An ultimate explanation for everything?

January 10th, 2019

Humans are a curious species, and we like to answer the question “Why?”

Some of the really big questions concern why does the universe exist and what is the purpose of life? Some say God is the answer to those questions. Others say there is no answer to the questions.

Still others say that science will hopefully one day give us answers. One day we may understand that the universe just is because it could never have been otherwise.

But if God is the answer, or if science tells us the answer, does that end the questions?

Arguments about the cause of the universe

People have argued about the cause of the universe for millennia (at least). The basic argument is very simple:

Theist: “Everything has a cause, so the universe must have a cause. And that cause must be something outside the universe. It can only have been God.”

Atheist: “If everything has a cause, then God must have a cause. So what caused God?”

Theist: “God is different. God has always been there. He is the cause of everything but he himself has no cause. He just is.”

Atheist: “Well then, maybe the universe doesn’t have a cause. Maybe it just is.”

Theist: “But there must be some explanation for the universe’s existence, even if we don’t know it! And surely you want to ask why is it there!”

Atheist: “Science will probably be able to explain one day why the universe is there.”

Theist: “But you could still ask why is the science the way it is, and not different so there’d be no universe, couldn’t you?”

Atheist: “Well surely you’d equally want to ask why God is there!”

Theist: “The chain of causation cannot go back forever, it surely must stop somewhere. So why not stop at God?”

Atheist: “Why not just stop at the universe? Or why not keep asking why about God? Why stop there? Can’t we ask ‘Why must God be the ultimate explanation?'”

Like a child, you can always ask why?

Surely both the atheist and the theist are right. You can always ask why …. and then why again …. and again. And again.

I can’t imagine a way to avoid an infinite series of “Why?” questions.

We can always ask the theist why is there a God at all, couldn’t it have been different? And why is God the one thing that doesn’t need an explanation of his own existence? And whatever explanation the theist gives, we can still ask why are things like that?

Likewise we can always ask the atheist why should any explanation stop at the universe? Why wouldn’t they want to keep asking why?

Some explanation is better than none … and more is better

Even though we probably can’t find a satisfactory end to the why questions, going deeper into the chain of explanation is always better. We learn some deeper facts.

For instance, police investigating a crime might be happy to know who did it and what their motive was. But a psychologist might want to go deeper and ask why did the criminal have that particular motive, were they predisposed to that behaviour? And a geneticist might want to go deeper still and ask if there is a gene that leads to that type of behaviour. Each level of explanation adds to our understanding.

It is the same in science. Every new knowledge opens up new questions. Medical scientists may try to understand why a certain disease occurs, and discover that it is caused by a virus. They might then ask which virus? Then they may seek to understand how that virus affects human beings, and if they discover that they might seek a remedy. Further questions might include why some people are worse affected than others, and so on.

Some beliefs are foundational

If we are going to come to any conclusions about the world, we have to think some beliefs are foundational, even though they can still be questioned. We would generally assume that the external world is real and our senses give some reasonably accurate information about it. Of course those assumptions may not be true, and we could always try to test if what we see is an illusion or a hallucination, but mostly we are happy with such foundational assumptions.

In philosophical terms, we might describe such reasonable foundational beliefs as “properly basic”.

So what are foundational assumptions about the universe?

So in the Theist vs Atheist discussion about the universe, what would be a reasonable foundational assumption? Where is it reasonable to stop the “why?” questions and just accept something as a brute fact?

The atheist may say that the existence of the universe is a brute fact which we simply accept as a given, although this seems a little contrary to the argument that science may one day explain the origin of the universe. The theist would most likely say that God is the foundational starting point of the chain of causation.

As a theist I prefer the thought that God is a reasonable end point for the chain of causation:

  1. It is more fundamental. It goes back beyond the atheist answer that the universe just is and provides an explanation for the universe.
  2. It seems reasonable to expect an explanation for the universe, but less reasonable to expect we can explain God. The human mind can comprehend the universe via science, but it seems folly to think we can understand God.
  3. I think it is more reasonable to think God “just is” than to think the universe just is.

The atheist may respond that I am just putting all the difficult questions into an unknown we call “God”, which makes it feel we have an answer even though we don’t.

I think there is truth in that thought, but I also think that it shows the strength of the explanation that God provides. If the idea of God is capable of providing an explanation, even while not answering all the questions, that surely is better and more believable than a hypothesis that doesn’t provide that explanation?

No ultimate explanation?

So I believe we need to accept we can never have an ultimate explanation, and we shouldn’t reject any viewpoint on those grounds. Rather, we should embrace the viewpoint which gives the most satisfying answers to the most important questions.

What do you think?

Photo by Francis Seura from Pexels.

One Comment

  1. I think that’s part of the problem. We keep thinking how grown up we are. And how only children ask “why” constantly. When the reality is, we’re just babies. And “Why” is something we SHOULD ask constantly. Regardless of beliefs or lack there of.

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