God as Levitating Turtle

God as Levitating Turtle November 27, 2014

A bit of interaction on the blog between two commenters produced a helpful analogy to explain why some thinkers find the concept of God a useful one, and preferable to alternatives.

One commenter mentioned the famous image of infinite regress: “it’s turtles all the way down.”

Another suggested that, when positing a single God as explanation for the existence of the universe, one is positing a turtle that can levitate.

A levitating turtle, like a God who simply exists, is frustratingly puzzling and mysterious.

But is positing such an entity nonetheless preferable to the positing of an infinite number of things and events, each of which may be more probable, but the infinity of which seems even more puzzling, mysterious, and problematic?

That is what that many sorts of theists (in the broad sense) conclude, including not only classical theists but also Deists and others.

Something that necessarily exists, however puzzling, seems less illogical than an infinite regress of finite causes. And given that I logically deduce that I am contingent on something other than myself for my existence, and given that even the universe seems to not have existed forever, that which necessarily exists must be something beyond the universe, something greater still and more transcendent.

And so let us debate and discuss what that reality is, what it is like, what we cannot know, and why we speculate about it as we do.

But please don’t complain when some of us refer to that reality as “God.” If that term is appropriate for anything, it is appropriate here, perhaps more so than as applied to the anthropomorphic God of much popular piety.



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  • Happy Thanksgiving!

    “Something that necessarily exists, however puzzling, seems less illogical than an infinite regress of finite causes.”

    An infinite regress of finite causes requires time. But time is a property of our universe, something that (as Stephen Hawking has shown) may not precede our universe.

    That ability to levitate – let’s call it non contingency – could belong to the universe itself – or it may belong to an ocean of quantum flux from which our universe arose in a bubble.

    Whatever that turtle is, whether the universe, God, or an ocean of quantum flux, I’m not sure what sort transcendency is required of it. We have seen, on this planet alone, a vast panoply of complex life arise from simple single-celled organisms. On this planet we have become more than the some of our parts, and I don’t know that the universe must be different.

    I’m not really worried, at any rate, about people who would name the levitating turtle, “God”. I am much more worried about the people who credit him as the inerrant author of ancient texts which are used to foment hatred, inequality, and fear around the world.

  • Dorfl

    I’ll try to write something more substantial later. Off the top of my head, the problem I see with using God as an answer is that it’s like postulating a levitating turtle, while simultaneously insisting that the world disc the turtle supports cannot itself be levitating, asserting as an axiom that ‘levitation’ is a property that can only be held by turtles and not by world discs.

    • The answer to that is that neither planets (which we can tell the age of and see forming), nor the universe itself, seems to be eternal. Both appear to have a contingent existence. And so positing that the universe we inhabit is that self-existent reality seems to be at odds with the evidence. Obviously one can posit an oscillating universe, or a multiverse, as self-existent, but the question then becomes why one should view such a reality as more like cold mechanical processes than something akin to a vibrant living entity of which we are a tiny part.

      Having said that, I look forward to hearing you elaborate your thinking on this subject more at a later point – I just thought I’d give my own short response so that you can take it into account when writing up your longer post/comment!

      • Dorfl

        Now that I’ve eaten dinner and my blood sugar is a bit higher, I’ll try to explain how I, as a physicist, think about this. I’m not sure if it’ll be at all persuasive, but I at least want to try to get across how many cosmologists think and why, even if we may not agree on whether they should think that way.

        Imagine that you’re trying to explain the concept of zero gravity to somebody for the first time. The person you’re talking to is fairly intelligent, but for some reason they’ve never encountered the concept before. You might start out by saying that things don’t fall down when there is no gravity: stuff just hangs suspended in space. They ask what’s holding things up. You explain that nothing is holding it up, as such, it’s just that there isn’t really any ‘down’ for them to fall to. They argue that this is not really an explanation: normally unsupported things fall down – if some things don’t there has to be something that actively stops them from falling. You try to clarify that while we ordinarily have a clear distinction between up and down, far out in space all directions are on an equal footing so there just is no reason for things to be pulled in one direction rather than another. They complain that this side-steps the question: what stops the usual distinction between up and down from applying in space?

        You can imagine this discussion going on for a fairly long time. The problem is not any lack of intelligence on the part of the listener. It’s that while the vastly larger part of the universe has no preferred directions that could be called ‘up’ and ‘down’, this is not true near large collections of mass – and we happen to live on one. This has shaped our intuitions into assuming that there ought to be a preferred axis in space and that anything else is an exception that must be explained – when in reality a lack of a preferred axis is the default and the presence of one here is explained by the existence of the Earth.

        Discussions of cause and effect run into more or less the same problem. For the vast majority of all the physical systems one could imagine, there is no preferred direction in time. You can pick your sign convention one way and say that event x in the past was the cause of effect y in the future. Or you can pick the opposite sign convention and say that event y in the past was the cause of effect x in the future. There is really just ‘stuff that happens’ and ‘other stuff that happens’. Assuming the system is deterministic you can derive one from the other, but the choice of what you want to consider ’cause’ and ‘effect’ is as arbitrary as how you decide to orient the axes of a coordinate system in space.

        Some systems with very particular statistical properties form an exception. For them, it becomes very natural to pick one particular direction in time to be the future and let the opposite be past. You could still do things the opposite way, but it would be like treating circular motion in Cartesian rather than polar coordinates – it would be making things more difficult for no good reason.

        The part of the universe we live in forms such a system. That’s not a coincidence: a system has to have those properties to support life. This has the side effect that our intuitions have been shaped to assume that by default effects have causes, which have causes further back, and so on. When in reality, this assumption only applies in certain parts of what does exist and a very small part of what could exist.

        Since cosmologists don’t want their thinking to be constrained by assumptions that may not apply over the span of time they need to understand, they do not tend to think in terms of ’causes’ and ‘effects’ at all. So the question of what caused the universe itself becomes much like asking what direction is down in space: the question is more likely than not based on over-extending assumptions that are only valid locally. Rather than an infinite chain of causes, we have a state at some time T1 and some equations that together allow us to in principle find the state at any arbitrary time T2.

        • I appreciate the point you are making, and am not sure that we fundamentally disagree. The universe we inhabit appears to have had a beginning, and so does not appear to have the quality of simply being self-existing. Something must, whether that be called God or the laws of physics or the multiverse or an oscillating universe. To ask of whatever has the property of simply existing, “What made it?” or “Why does it exist?” would be like asking “Which way is down?” in space. Would you agree so far?

          • Avenger

            Even if we regard time as beginning at the Big Bang and the question of a time before that as being meaningless, the universe could still have (and need) a cause. That is a possibility within cosmology itself. Lee Smolin suggests that black holes might give birth to new universes which then appear to be completely self-contained and uncaused from the point of view of any creatures inside the new universe. Of course, if the cause was something like a pre-existing universe it couldn’t be the ultimate cause.

            It seems that atheist strategy one is to deny that the universe has a cause and atheist strategy two is to admit that it may have a cause but then say the cause isn’t God.

            Also, we don’t have to think of the cause as operating only at the very beginning of the universe. The cause of the universe may need to be operating at every moment to hold the universe in existence.

          • If one views time as another dimension of space-time, something which can curve, expand, and contract along with the other dimensions, then the beginning of the universe is one point on the surface of a finite whole which is the universe. The universe is not something that exists within time – the universe includes time as a part of its dimension. Seen from this perspective – outside of time – the universe can be seen a non contingent whole.

            This may be a difficult perspective for humans, since our perceptions involve a particular arrow of time. But, like the human who has trouble perceiving of zero gravity (having only experienced earth’s gravity), our time-dependent notions of cause and effect show the limitations of our perspective.

            Physicists have been aware for some time that cause and effect ideas breakdown at the quantum level. Models of the universe at the singularity of the big bang (or in black holes) show a similar breakdown of cause and effect.

          • Dorfl

            Let’s say for the sake of argument that time does not extend indefinitely far backwards, but that it stops around the Big Bang. It’s not at all clear whether this is actually true – popular science texts tend do be a lot more confident about the issue than the cosmologists doing the underlying work – but it doesn’t matter for the point I want to make.

            I think expressing that as “the universe had a beginning” very much reflects that local view I was talking about. It carries with it connotations that this beginning somehow uniquely explains the following history of the universe – when what we know about physics implies that it would be just as true to say “the Big Bang happened because of the state of the universe 14:30 am, the 3rd of October 1979”.

            I’d much rather express it as “the universe has a boundary”. That preserves the idea that there is a region of the universe that’s very interesting, while dropping the potentially misleading connotations. It encourages you to see the universe as a shape, rather than as a chain of discrete causes.

            I’ll have to think about this particular point more, but: I’m not sure if the language of ‘contingent’, ‘self-existent’ and so on is at all useful for discussing this sort of thing. It seems to carry with it assumptions of directionality that are only valid in this region of time, as well as assuming a freedom to change one thing while keeping others equal that I think is only valid when you’re working within a limited region of space.

        • Thank you – a really excellent explanation. The direction of time in our experience of the universe is analogous to the direction of gravity. A local effect – not a universal principle.

          • Dorfl

            I actually stole that analogy from Sean Carroll, but thanks 🙂

          • I am aware of Hawking’s no-boundary proposal, which is what I understand you to be proposing here (please correct me if I am mistaken). But it is my understand that, even if one adopts that view as providing a comprehensive scientific account of the universe (and I believe that is still debated – again, please correct me if I am mistaken), the existence of such a universe is not self-explanatory. It may be that it will become clear that the universe we observe is the best or perhaps the only point at which it makes sense to say “this simply exists, and while that is puzzling, there is no need to posit something else on which its existence depends.” But there are other points of view within the scientific community which believe that at least one step more is required – such as for instance Laurence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing which offers an account of how a universe like ours can come into existence without positing a Creator – if certain laws of physics and quantum phenomena already exist.

            But at any rate, my point is not about the point at which it ceases to be meaningful to ask scientific questions, since I don’t think that this sort of inquiry is limited to the domain of science. One can offer a scientific account of a piece of music, in terms of frequencies of vibrations and resonances. And it will be perfectly adequate in its domain. But there will be a range of other possible perspectives which do not contradict that scientific perspective but nonetheless offer complementary useful perspectives, such as the intentions of the composer and the impact on the listener.

          • There is nothing in the way of proposing a “composer” of any sort of universe, I suppose. But Dorfl’s point about time, I think, gets at the primary argument of the blog post.

            If our experience of time is a local experience of a property that is a part of the fabric of space-time, the question of infinite regress becomes about as useful as asking “since everything falls down, what holds up the earth”. That, I think, is the real point of the turtle story.

          • But isn’t that alternative which is being offered precisely the kind of thing that the “levitating turtle” alternative in the analogy symbolizes? Something that posits a reason why it is appropriate to stop seeking further causes at a particular point?

          • Well, no, because the “levitating turtle” misses the point of the “turtles all the way down” story in the first place. The problem of infinite regress (whether of gravity or time) is a problem of perspective – not a problem that requires a solution as ridiculous as piling up infinite turtles (or levitating them).

            In other words the point of asking how many turtles down are required to hold up the earth is not to find an answer (like levitating turtles). The point is that it’s a silly question to ask.

          • This post is excellent, by the way, James – a great prompt for discussion. When I said, yesterday, that “it’s a silly question to ask”, I wasn’t talking about your post – I was talking about the idea behind the original anecdote. (In retrospect – it looks like I was trying to introduce a conversation stopper!)

          • Dorfl

            I’m not really referring to the no-boundary proposal specifically. My basic point is really about statistical mechanics, so it’s actually something that was implicit in our understanding of physics in the late 19th century, even if it took a very long time for people to begin spelling it out explicitly. Even if we had been entirely unaware of the Big Bang, essentially the same argument as I made earlier could still be made replacing ‘Big Bang’ with ‘the state of much lower entropy that we infer must have existed at some prior point to now’.

            What I’m trying to say is that our common sense idea of ’cause and effect’ does not seem* to apply any more once we look at reality at the most fundamental level we know about. Once we take that into account, what it means for something to be an ‘explanation’ begins to look very different from what we’re used to. Most cosmological arguments for God seem to rely on assuming that our everyday idea of explanation still applies.

            On a side note about the domain of science: I was involved in a pretty long discussion about this on the Slacktivist’s blog a little while ago. The short version is that since I’m a native Swedish speaker while you’re (as far as I know) a native English speaker, we almost certainly have very different ideas of how ‘science’ should be demarcated.

            * It’s possible that it will be recovered with an even deeper
            understanding of physics, but at the moment I don’t see any reason to expect that to happen. We understand how the concept emerges in higher-level descriptions of certain parts of the universe, and by extension why it seems to wired into how the human brain intuitively understands the world.

          • OK, if one is content to say that, once one begins investigating questions like the earliest detectable or deducible state of our universe and beyond, even notions like “cause and effect” break down, is that not still at least compatible with the view – if not indeed in agreement with it – that the reality upon which our universe depends for its existence is beyond anything that we have conceived and perhaps beyond anything that we can conceive?

            Do note that I am not attempting to suggest, in any way, shape, or form, that “science proves God.” What I am suggesting is that the sophisticated notions of God that one finds in many philosophical traditions is not incompatible with the findings of science, much less “nonsensical” from that perspective, despite what one sometimes hears.

          • Dorfl

            The breakdown of cause and effect doesn’t actually require us to go back to the conditions at the Big Bang, or anything as dramatic as that. Essentially, taking any situation and switching from a coarse-grained description to a very fine-grained one is enough for that breakdown to happen.

            To see why, imagine an egg rolling off a tabletop and smashing against the ground. In this picture it’s very clear that the smash against the ground it caused by the egg rolling off the tabletop. Now imagine that we make our description of the situation as detailed as is at all possible. Instead of saying “rolling egg on tabletop” we say “Molecule 1 has the following position and momentum…” listing every single particle participating in the process. Once we do that, we will find that it makes no particular difference from which direction through time we choose to look at the process. We can take the rolling egg and predict how gravity will overpower electrostatic repulsion and pull the egg towards the ground, and then how the sudden increase in electrostatic forces will sever molecular bonds in the egg shell, sending shards and yolk in all directions. We can just as easily flip the time axis and predict how thermal fluctuations in the ground and the air will suddenly focus on the mess and suddenly fling it into an ovoid region of space, where molecular bonds will form an egg-shaped shell and the whole thing will be flung up onto the table.

            The problem is that this description of the process, no matter how correct it is, is very computationally intensive. It literally requires us to know the state of everything that participates in the process, including that air molecule in Ulan Baatar which was slightly jolted by some of the kinetic energy released. As soon as you want to use a less detailed description of what happens, you’re forced to see one direction through time as ‘future’ and the other as ‘past’. This is also what gives you ’causes’ and ‘effects’. Since a human brain cannot reasonably model its surroundings on the atomic level, this is also why we are wired to think in terms of cause and effect.

            Now, even on a large scale cause and effect will break down in this way sufficiently far into the future (or the ‘not-Big Bang direction of time’ at least). It may very possibly break down at the Big Bang as well. That’s not really the important thing though. The important thing is that cause and effect does not seem to be a fundamental part of how reality works. That means we’re probably wrong in discussing infinite regresses of causes, first causes and so on, at all.

            To answer your question, I think that the concept of a “reality upon which our universe depends” is very questionable. I mean, it’s very hard to switch off our tendency to think in causes and effects – it’s pretty much hardwired into how our intuitions work. The idea of that sort of reality sounds very much like it’s invented to satisfy our intuitive craving for something like a first cause, even after we’ve explicitly dropped the idea. Much like you could easily imagine the person trying the understand zero gravity being left with a feeling that there must still be some kind of down-ness in space, even if it would be different from the usual sort of down.

          • I wonder if you are not assuming that physics is the only perspective on reality that matters. While there may be no evidence of the “arrow of time” at certain levels, such as the subatomic, at the macro level there clearly is – whether in terms of the breaking of an egg, or our remembering the past but not the future. There may be levels of reality at which temporality is not part of the picture – but that too is something that many theistic philosophies have also maintained. And so I am not sure whether focusing only on one particular level of physics renders the question moot – surely that risks simply the reverse problem, rather like suggesting that, since far from large masses there is no perceptible gravity, therefore there is no real “downness” for those living on a planet’s surface?

          • Dorfl

            My point* is that cause and effect is an emergent property with a limited domain of applicability, and that the boundary of that domain is fairly well known. This means that when someone asks what the cause of the Universe is, my answer would be “Unless you have access to some information about the relevant statistical mechanics that I don’t, I have no reason to think that’s a thing.”

            Also – and this is a thing I should have made clearer earlier – the time evolution of any system seems to be fundamentally smooth, with discrete events also arising within more coarse-grained descriptions. This is the reason cosmologists tend not to worry about infinite causal chains.

            * I admit that with the discussion having stretched over four days, I had to go back and check what my original point actually was 😉

          • Thanks for your reply. I won’t stretch the discussion out any further! 🙂

          • Dorfl

            Yeah, we should probably move on. I have to say I enjoyed our talk, even if we probably haven’t changed each others’ minds on much 🙂

          • I enjoyed it too!

  • James, great post! There’s an essential commonality between theism and atheism, at least when it comes to questions of the origin of all. It’s all about a quest for the Grand Unified Theory. And you’re right: there’s an arbitrary quality to whether we refer to the levitating turtle as “God” or as a property of the universe. If my cosmology requires a god that I cannot see or adequately understand, and someone else’s cosmology requires the existence of hundreds of millions of other universes I cannot see or adequately understand … then we’re dealing with cosmologies that both require an equivalent leap of faith.

    • Multiverse theory does not require a leap of faith. Physicists don’t have “faith” in a multiverse the way Christians (for example) have faith in God. A multiverse is simply a theoretical model – one that seeks to explain the universe, but which is dependent on observation and experimentation.

      • Beau, at the moment, I think even the most optimistic and gung-ho scientists would say that the multiverse is at most an intriguing theory that might possibly be supported to a certain extent by recent scientific evidence. There appears to be some dispute in the scientific community over whether this evidence truly supports the existence of a multiverse, and whether the existence of a multiverse can ever be proven. In this, the multiverse may be like string theory, which is also said to be unprovable. A scientific model that cannot be proven resembles a faith proposition.

        This is not a slam on the scientists. The fact is, we’re discussing matters concerning the very large, the very old and the very small that defy the human capacity for observation and explanation. Even if we focus on the two greatest achievements of 20th century science, the discovery of quantum mechanics and the theories of relativity, we must note that these two theories are mutually inconsistent. They cannot both be true. The effort to promulgate a Grand Unified Theory that might reconcile them both has so far failed us. Yet the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity are the most successful scientific theories in human history. We live, then, in a universe that appears to us riddled by a fundamental contradiction. Our existence in this universe also requires something like a leap of faith, that this contradiction can be resolved and that the universe is structured with sufficient order and logical consistency so as to hold up to scientific observation and experimentation, in a way that will produce the kinds of explanation that will satisfy us.

        • I completely agree that the multiverse is little more than an intriguing theory at this point in time – that was my point. Scientists see it as a model – not as something that requires faith.

          Some have proposed that multiverses and string theory are “unprovable”, but most theoretical physicists involved in these ideas are actively seeking ways that they might be demonstrated through experiment or observation – if not today, perhaps when scientific technology has caught up. There are many examples of scientific theories whose evidential confirmation becomes possible long after the theory is first proposed.

          The scientifc pursuit of theory and evidence works. We see the benefits around us in the computers we blog on and the gps satellites that give us directions. Are there unanswered questions – of course! But we pursue science because it yields tangible results, not because we are taking a “leap of faith”.

          • Beau, I think we are in fundamental agreement on the state of science, and our disagreement is on its meaning and purpose. To say that science “works” because we have cool technology is, I think, a shortcut kind of argument that obscures what we’re both most interested in. Could I say that religion “works” because it successfully inspires people to give more to charity on average than do people who are not religious? The fact that religion and science can both be linked to things that “work” is not the same thing as saying that there is truth or meaning in either activity.

            The idea that science proceeds through experiment and observation is an oversimplification, one I think that is commonly recognized as such by philosophers and historians of science. As Thomas Kuhn and others have shown, science is built on fundamental paradigms (and paradigm shifts). These paradigms are not themselves provable, but our choice of paradigm does seem to influence (perhaps even determine) what we CAN prove scientifically. Others have pointed out the importance in science of insight, creative genius and social/interpersonal dynamics. Science is a very human endeavor.

            I need to get some sleep and come back tomorrow to better absorb your comments and others made here. This is a fascinating discussion! But in short: I’m not trying to mush together the kind of faith required to do science and religion. I get that there are differences. I’m only trying to point out the similarities. Particularly when we’re talking about the realms of the very large and the very small (in terms of time and/or space), the work of the scientists and theologians starts to share a quality that can only be described as mystical.

          • I do understand that technology is a “shortcut” example to the point that science yields results, but the point remains. Scientists look for experimental and observational results that confirm models of the universe (or parts of the universe) that have progressively more explanatory power.

            The fundamental paradigms under which scientists work are those that conform best to observation; they can shift – you are right – for example scientists used to operate under the assumption that time is fixed and immutable until Einstein demonstrated that time is a bending, shifting dimension of space-time. Th paradigms under which science operates are simple in nature and comparing them to religious belief systems seems quite a stretch to me.

            I suppose one might compare the wonder of scientific discovery to the wonder people feel with some religious experiences. But this analogy has limits.

          • Scientific paradigms are simple? Tell that to the legion of scientists who were unable to adjust to the Einsteinian paradigm shift you described above. Simplicity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder!

            Oh, and by the way, what happens to the scientific method of observation, experimentation and modeling if (as discussed in these comments) effects can precede causes, and there is no constant arrow of time?

            I’m not trying to conflate religion and science. I am trying to suggest that they are both very human endeavors, and as such share much in common. The fundamentalist idea that the content of religion is timeless and purely God-driven is just as silly as the idea that the content of science proceeds gradually and mechanistically out of a method.

          • That “simplicity is in the eye of the beholder” is a good point to make – touche. But to equate scientific paradigms with religious belief systems is still a category confusion.

            If you’d like to see what happens to the scientific method when there is no constant arrow of time, look (for example) at quantum mechanics, and cosmological studies of singularities. The double slit experiment is an excellent example.

    • Avenger

      It’s interesting to compare the multiverse with evolution. The point about Darwin’s theory is that it explains how the tiny minority of viable genomes are selected from all the possible genomes. According to the multiverse theory, life-bearing universes aren’t selected from all the possible universes; rather, all possible universes exist, out of which a tiny few are able to support life. The life-bearing universes are selected only in the sense that these are the ones that can be observed by living creatures. This seems more like metaphysics than science.

    • Guest

      But God as expressed in classical theism can be heard and known through personal experience. I think we need to get out of this whole deistic thinking where we place God only in heaven, without interaction to his creatures, when the Bible says otherwise. The cosmological argument points us to at least one unembodied personal entity.

  • Ian

    given that even the universe seems to not have existed forever, that which necessarily exists must be something beyond the universe

    The universe has existed forever. Or, more specifically, there was no time when the universe did not exist.

    There is nothing beyond the universe, by definition.

    Cosmologists can sometimes be linguistically imprecise in dealing with the implications of models they hypothesize. They might use phrases like “beyond the universe”, but they are attempts to explain the model in ways that a layperson might understand. But then taking those imprecisions and running with them as if they are philosophical claims seems very dubious to me.

    something greater still and more transcendent.

    Just begs the question. Even if the “cause of time” had any claims to coherency as a concept, the idea that such a cause must be “great” or “transcendent” is just silly, surely. It is just the creationist argument of “anything capable of creating intelligence must be more intelligent than its creation” with less falsifiability.

    • I don’t think that the attempt to settle the matter by linguistics is persuasive. One could just as easily say that an atom is by definition the smallest object and indivisible, but if it turns out to be possible to split one, then you choices are either to leave the name despite it being less apt, or to change it. But it does not retain its quality of being ‘indivisible by definition.’

      • Ian

        I think you missed the point, with respect. You *are* trying to address the issue with linguistics. There are patterns of language that create questions (“what causes, what came before, what is beyond”), which in this case simply are meaningless.

        The universe doesn’t have a ‘beginning’ in the sense you are thinking about it. It is true that the mathematics of relativistic time breaks down at a certain point, leading to particular physical conditions which, if relativity is still valid, could not be said to have any concept of time. So we can informally talk about that as a “beginning”, but it isn’t a beginning in the sense of being able to ask what came “before”.

        The huge industry in popular cosmology props up this kind of narrative speculation. You can read a whole chapter about the Twin Paradox without ever seeing a Lorentz transform. So you can end up with the false idea that what cosmologists do is a form of philosophy.

        ‘Multiple universes’, in the cosmological sense doesn’t mean an infinite regress of turtles. Daughter, parent, multiple universes are ways of expressing mathematical models of relativity around singularities: the models are meaningless without the assumption that the whole system uses the same underlying physics. Whatever is “beyond” the universe, is just more universe. Not “greater” or “transcendence”. Just inobservable due to relativistic or quantum constraints. The math doesn’t let you hide a transcendent reality there. Only the linguistic trick of forming meaningless questions lets you do that.

        To take the way a physicist interprets equations narratively for communication with laypeople, and use the narrative to argue your philosophy in ways that don’t take into account the underlying models is a recipe for nonsense.

        • Well, in talking about a “beginning” I am using a particular convenient temporal image. In classic theism and other similar systems of thought, the beginning of the cosmos is thought to be the beginning of time itself, and so is not really being addressed by your point about the relevant physics – indeed, that point seems to match up strikingly well with historic theistic discourse!

          • Ian

            I’m not sure what you’re saying then. If you’re saying that talking about a “beginning” is just an image, and isn’t supposed to be tied to any physical reality, then why are you referring to physical discoveries in your analogy. That’s circular, isn’t it?

            The point is that, in terms of what we know about the universe, the cosmos had no beginning. So if you want to base something on the “image” of such a beginning, it is scientifically naive.

            That portions of the cosmos are bounded in either space or time from other bits of the cosmos is true, just as America is bounded in space or time, or you and I are. But in talking about a transcendent greater reality beyond the universe, you seemed to be making a different point.

          • You seem to be making analogies, as am I, when you compare the cosmos to America. If we are going to not merely do equations but talk about things that defy description and imagination, then analogies and symbols are going to have to be part of it. Here too physics and theology seem to me to be very similar. 🙂

          • Ian

            You seemed to be suggesting that the fact that the universe has a beginning means it is reasonable to assume that what is beyond the universe is greater and more transcendent.

            Was that not what you were trying to do?

          • Well, I may well have used such language. But the historic focus is less on the universe having a point in time, and more on the universe’s apparent contingence. It does not appear to be the sort of thing which simply exists, whose existence is necessary and thus a natural stopping point for inquiry.

          • Ian

            How do you think the universe would appear if it were the sort of thing which simply exists? What qualities of a simply existing things have you identified that the universe lacks, and on what grounds did you identify them as such?

            It all sounds like obvious wishful thinking to me.

          • Well, given its suitability for life, then I might well expect it to show signs of being infinite either temporally or spatially, in order for that aspect to not seem astoundingly improbable.

            Do you think the universe looks like the sort of thing the existence of which could be considered self-explanatory? Obviously this may be the kind of thing that a human being can never hope to judge properly. But then that too is a significant conclusion in support of agnosticism, I think.

          • Ian

            Why do you think the universe (in the larger sense we’ve been discussing) is not infinite temporally or spatially?

            Do you think the universe looks like the sort of thing the existence of which could be considered self-explanatory?

            I’m not convinced that

            a) being ‘explanatory’ is a predicate that stuff might or might not have, but even if it were

            b) that the concept of being self-explanatory is coherent (if the entire cosmos is not exempt from asking explanatory questions of, I’ve no idea why anything should be, for example, regardless of the number or dimension of its infinitude), and even if it were

            c) that self-explanation is a reasonable conclusion based on something being not ‘explanatory’ (as opposed to it being arbitrary, for example), and even if it were

            d) that we would have any reasonable basis for differentiating the self-explanatory from the ‘explanatory-yet-unexplained’.

            And, even if we could, given our proven cognitive biases, it seems overwhelmingly likely that such an activity would be ripe for wishful thinking and post-hoc rationalisation.

            After such a long chain of assumptions, for someone to ‘speculate’ their way to a position which just happens to allow them to justify their participation in the religious culture of their motherland, seems so astronomically unlikely to have anything to do with actual seeking of reality, to me. I’m (genuinely) sorry to say.

          • I know that the jury is still out as far as physics is concerned. But it seems to me that, when we consider the fact that most physicists seem to think that the universe requires a “larger” explanatory framework, whether in terms of a multiverse or an oscillating universe or a set of previously existing physical laws or quantum phenomena or something else, is an indication that physicists conclude that the universe points beyond itself on the level at which they study it. Again, I might be wrong, but that is my perception of the field as an outsider.

          • Ian

            Hmm, I’m not sure why that is an answer to why you think the universe is not infinite spatially or temporally. It seemed an odd thing to fixate on, whether something is infinite or not, to determine if there is something outside or beyond it, or whether it needs explanation.

            Again, it is important to keep clear that ‘beyond the universe’ in the sense of multiverses, prior oscillations, daughter universes, singularities, and so on is a shorthand for ‘things our models might imply about the physics of the universe beyond the limits of information propagation and (hypothetically) its discontinuities’ (hypothetically because the latter are inferred from discontinuities in the equations).

            It doesn’t require a “larger” explanatory framework in the sense of requiring a self-explanatory transcendent reality. How is that different from a God-of-the-Gaps argument?

            We’re in danger of going back over the same ground, I guess. Here’s another question. I’m not saying this is a direct analogy, but I’m curious about your intuitions. Do you think the natural numbers (1, 2, 3 … etc) are self-explanatory, or do they require explanation? Are the existence and relationship of the natural numbers to one another the kind of thing that a greater transcendent reality might explain?

          • Hi Ian (and thank you again for the gift). Sorry for taking so long to reply. I think that there is a fundamental difference between a God of the gaps and a God of the boundaries. Insisting that God play a role in chemistry or biology is clearly asking to have their gap filled. On the other hand, physics and cosmology seem to border on metaphysics and philosophy – questions like why something exists rather than nothing. I presume this is why biologists rightly get annoyed when one of their peers tries to introduce talk of God into their field, while many physicists sometimes find talk of God appropriate, not referring to a theistic God, but nevertheless articulating the sense that what they do intersects with or borders on a realm that makes such a term appropriate.

            I don’t know how to talk about numbers in abstraction from the number systems that we use, in which there are sometimes interesting properties (e.g. the fact that all numbers that are used in referring to multiples of 9 in our base 10 system can be added together to give 9 as a result) which might seem “designed” but which are part of the nature of the numbers themselves.

            A number of physicists have had pantheistic leanings, and I’ve said before that I am at least a pantheist. If what is eternal, self-existing, and brought all that we know into existence is our universe, I can live with that. The awe that inspires won’t make God-talk seem any less appropriate. But the impression I’ve gotten from most physicists and cosmologists – when they are talking about their work in prose rather than doing calculus – is that they don’t have the impression that the universe has all of those features. And if it doesn’t – and I realize that is a big if – then it doesn’t seem to me inappropriate to posit that it is part of something that pre-existed it or in some other way transcends it and which gave rise to its existence.

            What that transcendent reality is, I’m not sure we can say, even if we think our universe points to its existence. My point all along was to note that, while that reality may show no signs of being the friendly theistic God with whom Evangelicals like to imagine themselves sharing a cup of coffee, it does seem to have attributes that are not unlike what “God” has often meant in philosophy and in systems like Deism.

            It may be that I’ve come across as though I think that one can “prove the existence of God using physics” or something of that sort. That really was most definitely not what I meant. My point was rather than the kind of God-talk that philosophers and physicists have found useful doesn’t seem to be excluded by the current state of our knowledge about the universe, and seems at the very least to be compatible with it even if not required by it.

  • Ian

    But please don’t complain when some of us refer to that reality as “God.”

    The complaint, such as it is, is that calling such a reality “God” is highly confusing. One can reasonably expect most hearers of the word “God” to understand something else; you have chosen the word “God” in order to belong to a community of people, to participate in a mythology, not for linguistic reasons. That one can find justification for calling this idea “God” is post-hoc rationalisation, that is the criticism, I think.

    • I wonder what evidence you would offer for this viewpoint. As far back as there are discussions of philosophy along these lines, is it not the term God, or its equivalent in other languages long before English existed, that is used in these contexts?

      • Ian

        There have always been people who have sought to conform their beliefs to the language of the prevailing religious culture so that they can gain the benefits of being in community.

        Like them, you’re not just using God as an arbitrary noun. You are sitting on the dais of a Baptist Church leading a congregation in songs about the character of this God and asking this God to act in particular ways towards you and your community. You aren’t calling this idea “God”, but “Yahweh”. You are deliberately confusing your ‘God’ with a particular supernatural being, so that you can be in community with people who worship that being.

        Like many others, I imagine your religious community is mostly concerned with linguistic and political conformance. If you roughly align to its political aspirations (mutual support, provision for the needy, certain kinds of freedoms) and you use the right words (“God, Jesus, Scripture, Temptation”) then you have access to the community. Were you to change the words you use (“Allah, Gabriel, Hadith, Jihad”), you would find it very difficult to access that community, even though your beliefs would be no different.

        I’ve no doubt there have always been people who have conformed in this way. I finding it deeply tempting myself. But it isn’t beyond criticism.

        • I would say, rather, that I am someone who appreciates the way a community and its language has led me to connect with both the transcendent and human history as well as with other human beings in the present day. We often use the same language in different ways as children and as adults, and some people sometimes struggle to adjust to maturity and the different perspectives it requires. But I’m not sure that this means that (for instance) one must either jettison the references to monsters in stories for children, or jettison the use of that term in a very different way to refer to people in adult life.

          Having said that, I am aware of and very sensitive to the points you make. But ultimately, as I’ve said before, trying to simply invent completely new terminology not only loses the resonances and depth of the symbols we already have, but also would close a route by which people otherwise can progress from childish through adolescent to mature ways of thinking about big questions.

          • Ian

            We have talked about this before, and we’ve found ourselves before to be far closer in reality than the early stages of these discussions seem to signify!

            All good points you make.

            One question I was hounded by as a worship leader who’d lost my theistic faith, presenting material that was deeply theistic in content: do you think many of your congregants would feel deceived to know you think of Christian doctrine as mythological (or if that is too pejorative, that you are not a theist), and does it matter what those you minister to think you believe?

          • That’s really interesting, Ian. Are you still a non theist worship leader?

          • Ian

            No Beau. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being disingenuous.

            The tension over language and the tension over politics were too much for me. Though it hurt to leave the community, the price I was paying in my perception of my own integrity was too much.

            Edit: Hence my comment to James at the start of this comment thread. I do think there is a valid criticism of using theistic language metaphorically in a context where many do not use it that way. Not the worst sin in the world, IMHO, but neither is it without blame.

          • Since I teach Sunday school, and blog, there is ample opportunity for people to find out what I think. There are one or two people whose conservative outlook I am aware of, and who are aware of mine, and so it isn’t like there is any concealment even there, but I do try to avoid unnecessary controversies by avoiding unnecessary conversations. But since that person is a Facebook friend, and my blog posts all go to Facebook, it is impressive restraint on his part that he doesn’t comment unfavorably on my posts! 🙂

  • John MacDonald

    If we trace the origin of the universe back to the big bang, the question arises as to how the material that made up the big bang got there in the first place? Without positing God as an uncaused first cause, the explanation for the origin of the universe keeps getting pushed back forever and ever with further and further questions. The infinite regress of the atheistic explanation of the universe is an offense to reason.

    • Ian

      I don’t understand :

      – If we posit a supernatural being who has always existed and who created the universe, this is reasonable.

      – If we posit that the observable universe is just part of a universe that has always existed, this is an offense to reason?

      I suspect, like James, you don’t understand what scientists think the Big Bang is.

  • Another matter that the cosmological argument fails to take into account is that the cause-and-effect we experience always involves two types of causes: an efficient cause and a material cause.

    For a scuplture, the efficient cause might be seen as the sculptor, but the material cause is the block of marble – you can’t have the sculpture without having both a sculptor and the material he works with. For the birth of a star, the efficient cause might be seen as gravitational collapse, while the material cause is the cloud of hydrogen and other atoms that form the star. You can’t have a star without both gravity and the material that experiences gravitational collapse.

    Cosmological arguments appropriate cause-and-effect theory to posit an efficient cause (God), but conveniently ignore the equally necessary requirement of a material cause.

    However the same modern physics that supports the Big Bang, also shows that cause-and-effect physical ideas are dependent on an arrow of time that is local, not universal. One place in particular where cause-and-effect breaks down is at the quantum atomic level, and in singularities such as black holes and the Big Bang.

  • Gary

    My relative frame of reference for my universe… A certain sperm and egg happened to unite about 66 years ago, in what I call my Big Bang. Time began, and energy and matter coalesced to form me (and my universe). Pretty soon, I’ll hit my Big Freeze. Zero energy, zero entropy. All energy and molecules that once made me, distributed equally throughout the other infinite multiverses. Time for me, didn’t exist before my Big Bang, or after my Big Freeze. Anything outside my boundary conditions are just math models, that are interesting, but whether they have any relationship to my reality, are purely coincidental, but fun to speculate about. It would be nice to attribute the laws of physics to a God. But I have to side with Bart Ehrman regarding God. The creation of the universe and a God, would be much more enjoyable to speculate about, if only suffering could be justified with the same Big Kahuna.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Has no one used this quote yet? As a certain Doctor put it, “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.”

  • MattB

    There seems to be a funny ontological misunderstanding here.

  • James,

    You were wondering if there is something transcendent lying outside the contingent universe … I think this New Yorker cartoon may have the answer for you: