Beginning at the beginning

I can’t escape the feeling that this week’s post is going to expose a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. I say this because the argument I want to examine is one that many apparently smart people find compelling, and yet I’ve never been able to see how it works, except at a rhetorical level. Maybe this is because the argument is indeed much weaker than many assume, or maybe it’s because I haven’t fully understood it. If the latter, hopefully someone out there will explain to me the error of my ways.

The argument in question is the argument that says God is the best explanation we have for the fact we exist at all. A simplified version of it goes something like this. In the world, we experience events and circumstances as things which have causes. Why are you wet? I stood out in the rain. Why did that cliff face erode? Wind and rain and wave action from below ate it away, etc. Everything we experience can be traced back to a prior cause. Why then the universe? Why does anything exist? We can trace physical existence all the way back to the Big Bang if we like, we might even be able to show, given the nature of our universe, that the Big Bang was itself inevitable, but still we might ask, well why is this the physical nature of the universe? Why is it not some other way? What is it that caused the circumstances that made it come into being?

We might at this point posit another universe, from which our own inevitably sprung, but this shifts the argument to that universe. Why did it exist? Either, the reasoning goes, we stretch back through infinity, or we must stop with a prime mover, some thing that was not caused, but nevertheless caused creation. And this, according to some theistic lines of reasoning, is God. God, some argue, makes more sense than an infinite regress, and so believing in God is more reasonable than not.

And I have to admit I find this argument unimpressive at every level (hence the sneaking suspicion I’m misframing it.) To begin with, the idea that all things must have a cause strikes me as more of a psychological quirk than a fact of existence. Yes, we understand the world best by thinking in terms of cause and effect, but does that really make it a necessary law of existence? Might it not be that some things just do happen for no reason whatsoever, and might not existence be exactly that sort of thing? Some of our most accurate physical models work by treating events as essentially causeless, so for example at the level of the very small, we describe the characteristics of sub-atomic particles using probability functions, where on average they conform to certain patterns, but in the individual case their behaviour is purely random. This is not to say that there can’t be some hidden level of causation at work, but it does give us at least reason to pause before announcing that causality is part of the universe’s very fabric.

Next up, the linear model of causation, where the preceding event causes the current one, works well within a framework of time that has one event happening strictly after another. But, move outside of time and space (notice we have no word to make that sentence sensible, ‘outside’ beyond’, whatever term you choose is tethered to time and space) and what are we even talking about? What came before the big bang? If we think in terms of the big bang event creating time and space, then before the big bang there was no before, nor any outside or beyond. The question itself becomes meaningless. People speak of this prime mover causing existence as if the idea of being outside of space and time makes perfect sense to them, and I’m suspicious of that.

How weird might reality really be? I suspect we have nothing like the capacity to sensibly answer that question. Existence might be to our brains what calculus is to the mind of a garden snail. And yet we, with typical overconfidence, are happy to assert that whatever existence is like, it will conform to this rather human-centric rule of cause and effect. (Could the effect not even be the cause, if we allow causation backwards through time? And if not, why not?)

My other big problem with the argument is that it doesn’t give us God, in any traditional sense. All it gives us is some thing that must, by its very nature, exist. So, if we accept, for reasons unknown, the idea that every thing must have a cause, apart from the one thing that is uncaused and hence allows all other things to be, then what characteristics must we assign to that concept? It seems to me, for the argument to work, the only quality this God figure needs to have is that it necessarily exists. So, on that basis, is the most parsimonious explanation not that the universe itself necessarily exists? God is existence. God’s qualities then are simply the qualities of the universe. There need be no purpose, no love, no moral qualities, just being. At this point the universe the naturalist believes in and the God the theist believes in are identical.

The real import of the existence argument then, I suspect, is not as much logical as psychological. We can not say, for there to be existence, there must be a God, nor can we argue reasonably that existence makes God more likely. The more honest argument is that a particular type of God helps us make sense of existence, and I have no doubt that for some people this is true. It’s not true for me, my nature is such that the choice appears to be between a universe I can’t make proper sense of, or a delightful range of Gods I can’t make sense of either. And so I am forced to live with mystery. And that suits me very well indeed.

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9 thoughts on “Beginning at the beginning

  1. Burk says:

    Thanks, Bernard- Let me just sign up for the comments, as I have little to add. Spinozist deism is about the only sort of speculation we can reasonably entertain that gets even remotely close to theism. But the social and psychological templating are so extremely strong.. they are still killing blasphemers in Pakistan, from what I read in the papers.

  2. We don’t even know anything about the big bang, let alone what happened before it or caused it. All we do is postulate its existence based on current trends in the movement of galaxies away from us at an increasing speed the further away they are. A big bang is a singularity, we can know as much about it as we do of a black hole. Namely, nothing because we can’t get beyond the event horizon. I don’t think it is such a bad argument in the way you suggest it is. For by postulating a big bang that we know nothing of, science is committing this very same reasoning error you are accusing religions and theologians of. In other words, it is an easy reasoning trap to fall into, and one we need to be very aware of. Kant talked about these reasoning errors in his critique of pure reason, he called them the antinomies of reason. One of which was regarding this prime mover argument. He gives a very interesting and detailed discussion about the error we are making here, and why we tend to make these errors, a very good read.

  3. Darrell says:

    Bernard,

    I can’t speak for other traditions but the Christian tradition embraces mystery as well, perhaps even more so. You assume that positing God “answers” questions. It may be however that “God” makes existence even more complex and mysterious leading only to ever expanding questions. In fact, it is one reason philosophy and theology stays with us and involves questions that we keep working at, reflecting upon, and discussing.

    If existence simply is, without reason, cause, or purpose, then such makes life pretty simple. Mystery solved. Let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die. Simple. However, if there is a reason, a cause, a purpose, then our natural longing and desire would be to discern those things. It would be a deeper journey of learning and discovery–one where we try and discern what lies behind this thing called existence–such a mystery is enchanting. In my view, one perspective actually embraces mystery while the other leaves little room for it.

    And it is very possible that there is a psychological aspect to this, in that we may want to believe there is no reason, purpose or ultimate cause to existence so that we have no one to answer to but ourselves. We are free to then create our own meaning and purpose to existence. Psychologically this might make us feel better and ease our conscience if we decided, for instance, to live entirely for ourselves without regard for or to the exclusion of others. I also think some people fear mystery and is one reason they would rather believe there isn’t one. If existence just “is” then there is no mystery. Mystery solved. I think some, emotionally, find comfort in this. It’s sort of like, “Oh, that’s good—time to go back to eating and drinking.” No mystery there.

    • Burk says:

      Darrell-

      This is a rather shocking statement, really. If something “just is”, that hardly absolves it of mystery, does it? It only moves the question out to the true level of our knowledge, which in this case is zero. It all remains entirely a mystery.

      In contrast, to totemize a “god” to be “responsible” for existence, and the vessel for all your perplexities and constituting the prime mover, etc. .. answers nothing at all. Firstly because all you are saying is that “god just exists”- no less a blank assertion as the position you are attacking. And secondly because nothing of your theism that imputes so many properties, emotions, and motives to this god comes from anywhere but our collective imaginations- none reliably compelled by anything we know, as yet. Your journey of discovery spends far more time placing baubles into the theistic cave of treasures than it does discovering them.

      So you would just as well to impute love to an electron, for all the philosophical lifting you are doing through theism.

      But of course all this isn’t about philosophy or the science of the cosmos, as your comment makes abundantly clear. It is really about denigrating the moral status of those not in your tribe, flaunting your badge of incredible belief in something “deep” and profound while painting the others/disbelievers as unconscionable reprobates, psychopaths, and wastrels, all for believing in this life rather than in another one.

      I understand that the age-old parental threat of a yet bigger parent behind the closet door or in the sky seems to undergird your idea of a moral universe, and that the collapse of belief in this imaginary parent would destroy civilization utterly. Fortunately, this turns out not to be the case, and many people, families, and cultures get on without such beliefs, hard as it is to believe. Have some faith!

  4. JP says:

    Hi Bernard,

    I am also unsure how to understand that so many smart people find these arguments compelling.

    Perhaps it is that, despite appearances, theists are not really trying to find the “truth” about reality the way we would understand the term. The dynamics of what they’re doing indicate something different – they seem to start with an idea of God and then embark on a quest to establish that it is rational, or plausible.

    In fact, it seems possible to construct an argument from design against theism. Something along these lines: the theistic God is such a good answer to the needs and desires of believers that it must have been designed (by humans) specially for this purpose. Not that I am claiming this works…

    Your remarks about time are to the point. I would add that by removing time from the picture, by assuming an existence outside of time, the theist must give up on some alleged God’s attributes like purpose, plan, desire, and so on – all of which seem to demand the existence of a future different from the present.

  5. HI Jonathan

    I think the extent to which scientists make the mistake you sugggest, with regards to the big bang, probably depends upon the scientist in question. I agree that it is always tempting to paint the unknown with fanciful detail, but I suspect for many working scientists the big bang is exactly the place holder you suggest, a reference point for the much more viable investigation of what happened next. It’s very common to hear scientists say we know nothing at all about the intial event, for example.

    Bernard

  6. Edwin says:

    You are making a mistake by comparing the Big Bang to God. The Big Bang theory was proposed as a possible explanation for the observed effects of redshift. Scientists accept it as probable in the lack of any other compelling theories. They do not “believe” it as such. This is a contrast to theists, who believe that their God is true and real and although they do not have all the answers, they are in no doubt that everyone else is wrong.

    As for what happened at or before the Big Bang, these are nothing more than guesses based on our current understanding of the laws of physics. We don’t know. Some would claim this shows the flaws in science, but we accept that we don’t understand everything. Yet.

  7. fionaeason says:

    Hi Bernard

    I stumbled across your blog today when a friend recommended your recent post about how difficult and unsung parenting actually is – I too was rather surprised that I didn’t really have a grasp of this, even given how many parents I knew before becoming one myself.

    I am also interested in your musings here too…I’ve just finally finished reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’. He frames some of these discussions rather well. I’ve not been a big fan of his angry man stance, so it took a bit of swallowing my objections before I started, but by the end I felt like I’d put to bed some of my unrest about why we have clung onto belief in the face of overwhelming evidence that ‘God’ is our own invention.

    I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of a prime mover existing outside time and space – on a very simplistic level, if God created the world, who created God? Much more grand thinkers than I have also taken issue with this concept. It is OK to doubt, it is also OK to live with paradox if you wish.

    As a parent with an inquisitive little one asking me questions about these things (and a childlike propensity to believe anything presented convincingly enough) I am trying to take the line that there are some things that are true and there is evidence for them, some things we are still to discover, and some things are believed by others as they choose the comfort of belief in stories that make them feel better.

    Looking forward to future musings!

  8. JP says:

    Hi fionaeason,

    Concerning the idea of a “prime mover” existing outside time and space – I also have a lot of problems with this.

    In fact, the very notion may be incoherent. The act of creating the universe (or whatever) implies a “previous” state without the universe and a “later” state with the universe present. But how can this be without some notion of passing time? Outside of time, nothing can happen at all. There can be no action of any sort, no thinking even.

    Perhaps there is a way to make the idea of an act of creation without time intelligible. But I don’t know how this would work.

    What do you make of this?

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