Saturday, April 19, 2008

From Nothing Nothing Comes

I've begun to think in greater depth about a certain argument for God's existence. It is often called the Cosmological Argument, and it concerns the source of contingent being.

Contingent being, let us say, is the sum of all things whose existence is not necessary. It is, then, the sum of all things that, though they exist, might yet not have existed. I am part of this sum, as are you. I might have failed to exist, and so too might have you. God and the number two (if such objects there be), on the other hand, are not contingent. If they exist, they cannot not have existed.

I take it as obvious that there's such a thing as contingent being. So let us take its existence for granted and inquire into the source of its existence. A number of possibilities present themselves. (1) There is no source of contingent being. (2) There is a source of contingent being, and that source is itself contingent. (3) There is a source of contingent being, and that source is a necessary being (or beings).

These three possibilities seem both exclusive and exhaustive.

2 can be ruled out immediately. For if there is a source of contingent being and that source is itself contingent, then it must be its own source, for contingent being includes all contingent beings. But I think it obvious that nothing that has a cause of its being can be the cause of its own being.

So that leaves us with possibilities 1 and 3. Let us consider 1. It would have us say that the existence of contingent being is a great accident, a great random event for which no explanation at all can be given. Now, I do not think that I can conclusively establish that such a thing cannot be, but to say that contingent being has no explanation at all seems quite ridiculous.

Let us say that you sit at your desk, as do I. The house begins to shake. A pencil rolls off your desk and hits the floor. Might it be that there's no explanation at all for these events? Would you be content with the supposition that these events had no cause at all? Of course not. You'd search for a cause (earthquake perhaps) and you'd not be content until you'd found it. If it should come to pass that you couldn't find a cause, you'd still be certain that there was one. There just has to be some reason why the house shook. It didn't just happen.

But if that couldn't just happen, why think that contingent being could just happen? Indeed it would seem to be an even greater absurdity to assume that all of contingent being could just happen. (I suspect that those who reject the Cosmological Argument ignore there own common-sense insistence that the events they encounter must have causes. Like the rest of us, they assume the existence of causes of all they encounter, but for a reason that remains opaque to me, they hold that it's quite rational to give up this common-sense belief when it's brought to bear in a certain argument for God's existence. Two-faced, say I.)

Thus we must reject the claim that contingent being has no source at all. But that leaves us with but one possibility - that the source of contingent being lies in necessary being. Of course we're not yet at the conclusion that God exists. There exists quite a gap between the claims

There is necessary being


God exists

But the conclusion that there exists necessary being is still of great interest. It as it were opens the door to theism.

Next time: reply to objections.


Doctor Logic said...

To keep you entertained, here are a couple of objections. :)

Objection #1

The universe as physicists understand it includes time. That is, time is an interior variable that maps out the interior space of the universe in the same way that latitude maps the surface of the Earth. Time has no meaning outside the universe in the same way that latitude has no meaning off the Earth's surface.

So where is your causality now? Creation of X presumes a time when X did not exist. You cannot create the universe because that presumes a time when the universe did not exist. Creating a universe is like driving north of the North Pole.

The notion of causality, and the observed "laws of causality" are inductive inferences from our familiar spacetime. We cannot take those inferences and apply them outside of (or at the limits of) spacetime.

Objection #2

What do you mean by contingent? Do you mean that we can imagine an alternative? There's no evidence that possible, counterfactual worlds actually exist. The evidence is that there is one necessary world. I exist because I have to exist. The fact that I can imagine an alternative history doesn't make that alternative possible.

Objection #3

Finally, in quantum mechanics we have to sacrifice at least one of three things: locality, causality and/or consistency. So the idea that something can occur at a given moment without anything causing it to occur at that given moment (but merely there being sufficient prior conditions for it to occur at some unspecified time) is well-established. Furthermore, Noether's Theorem tells us that conservation laws derive from symmetries of physics. Conservation of energy results when the laws of physics are independent of translations in time (e.g., the physics today is the same as it was yesterday, even if the configurations of matter and energy are different). Yet, at the Big Bang, the physics is not symmetric with respect to time (you can't travel back in time before the Big Bang), so the energy conservation law is no longer valid there.

All this shows that our gut instincts about causality and conservation are just plain wrong.

The Cosmological Argument is essentially a grammatical novelty. We take intuitive word meanings, and string them together until we've proven God exists. But gut interpretations of word meanings are inadequate when we're making philosophical arguments that go far beyond the environments in which we formed the gut definitions. The CA only works if we don't ask for detailed meaning for words like "contingent", "create", "cause" and so on.

SteveK said...

Time has no meaning outside the universe...

Physicists don't know if this is true or not. There's plenty of speculation though. Some speculate there are lots of things going on outside our universe.

The notion of causality, and the observed "laws of causality" are inductive inferences from our familiar spacetime. We cannot take those inferences and apply them outside of (or at the limits of) spacetime.

We work with what we *know* until it is shown to be incorrect. At this time we know things that have a beginning also require a cause.

There's no evidence that possible, counterfactual worlds actually exist.

I agree. Why not apply this same thinking to the laws of causality and time outside the universe?

Franklin Mason said...

Good doctor,

I'll reply in order.

1. I've found reason in the past to doubt the physicists when they say that time itself is part of a greater entity called space-time, but I'll not pursue the point. (But see

You seem to assume that if x is the cause of y, then x precedes y in time. I don't believe this (at least not in the case of God's relation to the world). I would say that God, a timeless entity, is such that the world - the whole of it, both spatial and temporal - depends upon Him for its existence. I can find no absurdity in the idea.

I would say the same about such abstracta as numbers. The world manifestly depends upon them, but they do not precede that which depends upon them in time. They are not temporal entities that bring about other, later temporal entities. Rather the dependence is of another sort, and sort that does not require cause to itself be temporal.

2. I might buy the claim that there's evidence of only one world. But we have no evidence that the one world - the one actual world - is in any sense necessary. Might anything have gone differently that in fact it did? Physics would seem to say Yes, it might have, for the laws of physics are at bottom probabilistic, not deterministic. But this is all I need for the argument. All I need is the bare claim that not everything that happens had to have happened in just the way that it did. A certain radioactive atom might have decayed just a bit later than in fact it did. Now, this doesn't mean that there are other worlds "out there" in any sense. It just means that things might have gone differently than in fact they did.

3. I don't know as much as I should about this, but let me ask a question. When you say that it's well-established that there can be events without causes, we mean here to assume the laws of physics, don't we? Don't we mean that, relative to the laws of physics that in fact obtain, there can be uncaused events? Perhaps then I should shift my attention to those very laws. They are contingent, I would think. They might have been different. But then it would seem right to ask about their explanation - and we're off to the races again.