Friday, September 26, 2008

God and the Big Bang

The Kalam argument is clear and short:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The argument has been the subject of a great deal of discussion, and various problems with it have been brought out at length.

The universe that Craig has in mind in this argument is the physical universe—the totality of space, time, and matter. So we must be clear about what we are agreeing to in accepting the first premise. Accepting the first premise appears to be accepting that there must have been a non-spatial, non-temporal, and non-material cause of the universe since many physicists assert that space, time, and matter begins at the Big Bang. For many, an immaterial cause before that is precisely they result they want. But acknowledging this implication should raise doubts for us about the principle itself. There’s no doubt that the principle of sufficient reason, or something like it, seems to operate in the vast majority of ordinary, spatial, temporal, material cases. One might argue for premise 1 on those grounds. But then the problem is that we are using an inductive generalization about the behavior of matter within the universe to draw an inference about the totality of the universe itself and causes that may lie outside of space and time.

There’s a pretty substantial obstacle to overcome here. At no point in the history of our investigating such matters have we encountered a single non-spatial, non-temporal, non-material cause. In instances where we have tried to ascertain the cause of physical events, we have found other finite, spatial, temporal causes. That evidence should not be readily discarded. The other avenue whereby premise one is often justified is by so-called “metaphysical intuition.” It is self-evident, says Craig. So now we must ask ourselves, given the choice between going with what’s intuitive and following the lessons that physical inquiries have given us in the past, should we expect the universe to conform to our intuitions?

It’s not that there are significant reasons to reject premise 1. But it would appear that if it entails a non-spatial, non-temporal, non-material cause of the universe, it is presuming a large part of what the argument hopes to show. The existence of such a cause for the universe is exactly what is under contention.

Here’s another worry about premise 1. Earlier versions of the cosmological argument and Russell’s response to them have shown us an important lesson. While it is typical for finite, particular objects in space and time to have a particular cause, it is not evident that collections, sets, or larger groupings of objects must have them too. That is, it is more reasonable and evident that every individual thing that begins to exist has a cause. But that may not apply to the totality of all things considered as a single object—the universe. Paul Edwards’ eskimos example illustrates this point clearly. Russell said, the fact that every human being has a mother doesn’t imply that they all have the same mother. So we have to be careful that we are not misunderstanding the first premise.

Another set of points that are frequently appreciated is the limited scope of this conclusion. The presumption by many seems to be that if the conclusion is true, then we have a viable proof for the existence of God. What’s lacking, of course, are any reasons to think that the cause here has any of the traditional divine properties. It’s not evident that the cause would require omnipotence or omniscience—a cause with less could do it. A cause that only contains the capacity to bring about the physical universe and nothing else would be sufficient. And that sort of cause would be less than omni. Contrast it to a cause that could bring about an infinite number of universes, for instance. Nor is it evident that the cause must be good. Indeed, classical theodicies struggle long and hard just to argue that God’s existence is logically compatible with the extent of suffering and death that we find in the universe. Expecting to observe that same suffering and then read omni-benevolence as necessary in its cause is utterly implausible.

An argument is needed that the cause must be personal and singular as well. Craig has contended that besides material causation, the only sort of causation that we are familiar with is personal, so we can confidently conclude that the immaterial cause of the universe is personal. But here’s a problem. In all the cases where we have observed this so-called “personal” causation it has depended upon a physical cause—the body and the brain—to bring about the effect. We don’t have any examples to draw from of non-physical, non-spatial, non-temporal causation. We have never observed a single instance of a brainless mind causing anything. So if an argument has as its conclusion that there must be such a cause responsible for the universe, we should be cautious at the very least. It’s not that such a thing is clearly impossible. But we have to restrain ourselves from rushing to some conclusion that we favor, especially when so much physical evidence mounts against it.

In recent years, physicists and cosmologists have proposed a number of hypotheses about the cause of the Big Bang. These include an account of a Big Bounce, a multiverse, Branes, and other exotic physical hypotheses. It remains to be seen if any of these are born out by the evidence. But what is important is that while the Kalam argument would evidently have us declare a halt to investigations into the Big Bang because we know with certainty that it must have been caused by a non-spatial, non-temporal, personal omni-God, scientists have been steadily plugging away finding physical explanations. It would be foolish to ignore those developments on the basis of some metaphysical intuitions, particularly when our intuitions have been so grossly wrong in so many previous cases. God as the cause may be “self-evident” to Craig, but legions of the world’s best scientists continue to probe deeper and deeper into these so-called mysteries.

Where does that leave us then? The argument certainly isn't enough to give us reasonable grounds to conclude that God exists. I’m not sure that any of these are crippling objections, or substantial arguments that the premises are false. But they are good reasons to proceed with caution, be agnostic, and not leap to sweeping conclusions from intuition that will be embarrassed by the advances of physics and cosmology.


Jon said...

It is interesting how scientific principles seem to change with the tide of any particular theory:

"matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed" to "matter and energy was 'created' at the big bang" back to the Cyclic Model of matter and energy always existing.

Anonymous said...

people just dont leap with their conclusions sir they take a leap of faith. As you know these are two different things...

Anonymous said...

The purely intellectual argument on this point may be put in a nutshell: is the Creator amenable to the laws of physics or is He not? If He is not, He cannot be inferred from physical phenomena, since no physical causal law can lead to Him; if He is, we shall have to apply the second law of thermodynamics to Him and suppose that He also had to be created at some remote period. But in that case He has lost His raison d'etre. It is curious that not only the physicists, but even the theologians, seem to find something new in the arguments from modern physics. Physicists, perhaps, can scarcely be expected to know the history of theology, but the theologians ought to be aware that the modern arguments have all had their counterparts at earlier times. Eddington's argument about free will and the brain is, as we saw, closely parallel to Descartes's. Jeans's argument is a compound of Plato and Berkeley, and has no more warrant in physics than it had at the time of either of these philosophers. The argument that the world must have had a beginning in time is set forth with great clearness by Kant, who, however, supplements it by an equally powerful argument to prove that the world had no beginning in time. Our age is rendered conceited by the multitude of new discoveries and interventions, but in the realm of philosophy it is much less in advance of the past that it imagines itself to be.

Anonymous said...

"The purely intellectual argument on this point may be put in a nutshell: is the Creator amenable to the laws of physics or is He not? If He is not, He cannot be inferred from physical phenomena, since no physical causal law can lead to Him; if He is, we shall have to apply the second law of"

your dichotomy is false...

god can be inferred from physical phenomena just like atoms and their ilk are inferred...


he can also be inferred from the nonphysical...

you cannot infer that 2+2= 4 from any must use nonphysical referencing ie a priori

Kyle Szklenski said...

Weird. It seems like none of these comments have to do with the original post. Oh well.

I've always found Craig's argument ridiculous for numerous different reasons - most of which can be found in his argumentation for his premises, not so much in the Kalam argument itself.

The Kalam argument itself seems to fail for various reasons. Maybe I'm just a country bumpkin, but it seems to me that if you say, "Everything follows this one rule. . .except for something which put that rule into place," you are inherently committing the special pleading fallacy. I've written an article about this, though I had nowhere to publish it. But I showed it to Stephen Law, my favorite philosopher, and he seemed to think it was a good start on an argument for why the principle of sufficient reason flops.

In any case, I was referred here by the Disproof Atheism Society in Boston, and I'm liking what I'm reading so far. Keep up the good work.