Dallas Willard on the “Absurdity” of a Self-Sufficient Physical Universe

This is a longish post, but I would appreciate comments from those who have the patience to work through it. BTW, job responsibilities prevent me from getting into an endless loop of replies and counter-replies with respondents, so, if I fail to respond to all your messages, please do not feel that I am ignoring you or not appreciative of the feedback. The quotes from Willard are from Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, edited by R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman, OUP, 1992. The quote from Le Poidevin is from his Arguing for Atheism, Routledge, 1996.

Christian philosopher Dallas Willard ridicules atheists for their purported attachment to what he calls “big bang mysticism,” that puts the big bang in the position of God as the creator ex nihilo (Willard, 1992, p. 215). He then claims to offer a demonstration of the existence of something that is self-existent and nonphysical and is required by the existence of any physical event (213).

Consider any particular event in the physical cosmos, say the Voyager II spacecraft’s journey beyond Neptune’s moon Triton. The chain of causes leading to this event will stretch back into the distant past, but cannot go on ad infinitum and must ultimately end with an uncaused cause, something which does not derive its existence from something else:

“If this were not so, Voyager’s passing Triton, or any other physical event or state, could not be realized, since that would require the actual completion of an infinite, an incompleteable series of events. In simplest terms its series of causes would never ‘get to’ it. (As in a line of dominoes, if there is an infinite number of dominoes that must fall before domino x is struck, it will never be struck. The line of fallings will never get to it). Since Voyager II is past Triton, there is a state of being upon which that state depends but which itself depends on nothing prior to it. Thus, concrete physical reality implicates a being radically different from itself: being which, unlike any physical state, is self-existent…It is demonstrably absurd that there should be a self-sufficient physical universe (213-214).”

Willard therefore believes that he has proven that the postulation of a self-sufficient physical universe is wrong, indeed, absurd, and that there must exist a nonphysical, self-existent being.

But if we define “self-existent” as Willard does, as something that does not derive its existence from something else, then why cannot the physical universe itself, or at least its primordial state, be the self-existent entity? Where is the purported absurdity? The specific nature of physical things, Willard tells us, is to be dependent (and, therefore, not self-existent) (215). What justifies this assertion? Here is what Willard says:

“There are, after all, general laws about how every type of physical state comes about. If we keep clearly before our minds that any “something” which comes into existence (including a however big ‘bang’) will always be a completely specific type of thing, then we will see that for that ‘something’ to originate from nothing would be to violate the system of laws which governs the origination of things of its type. To suppose that an apple, for example, could come into existence without any prior states upon which it depends for its existence, is to simply reject all the laws we know to hold true of apple production. They are no longer laws. And it is not a matter of finding further conditions under which apple-laws apply, for the hypothesis is one of no conditions whatsoever (216).”

But Willard here is not merely comparing apples to oranges, but apples to universes. If someone says that an apple exists uncaused, this would be absurd. Why? Because we are familiar with apples and the causes and regularities that account for their production. We have a good understanding of the botanical facts underlying apple generation as well and the chemical laws and processes that underlie those facts. We never experience apples materializing out of empty space, or, indeed, coming about in any other way than by growing on apple trees. Our common-sense expectations about things (like apples) coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space/time universe with all its conservation and causal laws in force. What about the origin of the space/time universe itself? We know what to expect given the laws of nature, but what about the origin of those laws themselves? Willard complains (215) that current discussions of the big bang treat it as different from any other bang we know about. Well it was. An ordinary explosion involves a rapid expansion of material into the surrounding space, space that is already there. The big bang was not an expansion into anything, but the primordial eruption of space itself. There is a time before and after an ordinary explosion. There is a time after the big bang, but none before; it was the beginning of time. If the physics of the 20th Century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions need not—indeed, will not—apply in many of the extreme situations (like the origin of the universe) that can, nevertheless, be coherently conceptualized by physical theory. Personally, I have no intuitions at all about the origin of space-time, and if I did I would not trust them.

Still, says Willard, even if we set aside our intuitions, we have no experience at all of a physical state or event coming into existence uncaused and “from nothing,” therefore, the probability that this will occur, relative to our data, is zero (216). He sarcastically dismisses the idea that a physical event or state can exist uncaused and “from nothing”:

“And if anyone has observed such a thing, I am sure that our leading scientific journals and societies would like very much to hear about it. In fact, the idea is an entirely ad hoc hypothesis whose only ‘merit’ is the avoidance is avoidance of admission of a self-existent being—which it achieves precisely by claiming an entity of a type which in every other case is admitted to be dependent; to be, ‘just this once,’ itself self-subsistent (216).”

Three things should be said in reply:

First, if, in fact, the probability relative to the data that something physical could exist uncaused and “from nothing” is zero, precisely the same has to be said about our evidence on data about a nonphysical, self-existent being bringing physical events or states into existence. I doubt that our leading scientific journals and societies would very much like to hear about the creative activities of alleged nonphysical entities. Thanks to the puerile fantasies of creationists and paranormalists, we have all heard such tales too many times before. Where are the data about nonphysical entities (self-existent or not)—ghosts, spirits, demons, angels, cherubim, seraphim, jinn, Manitou, gods, etc.—causing physical events or occurrences? Willard sententiously advises us to keep an open mind about the possibility of such events, but possibility is not reality, and the burden of proof is on him. By the way, when it comes to direct observational evidence about the origin of universes, atheists weren’t there, but neither were theists, so when it comes to such evidence we all have the same amount: zero.

Second, Willard tells us that the postulation of a physical uncaused cause of the universe would violate “…the system of laws which governs the origination of things of its type (216).” But what type of thing was the big bang and what antecedent “system of laws” governed its origination? Again, Willard fails to appreciate the distinct kinds of problems faced by a putative account of the origin of everything, including the laws of nature themselves. As Robin Le Poidevin notes, where we have no laws, we can have no causes:

“A world in which there can be causal explanation is not a chaotic world; it is a world tightly constrained by the laws of nature. Causal generalizations are simply reflections of these laws; that is, they are true because of the existence of fundamental laws. Causal, explanation, then, takes place against a background of laws. But when we come to the explanation of the universe as a whole, part of what we are required to explain is the existence of the laws themselves. We cannot therefore help ourselves to any laws in order to explain the existence of the universe. Consequently, the explanation of the universe cannot take place against a background of laws. But, since causal explanation requires such a background, there can be no causal explanation of the universe (Le Poidevin, 37).”

Of course, some cosmologists do propose explanations of the big bang in terms of more fundamental entities and processes: fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, superstrings, the collision of “branes,” or whatever, but these explanations invoke other physical entities and other natural laws, which are in turn left unexplained.

Perhaps Willard would object that Le Poidevin begs the question. Of course physical causation needs laws, but the theist postulates supernatural causation: God just says “FIAT LUX!” and there is light! God’s creative act is a supernatural “basic action” that admits of no further explication; the only “law” operative here is that if God wills it, it happens. But in shedding dependence on physical law, such purported supernatural causation also sheds intelligibility. Willard’s causal “account” now appears to be that the universe came into existence when a timeless, nonphysical being wielding miraculous, occult powers in an inscrutable and incomprehensible manner—and for reasons we can only dimly grasp—willed (timelessly) the universe into being. Precisely how is such a causal “account” rationally superior to seeing the primordial state of the universe as uncaused?

Third, and finally, much of the apparent power of Willard’s case is merely rhetorical, arising from the seeming absurdity of saying that something could come from nothing. He adverts again and again to alleged assertions by atheists that the universe came “from nothing.” If this is what atheists are saying, then they look silly because we all supposedly know that ex nihilo nihil fit. Willard quotes the editors of the Time-Life book The Cosmos who say that the universe “popped out of the void (216).” Isn’t it simply absurd to think that a whole universe could just spontaneously “pop” out of nothingness? But if by “nothing” we mean literally nothing at all—not even empty space or the vacuum state that physicists talk about, but literally nothing at all—then the statement “out of nothing comes nothing” derives its apparent force from bad grammar. To say that the universe came into existence “from nothing,” seems to be saying that there once was a something—which we call by the name of “nothing”—that existed prior to the universe and from which the universe was somehow generated. But “nothing,” in the sense of nothing at all, does not name or refer to anything, not even emptiness. If we mean “nothing” in this sense, then there was no “nothing” for the universe to “pop” out of. If there is no “nothing,” then there is no question of how something could have come out of that “nothing.” Only those who illicitly reify nothing, turning it into a mysterious something, will be troubled by the pseudo-mystery of how that “nothing” could have generated the universe. If atheists carefully refuse to reify “nothing,” and insist that all that they are saying is that there wasn’t anything at all prior to or preceding the universe, then they can simply defy Willard to show any absurdity in their statement.

The upshot is that big bang cosmology makes atheism more plausible by showing how the origin of the universe can be explained in purely scientific, naturalistic terms, and the efforts of theists such as Willard to show that these accounts must be inadequate appear to be wasted.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10251047948220417739 OrneryPest

    I’ll need to read Dallas Willard’s stuff firsthand before I can claim to know what I’m criticizing, but it sounds like Dallas Willard is enamored of the stale old ninth-century Kalam philosophy which, firstly, denied the possibility of infinite sequences of prior causes without explaining what properties of prior causes renders sequences of them somehow exempt from the mathematical principles of all other sequences, and secondly, ignored the fact that, if logic is valid, theorems derivable from pure logic can serve as uncaused causes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11269648076936947425 White Rabbit

    Funny, it all seems to assume as if a mind itself wouldn’t be a causal entity. All we currently know of minds is that they are causal. It is monstrous special pleading to both deny the possibility of uncaused physical things beyond the point where causality even has any meaning (i.e “before” time) yet insist that a “timeless” mind could make any kind of decision at all without need of this same causal chain.

    Sophistry, pure sophistry.

    ^_^
    W R

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I mostly agree with the analysis. I only have one issue, namely the claim that “there wasn’t anything at all prior to or preceding the universe”. It seems to me that if there really wasn’t anything at all then there still wouldn’t be anything at all now. “Prior” to the universe there must at least have existed the *potential* of existence. But such a potential is already something, so it’s not the case that there wasn’t anything at all. I think in this way we come to see that an uncaused cause must exist, which of course it the conclusion of the cosmological argument.

    Speaking of the cosmological argument I think that the recent use of the big bang theory in it is a mess. The use of scientific knowledge in a metaphysical argument should always be done with great care anyway. First of all, by using the big bang implicitly scientific realism is assumed, but this is not really a given, not even necessarily within naturalism. Even if one accepts scientific realism it seems to me that the big bang theory only places a point in the spacetime continuum beyond which *scientific knowledge* about space and time cannot exist. Further I am not sure that the idea of limited space even makes sense; perhaps the space we find ourselves in is empirically measurable but this does not imply that space itself is finite. And I have trouble with the concept of “beginning of time” because a beginning normally happens within time, so here we use “beginning” in a novel way that lies beyond our sphere of experience and for which no warranted means of reasoning exist.

    The cosmological argument as originally conceived is simpler and stronger. Here is the version I would like to suggest: Many things that exist are effects of previously existing causes. Therefore either there exist infinite chains of causes and effects, or else there is at least one uncaused cause. An actual infinity of causes and effects implies a series of paradoxes and we can safely reject this possibility. Therefore there is at least one uncaused cause, i.e. one uncaused existent.

    So far so good. The conclusion this far is not really surprising, it simply says that there is a rock bottom to reality, a place that is not further analyzable or explainable. Now the question is whether our known fundamental physical facts, namely the existence of time space and matter governed by physical laws, are part of that uncaused cause or are rather themselves caused. I think that notwithstanding the big-bang theory a naturalist could argue for the former, but for the sake of argument let’s here assume the latter. Further for the sake of simplicity let’s assume that there is exactly one uncaused cause. Then we would conclude that the uncaused cause is timeless, spaceless, and non-material (for it causes the existence of space, time and matter as we know them).

    At this juncture theists claim that that uncaused cause is a person, and this is indeed a possibility (even though the idea of personal experience outside of time is again a novel concept). But naturalists may equally well claim that the uncaused cause is a mechanical substrate (albeit one that is timeless, spaceless, and non-material – why not?). For the cosmological argument to work in favor of theism, it seems to me that the theist must argue that the mechanical nature of some caused existents implies that the uncaused cause must not be mechanical itself – but I don’t know nor can I see any such argument. Actually the atheist may try to turn the table around, and argue that the personal nature of some caused existents implies that the uncaused cause must not be personal – but again I can’t see how such an argument would be. One way or the other then I don’t find the cosmological argument to be of much use to decide between theism and naturalism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14485509846775012081 Hari Seldon

    It’s very hard to have reasonable intuitions about the beginning of the universe, but I don’t think that a “naturalistic uncaused cause” is so problematic.

    Take for instance a particle falling into a black hole. From the point of view of the particle, its worldline eventually ends. After that, there is no “next time” or consequence for the particle. In general, particle’s wordlines continue forever (at least, in an expanding universe) except at blackholes (or at the big-crunch, if there is one eventually).

    Now, reverse time: you get particles coming out of the black hole, with worldlines starting at the blackhole, and therefore finite in time.

    It’s not the first time that the Big-Bang has been considered like a blackhole collapse, but reversing time (a whitehole, in fact). In any case, the idea of finite worldlines (uncaused causes) does not look that unreasonable.

    BTW, I remember a joke about the idea of “nothing”. Nothingness implies no laws, which means that nothing is forbidden, therefore everything is allowed. Hence, a “nothing” can degenerate very easily into something :).

    In fact, there are infinitely many more ways of “being” than of “not being”. Therefore, “nothing” is very unlikely! (and unstable). Ha! :)

    Ah, it’s also funny that theists want us to consider “nothing” as a more reasonable state of affairs than “something”. They find existence-for-no-reason-at-all very problematic. And yet, on the other hand, they believe they have proved that “nothing” is logically impossible (because God is a necessary being).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dallas Willard quote:

    “If this were not so, Voyager’s passing Triton, or any other physical event or state, could not be realized, since that would require the actual completion of an infinite, an incompleteable series of events. In simplest terms its series of causes would never ‘get to’ it. (As in a line of dominoes, if there is an infinite number of dominoes that must fall before domino x is struck, it will never be struck. The line of fallings will never get to it).”

    Comment:
    If there were an inifinite series of dominoes (with no beginning and no end and which corresponds to the set of integers …-2,-1,0,+1,+2…), it would be the case that any particular domino in the series is only a finite number of dominoes away from any other particular domino in the series.

    There is therefore no particular domino in an infinite series that is separated from some other domino by an infinite number of dominoes.

    Thus it is not possible to specify any pair of dominoes in this set that cannot be bridged by a finite number of dominoes. You can always get from point A to point B, no matter which domino is specified as point A and which is specified as point B.

    If we have arrived at the domino correspoding to the number 0 (in the set of integers) as a result of individual steps, then yes an infinite number of prior steps have occurred, and if each step took one day, then an infinite number of days must have occurred prior to reaching that domino.

    I don’t see the impossibility of an actually infinite set of steps or days occurring.

    It would be impossible to traverse an infinite number of steps in a finite amount of time, assuming that each step requires a set amount of time (a day, an hour, a minute, or a second), but what apriori reason do we have for the assumption that there has not been an infinite number of days or hours prior to now?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said:

    Of course, some cosmologists do propose explanations of the big bang in terms of more fundamental entities and processes: fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, superstrings, the collision of “branes,” or whatever, but these explanations invoke other physical entities and other natural laws, which are in turn left unexplained.
    ==========

    Comment: The possibility of explaining the big bang without appealing to events that occurred prior to the big bang suggests that explanation is not limited to the form: “Event A happened first, and this caused event B to happen next.” If so, it would be good to maintain a distinction between an uncaused origin of the universe and an unexplained origin of the universe.

    An uncaused origin of the universe might still be compatible with the Principle of Sufficient Reason, so long as an explanation of some sort can be provided.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    The cosmological argument uses the premise that actual infinities do not exist. The justification for that premise is that actual infinities imply many absurdities. So, for example, you can always stay at a hotel with an infinite number of rooms all of which are already occupied simply by kindly asking guest at room #1 to move to room #2 after asking the guest there to move to the next room, and so on. Or, consider a traditional balancing scale with two plates. You put an infinite number of beans on the left plate and an infinite number of beans on the right plate and the scales exactly balance because for each bean on the right there is exactly one bean on the left (all beans are identical). So far so good. Now you remove a bean from the left plate. The scales still exactly balance because for each bean on the right there is still exactly one bean on the left. Perplexed you remove half the beans from the left disc. The scales still exactly balance because, again, for each bean on the right there is still exactly one bean on the left. – Such examples allow us to suggest the following argument: If actual infinities existed in the reality we inhabit then XYZ absurdities would be the case. In the reality we inhabit XYZ absurdities are not the case. Therefore actual infinities do not exist in the reality we inhabit.

    Actual infinities are a philosophical nightmare, not to mention do not belong to the natural sciences. It’s the view of turtles all the way down really, and this is not an intellectual satisfying worldview. So why would an atheist believe in the existence of actual infinities? The only reason it seems to me is in order to invalidate the cosmological argument. But believing in propositions just in order to invalidate an argument whose conclusion one does not like – is not reasonable it seems to me. It’s like reverse engineering reason.[1] And the conclusion of the ontological argument should not bother the naturalist anyway, for the naturalist can always claim that the uncaused cause is naturalistic and not personal.[2]

    The cosmological argument only makes trouble for the materialist, for it implies that the uncaused cause is non-material. But the strong version of materialism (i.e. only material things exist) is plagued with so many conceptual problems that I don’t see why an atheist would bother believing in it. (Indeed some philosophers call this belief “naive materialism”.) Now in the same way that atheists should only worry about the strongest versions of theism, theists should only worry about the strongest versions of atheism. In this sense, within atheism the worldview of naturalism is far stronger than the worldview of materialism, because naturalism simply posits that everything that exists, whether material or non-material, is ultimately of a mechanical nature. Or, in other words, that everything that exists is amenable to a mathematical description, at least in principle. Indeed naturalism simpliciter strikes me as stronger than the more common “scientific naturalism”, which is the view that reality is what you get when you reify science’s models. (As far as I am concerned that latter view is already falsified by science itself, but that’s another story.)

    [1] Not that this does not often happen. So, for example, some atheists submit without further evidence the existence of parallel universes just because this invalidates the theistic argument from the apparent fine-tuning of the fundamental constants. Conversely some theists submit without further evidence that God has morally sufficient reason for allowing evil to exist just because this invalidates the atheistic argument from evil.

    [2] Indeed the naturalist may very well claim that the big bang’s singularity is the uncaused cause (or the unmoved mover) that the cosmological argument claims exists. After all the singularity fulfils all the required parameters: it’s timeless, spaceless, is non-material, and has caused everything that exists (or, at the very least, quite a bit of what exists).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dianelos Georgoudis said…

    The cosmological argument uses the premise that actual infinities do not exist. The justification for that premise is that actual infinities imply many absurdities. So, for example, you can always stay at a hotel with an infinite number of rooms all of which are already occupied simply by kindly asking guest at room #1 to move to room #2 after asking the guest there to move to the next room, and so on.
    =============

    I don’t see the “absurdity” here or in any of the examples given by William Craig in his arguments against actual infinities.

    To say that a Hotel has an infinite number of rooms (i.e. to say that the number of rooms in a Hotel is equal to the quanity of numbers in the set of positive integers) is to say that there is no last room in the Hotel, so it follows as a matter of logic that everyone can move over to the next room, as in your example. There is no contradiction here.

    The intuition that a full Hotel with an infinite number of rooms cannot accept any other guests appears to be based on the assumption that the process of bumping guests up to the next higher number room must eventually result in someone getting bumped out of a room and finding no more rooms to be available. But this assumption is contrary to the supposition that the Hotel has an infinite number of rooms, and thus no last room.

    So, the intuition that makes the expansive nature of an infinite Hotel seem “absurd” appears to be based on an assumption that contradicts the supposition that the Hotel has an infinite number of rooms, and thus has no last room, unlike ordinary finite Hotels.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    There is of course not a last room in a hotel with infinite rooms; that’s part of the argument. The implication of the argument, namely that you can always get an empty room in a hotel in which all and each room is already full, is the absurdity. It seems you feel that this implication is not absurd. Well, I suppose a deeper philosophical question is what makes one feel that a particular claim is absurd, and therefore why two people can disagree about what’s absurd and what isn’t. For example the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics strikes me as absurd many times over, but some people who understand what it’s about not only fail to find it absurd, but actually insist that’s the obviously correct description of reality.

    In any case, my understanding is that actual infinities imply many absurdities, and not just the two I mentioned above. Also the belief that actual infinities exist contradicts scientific naturalism, which is the standard metaphysical worldview of atheism. And finally even though the non-existence of actual infinities is a premise of the cosmological argument, that argument fails to decrease atheism’s probability, so it’s not like an atheist must uphold the existence of actual infinities, come hell or high water. So I don’t see any reason whatsoever why an atheist would hold the belief that actual infinities exist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    There is of course not a last room in a hotel with infinite rooms; that’s part of the argument. The implication of the argument, namely that you can always get an empty room in a hotel in which all and each room is already full, is the absurdity.
    ==============

    Comment:

    My point is that this seems absurd only because one is mistakenly assuming that an infinite Hotel must have a last room in it. But that assumption contradicts the supposition that the Hotel is infinite.

    To admit the assumption that there is no last room in an infinite Hotel, and yet at the same time to insist that moving guests to the next higher room number must lead to a guest being left out in the cold, is to contradict oneself.

    If we suppose that the rooms in an infinite Hotel are assigned positive integers as names (1,2,3 …), then this supposition implies that there is no last room. If there is no last room, then one can always add another guest and move the existing guests to the next higher room number.

    To insist that some guest will not be able to move to the next higher numbered room is to insist that there is a last room and that implies that there is a largest positive integer. The idea that there is a largest positive integer is absurd and self-contradictory.

    I’m not arguing that it is a fact that the universe has existed for an infinite number of days, I’m only pointing out that this is a logical possibility that the so-called absurdities do not rule out.

    Whether the number of days that the universe has existed are finite or infinite seems to me to be a scientific question, not a question that is resolvable by logic or conceptual analysis or intuition.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16677055887272655895 Kirk

    On a different note. Knowledge is based on thought and experience. We can have knowledge of the nonphysical world. Which comes to us in very different data than science. If an honest doubter and even skeptic would like to "stumble" into this world (like all else) than seek some solitude, prayer or even fast for a time. From the very nature of this world alone you will have to go about it very differently but with the same honesty as when looking in a microscope. God is very generous and kind, you will receive an answer. Practice them to yourself but openly with God. But as Jesus says you must know how to listen and see! He is not overbearing but he also does not have laringytus either. Just be open and honest.

    Hopefully these words convey the importance and power of a life interacting with God and his love. If and as you may incorporate some of these things into your life.

    "Grace is God acting in our life, accomplishing what we cannot do on our own. We should focus on grace."

    Here are other Dallas Willard quotes – "Jesus resurrected presence with us, along with his teaching, assures us of God's care for all who let him be God and let him care for them…It is love of God, admiration and confidence in his greatness and goodness, and the regular experience of his care that free us from the burden of 'looking out for ourselves'"

    "For those who do seek it, it is true even now that 'all things work together for their good' and that nothing can cut them off from God's inseparable love and effective care. That is the nature of a life within the kingdom of the heavens, now." (somewhat para.)

    God's blessings, love, and generosity to and on all.


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