The God Debates #2: Theology Beyond the World

The God Debates #2: Theology Beyond the World

Part 2 of a discussion and critique of John R. Shook’s The God Debates

Ian Kluge

Behind the logical plausibility of God lies another argument Shook dismisses in The God Debates, namely, the “Theology beyond the World”(3) which argues that “god is the necessary condition for the universe, for its order, and for its intelligibility.”(4) He recognizes that this assertion appeals to the principle of sufficient reason which he takes seriously — except, of course, in this case. He calls this “the argument from pseudo-cosmology.”(5) (“Pseudo” is a word Shook uses frequently for viewpoints he objects to.)

Here is how he sets up the argument.

  1. Everything that exists requires an explanation for its existence [a rough statement of the principle of sufficient reason, PSR]
  2. Nature (a collective label for all natural things) exists, so an explanation is required.
  3. Nothing natural can serve as an explanation for nature, since a proposed natural thing would just count as more nature.
  4. Only something supernatural could serve as an explanation for nature.
  5. It is more reasonable to accept a proposed explanation than to leave something unexplained.

Conclusion. Something supernatural exists to explain nature.(6)

Shook accepts premise #1, the PSR, and then extrapolates that since natural things require a sufficient cause, so must super-natural things. This is a logical category mistake, i.e. treating one kind of thing as if it were another kind of thing. We don’t confuse telephones and the meaning of the conversations held on them. The “child’s question, ‘Who made God’”(7) is a child’s question precisely because it is an elementary category mistake.

The whole point of religion is that God, the Absolute, the Ground of Being — whatever — is not subject to natural limitations such as time, space, and mass simply because He/It is the pre-condition for time, space, and mass etc to exist. That is why He belongs to a different category than ordinary contingent beings. Children usually don’t get this — but adults should.

Shook’s conclusion shows him skating around the logical force of premise #3. Premise #3 claims that even in principle, nature, matter, the physical world does not explain itself. Any attempt to explain the existence of nature by means of nature ends with an infinite regress — a sign that our reasoning is off. In other words, any attempt to explain nature in strictly natural terms fails to satisfy the PSR.

If we try to identify a natural event that caused it all, we need simply ask what natural event caused that and so on ad infinitum. Since it is a natural event and not a ‘super-natural’ event, it requires a natural cause. Obviously, there cannot be an infinite line of events any more than there can be an infinite line of particular things. Every causal act and every individual entity can always be counted. No matter how many, they have a definite number — which infinity does not. You cannot have an indefinite, i.e. infinite number of things or events. If there are individual events and/or things, we need a starting point or as Aristotle put it, a first mover, i.e. God (which does not, of course, necessarily mean a “personal” God.) This is one among the many reasons why nature cannot explain nature.

Second, how could a cause (A) ever work its way through (a supposed) infinity of individual causes to have a particular effect at a future moment? It cannot get to the future — and, therefore, cannot be a cause. The distance between it and that future moment is infinite. We hasten to add that this is not a misuse of Zeno’s paradox because the space through which Zeno’s arrow travels is not made of real individual points. They are only imagined. However, the causal events in a supposedly infinite causal sequence are indeed made up of individual events which must be traversed one at a time. Thus, we know there can be no infinite line of causal events leading to the Big Bang.

However, if such a line is impossible, then there must be a limit, i.e. a first cause – or “God”, if you prefer, to initiate the sequence.

The strictly naturalist explanation of the existence of nature fails the PSR, which states that every thing-event requires an explanation for its existence and why it exists the way it does and not in some other way. There are reasons why running shoes exist and why they are the way they are. As we have seen, Shook’s naturalist explanation does not explain the existence of nature, let alone why nature is the way it is. No matter how much mathematics we bring to bear to our explanations, sooner or later we will bring up the PSR to the singularity, the branes, the quantum vacuum (which turns out to be not so empty) and so on.

The bottom line is that, in principle, no physical explanation for the existence of the universe can ultimately satisfy the PSR. It’s time for science to stop playing Don Quixote with the cosmic windmills.

The upshot of all this is that if nature cannot explain the origin of nature, then the possibility of some kind of non-natural origin of nature must be considered. It is not a matter of shoe-horning in a silly premise like #5 and its conclusion as Shook does in his parody of a theist argument, but rather a matter of recognizing that if nature cannot explain nature, we have no choice but to look at non-natural (i.e. super-natural) alternatives. This does not prove that a personal God exists but it does make it rationally necessary to consider super-natural origins of nature.

Next time: Fine-tuning God

============= References ==============

3 John R Shook, The God Debates, p. 153.

4 John R Shook, The God Debates, p. 153.

5 John R Shook, The God Debates, p. 153.

6 John R Shook, The God Debates, p. 134.

7 John R Shook, The God Debates, p. 134.

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4 thoughts on “The God Debates #2: Theology Beyond the World

  1. I agree with the logic, the problem is we’re talking about a rather illogical subject. As you probably know, the closer we get to the beginning of the big bang (the singularity) the more our equations break down. The point is that cause and effect no longer seem to work, which renders point #1 questionable.

    The other thing is we’re talking about a very rare event and one we don’t truly understand. I’m not sure point #3 necessarily holds up either. Perhaps in the extremely rare event that a universe is created nature can explain it? I honestly have no idea and although it might seem logical to assume no, no one else really has much of an idea either. Without more information we’re just guessing.

    -God/initial mover “is not subject to natural limitations such as time, space, and mass”
    Again, although this seems like a logical conclusion to jump to, how can you be sure? Considering the illogical nature of the singularity perhaps there’s no such thing as an initial mover? Maybe there were many initial movers? Maybe the whole system is cyclic with no beginning or end?

    The overaching point I’m trying to make with all these questions is not to imply I think your wrong, it’s just simply to say there are other explanations. I truly don’t have any answers, but I’m trying not to jump to what appear to be logical conclusions when the subject is so illogical.

  2. First, nobody knows whether cause and effect break down at a certain point or whether it’s only our descriptions, i.e. formulas regarding cause and effect that are breaking down. There’s a choice here between an epistemological and ontological interpretation of what happens. Personally, I’m with those perfectly valid interpretations of quantum theory that say it’s epistemological and that causality always is at play, appearances and Copenhagen interpretations notwithstanding.

    If events happen without meeting the PSR, then we have spontaneous miracles – indeed, scientific proof for the reality of miracles! If the universe can come into existence from absolute nothing and events happen without meeting the PSR, then virgin birth, the Bab’s double execution, physical resurrection from the dead is small potatoes. We can write off Hume’s arguments against miracles – and with it, virtually every atheist arguments against miracles.

    Nothing natural can serve as an ultimate cause for nature because this leads to an infinite regress – which means that this universe was never created and could never be created. But it obviously was. Ergo, the ground of being of the universe was non-natural, i.e. non-material which by its nature is exempt from the infinite regress.

    What makes you so sure of the “illogical nature of the singularity”? How could you prove that a natural event is ‘illogical’? I think it *appears* ‘illogical’ because at that point our mathematics runs out of viable concepts and methodologies – and we have perhaps reached the ‘God-point’, i.e. the point at which natural explanations end and we have to resort to non-natural, ‘super-natural’ explanations. The point where, so to speak, theology takes over from physics.

    There is no evidence that anything in nature is non-logical so on what grounds do you describe the whole “subject [as] illogical”? That’s why I don’t accept the notion that nature suddenly goes non-logical and a-causal at the sub-atomic level. What they mean to say is that nature suddenly seems to do things we do not understand, cannot calculate and do not know how to interpret. Epistemology and ontology are being confused.

    1. “First, nobody knows whether cause and effect break down at a certain point or whether it’s only our descriptions”

      That’s pretty much what I said. Nobody knows. And that’s the only point I was trying to make. Trying to use everyday logic beyond the singularity is making assumptions.

      “If events happen without meeting the PSR, then we have spontaneous miracles – indeed, scientific proof for the reality of miracles!”

      My understanding of quantum mechanics is very poor, but isn’t this already an hypothesis? It’s theoretically possible for an elephant to manifest itself in my bedroom, it’s just really really REALLY unlikely to happen.
      But, perhaps once you hit the singularity it’s not so unlikely? Again, the only point I’m making is that we don’t know.

      “Nothing natural can serve as an ultimate cause for nature because this leads to an infinite regress – which means that this universe was never created and could never be created.”

      Or perhaps the oposite is true. The universe was never created, but has always existed. Perhaps there are some very rare events in nature whereby material objects take on some of these non-material properties you’ve described? When we don’t know what happens at or before the singularity, how can you say yes or no with any certainty?

      “non-material which by its nature is exempt from the infinite regress.”

      This here is really the point. By what nature exactly? What experience do we have with the non-material? How can you say anything about it’s nature? Perhaps the non-material still obeys some of the natural laws? Perhaps there is a completely different set of laws? Either way, you have no idea whether or not it’s exempt from infinite regress. You’ve just invented an entity and ascribed ‘exempt from infinite regress’ to it, then labelled it ‘non-material’. Perhaps there is a very rare natural event that is exempt from infinite regress?

      “What makes you so sure of the “illogical nature of the singularity”?…I think it *appears* ‘illogical’ because at that point our mathematics runs out of viable concepts”

      I beg your parden, that’s actually what I meant. I’ve no doubt beyond the singularity there is some form of logic, it just doesn’t appear to be the everyday logic we use in our relatively ‘large’ perception of reality.

      “the point at which natural explanations end and we have to resort to non-natural, ‘super-natural’ explanations”

      Well no, the honest answer is “we don’t know”. To evoke super-natural explanations is just as silly as calling the singularity illogical. Super-natural events by their definition break the natural laws and therefore break logic. Saying “god did it” might make people feel better to have an explanation, heck it might even be true, but it’s not intellectually fulfilling because it will never be provable.

  3. I didn’t read your post as saying we don’t know these things. After all, you write, “the problem is we’re talking about a rather illogical subject” in reference to singularities, quantum etc. That sounds like a definitive judgment to me. You then write, “The point is that cause and effect no longer seem to work, which renders point #1 questionable”. In light of the previous remark, I read your point as being that logic breaks down, not that we don’t know whether it does or not. “The point is that cause and effect no longer seem to work, which renders point #1 questionable.” Shook’s point # 1 is only questionable *if* we have already decided – as you have – that “we’re talking about a rather illogical subject.”

    Interpretations of quantum mechanics that deny the PSR and cause and effect and say things ‘just happen’ are, in effect, proving the possibility of miracles. They have completely subverted Hume’s arguments – which are the main arguments against miracles.

    BTW, miracles do not necessarily require breaking natural laws as Hume and others assert. They can quite reasonably be making use of natural laws in ways we are not familiar with or expect. Airplanes use use laws in ways which people did not expect until the Wright brothers. The Baha’i Writings allude to this in statements about how laws and phenomena are raised from the plane of the invisible to the visible.

    Human beings constantly experience the non-material on a daily basis. Meaning is non-material, but quite real and affects us greatly. You can materially analyze a book forever, but you will never ascertain its meaning. We can know about the nature of the non-material experientially as we do on a daily basis – and you and I are doing right now in this exchange. Of course, people have been universally experiencing the non-material through the entire history of humankind.

    You write: “You’ve just invented an entity and ascribed ‘exempt from infinite regress’ to it, then labelled it ‘non-material’.”

    No. For things to be material, they must be subject to time and space. (There might be a rare form of matter that isn’t just as there might be invisible stealth Care Bears pushing the rings of Saturn – but until we get some evidence, there’s no point in following such idle speculations.) If the non-material were subject to time and/or space, it would not be non-material. But if the non-material is not subject to time and space, then it is also exempt from infinite regresses because infinite regresses are in the order of time and sequence.

    If material objects take on the characteristics of non-material objects then they are no longer material.

    I wrote: “The point at which natural explanations end and we have to resort to non-natural, ‘super-natural’ explanations”

    You answered: “Well no, the honest answer is “we don’t know”.

    Explanations are (a) either natural/material or (b) super-natural / non-material. We have no evidence whatever of any other kind of explanation existing. So, the elimination of (a) leaves only (b). So we do know . . unless we want to go back to playing with invisible stealth Care Bears.

    The idea that the natural universe “just is” and has always been is a non-flyer. The entropy problem is one and is unavoidable over an infinite time. The regress problem is the second. In an infinite universe, a causal chain – one event bumping another – would go on forever – – and never get to today. It will always be underway because the distance between two pushes or causal bumps is infinite both in time and space.

    By Occam’s razor, God is just a tidier solution!

    People do not necessarily say “God did it” because it feels better. Rather, they might be convinced by the logic that such an entity is required to explain nature which does not explain itself. I’m sure you recall Anthony Flew – the pre-eminent atheist philosopher of 20th C philosophy (in English) who finally saw that logic requires a super-natural entity. Not all believers are addle-headed sentimentalists or ignoramuses. Goedel, one of the premier logicians of the 20th C, asserted that Anselm’s ontological proof was logically correct though it required up-dating in modern form – which he provided.

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