Debate re: the Cosmological Argument

This is a recent debate I had with an intelligent atheist on the cosmological argument (prime-mover, first cause, etc.).

Gray fonts mine, blue fonts his, and red fonts are what he quotes from my responses.

Posting this debate obviates the need for me to be writing a whole piece on why I think this argument is so powerful as evidence for theism.

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Atheist:

Here’s why an ex nihilo universe is highly plausible. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ImvlS8PLIo 

I understand that it’s really counter-intuitive. It requires some familiarity with quantum physics. 

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the watchmaker argument was the least bit convincing to people who took up high school biology. It still only supports the deist non-interventionist God. Not the God of your choice. 

(Also, I really can’t help but point out the irony in you being suspicious of “hocus-pocus.”) 

P.S. Adding God to the top of the causality chain only begs the question. Who made God? If no one made God, then why can’t it be that no one made the universe?

(This first post of his was a response to someone else. I merely interjected with what would be my first rebuttal, below.)

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Me:

The problem with that version of creation ex nihilo is that it shows Krauss’s complete ignorance of philosophy. Krauss’s “nothing” is a sea of quantum energy still governed by physical laws. That’s hardly a “nothing” in a strict metaphysical sense. Krauss even admitted this much during his debate with Craig.

And to object with a “who made God?” is to seriously miss the point because it assumes the premiss the argument rests on is ‘everything has a cause’.

Not quite.

The premiss the whole argument actually rests on is the one for which we have at least prima facie evidence for, which is: everything that *begins to exist* has a cause, or, everything that’s contingent has a cause.

God isn’t arbitrarily defined as an uncaused entity, actually. The aim of the whole argument, in it’s complete form, and not the form it takes on infidel websites, is to show that there must be a cause of everything which could not in principle be caused because it’s not the sort of thing that in principle can be said to have had a cause.

Ofcourse, the reasons for the above, in all their complexity, won’t be easy to show here –if I even attempted to do so, I’d be doing an injustice to philosophers like al-Ghazali, Aquinas, Leibniz, or Craig– but It nevertheless shows why an objection like the one made above is not a serious objection to the cosmological argument.

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Atheist:

Yes, that is true because, according to quantum physics, even empty space has stuff due to the uncertainty principle. Actually, to suppose a “beginning” for the universe misunderstands what time is and how it “began” itself at the big bang. All notions of causality fly out the window. Asking what came before the big bang is like asking what’s north of north or what is outside space. It is effectively meaningless. Krauss’ “nothing” is simply a something that is not the universe we have today—an environment from which a universe such as ours, with its dimensions, particle energies, and entropies, can spring forth. So, on that we can agree. 

A god is an arbitrary starting point because it is a failure of the imagination. It asserts that the universe could not bring itself to being, or could not have existed forever. Huge assumptions that are not even argued for with any evidence whatsoever. It assumes that there must be nothing rather than something. Why shouldn’t we ask, rather, why there could even be nothing? Why is nothingness the default? It prioritizes our own cognitive biases over the actual fact of the matter: that the universe is much stranger than we can ever intuitively understand. And why would we be able to intuitively understand the nature of cosmos? Our brains never had the evolutionary pressure to understand how light can be both a particle and a wave, how electrons are everywhere in an area but only as a function of a probability equation, how light takes every possible path from point A to point B. 

It is outside our realm of experience to know just what kinds of things “start” something like the universe, which is not like just anything else that we know, because it itself is everything that there could be. We have never seen anything like a universe, where time is inextricable from space, begin. So, to suggest that since everything we know has a cause, then the universe itself must have a cause rests on a simple failure of the imagination. It’s an argument from incredulity. 

At the very very least, the position must remain that we do not know how or why the universe began. And definitely, to add a sentient intelligent being as the solution to the causality chain is no answer at all. (It itself rests on even more assumptions, such as that things such as intelligence and sentience can exist without material such neurons or electrical charges.) 

To summarize, the god argument rests on several tenuous assumptions: 

– That there is something that is “before” time. (That is, there was a time, t = –1s.) 
– That the universe or the laws of nature did not always exist. 
– That the universe could not bring itself into being from the pre-existing laws of nature. 
– That there must always be nothing instead of something. 
– That a god is free from all the existential responsibilities of causality that are unfairly lumped on the universe. 
– That the beginning of the universe operated on our intuitions of cause and effect. 
– That the universe must have a cause. 
– That sentient intelligent gods with thoughts, wills, and desires can exist without material such as neurons or electrical impulses. 

And these are just off the top of my head. 

And, again, this is just the deist argument. Theists have all their work ahead of them even if we allow them all these assumptions.

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Me:

The “what’s north of the north pole’ objection has become an increasingly popular objection to the cosmological argument. But, ironically, it has already been dispensed with centuries ago.

Aristotle wasn’t even interested in proving God’s existence when he made his argument from change where a potential can only be actualized by something that’s already been actualized until a first cause that’s pure actuality would be inescapable as a starting point.

Aquinas and the old scholastics even assumed that the universe was eternal.

Ofcourse, these versions were made centuries before Einstein developed his theory that gave us an idea of the reality of time.

But, so what? the objection will only hold if the argument claims God created the universe *before* time. Indeed, the word ‘before’ shows a temporal relation, so it really wouldn’t make sense to say “before time”. But God need not be chronologically prior to the act of creating. Intention and action can happen simultaneously; you can be preforming the act of hanging from a tree branch while simultaneously having the intention of not falling. So, the idea that God created the universe while not being chronologically prior to it isn’t at all incoherent. And it sure is more coherent than an infinite regress.

Krauss unruefully tried to circumvent this by saying that mathematicians do in fact deal with infinities, yet this only succeeds in further demonstrating the illogic of his position because an actual infinity is different from the concept of infinity.

God isn’t an “arbitrary starting point” because the cosmological argument is a strict metaphysical demonstration that precludes any scientific considerations. They start with a priori generalizations that science itself must assume to be true for it to work –like, for instance, that there’s an empirical world at all, or that our senses can be trusted. Like I said previously, without getting into the details of the argument, it’s aim is to show that there must be a cause of everything which could not in principle be caused because it’s not the sort of thing that in principle can be said to have had a cause.

Nothing is arbitrarily posited. Everything proceeds from premises that science can scarcely deny without denying its own evidential presuppositions.

And, if everything proves sound, then, yes, theists will still have alot of work ahead of them in demonstrating the truth of their views. But then it would be a debate between different strands of theism, and not whether theism or atheism were true.

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Atheist:

” So, the idea that God created the universe while not being chronologically prior to it isn’t at all incoherent. ” And you can’t replace “God” here with the “laws of physics” why?

“Krauss unruefully tried to circumvent this by saying that mathematicians do in fact deal with infinities, yet this only succeeds in further demonstrating the illogic of his position because an actual infinity is different from the concept of infinity.” 

Completely beside the point.

“They start with a priori generalizations that science itself must assume to be true for it to work –like, for instance, that there’s an empirical world at all, or that our senses can be trusted.” 

The difference being science actually admits to its limits. If, say, that empiricism were to fail to produce an understandable and coherent picture of our nature, then science must revise itself. That the world is not empirically comprehensible would have implications on science. Suppose that evidence of the supernatural actually rears its fabled head, then science must incorporate this into itself. If it is unable to study the supernatural, then, at the very least, study the how the supernatural interacts with the natural. 

But, this is all to fall prey to your attempts to sidetrack the conversation. 

God isn’t an “arbitrary starting point” because the cosmological argument is a strict metaphysical demonstration that precludes any scientific considerations.” 

Then it is consigned to meaninglessness. You could very well say the same thing about invisible snow faeries with orange capris. 

“Like I said previously, without getting into the details of the argument, it’s aim is to show that there must be a cause of everything which could not in principle be caused because it’s not the sort of thing that in principle can be said to have had a cause. Nothing is arbitrarily posited. ” 

Yes, “God” is the arbitrary assertion. Why can’t the universe or the laws of physics not be the uncaused cause? 

I issue the challenge again, why should there be nothing instead of something? 

The advantage of starting with the universe or the laws of physics is you cut off an unnecessary element that explains nothing. We know for a fact that the universe exists (to the extent that the word “fact” retains any meaning). Nobody knows for a fact whether God, a god, or gods exist. Until proven otherwise, I would choose the more parsimonious theory. Especially in the face of the assumption you conveniently ignored: that sentience can exist without matter. 

For the sake of convenience, I will post again the list of assumptions that the god hypothesis makes. 

– That there is something that is “before” time. (That is, there was a time, t = –1s.) [To be charitable, I’ll let you off the hook for this one, but I do not think you understand the implications of this. No “before” time would mean that the laws of nature have always existed in some form without needing gods.] 

All the rest, you did not back up at all. 
– That the universe or the laws of nature did not always exist. 
– That the universe could not bring itself into being from the pre-existing laws of nature. 
– That there must always be nothing instead of something. 
– That a god is free from all the existential responsibilities of causality that are unfairly lumped on the universe. 
– That the beginning of the universe operated on our intuitions of cause and effect. 
– That the universe must have a cause. 
– That sentient intelligent gods with thoughts, wills, and desires can exist without material such as neurons or electrical impulses.

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Me:

You draw your conclusions from begging the question that naturalism is true. You’re beholden to the idea that propositions for which we cannot have empirical evidence for are meaningless, but that’s a snake that bites itself in the tail because you cannot prove, through empirical evidence, that only propositions we can have empirical evidence for are meaningful. Much of modern philosophy has already ruled out verificationism as a philosophical dead-end precisely because it is self-refuting.

The reason why “the universe or the laws of physics” cannot be it’s own prime-mover is because that’s the very thing that is ruled out by the cosmological argument –which, again, proceeds from premises that even science cannot dismiss without undermining itself. If you think we should do so, then at least some argument as to why we must distrust our modal intuitions is in order.

Let’s take one of its variations; aristotle’s ‘act and potency (although Craig’s Kalam is the most honed in my opinion): ‘Only what is actualized can have the potential to actualize, therefore, an agent that’s pure actuality must have been the starting point’. (this is, ofcourse a very rough summation). Saying the universe is it’s own prime-mover is essentially saying that the universe actualized itself, which violates the whole concept of act and potency, which claims, not through arbitrary armchair-meandering, but through rigorous philosophical and metaphysical demonstration, that that which has potency cannot actualize itself; It must be actualized by something else.

That’s why you cannot just assert that the universe can be its own prime-mover without a philosophical argument that’s sound. Without the ability to infer that conclusion from demonstrably sound premises, you might as well assert anything you wish in its place.

So, I’m not “undercutting” anything that’s already necessarily ruled out by the argument. You can, however, refute the argument, or one of its premises. I would be glad to hear some such.

And on the “north of north pole” thing, what I was saying is that it’s not incoherent for God to create the universe and do so outside of time (not before time). To create would entail an *intention* to do so. And it doesn’t put God chronologically prior to the act of creating –which would mean he was *before time*– because he could have intended to create while simultaneously doing so, as my previous example shows. I am not suggesting that God existed before time, I’m suggesting God exists outside time. I’m familiar with that contention, and the only seeming contradiction is between the intent and the act of creating, because both are seen to have temporal relations, which isn’t necessarily the case.

On your notion that only complex systems can be sentient, this isn’t as obvious as you seem to think. The mind-body problem and mental states like intentionality suggest otherwise. But this is a completely different subject. And it’s a digression that isn’t worth having as it will lead us away from the heart of our discussion. However, we can get to this if you like.

As for your “list of assumptions”, I’m afraid I’m going to have to overlook it for now. But I think I’ve been able to answer the more substantive part of your case.

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Atheist:

I simply subscribe to naturalism because there are no good reasons to believe that the supernatural exists. I also believe that an objective reality exists (that is, I do not think that we are in a computer simulation). The world would be very different if the supernatural were to be a real thing. (Fields such as medicine would cease to be a coherent field of knowledge if prayers, for example, were to disrupt the lawful succession of events of disease progression.) I admit that science has values of empiricism built into it, and ultimately, the only reason why we use such values is because they work. (A reason why I do not think that there is a true distinction between facts and values, but that’s a different thing altogether.) I acknowledge the limits of reason, in that you cannot use logic to prove logic and no amount of evidence can be used to support the idea that using evidence is a good idea. But here’s the thing, the same limits apply to you. Unless you simply want to assert narratives about this god of yours and how you simply take this assumption without making a case for it using evidence because you do not value evidence, reason, or logic, then our conversation is at an impasse. I cannot reason with you at all. Though, I am skeptical that you would be as dismissive of empiricism if someone were to say to you that your car is being towed. 

So, if you continue to assert simply that the cosmological argument says that the universe cannot bring itself into being because that’s what the cosmological argument means (“The reason why “the universe or the laws of physics” cannot be it’s own prime-mover is because that’s the very thing that is ruled out by the cosmological argument –which, again, proceeds from premises that even science cannot dismiss without undermining itself.”) then I simply cannot convince you of anything and that’s alright, because this thread has been exceedingly interesting. 

“Saying the universe is it’s own prime-mover is essentially saying that the universe actualized itself, which violates the whole concept of act and potency, which claims, not through arbitrary armchair-meandering, but through rigorous philosophical and metaphysical demonstration that that which has potency cannot actualize itself.” 

I can see now that it takes a lot of learning, such as what you clearly have, to be so very wrong. Such babbling as this is exactly what physicists like as Hawking complain about regarding philosophy. It has failed to keep up with science and it is drowning in its own ejaculate. “Rigorous philosophical and metaphysical demonstration” indeed. I am almost tempted to believe that this is a Sokal-esque hoax. 

“That’s why you cannot just assert that the universe can be its own prime-mover without a philosophical argument that’s sound.” 

“Without the ability to infer that conclusion from demonstrably sound premises, you might as well assert anything you wish in its place. ” 

I completely agree, which is why I’m baffled that you seem to have impressed even yourself. I would hope that it is not sufficient that a system of knowledge be self-consistent to be believable for you. It would need to reflect objective reality. I’m afraid that this might be too much to hope for. 

“I’m suggesting God exists outside of time. ” 

I know, which is why I stopped pressing the point. The fiction of intention and tree branches remains unimpressive, however. 

“But I think I’ve been able to answer the more substantive part of your case.” 

I think you have, in that I think you have refuted my assumption that people are generally reasonable and amenable to change their mind using evidence. 

You may very well be completely right, Miguel, on every single one of your claims. But I could also be right when I say that blue and yellow polkadot-speckled narwhals the size of battleships emerged from the tails of rhinoceroses during lunar eclipses in the Devonian era. This is because narwhals achieve their potential quantum systematics as a result of temporal displacement topologies. Neither of these claims make testable predictions and neither will ever be disproved. Without a single drop of evidence for your case, (all the while abstracting Aristotelian concepts) you would only be right coincidentally. I’d sooner choose to admit that I do not know how the universe came to be than bask in glibness masquerading as a plausible refutation of a thoroughly scientific claim: that the universe brought itself into being.

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Me:

You talk as if empiricism owns logic so that denying the former entails denying the latter. That’s not true. Logic is precisely what I’m using –and what others have used– to show that empiricism, or verificationism, is false. You then assume that when one denies empiricism one is committed to the belief that emprirical evidence doesn’t matter. Again, that’s not true. Empirical evidence does matter, but It’s not all that matters, and that’s where the “logic” points to.

The problem with all of this isn’t that it’s an absolutely bizarre response, though of course it is, but rather that it seems to be a very obvious attempt at creating a strawman just to be able to attack something.

Notice that I never “continue[d] to assert simply that the cosmological argument says that the universe cannot bring itself into being because that’s what the cosmological argument means” without having expended a good effort to show why that is precisely the case. You accuse me as if I merely asserted it. I did not. But I understand that it will be easier for you to pretend that I did.

And to say that all that is just “babbling” seems to me a very thin excuse to avoid having to educate oneself in the subject –as indeed one should if he wants to be taken seriously.

Then you bandy about the implication that I’m inconsiderate of your “evidence”, which you say should suffice to convince a reasonable mind. But where, pray tell, is it?

As for your puerile analogy of “blue and yellow polkadot-speckled narwhals the size of battleships”, I’ll take it seriously once you show how it can have the same explanatory power a God hypothesis gives, while still having some semblance of being non adhoc. Your equating this babyish mockery to the ideas of Aristotle and the old scholastics is telling of your ignorance of philosophy, and it manifests a deep flaw in the way you think. You think philosophy is all “babble”. The problem is, the God question is a philosophical one.

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Atheist:

“You then assume that when one denies empiricism one is committed to the belief that emprirical evidence doesn’t matter. Again, that’s not true. Empirical evidence does matter, but It’s not all that matters, and that’s where the “logic” points to.” 

I don’t see anywhere where I claimed this. In fact, I even conceded to the limitations of empiricism. 

“Notice that I never “continue[d] to assert simply that the cosmological argument says that the universe cannot bring itself into being because that’s what the cosmological argument means” without having expended a good effort to show why that is precisely the case. ” 

Here is exactly where you did this: “The reason why “the universe or the laws of physics” cannot be it’s own prime-mover is because that’s the very thing that is ruled out by the cosmological argument –which, again, proceeds from premises that even science cannot dismiss without undermining itself.” Premises, I might add, that you never presented. 

“And to say that all that is just “babbling” seems to me a very thin excuse to avoid having to educate oneself in the subject –as indeed one should if he’s to be taken seriously. ” 

I’m sorry if all this talk of potency and whatnot strikes me as nonsense.

“You think philosophy is all “babble”.” 

I find nowhere in did I say that all philosophy is babble. Maybe yours is, but certainly not all. 

“The problem is, the God question is a philosophical one.” 

I must insist that it is scientific as the god hypothesis (at least, the theist variant) makes testable predictions. It makes predictions about the nature of medicine, biology, and physics. The deist variant is one of a failure of imagination, still. 

“The you bandy about the implication that I’m inconsiderate of your “evidence”, which you say should suffice to convince a reasonable mind.” 

On the contrary, I assert that you have no evidence for your claims, not that I particularly have evidence for mine. You may have noticed that I remain in the position that “I do not know how the universe came to be than bask in glibness masquerading as a plausible refutation of a thoroughly scientific claim: that the universe brought itself into being.” I avoid any claims to know how the universe began, save that the god hypothesis is unimpressive at best and useless at worst. 

“I’ll take it seriously once you show how it can have the same explanatory power a God hypothesis can have while still having some semblance of being non adhoc. ” 

And what is the power of the god hypothesis? That something intelligent and sentient must have created the universe? That requires even more explaining. It’s much simpler to presume that the universe (or its prerequisites that have been proposed by Krauss, Penrose, and Hawking) must have always been here in some form. No need to posit additional attributes to the first cause such as intelligence or sentience. 

My challenge remains unsatisfied: why should there be nothing rather than something?

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Me:

I’m not saying their should be nothing rather than something, I’m saying there should be a prime-mover, or an uncaused cause, and that the cosmological argument rules out the universe itself, or whatever physical laws, as a candidate.

I’m also saying that the cosmological argument doesn’t posit a God out of convenience. It’s the opposite. Aristotle’s act and potency argument, where most of the variations of the CA had been derived, wasn’t even meant to show the existence of a God. But that’s where it led to. The cosmological argument leads to theism, it doesn’t start from it.

The God question is a purely philosophical one, because the scientific method needs to presuppose naturalism to work. You cannot know anything about the immaterial if you’re employing a method that already presupposes it does not exist. You’re cutting the branch on which you sit and thinking yourself clever while doing so.

I won’t go to back to each of your points. We both won’t be persuading the other. But that’s just as well, because we both don’t seek to.

Thanks for this exchange.

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Posted on January 5, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Always interesting when Atheists claim to have cornered the market on ‘reason,’ but when approached with the origin of the universe they pose very unreasonable (in my opinion) naturalistic hypotheses. Quantum fluctuations are only observable in spacetime, so it’s logical to believe that can also create spacetime? I don’t want to be around when some particles the next block over decide to spontaneously create another universe!

    • Lawrence Krauss will say that fluctuations of this sort do not require spacetime. But they still require a sea of quantum energy and physical laws which he then defines as states of “nothing” so he can conveniently be able to say the universe was created from nothing without God!

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