Thursday, October 29, 2009

But who made God?

This post is based on a thread I started at the Quodlibeta forum. Many cosmological arguments (not all) argue that everything that begins to exist must have a cause -- this is basically the principle of causality. But this chain of causality cannot be extended infinitely into the past for two reasons: 1) an infinite amount cannot exist in reality; therefore there must be a first cause that by definition is not the effect of a previous cause itself. 2) We have empirical evidence that the universe itself began to exist (Big Bang cosmology) and is therefore finite; therefore there must be something that exists independently of the universe that brought it into existence. In both cases we end up with something that sounds an awful lot like God.

The objection of some atheists is to ask, "Well then who created God? If everything requires a cause, then God would require a cause too right?"

The response to this should be obvious. Cosmological arguments do not claim that everything that exists requires a cause because there's simply nothing about sheer existence that would require a cause. What philosophers have claimed is that everything that begins to exist requires a cause. It's the "beginning" part that brings causality into play, not the "existing" part. So when we say that "Being does not arise from non-being," the focus is not on the "being" but on the "arising"; it's the latter that necessitates a cause, not the former.

The objection may then be put the other way around: "If God doesn't require a cause, why does the universe? Why couldn't the universe be this first cause?" Again, the response should be obvious: because it began to exist. That's the argument. Of course, you could claim that the argument fails or present an argument of your own that the universe didn't really begin to exist. But to simply say, "Well if God doesn't require a cause, why does the universe?" just ignores the argument that has been presented. It certainly doesn't answer it.

Thus, this objection is a complete straw man. It's a misstatement of the claims being made, a misstatement made in order to raise a bogus objection to certain cosmological arguments. The fact that otherwise brilliant people (such as Bertrand Russell) think this is a good objection only demonstrates that they didn't even hear the argument in the first place.

The reason "Who then created God?" is not a good objection is because the cosmological argument already addresses that issue. The whole point of these arguments is that there must be a cause that is not an effect of a previous cause itself. To ask why this first cause is this way is to ignore the argument that has just been made that this first cause is this way. Of course, showing that something is the case is not the same thing as showing why it is the case. (I would argue that one can answer the "why" question, but that's another issue.) But the atheist is claiming -- at least with this objection -- that unless the argument proves why something is the case, it doesn't prove that it's the case. This is obviously false.

So, for example, I could say that the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter equals pi (in Euclidean space). I could then prove this mathematically. The atheist objection would be "Why should this ratio equal pi?" The answer would be, "It does. Here's the proof again." The atheist would then object "Your mathematical proof doesn't explain why this ratio equals pi." And again, the answer would be, "It does equal pi. Here's the proof again." "But why should it be this way?" "It is this way. Here's the proof again." Etc. It reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin balks at his math homework. You put two numbers together and they magically become some third number. No one can say how or why it happens, you just have to accept it on faith. "As a math atheist, I should be excused from this."

So when an atheist asks why God should be excused from having to have a cause, the answer is simply to repeat the argument, which (allegedly) demonstrates that there must be a first cause that does not have a cause itself. Perhaps the argument fails to demonstrate this, but the objection that God would then require a cause doesn't even address it.

7 comments:

Timothy Mills said...

Jim, just catching up on a backlog of blogreading, and came across this.

I am delighted to say that I really hadn't thought of that. You seem to be right - the "who created God" response is irrelevant to the validity of the cosmological argument, so long as God is defined as having no beginning.

May I offer what seems (to me) to be a simple response to another aspect of the cosmological argument:

What grounds do we have for believing that the (physical) universe began to exist?

I'm going to pre-empt the obvious response by saying that the Big Bang only really demonstrates that the universe as we know it began a finite time in the past. My reading of, for example, the Wikipedia article on the Big Bang, is that the prior condition was a singularity of "infinite density and temperature". So, the Big Bang theory does not posit creation from nothing, but a development from one condition to another, radically different, condition. Please correct me if I'm wrong on this - I'm no cosmologist.

But if I'm right, then we are not obliged to seek a cause for the existence of the universe. Of course, this doesn't rule out the possibility of a cause; it simply means the cosmological argument cannot prove that such a cause was required.

Jim S. said...

Well I'm no cosmologist either, but that won't stop me from pontificating.

My understanding is that the Big Bang singularity represents the moment that matter, energy, space, and time began to exist. So as we go back in time, the singularity is the point that's approached but never actually reached. As such, it didn't really exist, so it wasn't a matter of a change from one state to another.

This is based on William Lane Craig's debate with Quentin Smith who based his anti-theistic argument on the singularity actually existing. This was in a book they co-wrote, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology. Craig corrected Smith, and in a later debate, Smith acknowledged that cosmologists agree with Craig. Their two debates since the book came out are here and here.

Timothy Mills said...

We can probably both agree that, from the perspective of science, the question of whether the universe began to exist is unanswered (and may turn out to be unanswerable).

More interesting, perhaps, is looking at the issue from an anthropological perspective. As you say, the popular atheist retort "Who caused the first cause?" is not a good philosophical refutation of the argument. Why do atheists use it? Perhaps because it is catchy, and because it reinforces a popular stereotype among atheists (that theologians simply ignore obvious problems in their arguments).

Similarly, the cosmological argument is itself riddled with holes. See, for example, the objections outlined on Wikipedia. Essentially, every premise of the argument seems to be a bald assertion, meriting neither assent nor extensive refutation. So why do theists use it? Perhaps because it is memorable, and because it supports a popular belief among theists that their beliefs are simply common sense (and that atheists are, for whatever reason, ignoring obvious and irrefutable evidence of God's existence).

We (humans) like to think that the evidence for our position is strong. So we overestimate the robustness of arguments that seem to support it. We also overestimate the extent to which our arguments undermine opposing positions.

Isn't that fascinating! And humbling.

Jim S. said...

We can probably both agree that, from the perspective of science, the question of whether the universe began to exist is unanswered (and may turn out to be unanswerable).

Well, actually I think it's answerable and answered. As far as I can tell the claim that the universe began to exist is an established scientific fact, accepted by all or nearly all cosmologists, astronomers, astrophysicists, and particle physicists. Alexander Vilenkin wrote in Many Worlds in One:

"It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning."

Nor do I think the premises of cosmological arguments are bald assertions. The Kalam Argument has only two: The universe began to exist; and whatever begins to exist has a cause. The first I already went over, and the second is essentially the principle of causality, which all science must presuppose. We can't get rid of it without getting rid of virtually all science along with it. So it's not simply a bald assertion.

Timothy Mills said...

I don't read Big Bang cosmology as proving that the universe necessarily had a beginning, in the way that you do.

But let me grant provisionally that you are right about that (at least until I get around to looking deeper than Wikipedia for the cosmologists' take on things). There are two objections that remain (again, taken from Wikipedia), which seem to suggest that the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is unsound, and therefore does not compel assent.

First, the premise "whatever begins to exist has a cause" seems to apply in a qualitatively different manner to objects within the universe than to the universe itself. Within the universe, a cause as we understand it must be a physical thing - matter or energy, acting in time. This type of causation is clearly not the type referred to in the conclusion of the KCA. Therefore, the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises.

Hume pointed out that the relationship of "causation" is one we infer (or intuit) from our observation of events and objects in the universe. Within the context of science, it is legitimate to generalize this inference to other objects within the universe. It remains to be demonstrated that it is valid to generalize it to the universe itself.

The second objection is not so much to the structure of the KCA as to the claim that it demonstrates the existence of a god. You suggest that, from the KCA, "we end up with something that sounds an awful lot like God." I disagree. Even ignoring the first objection above, all that the KCA demonstrates is that the universe has a temporally-uncaused cause. This is (to my eyes) a very long way from covering most of the traits generally ascribed to God. This uncaused cause has not been shown to be personal, omnipotent, benevolent, omniscient, intelligent, etc.

Let me conclude, however, by acknowledging again that your main point in the original post - that the popular atheist rejoiner "but who made God?" - is entirely correct. Whatever valid objections can be raised against the KCA, that is not one of them.

Matt said...

From what I remember about reading A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawkings uses imaginary time (time unaffected by singularities) to develop a model of the universe that has no beginning or end in the same way planet Earth has no edge. This would overturn the cosmological argument which only holds for things that have beginnings.

By this logic, if the question "who made God?" is invalid then the question "what started the universe?" is equally invalid.

IlĂ­on said...

"The fact that otherwise brilliant people (such as Bertrand Russell) think this is a good objection only demonstrates that they didn't even hear the argument in the first place."

That's the charitable possibility.

And, certainly, one should prefer and take the charitable possibility as an explanation for another's misunderstanding (or "misunderstanding") when one can. BUT, there comes a point, when the misunderstanding (or "misunderstanding") has been pointed out and explained time and again, that to continue such charity makes one complicit in the other's lying. There comes a point when one must reluctantly admit that the other is refusing to understand the point.