Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Part 5: Cosmological Closure

“The argument, if we can dignify it with such a phrase, went something like this:

I can’t see a thing on the surface of Venus. Why not? Because it’s covered with a dense layer of clouds. Well, what are clouds made of? Water, of course! Therefore Venus must have an awful lot of water on it.  Therefore the surface must be wet. Well, if the surface is wet, then it’s probably a swamp.  If there’s a swamp there’s ferns, if there’s ferns, maybe there’s even dinosaurs!
Observation: You couldn’t see a thing. Conclusion: Dinosaurs!

By far, one of the most common tactics in religious apologetics is to point out some profound gap in human knowledge only so that God can get crammed in as the ideal explanation.  And of all the gaps in our scientific understanding of the universe, nothing gets picked on more than the very origins of the universe itself.  It's certainly an admitted mystery with a whole army of really smart people working on it at this very moment, yet Christians are more than happy to barge in and pretend like they have all the answers to, literally, everything.

Arguments like this are called cosmological arguments, with the most popular by far being the famous Kalam cosmological argument, which generally goes like this [2]:
  1. Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
  2. The universe has a beginning of its existence.  Therefore,
  3. The universe has a cause of its existence.
And, of course, God is the best explanation for this cause, so therefore God must exist.
    While the world is full of critics who just love to shred this argument to bits, they nearly always miss out on the big picture here.  Remember that when all is said and done, Christian apologists are trying to prove the existence the Abrahamic God of the Bible.  That means an all-powerful and deeply personal cosmic agent with an overwhelmingly vested interest in the affairs of human events; a being that, according to Christians themselves, has unambiguously revealed Himself on numerous occasions throughout history via personal manifestations and national-scale suspension of the laws of physics.  We're talking about a being that desperately wants us to build a deep, personal relationship with Him so that we might be saved from an eternity of torment.  In principle, this ought to be as easy as proving the existence of the moon, where all you have to do is look out a window on the appropriate night.  Yet one of the very most popular arguments for God’s existence is nothing more than a dubious inference based on obtuse metaphysical quirks.  The very nature of the argument itself reeks of its own desperation.

    But what's most interesting about this argument is the method by which apologists usually make their case.  By far, the one, recurring theme from virtually every presentation of this argument is a long, drawn-out tirade about the mysteries of Big Bang cosmology, the metaphysics of causality, and constant reminders that our universe has a definite, finite age.  And since universes don't just pop into existence for no reason, there must have been a cause for this event, which science does not understand.  It's weird because this is not exactly a controversial claim, yet Christians will still spend hours upon hours belaboring the point anyway.  None of it actually furthers a positive case for God, but it does work great as a method for arousing the human need for cognitive closure.

    It's important to realize that many people are psychologically uncomfortable with the prospect of uncertainty and ambiguity in their beliefs [3,4].  It's a well-known cognitive bias that usually manifests as a heavy propensity for primacy - meaning that any hard, immediate answers will be far more preferable than the thought of "I don't know."  On top of that, human psychology also has a pervasive bias for spontaneous social attribution [5], meaning that people naturally tend to gravitate toward answers involving the deliberate actions of motivated agents.  So it makes perfect sense that apologists tend to ramble on and about the mysteries of Big Bang cosmology, because it psychologically stacks the deck in their favor.  There's simply no need to bother with a viable, coherent theory when all you have to do is reinforce the preexisting bias of the audience itself.

    So without even seriously examining a single premise, the Kalam cosmological argument is already on hopelessly shaky ground.  It uses roundabout argumentation to prove what should, in principle, be patently obvious, and then pushes very specific psychological buttons so as to artificially inflate its own appeal.  If anything, the only real purpose in criticizing the premises themselves is to see just how hard Christians can fail in one argument while still pretending to have a clue what rational thought even looks like.

    For example, what do you think of when you hear the phrase, “begins to exist?”  Because if you’re like most people, you probably think of something like a carpenter as he fashions a table out of wood and nails.  The table certainly appears to have a definite beginning to its existence, and it is entirely proper to say that this existence has a cause.  However, if you get really technical about it, the carpenter did not actually create anything, so much as rearrange [creatio ex materia].  The table only “began to exist” when people suddenly decided to slap a linguistic label onto an arbitrary ordering of material.  In fact, this same description is also true for everything in the entire known universe.  Anything in human experience that has ever begun to exist has only done so through a physical rearrangement of prior existing stuff.  And, as far as we can tell, things which begin to exist in this way don't require the intervention of any magical, disembodied super-fairies.

    This distinction is important because in the context of Kalam, "begins to exist" literally implies fully discrete bundles of matter and energy just poofing into existence out of pure, absolute nothingness [creatio ex nihilo]; a phenomenon, mind you, that has absolutely no precedent in all of human understanding!  So while it may seem intuitive to suppose that such an event would have a certain chain of causality associated with it, we’re still drawing conclusions about something that simply does not happen.  It’s like trying to argue that all unicorns must have fur.  It makes no difference how sophisticated your logic may be when you forget the fact that no one has ever truly experienced a physical unicorn.

    So if apologists seriously want to defend this argument, then the first challenge is to provide a comprehensive list of things that actually “began to exist” according to their definition.  That way we can at least draw a baseline from which to connect with real world events and then infer any potential patterns of causality.  But the plain fact of the matter is they have no such list.  And how could they?  The idea itself is barely even coherent.  How does a thing which exists causally influence "nothing" to do anything?  Yet when pressed on this exact challenge, the apologist merely dismisses the entire objection out of hand, like you're some kind of moron for even pointing it out.  For example [6,7],

    "They say nothing ever begins to exist, because everything has material out of which it’s constituted, and those atoms and particles existed before the thing did, and so nothing ever begins to exist, the first premise is false. And I think, what is the matter with these people? Have I always existed? Didn’t I begin to exist at the moment, say, when my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg came into union? If so, where was I? Was I around during the Jurassic age when the dinosaurs were about? Have I always existed? That is so absurd to think that I never began to exist, even though the material stuff out of which I am made existed before me.  So I don’t know what’s the matter with these people."

    So yes, according to the leading proponents of this exact argument, the very best examples we have of true creations of out nothing are, in fact, creations out of something.  It's a wholly dishonest dodge that just side-steps the issue entirely by hiding behind a smoke screen of arrogant condescension and blatant equivocation.  Yet Christians will still insist that the entirety of the cosmos itself must have a definite "beginning" to its existence, prior to which there was only a perfect void of raw, absolute nothingness - literally no matter, no energy, no space, no time, and no anything else in-between or beyond.

    Bear in mind now that when we talk about the earliest moments of the Big Bang, we’re talking about a realm of pitiful human ignorance; a realm where every naive intuition we have about the nature of space and time is completely wrong and inapplicable; a realm where you can't even hold a meaningful conversation without first subjecting yourself to years of training in graduate-level physics and mathematics.  So it doesn't matter what you think you know, because any conclusions you may ever hope to reach about the ultimate nature of everything is little more than a wild guess.  Yet apologists will still insist that fancy, rhetorical word games are all it takes to support their naive theological conclusions.  For example [8]:
    1. A temporal series of events is a collection formed by successive addition.
    2. A collection formed by successive addition cannot be an actual infinite.
    3. Therefore a temporal series of events cannot be an actual infinite.
    Or, to put it another way, if time can't go back forever, then "nothing" must have preceded it.  But notice how this is just another a dubious philosophical argument being used to support a dubious philosophical argument.  And, to make matters even more embarrassing, it's based on an implied assumption about time that is completely false.  Because when apologists speak of time in this context, they imagine a distinct, linear construct with an all-encompassing past, present, and future.  It's a naive view that certainly fits our natural intuition, but it's still dead wrong.  Anyone who knows anything about modern physics knows that there is no such thing as time, but rather a distinct, 4-dimensional construct known as spacetime.  And even this view of time is known to be incomplete, because it fails to coherently merge itself with quantum mechanics. 

    It's bewildering how guys with actual PhDs can argue at length, and with such confidence, over a scientific field they don't even understand.  But it gets even worse, because the whole thing is a complete non sequitur anyway.  Just because the universe has a definite spacetime boundary in the finite past, that does not automatically imply literal nothingness is the only viable precedent.  At best, all it shows is that there are apparently other physical realms beyond our observable, four-dimensional spacetime.  And so what?  Even if we conceded every last claim up this point, there's still nothing that even remotely hints at the necessity for a deliberate, supernatural agent.  But rather than humbly acknowledge their ineptitude and just stop right here, apologists simply power the argument through to its bitter end [9].

    "Now as the cause of space and time, this being must be an uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial being of unfathomable power.  Moreover, it must be personal as well.  Why?  Well, first of all because this event must be beyond space and time.  Therefore it cannot be physical or material.  Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description; either abstract objects like numbers or an intelligent mind.  But abstract objects can't cause anything.  Therefore it follows that the cause of the universe is a personal transcendent mind."
    No kidding!  So the only philosophically viable way for an entire universe to just pop into being out of nothing is through the incantation of an all-powerful, transcendent, eternal consciousness that necessarily exists outside of space and time [who, of course, just so happens to be Yahweh, the omnipotent God of the Bible].

    Notice again how Christians simply take Platonic realism for granted - as if numbers literally "exist" in some transdimensional realm outside of spacetime.  But now they take it one step further to a concept known as substance dualism - the idea that conscious minds are comprised of a special "substance" that exists independently of physical matter.  It’s another one of those tempting philosophies that sounds really cool on paper, but is still completely wrong [10].  There is simply no physical way to store information and exercise decisions without some kind of material network to accommodate the process.  That's why every "mind” in human experience has always required a physical brain to go along with it, and there is no indication whatsoever for any magical substance beyond spacetime that facilitates this phenomenon.

    Remember that this is supposed to be a rock-solid, irrefutable argument for the existence of God derived from modern cosmology itself.  Yet the whole thing is little more than a frantic ejaculation of wild speculation based on naive, untestable rhetoric.  There's just so much that's so wrong that you almost don't even know where to begin.  For example,
    1. Didn't we just spend half of this argument concluding that literal nothingness is the only viable precedent to our observable spacetime?  So why does God get to exist in a realm beyond of our observable spacetime?
    2. Furthermore, how exactly are disembodied minds supposed to causally influence the physical world any more than an abstract object?  Because last time I checked, "pure force of will" was not a viable mechanism for creating entire universes out of nothing.
    3. Or better yet, why is it only one, singular agent and not a committee of seventeen?  Seriously, what physically verifiable feature of reality would change if we made this an argument for polytheism instead of monotheism?  Or what if we just replaced "God" with "a race of powerful, transdimensional aliens with awesome technology?"
    We can do this all day!  The entire argument is so completely ridiculous that you can't even bother critiquing it anymore - you sit back and admire the sheer self-delusion it must take to push this drivel with a straight face.  So let's stop beating around the bush and just rewrite the Kalam cosmological argument for what is:
    1. Science has yet to devise a viable, pragmatic explanation for why there is something rather than nothing.
    2. Therefore, God did it.
    This really is all it boils down to.  It's an obvious God-of-the-gaps argument in its most pure and naked form.  It makes no verifiable predictions, it confuses the meaning of common expressions, it deliberately equivocates terms, it pretends to know things that can't be known, it makes patently false assumptions, it builds false dichotomies, it contradicts itself, it utilizes dead philosophical ideas, and it makes logical conclusions that don't even necessarily follow from its own premises.  Even if we accepted the entire argument outright, we'd still be no closer to understanding how the universe was actually created, what specific being, or beings, were responsible, or what functional impact any of it could possibly have in any single decision I could ever hope to make.

    It’s like a huge, philosophical onion of wrongness, where every layer you peel off just reveals yet another inexcusable layer of wrong.  But none of this matters, because it was never intended to be rationally sound to begin with.  It’s an overt psychological ploy designed to exploit our natural aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty by filling the mystery with a culturally familiar agent.  And since nothing inspires more awe and uncertainty than the very cosmos itself, Christians will forever have an ace up their sleeves until human beings learn to accept the plain and apparent fact that nobody yet understands how the hell the universe got here.

    1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos Episode 4.
    2. Craig’s popular formulation of the Kalam cosmological argument.  See, for example, Craig VS Wolpert.
    3. Neuberg, S. L., Judice, T. N., and West, S. G., “What the Need for Closure Scale Measures and What It Does Not: Toward Differentiating Among Related Epistemic Motives,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 72, No 6, pp 1396-1412 (1997)
    4. Webster, D. M. and Kruglanski, A. W., “Individual Differences in Need for Cognitive Closure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 67, No 6 (1994)
    5. See “Psychology of Belief, Part 9: Agenticity"
    6. William Lane Craig: Why is Richard Dawkins so Popular?
    7. William Lane Craig: Worst Objection to the Kalam Cosmological Argument
    8. Forming an actual infinite by successive addition.
    9. William Lane Craig
    10. See "Substance Dualism" by QualiaSoup for a nice discussion. 


    Anonymous said...

    Might be nice to add a "yet" in parentheses to the last line. ;-)

    AnticitizenX said...

    Good point. "Yet" inserted. :)

    Mike said...

    Ahh, just what I was looking for.

    I did a little paper on the Kalam not too long ago, and you raise many of the same objections that other skeptics, as well as myself, raise as well. It's pathetic that this argument is so shamelessly spouted as the "end-all, know-all" argument of Christian apologetics.

    Well done, and thanks for addressing the after-argument as well. I'm excited for the video. :)

    Hans Georg Lundahl said...

    Sorry, but check out St Thomas Aquinas' version of Kalam:

    The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

    As you can note if comparing to version in Summa Contra Gentes, he is talking about God turning universe around us as cause for among other things day and night, seasons, coriolis related etc.

    And therefore also of earth being habitable and of life occurring.

    The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

    Note that God is efficient cause not just of movements (i e see argument 1) but also of stability.