Friday, April 30, 2010

More Plausible than God?

Shane Hayes

[This responds to remarks by Autumnal Harvest that appear in the Comments section below my posting entitled “Is God an Explanation?”.]

Autumnal Harvest,

In your comment you said: ‘[I]f my car breaks down, does saying that it broke down because "God did it" meet your criteria for being an explanation? Does it make the breakdown of your car "more comprehensible"? Does it "offer reasons for" the breakdown of your car? For me, it does not, and I don't see what criteria you've given that distinguishes this case from the origin of the universe case. I understand, of course, that you think that the breakdown of your car is not due to a "First Cause," but what I'm asking is what criteria you have for an "explanation" that makes "God did it" an explanation for the origin of the universe, but (presumably?) not for the breakdown of your car.’

Natural Limitations: Transcend Them

My Answer:

Saying “God did it” for the breakdown of your car would be an explanation but a bad one, because there are better explanations for that occurrence – blocked carburetor, faulty fuel pump, dead battery. For the origin of the universe (where did the singularity come from?) there is no better explanation than “an infinite mind and will created it.” In fact, there is none as good.

I never insist on a supernatural explanation when a natural explanation is will do. Even New Atheist Victor Stenger said this in his book “God: The Failed Hypothesis”: “If no plausible natural explanation can be found for an observation, then a supernatural cause may be considered.” (p. 262). That’s simple logic.

In reflecting on the Big Bang singularity in an earlier posting “The Greatest Scientific Mind” I said:

“A magic particle, smaller than an atom, that contained the whole universe. Did it simply spring into being, charged with potentiality so stupendous that all space and time, all matter and energy – all of natural and human history – were compressed in this invisible unmeasurable inexplicable seed? Is there a work of science fiction that rivals the imaginative genius of that plot premise? Are we to believe it had no Author?”

“First” Means Uncaused

And, yes, the Author had to be eternal, uncreated, uncaused, in order to be the First Cause. But that’s not natural, you say. No, it’s not. It’s supernatural. Without an uncaused supernatural starting point, you have an endless chain of secondary causes – an infinite regress -- and common sense regurgitates an infinite regress. Ergo… God.

You may, like Stenger, prefer to think that the singularity popped out of nothing, that nothing caused something; that ultimately nothing caused everything. Would you call that a natural explanation – or a supernatural explanation? Or an unnatural explanation? Whichever, can you seriously argue that nothing is more plausible than God? Maybe we can agree on this statement, though we inflect it to have opposite meanings:

Nothing is more plausible than God.

Shane   P.S.  Nothing!


  1. Shane writes:

    "Saying 'God did it' for the breakdown of your car would be an explanation but a bad one, because there are better explanations for that occurrence – blocked carburetor, faulty fuel pump, dead battery."

    But is it, according to your theology, actually a bad explanation? It is true that a faulty fuel pump might be the proximate cause of the breakdown. Nevertheless, your argument implies that God was the "First Cause" of the breakdown, because God set in motion the complete chain of causality that led to the breakdown. If one wants to keep the theology game going, the interesting question then becomes whether God was the knowing First Cause of the breakdown, or the unknowing First Cause of the breakdown.

    Was the breakdown of the car something that God did not anticipate when he created the universe, or was it something that God planned from the very beginning? If God planned it and ultimately brought it about, then God is responsible for the car's breakdown, by an act of commission.

    If, on the other hand, God did not know that the car was going to break down when he created the universe, did he become aware at some point that it was going to break down, or did it catch him totally by surprise? If he became aware that the car was going to break down but did not intervene to prevent it from breaking down, then God is responsble for the car's breakdown by an act of omission.

    If I were to buy into the the whole First Cause argument, nothing would be more plausible to me than that God is responsible for the car's breakdown. Let me insert here, for the sake of my own amusement, "P.S. Nothing!"

    If you will reflect upon the foregoing for a minute or two, you will observe that it is simply the familiar "Problem of Evil" argument applied to a mechanical contrivance.

  2. Thanks, Shane, that does help me understand your thinking better. On the one hand, you still haven't given me criteria for something to be an "explanation" or as you stated was equivalent in your last post, "make comprehensible" something, and I am rather suprised to find that you think "God did it" makes comprehensible the breakdown of your car, even if in a bad way.

    On the other hand, you have given me reasonably clear criteria for when something is a "good explanation." You say "good explanations" are either (1) natural explanations or (2) supernatural explanations when we don't have a natural explanation. Despite your frequent protestations that you are not proposing a God-Of-The-Gaps argument, this is about as clear and straightforward a definition of God-Of-The-Gaps as one could imagine.

    We currently have no natural explanation for why the electron doesn't have a mass of inifinity due to self-interaction, or how general relativity and quantum mechanics can work together; or at a more mundane level, the cause of the anomalous acceleration of Pioneer 10 and 11, or sonoluminescence. You may be familiar with all or none of these things, but the point is that there are many things that science currently does not have good natural explanations for. By your criteria, supernatural explanations are "good explanations" for all these things, which I have trouble accepting. 500 years ago, would supernatural explanations have been "good explanations" for lightning and earthquakes?

  3. You keep claiming that my options are either a naturalistic system in which everything comes from nothing, or a supernatural belief in your monotheistic Creator god, but those are hardly the only options. You seem to be assuming that once I accept supernatural explanations, I will accept the one dominant in our particular culture and time, but if I am willing to accept explanations without evidence, I see no basis for limiting myself to your particular creation story. If I trace back the history of the universe as far as I can, I have several possibilities:

    A. The universe is infinite in age
    B. The universe if finite in age
    C. Time is an acausal loop, and if I go back far enough in time, I end up at the time I started.
    D. Time follows a more complicated acausal structure

    Each of these possibilities can be broken up into several subpossibilities. For example, the infinite universe might be

    A. 1. Infinitely old and unchanging in the essentials over time
    2. Infinitely old, going through repeated cycles.
    3. Infinitely old, and continually changing in new ways, without repetition
    4. etc. . .

    The finite universe might, at the first time at which is had something have

    B. 1. A singularity
    2. An vast extent of space, filled with formless matter, but no life
    3. A single conscious being
    4. Multiple conscious beings
    5. etc. . .

    These can all form good stories, and if I decide to accept supernatural stories as "good explanations," I'm not sure why I shouldn't like a particular variant of A.2, in which the infinite universe goes through the cycles described by Hinduism, or the enjoyable subvariants of B.2 that I've seen in various Asian creation stories. I personally find most enjoyable the Mayan Creation story in the Popol Vuh, which falls under B.4. Your focus, with your First Cause, is on B.3., except as you use the phrase "First Cause," it's clear that you've chosen B.3.a over B.3.b.or B.3.c:

    B. 3. a. A finite universe at whose origin we find a single conscious being who decides to intentionally create the universe

    B. 3. b. A finite universe at whose origin we find a single conscious being who accidentally created the universe

    B. 3. c. A finite universe at whose origin we find a single conscious being who then ended up splitting into several conscious beings

    To stop this long comment from being even longer, let me skip down a few more levels of choices among supernatural entities, and omit the descriptions of assorted religions that make different choices at each level, to the supernatural story that you like:

    B. 3. a. III. (d). 5. (b'). 2 A finite universe at whose origin we find a single conscious being who decided to intentionally create the universe, and who is also the sole entity who later intentionally created life, and who is still around today, and who is still very powerful (in fact, the only deity around), and who interacts with humans, and who cares about humans.

    This, of course, only takes us to an entity that can reasonably be called God with a capital "G" - Christianity involves a few more choices.

    If you want me to consider supernatural claims, and ask me to "transcend" my "limitations" of requiring physical evidence, then I don't know how to choose between the vast list of supernatural stories available to me at my local library. So to repharse your statement, which can still be read with different inflections:

    "Nothing more plausible than the eight particular choices involved in deciding on the particular supernatural creation story classified by B.3.a.III.(d).5.(b').2"

    A little wordy perhaps, but more precise.

    P.S. B.3.a.III.(d).5.(b').2!