Thursday, July 17, 2008

God Would Be Dead, if He Existed in the First Place (Part II)

Christianity Today offers its next example of believers' "intellectual muscle:"
The kalam cosmological argument. This version of the argument has a rich Islamic heritage. Stuart Hackett, David Oderberg, Mark Nowacki, and I have defended the kalam argument.
I find it rather amusing that despite this argument's origins and "rich Islamic heritage," that Craig only cites Westerners as its notable advocates. Not one respected Imam?
Its formulation is simple:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise (1) certainly seems more plausibly true than its denial. The idea that things can pop into being without a cause is worse than magic.
What could people like Mr. Craig possibly have against magic? It's their proposed causal mechanism! Also, as I understand it, the physicists tell us that virtual particles "pop into being without a cause" all the time. Weird, but apparently true. And while we're talking about things "just being there" without a cause, what about Mr. Craig's invisible super-person?

Craig goes on to attack the idea of an eternal Universe (or, presumably, series of Universes in a Multiverse). He drags out the usual argument from infinite regress:
Philosophically, the idea of an infinite past seems absurd. If the universe never had a beginning, then the number of past events in the history of the universe is infinite. Not only is this a very paradoxical idea, but it also raises the problem: How could the present event ever arrive if an infinite number of prior events had to elapse first?
This is like saying you can never get to the number 4 because you would have to count up from an infinity of negative numbers (or, if you want to stay positive, the infinitude of tiny decimals lower than 1 but bigger than 0) in order to reach it. "Infinity" is an abstraction. No matter how far back you go to pick your starting point, you can only land on some particular event (or number), resulting in a finite number of events (or numbers), however large.

Also, it is never a good idea to assert as impossible something to which your own proposal is vulnerable. Craig's chosen "cause" is a personal, anthropomorphic, thinking mind. If we decide to be charitable enough to grant Craig the possibility of a disembodied mind with no physical substrate, then the only possible substance his god can have is its thoughts, emotional states, and other elements of mentation. Which means, such a mind would have to be thinking, feeling, and so on, because without mental states it would be indistinguishable from nothing. Which means: Craig's god must have a continuous series of thoughts, emotions, experiences, etc.. If this entity itself has no beginning, then we're right back to the paradox of infinite regress.

If we have a choice between an infinite regress of real events in a real Universe (or Multiverse), vs. an infinite regress of disembodied thoughts without anything to do the thinking, the former is the more elegant and parsimonious option. Craig goes on to argue that Big Bang cosmology mandates that our Universe has a beginning, and is therefore caused. Then he makes the usual quantum leap:
It follows that there must be a transcendent cause that brought the universe into being, a cause that, as we have seen, is plausibly timeless, spaceless, immaterial, and personal.
What, exactly, is "plausible" about that? Look at the first three "attributes." They're all negations. Without time, without extension in space, without material/energetic substance. They are descriptors of non-existence. His final attribute, "personal," is incompatible with the others, by any meaningful definition of the word "personal." Craig's god is the ultimate Nowhere Man: made of nothing, existing in no place and at no time. Aside from his wish to call this non-entity a "person," his position is indistinguishable from atheism.

As human beings, we have a great deal of experience with "persons." "Persons" can only be known as such within a context of time. For example, without time, you would not be able to read the words of this blog in succession, or hear them if they were read to you. You would not be able to think about them, or relate the experience of reading them to the experience of feeding your pet earlier in the day. You would not be able to do or think anything at all, since such an act would create a temporal division between "before" the thought or act and "after" it.

In order for Craig's god to design Universe, it would need to actually engage in the act of designing, i.e., of purposeful thought toward setting cosmological constants or visualizing the mechanism of a flagellar motor. In the absence of time, there could be no time "before" "god" had a design for Universe, or a time "after" it had a design and was ready to start building, or a time when it set to work.

A "god" bereft of temporal succession would be as impotent as the character pictured on the 356th frame of a movie film sitting in its canister. It doesn't matter how big a superhero the character might be. Without the temporal sequence, he can't save the day. There's no "day" to save. And, without the ability to think its thoughts in time, there would be no thoughts, and thus no disembodied mind.

Craig began his article by sneering at the lack of "intellectual muscle" present in the "New Atheist" books, yet he fails to respond to a powerful argument advanced by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. This is the argument Dawkins refers to as "the Ultimate Boeing 747 Argument."[1]

Evolution is difficult to grasp intuitively, because we see complex things like life forms, and find it difficult to imagine how they could have come to exist without a guiding intelligence to design them. Complex life forms are wildly improbable, like having a tornado go through a junkyard and leave a newly-assembled Boeing 747 in its wake. Darwin's great discovery was of a non-random organizing principle, "natural selection," that provides a mechanism for life to gradually "climb Mt. Improbable" (another Dawkins analogy) by conserving small changes that work while weeding out changes that don't, over a very, very long period of time.

In the case of Craig's god, we are supposed to have a "person" even more complex than humans and all of our Universe put together. In the Christian belief system, there are said to be many angels and demons, but only one god. That means that it is far more probable that a given disembodied mind would be an angel or demon, rather than a god. And if the god is supposed to possess a certain type of personality (as opposed to all other possible personalities), then it follows that the specific set of thougts, emotions, values, psychological attributes, etc. that comprises god is highly improbable.

If we take into account all of the gods worshiped by all human cultures, then add in all of the possible gods that could be worshiped by all of the alien cultures that could exist within a hundred billion galaxies of over a hundred billion stars each, we have an enormous set of potential disembodied minds to work from. There are billions of distinct individual human minds on this one planet alone.

In a nutshell, Craig's god would be a unique, and highly improbable complex being. If you had a roulette wheel that contained a slot for every possible mind that could exist, the odds of spinning it and hitting on William Lane Craig's preferred version of the Christian deity[2] are virtually nil.

Add to this the immense degree of complexity that a sapient, humanlike mind represents (much less a vastly superhuman mind), as compared with, say, a "timeless, spaceless, immaterial" equivalent of a paramecium. Whichever way you slice it, a god like William Lane Craig's or Grand Ayatollah Sistani's would be the "ultimate Boeing 747." Its existence would be more improbable (as a function of its complexity and the uniqueness of its attributes of consciousness) than our Universe and everything in it. The "god hypothesis" is the explanatory equivalent of a cure worse than the disease.

In addressing the kalam argument, we are left with the possibility of either an infinite regress of causes, or some sort of irreducible starting point. Arguably, the infinite regress of causes (IRoC) makes more sense than the irreducible starting point (ISP). With the IRoC, each cause/effect relationship is an example of the sort of cause/effect relationships with which we are familiar. It does not require anything exotic and unknowable.

That our universe began with a Big Bang and is causally disconnected with anything on the other side of the Big Bang singularity actually makes the IRoC model even more plausible. Instead of the analogy of an infinite regress of numbers, we have an infinite regress of distinct sets (Big Bang cosmoses, with ours as a "daughter universe"), each caused by, but temporally separate from, its predecessor. In the numerical analogy, it would be something like:

(1, 2, 3, 4)(5, 6, 7, 8)(9, 10, 11, 12). Each "set" is itself finite (thus, no infinite regress problem), but has its "transcendent cause" in another cosmos that is spatially and temporally disconnected from it. Since each cosmos is its own island of space and time, there is no unbroken chain to infinity to worry about. Once you pick any specific reference frame (such as "here and now") to count backward from, you're in a finite set, and you can count back to the beginning of that set and no further. Each universe is basically a familiar sort of entity whose behavior is something we can model mathematically. Thus, even if there's an infinite number of them, this view has the parsimony of not introducing any novel entities.

The introduction of a "first cause" requires the introduction of something fundamentally different from all that is know. Then we're left with the question, "what made the first cause cause the second?" If this "first cause" was in some sort of timeless, eternal stasis until it sparked the Big Bang, how did it break free of its stasis? If the "first cause" started causing at a particular point (the Big Bang), then what caused it to change its state from non-causal to causal?
And what caused that? Etc..

NOTES:

1. Dawkins, The God Delusion, pp. 113-114

2. There are, of course, numerous different conceptions of what the god of Christianity is like.

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