In The Meantime…
Posted by That Other Mike on 17/11/2007
I’m still working on the On Politics article, so in the meantime, here’s something I made earlier </Blue Peter>
Classic Arguments For God – And Why They Don’t Work
Given below are the most common arguments in favour of a god. When talking about this, it should be assumed that I am referring to the god of the Abramic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The arguments can be applied for any religion – these are simply the most common religions within the Western world. The arguments – and counter-arguments – apply as well as for Wicca, Hinduism and so on. For simplicity’s sake, however, I’m referring the god/s of the big three.
The arguments are grouped on a family basis.
- First Cause, or Prime Mover, or Cosmological Argument – Who started the Universe?
- The Kalam Argument – revised version of the Prime Mover incorporating Islamic theology which attempts to smooth over the flaws of the First Cause Argument. But does it succeed?
- The Argument from Contingency – A favourite of Thomas Aquinas; can there be an infinite chain of events? Can these events be without purpose?
The Cosmological or First Cause Argument
Everything had a cause, and every cause is the effect of a previous cause. Something must have started it all. God is the first cause, the unmoved mover, the creator and sustainer of the universe.
This has been a very popular argument with religious philosophers throughout the ages; it seems to be enjoying an upsurge in popularity in recent years, as people who don’t understand the Big Bang or logical principles struggle to find something else. It’s a quick and easy argument which appeals to many who don’t bother to think it through. It seems to solve the mystery of the what caused the Big Bang and prove a God. Two arguments for the price of one.
Unfortunately, this argument shoots itself in the foot. It is internally flawed and internally inconsistent.
What caused God? What many people suggest that it is reasonable to believe in God because it solves a mystery: that of who, or what, caused the universe to come into being. However, it just replaces one mystery with another.
The usual counter to this is that God is somehow exempt from the ‘rule’ that everything has a cause; I believe the normal format is God is extratemporal, and thus exists at all times simultaneously, so he doesn’t require a cause. This is where Ockham’s Razor comes into play: Do not multiply entities unnecessarily. That is, don’t try solving mysteries by adding mystical ingredients which just cause other mysteries. We already have a mystery: the cause of the Big Bang. If you introduce a God, you’re just tipping in a bucket of soap into already murky water; sure, it says on the packet that it cleans away dirt, but how clear will the water be afterwards? You’ve probably also just killed all the fish, too.
Saying that the existence of the Universe proves the existence of God is a logical fallacy of the kind called begging the question, or more formally, petitio principii.
This fallacy occurs when the premises are at least as questionable as the conclusion reached. Typically the premises of the argument implicitly assume the result which the argument purports to prove, in a disguised form. For example:
The Bible is the word of God. The word of God cannot be doubted, and the Bible states that the Bible is true. Therefore the Bible must be true.
There’s no reason to suppose a God exists simply because the Universe does. Yes, the start of the Cosmos is a mystery. So what? Powered flight used to be a mystery – up until the Wright brothers decided Kitty Hawk would be a nice place for an airstrip. This is commonly called the God of the Gaps Syndrome: there is a mystery which is so far unexplained by science. Priests everywhere rejoice, and proclaim that said mystery proves God. It’s very strange how God keeps leaping from place to place every six months as scientists make new discoveries.
The argument that God is extratemporal is quite innovative, but it suffers a few major flaws. One is that actions require temporality: if you want to do something, you need time to do it in. The Big Bang theory posits that the Universe began with a singularity: a point of infinite mass and zero volume. Everything, ever, was crammed into it, literally: all time and all space were in it.
Now, this screws the idea of a time up a lot. Time would not exist outside the singularity, and because the singularity contained all matter and space, there was no time. Supposing you could stand on top of the singularity before it went bang, you could wait forever, and nothing would happen: events require time to happen.
The time from the universe being a singularity to the big bang would thus be infinite.
Therefore, since the big bang has happened, the singularity must have existed for an infinite time before that.
Therefore, the universe is eternal and uncaused, and we don’t need to cut anyone with Ockham’s Razor.
If you’re feeling confused about physics right now, you’d better get unconfused fast. There will be a test later.
God cannot be an uncaused cause, because a cause, even if uncaused, assumes temporality and therefore must exist inside the universe and not outside, which is where God de facto lives/exists.
The Kalam Argument
Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Looks pretty tidy, huh? This argument intertwines Islamic theology and the cosmological argument. In Kalamitous1 thought, infinity exists only conceptually: infinity does not exist as a real object. If time and events are infinite, we could have arrived at the present. Ignoring the fact that the present doesn’t exist either, being only past or future, we have reached the present; therefore, the series of events has a beginning.
Let’s have a look at it.
Things that begin to exist
Does this actually mean anything? At all? The answer is, as you probably guessed, no. You cannot differentiate between objects which exist and those which don’t. Things exist, or they don’t. Existence is not a qualitative concept: you have it or you don’t. The argument implies that things can be divided into existent things and non-existent things.). In order for this to work, things which haven’t begun to exist cannot be an empty group, but more important, it has to have more than one item in it to avoid being just another way of saying God. If God is the only thing which did not begin to exist, things which began to exist is just another way for God to hide behind the curtain in Oz. This make the premise everything that begins to exist has a cause the same as saying everything except God is caused. This puts us right back into the frame of the normal cosmological argument by begging the question.
A subset of this would be that if the only thing that didn’t begin to exist is God, the second premise is shrunk down to the universe is not God, which again assumes what the argument is trying to prove. Put that way, it becomes
Everything except God has a cause. The universe is not God. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
This is logical, if not very useful. It is equivalent to
All limousines are no more than thirty feet long. My house is thirty-eight feet long. Thus my house is not a limousine.
This is all very useful as a specimen of beginner’s logic, but it’s not actually telling us very much. I don’t need to compare lengths to know that my house is not a limousine.
William Lane Craig, the Christian philosopher who is a proponent of Kalam, argues that under Kalam, a creator is inevitable by saying
We know that this first event must have been caused. The question is: How can a first event come to exist if the cause of that event exists changelessly and eternally? Why isn’t the effect as co-eternal as the cause?
It seems that there is only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to infer that the cause of the universe is a personal agent who chooses to create a universe in time. Philosophers call this type of causation ‘agent causation,’ and because the agent is free, he can initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present.
This is dependent upon our knowing that the first event was a caused one. However, if God is the only thing allowed to be existent without being caused, the argument begs the question again. Basically, in order to avoid miring the argument in logical fallacies from the first step, anyone using it has to provide examples of things which are not God, which have also not begun to exist yet exist. Because we don’t encounter things which haven’t begun to exist on a daily basis – or ever, for that matter – we can’t make guesses about them. If something has a beginning, it exists temporally, and vice versa; something cannot exist without a temporal locus or starting point inside the natural universe, because time is an integral part of the Universe. Nothing within the Universe can exist without time, because temporality is what defines the Universe as existent.
The next rabbit out of the hat is usually God is outside the universe (see part of the parent Cosmological Argument), which is just nonsensical: if the Universe is the totality of what exists, you can’t have anything outside of it, or it wouldn’t be the totality of existence. Well done, the rabbit just suffocated inside your magical Fallacy Hat.
However, for the purposes of the discussion, let’s say that there is an Outside to the Universe. If the arguer wants to avoid turning the argument into mass of fallacies analogous to a double helping of spaghetti with extra Bad Logic sauce, he has to admit that his argument is a false one unless he allows other things besides God to not have been caused.
This is where it gets really funny.
The existence of a personal creator as described by Craig presupposes personality, which presupposes complexity. Even Deism presupposes personality, of a sort.
Now, let’s bring out Ockham’s Razor again, and see if we can’t give Craig’s argument an opportunity to get rid of that beard. As a reminder, it essentially says, don’t make things any more complex than they need to be.
For the argument to remain logical and not simply a big old sack full of assertions, impersonal objects have to be admitted into the group of things which are existent without a beginning. If they are not eliminated in some way – and the argument doesn’t hold together if they are – the possibility that the Universe had a naturalistic beginning must be admitted into the equation.
Whoops, Ockham’s Razor just slipped! Kalam has had its throat cut.
If a natural explanation is not eliminated, it is the correct one until proven otherwise. I don’t see any proof of extra-Universal entities which never began coming any time soon.
Whew. Kalam is nearly as riddled with bad grammar as the Ontological Argument (which will follow in part 2).
The Argument from Contingency
Contingent things exist.
Each contingent thing has a time at which it fails to exist (contingent things are not omnipresent).
So, if everything were contingent, there would be a time at which nothing exists (call this an empty time).
That empty time would have been in the past.
If the world were empty at one time, it would be empty forever after (a conservation principle).
So, if everything were contingent, nothing would exist now.
But clearly, the world is not empty (premise 1).
So there exists a being who is not contingent.
Hence, God exists.
This is paraphrased, as Aquinas was a long-winded boor.
A quick clarification here: contingent objects are those which are true only under certain conditions or under existing conditions, and therefore not universally true or valid, for those of you who don’t spend their free time reading into philosophy.
Things do not cease to exist when they die or are destroyed. If I smash a glass on the floor, the material elements of the glass still exist. They don’t make up a glass anymore, and the shape of a glass is no longer one of its attributes. It’s still the same stuff, though.
The argument basically states that the universe can only intelligible if there was a founding intellect.
This argument assumes that all objects are contingent, that is, that they exist only as a result of a series of past events that did not need to have happened. Some event or entity, however, created the universe, and that event or entity could not have been contingent, since its existence is based on no past events.
The argument presupposes that events are contingent and not deterministic. It further presumes that the creator is a purposeful entity, rather than a non-purposeful impersonal event. Neither presumption is obviously true, and the argument fails for much the same reason that First Cause fails: It assumes without evidence that the creation was initiated by a sentient being, and that this being does not itself labour under the terms of the argument.
If there is a being without previous events which caused it, how did it come to exist? It couldn’t exist temporally, as determined by the ruthless murder of Kalam.
The Argument from Contingency is thrown on the scrapheap because it is internally consistent and relies solely on assumptions to make its argument.
1 Possibly not the correct adjective for Kalam, but I couldn’t resist.