Fundamental Reality VI: Comparison of the Finalists

For the reasons just given, I think the main choice is between Naturalism and Monotheism (which I will sometimes call Theism for short).

Before trying to decide between these two views, I think it is well worth emphasizing just how much they have in common.  Both of them agree that Nature is not a divine being, but instead a limited reality capable of being studied and explored—these metaphysical views are therefore the most compatible with Science, and it is not surprising that people of a scientific bent tend to adopt one of these two views.

We thus have to decide which conception to adopt of Ultimate Reality.  Is it more like a Law, or more like a Mind?

On the one hand, there is something strange about the concept of a “Law of Nature” as a fundamental entity, since as pointed out earlier, normally a law is something which is imposed by a Lawgiver.  Really it must be a metaphor for something stranger, more magical as St. Chesterton says.  Indeed, in so far as the Laws compel matter to behave in a particular, rationally comprehensible way, one can see that they are already, in certain respects, a bit more like a living mind than say a rock is.  Thus Naturalism itself borders on a form of Theism, to the extent that it implies that the Universe is governed by a rational ordering principle (λογος) similar to, but greater than, the rational ordering in the minds of the scientists who study it.  There is a risk here of introducing at least Einstein's “God”, if not the God of Religion.

But to be fair, no matter what conception of Ultimate Reality we adopt, it seems likely that we can only understand it with our limited human minds by employing some set of metaphors or analogies.  This applies to Theism at least as strongly as to Naturalism (though perhaps Theists are more often conscious of the fact that they are applying metaphors to God, than Naturalists are when they speak of Nature).  In that sense, we are all in the same boat.  If the Naturalist wishes to insist that they are using “Law of Nature” in a purely metaphorical way, which connotes order and rationality but excludes any hint of personality or mind, then I cannot say that they are employing a fundamentally illegitimate methodology.  Nearly all of our conceptions are metaphorical to some degree, even about lesser matters.

And if there are some deep questions about what the metaphysical meaning of the Laws are, at least their physical content can be precisely stated in precise mathematical terms.  Whereas anyone who has studied Theology knows that hashing out the meaning of a fundamental mind, and predicting its effects, is a far murkier subject.

For these reasons, I believe it is not possible on the basis of Cosmological Arguments alone to decide between Naturalism and Theism.  But the balance of probabilities is shifted by other types of arguments.

We might check to see if there is any credible evidence that some god has revealed himself to the world through explicit revelation, supported by manifestations such as miracles, prophecies, or visions.  In fact we should do this, but it is not something that can be done from our armchairs (not without the aid of books or the internet anyway!) so let's leave this aside for the time being.

Another set of considerations is Design Arguments.  These concern the question of whether the Universe is organized in a way that suggests the existence of an intelligent agent with particular goals.  One particular type of Design Argument was invalidated by Darwin, but there are other versions, such as the Fine-Tuning Argument, which I'll discuss in depth at a later time.  On the flip side are the Undesign Arguments that the Universe is not the way a divine being would organize it: the most convincing forms of these involve Arguments from Evil.  But I don't want to consider Design Arguments here.  Not because they are irrelevant, but because they don't have much to do with purely Cosmological considerations.

Instead let me consider what we can learn from the Philosophy of Mind and the Philosophy of Ethics.  There is a sense in which these give a continuation of the Cosmological Argument, namely that if we believe there is some Source responsible for everything else that is, then what attributes we should attribute to the source will depend on what kinds of things really exist and therefore proceed from that source.  (I say kinds of things, not arrangements of things into patterns; the latter would be more akin to a Design Argument).  We need to decide whether it would be possible in principle for those kinds of things to come from that proposed Source or not.

In the process, I will naturally have to make some rather controversial statements.  In other words, the plausibility of Theism depends on your background beliefs.  I hope that doesn't shock any of my readers too much!

Next: Does God Need a Brain?

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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4 Responses to Fundamental Reality VI: Comparison of the Finalists

  1. John Michael Salinas says:

    Merry Christmas Dr. Wall, thanks for everything! God Bless!

  2. TY says:

    I join John in wishing you the same and a productive 2015 in all walks of life.

  3. Dennis Jensen says:

    Hello Aron, I seem to have really messed up my comments above using the HTML tags and attributes. Could you erase it and I'll send it again?

    [Previous comment erased. If you want to make a blockquote, just start with a <blockquote> tag, end with the </blockquote> tag, and put the text you want indented in between the two tags. Don't bother including the cite="" attribute; it doesn't do anything.---AW]

  4. Dennis Jensen says:

    Hello Aron. (Here is a legible rendition of the comments I've mutilated earlier.)

    Thanks for the prodigious writing you’ve been giving us. This is very helpful to more of us than you may think. You hardly seem to even be taking a break for the holidays. In any case, thanks and I hope you’ve had a wonderful Christmas.

    You state the following:

    “On the one hand, there is something strange about the concept of a ‘Law of Nature’ as a fundamental entity, since as pointed out earlier, normally a law is something which is imposed by a Lawgiver.”

    I didn’t notice where you pointed this out earlier so I’ll comment on this claim here. Are laws always imposed by a lawgiver? Isn’t our normal idea of natural law that it is a description of the behavior of entities given the nature of those entities? Two objects attract each other gravitationally in a given manner given the makeup of those objects. C.S. Lewis gave a similar moral argument in Mere Christianity: a moral law implies a Lawgiver, he said. But moral law may also follow from the nature of the entities involved (persons and sentient beings who by their nature deserve to be treated in certain ways) and not from the commands of a lawgiver. I don’t see that either nomological argument works.

    Again you say, “We thus have to decide which conception to adopt of Ultimate Reality.  Is it more like a Law, or more like a Mind?”

    “For these reasons, I believe it is not possible on the basis of Cosmological Arguments alone to decide between Naturalism and Theism.  But the balance of probabilities is shifted by other types of arguments.”

    Here it seems to me that we still have certain cosmological arguments that make theism more likely than naturalism. For example, I think that the Kalam Cosmological Argument (I’ll just call it “the Kalam”) still has strong intuitively probabilistic force. I suspect that you have discussed this elsewhere and possibly very thoroughly. When I was trying to read through some of your back issues (I didn’t go back prior to this year) I recall someone strongly asserting that the Kalam is simply indefensible. If I remember correctly, you gave it as good of a defense as you could given the fact that you do not fully accept it yourself. If you and your respondents gave it a more thorough presentation and critique elsewhere, I couldn't find it and so I hope you don’t mind my resurrecting it here for further examination. I think the following factors indicate that the Kalam should be considered persuasive. I’ll keep this a brief as I can (which won’t be easy).

    The first premise that that which begins to exist has a cause seems to me to be very hard to deny. (I prefer this statement which is William Lane Craig’s earlier formulation of this premise.) I know that you think concepts like causation are more problematic than thinking in terms of explanation. But causation is still something we all think we understand in some fundamental ways. So I think we can appeal to it.

    We may think of something beginning to exist as an event and we have no knowledge of events which lack causes. Even talk of quantum events occurring without causes is, in my thinking, incomprehensible. I just cannot conceive that anyone can truly think that, say, a radioactive substance can emit a particle without a definite cause for that event.

    The second premise is that the universe came into being or began to exist. Sean Carroll preferred to say that the universe had a first moment. But if it had a first moment it still began to exist and this coming to be was thus an event. It needs a cause. What does it matter if it comes from a timeless regime lacking natural laws? If there was nothing in the timeless regime, we can’t get something from that nothing. We cannot have nothing and then something. If there is something there but it’s just timeless, then whatever it is, to be timeless it must be changeless. If it is changeless, it cannot bring about something new (change and thus time) unless we have a kind of “agent causation.” That is, we can imagine a person being unchanging and timelessly choosing time (an event, a change) to occur. Any other event causation we are acquainted with needs the cause to be in a state of change in order to be a cause and it must be caused by a prior cause. Agent causation does not in principle need a prior cause; it could be an uncaused cause.

    In an earlier blog you conclude that we don’t know that the universe had a beginning but that it probably did. Your further comments concerning the Aguirre-Gratton and similar possible models seems to me to indicate that the probability is still on the side of a beginning. (To me it seems very obvious that if we have a low entropy boundary from which time diverges in two directions, that boundary is the beginning of time and it needs an explanation.)

    So the scientific evidence (probably) indicates a beginning. But again, the whole issue of theism vs naturalism will ultimately be determined by our final assessment of the probabilities involved. But there is also good philosophical evidence for a beginning. At least I find the following persuasive.

    For all normal mechanistic causation, causes need prior causes. So for all causation which we know of except agent causation, we need causes proceeding to an infinite past. But if each cause does not have all that it needs in itself (it needs to be connected to or related to a prior cause) to bring about an effect, then the complete set of causes, the infinite number of causes, cannot be sufficient for any member to be a cause which actually brings about an effect. Philosopher Richard Purtrill gave this illustration: Suppose I don’t have a lawn mower and want to borrow a neighbor’s. My neighbor does not have one so he asks another neighbor, but she in turn does not have one and asks another neighbor. If we have an infinite number of neighbors who are asked and none of them have a lawn mower, then I will never get one because there is none to be had. If we have an infinite number of causes but not one is able bring about an effect without a prior cause, then I will never get that effect. So we cannot have an infinite regress of causes.

    I know I’m jumping into the lion’s den with an argument like this. Some of your readers are very opposed to the Kalam and I know you have your misgivings about it as well. But I’d love to hear your (and their) critiques of this formulation of the argument.

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