Fundamental Reality V: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

What are the possible candidates for the most fundamental principle of reality, which is to explain everything else?  Well, what do we know about the reality which it is supposed to explain?  One thing we know from the study of Physics, is that the world can be described (at least most of the time, to a high degree of precision) by a mathematical system of equations.

So the world is made of math!  (However, we should bear in mind here Bertrand Russell's observation that the fact that the constituents of the world are ordered in a particular pattern does not actually tell us what is the internal nature of those constituent parts...this will come back to bite us later.)  Here I am speaking loosely, in the same rough sense that I said earlier that things happen due to magic.

Well, what should we conclude from the mathematical nature of physics?  I can think of two obvious hypotheses.  Either (1) the fundamental reality is something a bit like an mathematical equation (yet not a mere abstraction, but something which actually makes the world go around), or (2) the fundamental reality is something a bit like a mathematician, i.e. a mind capable of appreciating mathematical relations.  (I don't mean either of these descriptions to be taken too literally here, obviously the fundamental entity cannot be exactly like a set of symbols on the blackboard, or a human mind, but the choice of analogy makes the difference to what effects seem likely to follow.)

If the former hypothesis is true, we would have Naturalism, a worldview which takes the universe as revealed by the Natural Sciences to be the ultimate reality, so that everything else must depend on that.  If the latter is true, we would have a Supernatural or Theistic view of reality.

I don't mean to suggest that (1) and (2) are the only possible candidates for the fundamental entity, just the ones I find most plausible.  Some naturalists might instead propose that the ultimate thing that explains everything else is A) the entire Universe “taken as a whole”, B) the first moment of time, C) the most elementary constituents of matter (whatever they are), or D) some vague principle or force, not structured like an equation, “out of which” the Laws of Physics emerge for some unknown reason.  But I don't think these are quite as plausible as compared to (1).

I only have time to do a drive-by shooting of these proposals: (A) seems problematic as the unexplained source of everything, if we take the term “Universe” literally.  For the Universe (as defined by Naturalists) is just the collection of all the things which exist (e.g. my cat).  So if we say that the Universe as a whole just exists and has no explanation, that would imply that my cat, being one of the parts of the Universe, just exists and has no explanation.  We could try to clarify this hypothesis by saying that actually only certain necessary, eternal, basic features of the Universe that have no explanation.  But then it is no longer the world taken as a whole which is fundamental, but only some aspect thereof.  We are then obliged to give a more specific account of what we mean by that aspect, and this is tantamount to adopting one of the other hypotheses.

If we say (B)—which obviously only works if there is a first moment of time—it seems problematic that the fundamental nature of reality should pass out of existence, and odder still why it should result in consistent laws of physics at later moments of time.  (C) means that there are rather a lot of fundamental realities, and raises difficult questions about what makes them capable of interacting with each other, and how they can be limited to particular places or times.  Without more details (D) is too vague to really be criticized, but in any case it is starting to verge on a (rather murky) Supernaturalism.

Now let's do a survey of Supernaturalistic views, in which there's one or more divinities, conceived as capable of having some degree of understanding, power, and purpose, although it or they might not be very much like a human mind.  One could accept Pantheism and identify God with the Universe.  Or one could embrace Polytheism and believe in multiple gods who are collectively responsible for the Universe as we know it.  Finally, one could invest all of the responsibility in a single Deity who is the source of everything else, which is Monotheism.

Pantheism seems to be open to much the same types of objections as (A) above. (Many forms of Pantheism say that the universe of our senses is an illusion and all that really exists is God, but I have difficulties making logical sense of this position, so I won't consider it seriously.)  Also it is not entirely clear, if God is identified with the Universe, how this viewpoint can distinguish itself from Naturalism, although some Pantheists might have answers to this question.

Polytheism seems to me susceptible to fatal objections, at least if the gods are regarded as metaphysically fundamental.  It seems rather strange that a bunch of fundamental entities should coexist without there being any higher principle which determines why the Pantheon is related to each other in the way that they are.  What decides which god gets its way in the case of a disagreement?  (Or if they always agree, that would seem to suggest something deeper than any of them which causes them to agree.)

Indeed the actual historical Pagans, despite worshiping multiple gods, very seldom conceived of the vast panoply of gods as being fundamental aspects of reality.  Instead they usually invented elaborate theogenies explaining how the gods themselves came into being (by a variety of scandalous sexual or asexual means of reproduction) from pre-existing matter or divinities.  Often one has a henotheistic setup: worshipping one chief God who is regarded as the primary Creator, together with many lesser gods valued as mediators to the heavenly court.  Or else the different deities are regarded as modes or manifestations of a single one.  Thus, even in polytheistic cultures, the philosophers tend towards Naturalism, Pantheism, or Monotheism in their fundamental philosophy.  This is a tell-tale sign that a religious belief is philosophically untenable: if even the philosophers raised in a tradition cannot accept it.

Notwithstanding the platypus, it seems rather unlikely that Nature was designed by committee.  It has too much internal coherence for that.  Atheists are frequently heard saying that Modern Science is in conflict with Religion, and they are quite right, always assuming that by “Religion” they mean Paganism.  It is quite untenable in a Scientific Age to believe that there is one divinity responsible for lightning, another one responsible for erotic love, another for birds and so on.  The natural world isn't really divided along those lines.

As far as I know there are no polytheists who worship the actual forces of nature as four different gods.  The best I can do along these lines is to suggest that Thor = electromagnetism (obviously!), Odin = gravitation (he's the most subtle), Freyja = strong force (she who binds with ties of love), and Loki = weak force (too busy wreaking mischief to bother holding anything together).  But I think this new cult is unlikely to take off among any demographic group I can think of!

Next: Comparison of the Finalists

Posted in Theological Method | 6 Comments

Fundamental Reality IV: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

It is natural to suppose that these fundamental entities are in some sense necessary.  I don't mean this term to imply that they can be rigorously proven from pure logic (logical/conceptual necessity) or even that we personally can be sure that they exist.  What I mean is that they are necessary considered in themselves, that (regardless of what we think or know) if we could only understand the fundamental nature of reality, we would know that they had to exist.  They are metaphysically necessary.  (This is quite distinct from the sort of conceptual inevitability described in the Chesterton quote previously.)

The way I have stated things, this may seem almost like a tautology, since we have stipulated that these things are the fundamental entities which explain everything else.  Given that they are the nature of things, they cannot not exist given the fundamental rules of existence, which is themselves.

Some people, though, would argue for the exact opposite, and say that the fundamental nature of reality, because it cannot be explained in terms of anything else, is just the ultimate inexplicable “brute fact”.  They would conceive of it more along the lines of the most wildly contingent thing there is, since it has no particular reason to exist and yet it does.  But this way of looking at things doesn't make intuitive sense to me.

If the fundamental nature of existence just happens to exist, with no internal necessity, why should we suppose that it should be at all simple or rational in its effects?  If it is completely inexplicable, then there are no constraints.  And if it is contingent—meaning something which might either exist or not exist—then it seems strange that there would be no process controlling whether it or something else (or nothing at all) comes into being.  If there are brute facts, then the entire world rests on a fluke, and the ultimate nature of reality is completely arbitrary and irrational.

Furthermore, if anything about the concrete physical world occurs necessarily, because it had to be that way (besides mere truths of logic) then a fortiori the fundamental nature of existence must be like that too.

If the fundamental entities are necessary, then it stands to reason that they are also eternal, since something that exists necessarily cannot come into being, or cease to be, or indeed change in any way.  They must just exist timelessly.  Besides which, if they explain what happens at all moments of time, it doesn't seem plausible that they should only exist for certain moments of time.  For similar reasons, one can argue that the fundamental entities can't be limited to just one region of space.  Their influence must be present everywhere.

It also seems that the fundamental entities (taken as a whole, if there is more than one of them) must be powerful, insofar as their existence is capable of explaining the existence of all other things.

Power here means causal efficacy (I obviously don't mean force times distance per time in this context!).  Earlier I tried to avoid making too many controversial assumptions about causality, but I also argued that the very concept of explanation or “because” involves a certain notion of causality, so if you like you may take the notion of power in this sense.  (One needs some concept of causation to say that anything is powerful.)

In fact, the fundamental principle(s), taken together, must be all-powerful, and that in two different senses: (1) all the other powers that may exist in the world are explained by reference to theirs, and (2) nothing outside of themselves can prevent them from doing things, because there IS nothing outside of them; only themselves and things whose natures are, by stipulation, subject to their dominion.

This does not, however, prevent there from being constraints on what these beings can do, based on them having some type of definite nature, which only does certain things.  And, since everything that exists obeys the rules of logic, it is clear they cannot do logically absurd things, such as causing themselves to never have existed.  So none of those silly logical puzzles about whether an omnipotent being can make stones too heavy to lift are relevant here.

All of the metaphysical reflections above, I would endorse whether or not I believed in God.  Nothing I have yet said is designed to discriminate between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.

Next: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

Posted in Theological Method | 6 Comments

Fundamental Reality III: Chains, Parsimony, and Magic

Some optimistic folks hope that Science will eventually explain everything about the world.  But this hope seems absurd in light of the fact that explanations always involve presuppositions.  The structure of explanation is always that we explain one thing A in terms of some set of other things B, C, D... which exist, or which have happened.  (Let's not be too particular about what we mean by “things” here, whether “objects”, “events” or what...)  One could then ask what is the explanation of B or C or D, and these things will in turn typically have explanations in terms of other things.  This gives us various types of explanatory series, and we can ask whether these terminate in some type of ultimate explanation.

So it seems that the best we could possibly do is to have one thing or principle whose existence is unexplained, and then use that to explain everything else.  That one thing would then have no other explanation outside of itself.  However, we can still evaluate how plausible it is that it should exist, based on various considerations of parsimony.  We can ask:

  1. Is this entity the type of thing where it would make sense for it to just exist on its own?  Or is it the sort of thing that would more naturally be explained by reference to something else?
    .
  2. Is this the simplest conception of fundamental reality, or can we get away with a simpler one? (Here I am using simple in the sense of Occam's razor, although if there were really just one unexplained entity, not composed of parts, it would also be simple in the Medieval Scholastic sense of being non-composite.)

You might notice that the people of a scientific bent tend to focus exclusively on the second question, while traditional metaphysics focuses more on the first question.  In my view both questions are relevant.

I said that explaining everything in terms of one thing is the best we can do.  We might have to settle for less, such as a plurality (hopefully small) of unexplained fundamental principles.  However, that would not only be more complicated, it would also raise questions about what is it that joins these (supposedly separate) principles together.  We might therefore reasonably hope that the principles in question would at least have some type of internal unity, without being too dogmatic at this stage about what kind of unity we are looking for.

Some people might propose that the chain of explanations extends backwards forever in an infinite chain.  Thus nothing has any ultimate explanation, but rather each one is explained by the thing before it, and so on.  Alternatively one could have the explanations arranged in a circle, which is similar to the infinite regress for what I am about to say.

The chain of explanations wouldn't necessarily have to be embedded in any kind of temporal sequence, but if it were, one would have to have a universe which is eternal to the past.  Now there are physics problems with trying to make a compelling physical model along these lines, with neither a geometrical nor a thermodynamic type of beginning.  But here I'm trying to explore more general metaphysical considerations, of the sort that are accessible from the nearest armchair, so I'll try to appeal to intuition instead of esoteric quantum cosmology considerations, for which the evidence of a beginning is mixed.

Personally, I find an infinite regress, with nothing more behind it, rather unsatisfactory.  It is not that I think there is any logical inconsistency in a universe which extends backwards in time forever.  There isn't.  The universe might well work that way.  But I feel like such a chain of explanations wouldn't actually explain anything in the chain properly.  For example, in the “ekpyrotic” scenario where the universe involves an eternal bouncing back and forth of two membranes, it wouldn't tell us why there are two membranes rather than one or four.  It would just boil down to saying that: things just are the way they are because they are the way they are.  Of course, if there were some additional extra explanation outside of time which somehow determined that there had to be two membranes, that would be different, and would make me much more satisfied with a time that goes back forever.

Somebody might retort that explaining everything in terms of one unexplained thing is just as bad in that it also has something which “just is the way it is”.  But at least in that case it there's only one thing like that, not a whole chain of things.  I find in myself an intellectual preference for building explanations on a foundation.  Axiomatic reasoning usually regarded as more intellectually respectable than circular reasoning.  If we deduce things from axioms, those axioms can be appreciated and evaluated.  Whereas if we deduce things from a chain going back to infinity, I feel that the entire system is unsupported in a vicious way.  So I'm fine with time going back to infinity, but only if there is something which transcends time which makes time do that.  Of course, Nature does not necessarily have to correspond to my intuitions, but I don't think it's irrational to believe that at least some of our intuitions give us rational guidance about how the universe should work.  Without some rational intuitions leading us to seek explanations, Science couldn't even get off the ground.

Furthermore, there are chains of explanation which do not go further and further back into the past, and these chains cannot be accounted for simply by postulating an infinite past.  We might also try to explain why the present-day dynamical processes of nature occur in the way that they do.  For example, suppose I want to know why a balloon attracts hair.  So I say it is because they have opposite electrical charges, which are attracted to each other with an inverse square law.  Well, why is that?  Well, because each charge has electric field lines coming out of it.  Why is that?  Because Gauss's equation said it had to happen that way.  Why is that?  It seems the answer must eventually be: it happens by MAGIC.

Some would say that this is obscurantism and that things happen because of the Laws of Nature.  But we have to remember that the phrase “Laws of Nature” is really a stand-in for whatever mysterious aspect of reality causes things to obey these Laws of Nature. When the phrase was first coined, the word “law” was a metaphor which was taken to imply the presence of a Legislator.  St. Chesterton suggests that the rational agnostic should instead use a different type of terminology, borrowed from fairy tales:

In fairyland we avoid the word "law"; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it.  Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm's Law.  But Grimm's Law is far less intellectual than Grimm's Fairy Tales.  The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law.  A law implies that we know the nature of the generalization and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects.  If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets.  And we know what the idea is.  We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties.  But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince.  As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.  Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the "Laws of Nature."  When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o'clock.  We must answer that it is magic.  It is not a "law," for we do not understand its general formula.  It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen.  It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things.  We do not count on it; we bet on it.  We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet.  We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception.  All the terms used in the science books, "law," "necessity," "order," "tendency," and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess.  The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, "charm," "spell," "enchantment."  They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.  The sun shines because it is bewitched.

I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical.  We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic.  It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs.  It is the man who talks about "a law" that he has never seen who is the mystic.
(Orthodoxy, "The Ethics of Elfland").

Let no one think that St. Chesterton said this only because he did not understand the particular explanations given by Modern Science.  He didn't, but it doesn't make any difference, since you come to the same place in the end no matter what.  No matter how many mediators we put in between the hair and the balloon—even if there is a continuum of mediating entities—at some point we need to postulate some sort of fundamental interaction not explained through intermediaries.

If we ask why these direct interactions occur, we either have to say for no reason at all (in which case it is a puzzle why things happen so consistently, since every single instance of an interaction would be a quite separate unexplained occurrence) or else to say that there is some common force or principle: either God or else some other term more acceptable to atheists.  We can call the underlying principle a “Law” if we want to (for lack of better language) but we should be aware that the word doesn't really explain why things had to be this way.

So in what follows, let's suppose that the explanations terminate on one or more unexplained entities, whether laws of physics, divinities or something else.  Because of the uncertainty about what these things actually are, I am not going to impose a rigid grammar on them, but will freely alternative between different terms.  I don't mean to sneak in any substantive assumptions by calling them “things”, “entities”, “principles”, “rules”, “beings”, or whatever.

Still, they must in some sense exist, or they couldn't do any work explaining anything else.  They are not merely logical abstractions, since logical abstractions can't do anything, they can only describe things.  Some people would say that it's a category error to say that laws can do anything, that laws merely describe regularities in Nature, but don't cause them to exist.  Well, if that happens to be true, then (contra Hume) something else must cause those regularities to keep occurring, otherwise it would just be a mighty coincidence that the regularities keep on happening.

In the following reflections I will try to say more about what this “something” might be.  I'm not trying to force a prematurely theological conclusion here.  I'm reasonably confident that any rational, complete worldview must have some set of fundamental entities or explanations which play the explanatory role that God does in Theism, but it is a quite separate question whether the thing(s) that fill that role have to be at all like the traditional conception of God.  This is a question which we will eventually need to face square-on, but first let's try to figure out some properties that any fundamental entities would have to have, no matter whether they are conceived of along Naturalist or Supernaturalist lines.

Next: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

Posted in Theological Method | 5 Comments

Fundamental Reality II: Causes and Explanations

With sufficiently robust assumptions about how causation works, it is possible to formulate various Cosmological Arguments (there's more than one) in a strictly deductive way.  But in our age there isn't enough of a consensus about how causation works, or even whether it really exists, to create an argument with broad popular appeal.  Some people even say that Science has refuted the idea of causality and replaced it with other concepts.

Instead I'm going to go the long way around and focus on the concept of explanations.  It seems utterly clear to me that Science is in the business of finding explanations for certain phenomena.  If it can't do that, it loses any claim to make sense out of the world.  If you want your theory to explain even one single thing about the world, then that requires you to give an account of what circumstances explain that thing.  Then we say that the thing happened because of those circumstances.  And as you can see, that word “because” has the word cause sitting inside of it.  Grammar itself teaches us that Science requires some notion of causation.

For example, we say things like “the planets all rotate around the sun in the same direction because the solar system formed from a rotating disk of gas”, or “the heat capacity of matter is finite because it is made out of atoms”, or “electrons attract protons because they have negative charge”, or “energy is conserved because the laws of nature are invariant under time translation.”  It is not obvious that these various senses of “because” all correspond to the exact same concept, but we can take almost any of them as examples for what I am going to say.  (Except perhaps for the “because” of pure logical deduction from definitions, i.e. “cold is the absence of heat because that is what the word cold means; 2+2 = 4 because 4 is twice two.  But pure logic is not enough to explain everything that happens, since avoidance of strict logical inconsistency is a rather weak constraint.)

Aristotle famously said that there are four different types of causes: material, formal, efficient, and final.  As a classification of the types of "because" answers we give to various questions, this seems fairly reasonable.  But some people would argue that the physical sciences only use some of these types of explanations.  In particular, it is disputed whether final causes, which express purposes—e.g. that the sun exists in order to produce light, or that the animals eat in order to receive nourishment—really exist in reality outside of our own minds.  This question will pop up later when we discuss Ethics, not to mention the Fine-Tuning Argument.  For the time being, let's consider less controversial notions of causation, without assuming Aristotle’s division to be correct.

In order to side-step some possible misunderstandings about what I mean by an explanation, let me make it clear that I am using the term explanation in a broad sense, so that:

A. Explanations can be Nondeterministic.   An explanation does not need to be deterministic, in the sense that the effect invariably follows from the cause.  It is enough if the explanation produces a framework, in which it makes sense that the cause might be produced.  For example, Quantum Mechanics is a nondeterministic theory, in the sense that if you start with a given initial condition, and you know the laws of physics, there is generally more than one possible final outcome, and you can only predict their probabilities.  So long as the probability of what happens is not so low as to indicate that the theory is probably wrong, I'm going to count this type of thing as an explanation of the experimental outcome.  That's because it seems that the universe is not deterministic, and if it isn't, then probabilistic explanation is the best that we can do.

For example, if a radioactive atom decays, you can't predict exactly when it will decay, but you can still explain why it can decay with reference to the forces and particles in the nucleus.  It's not like the decay occurs in an explanatory void.  So I think in a quantum mechanical theory, we need to generalize our notions of "explanation" and/or "causation" to allow for such nondeterministic explanations.  Just because you can't predict exactly what happens, doesn't mean there isn't a set of circumstances which causes whatever does happens to happen.  It's just that there's more than one possible outcome that set of circumstances could have produced.  That's different from something happening without any causes at all.

B. Explanations can be Unknown.  Similarly, there obviously exist some phenomena which do have an explanation, but we don't know what it is yet.  In that case, I want the term “explanation” to refer to the actual reason why the thing occurs, and not merely to those explanations which are currently known to our limited human minds.  Maybe we will never find out the full explanation for something, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  This point is important because Cosmological Reasoning, as I understand it, involves the attempt to push back the concept of explanation back to its ultimate fundamentals, to see what a fundamental explanation would have to look like in principle.  For example, a Naturalist doesn't necessarily need to know what the most fundamental theory of physics should look like, to propose that if we did know it fully, it would then explain everything else.

On the other hand:

C. Explanations are not just Regularities.  I reject the Humean view that causality is just a name for the constant conjunction of events.  In the end, I think this boils down to a renunciation of the possibility of explaining anything.  “Rocks have always fallen down before” is simply not an explanation for why the next rock falls down.  It doesn't have the right form to be an explanation.  It may make it rational to believe that the next rock will fall down, but the reason it does so is that we believe that there are underlying causes (in this case, gravitational attraction to the Earth) which remain roughly the same for each rock.  Conversely, there are many types of regularities (e.g. as of 2014, a woman has never been U.S. President) which may be unbroken in our experience, but that doesn't make those recurrences Laws of Nature.  Hence, when we seek to explain things, we ought to demand more than just the occurrence of regularities.

This seems to me to be elementary common sense, and I don't think the mathematization of physics (which merely describes these regularities, in increasing generality and detail) should change this conclusion.  But even if you accept the Regularity View, you still can't do Science at all unless you try to figure out how to describe these regularities with the most fundamental and deep laws possible.  On any reasonable view of causation, we can ask whether this process of explaining things finally terminates; and that will be the topic of the next section.

Next: Chains, Parsimony, and Magic

Posted in Theological Method | 1 Comment

Fundamental Reality I: Prologue, or Why Even Bother?

Looks like I've got to tell you now what I think about the Cosmological Argument.  I believe that Cosmological Arguments can give us a good reason to believe in some type of fundamental entity which causes the universe to exist.  In Theism that fundamental entity is taken to be God.  However, I think that the Cosmological Argument by itself, apart from other considerations, does not necessarily imply either Theism or Supernaturalism.  That is because there are also candidates within Naturalism for what that entity might be.  But there are related considerations, having to do with consciousness and ethics, which in my view tip the scales towards Theism, and I will try to also explain what these are.

Before I begin, let me tell you right away that this isn't my preferred approach for doing Apologetics.  I generally prefer a more empirical approach based on examining historical records for things like, oh, people being raised from the dead.  That's not just because that type of data can potentially get you to Christianity instead of just Theism.  It's also because, as a scientist, I've been trained to prefer the data to purely theoretical reasoning. Also, as someone who has studied the history of Philosophy, I'm well aware of just how far astray one can be led by so-called “armchair reasoning”, where you try to figure out how it makes sense for the universe to work, based only on broad aspects of reality.

There's way too many examples of philosophers (I'm looking at you, Kant) who say that things logically follow necessarily from premises, when in fact they don't.  They're sneaking in extra assumptions on the side: relying on intuitions and then calling it Reason.  It's not irrational to have intuitions—without them reasoning would never get off the ground—but not everyone necessarily shares those intuitions.  That's just how it is in Philosophy.  Any strictly deductive arguments for the existence of God necessarily rest on premises that not everyone is going to accept.

So I'm not going to even try to make deductive claims for most of what I'm going to say, but instead I'll try to tell you why I find Theism plausible, from an armchair reasoning point of view.  There are plenty of places where you'll be able to dissent from me.  I will argue that Theism makes better sense out of the world than any rival view, but not that all other views are inconsistent or absurd.

The English idealist F.H. Bradley said that “Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct; but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.”  Well, I'm going to indulge that instinct here. I'm well aware that what I say isn't going to convince everyone.

I've been told that the perfect philosophical argument would be one where if the hearer understood the argument but failed to accept the conclusion, they would just die.  The struggle to accept the incoherence would just be too much, and their brain would shut down.  Well, there aren't any arguments like that, but I think Metaphysics is still worth doing anyway.

In fact, we must do Metaphysics.  Even if you decide to focus on empirical evidence such as miracle claims, you still have to decide how much empirical evidence you actually need to accept a conclusion that may seem weird to you. But just how weird is God's existence? Bayes' Theorem says that the assignment of prior probabilities is a necessary step in evaluating any claim.

So that means, when deciding whether something exists or not, we always need to have some set of plausibility heuristics in our mind which say how likely that thing is to be.  In cases where we are talking about the fundamental nature of existence, that means we've got to do Metaphysics.  Even if there are no strictly deductive arguments (from indisputable premises), there are still going to be plausibility arguments pointing in various directions.  It's irrational to put too much faith in plausibility arguments, but it's also irrational to be completely insensible to them.  We must assess the plausibility of propositions in order to evaluate them properly.

If at any point you think I am handling things badly and going beyond my evidence, I ask only to be judged by fair standards.  It's easy enough to just take a negative point of view, and criticize unwarranted assumptions in other people's arguments.  But suppose that someone asked you to stand up and defend your own metaphysical beliefs (say, materialism) with arguments capable of persuading others.  Not just something offhand like “This makes sense to me, and I've never seen any good reason to believe otherwise”, but some robust intellectual argument for certain types of existence or nonexistence claims. You'll quickly find that it's a hard thing to do.  Yet some particular specific set of metaphysical statements must in fact be true, even if it is hard to see which ones.

So if you disagree, please do not just say, “There's a hole in your reasoning at line 278, therefore you are being illogical and religion is irrational.”  Instead tell me what metaphysical view you find more plausible and why.

From this perspective, I find it interesting that it is possible to argue for the existence of God as well as we can.  There are no compelling armchair arguments for the existence of quarks, jaguars, and so on, yet these exist and are observationally measurable.  Only in the case of the most fundamental being, God, can we make any kind of purely philosophical argument for his existence.  And that is precisely because he is so fundamental, that he is part of the background for everything else that we can or do experience.

I hasten to repeat that this type of considerations I'm about to present are not the primary reasons why I believe in God.  God has shown himself through explicit divine revelations, recorded in the Bible and elsewhere.  So it is not necessary to approach him through purely philosophical means. And there are many important things about God which we cannot hope to learn without revelation.  Nevertheless, there are some people who have argued themselves into Theism for reasons similar to those I am going to describe.  I also think it gives some helpful background motivations for Christian theology, even though it is not the primary source of it.

But I don't think Cosmological Argument type reasoning should be exclusively thought of as an argument for Theism, as though it had no other applicability except as a religious tool.  I think there are several different types of Cosmological considerations, and that anyone trying to think through Metaphysics seriously, will have to do some type of reasoning not completely unlike what I am going to say.  Indeed, quite a bit of what I am going to say should be acceptable even to atheists, and I would continue to accept several of the arguments even if I ceased to be religious.

None of what follows is intended to be particularly original, except for the presentation, and perhaps also the modesty with which I wish to assert the following claims as plausibility arguments, rather than any kind of strict deductions.  Broadly speaking, the types of arguments being considered have been around for a long time (longer than Christianity has been around), although I'm going to present them in the form I find most plausible even at the cost of a bit of originality.

One might worry that such arguments are a post hoc attempt to justify, through specious reasoning, conclusions which really came from certain religious texts.   But historically speaking, this is not at all what happened.  The arguments were developed primarily by Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.  These arguments tended to support a monotheistic view of the world, which was actually in conflict with the polytheistic view of their surrounding culture.  (Other Greek philosophers developed something more akin to Naturalism, which was of course also in conflict with popular Greek religion.)  It is therefore quite interesting that the Greek arguments supported something much closer to the Hebrew conception of divinity, which the Hebrews had received by Revelation rather than Reason.  Western culture as we know it is really the synthesis of the Greek mind with the Jewish heart, without which there is no theo-logy.

But that combination is also not the origin of Christianity.  Rather, it is the cultural milieu in which Christianity started.  The compatibility of these two sets of ideas was just starting to be appreciated, when something far stranger than either of them came into the world to save it.

Next: Causes and Explanations.

(Update: edited the sentence about the perfect philosophical argument.)

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