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Does the Universe Need God?

Entry 2031, on 2020-03-11 at 21:54:00 (Rating 3, Philosophy)

A couple of incidents recently have lead me back to the good ol' science versus religion debate again. The first was a discussion I had with a couple of philosophy students who were fairly sure that theism is the only logical position to hold in regards to the origin of the universe. The second was listening to the audiobook version of Sam Harris' book, the Moral Landscape.

Before I go further, I do have to acknowledge that both myself and Harris are open to the same criticism: that is, that we aren't professionals in the area of philosophy, so might be likely to offer opinions on points which have already been extensively discussed in the philosophical literature, but that we might be ignorant of. It's a bit like people offering opinions on climate change when they have no knowledge of the subject at all.

But I, at least, was aware of my deficiencies and gave the two "experts" plenty of opportunity to show if or when I was wrong. In fact, I usually look at these debates as an opportunity to change my opinion when new or more sophisticated knowledge is presented to me. And that did partly happen, because after the first day of the debate I realised I had "drifted" into debating in favour of an idea that I didn't really believe myself.

Unfortunately, the debate was closed down near the end of the second day, after one of my opponents got rather aggressive and deleted the thread. I should say at this point, the discussion was of about 200 comments - I think the longest Facebook discussion I have ever been involved with - and I did keep a complete record of it, because I always suspect this sort of thing might happen.

The problem was that I just didn't buy their arguments and I said why, yet they continued to accuse me of ignoring well proven philosophical points. So I pointed out that most philosophers agree with me on this subject. In fact, the stats I found showed the following support by professional philosophers for theism: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%. Their excuse was that those philosophers probably aren't specialists in that particular area, but they didn't have any contrary stats available, which I thought was very weak.

Their argument was a classic example of deductive reasoning, and also a classic example of why that can be dangerous. Broadly speaking, it goes like this: everything natural has a cause; the universe is natural, so it must have a cause which is supernatural; that is god. This is a classic argument, and is technically correct. But the problem is the initial premises: does every natural thing have a cause? And if we are going to require something beyond the universe to initiate the natural word, is it fair to call that god?

I don't think either of these can be justified. We know, through modern physics, that some things do not have a cause, especially when low energy levels are involved. And the total energy of the universe - calculated by subtracting gravitational potential energy from other kinetic energy - does seem to be zero. By the way, this subtraction "trick" is standard physics, and is used in all calculations of this type, so it isn't just a convenient way to reduce the universe's total energy content.

Also, saying that there is an entity, which they call god, which is the only one which can be the "first cause" because it is the only thing which is "non-contingent" and therefore requires no explanation, I believe is deeply intellectually dishonest. It seems totally arbitrary to say that the universe must be contingent but god is not. Who makes these claims, and on what basis? Is it just a matter of definition? Is part of the definition of god that he must be non-contingent?

If so, this seems to be a tautological argument in the form: we need a god because he is non-contingent, because we define him that way. And conversely: the universe requires a first cause because it is contingent. How do we know that? Because contingency it is part of the metaphysical definition of the natural universe.

It seems to me that if anything can be necessary, eternal, and infinite, and therefore not require a cause, it is the whole universe. Note that I don't just mean the conventional idea of a universe which began 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang, which certainly appears to be finite, and might require a cause. Instead, I mean more speculative ideas - which are gaining favour for very good reasons - about a "multiverse", where our current universe is just a small component of an infinite (in time and space) greater universe. So sure, our universe might have a cause, but the bigger multiverse might not.

Also note that even without the multiverse, it is entirely possible to hypothesise that the Big Bang was just another quantum phenomenon that has no cause - like some lesser phenomena we already know about.

In fact, while I was engaged in this discussion, it felt more and more like similar discussions I have had with creationists, including their use of god of the gaps style arguments, special pleading, and circular and tautological arguments. I have too much respect for philosophy - and too little for creationism - to push this idea too far, but I think there is an element of truth in the comparison.

For example, the argument that god fulfils a useful purpose at the first cause which then started the universe seems to me just a god of the gaps argument in disguise (and not a very good disguise). So, we don't know what caused the universe to start (assuming it actually needed a cause, which it doesn't) so god did it. How do we know? Because we define god in such a way that he is the only possible answer.

Can philosophers really be this narrow minded? Well, yes, I think they can, because there are numerous examples in the past where pure thought lead to silly arguments. Aristotle thought men had more teeth than women. He never bothered to check, and he was wrong. And many people took St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of god seriously (one not that far removed from the argument offered by my opponents) when it is clearly nonsensical, again because of poorly supported prerequisite premises.

So their argument was a deductive one and those are always true, as long as their premises are sound. Mine was more an inductive one, which can never be proved to be true with absolute certainty. But their premises are clearly lacking, in my opinion, so I will stick with the uncertainty which is inevitable for induction. They can stick with their false certainty. They're both certain and wrong!


Comment 6 (5232) by OJB on 2020-03-17 at 11:15:34: (view earlier comments)

OK, so Iím not an expert in philosophy, so maybe Iím using the wrong word here. In fact, the two people I was debating might have Ė temporarily at least Ė got the words around the wrong way! I was under the impression that ďnon-contingentĒ meant something which existed through necessity and had no cause, and conversely contingent is a thing which depends on something else for its existence. So my theistic friends would claim the universe is contingent and its existence relies on a non-contingent god. Is there your understanding? BTW, do you have any formal training in philosophy?


Comment 7 (5233) by keithnoback on 2020-03-17 at 11:16:08:

Undergrad only followed by lots of extracurricular reading. In other words, a rank amateur.

One of those extracurricular sources has remarked that definitions in philosophy are practically free.

To avoid the implied pitfall, Iíd ask: If something has another, separate thing reliant upon it, is thing #1 really independent?


Comment 8 (5234) by OJB on 2020-03-17 at 11:16:47:

So you seem to be at least as well informed as the two (undergrad, I think) students I was talking to, and certainly better qualified than me! Anyway, definitions being free is an issue I have problems with in fields such as philosophy, theology, and some social sciences. Itís too easy just to create definitions which lead to the result you want. I donít see the argument these two were offering as being any better than famous, but flawed, arguments like St. Anselmís Ontological Argument.

I donít think the argument is really about independence, itís more that the universe must have relied on something to create it. Whether the original cause is then independent or not isnít important, although I canít see why it shouldnít be. The critical point is that some sort of non-contingent thing (god) must have existed before the universe, and brought it into existence. I donít buy it, of course.


Comment 9 (5235) by keithnoback on 2020-03-17 at 11:17:10:

Yes, we can make valid unicorn-arguments all day long, but they will still be irrelevant.
It is about the nature of contingency, independence and necessity. Maybe it helps to look at it this way. Imagine that god voluntarily ceased to exist immediately upon the creation of the universe. The universe is still dependent upon godís (prior) existence, and god is still independent, in the sense of the original argument, of the universe. His disappearance merely correlates with its beginning.


Comment 10 (5236) by OJB on 2020-03-17 at 11:17:28:

Yeah, sure. I full understand the argument, and I realise it makes perfect internal sense. All I am saying is that a god is unnecessary because the universe (or multiverse) itself could easily be eternal (through various quite credible, but unproved scientific principles) and therefore require no initial cause. As I said before: itís about the law of parsimony - the simplest explanation requiring the least new assumptions. A god seems like a very poor explanation: not only is there no way to prove or disprove one empirically, but it is a whole new class of phenomenon.


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