The Invisible Things

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Archive for the ‘Cosmological Argument’ Category

Infinite Cause, Finite Effect

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In previous articles, I have referred to a relatively standard (at least in this setting) logical proof regarding the creation of the universe. The cosmological argument is:

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

The reason this proof is useful is that it logically shows the necessity of cause for our existence. However, this is where things get more difficult for the argument, and dry for the reader. Please bear with me, as a brief discussion of infinity is necessary before I examine one of the typical objections to this proof (Webster, incidentally, defines infinite as ‘extending indefinitely; immeasurably or inconceivably great or extensive,’ and infinity as ‘unlimited extent of time, space, or quantity’). An infinite regress of causes cannot be possible in this scenario, as we are in effort to explain the cause of space, matter, and time, all of which, from our vantage point of reality, are finite. Therefore the cause of such must transcend time by being eternal, space and matter by being immaterial. When the concept of infinity enters the discussion, we must differentiate between the quality and the quantity. The quality of infinity relates to the potential of infinity, or in a numeric sense, the potential of beginning at 0 and counting incrementally, never reaching a limit. Thus infinity is not a value, per se, but a means of describing a quality. The quantity of infinity is, therefore, an impossibility, as to be able to identify (or count) it would assume a closed set, which is contradictory to the concept itself.

Now, to apply this concept to our observational understanding of the universe is simple. The reason our universe must be finite in its origin, rather than ‘infinite’ in the scenarios of expanding and contracting universes or universes which give ‘birth’ or cause other universe, is because even these alternatives presuppose a catalyst. While they imply a potential infinite in the incremental sense (like beginning at 0 and counting upwards), they cannot account for the origin of the process- they are still mired in cause and effect. Infinite in a regressive and progressive sense would render the concept of cause and effect meaningless. Atheist Kai Neilson sums this up nicely: “Suppose you suddenly hear a loud bang…and you ask me, ‘What made that bang?’ and I reply, ‘Nothing, it just happened.’ You would not accept that. In fact, you would find my reply quite unintelligible (Kai Neilson, Reason and Practice).”

As I mentioned at the start, I would like to address one objection to the proof which I encounter most frequently. This is often stated, ‘Well, if the universe requires a cause, then what was the cause of God?’ The question itself misunderstands the first premise of the proof, which is ‘Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.’ As inferred by the necessary qualities of the cause, God did not begin to exist. Before objectors raise another concern, this is not a conveniently introduced ‘loophole’ for God. The claim that God is eternal and uncaused is no less valid than the same claim on behalf of the universe, yet this is not the only means of proving validity. The cause of time, space, and matter must transcend its creation, and must be personal. Otherwise, for the cause to be non-personal would require a prompt of some sort to which the effect responds. An illustration of a personal cause would be a scenario in which we answer our door after it has been knocked. The person who knocks freely chooses to do so. Both cause and effect cannot be eternally existent, otherwise the door would be infinitely knocked on at the same time as eternally being answered. The contradiction is clear. An impersonal cause of the universe would require a property of the as of yet uncreated universe to precede its existence, to which it would respond in its coming into existence. Thus, the cause of our universe must be personal and uncaused, otherwise, the willing of creation could not occur.

Reading C.S. Lewis tends to put things in perspective for me, as his wit not only aids him in explaining complex ideas, but also points out the extent to which we thinkers can overcomplicate things for the sake of our own debate. His take on this argument does just that as he writes, ‘An egg which came from no bird is no more natural than a bird which had existed from all eternity (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock).’

Written by Christopher Butler

November 2, 2005 at 5:18 am

Atheism by Default?

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It is important to begin our discussion of atheism with a proper definition of the term. Webster traces atheism from the Greek atheos (godless, from a- + theos god) and defines it as “the doctrine that there is no deity.” It is immediately clear that atheism is absolutely not a philosophically neutral position. It actually affirms the absence of God; it does not affirm the absence of evidence or plausibility. (Many sincere questioners may be better suited to identify themselves as agnostics, which Webster defines as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown,” or “one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god.”) It is crucial to differentiate between such positions because each results in a different deduction toward reality. Atheism asserts the non-existence of God, presumably because of lack of evidence, or in essence, by default.

The argument becomes problematic because to assert such an absolute negative requires that one has ultimate knowledge with which to make such a claim. It is not plausible to make such a statement purely on the basis of doubt or lack of evidence. In fact, even if the atheist could provide coherent arguments against the existence of God, the conclusion that God does not exist has not truly been proven. Atheist Kai Neilson says ‘To show that an argument is invalid or unsound is not to show that the conclusion of the argument is false….All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists (Kai Nielsen, Reason and Practice, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, 143-44).” In other words, without transcendent knowledge of the universe, one cannot assert an absolute negative such as that God does not exist. Now here is the counterpoint: Though one may logically prove the illegitimacy of the atheistic argument, theism by default has not been shown to be true. One must defend theism with positive argumentation, not merely by assuming that since atheism is untrue, theism is true. Legitimate argumentation in this area can take many forms and approaches.

The cosmological argument that makes use of observational and philosophical points will be more coherent as our understanding of God’s existence must coincide with our understanding of reality. Thus, as we look at the apparent contingency of our universe as validation of the idea that it is not eternal, but has been caused. One may philosophically deduce that a universe that has come into being must have a first cause- one that transcends the essential existence of that which it causes. In other words, for God to be able to create the universe in which we exist, with all of its complexity and contingency, He must be essentially other- complete and sustained without His creation, and eternal in His nature. This understanding is necessary, as the typical argument against the first-cause proposition is that the first cause must have a cause, which in turn must have a cause, ad nauseum. The reason why this argument cannot apply to God as first cause is because God, as creator of the universe and all of its properties by which it operates (specifically and most important for our purposes: time, physics, etc.), must transcend those properties by not having come in to being Himself. Dr. Jonathan Sarfati provides a helpful illustration to this issue: “a more sophisticated questioner might ask: ‘If the universe needs a cause, then why doesn’t God need a cause? And if God doesn’t need a cause, why should the universe need a cause?’ In reply, Christians should use the following reasoning:

  1. Every thing which has a beginning has a cause.
  2. The universe has a beginning.
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause

(Read Dr. Sarfati's article here).” God cannot be subject to the laws of physics or time in his creation. Though He creates and employs those laws, He cannot be subject to them! Thus, logically, God requires no cause.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 23, 2005 at 11:10 am