Over on a recent thread there has been much interesting discussion about a recent debate between theist philosopher Rabbi Daniel Rowe and atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling. HeKS provided a review of the matter, focusing largely on his analysis of Jerry Coyne’s responses.
I agree with HeKS’s general observation that Coyne failed to adequately address the issues. Indeed, it seems Coyne failed to adequately understand some of the issues, a situation that is all too common.
However, I want to focus in this post on a specific aspect of the discussion, namely, some of the points raised by sean samis, starting @37 on that thread. In his comments, samis urges caution in drawing any conclusion from the Big Bang about deity’s existence or involvement. I do not necessarily share all of his conclusions, but I think a number of his points are worthy of additional discussion.
First of all, let me apologize to HeKS for starting a new thread. I initially began this as a comment to the prior thread, but it became long enough that it required a separate post. Additionally, I want to focus on a specific issue that tacks in a slightly different direction than the prior thread.
If the Universe Had a Beginning, then What?
samis begins by addressing the question of the universe being created ex nihilo:
The proper response to the creation ex nihilo argument is that science does not believe or claim that our universe was created ex nihilo. The argument is a red herring.
This is an important point, and one on which the Big Bang arguments for God seem to flounder. The fact that the universe had a beginning (and we should note here for accuracy’s sake that this is not a “fact” in an observational sense, but an inference), does not mean that whatever caused the universe had to be the First Cause or had to be God, in any sense of that word. That the universe had a beginning just means that something caused the universe. Nothing more; nothing less.
We can, indeed we must, approach claims of a multiverse or cosmic bubbles or some other universe-generating natural phenomenon with extreme skepticism. There are many problems with such ideas, which have been well detailed previously in these pages. But it simply does not follow that because the universe had a beginning that it must have been caused by the First Cause or that the First Cause has to be God.
Rather, what can be said is that: (a) no-one has any real observational evidence as to the cause of the universe; and (b) it is possible that the cause of the universe was the First Cause. In addition, we might add that (c) it is possible that the First Cause had a plan, a purpose, an intent, a desire, a design – attributes similar to what we see ourselves possessing as rational, intelligent, individual, creative beings.
The foregoing is a more modest claim. It is a reasonable claim, a supportable claim, a claim that is not at all challenged by the silly responses of the likes of Coyne & Co. It is certainly as good of a claim – probably better from most rational points of view – than the contorted naturalistic explanations we are often treated to.
Yet we must acknowledge that it is still a claim based more on likelihood and inference, than on certainty and deduction.
samis later remarks:
That [the First Cause is spaceless, timeless and immaterial] does not follow unless we are careful to specify that whatever space, time, or material this “non-extensional something” might be composed of, it is not the space, time, or material which is part of our universe.
In other words, this “non-extensional something” can (and probably does) occupy space, experience time, and is composed of some material, but it is not of the space, time, or material of our universe.
Also a point worth considering. Again, that the universe had a cause does not mean that the universe is all that there is or that the cause has no attributes similar to the attributes of our universe. It is probably fair to say – definitionally so – that the cause of the universe exists outside the universe, but that does not speak directly to other attributes of that cause.
Much less is it given that this First Cause have attributes of intelligence (mind, intention, goals, wants, relationships, affection, etc.). Absent these this First Cause would not be any deity but a mere “thing” or “things”.
This is true up to a point. Most of the attributes projected onto the First Cause flow not from any logical requirement of the First Cause itself, but from our personal beliefs and preferences about what we think that First Cause is, or should be. That is well enough as a philosophical or religious matter, but it is not sustainable as a logical, scientific or deductive matter.
That said, there are some hints of purpose and goal-oriented activity and planning that strike any thoughtful observer of the cosmos. Although not rising to the level of logical deduction, such hints certainly provide reasonable grounds to infer that the cause of the universe has certain attributes.
How Far Can We Go?
It seems that with regard to the observable universe we have, at most, the following situation:
- An inference, from observable facts, that the universe had a beginning.
- A deduction that the universe had a cause.
- A deduction that the cause was not within the universe itself (i.e., existed outside of the universe, both spatially and temporally).
- An inference, from observable facts, that the universe has been finely tuned.
- A deduction that the cause was capable of producing the universe and of finely tuning the constants.
Most everyone is in agreement up to this point. One additional item that everyone should agree on is the following:
- Ultimately, when traced back, there must be a First Cause – that which existed in and of itself, without a beginning.
It is true that whether the universe was caused by the First Cause or by some intermediate cause is entirely open to question. However, at some point, we must regress to a First Cause. We trust everyone is in agreement with this concept of a First Cause.
Identifying the First Cause, unfortunately, is a trickier matter.
The Nature of the First Cause
A number of proposals might be put forward, but let us focus on the two most common.
One proposal on the table is that the First Cause was a purely naturalistic phenomenon: some unidentified, never-before-seen, essentially indescribable, powerful phenomenon, that coincidentally (through sheer luck or sheer repetition over time) managed to produce the finely-tuned universe in which we find ourselves.
A second proposal on the table is that the First Cause is God. The materialist will quickly argue that God is likewise unidentified, never-before-seen, and essentially indescribable. Even if we grant this for purposes of discussion, this argument does not serve to strengthen the materialistic claim of a naturalistic First Cause, but only serves to put the God proposal on at least the same footing.
Yet they are not quite on the same footing.
We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that many individuals have claimed (often at great risk to their reputation and physical safety) to have had a personal encounter with God and have tried, with varying degrees of completeness, to describe God. This holds both for the rare visual experiences, as well as the less-concrete but far more common emotional or spiritual experiences. The materialist may well argue that these individual accounts are disparate, unverified in some cases, and open to challenge. That may well be true. But the fact remains that there is some evidence, independent of the observations of the cosmos itself, of God’s existence, however scattered and fragmentary it may be. It may not be much. But it is more than can be said for the naturalistic proposal.
Furthermore, there is an additional aspect of the cosmos that even ardent materialists acknowledge demands an explanation: that of the finely-tuned constants and the apparent purposeful way in which everything works together to make our very existence possible The universe, to put it bluntly and to borrow a phrase from Richard Dawkins uttered in the biological context, gives “the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”
Now it may be that the materialist is right, that this apparent design is an illusion, that the existence of our universe is the result of a cosmic – or, shall we say, “extra-cosmic” – lottery. That is one potential explanation, as a matter of sheer logical possibility. But it is lacking in evidence, provides absolutely no intellectual comfort, and is certainly nothing to hang our hat on.
The concept of God at least has the benefit of positing a First Cause with the ability to make the purpose real, to fine tune for a purpose, to have a plan and a goal and an intended outcome; in other words, a First Cause that helps explain the apparent design in the universe, not one that tries to explain it away.
Finally, it is noteworthy – not definitive in any sense of the word, mind you, but noteworthy – that some of the very attributes attributed to God over the ages (tremendous power, vast intelligence, setting a plan in place, showing a personal interest in human affairs), have gained support centuries later in scientific discoveries. If not at the level of deduction, then at least at the level of reasonable inference.
So what are we left with?
The inference that the universe had a beginning does not allow us to identify the First Cause. We cannot say, it seems to this author, as a matter of logic and deduction that the First Cause is God. We cannot even say that the universe was caused by the First Cause, rather than some intermediate cause. Indeed, as a matter of dispassionate objective scientific inquiry and reasoning, we can say but very little about the First Cause.
In that sense, the claim that the First Cause is God must be viewed with some caution. But it must not be viewed with derision. Rather, it should be seriously viewed as a live possibility, very much worthy of consideration.
Indeed, when compared against the materialistic claim, the proposal that the First Cause is God is eminently reasonable – being more consonant with the evidence, with our experience, and with the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from scientific inquiry. While recognizing a significant lack of direct observational evidence on either side of the debate, the objective observer must at least consider the existence of God as a live possibility and, when weighed against the alternative, as the more rational and supportable possibility.
In the final analysis, the individual who holds to the idea that the First Cause is God should not go a bridge too far by attempting to shoehorn the observed attributes of our universe into a definitive, deductive claim for God’s existence. Yet neither should he feel threatened by the materialistic claim, even more lacking as it is in evidence. In the face of the materialistic mindset that so often rules the day, he can approach the debate with a healthy dose of humility, recognizing that his claim of God’s existence is based on inference (and hopefully personal experience), while at the same time feeling confidently grounded in the comparative strength of his position and feeling no need to apologize for the same.