Will the real god God please stand up?

There are many reasons why I’m not retired, but one of the bigger ones is that I haven’t figured out yet how to get at least a quarter (if not a dollar bill) from every person who’s ever asked me how I can believe in “a god or gods” in an age of “science” and “reason”. The question is usually sincere rather than an attempt to troll, but either way, the wording alone is enough to reveal where things are headed, and the ensuing discussions have been nothing if not utterly predictable. In virtually every case the underlying narrative was based on a handful of fashionable just-so stories, none of which appeared to have ever been questioned.

Back in days of yore, I was told, bucolic ancients looked out on a universe resplendent with mysteries they could neither understand nor predict, yet depended on for their survival. For all its dependable seasons and regularities, the universe visited floods, fires, and other tragedies on them as often as it yielded its bounty. In their attempt to understand why and find a just order to it all, they attributed these mysteries to the capricious activities of spirits called “gods” who were like us in every respect, except that they were disembodied and endowed with vast magical powers over various parts of the natural order. As the rise of science rolled back these mysteries with rational explanations, such gods were no longer needed to account for them. Eventually, the faiths based on them were rendered superfluous, and thus did Science triumph over religion (note the capital “S” and lower-case “r”).

There are so many things wrong with this it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps the best way to unpack this mess is to start with the origins of the God of Classical Theism on which the Abrahamic religions are founded. These cover the professed religious beliefs of well over half of humanity and roughly 80% of North America and account for virtually every instance of the above narrative I’ve ever personally witnessed.1

Contrary to widespread belief, Classical Theism as a formal system of thought didn’t originate with Christianity or Judaism, nor was it an attempt to explain any mystery of the natural world (which makes it quite telling that the God that eventually emerged from that tradition bore a striking similarity to the uniquely monotheistic God of the Old Testament that the Israelites had been worshipping via revelation for nearly a millennium). The seminal theological question never was “is there a god?”—it is, and always has been, “why is there something rather than nothing?” In the Fifth Century BC, the Greek philosopher Parmenides formulated an axiom that was later Latinized as ex nihilo nihil fit (“out of nothing comes nothing”). Unless you believe in magic this is as straightforward as axioms get, and for nearly 2500 years no thinker of any repute has seriously challenged it. [At least not until the present day, when a handful of metaphysically illiterate Atheist physicists decided that philosophy is “dead” because it hasn’t kept up with their profession, and gave themselves permission to redefine the word “nothing” and make Magic a sub-discipline of physics. But that’s a topic for another day.] This, in turn, raised other issues. Parmenides went on to argue that change and differentiation must be illusory, for to change, he said, is for something to cease to exist in one state and begin to exist in another. Because that would require things to come from nothing, and disappear back into it, he considered it absurd. And yet, change is every bit as indisputable a fact of life as existence itself. What are we to make of these two realities, and how they relate to each other? For the next one or two centuries, philosophers of different schools argued these questions, some emphasizing the primacy of change, and others the primacy of the unchanging unity of things.

The first true leap forward came circa the mid-Fourth Century BC when Aristotle published his Metaphysics. Aristotle argued that the apparent tension between being and becoming can be accounted for if we differentiate between the actual state of existence of real-world things (or substances) and their innate potentialities for existing in different ones (later Scholastic thinkers denoted these respectively as acts and potencies). Change occurs when the active potencies of one substance causally instantiate outcomes from the passive potencies of another via four types of causality—Their material constituents (material causality), their essential form and identifying properties (formal causality), their direct physical interactions (efficient causality), and their directedness toward ends (final causality). For instance, we could say that the motion of massive objects reflects their mass and other properties (material and formal causes), and the forces they interact with (efficient causes). Aristotle would also say that they fall to the ground when dropped because the earth is their natural resting place (final causality). Similar ideas were developed by Plato, and by the Stoics and Neoplatonists after him, and eventually brought to fruition by medieval Scholastic philosophers and theologians of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. Various schools of thought were represented in each, but most if not all, eventually converged on some combination of the following axioms;

1)   The universe is contingent. Its essential nature, or form (and that of everything in it) is separate from its existence. [e.g. - We can meaningfully conceptualize horses and unicorns without regard to whether there are any.]

2)   The universe is causally interconnected. The acts and potencies of its physical constituents are interrelated in rationally consistent ways.

3)   The universe evolves. Per 2), its actual state of existence changes from moment to moment in dependable ways. [e.g. - Seeds grow into trees, objects fall toward a gravitational source, etc.] As such, science is a meaningful endeavor that gives us real, grounded knowledge about the way the world is.

4)   Potencies may be active powers or passive capacities for change, and the events that unfold from their activity may be (formal terms again) essentially ordered, or accidentally ordered (dependent on, or independent of the continuing activity of their cause/s). [e.g. - A father has the active power to father children, and his kids will continue to exist whether he continues fathering behavior or not (accidentally ordered events). A guitar has the passive power to make music by actualizing the passive power of air to produce sound, but only if it is played by a musician, and the music will exist only while the guitar is being played (essentially ordered events).

5)   Purely passive potentialities cannot self-realize—they must be instantiated (made actual) by something else that is actual. [e.g. - wood has the passive potentiality to burn, but only if it's exposed to an actual source of heat. An infinitely long chain of stationary railroad cars (or one connected in a loop) cannot move, even though each car is connected to one that can pull it. There must be a least one engine with the active potency for inducing motion.]

6)   The universe's actualities and potentialities are a mix of active powers and passive possibilities. [e.g. - A locomotive has the active power to pull a train of cars with passive potentials for motion, but also has other passive dependencies, such as the need for an engineer; you have the active power to walk or run, but not to continue living without food and water; etc.]

7)   As persons with active and passive potencies of our own, we are rational, freely choosing, intentional agents. As such, our observations and thoughts can, and do, give us reliable knowledge of the universe.

From these (particularly the concept of essentially-ordered causality), they concluded that there must exist something that is pure act—the ground of all being and empowered possibility, with no passive potentialities or dependencies (Davies, 2004; Feser, 2010; 2014). Furthermore, this pure act must be;

a)   Eternal - Not within, or in any way constrained by time or space.

b)   Unchanging – Not evolving per any passive potencies susceptible to influences external to itself.

c)   Simple - A substantial, or essential unity without parts or differing properties of the sort possessed by physical things.

d)   Omnipotent - Unlimited in active powers.

e)   Omniscient - Present in, and aware of, all that is.

f)   Possessing both intellect and will, and as such, is the ground of all personhood (as opposed to being "a" person).

g)   The intentional cause of everything else that is, and thus, the objective source of the meaning, value, and purpose of things.

Aristotle referred to this pure act as the Unmoved Mover. Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers recognized Him as the God of Classical Theism who appears in the Bible and Quran. How these conclusions were reached, and how this timeless, changeless God is related to the Christian Trinity and His portrayal in the pages of both Scriptures, would fill numerous posts and is beyond our scope today. But before we proceed, a few comments are in order.

First, it’s widely believed that Aristotle’s metaphysics is dependent on his outdated physics, and therefore no longer relevant today. In his 2014 debate with William Lane Craig, Atheist physicist Sean Carroll spoke for many when he addressed transcendent causality and the universe (Carroll & Craig, 2014) stating that,

“[T]here’s a bigger problem with it, which is that it is not even false. The real problem is that these are not the right vocabulary words to be using when we discuss fundamental physics and cosmology. This kind of Aristotelian analysis of causation was cutting edge stuff 2,500 years ago. Today we know better. Our metaphysics must follow our physics. That’s what the word metaphysics means...

[T]he way physics is known to work these days is in terms of patterns, unbreakable rules, laws of nature... There is no need for any extra metaphysical baggage, like transcendent causes, on top of that. It’s precisely the wrong way to think about how the fundamental reality works.”

All of this is either false or grossly misleading. In modern analytic philosophy, Aristotelian/Scholastic concepts of ontology and causality are every bit as active a field of study as they’ve ever been (e.g. - Martin, 1997; Davies, 2004; Feser, 2014; 2015; Oderberg, 2008, etc. and sources cited therein). There are, of course, differing schools of thought on them, and their relationship to the sciences is actively debated. Some lean toward a deep interrelationship between physics and these metaphysical ideas. Others such as Edward Feser (2010; 2014; 2015) argue that the two are entirely separate realms. Aron and I fall somewhere in the middle. [For more, see Aron’s entire series of posts on Fundamental Reality.]

While it is true that modern physics treats causality differently than Aristotle and the Scholastics did (e.g. - the notions of material and formal causes are largely redundant in physics and not really needed), clearly the two realms of thought speak to the same underlying realities and even share some common language. The very “patterns, unbreakable rules, laws of nature” Carroll speaks of inherently imply an underlying unity which not only makes physics possible but fits the terms act and potency beautifully. Potentials, for instance, are a regularly recurring theme in physics, and the fact that equations of motion can be derived from them also bears a striking similarity to the Aristotelian notion of final causality. The dynamics of a falling mass can be differentially specified in terms of a static gravitational potential, but a Scholastic would say that the mass falls to earth because that’s its natural resting place. The ideas being expressed here aren’t as different as many suppose. Another common misconception is that final causality involves teleology. In fact, it’s about directedness as much as purpose or design, if not more, and applies to inanimate objects as well as living things. It’s not a huge leap to see directedness in the way static potentials lead to equations of motion.

These Aristotelian concepts are less rigorously developed of course, but conceptually at least, they substantially overlap their counterparts in physics, which implies at least some unity between the two. But at the same time, as we saw in my last post, the fact that there are numerous ontic interpretations of QM alone should give us pause before assuming that one of these realms is entirely supervenient on the other. In any event, wherever one falls on this spectrum, the one thing that isn’t true is that "our metaphysics must follow our physics". Nor is that “what the word metaphysics means" as Carroll claims. Aristotle’s Metaphysics was so named because he wrote that book after he wrote his Physics, not because the former is in any less foundational than the latter, or entirely supervenient on it (in Greek, the root meta is equivalent to the Latin post, meaning “after”).

Second, it’s worth noting that this argument, which is known as the cosmological argument, is widely misunderstood. In popular writings, particularly those of its critics, it’s almost always presented as an argument for a historical creation event based on accidentally-ordered temporal chains of causality when in fact, it’s based entirely on essentially-ordered, or simultaneous causality.2 The traditional example given by St. Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastics is that of someone pushing a ball with a stick. The passive potency of the ball for rolling motion is realized only while it is being pushed by the stick’s passive potency for doing so, which in turn is realized only while the one wielding it is exercising his/her active potency for wielding it to push objects. The entire causal chain is simultaneous in the present moment and has nothing whatsoever to do with any cause or causes that may have existed even a few seconds prior. In fact, Aquinas, who developed the argument better than anyone else in history, famously believed that it wasn’t possible to demonstrate that the universe had a temporally-ordered causal beginning. He believed it did because Scripture said so, but he felt that observation and philosophical arguments alone couldn’t demonstrate that. Today, of course, Carroll’s dismissal of transcendent causes notwithstanding, the evidence for a beginning is considerable and whether they admit it or not, a source of dismay for Atheists. Aquinas’ claims to the contrary are relevant here, only to the extent that they emphasize that time-ordered causality plays no role in traditional cosmological arguments.

Furthermore, in the writings of Aristotle and the Scholastics, the term move denotes change in general, not just change of location as we understand it. To them, changes in any property—including say, color, temperature, or even a beginning of existence—would be considered “movement”. Interestingly, Carroll misses this subtlety as well. In his book The Big Picture (2017) he claims that modern physics renders Aristotle’s unmoved mover meaningless because per special relativity, inertial reference frames do not distinguish between stationary objects and those moving at constant velocities. [It’s odd that Carroll misunderstands so many of these concepts as completely, and chronically, as he does. Unlike many scientists these days, he has a background in philosophy (having minored in it as an undergraduate) and is known for his thoughtfulness and attention to detail with metaphysical topics. He’s repeatedly, and rightly, called out many of his colleagues for their Philistine recklessness in these areas and with philosophy in general. If anyone should know better, it would be him.]

Finally, it should also be noted that the history of thought on God’s nature isn’t quite as monolithic as I perhaps made it sound. In recent years, for instance, some theologians and philosophers of religion have questioned the notions of God as grounded personhood (as opposed to personality), His simplicity, and the claim that He’s timeless and unchanging. God, it’s argued, cannot be meaningfully omniscient and loving, as He’s presented in the Bible and Quran, unless He has attributes that manifest in a personality, not unlike ours, and He in some sense experiences time (although opinions as to whether His time maps onto the space-time of our experience, and if so, how). This school of thought, referred to by some as theistic personalism, has been particularly popular among advocates of presentism (the so-called “A-Theory” of time). It’s more notable advocates include Richard Swineburne, Alvin Plantinga, J.P. Moreland, and William Lane Craig.

Theistic personalism is a relatively late development in the history of Classical Theism and hasn’t gained widespread acceptance among theologians and philosophers of religion (Davies, 2004). The traditional arguments for the simplicity and timelessness of the God of Classical Theism as presented above are formidable and well-supported not only by metaphysics but the Abrahamic Scriptures as well. The apparent difficulties presented by a timeless God in changing history are not as difficult as they may seem at first blush either. Once we realize that if God is omnipresent throughout His created space-time, and interacting with it at every point according to His Will, He will appear to change from the standpoint of time-bound creatures like us, much the way a static landscape appears to change to the passengers of a car driving through it. Dispensing with all this simply to bring God more in line with our experience adds layers of arbitrary, and unnecessary metaphysical complexity that cry out for Occam’s Razor. As if that weren’t enough, it runs badly afoul of physics as well. The presentism that it most naturally fits has numerous issues, not the least of which are the difficulties of reconciling it with the Lorentz boost. While it is possible to make presentism work in a relativistic framework (Copan & Craig, 2004), the match ain’t exactly made in Heaven and IMHO at least, creates far more problems than it solves. Nevertheless, theistic personalism does have its place in modern theological discourse, and it has been ably defended by its proponents (Moreland & Craig, 2003).

There… Now that all the fine print is out of the way, let’s return to our seven-axiom argument for the existence of God. At this point, several things should be readily apparent.

1)   God is not “a god”

When Atheists (or more commonly, New Atheists) speak of "a god or gods" what they invariably have in mind are demigods—minor deities of the sort one finds in ancient mythologies. These are the disembodied space and time-bound magical spirits central to their narrative. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins (2008) states that,

"I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further."

The problem with this is obvious—the “gods” he names bear no resemblance whatsoever to the God of Classical Theism. In Greek mythology, Zeus had a family tree like us. He was the child of the Titans Chronos and Rhea, and they were, in turn, descended from the primordial Greek deities (Wikipedia, 2016). Like the rest of the Greek pantheon, not only was he a time-bound spirit, he was earth-bound as well and "lived" at a physical location (Mt. Olympus). In fact, as often as not, such demigods were deified human rulers. Case in point, the Akkadian ruler/gods Gilgamesh and Naram-Sin who respectively ruled during the late Third and early Second Millennia BC (Armstrong, 2015).

God on the other hand (note the capital “G”), is the ground of all being and personhood. He is neither space and time-bound nor an instantiation—there is no general class of things called "grounds of all being" of which He can be said to be one example among many. The very claim that there could be more than one such ground is inherently self-contradictory. It’s no accident that the Abrahamic religions are all monotheistic. And as the creator of all else that exists—including the very space-time manifold whose geometry is, per general relativity, related to the mass-energy and momentum it contains—calling Him a demigod amounts to claiming that He's bound by His own creation, and dependent on it for His existence. That, my friends, is patently absurd. Saying that God is "a god” isn't merely wrong, it's a category error.

Interestingly, the distinction we find today between the anthropomorphic personified God of televangelist’s sermons and children’s picture Bibles, and the God of Classical Theism was every bit as true in Aristotle’s day as well. Then, as now, philosophers distinguished between Everyman’s bearded, gray haired Zeus who threw thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus, and the classical theistic "Zeus" (or more properly, Greek primordial God) of formal thought. If this were the 4th Century BC, New Atheists like Dawkins would be out in front of the Athens Peripatetic school in togas beating their well-inflated chests about "a zeus or zeus'es," and Aristotle would be the one biting his tongue and doing whatever could be done to educate them. Some things never change… ;-)

2)   God is not a hypothesis

Science doesn’t deal in “facts” (at least not as most people understand that word). More correctly, it deals with data. One begins with reproducible measurements of some observed phenomena (e.g. – the power density spectrum of the cosmic microwave background, or tracks emerging from particle collisions in a cloud chamber). One or more hypotheses are formed to account for them, and the most viable of these are developed into formal theories from which the outcomes of further, yet untested observations can be made. In the case of physics, this generally means a set of differential equations and boundary conditions, a Lie algebra that embodies an expected symmetry, or the like. Failure of a theory’s predictions is its null hypothesis and counts as evidence against it. If further experiments yield the predicted outcomes, confidence in the theory grows, and if not, suspicion does. In this sense, hypotheses that make no testable predictions cannot meaningfully be called scientific.3

Enter our axioms 1) through 7). Though all are based on observation, and scientific illustrations could be given for them, they cannot be called “data” in any scientifically meaningful sense. How does one create a “dataset” to quantify concepts like act and potency, and use it to validate a ground of all being and personhood and the contingency of the universe? What they are, is a set of metaphysical axioms about the underlying ontic nature of the universe, and God (again, note the capital “G”) isn’t a hypothesis we postulate to account for them—He’s a formally reasoned conclusion derived from them.

Alright, before anyone blows a gasket, let me be clear about what I mean. No, I am not saying that the existence of God can be logically/mathematically proven. If it were that easy Atheism wouldn’t be a worldview worth discussing, and its proponents wouldn’t include some of the finest minds in history. What I am saying is that it’s a different sort of argument than the traditional data -> hypothesis -> test methodology science relies on. To claim that there’s no evidence for “a god or gods” is like claiming that there’s no “evidence” for “an equation or equations” called the Mean Value Theorem of Calculus. The Mean Value Theorem isn’t a hypothesis—it’s a formal proof that begins with certain axioms (e.g. – a continuous manifold, monotonic everywhere differentiable functions, etc.). The extent to which one accepts those axioms is the extent to which one accepts the conclusion. Likewise, to reject that conclusion is to reject the axioms it begins with.

Which brings us to the next point…

3)   Atheism is not a null hypothesis

Finally, we arrive at New Atheism's most beloved get-out-of-jail-free card—the belief that it's merely the rejection of Theism, and as such, a null hypothesis that needs no defense. Sam Harris (2008) minces no words when he states that,

“’Atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.” … Atheism is nothing more than the noises people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

A New Atheist friend and colleague once put it to me even more starkly on social media,

“An Atheist is one who rejects the claims made by theists. An Atheist is simply a person who is not a theist. Atheism is not in itself a claim, and as such, simply cannot be false. Only claims can be proven false; a lack of claim cannot be said to be false. How can I be wrong when I say 'you haven't presented a compelling argument for your case'?” (My emphasis)

Clever, aren’t we? Don't state your claims directly, frame them as a rejection of someone else's… then conveniently excuse yourself from any responsibility for a proper defense of them, and set the standard of proof however high it needs to be to protect you, infinitely if necessary. Sleight of hand like this isn’t just bread-and-butter for New Atheists of course. Creationists and climate change skeptics rely heavily on it as well. Denial... it ain't just a river in Egypt anymore! ;-)

To be fair, this would be valid if we were postulating the activity of demigods in the created order as one possible explanation for some phenomenon. If my fishing buddy insists that the nibble I just had was a trout, I’m under no obligation to defend my skepticism when we both know the pond is full of bass and catfish as well. The burden of proof is on him to produce evidence for his “trout” theory as opposed to a bass or catfish one. But as we’ve seen, that’s not what’s happening here. We aren’t offering any “god hypothesis” to account for something in the natural world, whether it be trout in a pond or anything else. We’re formally demonstrating that a set of metaphysical axioms requires His existence. Atheists like Harris and my friend aren’t rejecting belief in “a god or gods”—they’re rejecting the metaphysical axioms that lead to the God of Classical Theism. That cannot be done in a vacuum without committing oneself to some, or all, of the following counter-axioms;

8)   The universe is a brute fact. Science may reveal its countless subtleties and underlying unities, but ultimately it just has the contingent features it does rather than an infinite number of other possibilities. There is no reason why... it just is that way.

9)   Per 8), the beginning of the universe's existence (13.73 billion years ago) is also a brute fact. There is no reason why... it just created itself from nothing.

10)   There is no such thing as causality—only events unfolding in certain ordered ways. “Causality” is just a concept we use to describe the appearance of mechanism between bits of stuff (what I referred to above as "interactions"), but ultimately those events are, to use David Hume's term, "loose and separate." They have no inherent relationship to each other.

11)   Matter does not actually possess any inherent properties or essential natures of the sort that could be described in terms of essence or potency (as I defined them above). Reality is ultimately just "bits of stuff" mechanically interacting according to mathematical laws expressed in terms of parameters that give the appearance of such. [“Um, ‘interactions’ and ‘laws’…? Didn’t you just say in 10) that…?” “Silence Dorothy! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain...!”]

12)   The rationality of the laws of nature—that those "loose and separate" events between bits of stuff happen to unfold according to what physicist Eugene Wigner called "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics—is also a brute fact. There is no reason why... it just is that way.

13)   "Loose and separately" ordered bits of stuff are blind, and as such the universe ascribes no objective value or purpose. Everything in it, including us, is a byproduct of random, meaningless accidents—what Richard Dawkins called "blind, pitiless indifference" (Dawkins, 1996). Thus, morality is either nihilistic or entirely subjective.

14)   Alternately, if objectively normative moral values do exist—yours, mine, or anyone else's—then they too are brute facts. There is no reason why... they just are what they are. [“But my goodness gracious… isn’t it marvelous how nicely they align with mine…?”]

15)   Consciousness and personhood are illusory. To again use David Hume's term, we're just "bundles of percepts" in bodies made up of bits of stuff behaving according to deterministic laws. [“Um, ‘deterministic’…? Didn’t you say in 10) that…?” “Silence Dorothy! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain...!”] "You" or "I" are concepts we use to describe our experience of the neural activity in our brains, and how it affects our perceptions and behaviors. Beyond that, we are no more “persons” in the sense of being freely empowered, intentional, and possessing rational agency than an email server is (analytic philosophers refer to this viewpoint as eliminative materialism).

16)   Though we are accidentally evolved "bundles of percepts," our perceptions and reasoned thoughts are reliable sources of knowledge of the deepest inner workings of the universe and ourselves.

Notice that these aren’t mere “rejections” of anything. Like 1) through 7), they’re positive metaphysical assertions about the ontic foundations of the universe, and as such, they have rational consequences. We can reject belief in mythological demigods, invisible dragons, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster if we like. But we cannot reject the God of Classical Theism without committing ourselves to a fully developed and properly defended philosophy of Materialism, any more than we can reject belief in light without accepting belief in darkness—which is of course, precisely what every Atheist philosopher of any repute in history has labored to produce. David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Antony Flew… these and many other luminaries devoted their lives to producing materialistic philosophies of nature, mind, and ethics based on some, or all of the above counter-axioms, and published countless influential works in the process (Hume, 2000; 2017; Nietzsche, 2000; Russell, 1967; 2017; Flew, 2005 to name a few).

According to Harris and my friend, all of that was a waste of time—what these and countless other luminaries should’ve been doing, was belittling televangelists and suicide bombers on social media and in TED talks to like-minded audiences. They, of course, knew better. Those who insist that there’s no evidence for “a god or gods” are merely demonstrating that they don’t even understand the question, much less have a properly thought out answer for it.4

 

A reporter once presented the late Samuel Shenton, then president of the Flat Earth Society, with a photograph of earth taken by the Apollo 13 astronauts from roughly 150,000 miles distance. Shenton stared long and hard at it, after which he began to nod. “Yes,” he finally said… “It is easy to see how the untrained eye could be fooled by that picture!” Well-trained eyes are becoming an increasingly important part of the modern intellectual landscape… particularly in secular communities that wear their claims to “reason” and objectivity like golden tiaras. But as I said in my last post, if our only tool is a hammer then sooner or later everything will look like a nail. Though some would deny it (sincerely, I believe), to many in these communities, science is no longer a discipline. It has become a religion in its own right—Scientism, the sacred Oracle whose mighty outstretched hand no question of earth, sky, heart, or soul can elude. Its practitioners are no longer experts, but authorities—high priests of the goddess Reason, whose metaphysical pronouncements are every bit as authoritative as the theistic fundamentalist dogmas they, often rightly, deride.

Nowhere is this more true than with physics—a discipline that not only knocks on the door of many metaphysical questions, but immerses itself in counterintuitive mysteries that at times seem almost magical, and higher mathematics that to the guy on the street are every bit as arcane as ancient hieroglyphics… so much so that a term has even been coined for it: physics envy. And human nature being what it is, once a scientist has been elevated from mere expertise to the august status of High Priest, he/she becomes an authority not only in their own field, but in beer brewing, Elizabethan poetry, personal lubricants, or any other topic for which it’s their whim to have an opinion. Anymore, hardly a week goes by that I don’t see yet another news story extolling Stephen Hawking’s latest complaints and/or warnings about society, international politics, or the impacts of technology on the future of humanity—as though expertise in quantum cosmology qualifies him to speak to any of those topics. [That isn’t Hawking’s fault of course. Scientists rarely ask for the deification so glibly bestowed on them by a credulous public.]

Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with all this… Like it or not, science is a discipline, not an Oracle. A powerful discipline to be sure, and one that has rolled back the mysteries of the universe like no other, but a discipline nonetheless, and for damn sure, no more either. And like all other disciplines, it is, and always will be, but one tool among many. As such, it lends itself to many but not all questions, and the experts who wield it are fallen mortals every bit as subject to their own hopes, fears, and human limitations as we are. It’s the height of naivete and outright hubris to pretend that we can cleanse it of our own limitations and treat it like a magic wand that can answer every question, meet every moral, spiritual, and existential need, and endow our existence with purpose… and we pay a steep price when we do. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said,

“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.”

True that.

 

Footnotes

1)   I’m not knowledgeable enough about Hinduism to speak with any authority about it, but its concept of Brahman as the Absolute appears to bear some similarity to the God of the Abrahamic traditions. If so, then including it in this list would raise the tally of humanity that embraces some version of the God of Classical Theism to nearly 70%.

2)   There is one version of the cosmological argument that does presume that the universe had a beginning—the Kalam cosmological argument whose most notable proponent is William Lane Craig. However, it isn’t based on time-ordered causality either. The Kalam argument differs from the traditional one in that it contains two additional premises: Whatever begins to exist has a cause; and that this cause must be transcendent because (per Parmenides) the universe cannot efficiently cause itself. But like the traditional cosmological argument, it takes this cause to be essentially-ordered as well.

3)   Interestingly, some physicists and philosophers are now beginning to question this, and their reasons are rather surprising. In recent years, multiverse models based on eternal inflation and the so-called string landscape have in the eyes of many physicists, become “the best game in town” for a “theory of everything” that could potentially resolve many issues in physics and cosmology. The inflationary framework accounts beautifully for a few cosmological conundrums that would otherwise be inexplicable (e.g. – the “flatness" problem, and the uniformity of the cosmic microwave background). But in the absence of a viable candidate for the inflaton (as of this writing), the scalar potential/s in inflationary models are flexible enough that for the time being at least, validating the framework has largely proven to be a whack-a-mole exercise. For every model that’s been observationally ruled out, more have sprung up. Likewise, while string theory has led to much progress in many areas, it has also proven excessively flexible—so much so that since its inception more than 40 years ago, it has yet to make a single testable prediction. Furthermore, the scale on which it’s real nuts and bolts are expected to reveal themselves requires testing at energies that will never be accessible to us (Woit, 2007). For all intents and purposes, this renders string landscape multiverse models virtually untestable… even in principle. However, in spite of these problems, they offer two really big carrots that in addition to their other strengths have proven irresistible to many physicists: a) In conjunction with anthropic arguments, they currently offer the only workable explanations of fine tuning that are based solely on physics; and b) Though vulnerable to some formidable arguments that the universe had a beginning, eternal inflation does offer at least some hope for avoiding a creation event. Technically, “eternal” inflation is a reference to future-eternal inflation and thus a bit of a misnomer. A past-eternal universe would run afoul of the BGV theorem; there are a few ways to get around it, although the best of them are contrived to say the least.

The bottom line is that as of this writing, the string landscape/eternal inflation multiverse offers the only path forward for cosmology that doesn’t smack of a Creator. Given the theistic alternatives, it’s little wonder that many Atheist physicists (most notably Sean Carroll) are willing to accept these limitations and argue that it’s time to dispense with testable predictions in science. If a theory is “elegant” (in their view) and at least fits observation, it is de-facto true. Likewise, it also comes as no surprise that many of the strongest opponents of this movement (known as Post-Empiricism) are Christians like George Ellis (Ellis & Silk, 2014).

Ironically, the shoe is now on the other foot. Atheists who for so long have (often rightly) accused religious believers of clinging to comfortable dogmas without evidence, are now the ones insisting that science should be divorced from it. When their backs are against the wall (and to their credit IMHO), they prove to be every bit as mortal as people of faith. And like us, they cherish their worldviews enough that they’ll occasionally struggle for their preservation even to a fault.

4)   Antony Flew is a particularly telling case in point. Often referred to as the Father of 20th Century Atheism, he was arguably the most important Atheist philosopher of his age. His seminal work God and Philosophy (2005), which was originally published in 1966, almost single-handedly shaped the direction of Atheist thought and scholarship during his lifetime. Shortly before his death in 2010, he shocked the secular world when he set aside his life’s work and said that based on reason and evidence, he could no longer deny the existence of God (Flew & Varghese, 2008). Flew didn’t conclude with a God who is personal, as in the Bible and Quran, nor did he embrace any major religion. But his God did bear a striking similarity to the God of Classical Theism, and he gave a particularly deferential hat-tip to… Christianity.

Needless to say, this dealt New Atheists a narcissistic injury which they still haven’t recovered from to this day. The reaction was immediate, and what one would expect. Despite his life’s work, Flew was promptly branded an apostate to the True Faith and excommunicated. Dawkins (2008) fumed about his “tergiversation” (as though using the biggest and most impressive word he could find in a crossword puzzle would somehow convert bullshit into a valid argument). Others resorted to smear campaigns (up to and including accusing him of senility), and intellectual cross-burnings that would make even the flock of Westboro Baptist Church blush. The one thing that was not, and to this day has not been produced, is a properly researched and soundly defended critique of his stance.

Perhaps New Atheists are as offended by religion as they are because they have more in common with blindly dogmatic religious fundamentalists than they’re prepared to admit.

 

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discipline 

About Scott Church

I am a landscape photographer and I.T. professional in the greater Seattle area. I graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering and a Masters in Applied Physics, and in a former life, I was an aerospace engineer. When I'm not writing or at work I can be found plying the waters of the Pacific Northwest for salmon, trout, and steelhead, or bushwacking with my camera gear.
This entry was posted in Metaphysics, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to Will the real god God please stand up?

  1. Spencer Andreasen says:

    You had me as 'bucolic'.

    I'm interested in your perspectives on Clinate Change after following one the links in this article.

    Most of the physics flew over my head but I'm more or less just glad knowing that there are smart Christians keeping the smart Atheists honest, so well done (and to Aron).

  2. Scott Church says:

    Thanks so much for the kind words Spencer! For my perspectives on climate change, you could do worse than perusing the stuff I've posted on my own website, (which is probably the link you followed). The first link on that page is my latest writing on the subject, an essay about some of the common threads running through most climate denial arguments. There's also a link on the right nav bar to a general climate science section.

  3. Andrew says:

    I don't think its quite fair to categorize people who argue something can come from nothing as "metaphysically illiterate physicists", Quentin Smith, J.L. Mackie, Graham Oppy, Daniel Dennett, have all at least entertained the idea. Their arguments might be fatally flawed but they're not metaphysically illiterate – maybe I am – but I can't see any contradiction or incoherence in the claim that something can come into being from _literally_ nothing.

  4. Nathan says:

    Hello Scot and/or Aron,
    I am curious how B-theorists deal with ideas of God creating and causing things, given that most B-theorists seem to affirm timelessness and changelessness. In a prior post of Aron's called "Time as a fourth dimension" - http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/the-geometry-of-spacetime-i-distance/ One commentator asked Dr. Wall this, "..we can definitely and surely say there is no possible notion of causality, time and change, indeed 4D Euclidean pure space is necessarily and absolutely A-causal ( Causality-free) ,timeless and changeless", to which Dr. Wall responded with, "Yes Kaveh, that's more or less right. Although you could still describe a field as "changing" in the sense that its value depends on one of the spatial coordinates, say x. And, given enough "initial data" about the fields at x=0, you can usually use the field equations to determine the values of the fields at any other value of x.". So, my question is simple, if the space-time of the universe (and presumably the events within it) is without cause and is timeless and changeless (and even the word "necessary"), then what room for God? It certainly seems to undermine many of the arguments I have seen on this blog and in other work of Christian thinkers. Why can't the universe just be timeless and changeless without God?

    [I rescued this comment from the spam filter--AW]

  5. Nathan says:

    Hello Scott or Aron,
    I have tried to post this comment a few times, but I seem to fail each time for some reason. My question is rather simple, if the B-theory of time implies that the universe is timeless and changeless, why can't it just exist without God? Why would we need a God to do anything if the underlying spacetime just exists timeless and changelessly? Can't the atheist just say that the B-theory allows the universe to exist a-causally (without a cause)?

  6. Nathan says:

    Here is a link to Aron saying something similar to the universe being timeless, unchanging and a-causal - http://www.wall.org/~aron/blog/the-geometry-of-spacetime-i-distance/

  7. Scott Church says:

    Hello Andrew and Nathan. My apologies for the delay in response. It's been a busy weekend! I'll respond to your comments soon as I have two minutes to rub together. Thanks in advance for your patience! Best. :-)

  8. Robert Childress says:

    Good read!

  9. Scott Church says:

    @Andrew

    I'm aware of the views of Oppy, Smith, and the others you mention regarding creation from nothing, and I do agree--they certainly aren't metaphysically illiterate. However, they weren't who I was referring to. The people who first put the idea of the universe creating itself from nothing (what some have called the "free lunch" universe) on the map and popularized it were physicists. Though these men are very accomplished in their fields and I don't want to detract from that, to a man, all of them are metaphysically illiterate (sorry... but I see no valid reason not to name this for what it is). In fact, the one who did more than anyone else to popularize the idea over the last decade or so, Lawrence Krauss, takes metaphysical illiteracy to a whole new and terrifying level. That's not just my opinion either. He's been called out repeatedly by other Atheists as well. And although I hate to say it, much as I respect and look up to Hawking, He's developed a reputation for his lack of metaphysical understanding too.

    What sets these men apart as metaphysically illiterate isn't just that they think things can create themselves from complete non-being. It's that they actually think "nothing" can be brought within the purvey of physics simply by redefining the word so that it magically becomes a something with actually properties. I've stood by and watched in utter amazement as Krauss did this multiple times in single sentences. No one with even a minimal grasp of the English language and Logic 101 (much less metaphysics) would ever be fool enough to attempt such sleight of hand and think they could get away with it.

    As for the claim that something can "come into being from _literally_ nothing", I would agree that technically, there's no inherent contradiction or incoherence in it. But I think we need to call that what it is--magic. I can imagine how someone could be metaphysically literate and still believe in magic. For that matter, I can see how he/she could believe in the Tooth Fairy as well. But I find it interesting, and revealing, that the moment science girds up their loins and takes them where they do not want to go (John 21:18), otherwise brilliant Atheists who rightly pride themselves in their commitment to science, will openly refuse to educate themselves in fields beyond their expertise... and take refuge in magic rather than face the logical possibility of a transcendent Creator.

  10. Scott Church says:

    @Nathan,

    "Can't the atheist just say that the B-theory allows the universe to exist a-causally (without a cause)...?" Technically, yes. Essentially, that amounts to embracing axioms 8) through 10). But doing so comes at a rather steep price.

    For starters, it doesn't address the contingency of the universe--that is, the fact that its essence, or actual nature, is unrelated to its existence. Of all ways that it could've been, why is it like this rather than any of an infinite number of other possible ways, the overwhelming majority of which are chaotic? Whence what Wigner referred to as "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics"?

    Then there's the fact that 8) through 10) invariably compel one to embrace some combination of 11) through 16) too, which in turn, necessarily requires one to compound the list of "just so" claims. Furthermore, by definition, space-time doesn't exist "timelessly", and although they may give lip service to the idea of non-causality, in the real world, few physicists live as though the world isn't causal. The very term law of nature presumes at least some concept of causality. Typically, most physicists would consider two events causally related if they're connected by a timelike world line, related to each other by a known law/s of physics (and requisite boundary conditions, if applicable), and a time asymmetry exists between them per the Second Law. To dispense with that at the moment of creation is to commit a taxicab fallacy and/or arbitrarily dismiss outright everything but the notion of accidentally-ordered efficient causality, thereby making a metaphysic out of science while claiming to denounce metaphysics.

    IMHO, that's quite a mess. It leaves the Atheist in the unenviable position of having to draw numerous "just so" face cards from the deck, and reconcile multiple internal inconsistencies in a convincing manner. They certainly can do that if they wish. But the God of Classical Theism as defined by a) through g) already accounts for all of this without any such antics, and is directly derivable from the damn reasonable list of seven axioms we began with. Theists can just play the hand reality dealt them, and call the Atheist's bluff. :-)

    @Robert, thank you! :-)

  11. Nathan says:

    Thank you for the reply and I apologize in advance for the noob-question, but what are these axioms you are talking about and where is a list that I can read? You say, "Technically, yes. Essentially, that amounts to embracing axioms 8) through 10). But doing so comes at a rather steep price. " What is axiom 8 and why does it lead to "16"? Sorry for the foolish question, but I am new to this. Is there a page or book that I can read which will list and explain these axioms? Anyways, thank you for your response.
    P.S. I am not an atheist and I do believe in the reality of change, I just wanted to know what a B-theory theology would look like!

  12. TY says:

    Scott,
    I have always been bothered by the “non-classical” argument that God is contingent, a view shared by serious thinkers such as Swinburne and Don Page, though they make up a minority in the theism camp. The non-contingency puts the God of classical theism on the same level as Zeus, the golden calf, Apollo, etc. in that they could or could not have existed.

    St Paul’s famous Areopagus sermon nails down the argument for God being necessary:
    “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

    My question is: Is a contingency God incompatible with theism and the fundamental attributes of the God in classical theology?

    Thanks

  13. Scott Church says:

    Hi @Nathan,

    No worries... your question is most certainly not a "noob" one! :-) Perhaps I could've been clearer... the axioms I'm referring to are in this post. The first 7 (beginning with paragraph 6, by my count) lead to the God of Classical Theism, which I summarize in points a) through g). Later on, in the section titled "Atheism is not a null hypothesis" I give 8) through 16) as their counter-axioms, some combination of which Atheists are compelled to embrace if they want to be consistent in their rejection of God. The source material cited in my references go into considerable length on the formal details of all this, particularly the works of Feser and Davies (2004).

    Best. :-)

  14. Scott Church says:

    Hello @TY,

    The "non-classical" argument you refer to is the Theistic Personalism I wrote about above. Technically, it doesn't really put God on the same level as demigods like Zeus or Apollo because the latter are still bound by space and time. Most theistic personalists would argue that unlike them, God is greater than, and beyond His own creation, as He must be. Where they part company with mainline Classical Theology is their belief that He cannot be meaningfully personal unless He isn't simple or changeless, and per the latter, in some sense has His own experience of time. As you noted, this would render Him contingent in that whatever can change in this way could conceivably change in that one as well, and we'd be left having to account for the difference. That, at least, He'd have in common with Zeus, etc.

    Is this contingent God compatible with Classical Theism? Depends on who you ask. Some, such as Feser (2014; 2015) and Davies (2004) would say no, and inasmuch as that tradition is built predominately around the first seven axioms I listed and arguments based on them, they're right. But on the other hand, a case can be made for a contingent personalist God that persons like us could more easily relate to.

    As I noted above, the arguments for God's simplicity and changelessness are formidable. But I believe the biggest problem with arguments for God's contingency and changeability, is that they all but undermine the case for His existence. Atheists have repeatedly, and rightly, pointed out that a contingent God is no better a candidate for the ground of all being than the universe, and we have every right to ask who/what created Him as well. Stopping with the theistic personalist's God is no less a taxicab fallacy than stopping with the universe... and clearly, the latter does exist.

    Believers will counter that Scripture, by which God has made Himself known to us, is the deciding factor (along with whatever historical support can be gleaned from it, and external sources). Technically I would agree, but this argument is only going to be compelling to those of us who're already believers for other reasons. And for most of us, those other reasons are largely (if not completely) based on our own hearts, prayers, and existential life experience, and these are subjective enough that we'd be hard-pressed to even protect them from being circular, much less ground them solidly before the secular world.

    Ergo, IMHO, and with all due respect for its luminary proponents, Theistic Personalism has no teeth.

    Best. :-)

  15. TY says:

    Scott. I agree with the incompatibility answer. That has been my log-held view. My only problem is I have seen any arguments for Contingency so I can determine where the proponents are coming from, or whether they just want to be eccentric.
    Thanks.

  16. Scott Church says:

    Hello @TY.

    If you want to expose yourself to the strongest arguments for a contingent, personalist God, its most noteworthy proponents (at least, that I'm aware of) are William Lane Craig, Richard Swineburne, and Alvin Plantinga. An introduction to Craig's arguments can be found in Moreland & Craig (2003) in my references, or for a quicker read, here. Of the works of his that I've seen, Swineburne's views are probably best explicated in his book The Existence of God. Ed Feser has responded to Craig's arguments for theistic personalism here, including a recap of many of Craig's thoughts, and answered other theistic personalists in other blog posts as well (including this one).

    Somewhere in all of that and the sources cited therein, you should be able to find the best arguments for a contingent God that have been put on the table to date.

    Best. :-)

  17. Andrew says:

    Thanks for your response, Scott. I can't help but notice your other comments, I would add Robin Collins in as someone who give one of the best defense's for theism: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.696.63&rep=rep1&type=pdf His formulation of the fine tuning argument is quite strong.

  18. Angela says:

    I am enjoying your posts here. :) I have read Feser's responses (the links you refer to) to Craig on simplicity a few times and have wrapped my head around some of it but it keeps getting fuzzy in regards to change, pure actuality and creation of the universe. Two commenters (the last, most recent ones) on the Feser response to Craig from 2009 posit my question well. (There are only 50 comments on this post as opposed to the 250 on the other one linked to.) I believe it's probably a lack of philosophical understanding on my part but I would love some clarification. Thank you.

  19. Scott Church says:

    Hello @Angela.

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm having trouble locating the comments at Feser's blog you're referring to. As of this writing, of the two posts of his I linked above, neither has only 50 comments and the most recent ones I see don't ask him any questions. If you could find the two that you felt best captured your question and paste them here, I'll do my best to address them.

    Best. :-)

  20. Calhoun says:

    Hi Scott.
    Have you engaged with work of Philosopher Ryan Mullins ? He is the best critic of classical theism I have read. If not, you should check out his book "End of Timeless God" most of its material can be found in his dissertation "In search of Timeless God" which can be found online and also Here is his case against Divine simplicity.

    And he has also argued Here that Four-dimensionalism or Eternalism (I think that is what users here mean by B-theory) is Rationally Incompatible with Christian Theism.

    I would be very interested in what classical theists think about it, I haven't seen any classical theist deal with his work before. I myself like classical theism a lot but I think Mullins present convincing arguments against it.

    Thanks..

  21. dad says:

    Very interesting and comprehensive reading.
    Dad

  22. Tom Rudelius says:

    Hey Scott, nice post--very well-written and well-researched. I can't help but wondering how you respond in real-life situations when someone asks you how you can believe in '"a god or gods” in an age of “science” and “reason”'? I'm pretty sure this post is too long for a face-to-face conversation :)

  23. Tom Rudelius says:

    Sorry, another couple of questions regarding theistic personalism: First, Dr. Craig has advocated the contingency argument, which only works if God is a necessary being. How does one square this with his view of theistic personalism, which you claim requires a contingent God? Second, as someone who rejects theistic personalism, how do you bridge the gap between the necessary, simple, omnipotent, eternal being of classical theism and the "God" of scripture, who possesses a personality and generally seems to interact as a character in the play (and not merely as the playwright)?

  24. TY says:

    Scott,
    What do you say to the atheist or the skeptic that the theistic argument of God being a “necessary being” is a trick to assert that God is uncaused. If God is caused or contingent, we run into an infinite regress. So, to get around this "non-explanation", theists invoke the notion of a "first cause", which must be uncaused. This first cause is what theists mean by God. But in the end, it's no more than question begging.

    Thanks.

  25. Angela says:

    My apologies. It must have been a rabbit trail/link from a link kinda thing.
    Here is Feser's post I was referring to:
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2009/11/william-lane-craig-on-divine-simplicity.html
    (Sorry for lack of proper formatting, I'm out of my depth on this site in many regards.)
    The commenters (the third and fourth from the last as of today's date) ask how God is changeless/lacking potential given that He created the universe, for example. One comments that this challenge is "the killer" against divine simplicity. That sounds like a strong assertion, but I'm unable to articulate to the contrary.
    Thank you again!

  26. Mactoul says:

    Scott,
    The universe may be defined as the totality of consistently interacting things. It is not a thing itself. Hence I am unable to understand what precisely is meant by your statement:

    1. The universe is contingent. Its essential nature, or form (and that of everything in it) is separate from its existence. [e.g. - We can meaningfully conceptualize horses and unicorns without regard to whether there are any.]

    It is the things in the universe that are contingent. They have natures or forms. But can the universe be said to have an "essential nature or form"? How would you go on defining the form of the universe?

  27. Scott Church says:

    @Calhoun,

    I'm not familiar with Ryan Mullins so I can't speak (yet) to how his arguments differ from those of other theistic personalists. But I'll check out the links you provided and address them when I get the chance. Thanks!

    @Tom,

    Thanks so much for the kind words. And how right you are... responding to such questions succinctly in real-life situations is challenging to say the least! Especially for folks like me, who have what a former colleague used to refer to as "book where a pamphlet is required" disease. Have you ever come across a student or non-physicist lay person who wanted to know why they should believe all this crazy relativity and curved space-time stuff, instead of the first-semester physics they learned in high school... and wanted you to thoroughly convince them before either of you finished your coffees? It reminds me of a meme I saw years back... A 1 cm square, under which it said, "State the nature of your complaint in the space provided. Write legibly, and give full details". Perhaps there are people who could do that... but I certainly am not one of them. I just do the best I can and hope they don't fall asleep on me and drive off the road. :-)

    Moving right along, let me see if I can't answer your questions and @TY's together...

    First, how do we square Craig's contingency argument with his view of theistic personalism? We don't... and therein lies what IMHO is theistic personalism's Achilles heel. There is no way to ascribe the complex subtleties of a personality like our time-bound ones to God without raising the question of why He's this sort of "guy" and not like someone else. By definition, that question is inherently contingent, just like any other about the universe. There's no longer any way to avoid the infinite regress @TY referred to without resorting to a taxicab fallacy, and if the cab has already been called and we're on the curb with our bags, why not Just get off at the stop we already know? Why run the meter up for another contingent stop we can't see?

    The key to all this is: a) Essentially vs. accidentally ordered causality; and b) Active vs. passive potencies. Consider the ball/stick example I gave. The ball has the capacity for rolling motion and the stick for pushing it. But these are passive potencies in that neither can be realized on their own. A ball can't roll itself--it needs the stick to push it. Likewise, the stick can't push the ball by itself--it needs something or someone to wield it for that purpose. We, on the other hand, have the power to pick up the stick and wield it to push the ball--an active potency. We also have passive potencies, such as the capacity for warmth, but only if something else (e.g. a campfire) provides the heat.

    By definition, passive potencies imply contingent dependence. The moment we ascribe properties to something (in the usual sense of that term), we're left with the question of what other cause/s led to this, rather than that state. And... an infinite regress or causal loop doesn't fix things. Consider the train example I mentioned in axiom 5). Freight cars have the capacities for pulling other cars and being pulled themselves. But none of them can induce motion on their own, individually or collectively. An infinitely long train of freight cars, or one connected end-to-end in a loop, cannot move itself--there must be at least one engine possessing active motive power.

    The only way to cleanse such an essentially ordered (i.e. simultaneous) causal chain of contingency-driven taxicab fallacies is to terminate it in something that is purely actual grounded being--uncaused by anything else, unchanging and unmotivated by anything outside of itself, and dependent on nothing else for its essence and empowerment... Pure Act.

    @TY, this is why a necessary being is in fact necessary, not just a "trick". Notice how many of my materialistic counter-axioms 8) through 16) involve blind assertions--"it just is like that..." No such claims appear in axioms 1) through 7), all of which are based on our observed experience of the existence, and behavior of the universe around us.

    It's also why I suspect you'll be hard-pressed to find an Atheist who will tolerate any discussion of the traditional cosmological argument--as it was developed by Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Scholastics. If your experience is like mine, in every case they'll try to shift the argument to one based on an accidentally ordered temporal first cause, in which case contingency is unavoidable even in principle (this is why Aquinas famously rejected it). The reason is clear enough. If they can restrict the discussion to this knock-off argument, they can handicap Theists with their own contingency problems, thereby giving themselves a fighting chance. Theists, of course, have no reason to accept such a handicap simply because Atheists need them to so they can keep up... and when they don't, things tend to go south rather quickly.

    Case in point, the last time I presented the cosmological argument to an Atheist, it was to a friend on Facebook. He'd asked me for "[my] best argument for the existence of god" (note the lower-case "g"), after which, he said, "[he'd] tell [me] what's wrong with it". [Note the hubris in presuming my choice to be flawed before he even knew what it was]. I did so, carefully pointing out the difference between essentially ordered and accidentally ordered causal chains, and citing all the scholarly source material he'd need to understand it. Without missing a beat, he responded to the knock-off temporal cause argument instead. When I asked why, he said the knock-off was "how most people understand it", to which I replied that he'd asked for my best argument for God's existence--not his, or anyone else's favorite bad one. There were a few more failed attempts to get me to take the bait. [Sorry... been there, done that, ain't fallin' for it ;-) ]. The conversation ended when he flatly refused to discuss anything but the knock-off argument, and wouldn't read any of the source material I'd provided. Every discussion I've ever had with Atheists regarding the cosmological argument has more or less followed this script.

  28. Scott Church says:

    @Tom, to your second question, I believe it answers itself once we realize that God is eternal, and as our physics requires, beyond the space-time He created. To say that is, in essence, to say that He is everywhere, and at every time, imminently present in all of it. Our entire history is known to Him as one eternal "present" which He sustains and knows at every event. By contrast, we are time-bound creatures whose thoughts, choices, and interactions with creation find their expression in the unfolding of our stories in history. We have no direct experience of personhood apart from our personalities, which are inseparable from our historical, time-bound stories. A God who knows and loves us, and is imminent at every point on the world lines of our stories, will hold us in His hands differently at every event. As time-bound creatures, our experience of that will be one of perceived change, just as passengers in a car driving through a static landscape will experience their passing through it as changes in scenery.

    We must also remember that as mortal human beings whose experience of the universe's deepest secrets is limited, our language will be as well, and as such, will necessarily require some metaphor. This isn't just theological hand-waving either--we see it in our physics. As I believe my first series made clear, our ability grasp QM is fundamentally limited as well--to the point that our language cannot fully explicate it. In some contexts, we characterize the Higgs as a particle, in others, as a field. In both cases, it's understood that in reality, the Higgs is something larger than both, and our discussions of it are to some extent necessarily metaphorical. If this is true of our attempts to wrap our minds around the universe, how much more will it be so for biblical writers putting words to convey the one who created it?

    @Angela, I believe this also addresses "the killer" argument against divine simplicity you found in the comments on Feser's post (thanks for the link!). Commenter "JC" asks, "Doesn't creating the world affect God at least in his self-understanding as coming to know (eternally) that He created the world...?" Not that I can see. I see no reason at all why God cannot create the universe any way He pleases from His own active powers, and still be the pure unchanging substance that He is. Furthermore, I believe JC gives away the game with the phrase "coming to know"... "eternally". How exactly does eternal knowledge "come into" being? This strikes me as a muddle, not a "killer" argument. For a more rigorous analysis of the issues involved here, see Feser (2014; 2015).

  29. TY says:

    Scott,
    Thanks for the very thoughtful responses in this post.

    Just a final comment. You said: "From these (particularly the concept of essentially-ordered causality), they concluded that there must exist something that is pure act—the ground of all being and empowered possibility, with no passive potentialities or dependencies (Davies, 2004; Feser, 2010; 2014)." It seems to me that the "must" in the quotation would make the atheist or skeptic shout "non-sequitur", which might be another way of saying that the existence of God cannot be logically or mathematically proven. But the fact that no such proof is possible is not the same as saying "there is no evidence" for God, and that to me is the main take-away from this fine post.

  30. Andrew2 says:

    Hi Scott! Really great post here. Some of your comments on the cosmological argument have reminded me of some concerns I've had with it for a while - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts:

    You move from talk of essentially ordered causal chains, to those chains requiring a termination in a being that is Pure Act, i.e. one with no potencies - a mover that is not itself moved. But I don't understand how this step is supposed to work.

    To illustrate what I mean, take your example of the freight cars - they have no active power, and so there must be at least one locomotive in the chain somewhere that's providing that power. I can grant this chain is essentially ordered, but I don't see how it helps the claim that essentially ordered causal series ultimately terminate in Pure Act. Surely this specific chain terminates with the locomotive? After all, the point of the chain is that the various members that are merely instrumental causes, like the freight cars, are dependent for their motion on something with actual motive power, namely the locomotive. But the locomotive isn't Pure Act - it has its own passive potencies (e.g. it can rust). Perhaps your response here would be that the real head of the chain isn't the locomotive, but whatever it is that's powering it (e.g. burning diesel, or something). The burning diesel might not be the head of the chain, of course - it is itself causally dependent on other things (e.g. a spark to light it), but it's not clear whether that cause forms part of the essentially ordered series, or a different accidentally ordered one (once the spark has lit the diesel, the diesel will keep burning until it either runs out or it's extinguished - it doesn't continue to depend on the spark in order to keep burning). Regardless, the diesel also has its fair share of potentiality (e.g. it is potentially frozen).

    (Brief aside: this brings me to another point - it's never been clear to me why you can't combine essentially and accidentally ordered series. E.g. if you take the ball being moved by the stick, which is being moved by the person, I could grant that's an essentially ordered series, but it's embedded in an accidentally ordered one - the person was caused to exist by their parents, but doesn't continue to depend on them for their existence now they've been born.)

    Anyway, hopefully this illustrates my larger point, which I'll state more generally. I agree that an essentially ordered causal chain must terminate. That's because each member of the chain has whatever power it does only derivatively, and must derive that power from something that actively has it. But I don't see how we can conclude that the head of the chain must be Pure Act, i.e. lacking any potentiality whatsoever. Yes the head of the chain must be actual with respect to whatever potency is being actualised further down the chain, but why can't it have a potential in some unrelated aspect (like how the locomotive is potentially rusted, while still actively moving)?

    Finally, supposing we can show that any essentially ordered series must terminate in a being that is Pure Act, why couldn't there be multiple such beings? There is surely more than one essentially ordered series in the world - why not suppose that one series terminates in one Pure Act being, and another series terminates in a different Pure Act being?

    I'll also stick a quibble in with your presentation of essentially ordered series - the defining feature of an essentially ordered series is not that causation is simultaneous, but that all its members, except the head, are instrumental causes. After all, it's easy to come up examples where the causation is not strictly simultaneous. E.g. in the freight car example, taking relativity into account, each car won't actually simultaneously push/pull its neighbour, but there'll be a small amount of time between each event, as the impulse is 'transmitted'. Alternatively, consider the following scenario: a moon is shining, because it's reflecting light off another moon, which is in turn shining because it's reflecting light off another moon, and so on. Clearly, even if the number of moons were infinite, that wouldn't explain why any of them are shining, because none of them have the power to shine in and of themselves, but only to reflect. So there must be a light source(s), e.g. a sun, that provides light to the whole chain, and if the sun stops shining, so do all the moons. This is an essentially ordered series. But simultaneity isn't what makes it so - indeed, the chain isn't simultaneous, because light travels at a finite speed. It's the fact that each moon is an instrumental cause ultimately dependent on the sun that makes it an essentially ordered series.

    I'd appreciate your thoughts on these anyway - you have a subtly different take on this stuff to Feser. I've found Feser's approach to these questions confusing, and Aquinas' more so, so I'm interested to see what others make of it. Again, thank you for an excellent post. Blessings, Andrew.

  31. Scott Church says:

    @TY,

    Once again, thanks! I suppose Atheists could shout "non-sequitur" if they like, but non-sequiturs are formal logical fallacies and they would be on the hook to convincingly demonstrate where exactly the alleged fallacy occurs in the proof. Unfortunately, this puts them on the horns of a dilemma--one cannot do that without first being willing to learn the argument and address it point-by-point. As of this writing at least, I've never encountered an Atheist who was willing to do that. To a person, every one of them refused to discuss anything but the knock-off temporal first cause argument (and for the obvious reason ;-) ). As such, I can't say how they would respond to the real one if they were ever forced to actually confront it.

    @Andrew2,

    Thanks so much for your kind words as well! To your points...

    1) The reason the cosmological argument must end in Pure Act is that as I pointed out above, passive potencies necessarily imply contingent dependence. It's meaningless to say that something has a passive capacity for some change without acknowledging the existence of something else that has power over it to bring that about. To say that God has any such potencies is to say that there is at least one thing greater than Him on which He is to some extent dependent. That would render Him no less contingent than the universe--and as such, no better a candidate for the ground of all being--without resorting to a taxicab fallacy.

    2) The same thing applies to multiple grounds of all being. We cannot raise that possibility without addressing the question of how these multiple "grounds" relate to each other, and what determines that. For that matter, the very idea of multiple grounds of all being is arguably self-contradictory. As I mentioned in the essay, it's no coincidence that the Abrahamic religions are all monotheistic.

    3) You are, of course, right... essentially and accidentally ordered causes can be combined. In fact, the examples you gave are the very ones I used. I've kept them in well-separated boxes here only to emphasize the difference between the genuine cosmological argument (which is based on the former), and what I referred to above as the secular "knock-off" one (which is based on the latter). That difference can't be emphasized enough, if for no other reason than that New Atheists in particular will go to almost any lengths to conflate the two, because as noted above, the latter is the only one they can answer.

    4) Regarding your "quibble" with my definition of essentially ordered causality, I agree completely. In fact, I like your definition better than mine. As Aron and I have both argued elsewhere (here and here), simultaneity isn't well-defined in physics anyway, causally or otherwise. But once again, I like to present it this way because for most folks, it makes the distinction with accidentally ordered temporal causality clearer, & that much harder for said New Atheists to segue from.

    Finally, I'm not sure which works of Feser's you found confusing, but if by chance you haven't read it already, I'd recommend The Last Superstition (2010). IMHO, it's the most readable of his works, and makes the ideas I've discussed here most accessible to non-philosophers. The only caveat I'd offer is that it is a polemic. Feser is quite gracious to thoughtful critics and those interested in constructive dialogue. But he has even less patience than I do for folks who believe their right to treat religion with contempt doesn't have to be earned, and he harbors no qualms with taking a razor to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other members of the secular illiterati who think fashion and hubris alone trump any responsibility for due diligence. But, as long as you don't mind him intellectually caning folks who ought to know better from time to time, this is the work of his I'd recommend to anyone new to the subject, or those who find it confusing.

    Best to you both! :-)

  32. Derek Smith says:

    Dear Scott,

    This is an excellent post. Thanks for putting all of this together - it was very eye-opening and I'll probably need to read this through several times.

    I do have one question which you mentioned. How does the God Of Classical Theism relate to the Trinity? I don't expect a full reply here (if you are planning to address this in a future post, do say so) but if you do have a link to a good explanation please post it.

    Thanks in Advance.

  33. Scott Church says:

    Hello @Derek, and thanks for the kind words. Actually, I haven't spent as much time thinking through the Trinity from this perspective as I have the topics I discussed here, but I'll offer what I can.

    From the Classical Theistic perspective, I believe most theologians and philosophers would argue that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be thought of as separate views of the same underlying simple "substance" of God, and their relationship with each other as a manifestation of God's knowledge of Himself. At considerable risk of oversimplifying, we might compare this to the way physics can arrive at a system's equations of motion either differentially, or in terms of a static potential or Lagrangian. The two methods aren't independent and can be related to each other, but they provide different vantage points from which the underlying reality can be understood. That analogy is limited of course... I'm certainly not suggesting that the Trinity is some kind of theological formalism, nor that the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be completely understood that way without any mystery! Rather, it's only meant to illustrate that they might be understood as, in some sense, separate perspectives of the same underlying reality of God as the unchanging simple substance of Classical Theism.

    Others have dealt with all this far better than I can here. For starters, you might try Davies' book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (1993). Feser has also addressed it here as well as here, here, and here. Hope this helps! :-)

  34. Jonas says:

    Dear Scott,
    Great post, a real pleasure to read. I do wonder, however: Some years ago Aron had a series of posts on whether the universe began to exist or not, and dismissed the BVG-Theorem as inclusive to the question, as in that it doesn't address theories that could potentially be grounded in qunatum gravity theories.
    As Aron gave you the "green light" to have your article uploaded to this blog, has his opinion on this changed?

    Jonas

  35. Scott Church says:

    Hello @Jonas. Thanks for the kind words. Actually, the series of Aron's you referred to is linked in my 3rd footnote, as is his discussion of the BGV theorem in particular (for reference, here and here). I'll let Aron speak to his views on the latter, but here's my take on it. I trust he'll gently correct anything I miss the mark on... :-)

    BGV is what we call a semi-classical theorem, in that it presumes a continuous space-time per classical general relativity apart from the expected impacts of quantum gravity. Compared to earlier "singularity" theorems such as Hawking and Penrose's, its constraints are minimal and broadly-based, making it quite robust and difficult to avoid. A few scenarios have been proposed which conceivably could get around it, but for the most part (IMHO at least) these are contrived at best. The most believable alternatives are the Aguirre-Gratton and Carroll-Chen models. The former requires separating contraction and expansion phases of the universe with a pretty special low-entropy "bounce" that lacks any mechanism to enforce it. The latter is similar, but per Vilenkin, has singularity troubles of its own, and only yields a "past eternal" universe if one conveniently redefines the arrow of time at the minimum contraction point so as to swap past and future. In both cases, the minimum contraction hypersurface, or "bounce", is best understood as a beginning anyway.

    Vilenkin and others have explored multiverse models that might avoid BGV in expanding/contracting inflationary "bubbles" of negative vacuum energy if quantum gravity prevents singularities from occurring there. Aron has worked with Vilenkin and can speak to his views better than I can. But on at least one occasion I'm aware of, he did state that he believes BGV can probably be extended to this case as well. In fact, as long as quantum vacuum energy fluctuations do not become large enough to completely invalidate classical space-time, the theorem is unavoidable.

    The bottom line is this... In principle, BGV can be avoided, and as such it doesn't offer hard proof that the universe had a beginning. However, it's damn difficult to do so, perhaps even within the quantum gravity realm, and I suspect the aforementioned alternatives to it wouldn't be taken nearly as seriously as they are if some Atheist physicists weren't secretly desperate for a cosmology that doesn't smack of a Creator God.

    Best.

  36. kashyap vasavada says:

    Hi Scott,
    This argument of Krauss and others about something from nothing is not only unsound from metaphysical point of view, but also it is misleading at best and dishonest at worst to sell the books! They know very well that what they call nothing is not what common man calls "nothing" i.e. without anything in it! This quantum vacuum has fluctuating quantum fields in it from which the observed universe came out. That is not nothing! Without quantum fields, the model will not work. As everyone agrees, quantum vacuum is a very complicated object. Just having E=0 vacuum does not make it nothing!

  37. Scott Church says:

    Hello @Kashyap, and thanks. Absolutely... Aron has dealt with these, and other claims of Krauss' here, and Luke Barnes has here and here. One of these days I'm gonna have to write about his arguments in more depth myself. :-) Best.

  38. Christopher says:

    Hello,
    Nathan's question about the B-theory made me remember that I have been wanting to ask you guys two questions about time for a while now. First, what do you guys (Aron, Scott or both) think about this paper from George Ellis - https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1407/1407.7243.pdf He argues for an evolving block universe that is in some ways A-theory like, but is compatible with relativity (or so he claims). I generally ignore proposals about alternate interpretations of time, but Ellis isn't just some guy, so I thought I would ask for your thoughts. Is his proposal viable (even if not preferable to the B-theory) and not in conflict with relativity?
    Second, what about causal set theory? I have heard Fay Dowker describe it like this, "...think of space-time as accreting new space-time atoms in way roughly analogous to a seabed depositing new layers of sediment over time. General relativity yields only a block, but causal sets seem to allow a “becoming,” she said. “The block universe is a static thing — a static picture of the world — whereas this process of becoming is dynamical.” In this view, the passage of time is a fundamental rather than an emergent feature of the cosmos." - https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-debate-over-the-physics-of-time-20160719/ Thank you for all your great posts!

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