Friday, April 19, 2013

Getting from First Cause to God

I have this series, "A few things wrong with the cosmological argument", but have ignored it for over six months.  I think that means this should be the last post, even if I didn't have the opportunity to point out every last problem in the cosmological argument.

In previous posts, I discussed lots of little problems in the cosmological argument as presented by William Lane Craig (henceforth WLC).  It's mostly lots of nitpicking of little problems that maybe could have killed the cosmological argument if it weren't already killed by much bigger problems.  But here I will discuss what many people consider to be the biggest problem of all: How do you connect the "First Cause" to God?

This is a major problem with most philosophical arguments for God.  They argue for some ultimate entity, and then just take it for granted that it's God.  And since this argument is typically made by Christian apologists, it's not just any god, it's the Christian God.*  The argument feels like it's relying on the cultural dominance of Christianity.  As soon as someone talks about a powerful entity, God seems like an obvious possibility, only because everyone talks about it so much.  My boyfriend says that because he's played too many fantasy games, his gut feeling is that an epic-level wizard is more likely.

*To be fair, apologists usually supplement their philosophical arguments with historical arguments.

Chris Hallquist made the interesting claim that it wasn't always this way.  Classical theologians used to have arguments for specific traits of God.  Nowadays, people like WLC will only devote a minimal amount of space to the subject, and what's there doesn't make much sense.

I will only briefly address WLC's argument, as presented in his Kalam article:
I think that it can be plausibly argued that the cause of the universe must be a personal Creator. For how else could a temporal effect arise from an eternal cause? If the cause were simply a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions existing from eternity, then why would not the effect also exist from eternity? For example, if the cause of water's being frozen is the temperature's being below zero degrees, then if the temperature were below zero degrees from eternity, then any water present would be frozen from eternity. The only way to have an eternal cause but a temporal effect would seem to be if the cause is a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time. For example, a man sitting from eternity may will to stand up; hence, a temporal effect may arise from an eternally existing agent.
I basically disagree with everything:
  • I don't think it's strange for a temporal event to arise from some entity that does not have a beginning.  For instance, if that entity consists of two non-interacting particles moving past one another, then this is an eternal entity that has a special point in time (ie the moment of closest approach).  It's also completely mechanistic.
  • Perhaps the problem with the two-particle example is that WLC thinks the first cause must be timeless.  I don't think this follows from the Kalam Cosmological argument, which only shows that there is an entity that did not begin.  "Eternal" is not the same as "timeless".
  • WLC seems to be imagining "personal agents" as agents with libertarian free will.  (This is odd because in other contexts, Christians appear to believe in compatibilist free will.)  I don't agree that libertarian free will is even a sensible concept.  All personal agents we know of are mechanistic.
  • A timeless libertarian agent is even less sensible.  Usually, a libertarian agent is one who may make decisions independent of prior circumstance.  When there is no time, there is no prior circumstance.
Really, there are so many assumptions in WLC's argument, that I have to step back a bit and question more fundamental assumptions.

The whole Kalam cosmological argument rests on an analogy between objects within the universe, which all require causes, and the universe itself.  If the cause of the universe is so dissimilar to the causes of objects within the universe, one wonders why we accepted the whole analogy in the first place!  Therefore, we should ask what causes look like normally.

Causality is a many-faced concept which I've mused about in another blog series.  For example, there's the clinical concept of causation--if you tell a bunch of people to start smoking, they will be more likely to get cancer than a similar group that you told not to smoke, thus smoking causes cancer.  But if we're making philosophical arguments about causation, we might need a more general notion of causation, like from physics.  Here are the key points:
  • Every event is caused by all events in its past light-cone.  Without the universe, there will be no light-cones, but it still makes sense that everything is caused by a multiplicity of previous things.
  • In another sense, events are "caused" by general physical laws which connect past to future.  Therefore, we might expect that among the universe's causes are abstract principles, or other things that aren't really "things".
So if I were to guess the universe's cause, I'd guess that it was a multiplicity of things, including a few things that aren't really "things".  I would not have guessed that it was a single conscious entity.  I certainly would not have guessed something so outlandish as a timeless libertarian agent.

1. Actual and potential infinities
2. Actual infinities in physics
3. What is real?
4. The "absurdity" of Hilbert's Hotel
5. Interlude: God is infinite
6. Forming Infinity, one by one
7. Uncertain beginnings
8. Entropy: The unsolved problem
9. Kalam as an inductive argument 
10. Getting from First Cause to God