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Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

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David Knott

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« on: May 07, 2009, 04:37:47 pm »
Hi there, folks. This is my first post here, and I look forward to lots of great discussion with all of you.

   

   I have heard Dr. Craig and others present cosmological or "first cause" type arguments in favor of the existence of God. I came to this forum because I have always been unconvinced by such reasoning for one reason or another, but desired to see whether my objections stood up against the scrutiny of those who are intimately familiar with the arguments. I was quite surprised by the sophistication with which the argument is discussed here, and quickly found myself drowning in an ocean of unfamiliar technical terminology.

   

   I initially sought counter arguments to my objections in some of the more technical essays cited on these forums, but I found them to be so bogged down by jargon that I couldn't make heads of tails of them. I'm no intellectual lightweight, but I haven't studied set theory or logic. I was, therefore, wondering if it would be possible for some of the more patient forum members to give me more naive, introductory answers to my questions. Sorry for the long introduction. I'm just trying to be polite.

   

   My objections are as follows (I apologize if these should be on the other cosmological argument forum):

   

   I'm not entirely convinced that all things which had a beginning require a cause. Viewing ordered steps in a series of events as being responsible for one another is, obviously, an incredibly useful approach to making sense of the universe, and we couldn't do much science without it. But I wonder whether this framework (for lack of a better word) for analysis is actually grounded in reality, or whether it is just a convenient conceptualization for human beings to use. If it is merely a sort of tool, then it seems unreasonable to demand that all reality fit the metaphorical screw driver.

   

   Further (and this I think is the more serious question), if causation is a real phenomenon, what makes us so certain that it is universal? Isn't it true that many of our deepest intuitions, and universal expectations of reality, have been found to change, or to be violated, in some of the more extreme circumstances of nature (black holes, etc.)?

   

   If there is an event whose nature is peculiar, and likely to violate our expectations, and contradict the generalizations of reality that we have made from our direct experiences, I'd certainly expect it to be the beginning of the cosmos.

   

   I was going to make a separate argument, but now I see that I have already posed what might be some obnoxious questions to answer, and I don't want to barrage potential responders with too many questions. I'll just make the other argument another time. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post!

   

   David Knott

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Timothy Campen

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2009, 05:17:47 pm »
Dave, you present an excellent question on the issue of causation, which I too have not seen a satisfactory answer. If causation as we understand it was created with time and matter at the initial expansion of our universe, then why are we necessarily imputing this property to the universe itself? Is this justified scientifically? Can science even answer the questions? Can philosophy reasonably apply this deductive rational when it is based on a property of the universe than may have no applicability to the universe itself?

I personally think there are limits to how far philosophy and science can take us, and these questions of cosmology may (at least for now) be beyond what either field can satisfactorily address.
I raise a pint to WLC and all of you, even if I often disagree.  For I am convinced thoughtful people can disagree without being disagreeable.

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David Knott

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2009, 08:37:48 am »
Right. I want to say that causation seems so fundamental that its reach would extend beyond our universe (if there is anything beyond it), but I can't find proper justification for giving serious credence to that intuition. It might just turn out to be false. As physics has progressed, we have seen that our previous understandings of reality sometimes turn out to be approximations to the real behavior of nature, correct only within a certain range. The equations for transforming time and space between reference frames in special relativity, for instance, reduce to the classical transformations only when velocity is sufficiently low. Might our notions of causality be an approximation to a more general phenomenon which only behaves in the familiar fashion in the universe we're accustomed to? Who knows.

   

   I think the cautious, reasonable thing to say about the laws that govern universe creation is that we don't know the first thing about them. But I would really like to get input from someone who disagrees. Without that I'm just spinning my wheels.

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hatsoff

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #3 on: May 09, 2009, 01:18:34 pm »
This sub-forum has very little traffic, but it does get some.  So if you're patient and check back at least once every few days, you will eventually get a response.  It just may take a while.

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loko5

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #4 on: May 09, 2009, 11:50:48 pm »

Hi David, and welcome to the forum.  I hope I can answer some of your questions.

daveknott wrote:
I'm not entirely convinced that all things which had a beginning require a cause. Viewing ordered steps in a series of events as being responsible for one another is, obviously, an incredibly useful approach to making sense of the universe, and we couldn't do much science without it. But I wonder whether this framework (for lack of a better word) for analysis is actually grounded in reality, or whether it is just a convenient conceptualization for human beings to use. If it is merely a sort of tool, then it seems unreasonable to demand that all reality fit the metaphorical screw driver.


I doubt that you will find very many people on either side of the fence who think that causation is just a mental concept.  It is, after all, the entire basis of physical law.  If you are going to say that causation doesn't exist, then that is the same as saying that physical laws don't exist.  But clearly, physical laws are a description, in many cases an undeniably very accurate description, of how the universe works.  Surely there is more to it than just our imaginations at work.

daveknott wrote:
Further (and this I think is the more serious question), if causation is a real phenomenon, what makes us so certain that it is universal? Isn't it true that many of our deepest intuitions, and universal expectations of reality, have been found to change, or to be violated, in some of the more extreme circumstances of nature (black holes, etc.)?

If there is an event whose nature is peculiar, and likely to violate our expectations, and contradict the generalizations of reality that we have made from our direct experiences, I'd certainly expect it to be the beginning of the cosmos.


Well, the whole point of the cosmological argument is that not everything can have a cause.  If that were the case, we obviously have an infinite regress of causes.  This clearly cannot be true.  Therefore there must be something (or some things) that exist without cause, things that "just are".  The question is, what sort of things can exist without cause?  The Leibnizian cosmological argument says that there are two classes of things:  necessary things, which exist because they must exist, i.e. they couldn't not exist; and contingent things, which could be different or could fail to exist.  You and I are contingent.  I could have failed to exist if, for example, my parents had never met.  Some things, like the laws of logic or the laws of mathematics, would appear to be necessary.  We couldn't imagine a world in which the laws of logic fail to hold.

Now, it appears that you want to say that the universe itself exists necessarily.  This would mean that the universe couldn't possibly be different than it is.  But this clearly is nonsense.  Why couldn't the laws of nature be different than what they are?  Why couldn't, for example, the gravitational constant be slightly larger or smaller than it is?  Why couldn't the big bang have resulted in one more or one fewer proton?

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David Knott

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #5 on: May 10, 2009, 11:33:29 am »
I doubt that you will find very many people on either side of the fence who think that causation is just a mental concept. It is, after all, the entire basis of physical law. If you are going to say that causation doesn't exist, then that is the same as saying that physical laws don't exist. But clearly, physical laws are a description, in many cases an undeniably very accurate description, of how the universe works. Surely there is more to it than just our imaginations at work.

   

   I'm not saying that causation is an illusion necessarily. I'm merely saying that our understanding of it may be a naive analogue of the actual phenomenon. Take, for instance, our brain's representation of solid matter as a continuous substance. Matter is almost entirely empty space, yet our brain effectively treats it as though it were not. The perceived continuity of matter would be, in this case, a naive analogue of the fact that the Coulombic force prevents objects from passing through each other in most instances. This is not to say that matter doesn't exist, or that the Coulombic force isn't real; it's just to say that our brain's representation of those entities is kind of a metaphor. I'm just pointing out that, being the highly conceptual, perhaps difficult to define thing that causation is, our understanding of it may be a misconstrual of the actual reality.

   

   Really, though, I probably shouldn't have even said this in the first place, as it was originally just kind of an aside, and not integral to the thrust of my argument. And I see a danger of it becoming a sort of wishy-washy "do we really understand anything?" discussion, which is something I really wish to avoid. Now on to your much more important rebuttal:

   

   
Well, the whole point of the cosmological argument is that not everything can have a cause. If that were the case, we obviously have an infinite regress of causes. This clearly cannot be true.

   

   That an infinite regression of causes "clearly cannot be true", I think, remains to be demonstrated. You're probably right. Infinite regression certainly jars with our intuition, and I'm definitely compelled to say that we need to find another way around. But given the extraordinary circumstance of the issue we are discussing (the creation of reality itself), we may eventually be forced to accept some very counter intuitive ideas, of which infinite regression could be one. I agree with you that it is highly implausible. I think it's just slightly hasty to rule it out entirely.

   

   
Therefore there must be something (or some things) that exist without cause, things that "just are". The question is, what sort of things can exist without cause? The Leibnizian cosmological argument says that there are two classes of things: necessary things, which exist because they must exist, i.e. they couldn't not exist; and contingent things, which could be different or could fail to exist. You and I are contingent. I could have failed to exist if, for example, my parents had never met.

   

   Well put! So that's what contingent and necessary mean, although I'd be careful about defining the necessary things as "[things] which exist because they must exist". The presence of the word "because" in the definition sort of contradicts the premise that necessary things have no cause. But I'm nit picking. Sorry.

   

   
Some things, like the laws of logic or the laws of mathematics, would appear to be necessary. We couldn't imagine a world in which the laws of logic fail to hold.

   

   I disagree. In the sense that I can't imagine visually, in a really satisfying way, a world in which the laws of mathematics and logic do not hold, you're correct. But I think this is probably due more to my lack of imagination than anything else. It may be that such worlds can exist; I don't see that mathematics is necessarily so immutable.

   

   
Now, it appears that you want to say that the universe itself exists necessarily. This would mean that the universe couldn't possibly be different than it is. But this clearly is nonsense. Why couldn't the laws of nature be different than what they are? Why couldn't, for example, the gravitational constant be slightly larger or smaller than it is? Why couldn't the big bang have resulted in one more or one fewer proton?

   

   And HERE is where we really get to the heart of things. This is your most important statement, as it demonstrates where we really differ. Having granted causality universal dominion, and having ruled out infinite regression as a possible answer (both things for which I do not see a satisfactory justification), you postulate God as the entity that doesn't need a cause, and I (you assume) imagine that the universe is the thing which doesn't need a cause. Ah! And the problem that arises is, of course, how does one justify choosing one of these uncaused causes over the other?

   

   In order to leave the deity as the winner by default, you seek to rule out the universe. You point out, quite correctly, that our universe seems far too arbitrarily constructed to be a necessary entity, and that we see no reason why some of its knobs couldn't be twiddled just a smidgen. Fortunately for my argument, I do not need the universe to be the necessary entity. You imagine the existence of an uncaused deity to solve the problem. Then, I too am allowed to imagine things, in a sort of ad hoc way, to solve the problem. I'll call mine the Superverse. The Superverse is basically just a universe creator. It's responsible for the creation of our universe. It isn't subject to our natural laws, as it exists outside of our universe. And, unlike our universe, it's infinitely old, and therefore doesn't need a cause.

   

   Now, whether the Superverse is a "necessary" cause or not, I don't know, and frankly I don't think it makes any difference. It skirts the issue by being infinitely old. I do not, of course, actually believe that such an entity exists. I only invented it to show that, even if we do grant the premises that causality is universal, and that infinite regression is out of the question, God is not the only solution to the problem.

   

   Lastly I'll just point out that you really didn't explain why causality can be assumed to be universal--even outside our own universe. I am very curious on that subject.

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Pumbelo

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« Reply #6 on: May 10, 2009, 12:01:33 pm »
Wrong forum? This is the LCA.
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Timothy Campen

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #7 on: May 11, 2009, 02:14:41 am »
Dave, I think you raise a great question on causality. I don't have a problem assuming the rules of causation precede our universe, so long as we apply that rule evenly. In my experience, the rules keep getting changed once god is invoked. This allows for an eternal, changless god to create the universe, but somehow remain eternally unchanging. Or a god that can somehow transform from atemporal to temporal, or be atemporal and termporal at the same time. I realize there are responses to all these objections, but I haven't found them particularly convincing. Maybe I just need to try harder to understand the arguments. I dunno.
I raise a pint to WLC and all of you, even if I often disagree.  For I am convinced thoughtful people can disagree without being disagreeable.

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loko5

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #8 on: May 13, 2009, 01:44:56 pm »
daveknott wrote:
Well, the whole point of the cosmological argument is that not everything can have a cause. If that were the case, we obviously have an infinite regress of causes. This clearly cannot be true.


That an infinite regression of causes "clearly cannot be true", I think, remains to be demonstrated. You're probably right. Infinite regression certainly jars with our intuition, and I'm definitely compelled to say that we need to find another way around. But given the extraordinary circumstance of the issue we are discussing (the creation of reality itself), we may eventually be forced to accept some very counter intuitive ideas, of which infinite regression could be one. I agree with you that it is highly implausible. I think it's just slightly hasty to rule it out entirely.


Most philosophers seem to agree that an infinite regress of causes (or alternatively a "vicious regress" of causes, such as A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A) is not coherent.  Even if it could be the case, though, it cannot be a full explanation of events.  To fully explain causation, you need both an object and a mechanism.  As a simple example, if I drop a ball it will fall to the ground.  In this case gravity is the mechanism of causation and the earth's mass is the object of causation.  An infinite regreas of causes, or a vicious regress of causes, can at most only explain the objects of causation.  They cannot explain where the mechanisms come from.  Unless the causal chain is grounded in some sort of "first cause", which is necessarily existing and is the root of causal mechanisms as well, then we are forced to accept the mechanisms of causation as "brute facts".  Some people are in favor of the "brute facts" approach, but then we must ask why some things that appear contingent must be accepted as brute facts while others are not.


daveknott wrote:
Some things, like the laws of logic or the laws of mathematics, would appear to be necessary. We couldn't imagine a world in which the laws of logic fail to hold.


I disagree. In the sense that I can't imagine visually, in a really satisfying way, a world in which the laws of mathematics and logic do not hold, you're correct. But I think this is probably due more to my lack of imagination than anything else. It may be that such worlds can exist; I don't see that mathematics is necessarily so immutable.


I agree that it can be a tricky thing to determine if something is metaphysically necessary or not.  We are indeed limited by our imaginations.  The point, though, is that there are some things that must exist necessarily (because not everything can be contingent) and there are many things that obviously exist contingently, because they could have been different.

daveknott wrote:
Now, it appears that you want to say that the universe itself exists necessarily. This would mean that the universe couldn't possibly be different than it is. But this clearly is nonsense. Why couldn't the laws of nature be different than what they are? Why couldn't, for example, the gravitational constant be slightly larger or smaller than it is? Why couldn't the big bang have resulted in one more or one fewer proton?


And HERE is where we really get to the heart of things. This is your most important statement, as it demonstrates where we really differ. Having granted causality universal dominion, and having ruled out infinite regression as a possible answer (both things for which I do not see a satisfactory justification), you postulate God as the entity that doesn't need a cause, and I (you assume) imagine that the universe is the thing which doesn't need a cause. Ah! And the problem that arises is, of course, how does one justify choosing one of these uncaused causes over the other?

In order to leave the deity as the winner by default, you seek to rule out the universe. You point out, quite correctly, that our universe seems far too arbitrarily constructed to be a necessary entity, and that we see no reason why some of its knobs couldn't be twiddled just a smidgen. Fortunately for my argument, I do not need the universe to be the necessary entity. You imagine the existence of an uncaused deity to solve the problem. Then, I too am allowed to imagine things, in a sort of ad hoc way, to solve the problem. I'll call mine the Superverse. The Superverse is basically just a universe creator. It's responsible for the creation of our universe. It isn't subject to our natural laws, as it exists outside of our universe. And, unlike our universe, it's infinitely old, and therefore doesn't need a cause.

Now, whether the Superverse is a "necessary" cause or not, I don't know, and frankly I don't think it makes any difference. It skirts the issue by being infinitely old. I do not, of course, actually believe that such an entity exists. I only invented it to show that, even if we do grant the premises that causality is universal, and that infinite regression is out of the question, God is not the only solution to the problem.


Ah, perhaps we actually agree more than we disagree.  I have always thought that the only way out of the cosmological argument for the naturalist is to propse something similar to what you said, some sort of "superverse" that contains a multitude of universes with all possible properties along with a way of generating them.  But would you agree with me that the number of universes would have to be infinite?  If there exists only a finite number N of universes, we have to ask why N and not N+1 or N-1.

daveknott wrote: Lastly I'll just point out that you really didn't explain why causality can be assumed to be universal--even outside our own universe. I am very curious on that subject.


If causality is not universal (in the sense of applying to all of reality) then we are forced to accept "brute facts", things that exist without a reason.  But as I said above, why is it that some things that appear contingent (i.e. appear that they could easily have been different than they are) must be accepted as brute facts while others are not? And how can we possibly distinguish contingent things (things that exist for a reason) from brute facts (things that exist without a reason)?  If we are unable to logically come up with such a distinction, we can never be confident of any scientific explanation we come up with for anything.  Why should we accept an explanation for some event when that event might have happened as a brute fact?

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David Knott

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« Reply #9 on: May 17, 2009, 02:20:15 pm »
Most philosophers seem to agree that an infinite regress of causes (or alternatively a "vicious regress" of causes, such as A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A) is not coherent.

   

   I fail to see why it is any less coherent than, say, an infinite series in mathematics, which is an object that we can understand quite powerfully. And coherence isn't necessarily required to do the job. God is a difficult concept to grapple with, and it is, by the admission of many of its proponents, one that no human being can fully comprehend.

   

   
To fully explain causation, you need both an object and a mechanism.  As a simple example, if I drop a ball it will fall to the ground.  In this case gravity is the mechanism of causation and the earth's mass is the object of causation.  An infinite regress of causes, or a vicious regress of causes, can at most only explain the objects of causation.

   

   I think this is false, and that the distinction between object and mechanism is arbitrary and superficial. It may be true that the mechanism (gravity laws) cannot be explained in terms of the objects A1, A2, A3, etc., that it influences. But we can imagine a "higher order" chain of causation, taking place on the level of physical laws: set of laws B1 causes set of laws B2, etc. You would object that some yet still higher order mechanism, C1, must be responsible for its daughter objects (B1, B2, ...), and that the series (B1, B2, ...) cannot explain mechanism C1. Yet I can postulate C1 as being an object in the series (C1, C2, ...). I can, therefore, induce an infinite regress, not in terms of objects influencing each other, but in terms of ever superseding mechanisms, each one being governed by its parent mechanism, with parents extending out to infinity. Whether some element is an "object" or a "mechanism" merely depends on which level of explanation you're talking about: A, B, or C. The distinction therefore seems superficial, and the claim that only "objects" can be explained, seems untrue.

   

   Of course this infinite regress is as obnoxious to our intuitions as the regress concerning only objects, and all of the same objections (coherency for instance) would still apply.

   

   
Unless the causal chain is grounded in some sort of "first cause", which is necessarily existing and is the root of causal mechanisms as well, then we are forced to accept the mechanisms of causation as "brute facts".

   

   What is the difference between a "first cause" and a "brute fact"?

   

   
The point, though, is that there are some things that must exist necessarily (because not everything can be contingent)

   

   I do not see why everything cannot be contingent. Forgive me if I missed or forgot something.

   

   
[with regard to the naturalist's Superverse] But would you agree with me that the number of universes would have to be infinite?  If there exists only a finite number N of universes, we have to ask why N and not N+1 or N-1.

   

   No, I don't see why the number of universes would have to be infinite. It would be, as you hint, arbitrary to imagine the Superverse containing any finite number of universes--if N, why not N+1? This only presents a problem if you start off your argument by assuming that there exists, at the root of things, something called a "necessary cause", which is defined as something that must exist, and could not have been different. I reject that assumption. Starting off your argument by saying that everything is either "necessary" or "contingent", and then assuming that there must be a necessary root cause, seems unreasonable to me. My Superverse idea does not seek to solve the problem of causation by fitting your definition of a "necessary" cause. It circumvents the issue by being infinitely old.

   

   This might, I think, expose a crucial flaw in the cosmological argument. It assumes that if something is uncaused, then it must be "necessary" in that it could not have been any different (not N+1 or N-1). I don't see why this is true. It seems, actually, to be stuck onto the argument in an ad hoc fashion in order to lead the arguer to supposing every property of the first cause to be infinite, in order to avoid any arbitrariness. And then, in having imagined something as having infinity as a value for its every parameter, one can say "well, that sure sounds like God to me".

   

   
If causality is not universal (in the sense of applying to all of reality) then we are forced to accept "brute facts", things that exist without a reason.  But as I said above, why is it that some things that appear contingent (i.e. appear that they could easily have been different than they are) must be accepted as brute facts while others are not?

   

   At this point, I don't think there is a single entity, law, property, or description of nature that any reasonable person would accept as a brute fact. Even the most fundamental physical theories we've established are not regarded by physicists as remotely approaching candidacy for "theories of everything". Not even quantum mechanics is considered basic enough to qualify as being the most fundamental explanatory fact. To say, therefore, that we have to accept as brute facts things that seem arbitrary, is incorrect. There's nothing in our present knowledge that would qualify as a brute fact, and therefore nothing to accept. It may be, in one hundred or one thousand years, that physicists discover the proverbial "one equation" from which all of reality springs. And it may be something of which we can say "I can see how that is a brute fact".

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loko5

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« Reply #10 on: May 19, 2009, 01:59:18 pm »
daveknott wrote: I fail to see why it [an infinite regress of causes] is any less coherent than, say, an infinite series in mathematics, which is an object that we can understand quite powerfully. And coherence isn't necessarily required to do the job. God is a difficult concept to grapple with, and it is, by the admission of many of its proponents, one that no human being can fully comprehend.

The reason this is incoherent is that it does not actually explain anything.  You say that an infinite regress of causes is analogous to an infinite series in mathematics.  But it's not.  Any mathematical "infinite series" we construct is in fact not an infinite series itself, but only a set of rules for generating an infinite series.  For example consider the mathematical series:

..., -125, -64, -27, -8, -1, 0, 1, 8, 27, 64, 125, ...

which is just the set of integers cubed.  Note that I have not written down the actual set (which I obviously can't, because it's infinite).  I have merely written down a finite subset of the infinite set along with a rule for how to generate any member of the set.  An infinite regress operates differently.  An infinite regress of causes would be analogous to an infinite mathematical set in which each member of the set (analogous to each state of existence in the world) is generated by performing an operation (analogous to the cause in an infinite regress of causes) on the previous member, but each operation to be performed is different. In this case, it is impossible to say what the set is, because we have no "starting point" from which to start applying the rules.

daveknott wrote: What is the difference between a "first cause" and a "brute fact"?

If we accept that an infinite regress of causes does not explain things, then there must be a necessarily existing "first cause" from which all of existence is rooted, a "starting point" for causation.  According to the Leibnizian argument, this "first cause" is God (although more work is required to show that this must be the God of the bible).  The alternative is to say that there is not one single "first cause", but multiple "brute facts" that just exist without explanation.

daveknott wrote: I do not see why everything cannot be contingent. Forgive me if I missed or forgot something.

To say that everything is contingent is to say that everything is caused by something else, either a vicious regress or an infinite regress, i.e. there are no brute facts or first cause. But as I stated above, this is not coherent, because it has no starting point from which to define things.

daveknott wrote: Starting off your argument by saying that everything is either "necessary" or "contingent", and then assuming that there must be a necessary root cause, seems unreasonable to me.

It's simple logic.  By the Law of the Excluded Middle, everything must be either contingent (defined as having an explanation for its existence) or necessary (having no explanation for its existence).  There is no third category.  Now, one could try to argue, as you have, that everything is contingent, but this leads to either a vicious regress or infinite regress which, as I have shown, explains nothing.  So arguing that everything is contingent is equivalent to saying that there is not a discernible explanation for anything.  The alternative is to argue that everything is necessary, i.e. everything exists the way it is because it has to.  This leads to an extreme form of fatalism that I think any reasonable person should reject.

daveknott wrote: This might, I think, expose a crucial flaw in the cosmological argument. It assumes that if something is uncaused, then it must be "necessary" in th
   at it could not have been any different (not N+1 or N-1). I don't see why this is true. It seems, actually, to be stuck onto the argument in an ad hoc fashion in order to lead the arguer to supposing every property of the first cause to be infinite, in order to avoid any arbitrariness. And then, in having imagined something as having infinity as a value for its every parameter, one can say "well, that sure sounds like God to me".

I'm not following you.  To say that something is uncaused is equivalent to saying that it could not have been different.  Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that if something could have been different, there is a reason or cause for why it is what it is.  As an example, let's say your boss tells you that he is not giving you a raise this year, although he could have.  Your natural reaction, I think would be to ask him why he didn't give you a raise when he could have.  Would you accept the answer that there is no reason?

daveknott wrote: At this point, I don't think there is a single entity, law, property, or description of nature that any reasonable person would accept as a brute fact. Even the most fundamental physical theories we've established are not regarded by physicists as remotely approaching candidacy for "theories of everything". Not even quantum mechanics is considered basic enough to qualify as being the most fundamental explanatory fact. To say, therefore, that we have to accept as brute facts things that seem arbitrary, is incorrect. There's nothing in our present knowledge that would qualify as a brute fact, and therefore nothing to accept. It may be, in one hundred or one thousand years, that physicists discover the proverbial "one equation" from which all of reality springs. And it may be something of which we can say "I can see how that is a brute fact".

I will agree that sorting out what things are contingent from what things are necessary can be a thorny problem.  We can go a long way toward answering this question, though, with simple common sense.  Things that we can provide a ready explanation for must be contingent things.  Things that have not always existed must be contingent, because anything that exists necessarily cannot fail to exist and so must have always existed.  Things that are denumerable or measurable must be contingent, unless we can come up with a necessary reason why they could not have been different in size or in number.  It is true, though, that some things that appear to be necessary could derive from something more fundamental.  My point, though, is that there must be at least one necessarily existing thing (a "first cause") that explains the rest of existence.


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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #11 on: May 19, 2009, 04:35:36 pm »
Hello, Dave.

I find the following argument from Alex Pruss's new essay on this topic (in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology) helpful:

This argument is based on ideas of Robert Koons (1997), though I am simplifying it.  Start with the observation that once we admit that some contingent states of affairs have no explanations, a completely new sceptical scenario becomes possible: No demon is deceiving you, but your perceptual states are occurring for no reason at all, with no prior causes.

Moreover, objective probabilities are tied to laws of nature or objective tendencies, and so if an objective probability attaches to some contingent fact, then that situation can be given an explanation in terms of laws of nature or objective tendencies.  Hence, if the PSR is false of some contingent fact, no objective probability attaches to the fact.  

Thus we cannot even say that violations of the PSR are improbable if the PSR is false.  Consequently, someone who does not affirm the PSR cannot say that the sceptical scenario is objectively improbable.  It may be taken to follow from this that if the PSR were false or maybe even not known a priori, we wouldn’t know any empirical truths.  But we do know empirical truths.  Hence, the PSR is true, and maybe even known a priori.


I believe Koons' insight has profound implications for both the Liebnizian and the Kalam arguments. If there is no PSR or, treating the causation issue, things come into being given a background where there is 'nothing' (i.e. we positively assert a state of nonbeing which has no properties), then one is not entitled to say that the event (or any collection of events) is improbable.

Since there are no properties, this applies to thoughts, hydrogen atoms, pink elephants with bow ties, and resurrected men with equal utility. So, consider the following characterization of Christianity:

The atheist’s only hope in debating William Lane Craig is to offer better arguments. Remember, Craig is defending the theory that an ancient Semitic sky god created the universe with his magical powers, let it evolve in violence and meaninglessness for billions of years, then intervened quite recently by sending a man-god to earth, who rose from the dead into a new body with superpowers and now talks to you and grants you wishes as your invisible friend. That is literally what he has to defend, so one would think that even without equal debating skills an atheist would stand a chance to defeat that theory."

"How to debate William Lane Craig" Accessed at: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?cat=25, April 22, 2009

Is the theory improbable? Without a PSR (and related denial of Kalam's first premise) the apparent miracles that would lead to such beliefs (or perhaps the beliefs themselves) can't be improbable. Nor does any alternative set of beliefs enjoy epistemic (or even ontological) superiority.

Now, I believe that the situation is worse for the PSR (or Kalam 1st premise) denier. For if events like this do occur, then they can't fail to produce an objective probability (even if, in such a ludicrous situation, one could never measure it). Yet no objective probability can attach to the fact. Thus there is a PSR and Kalam's 1st premise is upheld.


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David Knott

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #12 on: May 19, 2009, 06:31:46 pm »
An infinite regress of causes would be analogous to an infinite mathematical set in which each member of the set (analogous to each state of existence in the world) is generated by performing an operation (analogous to the cause in an infinite regress of causes) on the previous member, but each operation to be performed is different. In this case, it is impossible to say what the set is, because we have no "starting point" from which to start applying the rules.

   

   I am not convinced that an initial value is required to seed the regression in order to provide substance on which the rule can act. That requirement would only be necessary if the regression began at some point, but since it is infinite, there is no "blank spot" at the beginning requiring input by which subsequent states can be characterized. All of the "slots" are already filled in, courtesy of their predecessors, of which there is no limit. To nonetheless demand that an initial point be inserted to get the process going is to utterly miss the point that the regression has no beginning. A recursively defined series is a coherent entity with observable properties regardless of whether an initial point is provided or not.

   

   And I can't help but wonder how you find infinite regression incoherent on the grounds that it has no initial point from which to build, but readily accept the existence of an eternal deity, who would seem subject to the same objection. Unless you espouse something about his "transcendence" of time--but if that is your position, I could of course claim the same thing about my Superverse.

   

   
If we accept that an infinite regress of causes does not explain things, then there must be a necessarily existing "first cause" from which all of existence is rooted, a "starting point" for causation. According to the Leibnizian argument, this "first cause" is God (although more work is required to show that this must be the God of the bible). The alternative is to say that there is not one single "first cause", but multiple "brute facts" that just exist without explanation.

   

   Let me make sure I follow this: a brute fact is what you call a first cause when there are multiple first causes, instead of just one. Or is that incorrect?

   

   
It's simple logic. By the Law of the Excluded Middle, everything must be either contingent (defined as having an explanation for its existence) or necessary (having no explanation for its existence). There is no third category.

   

   As an aside, I should state that I am extremely doubtful of any statement beginning with "it's simple logic", followed by a possibly false dichotomy.

   

   Rigidly defined in these terms alone, you're correct that there is no third category. But later in your argument, you cleverly slip in the additional premise that, if something has no explanation for its existence, then it is inconceivable that it could be otherwise. With this additional property added to the definition of "necessary", there does exist a third category: entities which have no explanation, but which could be imagined otherwise. It is in this third category that my Superverse belongs. You say:

   

   
Now, one could try to argue, as you have, that everything is contingent, but this leads to either a vicious regress or infinite regress which, as I have shown, explains nothing.

   

   The Superverse avoids the requirement of explanation by being infinitely old, not by being "that which couldn't not exist". Or if infinite age qualifies as infinite regression, then we can merely change the Superverse to "transcend" time, as God is claimed to do.

   

   
I'm not following you. To say that something is uncaused is equivalent to saying that it could not have been different. Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that if something could have been different, there is a reason or cause for why it is what it is. As an example, let's say your boss tells you that he is not giving you a raise this year, although he could have. Your natural reaction, I think would be to ask him why he didn't give you a raise when he could have. Would you accept the answer that there is no reason?

   

   I'm afraid an analogy as contrived and distant as that will not do the job of demonstrating that a thing which has no explanation cannot be conceived of being different from what it is. I hardly think my boss is an appropriate analogy for the ultimate principle responsible for existence itself. Of course a conscious, thinking person is going to be expected to have a reason for making an important decision. We know this from experience. But our experience is far less able to inform us as to whether uncaused entities always have the property of being "inconceivably otherwise". I ask for a more rigorous demonstration of this claim.

   

   
Things that we can provide a ready explanation for must be contingent things. Things that have not always existed must be contingent, because anything that exists necessarily cannot fail to exist and so must have always existed.

   

   This is precisely what I was getting at before. You initially define "necessary" entities as those which have no explanation for their existence, and "contingent" entities as those which have an explanation for their existence. Having gotten your audience to agree to this seemingly clean distinction, you then proceed to draw conclusions which rest not on the definitions given, but on a more elaborated definition which attaches "invariability" or the property of being "inconceivably otherwise" to necessary entities--a description not present at first.

   

   
Things that have not always existed must be contingent, because anything that exists necessarily cannot fail to exist and so must have always existed. Things that are denumerable or measurable must be contingent, unless we can come up with a necessary reason why they could not have been different in size or in number.

   

   This seems like confirmation of what I suspected. In my previous post, I noticed that your odd addition of "invariability" to necessary entities would lead to a rejection of anything arbitrary, and require every parameter of the necessary thing to be infinite (although frankly, zero would also seem a fittingly non-arbitrary value for its attributes to take!). It cannot be an arbitrary number of years old, so it must be eternal. It cannot be an arbitrary number of miles wide, so it must be infinitely large. It cannot be an arbitrary number of units powerful, so it must be omnipotent. Well, this sure sounds like God! And this is why I called your addition of invariability ad hoc--because it doesn't flow naturally from your definitions, but rather is attached in order to lead the arguer to supposing a being that sounds like a deity.

   

   Well, as I've said, you have a lot of work ahead of you in demonstrating that invariability stems from the initial definition of "necessary" entities, and I'll leave you to that. But suppose you manage to present a compelling case. I would feel inclined to ask, how massive is the first cause? It cannot be some arbitrary number of grams, so it must be infinitely massive. Why then do we not feel its gravity? I would also be compelled to inquire, how loud is the first cause? It couldn't be some arbitrary number of decibels, or it would be "conceivably otherwise"--therefore it must be infinitely loud. Why are we not deafened?

   

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David Knott

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #13 on: May 19, 2009, 07:02:33 pm »
To sinclairjd: I really appreciate your post, and can tell that you put careful thought into it. But I regretfully don't understand a word of it. I don't know what the PSR is, or what is meant by "objective probability." But if it is any consolation, I took a little delight in the mocking characterization of Dr. Craig's position you quoted. In having taken delight in that caricature, however, I feel inclined to give a bit of a disclaimer.

   

   Dr. Craig is, bar none, the best defender of Christianity I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. Needless to say I disagree with him fully, but I nonetheless respect his tremendous intellectual ability, as well as his strict adherence to employing logical arguments in debates, as opposed to using rhetorical tricks and emotional appeals, as say, Christopher Hitchens does (though I enjoy Hitchens for other, perhaps more masochistic reasons). He also, in earlier decades, sported an excellent beard. I am absolutely dying to watch the debate between the two. It isn't available anywhere yet, is it?

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loko5

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Cosmological argument seems unconvincing
« Reply #14 on: May 20, 2009, 09:39:51 am »

Dave,

I'm not sure if you are being deliberately contradictory or you really just don't get it, but I will try once more to explain the concept of contingency. To say that something is contingent is to say both that it could have been different (or failed to exist) under other circumstances, and that there is a reason or cause for its being what it is. Each of these concepts entails the other. In other words:

[1] If there is a cause for A being what it is, then A could have been different if that cause failed to hold.

[2] If A could have been different than it is, then there is a cause for A being what it is.

I presume you have no problem with [1]. If you do let me know and I will try to explain it further.  You are denying [2], but I can't fathom what logic you are using. The meaning of the phrase "could have been different" implies that, under other circumstances, it would have been different.  If there are no possible circumstances in which A would have been different, then A couldn't have been different. And if there are possible circumstances in which A would have been different, then the circumstances being what they are comprise the cause of A being what it is.