make a cosmos in which at least some of His creatures were intelligent beings, capable of knowing and loving their Creator. On this point, I’m happy to report, Dr. Carroll and I are in complete agreement.
Eight kinds of arguments for and against the existence of God
In today’s post, I’m going to clarify what I mean when I say that the existence of God is rationally certain. Many people think of certainty as an all-or-nothing affair: you’re either certain of a fact or you’re not. But certainty comes in degrees: for instance, the certainty I have of the propositions of arithmetic is quite different from a jury’s certainty beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant in a court trial has indeed committed a crime. We also need to distinguish between subjective and objective certainty: for example, a juror at a trial may be subjectively certain of the defendant’s guilt, while at the same time realizing that objectively speaking, the defendant’s guilt remains uncertain, as there are no objective grounds on which she can demonstrate his guilt to the other jurors, beyond reasonable doubt.
The scope of this essay is confined to the grounds for objective certainty regarding God’s existence (or non-existence). Thus I shall have absolutely nothing to say here about arguments for the existence of God which are based on religious experience, or the experience of transcendent beauty, or the inner voice of conscience, which attests to the reality of a moral Lawgiver Who is just but merciful. These experiences are perfectly valid, in my opinion, as grounds for subjective certainty that there is a God; however, they furnish no objective warrant for that proposition. Appealing to subjective experiences when trying to persuade an atheist of the reality of God is not a tactic which is likely to succeed, unless the atheist has had similar experiences (which is usually not the case).
What I intend to argue below is that there are at least six distinct degrees of objective certainty which are pertinent to arguments for or against the existence of God. Additionally, there are two other categories of arguments which are highly persuasive, but which fall short of objective certainty, or even high probability. Thus we can distinguish between eight different ways (broadly speaking) in which one might argue on objective grounds for the existence of God. These eight ways ways of arguing for or against God can be ranked in decreasing order of strength. Only the first six ways qualify as objectively certain. Arguments for God’s existence which belong to the seventh category fall short of attaining certainty, as they are merely based on inductive reasoning; while arguments in the eighth category merely possess the force of strong prima facie arguments, with no quantifiable probability attached to them.
The six levels of objective certainty I distinguish are: logical certainty (which applies to truths whose denial is a contradiction in terms), self-referential certainty (which relates to truths which cannot be consistently denied), empirical certainty (which holds for truths known from sensory experience), transcendental certainty (which attaches to truths whose denial would entail the collapse of a whole field of knowledge, such as science), abductive certainty (where the truth in question is established as overwhelmingly probable by a process of inference to the best explanation), and normative certainty (which holds for propositions established by appealing to various norms governing human rationality).
An illustration: eight statements about apples
To illustrate what I mean, consider the following eight statements about apples.
1. Something cannot both be and not be an apple. (This statement is logically certain.)
2. I am having a thought about an apple. (This statement is self-referentially certain: I cannot deny this out loud without refuting myself.)
3. This apple in front of me is red and juicy. (This statement is empirically certain.)
4. If you throw an apple up in the air, it will fall back to Earth, in accordance with the laws of physics – in particular, Newton’s law of gravity and Stokes’ law – unless something interferes with it. (This statement is transcendentally certain: to deny it would be to render physics invalid.)
5. The best explanation of the origin of domesticated apples is that they were cultivated from a wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, with secondary introgression from other species of the Malus genus. (This statement is abductively certain: it’s an inference to the best explanation.)
6. There has to be a good scientific reason why apples are the size and color that they are. (This statement is normatively certain: a good scientist would proceed under this assumption and look for a reason.)
7. The skin of an apple can be either red, yellow, green or pink (or some combination of the above), but is never pure orange, or blue. (This statement is not certain, as it is based on inductive knowledge; nevertheless, if we grant the validity of induction, then we can use Bayes’ Theorem to calculate a probability for this statement, which will be very high, as it has been repeatedly confirmed.)
8. There can never be a cubic apple, because it is difficult to even imagine how a cubic apple could grow. (This statement is not certain, or even probable; nevertheless, it may be powerfully persuasive.)
So, how certain is God’s existence?
I hold that sound arguments for God’s existence can be formulated at the fourth, fifth and sixth levels. There have been a few philosophical attempts to demonstrate that God’s existence is logically certain, but these attempts are now generally recognized to have been failures. Other philosophers have attempted to show that the act of denying God’s existence is self-refuting, but unfortunately, their demonstrations are less than convincing. Still others have held that God’s existence is a certain consequence of facts about the world, which are known to us on an a posteriori basis. However, I shall argue below that these facts do not automatically entail the existence of God; to arrive at that conclusion, one must appeal to rationality norms, whose certainty is on a lower level than a posteriori knowledge. That leaves us with transcendental arguments for the existence of God, inferences to God as the best explanation for the cosmos, and arguments for God’s existence which appeal to norms of human rationality.
In my previous post, I put forward a transcendental argument for God’s existence. I made no claim whatsoever to any originality in defending that argument, and my intellectual debt to such thinkers as Bernard Lonergan, John Henry Newman and Greg Bahnsen should be readily apparent to readers with a background in the philosophy of religion. What I am claiming in this post is that the existence of God is as certain as the fact that our scientific inferences are well-grounded, since it is God Himself Who grounds them.
This kind of certainty is not quite on the same level as my logical certainty that the same thing cannot both be an apple and not be an apple, or my self-referential certainty that I am thinking about an apple now, or even my empirical certainty that the apple I see before me is red and juicy. Rather, my certainty about God’s existence is roughly on a par with my certainty (based on scientific principles) that (in the absence of interference) an apple thrown up in the air will fall back to Earth in a lawlike fashion, and not fly off into space or zoom around the room.
I’d now like to briefly review the various arguments for God’s existence, at each of the six levels of objective certainty, as well as inductive and prima facie arguments for the existence of God.
Eight kinds of arguments for God’s existence
First, one might argue that the very concept of God – which we are capable of entertaining – implies His existence. This is the way in which the ontological argument typically proceeds. Some religious critics of the argument contend that we, with our finite minds, are incapable of truly understanding the concept of God; we can only know what He is not, and we have to resort to analogy in order to (very dimly) grasp what He is. If these critics are correct, then the ontological argument is a convincing one, but only for God (Who doesn’t need convincing of His own existence anyway). But I would suggest that this criticism misses the point – as does the Humean skeptical objection, that we can conceive of the non-existence (or non-instantiation) of any concept, no matter how grand and exalted it may be. The problem with both objections is that they assume we have a good handle on what it means for something to exist. And the fact is, we don’t. We know that the objects in our world are “out there,” independently of our thinking about them. But that doesn’t tell us whether or not these objects are capable of existing, independently of any minds (including God’s). Maybe they are, and maybe they aren’t. We also know that these objects have certain properties, which enable us to identify them on an ongoing basis. But in the majority of cases, we have only the vaguest idea of what these objects truly are, in and of themselves. The reason why the ontological argument fails, then, is that there’s no generally agreement about what it means for something to exist, in the first place.
A second type of argument attempts to show that the denial of God’s existence is somehow self-refuting. A good example is C. S. Lewis’ Argument from Reason – which he actually got from Arthur Balfour – that if materialism or naturalism is true, then our reasoning processes cannot be trusted – in which case our argument for materialism or naturalism cannot be trusted, either. In a famous 1948 debate of the Aristotelian Society at Oxford, the Catholic philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe sharply criticized Lewis’ argument, causing him to revise it for his book Miracles. In recent years, the philosopher Victor Reppert has attempted to resurrect the argument in his book, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea, which has been critically reviewed by Richard Carrier and defended by Darek Barefoot. Now, I think the question Lewis raises is one which should trouble most atheists. I should point out, however, that disproving materialism, or even naturalism, does not establish the truth of theism – a point which Reppert himself readily acknowledges. The same goes for Alvin Plantinga’s argument against evolutionary naturalism: it tells us that one or the other of these two ideologies is false, but not which one. By itself, it cannot take us to God.
A third type of argument seeks to establish the existence of God by appealing to some publicly verifiable facts about the world, which we come to know on the basis of our experience. However, knowledge acquired a posteriori (from experience), in and of itself, is incapable of taking us to a transcendent Cause of Nature. To get beyond Nature, the argument needs to invoke some additional metaphysical premises, whose truth is known to us a priori (independently of experience), and which we then impose on the knowledge we obtain from our experience. Various metaphysical premises have been proposed by theistic philosophers – many of them highly plausible. But plausibility is not enough, and an argumentative chain is only as strong as its weakest link. To make a convincing argument, it needs to be shown that the metaphysical premises it invokes are as certain as the argument itself aims to be. That is, it needs to be shown that denying these premises is either contradictory (making them logically necessary), self-refuting or destructive of all belief (making their negation unintelligible). I have yet to encounter an a posteriori argument for the existence of God whose metaphysical premises are this airtight. This does not mean that a posteriori arguments for God’s existence are worthless; on the contrary, I find them very persuasive. What it does mean, though, is that they are not as certain as their proponents make them out to be.
A fourth type of argument for the existence of God is a transcendental argument, which takes as its starting point a pre-existing epistemic commitment on the part of the skeptic, who is committed to the possibility of his/her having other kinds of knowledge about the world. The argument then proceeds to show that in order to justify that commitment, one has to invoke God. Of course, it is still open to the skeptic to abandon that commitment, if he/she wishes. But if abandonment of this commitment would render the skeptic incapable of knowing facts which we cannot afford not to know, then it should be clear to any fair-minded person that the skeptic has paid too high an intellectual price for his/her atheism. One recent example of a transcendental argument is Bernard Lonergan’s argument for God’s existence in his book, Insight (in a nutshell: if reality is intelligible, then God exists; but reality is intelligible; therefore God exists). I have to confess I find Lonergan’s argument a little abstruse. Accordingly, what I attempted to do in my previous post was to construct a more modest (and hopefully, simpler) transcendental argument for God’s existence, in which I endeavored to show that only God can provide a warrant for making scientific (and practical) inferences about the future. (The late Greg Bahnsen also formulated a transcendental argument for God, from induction; however, my argument, unlike Bahnsen’s, draws no conclusions regarding the truth of any particular revealed religion.)
A fifth type of argument, known as an abductive argument, takes as its starting point some observable state of affairs in the world, and then argues for God as the best explanation of those facts. In order to justify its conclusion, however, this type of argument appeals to premises based on our past and present observations of intelligent agents, and of unguided natural processes. Probabilistic calculations are then invoked, in order to show that the probability of these state of affairs occurring, given the existence of an intelligent Cause of Nature, is much, much higher than the probability of their occurrence in the absence of such a Cause.
A sixth type of argument appeals to various rationality norms, about the kinds of questions one should ask. For instance, the philosopher Germain Grisez, in his book, Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975) argues that we should be prepared to ask any question, unless there is something obviously wrong with the question itself. Since there’s nothing obviously wrong with the question, “Why does the cosmos obtain?”, we should treat it as a legitimate question and look for an answer in a Necessary Cause Who cannot cease to obtain. More recently, Professor Paul Herrick, in his 2009 essay, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons, has propounded what he calls a Daring Inquiry Principle: 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. I once held such rationality norms in very high esteem. But listening to Professor Carroll’s video has convinced me that their argumentative force is not as great as I had imagined. When I (and other theistic philosophers) point to some state of affairs and ask “Why?”, Carroll retorts, “Why not?” The result is a stalemate, like the one that occurred between Fr. Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell in their famous 1948 BBC Radio debate on the existence of God.
A seventh kind of argument for God’s existence appeals to induction. Some of the cruder versions of the design argument (though not the more sophisticated version defended by William Paley) proceed by likening the parts of complex organisms to the parts of a watch or some other mechanical contrivance, and then arguing that since all the contrivances that we know of are designed, it is reasonable to infer that the organisms we find in Nature were designed too. The key problem with such arguments is that since they rely on inductive reasoning, the conclusion it establishes will merely be a probable one, even if we are prepared to accept the validity of such reasoning. Another, related problem is that inductive arguments can be constructed against God’s existence, leaving us with the problem of how to evaluate these competing sets of arguments.
Finally, an eighth kind of objective argument for the existence of God makes a rhetorical appeals to some striking fact about the world: the speaker points grandly to some event that has taken place, and says: “There! How do you explain that without a God, hey? I defy you to do it!” The event in question might be a striking instance of design in Nature. As convincing as such an argument may be to the person making it, it cannot be called rationally demonstrative. Such an argument is at best a powerful prima facie argument for the existence of God: here we have an event which, on the face of it, seems to point to a Creator. Unfortunately, arguments of this kind fail to impress modern skeptics, who are inclined to dismiss arguments of this kind as “arguments from incredulity.” Just because we cannot think of a natural explanation for some occurrence, they say, does not mean that there is none.
Atheistic arguments can be grouped into the same eight categories
I have ranked the foregoing categories of arguments in their order of persuasiveness. But curiously, if we look at the arguments against God’s existence, we find that they can be grouped into the same eight categories, according to the level of epistemic warrant that they appeal to. Thus an atheist might argue that the very concept of a Simple Being Who is capable of containing many different kinds of ideas in Its Mind is an oxymoron: that’s an argument of the first kind. Or she might argue that there is something self-refuting about believing in God and at the same time affirming free will: that’s an argument of the second kind. Or she might argue that (a) the existence of evil in the world is logically incompatible with the existence of a Being Who is infinitely good, or that (b) the empirical fact that random, meaningless suffering occurs in Nature – for example, the death of a fawn in a forest fire – is incompatible with the existence of a God Who only permits evil to occur for the sake of some greater good: that’s an argument of the third kind. Or she might argue that unless naturalism is true, scientific knowledge is impossible, as the very existence of a supernatural being, whose whims are unpredictable, would render the outcome of any scientific experiment uncertain: that’s an argument of the fourth kind. Or she might argue that the non-existence of God is the best explanation for the kind of world that we live in, where confusion and chaos reigns and evil often triumphs: that’s an argument of the fifth kind. Or she might appeal to some rationality norm, and contend that we should not ask questions for which there is no agreed method of arriving at an answer, which means that we should stick to the scientific method and go no further in our quest for knowledge: that’s an argument of the sixth kind. Or she might argue that the existence of God is unlikely on inductive grounds, as all the intelligent beings with whom we are acquainted are complex and embodied entities, whereas God is supposed to be simple and immaterial: that’s an argument of the seventh kind. Finally, she might point to some striking occurrence in the natural world – such as the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, or the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and rhetorically challenge believers to reconcile this senseless event with the existence of a loving God. That’s an argument of the eighth kind.
Attempts to demonstrate God’s non-existence on purely logical grounds tend to run afoul of the fact that the terms being employed in the argument cannot be applied to God and creatures in the same way; hence they make an illicit appeal to anthropomorphism. Nor can it be seriously maintained that there is something self-refuting about a believer in free will simultaneously affirming belief in God: people do it all the time. Arguments from evil fail to rule out God’s existence on strictly empirical grounds: the mere existence of evil in the world is perfectly compatible with God’s allowing it for the sake of a greater good, and no amount of empirical observation can tell us that a given instance of evil in the world – such as the death of a fawn in a forest fire – really is random and senseless, despite our failure to see any reason for it. An alternative explanation for evil in the world would be to concede that it is indeed senseless, and that God has a prima facie> obligation to prevent it, but that a countervailing obligation prevents Him from doing so. Again, no amount of observation could refute this statement. Transcendental arguments against the possibility of doing science if there is a supernatural being assume that because the being’s behavior is not law-governed, that it is entirely whimsical and erratic: but as I argued in my previous post, that conclusion doesn’t follow. Arguments which seek to show that the non-existence of God is the best explanation for the evil and confusion that exists in the world omit vital evidence, and are vulnerable to the riposte that even if God is a poor explanation for the evil we find in the world, it is much harder to account for goodness, objective beauty, and the order and harmony of the cosmos, without assuming the existence of God, than it is to account for evil if we assume God’s existence. Finally, arguments against the existence of God which appeal to some rationality norm are epistemically questionable: it all depends on how you define science, and whether the scientific enterprise can be supported without God. Some scientists have held that the occurrence of even a single miracle would cause science to grind to a halt, but others (including Dr. Carroll) have said that science would still continue, even if thee were miracles occurring in our midst.
Ranking the merits of the arguments for and against God’s existence
Thus it follows that the best arguments for the existence of God attain to the fourth level of argumentative strength (transcendental certainty), while the best arguments against the existence of God attain only to the seventh level (inductive reasoning), which is at best probable rather than certain. For examples of such arguments see here and here for examples.
That leaves us with arguments of the eighth kind, against the existence of God – in particular, the much-vaunted argument from evil. While arguments of this kind are certainly persuasive on an emotional level, and constitute powerful prima facie evidence against the existence of God, they are also unquantifiable. But if one cannot quantify the weight we should attach to evidence against the existence of God, then it would be foolish to accord much weight to an argument of this kind. If, then, we have a good transcendental or probabilstic argument for the existence of God, and a mere prima facie argument against the existence of God, based on the senseless evil we find in the world, then it is rational for us to set the latter aside, and embrace theism, despite our inability to resolve the problem of evil. The argument from evil is, at bottom, a mere “argument from incredulity,” to use a phrase coined by Professor Richard Dawkins. And as Professor Dawkins likes to point out, the mere fact that we cannot imagine a good explanation for the occurrence of some event might happen does not render that event impossible or even improbable. Hence the mere fact that we cannot imagine why God would allow senseless evils to occur does not necessarily mean that it is unlikely that He would do so.
Can we really conceive of a universe that doesn’t need God?
In his talk, Professor Carroll responds to claims by “armchair philosophers” that the universe requires us to posit God as a First Cause or Necessary Being, by stoutly asserting that it doesn’t: it is possible, he says, to conceive of hypothetical universes which are self-contained, consistent and don’t require God to explain them. The simplest example, he says, is a point-sized cosmos, in which God plays no role. A somewhat more sophisticated example is a single particle moving through space forever. An even better example – and one which, Carroll thinks, may actually describe our own universe – is a quantum state evolving in Hilbert space. And to theologians who would object that these worlds lack an explanation, and that we can still ask of them, “Why this world rather than some other world?”, Carroll has a ready retort: “Why not?” Carroll’s contention is that there doesn’t have to be an explanation, reason or cause for every physical state of affairs; and if theologians wish to maintain otherwise, the onus is on them to show why there has to be. Even if everything we saw had a reason, that wouldn’t prove that everything must have a reason.
I’d now like to briefly address Professor Sean Carroll’s three examples of universes that don’t need God, before proceeding to argue for the necessity of God, as an explanation for the cosmos.
Regarding Professor Carroll’s point-sized cosmos, I have just one question to ask: apart than being point-sized, does it have any other properties? If it doesn’t, then in my book, it’s no more real than an equilateral triangle. The idea of an entity whose sole property is to be present at a certain location is incoherent: in order for such an entity to be present at that location, there must already be an “it,” whose physical properties at that location are well-defined.
Carroll’s example of a particle moving through space forever also sounds a bit fishy to me: if there’s nothing else in this space, then in what coherent sense can the particle be said to move? More fundamentally, the particle itself must have other properties apart from its position, velocity and acceleration: a position in space can only meaningfully be ascribed to something, which possesses other properties that make its position identifiable.
However, Carroll’s example of a quantum state evolving in Hilbert space is more promising: such a state can be coherently described, because it applies to something (a wave function) with its own Hamiltonian operator, describing the kinetic energies of all its particles, plus the potential energy of the particles associated with the system. This quantum state, whatever it is, is subject to laws – which is why, as I’ll argue, it requires a God to keep it in being.
What I argue in my previous post was that the laws of Nature are properly construed as prescriptive rules that define the behavior of a class of objects. If laws are so defined, then we have a rational warrant for believing that these objects will continue to behave in the future as they have done in the past; but if laws of Nature are merely descriptive statements describing how things regularly behave, then we have no such warrant, and hence no reliable knowledge of the future (or for that matter, the distant past). I also argued that if the laws of Nature are indeed rules, then they must have issued from a Transcendent Mind of a Cosmic Rulemaker, Whom we call God.
Salvaging the Kalam Cosmological Argument: Non-natural Properties Require an Explanation
Pegasus. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. The fact that we can imagine a winged horse doesn’t make it possible. Likewise, the fact that we can imagine something coming into existence out of nothing doesn’t imply that it can actually happen. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
I’d now like to address the Kalam Cosmological Argument, which Professor Carroll addresses in his video at the 17:40 mark. Earlier on, I distinguished eight kinds of arguments for the existence of God, of varying levels of strength, and I explained why only the first six kinds are objectively certain. I regard the Kalam Cosmological Argument as an argument of the sixth kind – which means that while it qualifies as rationally certain, it isn’t as certain as a transcendental argument or an abductive argument for the existence of God.
The first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument is that everything that begins has a cause. “Maybe not,” replies Professor Carroll. The premise is consistently deniable, after all. Once the premise is no longer regarded as self-evident, the question of whether everything that begins has a cause immediately becomes an empirical claim, argues Carroll.
The claim that we can easily conceive of something coming into existence without a cause goes back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), although Hume himself seems to have backtracked on this question. In 1754, he wrote: “I never asserted so absurd a proposition as that anything might arise without a cause” (The Letters of David Hume, Two Volumes, J. Y. T. Greig, editor: (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 1:187; quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, revised edition, 1994, p. 93). Be that as it may, the central fallacy of Hume’s argument is that he conflates intellect with imagination. Being able to picture something (e.g. a winged horse, such as Pegasus) isn’t the same as being able to conceive of it (i.e. fully understand the relation between all its properties – for example, how Pegasus actually flies, takes off and lands).
In any case, as the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out, it seems doubtful whether we can even imagine something coming into existence without a cause. Certainly, we can picture something springing into being in a location where there was nothing before. But that isn’t the same as imagining something springing into being without a cause. For suppose we actually saw what we imagine in our heads. What would we conclude? Our first question would probably be: “Where did that come from?” And if we failed to find an answer to our question, we’d probably say that something unknown caused the object to spring into being.
What’s more, as Anscombe points out, if you think about how you’d go about determining that an object which just appeared out of nowhere had actually come into existence or had just been very rapidly transported from some other place where it had existed previously, the only way you could settle the issue would be to identify something which was responsible for generating it, as opposed to merely transporting it. In other words, you’d need to identify a cause. (In the case of virtual particles which come into and go out of existence over very short time periods, that cause is the quantum vacuum, which, because it has a specified energy level and can be described by scientific laws, is a genuine entity in its own right, pervading the universe of space.) In short: methodologically, there seems to be no way in principle of showing that something which appeared out of the blue actually came into existence without a cause.
Later in the video (at 24:15), Carroll contends that we should not think of the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, but as the end of our understanding of the universe. Rather than saying that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago, it’s much better to simply say: we don’t know what happened 13.7 billion years ago. At 25:00, Carroll presents four cosmological origin scenarios which, he maintains, are self-contained: (i) creation “from nothing”; (ii) a cyclic/bouncing cosmology; (iii) an eternal time-directed inflation cosmology; and (iv) an eternal branching cosmology with dynamical arrow. Any one of these models is self-contained, according to Professor Carroll. There is no need to invoke outside help in order to explain the origin of these universes.
A beach ball. Image courtesy of Norvy and Wikipedia.
In order to explain what’s wrong with Carroll’s argument here, I’d like to use the example of a colored ball, such as the beach ball pictured above. Suppose I were to point to the ball and ask: “Why is that ball round?” There would be something rather odd about a question like that: after all, if it wasn’t round, then it wouldn’t be a ball. But it is perfectly reasonable to ask: “Why does that ball have the size and color that it has?” because a ball’s size and color are not essential features of it: a given ball may shrink (especially if it’s a beach ball with a hole in it) and it may fade in the sun, over time.
The rationality norm I’m appealing to here is one that Carroll himself acknowledges in the course of his talk, during his discussion of the fine-tuning argument: the principle that the non-natural properties of an object require an explanation. The universe may legitimately be considered as an object, like the beach ball: indeed, I was once informed by a Japanese student doing a Ph.D. thesis in cosmology that the science of cosmology may be defined as the attempt to treat the entire universe as a single object. That being the case, it makes perfect sense to ask why the universe has the size it has. And if we adopt Minkowski’s four-dimensional view of space-time, then time itself becomes one of the universe’s dimensions, so if the universe has a finite duration (13.7 billion years, in the case of our universe), then it is reasonable to ask why it has that duration.
One might appeal to the multiverse as an explanation, but the same problem arises. If the multiverse has even one arbitrary, non-natural property, then it too requires an explanation, and we are led to a Being transcending any sort of space-time, and lacking any arbitrary, non-natural properties. Such a Being is God.
The God of the Gaps: Is science gradually making God redundant?
Cosmological diagram showing angelic movers turning cranks to rotate the celestial spheres. Image courtesy of British Library, Steve McCluskey and Wikipedia.
In the course of his talk (at 19:20), Professor Carroll dredges up the hoary old “God of the gaps” argument: he contends that the list of problems that God is (allegedly) required to explain is getting shorter and shorter, over time. To prove his point, he provides his own list of five key problems for which science has provided (or is providing) an answer. First, there’s the problem of motion: for Aristotle, this could only be resolved by positing an Unmoved Mover, but in Newtonian physics, the principle of the conservation of momentum resolves the problem of motion automatically. Second, there’s the problem of the origin of life: chemistry. Third, there’s the problem of how design arose in living things: Darwin’s theory of natural selection answers this question. Fourth, there’s the harder problem of consciousness: we haven’t resolved this one yet, but advances in neuroscience are pointing the way. Finally, there’s the big problem of origins: where did the cosmos come from? New discoveries in modern cosmology are providing answers to this question.
I won’t comment here on Professor Carroll’s sweeping optimism about the ability of science to answer the Big Questions of how consciousness arose and the how the cosmos originated, let alone his naive belief that chemistry can explain the origin of life, and that natural selection explains design (even many biologists would disagree with him on this one). Instead, what I’d like to draw attention to is his astonishing ignorance of the history of atheism. What Carroll doesn’t appear to realize is that the intellectual case for atheism was a lot easier to make in times past than it is now.
If you could travel back in time and interview the ancient Greeks about the five problems listed above, you would be in for quite a rude shock. Most of the problems listed by Carroll weren’t even regarded as problems by the ancient Greeks. Origin of life? No problem: spontaneous generation. “It happens all the time,” they would have said. Aristotle himself believed that most kinds of animals were capable of originating via spontaneous generation; only a few highly complex animals which he called “perfect animals” (mostly carnivorous mammals) needed biological parents to bring them into being, he thought. In any case, many Greeks (including Aristotle) believed that the world (and its various species of living things) had always been here. What about the origin of consciousness? Not a problem if you believe (as many of the Greeks did) that human beings and other animals have always been around. How about the origin of the cosmos? “What origin?” many of the Greeks would have asked. Remember, they knew nothing about the Big Bang, or about the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which some theists invoke, to argue that the universe can’t have been around forever), and they had no other scientific arguments against an eternal cosmos.
It is fallacious, then, to argue that the advance of science has gradually eliminated the need for God. I might add that many of the best arguments from design (e.g. the fine-tuning argument and the argument from specified complexity) were not available as little as forty years ago.
I conclude that rumors of God’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
In my next post in reply to Dr. Carroll, I shall address the argument from fine-tuning.