Monday, May 3, 2010

Admitting Our Uncertainty

Shane Hayes

[This responds to remarks by P. Coyle that appear in the Comments section below my posting entitled “Magic: Divine and Human.”]

P. Coyle,

In your comment you quote me as saying, "As an agnostic I renounce pontificating." Then you say: “And yet you offer, not explanation, but pontification. You offer the vision of ‘a supremely intelligent and powerful Being (who) may have been the First Cause who produced the singularity and all that proceeded from it,’ even though you could not ‘explain how this Divine Reality, which exists outside of time, space, and the material world, could make matter out of nothing.’ Yada, yada, yada.”

My reply: To pontificate, as I use that term, is to say “my explanation is right and yours is not even an explanation.” But to say, as I do, that “yours is a valid explanation, one that can be rationally be held, and mine is too; that reasonable minds may differ in choosing between them; that you may be right and I may be wrong,” is to avoid pontificating.

In “Magic: Divine and Human” I made this statement: “I don’t claim to know that God created the universe. I do claim that is a possible, and not irrational, explanation of its origin.” I said later: “It is reasonable to say that you reject the theistic hypothesis, based on any of several arguments. I think it unreasonable to claim that a transcendent power and mind, like the God I describe, cannot possibly account for the origin of the universe.”

Agnosticism and Humility

There are atheists who do not pontificate, and others who do. There are theists who do not pontificate, and others who do. Philosophical agnosticism says: “We can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven, and it can’t be disproven.” That proposition is, it seems to me, profoundly true. It is also humbling and conducive to civil and fruitful conversation about the kind of issues we debate on this blog.

If I became acerbic in “Magic: Divine and Human” (regrettably, I did), it was not in declaring the atheist position wrong, but in challenging this assertion -- that the Divine First-Cause Argument is not an explanation at all. It has been viewed as one by serious minds for centuries, and neither particle physics nor the Hubble Telescope has diminished its relevance, vigor, or logical force.

Powerful as I think the argument is, I respect your right to reject it. It’s a reason to believe, not a proof.

Shane

16 comments:

  1. Autumnal HarvestMay 3, 2010 at 10:44 PM

    I think it unreasonable to claim that a transcendent power and mind, like the God I describe, cannot possibly account for the origin of the universe.

    Can you point to a place where I or P. Coyle take this position? Or actually, any prominent atheists who take this position? This seems to be a straw man. I can't speak for P. Coyle, but for myself, it's not that the God you describe is logically impossible - it's that there's a pretty big gap between a belief being "not impossible" and "reasonable."

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  2. A.H.,

    To say the God hypothesis explains nothing, merely invokes magic, and doesn't even rise to the level of an explanation, sounds like a total rejection of that hypothesis. I believe it was P.C. who said this, not you.

    If P. C. in fact concedes that the God hypothesis can account for the origin of the universe (even though he personally rejects it), I wonder why he calls it a non-explanation. Perhaps our views are not as far apart as I thought. Hope you're right about that.

    I'm a little surprised at your suggestion that it would be unreasonable to embrace a possible explanation of our origin. I can see why you would personally reject a possible explanation, but to brand it "unreasonable" is to imply that no reasonable person would accept it, even though you admit it's possible.

    What I'm striving for in my writing about these issues is for atheists and theists to concede that since neither of us can KNOW, it is reaonable for either of us to BELIEVE, whether in God or in No God. Then we respect each other's position philosophically, and we can get to the real reasons why each of us has chosen as we have, which I contend are more personal than objective. Ironically, I find few on either side are willing to concede this. Both sides cling to an I'm right, you're wrong attitude that tends to sour the discourse.

    Shane

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  3. Shane, you write:

    To pontificate, as I use that term, is to say “my explanation is right and yours is not even an explanation.” But to say, as I do, that “yours is a valid explanation, one that can be rationally be held, and mine is too; that reasonable minds may differ in choosing between them; that you may be right and I may be wrong,” is to avoid pontificating.

    I don't advance any particular scientific hypothesis for the origins of the universe as "my" explanation. I simply point out that such hypotheses have been advanced. I will let the theoretical physicists try to sort it out as best they can.

    In replying to A.H., you wrote:

    If P. C. in fact concedes that the God hypothesis can account for the origin of the universe (even though he personally rejects it), I wonder why he calls it a non-explanation.

    It seems that a bit of clarification is in order here. I do not concede that the "God hypothesis," as you call it, can account for it, because in whatever form that hypothesis seems to be stated, it does not account for it. If it can account for it, then it should account for it. But in the end it always seems to be asserted that it cannot account for it and need not account for it because it was magic, and magic that we mere mortals are obviously too thick to understand. I'm obviously repeating myself here, but a "hypothesis" that simply says that the universe originated through one or more acts of magic, and then names a particular magician as the one who performed the trick or tricks, does not constitute an explanation. I don't think it should even be dignified by calling it a hypothesis. It's just faith-based handwaving.

    You had previously written:

    I think it unreasonable to claim that a transcendent power and mind, like the God I describe, cannot possibly account for the origin of the universe.

    What do we mean when we say that something is "possible"? Suppose I say that I believe that an entity that exists outside of space and time -- not only outside the space and time of our universe, but outside of the space and time of any universe -- that created our universe ex nihilo is simply not possible. Suppose that I then say that I will of course revise my opinion if you can demonstrate how such a thing might be possible. How would you propose to go about providing such a demonstration?

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  4. P. Coyle, why is it you require Shane to demonstrate that "an entity that exists outside of space and time--not only outside the space and time of our universe, but outside of the space and time of any universe" when you cannot demonstrate how matter can appear from nothing? It seems reasonable to suggest that an entity would be required as a cause since a cause simply cannot exist when there is nothing.

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  5. Autumnal HarvestMay 5, 2010 at 9:03 PM

    I agree with P.C. that the God hypothesis explains nothing, merely involes magic, and doesn't rise to the level of an "explanation" - or, if you prefer, "a good explanation."

    I strongly disagree that "not impossible" is the same as "reasonable," and am rather astonished that you would claim otherwise. It's quite difficult to prove things impossible. I can't prove that Obama isn't a secret Muslim Kenyan communist, and I can't prove that leprechauns didn't break my car while I was sleeping. That doesn't mean that these beliefs are reasonable. (To be clear, I'm not attempting to equate you, morally or in logical skills, to Tea Partiers or leprechaunists - I'm just illustrating that "not impossible" is clearly different than "reasonable.")

    I also strongly disagree with your claim that branding a claim as unreasonable is the same as saying that no reasonable person would accept it. A generally reasonable and intelligent person may still specific irrational beliefs, or accept stories as "good explanations," despite their failure to meet reasonable criteria for being a "good explanation." More generally, you seem to want to turn our claims that your God hypothesis fails to be a "good explanation" into a personal insult, and want to make it a virtue to admit every story and argument as "reasonable" and a "good explanation." At the risk of sounding silly, this is not reasonable, and strikes me as a way of shutting down debate, rather than allowing reasoned discussion. Surely whether an argument is reasonable, or whether a story constitues a "good explanation" are positions to be defended, rather than claims that must be routinely agreed to by rules of good manners. You have in previous posts claimed that the universe must begin with a "First Cause," that this First Cause must either be nothing or your God hypothesis, and that basic reason prevents other conclusions. This claim rules out every religious belief that holds either that the universe in infinite in age, or finite in age and beginning with a multiplicity of deities. By the standards that you're trying to hold us to, this means that you're claiming that Hinduism, Buddhism, and creation stories that begin with polytheism, are beliefs that no reasonable person could hold.

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  6. Autumnal,
    If not a god or creator, then where did the necessary cause come from to produce matter out of nothing? You are too quick to discredit a cause such as an entity out of space and time, but science cannot explain an alternative. Perhaps science is not the be all, end all, that you would like to think.

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  7. Autumnal HarvestMay 6, 2010 at 1:10 AM

    Wayne, if you believe that reality is finite in age, then whatever was there at the earliest possible time - whether a singularity, a deity, or multiple deities - had nothing before it, and so by simple logic, equally well came from "nothing." As far as I can tell, the only reason that it doesn't trouble you or Shane that your deity would also have to come out of "nothing," is that you've made up phrases like "an entity out of space and time" that are essentially meaningless, since no one is able to tell me what this means, other than a statement that the normal rules of logic governing space and time no longer apply. The normal rules are, for reasons mysterious to us mortals, out, and no new rules are in - this switcheroo is what makes it magic, rather than an explanation. If I ask you why my car, which appears to be in good order, won't start, and you say "it's because griffplokaboo has frobbulated the engine," and are unable provide any evidence for "griffplokaboo" or "frobbulation," or indeed provide any meaning explanation for what these things are, other than a statement that the normal laws governing the operation of cars don't apply to "griffplokaboo," then I don't need to "discredit a cause such as griffplokaboo." I'm going to say that this doesn't even rise to the level of an explanation, and that there's nothing to discredit.

    It's not that science is the be all and end all of anything. It's that there's no reason to believe things without positive evidence for them.

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  8. Wayne writes:

    P. Coyle, why is it you require Shane to demonstrate that "an entity that exists outside of space and time--not only outside the space and time of our universe, but outside of the space and time of any universe" when you cannot demonstrate how matter can appear from nothing? It seems reasonable to suggest that an entity would be required as a cause since a cause simply cannot exist when there is nothing.

    We've been over this ground before. More than one scientific hypothesis has been offered for the origins of the universe. While it is true that no such hypothesis is as yet generally accepted within the scientific community, your claim that no such hypothesis exists simply means that you haven't been paying attention.

    But even if no such hypothesis did exist, I would still reject, on methodological grounds, the claim that "It was an unexplainable act of magic carried out by a being whose very existence appears to be magical and unexplainable." An explanation actually has to explain something.

    There's no evidence that the universe was created. Dawkins has rightly characterized any arguments such as yours -- that you can't believe that the universe could possibly have a natural origin, therefore it must have been created -- as an "Argument from Personal Incredulity." You can't believe that universe had a natural origin, but you can believe that it was created by some unknown means, by some entity existing by some unknown means, for some unknown purpose. Why? It seems to me that you strain at gnats while swallowing an entire herd of camels.

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  9. Autumnal and P.Coyle,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6kMWSo-Jz0
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFRKPlZMavE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1I62xtxDGs
    OK, the first two claim quantum fluctuations make something coming from nothing . Unfortunately, I find quantum physics difficult to understand. It seems a bit like magic to me.  BTW, the 3rd one is a creationist supposedly using science to prove that something from nothing violates physics and biology and that a creator is required. He sounds believable until he quotes Genesis as proof that God did it. Now I know why you didn’t try to explain how something came from nothing without a creator. It is quite complicated.
    Autumnal, you had me giggling with your griffplokaboo frobbulating the engine.  Since you keep bringing up cars, I can’t resist reminding you that that car was created by man. Yeah, I know it isn’t organic, but neither is the universe. Since man wasn’t around at the beginning of the universe, could it be that a god did it? Perhaps the above two web sites might be onto something. Perhaps it happened by chance. But I’m not saying that it didn’t happen by chance, only that it seems very possible that there really was a creator involved. The same is true about people who have had things that have happened in their lives that seem to have been planned. Coincidence? It could be, but how can you determine if it wasn’t an outside force or god which was responsible. Can Occams Razor explain it? I suppose you could use it to say that coincidence is more likely the answer. You also stated that there is no reason to believe things without positive evidence for them. In that case, you have no reason to believe something came from nothing since you also have no evidence for it as well.

    P.Coyle OK, I have heard some time ago that physics claimed to have a hypothesis for how something could have come from nothing. The above two web sites explain quantum fluctuations as the cause. Actually, I seem to remember something about using 12 dimensions, but that is all. Anyway, science may or may not prove this. In many instances, science has finally proven how some things have come about without a creator. That said, creating something from nothing may never be proven, and that could be because it requires a creator as a cause. You mentioned that I am straining at gnats. What I’m really straining at is trying to figure out how something can come from nothing using quantum fluctuation as the first cause. I submit that quantum physics couldn’t exist when there is nothing. Also, a creator does explain how something came from nothing in that the creator is the needed cause since a cause is not available when there is nothing, and that could also be true for the laws of quantum physics.

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  10. Autumnal HarvestMay 9, 2010 at 10:08 AM

    Wayne, your entire post seems to be dedicated to saying that it makes little sense to believe the universe "came from nothing." I believe P. Coyle and I have already addressed this: your objection makes little sense if your solution is to instead postulate a creator who, by the standard that you're using, equally well "came from nothing."

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  12. A. H.,

    Theists do not postulate a creator who came from nothing, but one who had no beginning – who not only pre-existed the universe but ALWAYS EXISTED. We believe that a Divine Intellect and Will, a personal God, is the eternal ground of all being, from whose creative act the universe emerged.

    To view it as the work of a Cosmic Mind seems to us far more credible than to allege it came from nothing. We see no equivalency in the contending theories: one posits a cause with attributes that account for the vast, complex, and prodigious character of the universe; the other posits a cause with no attributes at all.

    Shane

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  13. Shane you write:

    Theists do not postulate a creator who came from nothing, but one who had no beginning – who not only pre-existed the universe but ALWAYS EXISTED.

    In an earlier post you referred to "a Being that always existed, before time began...." Obviously, "always" can't mean "having an infinite duration of time" before time began. Why isn't the word "never," meaning "having no duration of time," more appropriate to the "outside of time" hypothesis than "always"?

    Have you accidentally philosophized yourself into a philosophical argument in favor of the proposition that God never existed?

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  14. P.C.,

    You're right, it's hard to express existence and duration before time began without using the word time. But semantics aside, you get my drift.

    Shane

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  15. Shane:

    Archimedes is reputed to have said, apropos of his work on levers, "Give me a place to stand, and I can move the earth."

    Give God a time (and a place) to exist, then perhaps he can exist. If not, then one could reasonably argue that he can't exist. It's not just a question of semantics. It's not even a question of God's plausibility. It's a question of God's possibility.

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  16. Autumanal said:
    "your objection makes little sense if your solution is to instead postulate a creator who, by the standard that you're using, equally well "came from nothing."

    I believe that I already suggested that this creator always existed.

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