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.

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