Monday, 20 April 2015

Reasons for believing (2)

So we've already looked at two of the classic arguments for the existence of God in the last post. We found the argument from degree weak, and along the way we demolished the ontological argument as a mere word game: but we also found a much stronger case for the argument from intelligibility. Now we turn to Thomas Aquinas' other three arguments, the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover, and the argument from contingency.

I take the view that these are pretty much the same argument, which can be summed up in one of them, the First Cause argument. Everything that happens in the universe is caused by something else which happened before it. That something else was in turn caused by earlier events, and so on. But can the sequence go on ad infinitum? Only if things that have already happened can be caused by things that have not yet happened can there be a never ending circle of cause and effect. As this is not possible there must be a First Cause, which set everything else in motion. This we call God. Or so Thomas Aquinas asserts.

I think the argument from motion to a First Mover is basically identical, it's just that the cause and its results are both movements. The same is true with the contingency argument, that every being owes its existence to other beings and is therefore contingent upon them, until we get back to an original being who starts everything off, who is therefore not contingent but has absolute being. "Contingent" here basically means caused by something else, so again we are dealing with very much the same argument. So I'm going to stick with the First Cause argument and leave you to do more thinking about the others if you reckon I'm selling you short.

The First Cause has received massive support from the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Let's not forget that this theory means not merely that all the matter and energy in the universe started with one unbelievably huge explosion, but that absolutely everything about our universe also started in the same event. In other words there was nowhere for the universe to exist before the Big Bang, because there were no dimensions until it happened – there was nowhere for there to be anything and there was nowhere for there to be nothing either. Nor was there any time for anything to happen in, because time was also created by that same Big Bang. There were no laws of nature, because it was the Big Bang that brought those laws of nature into existence and forms their starting point. In fact the Big Bang itself contradicts those laws of nature – those of the conservation of energy and matter to begin with. 

This brings us very directly to Aquinas' point, that a literally supernatural explanation is required by such an event – supernatural in the very direct sense of being outside all the laws of nature that apply to our universe. Naturally this is a source of deep embarrassment to the contemporary scientific community (though not to their pioneering predecessors, as we saw last time). Anyway the hunt is on to find some kind of extranatural cause that is not Supernatural in older senses of the word. Here's what I make of the journey so far. I hope I am right in believing there have been three main contenders.

1. We can locate our supernature in an anomaly, or what Stephen Hawking termed "a singularity" in A Brief History of Time. Unfortunately I am not a genius mathematician so I can't claim to follow all the amazing maths involved. But I will admit to being suspicious of the term. Isn't "singularity" just another way of saying "one-off?" When we say something is caused by "a singularity," aren't we in fact saying we don't know how it's caused? In other words we don't really know (and don't really have to explain?) what might go on in there. We do know that singularities exist though because they occur in black holes. What if there was a previous universe that was all sucked down into a supermassive black hole, so huge and dense that everything except gravity was destroyed? What if it all the energy thus compressed into an infinitesimally small point then exploded as the Big Bang?
·         This view doesn't seem to be as fashionable as it was in 1988 and I am not completely sure of the reasons for this. Here's what I suspect. The Big Bang on this model presupposes a Big Crunch from a previous universe – that all the matter and energy in the system is sucked into various black holes which are then sucked into each other by the sheer power of their gravity to form the supermassive one that has to explode. However our own universe is not going to end this way. According to more recent maths there is not enough mass in the universe to counteract the velocity at which it is expanding. Matter and energy will become ever more thinly spread and the universe will die of attenuation - with a whimper, not a bang. That means there would have to be a radical discontinuity between our universe and the one that went before because the laws of nature governing the two are different. That means that we need a further supernature in addition the previous universe which is capable of spontaneously generating new laws of nature. The Big Crunch therefore fails to give a complete account of the origins of the universe. Some other entity needs to be factored in.

2. As an alternative we are offered a massive fluctuation in the quantum field. Apparently quantum mechanics allows us to consider a vacuum not as truly empty but as a space where electrons and positrons may spontaneously emerge and immediately cancel each other out. All we need then is for an awful lot of these to appear simultaneously in the same time and space – whatever that is supposed to mean in a quantum context – and to do so without cancelling each other out, and we have our big bang.
·         Again I don't have the physics to deal with this properly and would love to have someone who knows their stuff running through it with me. If only my old mate Roger from uni was here! However it seems to me as a non-specialist that there are lots of big questions here. I do get that there is a degree to which very small particles are not "there" in the Newtonian / Einsteinian universe which is so essential to our own existence - at some level they act more like fields of energy than bits of matter, so we can't predict exactly where they are and where they will be next. This isn't the same, is it, as saying there is this unbelievably energetic quantum field extending beyond our own universe? We haven't of course observed quantum fields from outside our own universe because we can't do so. All the observations that have been made of quantum particles and forces have been carried out inside the universe. So it's difficult to say what hat we are pulling this particular rabbit out of. Nor do I think we can have much of a meaningful idea of the behaviour of such a field. Let's just hope and pray though that it is not often given to massive random fluctuations of the sort described, or the life of our universe would be totally chaotic.

3. Thirdly we can go back to the multiverse to provide our First Cause. In some way new universes keep bubbling out of a primeval cosmic soup which is the multiverse, or sum total of all universes. Nearly every bubble is ephemeral and pops because its natural laws are unsustainable, but once in a while, by a trillion trillionth of a chance, a viable universe is formed and ours happens to be the holder of this golden ticket.
·         However in Reasons for Believing(1) I took the view that this scheme, with its multiplication of millions of invisible and unverifiable entities, has a fabricated look about it. It fails the test known as Occam's Razor.

Let's put these three cosmologies together and ask what they do have in common. All of them try to bypass the First Cause argument by asserting that there was something there before the Big Bang. It doesn't really matter too much whether it's a previous universe that went down the plughole of a Big Crunch, or a highly energetic and turbulent quantum field, or a multiverse which has the interesting property of spontaneously generating new universes. The point is that we have something pre-existent which dispenses with the need for any kind of Creator. I am reminded of the work of Fred Hoyle, who came up with the Steady State theory of the universe before the Big Bang was conclusively demonstrated. As an atheist, Prof Hoyle hated the implication that Big Bang might be held to amount to an act of creation. He therefore asserted that the universe (as we know) is expanding and that new matter and energy emerge spontaneously into existence to fill the gaps. Thus the universe could be eternal and self-sufficient and do without a creator. That this is completely contrary to what we know of the laws of nature so far did not deter him.

All the above look like ways to bring back the Steady State, but on a new level. Since we can't avoid the Big Bang, let's put something else in "before" it, so the universe can keep going without a beginning – a quantum field or a Big Crunch or a multiverse or whatever. But even then, can we succeed in finally exorcising the Creator from His own? No we can't. Because, at the risk of repeating the child's embarrassing question, "Who made God then?" the issue of origins still follows us into these new hypothetical spaces. Where did that vast quantum field, or that multiverse, or the universe that crunched, arise from? Did they have a beginning? These ingenious cosmologies fail to answer Aquinas' question: since everything we see is the product of cause and effect, was there a First Cause?

And even if they could answer the question, would we have then have got round God? Or would we find we were merely describing His immense handiwork, as Newton and Copernicus and Kepler and all the others famously thought? That the multiverse or the quantum field or extinct previous universes were also the products of a vast Imagination?

Only one more hurdle to clear, I promise, as this edition of Reasons for Believing nears its exhausted end. This is the assertion by Richard Dawkins that a Creator Being cannot be the explanation for the origins of the universe because it is not a proper explanation. A proper explanation, says Prof Dawkins, must simplify the thing being explained. Now it seems that God as Creator must be, not simpler, but greater and more complex than the universe He is alleged to have created. God cannot therefore be a proper explanation.

I hope you agree with me that this argument is deeply flawed. In fact we constantly accept explanations that are more complex than the thing being explained. The explanation for a joint stool is that a carpenter, a far more complex entity, made it to sit on. In case that metaphor seems unfairly to sneak in creation by a personal being, there are others. The aurora borealis was presumed by early scientists (once we got past the magic stage) to be the result of emanations from the poles of the earth. In time a far larger and grander account was accepted, that in fact it is storms in an object 333,000 times more massive than the earth, hurling matter 93,000,000 miles through space, that interact with our magnetic field and cause the aurora. The more complex explanation turns out to be the true one.

If we follow Dawkins' logic through, that every cause must be simpler than its effect, we end up with a strange inversion of Aquinas. Eventually as we trace the increasing simplifications further and further back through the chain of cause and effect, phenomenon and explanation, we can only end up at zero. The ultimate explanation turns out to be… that there can be no explanations, no causes, and no reasons. And so we'll have to start thinking about how something came out of nothing all over again. Then we'll have to accept that Dawkins has led us down a wrong turning that doesn't lead anywhere. All he has succeeded in demonstrating is the incorrigible reductionism of his own mind.

 Prof Dawkins - incorrigibly reductionist?

Well, what have we got out of all this notion-crunching? Surveys repeatedly show that people rarely come to believe because they've been argued into it. This often breaks down into a macho contest of wills anyway. Instead it's life events that led people to ask all the big, "Is anybody there?" questions. So - have the two cosmological bits of this series been worth it? I wanted to do it for three reasons:
1.      To remind believers that they don't have to accept the much flashed about opinion that faith is irrational. I hope readers will agree with my stance that repeated secularising attempts to destroy the Christian world view have not succeeded. There is still a satisfactory case to be made for faith - in fact some of the alternatives don't really stack up that well by comparison.
2.      To hope that those who don't believe will continue to explore and ask those big questions.
3.      I'm going to assert later that faith provides a better means for "seeing life whole" and "life" needs to include our rational life and scientific explorations.

Next time I'll be getting on to the stuff that really excites me, that is, I believe in God because I believe Jesus is His Son. This is the stuff that takes us from a First Mover who is only needed to kick the whole game off to a Lord who wants to engage with us… However I'm just back from holiday and there's a lot waiting to be done so it may be a few weeks before I can get on to it.

I hope you're sticking with me. Your thoughts are welcome!

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