We’re responding to an imaginary dialogue that explores Soft Theism, which is basically Christianity without the unpleasant baggage. Can jettisoning Christianity’s crazy bits make it acceptable? Read part 1 here.
This is post 12 in this series, and today’s topic is Soft Theism’s strongest argument, the First Cause argument.
Is human speculation futile?
Atheist: What’s your strongest argument for God?
Soft Theist: The First Cause argument . . .
A universe popping into existence out of nothing . . . the Big Bang . . . or . . . coming from an infinite never-ending regress of purely physical causes, seems less plausible to me, than a universe coming from some ultimate immaterial intelligence.
Cross Examined Blog: You’re just an ape looking up at the night sky. Science has taken you far from where your ancestors were just centuries ago, and it’s taught you about the Big Bang, evolution, and other mysteries. You intend to go farther than what science has taught you, but how?
You’re standing on the shoulders of giants, but you don’t bring any new equipment like the Large Hadron Collider or the Hubble Space Telescope. Your only tool is common sense, an intuition shaped by millions of years of living in a middle world, logarithmically halfway between the size of our galaxy (about twenty orders of magnitude bigger than us) and the size of a quark (about twenty orders of magnitude smaller). That common sense is worthless at the frontier of science. You want to test your mettle, and bravo for that, but shouldn’t you be more humble?
And consider your demand for an explanation of the Big Bang. That sounds a bit like asking what’s south of the South Pole. Most scientific questions are answered in terms of other things. And now you want to go to the most fundamental particles, fields, and properties—what everything else is built on—and ask where they come from. But is that question even properly formed? Theoretical physicist Jeremy Bernstein responded to the challenge of explaining the laws of the universe: “Explain in terms of what?”
The questions at the beginning
God, in theory, answers the question of where did the first thing come from? And I call that reasonable conjecture. . . . You call it making stuff up, or sticking magic in.
Reasonable? What good is it when it just replaces scientific questions with theological ones? Let’s stay in the science domain. Science has a track record, while religion has failed every time it’s been tested. Why hold your breath that today will be Religion’s lucky day?
Well, it’s not a valid argument to say that because we can’t explain it yet, therefore there must be a giant Invisible Person behind it all. The honest answer to the origins of the universe is that . . . we don’t know. Positing a God out of thin air without evidence is not justified!
Maybe our universe is just one of many universes. For all we know, there could be an eternal fluctuating quantum void, capable of generating universes from zero point energy, or some other explanation suggested by theories in physics.
But . . . that would not solve the infinite regress problem! Because, where, then, did the multiverse come from?
And “God did it” does solve the infinite regress problem?! No, it just brings up more questions, like where did God come from? What are his properties? And so on. Before you say it, “But God is by definition uncaused and eternal” counts for nothing. That doesn’t define anything into existence any more than “unicorns have one horn” does.
To me, explaining the universe by discovering, “other matter,” or “other laws of physics,” only kicks the can down the road. I see science as explaining the physical world, every step of the way, all the way back to the beginning, but, once at the beginning . . . I think science can do no more, and a force outside of nature is needed to explain . . . nature, itself . . . to explain the emergence of matter from nothing, and, intelligence from matter. Now, I readily admit I don’t KNOW this; it’s only what seems most logical to me.
So science has won every battle, but for the most fundamental questions you want to discard this source of every reliable explanation and look to religion? Religion has loads of answers, but there’s no reason to accept any of them, both because they’ve never been right before and because religions can’t even agree which of their many contradictory explanations are the right ones. And if, as seems likely, science uncovers more questions as it answers what’s on its plate today, it’ll be you kicking the can down the road. We didn’t need God to answer the last batch of questions, you’ll tell us, but now we have some real puzzlers. Surely now “God did it” is the only possible answer.
There are lots of weird ideas at the frontier of science inaccessible through a layperson’s insight. Maybe some energy is negative, and the sum of all energy in the universe adds up to zero (the zero-energy universe hypothesis). Maybe our universe had a beginning but no cause. Maybe it’s eternal without a beginning.
We’re all probably familiar with the fundamental ideas that our universe didn’t expand into an existing space but that it is its own space and that time began with the universe. These ideas sound ridiculous, but that’s where the evidence points. We’re semi-comfortable with them only because we’ve known about them for years. If science makes new fundamental discoveries about time, space, and the universe—how they work and where they came from—it’s not likely that they’ll coddle our common sense either. When there’s a clash between evidence and common sense, common sense loses.
Cosmology has shrunk the palette of options to little more than quantum particles and the laws of physics, and you want to throw in the most complicated, least evidenced thing possible, a supernatural Creator? How does that help?
Why couldn’t the universe have come from some other uncaused force than God?
Well, if it did, then THAT force would be God.
An unintelligent force as “God”? Has that option been in your definition of God all along?
What to do when you don’t know?
You claim you are not employing confirmation bias, yet you start with the assumption that the universe must have been “created” by a powerful intelligence, because you can’t comprehend any other way. You’ve given no indication that you’ve ever seriously tried to understand any astrophysical hypotheses . . . theories . . . which predict very accurately the formation of the universe, galaxies, and planets. You’ve shown the very epitome of the confirmation bias that you deny.
Arggh! You’re not getting my perspective. I’m not denying anything about science, except that it does not have ultimate explanatory power. Science explains everything in nature, but it does not explain the existence and sustenance . . . of nature itself.
I think you’re making the category mistake atheists always make. You think that once you have A, B, C, and D figured out, you no longer need an agent, or force to make that process work. You’re confusing mechanism for agency. You’re focusing on HOW something works and calling it WHY it works. But the real WHY it works, the ultimate why it works, is a force that makes the whole thing work. Again, you’re right that the laws of nature explain things, but . . . what explains the laws of nature? We don’t know. I posit God.
You don’t know so therefore you do know? If you don’t know, just leave it at that.
Science will be very hesitant to posit a supernatural agent to explain anything. If we have A, B, C, and D figured out, what’s the point of the God hypothesis? To use Julia Sweeney’s metaphor, God is sitting on his suitcase by the front door. Let him go.
But it’s wholly unreasonable to hold that ‘we don’t know, therefore God’.
Not to me. It seems very reasonable to me. . . . Oh . . . I think we’re just exasperating each other.
Well, I’m sorry if this conversation exasperates you, but I’m actually enjoying it. I find it quite unusual to engage a believer who doesn’t resort to coarse insults, and threats, as soon as his worldview is challenged.
Oh OK, OK, good. Uhh . . . I’ve come across a couple of analogies that help clarify the idea of God as a First Cause. If you look at the universe as a set of trillions of interlocking gears all turning simultaneously, each making another turn, each being turned by another . . . that doesn’t make sense, unless you posit at least one gear as the power source that causes all that turning.
Analogies to the First Cause argument
Or another analogy . . . if you look at the universe as a great chain of many links, each link held up in the air by the link above it . . . without a first link of a different nature, then the whole chain is held up by . . . nothing. You need a first link to hold up the great chain, a first cause that is not dependent of yet another link.
You’re trying to explain the origin of the Big Bang with “a suspended chain must have a topmost link” or “all those gears must have one to drive them.” But you’re not resolving the problem, just illustrating it. What suspends the topmost link? What drives the thing that powers all the gears?
While these analogies are easy to understand, they’ll be useful only after you’ve shown that there was an intelligent First Cause. Until then, your analogy only points to an empty place that has yet to be filled with evidence.
And why think that the origin of the Big Bang will be explainable with analogies this familiar? Imagine for example an easy-to-understand, accurate, middle-world analogy to quantum entanglement. Or quantum superposition. Or virtual particles popping into existence. Wrestle with these problems and imagine that the analogy for the origin of everything might be even more difficult. Said another way, if it’s easy, it’s likely wrong. This analogy will be from not-the-middle-world, and we’re stuck with middle-world minds.
But sticking God in is just unwarranted magical thinking.
I think . . . not sticking God in, is even less warranted. I . . . am postulating an immaterial cause, whereas you are postulating . . . no cause at all. Or you’re postulating an endless regress of physical causes. I think God makes more sense.
We can agree that it’s a puzzle. Where we disagree is that you want to resolve the impasse right now. My bold proposal is that when we don’t know, we say, “We don’t know.”
Next time: Exploring the nonphysical
you can be deceived.
— The Amazing Randi (1928–2020)