Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, known to Edge readers as a philosopher who has interesting things to say about Gödel and Spinoza, among others, enters into this conversation, taking on these and wider themes, and pushing the envelope by crossing over into the realm of fiction.
Goldstein isn’t the first novelist to appear on Edge, nor the first to discuss religion. In October 1989, the novelist Ken Kesey came to New York spoke to The Reality Club. “As I’ve often told Ginsberg,” he began, “you can’t blame the President for the state of the country, it’s always the poets’ fault. You can’t expect politicians to come up with a vision, they don’t have it in them. Poets have to come up with the vision and they have to turn it on so it sparks and catches hold.”
It’s in this spirit that Edge presents a brief excerpt from the first chapter, and the nonfiction appendix from 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.
Included in the review by John Brockman is an excerpt from the first chapter along with a non-fiction appendix that lists the 36 arguments for the existence of God to which the book title refers. The latter includes analysis of the ‘flaws’. I’ll give one example here. The appendix discusses the cosmological argument thusly:
1. The Cosmological Argument
1. Everything that exists must have a cause.
2. The universe must have a cause (from 1).
3. Nothing can be the cause of itself.
4. The universe cannot be the cause of itself (from 3).
5. Something outside the universe must have caused the universe (from 2 & 4).
6. God is the only thing that is outside of the universe.
7. God caused the universe (from 5 & 6).
8. God exists.
FLAW 1: can be crudely put: Who caused God? The Cosmological Argument is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem when applied to God himself. The proponent of the Cosmological Argument must admit a contradiction to either his first premise — and say that though God exists, he doesn’t have a cause — or else a contradiction to his third premise — and say that God is self-caused. Either way, the theist is saying that his premises have at least one exception, but is not explaining why God must be the unique exception, otherwise than asserting his unique mystery (the Fallacy of Using One Mystery To Pseudo-Explain Another). Once you admit of exceptions, you can ask why the universe itself, which is also unique, can’t be the exception. The universe itself can either exist without a cause, or else can be self-caused . Since the buck has to stop somewhere, why not with the universe?
FLAW 2: The notion of “cause” is by no means clear, but our best definition is a relation that holds between events that are connected by physical laws. Knocking the vase off the table caused it to crash to the floor; smoking three packs a day caused his lung cancer. To apply this concept to the universe itself is to misuse the concept of cause, extending it into a realm in which we have no idea how to use it. This line of skeptical reasoning, based on the incoherent demands we make of the concept of cause, was developed by David Hume.
COMMENT: The Cosmological Argument, like the Argument from the Big Bang, and The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe, are expressions of our cosmic befuddlement at the question: why is there something rather than nothing? The late philosopher Sydney Morgenbesser had a classic response to this question: “And if there were nothing? You’d still be complaining!”
This analysis doesn’t work because the argument is mis-stated. The first premise is not “anything which exists must have a cause”, but “anything which begins to exist must have a cause”, which makes a huge difference in the analysis. Well known theistic philosopher William Lane Craig states the Kalaam Cosmological Argument this way:
Premise 1 – Anything that begins to exist must have a cause
Premise 2 – The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
So stated, this is a deductively valid argument in that if both premises are true, the conclusion logically follows. The question is are the premises true? I don’t know of anyone who has refuted this form of the argument, though there is debate on premise 2. Premise 1 seems unproblematic. The analysis presented in the appendix simply does not address the correct form of the argument, but gives the impression that the cosmological argument is easily refuted. I guess you can make that claim when you mis-characterize an argument.
I’ll leave it to readers here at UD to discuss some of the other analyses of the 36 arguments presented in the appendix. Its interesting reading for sure.