Sunday, June 10, 2007

Big Bangs and the Cosmological Argument

Recently I read an article, “Why Atheism Fails: The Four Big Bangs”, defending theism and arguing against popular atheist (and anti-theist) books now on the market from authors such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. The Four Big Bangs of which the article's author, Frank Pastore, wrote are the Origins of the Universe, Life, Minds and Morality. I would like to make some comments on the first, second and fourth here, and leave the third till later.

The problem with such arguments as I found in the article is that they are easily interpreted as relying on a God-of-the-gaps. This then focuses attention on the details of science and what it has not yet solved. But, respond many, it may solve them in the future. The comments that were elicited show this fruitless kind of discussion. While the article itself is reasonable, a couple of its sentences aided the misunderstanding. E.g., “How do you get matter and energy from nothingness? … How do you go from a tree, to an animal, to a human?”

One commenter, for example, claimed God’s existence is required to explain the “creation” of matter and energy at the Big Bang, in contradiction to the Law of Conservation of Energy. The answer from another commenter was that there is a theory which solves this by saying total sum of energy is zero even now. Yes, by defining gravitational potential energy as negative for example, one can do this. Similarly, there are Quantum Physics explanations which get around this energy conservation paradox using Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, as I understand it. But the fundamental mystery is NOT why there is non-zero mass-energy in the Universe (which there may or may not be), but why there is anything in the universe or any universe at all! Too many apologists for both sides treat mass-energy as if it was something like Aristotle’s “Prime Matter”, the featureless “stuff” out of which everything else is made, so its conservation or amount have some great metaphysical significance. This is nonsense. Indeed, mass is not matter, but one property of it. Everything is NOT reducible to mass-energy. For example, charge is an independent property of matter and is apparently even more strictly conserved. More importantly, whether or not scientists can come up with a theory that explains the Big Bang, its production of energy and matter, and the whole material Cosmos with no “loose ends” (that is, mathematically self-contained and requiring no supernatural additions outside the operation of those mathematical laws) makes no difference! For, in the end, they will still not have explained why the universe is orderly at all, why those particular laws obtain, and why they describe something real, something existent. This is where the Cosmological Argument comes in. See here.

The irony of classical (atheistic) scientific reductionism is that it arbitrarily cuts off the search for cause-effect relationships by saying something like the following: “Everything in the universe can be explained rationally based on cause and effect, following the Laws of Nature. We should continue to search for these explanations. It is illegitimate to expect a cause for the whole universe from outside of itself.” Why? Why should cause and effect and rational order be so universal and apply to everything in the universe but not the universe itself, as a whole?

One answer is to say that if we do not stop here and accept the universe as something that “just is”, we are forced either into infinite causal regress or we must posit another being (i.e., a Creator) who provides the starting point but “just is” anyway. That is, we seem no better off than when we stopped with the universe, which at least we can directly observe. I will deal with this in a later post on Ockham’s Razor and the Cosmological Argument. Suffice it to say for now that “just is”-ness (called aseity in metaphysics) makes more sense for a being which is defined as “Existence Itself” and “Simple” (without composition) than for a complicated, very particular thing like the universe!

Another response, but a sillier one, is to point to the indeterministic nature of Quantum Mechanics (QM) and its spontaneous creation and annihilation of particles in a “vacuum” to show that some of nature does not follow cause and effect and that the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”) is false. This might even lead to an interlocutor pointing out that some cosmological theories explain the Big Bang as a similar case of random, uncaused quantum flux. But this is both missing the point and making a false assumption. Events in QM are not uncaused, as each later state is derived from an earlier state in accordance with mathematically regular laws. It’s just that the precise nature of the later state is not uniquely determined by the earlier one, other outcomes having been possible. Also, a vacuum in the space-time continuum is not “nothing”, even ignoring quantum physics. It has measurable volume, for a start. It just contains no net mass or energy, which, as I noted above, are not “prime matter”. Fundamentally, however clever QM theories become, they will always just have to assume the laws are there to begin with and that they describe reality. And so again we get back to the main point: science can only ever tell us how the universe changes and why, it cannot explain why the universe or its laws exist in the first place.

Similarly, the mystery with life is not necessarily that science can not yet satisfactorily explain how the first life developed naturally, but that life is possible. The fact that life actually exists now means that it potentially existed in the universe from the beginning. Most universes somewhat similar to ours could not support life, which requires very specific conditions to enable information-rich and complex but integrated structures to develop. So, whether the first life was miraculously created or naturally emerged is irrelevant to the key facts that the Laws of the Universe are biocompatible, and that such biocompatibility is by no means to be automatically expected from just any set of laws.

As for morality, the mystery here is not the epistemological question of how humans came to perceive what is right or wrong. After all, biologists have come up with scenarios that could explain why social evolution or natural selection could select concepts and behaviours to be passed on (“memes”) that encouraged what is considered morally good behaviour and discouraged what is considered morally bad. These explanations often have limited plausibility or too much arbitrary assumption, it is true, but they are not impossible or necessarily inconsistent with Theism. For theists call objective morality the Natural Law precisely because it does have as its goal happy, healthy and fulfilled (i.e., naturally “complete”) humanity. And this would normally lead to characteristics fostering survival of the human species, obviously. (On the other hand, not all aspects of morality can be explained in terms of the reproductive or survival maximisation of one’s own group. Certain forms of universally recognised goodness, such as standing up for the rights of a race oppressed by one’s own ethnic group to its advantage, provide counter-examples. Wilberforce’s crusade against slavery being a case in point.)

Yet, while evolution might provide a partial explanation for how human motivations for goodness were fostered, it cannot explain why these preferences are not merely experienced as instincts or amoral desires, but as conscience. Or why bad behaviour is seen precisely as bad rather than just inconvenient or undesirable. These are completely different categories, and only the non-moral ones are really necessary to achieve evolutionary success. If all of morality is simply enlightened but disguised self-interest or group-interest or species-interest, why is it disguised rather than raw? To say that the illusion of altruism or objective morality makes us feel more noble and so serves as wish-fulfillment begs the question, since such feelings of nobility only make sense once a moral sense for self-evaluation is already present. In the end, if objective morality exists, however humans came to understand it is secondary to the fact that it is not a material entity and thus can have no material cause. Indeed, the fact that other conceivable physical universes with sentient and rational life would still have the same basic morality (e.g., “do not cause unnecessary suffering to another sentient being”) underlines the latter’s independence and transcendence. Therefore, we are not dealing with something created in the same sense as other things we have been considering. The existence of morality tells us more about God even than does the existence of the Cosmos or biological life. For, in some sense, the former exists in Him and not just by Him.

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