Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Cosmological Argument

They say there is nothing new under the sun, and that may very well be true.  As I watch various apologists try to justify their belief in God (whether it be the God of Christendom, Allah, or some other version of God), most of them at some point fall back on some form of the so-called "Cosmological" argument that has actually been around for quite a long time and has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy (despite the fact that, as far as I am aware, the God that Aristotle was trying to prove was neither the Christian nor the Muslim God).

Some modern apologists go to great lengths to add numerous subtle nuances to the argument to patch its obvious flaws, but the basic formation of the argument has been codified as the "Kalām Cosmological Argument" (KCA) that reads as follows:
  1.  Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
On its face, this is a perfectly valid argument in the sense that the conclusion logically follows from its premises.  There are, however, some serious problems with the argument that basically render it useless on its face.

A Valid Argument Is Not the Same as a Sound Argument

As stated above, a "valid" argument is one which the conclusion logically follows from the stated premises.  However, in order to be at all useful, an argument must also be "sound."  In order to be sound, the conclusion must not only logically follow from the premises, the premises themselves must also be actually true.

For example, the following is a perfectly valid argument that is completely unsound:
  1. All elephants can fly
  2. Dumbo is an elephant
  3. Therefore, Dumbo can fly
This argument is unsound for a variety of reasons, namely that the first premise is not actually true and the second premise refers to a fictional character that doesn't actually exist.  Therefore, this argument is completely useless as an attempt to prove that Dumbo can fly, regardless of whether or not Dumbo really exists and can, in fact, fly. In other words, an unsound argument doesn't necessarily mean the conclusion is false, but it simply isn't useful in proving that conclusion.

Another example, perhaps a bit closer to the KCA, would be as follows:
  1. All swans have white feathers
  2. Black swans are swans
  3. Therefore, black swans have white feathers
Again, the problem with this argument is with the first premise.  What makes this argument a bit more subtle than the Dumbo example, however, is the fact that most swans do, in fact, have white feathers.  It's even possible that, before the discovery of the black swan in Australia, every species of swan ever encountered did, in fact, have white feathers.  But there's a huge difference between saying "All swans have white feathers" and saying "All swans that we are currently aware of have white feathers."  Not understanding that empirical evidence is not the same as absolute truth could therefore lead somebody to follow up by claiming that, since black swans must (according to the argument) have white feathers, it must be the case that black swans have a special kind of magical white feathers that just appear black to our eyes instead of just acknowledging that the argument is flawed.

Keeping that in mind, let's take another look at the KCA, but with a few annotations added in:
  1. [Based on our limited empirical experience,] whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist [depending on your definition of "universe" and assumed to be true because humans aren't comfortable with the idea of an infinite regress].
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause [unless, of course, the universe is a special case of something that began to exist without having a cause, or unless the universe didn't actually have a true beginning as would be the case if it were part of a multi-verse or in an eternal cycle of expansion and contraction].
The first premise is based on empirical evidence of how things we currently observe behave, but isn't necessarily true for all cases everywhere. Perhaps the universe is the exception to this general rule (after all, we have never observed a universe come into being before, so we can't know whether it follows the same rules as everything else within that universe that we have observed).  Perhaps things come into being by themselves all the time, but just not where we can observe it (or where we have yet observed it).  Or perhaps the entire premise is just flat out wrong and, as physicist Lawrence Krauss describes in his book, "A Universe from Nothing," particles routinely do pop in and out of existence all around us all the time.  Either way, there's simply no justification to accept as absolute the premise that whatever begins to exist has a cause.  It may seem to be common sense and may seem to be based on our experience with the natural world, but that doesn't make it necessarily true by any stretch of the imagination.

[As an aside, it's interesting to note that early formations of the Cosmological Argument simply had "Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.  The big "breakthrough" of the KCA was adding "that begins to exist" to get around the obvious observation that God, as a being who exists, would also necessarily need a cause of his existence.  All we have to do then is magically redefine God as a being who never had a beginning (or "exists outside of time and space") and voila! Problem supposedly solved.  Except, not really.  More on this later...]

As for the second premise, the Bible states that God created the universe out of nothing. That's not what science says, however. The Big Bang theory doesn't explain how the universe was created but simply describes the expansion of the known universe from an seemingly infinitely dense and infinitely small singularity that presumably contained within itself all matter and energy. Where did that singularity come from and what caused it to expand? Nobody knows, but there are numerous theories that do not require any sort of intelligent causation.

Now, some modern apologists try to finesse the argument here by claiming that the universe must have had a beginning since the concept of an "actual" infinity (as opposed to, I assume, the "virtual" infinities that are used in and even required by various disciplines of mathematics and physics) is "metaphysically" impossible.  And by "metaphysically" impossible, these apologists basically mean that the concept makes no sense to them.  OK, so maybe I'm oversimplifying their view a wee bit, but their arguments against "actual" infinities rely on discussions of logical contradictions such as how an infinite amount divided in half would produce two infinite amounts.  And they then claim that this supposed impossibility of an "actual" infinity means that there must have been a beginning to everything at some point, even if you assume the universe is cyclical or budded off from a pre-existing multiverse.

Since the first two premises are not necessarily true, the conclusion is not justified.   The premises could possibly be true, but there's nothing that requires them to be true, and therefore the argument fails on its face as an unsound argument.  Again, this doesn't prove that the conclusion is false, only that this argument doesn't prove it to be true.

What if the Conclusion Is True?

OK, so the cosmological argument isn't sound and therefore the conclusion that the universe had a cause isn't necessarily true.  But it could still be true, right?  And perhaps, some would argue, it's extremely probable even if not necessarily true.

So let's go there and assume for the sake of argument that the conclusion is actually true and there actually was a cause to the universe (either our current universe or the theoretical cyclical universe or multiverse).  So what?  Even if we accept that the universe somehow had some sort of "cause," we still don't know anything about what that cause was. Could the universe be its own cause (again, we've never observed a universe come into being before, so we can't say what the rules are for universe creation)?  Why does it have to be an intelligent being (lot's of things happen by random chance, so why do we insist that the creation of the universe must have been done on purpose)?

Some apologists start with the conclusion that the universe must have had a "cause" of some sort and try to make all sorts of inferences as to what this cause must be like.  For example, since whatever caused space and time to exist in the first place can't possibly exist in space or time itself, this cause must therefore be somehow timeless (a.k.a "eternal") and immaterial.  Gee, they then claim, this sounds an awful like the God of [insert pet religion here], since that God is described as being eternal and a being of pure mind.  Except... Well, first of all, there's no explanation given as to how something that is timeless and immaterial could actually have any interaction whatsoever with time and space.  It just did.  Second of all, God isn't actually described as a "pure mind" in any of the holy scriptures (in fact, he is described as a physical being who interacts with his creations).  Third, while God is described as being "eternal" in the holy books, that's not the same as "existing outside of time" or "timeless."  It just means he has existed forever and will exist forever, "forever" being a measurement of time and not a state outside of time.

These apologists will also argue that whatever caused the universe to exist must be an "agent" of some sort, meaning an intelligent being.  And this is supposedly because something had to choose to create the universe or else it would have stayed in it's uncreated state forever.  And only an intelligent being is capable of choosing.  Except... the whole concept of choosing implies the passage of time.  The whole concept of a being sitting around saying, "No universe yet, no universe yet, wait for it... NOW!" only makes sense if you're talking about a being that exists within time and not outside of it.  Besides, there's no logical requirement that something like the creation of the universe must be the result of choice in the first place.  If quantum theory teaches us anything at all, it's that sometimes things happen when they do out of sheer random chance.

Which brings us to the part where apologists really back themselves into a corner via a startling bit of circular logic.  If everything that begins to exist must have a cause and the universe must have had a beginning because actual infinities are metaphysically impossible, where did God come from?  As mentioned earlier, the original formulation of the Cosmological Argument stated that everything that exists must have a cause, but modern apologists changed that to everything that begins to exist must have a cause.  This provided them with a loophole to state that God is exempt from the first premise since he didn't actually have a beginning and therefore didn't need a cause to begin to exist.

Well, aside from the fact that this leads to all sort of mental wrangling described above whereby you have to claim that, in order to never have had a beginning, God must simultaneously be an immaterial being consisting of pure "mind" (whatever that means) existing outside of space and time and somehow be able to interact with space and time whenever he wants, it also ignores the second premise of the argument that claims that the universe must have had a beginning because an actual infinity is impossible.  If that is actually true, than it would also apply to God.  Claiming that God, being an infinite and eternal being, is the exception to the rule that actual infinities are impossible is just a case of special pleading and one would be equally justified claiming that the universe (or multiverse) is the exception to the rule and therefore there's no need for God.  In other words,  if the universe necessarily had a beginning then so did God, and no amount of making up claims out of whole cloth that God must be "timeless" can avoid that fact.  And remember -- the "timelessness" of God was not an something originally attributed to him in the scriptures, but was instead something ascribed to him as a way of dealing with the flaws in this argument.  God never claimed to exist outside of time, but assuming that he must do so is the only way this argument can possibly work.  Except that "timelessness" doesn't actually mean anything.  If an "actual infinity" is meaningless, the concept of "timelessness" is surely far, far worse.  Calling God timeless to patch up a flaw in the KCA is like making up the concept of magical white feathers in my black swan argument described above.  Sure, it makes the argument work, but it's ridiculous and self-contradictory on its face and is only required because you want to accept a false premise as true.

But let's go a step further and assume that somehow there is such a thing as an immaterial mind that is both "timeless" and "spaceless" and that such a concept is not just an obvious self-contradiction [Q: What do you call something that does not exist within space and time? A: Nothing].  And let's push accommodation to the very limits and assume that such a being could actually somehow interact with the physical universe, at least to the extent of creating it in the first place.  What justification is there to imagine that intelligent being just happens to be the God worshiped by your particular religion and not that of your neighbor?  One you've "proved" that the universe has a cause and that cause was some sort of intelligent being of some sort, how do you know it's your God?

My favorite part of watching people argue for the existence of their particular God using the Kalām Cosmological Argument is when they get to the end and are inevitably asked how they know that this "first cause" God is their particular God. And then you invariably get answers along the line of "Because Christ came to me and spoke to my heart" or "that's where faith comes in" or "the Koran is the most demonstrably true book ever written", etc.  In other words, every different religion that believes in a God can use the same argument to prove the existence of their particular version of God, and every different religion is convinced that their version of God is the correct one.  Which is to say, an argument that can be used to prove inherently contradictory conclusions is not a particularly useful argument:

In Conclusion...

 So, to sum up:
  1. The Cosmological Argument doesn't necessarily prove that the universe must have had any sort of "cause."
  2. Even if it the universe did have a cause, there's no justification to claim that that cause must be a conscious agent an trying to describe that cause as existing outside of space and time (since those terms have no actual meaning) or that it is "pure mind" (since we have no evidence that minds can exist apart from a physical brain) or that something that is outside of space and time could even possibly interact with matter and energy in the first place.  After all, when was the last time you were able to affect anything apart from your own body simply by willing it to happen with your mind?
  3. Finally, even if the universe did have a cause, and even if that cause could actually be said to be a timeless, immaterial being of pure mind, there's no justification to associate that being with the God of any particular religion, since it doesn't actually match the description of God from any religion's holy books and has, in fact, been equally associated to many different religions.