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Something from nothing?

August 27th, 2017

Nate, who blogs at Finding Truth, and I have been internet friends and opponents for maybe 6 or 7 years. We read each other’s blogs, sometimes comment and occasionally blog in reply to each other.

Recently, in response to a question of mine, Nate blogged on the question of whether the beginning of the universe was a difficulty for atheists to explain (Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 2: Something from Nothing).

Nate made the following points (I have tried to summarise him fairly):

  1. We don’t know if there was “nothing” before the Big Bang which started our universe off. In fact we don’t even know if a state of nothingness is even possible.
  2. Thus “How did something arise out of nothing?” may not be a meaningful question, and certainly not evidence for a god.
  3. Perhaps the universe, or something else, has always existed, and there is no beginning to explain.
  4. In the end, we simply don’t know, and “ignorance is not the basis for an argument”.

In this post I consider the argument about the origin of the universe (generally known as the Cosmological argument), and Nate’s responses.

Two different forms of the cosmological argument

There are two different forms of the cosmological argument we need to consider: one based on a beginning and one based on an explanation. I feel Nate has really only considered the first of these.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

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

Nate hasn’t objected to premise 1, but some atheists do. They say either that some quantum events don’t have causes, or that while everything within the universe might have a cause, that doesn’t mean the universe as a whole must. This is apparently the fallacy of composition – the error of assuming that what is true of a member of a group is true for the group as a whole. For example, every person in word has a mother, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the world has a mother.

But we can modify premise 1 to: Almost everything we know of that begins to exist has a cause. And this is hard to disagree with.

But did the universe begin?

Several of Nate’s objections relate to this premise. It seems to me he has raised four objections, all of which have plausible answers.

1. Was there something before the big bang?

Some cosmologists believe that our universe has resulted from a previous universe or an ensemble of universes. But there are two different uses of the word “universe” here. If we define “universe” as everything composed of matter and space-time that has ever existed or ever will exist, then there was, by definition, no “thing” prior to the universe.

2. Is the state of “nothing” possible?

The Kalam argument actually says nothing about nothing. (Of course the question is often phrased as “why is there something rather than nothing?”, but it isn’t essential to the argument.) So this objection appears to be irrelevant. If the universe began to exist, then as far as the argument goes, it doesn’t matter what we think was there prior to its existence.

3. Has the universe always existed?

There are several arguments that suggest it couldn’t have always existed. The two most convincing seem to me to be:

  1. It is impossible to count to infinity. Therefore it is equally impossible to count backwards to minus infinity. So a sequence of events can never begin an infinite time ago, for if it did, we could count backwards to minus infinity.
  2. Every physical event causes entropy (a measure of the amount of energy no longer available for use) in the universe to increase, so that in a long but finite time, entropy will reach its maximum and nothing more can happen. (This is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the best established of all physical laws.) If the universe was infinitely old, this state would have already been reached.
4. Is this argument based on ignorance?

Well, the argument exists, and it is logically valid. So to assess it we need to make a judgment on whether each premise is more likely to be true than false. I have argued that there are good reasons to suggest that they are. If so, the conclusion that the universe has a cause is more likely to be correct than not, and ignorance has nothing to do with it.

The Leibniz Cosmological Argument

  1. Anything which exists has an explanation of its existence in the necessity of its nature or in an external cause.
  2. It isn’t necessarily the case that the universe must exist. (i.e. it is possible that it didn’t exist).
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

Philosophers have identified two types of beings or things: necessary things whose nature it is to exist (they couldn’t not exist), and have no external cause, and contingent things, whose existence is explained by factors outside themselves, and which could possibly have not existed, or they could have had different qualities.

This argument depends on these definitions, and argues that the universe is contingent, and can in fact be defined as everything that exists that is contingent. Therefore it cannot necessarily exist, but must be caused by something that does necessarily exist.

Note that this argument is applicable whether the universe has always existed or not.

But these arguments haven’t proved God!

No they haven’t. But they have suggested persuasively that it is more likely than not that the universe has a cause. And this cause must, if the arguments are accepted, be non-material, outside of time (= eternal ?) and must necessarily exist. That is quite an interesting conclusion, particularly as I have never seen any plausible entity that meets that description except God.

So both forms of the Cosmological Argument can have extra premises and conclusions added to point more clearly to God.

In conclusion ….

I have addressed each of Nate’s objections, and shown that the Cosmological Argument can (arguably) meet those objections. We can summarise the overall arguments this way.

There are only three possible ways to explain the universe: either ….

  1. it had a cause outside itself; or
  2. it had no cause outside itself, but has always existed; or
  3. it had no cause outside itself, but began to exist without any cause.

Option #1 suggests the existence of a creator God.

Option #2 requires the universe to exist for no reason or cause, and to defy the second law of thermodynamics. It is therefore doubly implausible, and neither of these two requirements can be explained.

Option #3 also requires that the universe began without cause or reason, which again has no explanation.

The implications of a lack of explanation

Atheists often say they cannot explain how the universe began, and they are quite comfortable with that.

“A hypothesis is a suggested solution for an unexplained occurrence” (Live Science). If we have no explanation, then we have no hypothesis.

So if we accept either option 2 or 3, we have no hypothesis to compete with the theistic hypothesis that God is the best explanation of the the cause of the universe. They might be comfortable with having no explanation, but they are actually saying that they have no alternative to offer to the theistic conclusions.

That is tantamount to saying that the theistic conclusion is by far the most likely conclusion, because there is no other one!

I am comfortable with that conclusion too! And so I believe the explanation for the universe is indeed a “problem for atheism” and a strong indicator that God probably exists and created.

As Terence McKenna said: “Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.”

Read more

Read more about the big bang at How did the universe start? and the Cosmological argument (in more detail).

Photo: Part of the Small Magellanic Cloud Galaxy (NASA)

45 Comments

  1. I have identified an apparent gap in our knowledge.

    Therefore God.

    I don’t think you realize how unpersuasive this kind of argument is.

  2. You may think my comment was inaccurate. But most non-religious folk are going to see unkleE’s post as a “god of the gaps” argument.

  3. Hi Neil,

    Obviously I know you don’t agree with my conclusion, but “I don’t think you realize how unpersuasive this kind of argument is.” is hardly a rebuttal, is it? How would you disprove the premises in the Kalam and Leibniz arguments?

  4. How would you disprove the premises in the Kalam and Leibniz arguments?

    There’s nothing to disprove. All you have are flawed premises. And at most, they demonstrate a gap in our knowledge.

  5. Hi Neil, that means I have offered 2 formally logical arguments with reasoning to justify the premises, and you have offered no reasoning to rebut the premises. Are you happy to leave it that way?

  6. To say that you have a formally valid logic argument is to say that the real argument is in the asserted premises. It is in those premises that you attempt to exploit a gap in knowledge.

    The formal structure of the argument is just a decorative bow that is pinned on to make the complete package look elegant.

    I’m happy to leave the argument at this point.

  7. Hi Neil,

    It still means you haven’t explained your reasons for rejecting the premises and the logic. I think it shows that they are quite strong and indeed a difficulty for atheists. But if you’re happy with that, so am I. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Hey Eric,
    I don’t claim to have a sure-fire explanation for the existence of the universe, but several aspects of your article jumped out at me so I’ll just highlight those. Sorry for the scattered structure of this comment, but I wasn’t able to piece together a nice cohesive train of thought.

    If we define “universe” as everything composed of matter and space-time that has ever existed or ever will exist, then there was, by definition, no “thing” prior to the universe.

    I suspect that most skeptics would NOT say that our current conception of the constituents of the universe is likely to be complete or exhaustive. The exclusion of supernatural explanations is more about discounting theories which run counter to the established pattern of everything else, which is empirically discoverable and describable via predictable models. And when you say “there was, by definition, no ‘thing’ prior to the universe”, you are implying that time is somehow completely independent of the universe, which does not accord with nearly all theories of time.

    a sequence of events can never begin an infinite time ago

    This again infers a theory of time that treats it as independent from the universe.

    If the universe was infinitely old, this state [maximum entropy] would have already been reached.

    Two points:
    1) In a block universe conception, the low entropy “beginning” is the point in 4D space with the minimum entropy and time is quite possibly relative to that point rather than a separate, independent reference.
    2) Entropy is only constantly increasing in closed system. When you look at subspaces within the system, entropy can decrease. As I understand it, several theories posit the big bang of our observable universe as something like this – a deviation that produces a region of low entropy.

    It seems like the Leibniz Cosmological Argument you offered could just as easily be applied to God:
    1. Anything which exists has an explanation of its existence in the necessity of its nature or in an external cause.
    2. It isn’t necessarily the case that God must exist. (i.e. it is possible that God doesn’t exist).
    3. Therefore God has a cause.
    You could reject premise 2 by defining God as a necessary being, but it isn’t clear why the rationale for that definition couldn’t be equally applied to the universe.

    Philosophers have identified two types of beings or things: necessary things whose nature it is to exist (they couldn’t not exist), and have no external cause, and contingent things, whose existence is explained by factors outside themselves

    You treat this dichotomy like it’s some sort of observable fact, but all “contingent things” aren’t actually coming into existence – they’re just conceptual divisions we assign to portions of the observable universe that are transformed into something we identify as distinct (as with the Sorites Paradox). So it looks like a category error to assign all the parts of the observable universe as contingent and then treat the whole as if it operates the same way and so also must be contingent. Maybe there isn’t a dichotomy at all. Maybe there’s just the universe.

    it had a cause outside itself; … suggests the existence of a creator God

    Does this mean you’re defining God as anything other than the universe? Couldn’t the universe have been caused by something that you wouldn’t call ‘God’?

    it had no cause outside itself, but has always existed; … requires the universe to exist for no reason or cause, and to defy the second law of thermodynamics

    I think my comments above already address this.

    it had no cause outside itself, but began to exist without any cause; … which again has no explanation

    Or perhaps ’cause’ just isn’t an appropriate concept for the origin of the universe (assuming there is an origin)

    That’s it. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  9. Hi Travis, thanks for giving your perspective. I always appreciate it, even if I disagree with it.

    ”most skeptics would NOT say that our current conception of the constituents of the universe is likely to be complete or exhaustive”

    I don’t think this is crucial. The argument is that whatever we decide is true, e.g. a multiverse with 10^500 domains or universes, if we define “the universe” as all of that in principle, then the two arguments can proceed on that basis.

    ”And when you say “there was, by definition, no ‘thing’ prior to the universe”, you are implying that time is somehow completely independent of the universe”

    I can see that is a difficulty with the Kalam argument, but the Leibniz argument discusses “before” in a logical or causal sense, not a temporal one.

    ”This again infers a theory of time that treats it as independent from the universe.”

    I don’t see that, so you might have to explain it to me please. All I think is that if we are saying that the space-time universe has always existed, then we have already included time, and it seems that the idea is very difficult to justify, for the reasons I’ve given.

    ”Entropy is only constantly increasing in closed system. When you look at subspaces within the system, entropy can decrease. As I understand it, several theories posit the big bang of our observable universe as something like this – a deviation that produces a region of low entropy.“

    Yes, but again, if we define “the universe” as all space-time-matter, then it is a closed physical system in that there cannot by definition be anything physical outside it. Of course if God exists, it isn’t closed in a non-physical sense.

    ”It isn’t necessarily the case that God must exist. (i.e. it is possible that God doesn’t exist).”

    I think most philosophers agree that if the classical God of theism exists, then he/she/it necessarily exists.

    ”it isn’t clear why the rationale for that definition couldn’t be equally applied to the universe.”

    Some people do apparently argue that way, but the universe as we experience it is very contingent – you and I are changing it just be having this conversation – though if determinism is true then perhaps we aren’t! I find it hard to believe that this random universe couldn’t have been different in any way, and thus is necessary in a philosophical sense.

    ”it looks like a category error to assign all the parts of the observable universe as contingent and then treat the whole as if it operates the same way and so also must be contingent. Maybe there isn’t a dichotomy at all. Maybe there’s just the universe.”
    “Or perhaps ’cause’ just isn’t an appropriate concept for the origin of the universe (assuming there is an origin)”

    I think this gets close to the real guts of the arguments on either side. Jonathan Haidt says we form our opinions on religious and ethical (and many other) issues intuitively and then rationalise them later. That may be a little harsh, but I think arguments like the Cosmological try to express rationally what we intuitively feel.

    I feel the idea of a beginningless space-time universe is nonsense, as is the idea that the universe (all space-time-matter) could form out of nothing. So however unlikely it may be, the idea that something non-spatial, non-temporal and non-physical causing the universe is the only option that makes any sense to me.

    Now I think many atheists feel the idea of God is just as much nonsense, though I cannot see they have offered any justification for this. But if they do, then things like different views of time and contingency, improbable and incomprehensible as they seem to me, will be more probable for them than God. I can’t see how they can justify that in any rational way, but I have to recognise that many nevertheless think that way.

    So I wonder where your intuition leads you? It seems like your statements here are too much “maybe” and not enough practical reality. (I am reminded of Paul Davies’ book About Time where he discusses negative time apparently quite seriously. It may make sense mathematically but I can’t see how it makes sense in the real world we live in.)

    So my answer to this comment is – yes, maybe this or maybe that, but I think the two arguments’ premises are practically far more probable than their negation.

    ”Does this mean you’re defining God as anything other than the universe? Couldn’t the universe have been caused by something that you wouldn’t call ‘God’?“

    Yes, we agree here. The argument doesn’t “prove” God, just an external cause. That cause is non-physical, non-temporal, arguably non-spatial, and able to create, so that is what we end up with. It is hard to see anything else but some sort of God fulfilling those requirements, but of course it doesn’t necessarily need to be the God of theism – could be George Lucas’ force (perhaps) or a deistic god, etc. But when I consider all the theistic and anti-theistic arguments cumulatively, I think it is clear that it is the God of monotheism, perhaps a more “hands-off” God, or nothing.

  10. “This again infers a theory of time that treats it as independent from the universe.”
    I don’t see that, so you might have to explain it to me please. All I think is that if we are saying that the space-time universe has always existed, then we have already included time, and it seems that the idea is very difficult to justify, for the reasons I’ve given.

    On a second read it appears that I misinterpreted what you were saying. That said, I think that an appeal to our difficulty comprehending the infinite is not a strong reason to reject models which employ infinities. I used to struggle with the idea of an ‘actual infinite’ but multiple influences have converged to push me toward accepting that it a very real possibility.

    Yes, but again, if we define “the universe” as all space-time-matter, then it is a closed physical system in that there cannot by definition be anything physical outside it.

    OK, so the assumption is that the source of the low-entropy point we call the big bang operates in accordance with the same energy conservation models we apply to our observable universe – and that isn’t unreasonable. That highlights the significance of the kind of model that Krauss posits, which builds on the quantum fluctuations that deviate from the large scale models which would impose the constraint you note. And it’s also commonly posited that the total energy of our universe is zero, which suggests a model for the formation of the low-entropy ‘beginning’ which is different from localized low-entropy changes in the observable universe, in which an exothermic process spatially accumulates energy.

    It seems like your statements here are too much “maybe” and not enough practical reality.

    And the God hypothesis isn’t a “maybe”? I fully acknowledge that all models which attempt to explain our observable universe are maybes, but I think you have a much bigger challenge than you have expressed here in explaining why the God hypothesis is a better “maybe” than the sum total of all the “maybes” which have been posited. Sure, it’s one option. But the objections you’ve raised to the alternatives are far from comprehensive and certainly doesn’t leave us with “the God of monotheism, perhaps a more ‘hands-off’ God, or nothing”.

  11. Hi Travis,

    Your comments raise one matter in my mind I’d like to comment on.

    ”And the God hypothesis isn’t a “maybe”? I fully acknowledge that all models which attempt to explain our observable universe are maybes, but I think you have a much bigger challenge than you have expressed here in explaining why the God hypothesis is a better “maybe” than the sum total of all the “maybes” which have been posited.”

    I think it is all a matter of probabilities.

    The two Cosmological arguments are logically valid, so it is a matter of judging on the evidence whether the premises of either or both are more probably true or more probably false. If they are more probably true, then the conclusion that the universe was caused by something non-material, non-temporal and capable of creating such an enormous thing is more probably true than not. If we could agree on that, then we could discuss then whether we should call that entity “God” or a force, or an unknown cause or what.

    It seems to me that the premises are quite clearly more probable than not, Yes, we can raise objections about the nature of time and cause, but in the real world, we take those things for granted all the time.

    For example, consider the Hawking-Hartle idea that the universe didn’t have a start because when we go back that far there is no time, only space. But it still remains true that either the universe had a cause or it doesn’t. We can do fancy things with the mathematics and physics of time and space, but the logic of the arguments remains.

    So in assessing the probability of the premises being more likely true or false, we have clear and sensible logic on one side and a strange mathematical abstraction that doesn’t actually change the logic on the other. I think it is no contest. I reckon if we were faced with a real life and death situation, we’d go with the practical alternative every time, not the theoretical abstraction which (arguably) doesn’t change the argument.

  12. Sure, everything is a matter of probabilities – and this is a particular case of high uncertainty on any assigned probabilities. So let’s go ahead and take a stab at putting numbers on the two arguments.

    Kalam:
    1. Everything that begins has a cause.
    As previously noted, our only experience of “begins” is actually the reconfiguration of part of what already exists into a configuration that we identify as something new. If we include this macro reconfiguration in the definition of “begins”, along with effectively innumerable quantum fluctuations for which a “cause” is unclear but possible, then maybe we rely on induction to give something like 95% probability to the premise.

    2. The universe began
    There is a boundary to our observation of the universe and our ability to build models which can support those observations. Does that boundary constitute a “beginning”? I find that this premise is hard to pin down what is actually being said, so I’m just going to assign 50% by accepting the dichotomy of “began or did not began” as unknown.

    3. Therefore the universe has a cause
    So the conjunction of 95% and 50% puts us at 47.5% for the conclusion. In the absence further evidence, that is then equally divided up between all competing theories of the cause, of which I have no idea how many there are. Even if we keep it simple and go with just five (theism, deism, agentless magic and 2 distinct naturalistic theories – there are certainly more) then we’re down to 9.5% for theism.

    Leibniz:
    1. Anything which exists has an explanation of its existence in the necessity of its nature or in an external cause.
    I cannot conceive of any other categories but accept that I have epistemic limits, so let’s go with 99% credence on this.

    2. It isn’t necessarily the case that the universe must exist. (i.e. it is possible that it didn’t exist).
    I have nothing but the conceptual possibility here to go on, placed in relation to these ambiguous categories of necessary or caused. I lean toward accepting the conceptual possibility of a non-existent universe and so will go with 75% (and I still don’t see why God gets a free pass as being an exception to this, especially if we’re just relying on conceptual possibility).

    3. Therefore the universe has a cause.
    The conjunction of 99% and 75% puts this at 74.25%. Again divide this cause up into the same five and we’re down to about 15% for theism. And we include the two naturalistic theories because brute fact naturalistic entities are

    I don’t see that this exercise actually means much. That last step of splitting up the probabilities dominates the conclusion and I know there’s a bunch of other evidence we would all want to consider. There’s also so much uncertainty associated with all of this that nearly everybody is going to disagree in some way and this kind of formalization becomes almost meaningless. I honestly feel like this breakdown was pretty much a waste of time. And if that’s the case, then any specific conclusion that comes from these arguments is not very persuasive.

  13. Hi Travis,

    I think you are a little too negative about the probability exercise – I found it very helpful. Of course we both know the numbers are no more than notional, but they do help clarify your thinking. So I will give my understanding of the same things.

    Kalam:
    1. I agree with something like your 95% probability.

    2. I don’t think it’s a matter of models, but of simple logic. Either it began or to didn’t. It doesn’t look eternal and there are some good mathematical, philosophical and physical reasons to think it isn’t. I would go for something like 80%, at least.

    3. This leads to a minimum of about 75% for the conclusion of this argument alone.

    I differ significantly in how I treat this result. I don’t think there are 5 options here and I don’t think they are all equal probability:

    Theism & deism are the same supernatural cause, with some different descriptors on God, and I can’t see we can say any more a priori than “maybe, maybe not”.

    Agentless magic is the same as starting without a cause, and I think that so much goes against logic, experience and common sense that I’d rate it very low probability.

    Two distinct naturalistic theories – there may well be more, but they are logically ruled out if we are discussing the universe = “everything physical”. Only if we limit the proof to our own universe can this be a logical possibility and it is probably then quite high.

    So my conclusion on the Kalam is that it makes a god of some sort about 70% probable if we consider the whole multiverse, and is only weak if we limit ourselves to this universe and accept the possibility of a multiverse.

    Leibniz:
    1. I am happy with your 99% here.
    2. Likewise I am happy with your 75% here though I’d probably put it higher.
    3. So we have 74%. But again I don’t see that five options is right, nor that they are all equal. So again I’d end up with something similar to the Kalam.

    So we can see where we differ – primarily in how we interpret the result.

    (a) I take serious issue with your splitting of the final conclusion into 5 equal options.

    (b) Nevertheless, your probabilities make the conclusion that the universe has a non-material, non-temporal cause quite probable. That is surely significant.

    (c) This is only one argument. If we consider the design and other arguments, I think the probability of God gets higher.

    (d) Yours isn’t the only way to do probability. We could use Bayes, which is based on asking how likely an outcome is on each of two hypotheses. I think there is little doubt that the outcome we have (our universe) is more likely on a theistic hypothesis than on a naturalistic hypothesis, thus reinforcing the order of probabilities that I obtained.

    I continue to think the origin of the universe is a challenge to atheism!

  14. Eric,
    Setting aside the probabilities of the different branches, I see that you are interpreting the deductive path of the logical arguments (the path which agrees with the premises and conclusion) to effectively rule out everything other than a supernatural agent. Do you really think that the affirmation of these arguments is sufficient to favor agent explanations over non-agent explanations? I don’t even see where agency enters the picture.

    your probabilities make the conclusion that the universe has a non-material, non-temporal cause quite probable

    Actually, with respect to the Kalam argument, your response suggests that the definition of “begins” should not include the reconfiguration of existing stuff, which means there isn’t any inductive precedent for assigning a probability to the first premise, which makes it another highly uncertain 50/50 proposition. So the conjunction drops to 25% and is essentially meaningless because it’s based entirely on a pair of dichotomies for which probabilities are unknown. Conversely we could allow that “begins” includes the reconfiguration of existing stuff, but then you have to also allow that the “beginning” of the universe is a reconfiguration of existing stuff, which defies your definition for the universe. Something would have to give.

    On the Leibniz argument, the problem is the fact that it relies on conceptual possibilities of non-existence. So you can either enter an infinite regress (by repeatedly applying the argument back to the cause in #3) or by arbitrarily inventing something that you call ‘necessary’ to put the brakes on the process. But as soon as you try to define that “necessary something” in any way, it becomes easily conceived as not existing and is no longer “necessary”. So perhaps the argument actually favors an infinite regress?

  15. Hi Travis,

    “you are interpreting the deductive path of the logical arguments …. to effectively rule out everything other than a supernatural agent.”

    No I don’t think so. The argument as commonly stated only establishes that the universe has a non-material cause. I say this in the post under the heading But these arguments haven’t proved God! But I go on to say (subsequent to the argument) that I cannot see any other realistic option than a supernatural agent. And I still haven’t seen one.

    “Do you really think that the affirmation of these arguments is sufficient to favor agent explanations over non-agent explanations?”

    What is a non-material non-agent explanation? I can’t think of one.

    “there isn’t any inductive precedent for assigning a probability to the first premise, which makes it another highly uncertain 50/50 proposition”

    I have two thoughts here.

    (1) I thought we were using probability in a notional sense to illustrate our thinking, so I don’t see any need to have the sort of precision I think you are asking for here (if I understand you correctly).

    (2) Bayes allows us to ask the simple question: Would a beginning be more likely to occur on naturalism or on theism? To me, the answer is very clear.

    “arbitrarily inventing something that you call ‘necessary’ to put the brakes on the process”

    I agree with the logic you are using here, but I don’t think the God option is at all arbitrary. God-belief in some form has been ubiquitous in the human race for a long long time, and researchers like Justin Barrett conclude that we naturally see agent causation in the world. So it is an obvious hypothesis to consider.

  16. Eric,
    I need some clarity on demarcations. Does “the universe” include everything that is directly or indirectly empirically discoverable? If so, why is God separate from the universe – is God completely undiscoverable? If not, what is the proper demarcation for “the universe” as it relates to these arguments?

    To be more concrete, what is it about the exotic features of theoretical cosmologies, like loop quantum cosmology or brane cosmology, that includes them in “the universe” and which does not also apply to God? Is “the universe” demarcated by the ability to present a mathematical model, even if we don’t see any way to test it?

    Once you define that demarcation, we then need to ask how this demarcation relates to the presented arguments.

    Lastly, I did not mean to imply that theism is an arbitrary invention but rather that the attribution of ‘necessity’ to the concept of God is an arbitrary attribution which is no more justified than the attribution of ‘necessity’ to any other postulated entity.

  17. I regard the universe to be everything that is material, or physical. i.e. everything that a naturalist would think exists. The question then is how did this everything get here, what caused it? It can’t be anything natural, unless something that doesn’t exist can cause itself to exist.

    Re necessary, I think the argument goes the other way. How do we explain everything natural, which appears to be contingent. The argument is that either it has no cause, it just is, or something that is not natural and not contingent (i.e. necessary) caused it. God seems to be the only hypothetical entity that could meet those requirements, a conclusion that is reinforced by other theistic arguments. So we don’t postulate that God is necessary, we argue that there must be something necessary and that can only be God.

  18. Why does it have to be caused?

    The meaning of “cause”, as we use it, has to do with things that happen within our universe. Why should it be relevant to what is outside our universe?

    The same applies to words such as “begin” or “time”. Their meaning has to do with what happens within our universe. Why should they be applicable to anything outside our universe?

  19. I don’t really see this Neil. Why shouldn’t a word mean the same wherever we use it?

    Think about it this way. What would you think for this argument? You don’t see any evidence of God in this universe, but why should evidence mean the same outside the universe? So why shouldn’t God exist outside our universe?

  20. Why shouldn’t a word mean the same wherever we use it?

    That misses the point. The issue is not what the word means. The issue is whether that meaning has any relevance at all to where it is used.

    What would you think for this argument? You don’t see any evidence of God in this universe, but why should evidence mean the same outside the universe? So why shouldn’t God exist outside our universe?

    I don’t have any problem with that, except that I don’t see the point.

    I do not deny that there is a god. I openly admit that I have no knowledge one way or the other, as to whether there is a god.

  21. Eric,

    I regard the universe to be everything that is material, or physical. i.e., everything that a naturalist would think exists

    OK, so I’m going to take this to include things like a quantum vacuum and everything in any model that theoretical physicists have offered. This would imply that it is not even possible to construct a model of something which does not count as part of the universe because it becomes part of the universe simply by virtue of being describable in a model. Here’s where I see this leading:
    1) The universe can be defined by a brute fact model (e.g., the quantum vacuum is a brute fact and the rest of the universe is the result of a spontaneous fluctuation).
    2) By the definition of Leibniz P1, something is ‘necessary’ if it doesn’t have any explanation for its existence.
    3) Every model which posits an entity that is not otherwise explained is thus a brute fact model with a necessary entity at its core.
    3) Given this population of models, the probability for the Leibniz P2 can be estimated from a survey of models on offer rather than mere conceptual possibility.
    4) By #3, the number of models with a necessary universe is much greater than the number of models with a contingent universe, such that the probability for Leibniz P2 is low.

    I suspect you would argue that step #3 is an invalid move because you ask “How do we explain everything natural, which appears to be contingent?” but we have just taken all those contingent appearances and pushed them back to a part of the model which is brute fact. If that entity is explained by something else then the explanation becomes the brute fact. On what other basis are we to say that the last unexplained entity in a model is not suitable to be categorized as necessary?

    we argue that there must be something necessary and that can only be God.

    OK. I’ve granted your claim that there must be something necessary. Why can it only be God? What’s wrong with the criteria for necessity that I defined above?

  22. Hi Travis,

    Yes, the universe as I would define it definitely includes a quantum vacuum – that is why people like Lawrence Krauss are conning us by describing a universe coming from a quantum vacuum as “a universe from nothing”.

    But no, something doesn’t become part of the universe by being in a model, but only by actually existing as a natural or physical entity.

    If the universe is a brute fact, then unless you can argue that it is a necessary entity then you have offered no explanation for it, and you still have a hypothesis (naturalism) than can’t explain the universe’s existence, and is thus an inferior hypothesis.

    No, something isn’t necessary simply because its being is inexplicable. Some thing is necessary because it couldn’t not have existed or been true.

    So I wouldn’t argue against #3 particularly. Rather I think just about all you say there is based on incorrect definitions.

    So we are still left with either a contingent thing is the brute fact or a necessary thing is the brute fact. The contingent thing makes no logical sense, but the necessary thing makes sense by definition. And the only necessary entity in the discussion so far is God.

    What other entity that could have been both (1) the beginning of the logical chain of events leading to the universe, and (2) necessarily existing?

  23. Hi Neil,

    “That misses the point. The issue is not what the word means. The issue is whether that meaning has any relevance at all to where it is used.”

    Yes I agree, but that didn’t seem to be what you were saying. If I misunderstood you, I’m sorry.

    So you are arguing that the concept of cause may not have any meaning outside the physical universe. My response would be (1) why not? and (2) and it also may have meaning. That hardly counts as an argument. Unless you can offer a reason why not, then it makes more sense to think that it does.

    “I don’t have any problem with that, except that I don’t see the point.”

    So do you truly not have any problem with the “argument” I suggested?

    “I do not deny that there is a god. I openly admit that I have no knowledge one way or the other, as to whether there is a god”

    So does that mean that you don’t have any opinion one way or another about the Cosmological argument?

  24. So does that mean that you don’t have any opinion one way or another about the Cosmological argument?

    It is flawed reasoning.

    I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about the conclusion. But I do care about flawed reasoning.

  25. Eric,

    something isn’t necessary simply because its being is inexplicable. Some thing is necessary because it couldn’t not have existed or been true.

    So the only criteria for establishing necessity is whether or not it is conceptually possibility to not-exist? I submit then that nothing is necessary and reject Leibniz P1 on the basis of ‘necessary’ being impossible – because every concept can be conceived to not exist.

  26. Hi Neil,

    “It is flawed reasoning.”

    Do you mean the logic is flawed, i.e. the argument isn’t valid? if so, can you explain how please?

    Or do you just mean you disagree with one of the premises? In which case, I can only say again that saying that the concept of cause may nothave meaning outside the universe seems to me to be a very weak reason to reject the premise. If I were an agnostic, I would want stronger reasons that that before i said the argument was flawed.

  27. Sorry Travis, but we are not on the same wavelength. I didn’t say “whether or not it is conceptually possibility” – that would be a useless criterion because we can conceive of almost anything. I said “Some thing is necessary because it couldn’t not have existed or been true.” That is not conceptual but actual. See Stanford Encyclopedia.

  28. If I were an agnostic, I would want stronger reasons that that before i said the argument was flawed.

    As an agnostic, I don’t care.

    As a mathematician, I do care about poor reasoning.

    It is a general principle of logic, that the conclusion cannot provide more than was in the premises. If you can get God as a conclusion, then God must have been smuggled into the premises. And it isn’t hard to see where. It is in the use of “cause”. I’ll note that “cause” is undefined, which makes it pliable enough to used for such smuggling.

  29. Eric,
    I have a wideband radio and have been trying to adjust the dial to understand the force of the arguments this whole time. At this point I’m dialing in on the reliance on ‘necessary’ and I don’t think we’re as far off as you think. You say that you’re not talking about conceptual possibility but rather whether something couldn’t not exist (which is just a double negative for must exist, which is synonymous with ‘necessary’). So help me dial in – what is the basis for determining whether something “couldn’t not exist”? As I read the SEP article I find what amounts to the ontological argument, which relies on conceptual possibility. Do you find the ontological argument to be persuasive? If not, what is it that convinces you that God “couldn’t not exist”? Do you think it makes sense to say something like “If God exists, then God couldn’t not exist”?

  30. “It is a general principle of logic, that the conclusion cannot provide more than was in the premises.”
    Hi Neil, does this mean you think all logical arguments are similarly useless?

    “If you can get God as a conclusion, then God must have been smuggled into the premises.”
    “Smuggled” is an emotive word. Would it not be more accurate to say that arguments make explicit what was implicit in the premises, which is a good thing?

    “As an agnostic, I don’t care.”
    I was talking about finding out the truth of the matter. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant too, but regardless, I guess this makes the whole thing not worth discussing. So let’s leave it there, shall we?

  31. Hi Travis,

    “Do you find the ontological argument to be persuasive?”

    No I never really have. I sort of think it is just words.

    “what is the basis for determining whether something “couldn’t not exist””

    I don’t think it works that way. I think the logical process goes like this ….

    1. The universe is clearly contingent, temporal and physical, and understanding the world and life requires that we try to explain it – i.e. we use whatever evidence we can find to try to understand reality.
    2. I think it clearly isn’t eternal – it is temporal and an infinite past is (IMO) impossible. Saying it exists without a cause goes against everything we know, makes no sense, and is no explanation at all.
    3. So it seems most sensible to think it has a cause outside itself that isn’t contingent, temporal and physical. If there is no possibility, then we have no answer to our existential question, but if there is a plausible possibility, then maybe we have the answer we are looking for.
    4. God is a clear option. Most people in the world have believed in a God or gods, many claim to have experienced that God, there are good arguments that a God or gods actually exist. Ergo, it is a plausible option.
    5. So I have two options that I find implausible, and one that I find plausible. I don’t think this argument proves God, but to me it shows he is the only really viable option. The alternative is to resolutely say we don’t know and that is OK, when we know that it isn’t OK – it doesn’t answer our existential questions, and an inability to explain reality counts against the other options.
    6. So the argument for God works for me, and one of the corollaries is that God is not contingent.

    “If not, what is it that convinces you that God “couldn’t not exist”?

    The above sequence of steps. “Convince” may be too strong a word. I’d say it shows it to be plausible and the only plausible option.

    “Do you think it makes sense to say something like “If God exists, then God couldn’t not exist”?”

    Yes I do, and apparently many philosophers make that statement too.

  32. Eric,
    As I see it, you’ve just restated the argument by substituting “non-contingent” for “necessary”. I was trying to understand necessity and how we establish whether something has that property because it appeared to me that it was relying on conceptual possibility. You are now relying on the concept of “non-contingent” by enforcing a universal dichotomy of either “contingent” or “non-contingent”, which is really the same dichotomy we had before with “contingent” and “necessary”. So I still have the same questions, but maybe now we can reframe it as follows:
    Granting that all entities can be classified as either contingent or non-contingent, how does one go about determining which category should be assigned to an entity?

    Remember, we aren’t talking about things like chairs and tables, which are reformulations of existing stuff. We’re talking about the fundamental constituents of the universe and the entities postulated by theoretical physics or any theory that posits entities which are distinct from the observable universe.

  33. Hi Neil, does this mean you think all logical arguments are similarly useless?

    I don’t think I used the word “useless”.

    I tend to be skeptical of logical arguments in theology and in philosophy. But then philosophy uses many logical arguments, and there are huge disagreements among philosophers. So maybe it is appropriate to be skeptical of that kind of logical argument.

    “Smuggled” is an emotive word.

    Your argument was itself emotive.

    Would it not be more accurate to say that arguments make explicit what was implicit in the premises, which is a good thing?

    Well, no, I don’t think that would be more accurate.

    The problem is that the premises used ill defined concepts (such as cause). And that is what enables the smuggling.

  34. I’m sorry to delay Travis, I’ve been busy.

    “Granting that all entities can be classified as either contingent or non-contingent, how does one go about determining which category should be assigned to an entity?”

    I think you are still approaching this the wrong way round. I didn’t start by stating that any entity was necessary. The argument I presented started with the contingency of the universe and argued that the most plausible or sensible conclusion was that something not contingent caused it. I said the only plausible option I could see was God, who could plausibly be non-contingent or necessary. I don’t have to prove God is necessary, I simply have to argue that it is plausible that that necessary cause is God. It is like you are asking for A implies B, whereas I am saying B implies A. I still think that argument is reasonable.

  35. Hi Neil, since you are sceptical about the value of logical arguments, whereas I think they are useful, I am reinforced in my previous conclusion that there is little point in our continuing to discuss. Thanks.

  36. Eric,
    Sorry, I don’t see how my line of questioning is backwards.

    The argument I presented started with the contingency of the universe and argued that the most plausible or sensible conclusion was that something not contingent caused it

    It seems like my prior question is still applicable – granting that all entities can be classified as either contingent or non-contingent, how does one go about determining which category should be assigned to an entity? In other words – why does your argument assume that the universe is contingent? Similarly, upon reaching that conclusion, what is and isn’t allowed in positing something that is not contingent (or necessary)?

  37. Hi Travis,

    ”why does your argument assume that the universe is contingent?”

    I don’t think my argument assumes the universe is contingent. I think it can be argued that it is contingent, i.e. the premise can be supported by argument.

    The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: ”the truth value of contingent propositions is not fixed across all possible worlds” I am claiming that the proposition “The universe exists” is contingent. That is, there are possible worlds where (1) there is no universe, or, alternatively, (2) no universe like ours.

    Proposition 2 seems quite clear. Quantum indeterminancy means that all quantum processes could have been different, resulting in a different universe, even if only in small ways. I think #2 is enough, since the Cosmological argument is about the actual universe we live in.

    Proposition 1 is harder to show to be true, but I would say that unless we argue that all possible universes are eternal, then prior to the universe starting, it didn’t exist. This gets us into problems about what does “prior” mean before the universe appeared? But we can at least conceive logically the idea that if the universe began, it is possible that it might not have existed. So there are, arguably, possible worlds where it didn’t come into existence.

    So I think a strong argument can be made that a universe is at least probably contingent, and that our universe is definitely contingent.

    ”what is and isn’t allowed in positing something that is not contingent (or necessary)?”

    I don’t really understand what you mean by “allowed”, I’m sorry. I just think we follow where the most probable logic takes us.

    As I have said before, I think the only reasonable explanation of a contingent universe is a non-contingent self sufficient cause. If we couldn’t think of anything that could fit this description, then we would be left with a mystery. But the idea of God fits quite well. All the reasons we may use to decide the universe is contingent don’t apply to God, so there is no argument that suggests he would be contingent. And I find it easy to believe that he might simply just be, always, necessary, eternal. Some (many?) philosophers think that if God exists he must be necessary, and if he doesn’t exist then his non-existence must be necessary.

    So I can’t prove that. But it looks reasonable. And it explains the facts, while nothing else appears to.

    So I conclude that it is most likely true that God is necessary and the universe is not, and God is the explanation for the universe and that no other explanation works. That seems quite a strong conclusion to me.

  38. Eric,
    The IEP definition (and your elaboration) are relying on “possible worlds”, so it seems like this just goes back to my previous concern that everything is contingent because the property depends on the conceptual possibility of non-existence, and – unless you buy the ontological argument – there is nothing for which non-existence is not conceivable.

    So when you say

    All the reasons we may use to decide the universe is contingent don’t apply to God, so there is no argument that suggests he would be contingent.

    I just don’t see it. Sure, we can’t appeal to quantum indeterminancy to establish God’s contingency, but I don’t see how (ontological arguments aside) we can deny that there are possible worlds in which God does not exist.

    Also, the quantum indeterminancy argument for contingency isn’t as certain as you propose because under a many-worlds interpretation (which seems to be slowly gaining traction), all possibilities would coexist. Would that make the universe into a non-contingent entity?

  39. Hi Travis,

    I’m not sure how seriously you make your comment that “all possibilities would coexist”, but I think it is preposterous to think that every quantum indeterminacy creates another world – there are zillions of these every microsecond! So I think we can say the universe is contingent.

    ” I don’t see how (ontological arguments aside) we can deny that there are possible worlds in which God does not exist.”

    As I have said before, I think this is looking at things the wrong way round. I don’t start from God and then try to ascertain whether he is necessary or contingent. The argument is that a necessary thing must be the cause for the contingent universe. If we accept that, we can then ask what might that necessary thing be, and the only candidate seems to be God.

    If so, then there are NOT any possible worlds where God doesn’t exist. You may be able to conceive of such a world, but it isn’t possible (if the argument is correct).

  40. Eric,
    If you think that the many-worlds interpretation is preposterous than I’ll let you take that up with the physicists who support it. I don’t think it’s preposterous but I also don’t know if it’s correct.

    I’m really beginning to think that this argument is just a word game. It looks to me like there’s this definition of contingent that is used to covertly slide into a situation where we are then told to stop using that definition. More specifically, this relies on “possible worlds” to say that the universe is contingent and then postulates something non-contingent to avoid an infinite regress, but does not allow us to apply the same “possible worlds” criteria to this postulated entity. I suspect that if I took the time to work out the formal logic we would arrive at a contradiction. Maybe I’ll look into that.

  41. The MWI is a theoretical construct. Not all physicists accept it, and there is some doubt about whether even its proponents think it is real rather than a concept. (I guess a bit like the irrational number i is a useful concept even though not real.) Backwards time is another mathematical concept that doesn’t make sense in the real world.

    I still feel that if we are thinking of believable ideas, the idea of God is way more believable than MWI.

    I agree with you that this is a bit of a word game. I said previously that I think formal arguments tend to express what their proponents feel intuitively. So it seems clear from our discussion what each of us thinks intuitively.

    I think the argument that the universe (= the totality of all contingent things) requires an explanation outside itself, which must therefore be a necessary entity, is a good, sensible argument. But it is obvious you don’t intuit that way, even though it seems to me that your many objections are increasingly impractical, straw-splitting or improbable. I am a practical person, and I choose what seem to me to be practical and real answers.

    You presumably think my responses are inadequate too. Possibly you think my “simple” practical approach is insufficiently analytical. Perhaps it’s time to conclude.

    We have discussed various matters over the years and I have appreciated the opportunity to expand my thinking. But I think we mostly end up like this. So I will perhaps conclude with a reflection.

    If God exists, I think it must be possible for the uneducated, the lower IQ, the mentally ill, etc, to know him, or please him, or fulfil his requirements, however we want to express this. If it required the level of sophistication that you bring to the discussion (I mean that as a compliment) then they would have no chance, and that would be unfair.

    So while I think intellectual argument has its place, I think it has to remain in touch with the “real world” and within reach of more than a handful of the super-intelligent. And I think other less intellectual and more personal ways of knowing God must also exist.

    Of course if God doesn’t exist, then knowing that fact may indeed require a high level of intelligence such that only few can appreciate the subtleties of the argument, and fairness doesn’t come into it.

    But like I said, I’m a practical person. While I have studied theology formally, I don’t put much store in it for the same reasons. I believe in making choices even if uncertain, with limited data, whether in choosing a wife, making decisions in my former life as an environmental manager, in my christianity, or in these matters of philosophy. I will make a choice rather than die waiting, and if I have to change that choice down the track, I will do that too.

    I suspect you are different – more analytical, more of a perfectionist, more rigorous – and so you try to resolve every angle, every possibility. Maybe I’m wrong there, maybe not.

    So we probably differ temperamentally and this shows in how we approach these issues. We may therefore never be likely to convince the other, but if we can learn from each other, that may suffice.

    If this is the end of this discussion, thanks for your input.

  42. I agree that there isn’t much else to pursue in this discussion. I am under no pretense that our interactions are ever likely to end in a changed mind, but I find them educational and worthwhile nonetheless. I had not previously ever really interrogated the details of the necessary/contingent dichotomy that is foundational to most cosmological arguments and I appreciate your willingness to engage on that topic. Don’t sell yourself too short. If the Christian God is real then I think the conception you espouse is among the more viable options out there, and that’s a testament to your willingness to allow the data to inform your theology. Until next time…

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