CURRENT READING – BEFORE THE BIG BANG

February 22, 2018

Before The Big Bang by Ernest J. Sternglass1

 

“Continuous creation…can be represented by precise mathematical equations whose consequences can be worked out and compared with observation. On philosophical grounds I cannot see any good reason for preferring the big bang idea. Indeed it seems to me in the philosophical sense to be a distinctly unsatisfactory notion, since it puts the basic assumption out of sight where can never be challenged by a direct appeal to observation.”2 – Fred Hoyle.

While meeting up with my daughter in Fairfield, IL (population 5029), I went to the local library and purchased this book almost in passing. I had not opened it until I noticed the February 2019 issue of Sky and Telescope with the cover line, “What came before the Big Bang?” I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to think through scientific thoughts on the origin of the universe.

In the Sky and Telescope article by Faye Flam, she notes that traditionally it was thought impossible to determine the origin of the Big Bang. But now cosmologists posit that it occurred in existing space, another universe, or a multiverse. Specific proposals on the setting of the Big Bang include:

1)  a sea of rapidly expanding space,

2) a bland expanse of empty space,

3) a comeback of a contracting universe (Big Bounce), or

4) a collision of two existing universes in a higher-dimensional space.

Many cosmologists accept Alan Guth’s theory of inflation whereby shortly after the Big Bang, the universe expanded extremely fast and extremely briefly due to a peculiar and perhaps inexplicable repulsive force. But increasingly cosmologists consider the possibility that inflation preceded the Big Bang. Some cosmologists, for example Andrei Linde, see patches of inflating space emerging from an existing chaotic universe creating a ‘pocket universe.’

Meanwhile two other theories are developing. First the bouncing universe of Paul Steinhardt offers a solution without the inexplicable inflation or need for a multiverse. Another is Sean Carroll’s theory that empty space at the highest level of entropy (disorder) contains formless ‘vacuum energy’ which can generate an occasional baby universe based on the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

Of course untestable speculations of this type border on metaphysics rather than science though Flam concludes by discussing some recent attempts to sort through these possibilities using observable data.

(continued next post)

SUBJECTIVE BELIEF IN GOD (continued)

In the last post we began the discussion of subjective belief in God looking at faith, mystical experience, revelation, and miracles. Now we will look at additional subjective rationales.

William James in his essay, The Will to Believe, argues the pragmatic view that at some point we must live life with the assumption of the existence, non-existence, or uncertainty of existence of God. While the skeptic places the emphasis on avoiding the error of belief in a non-existent God, James sees no reason to assume that is superior to avoiding the error of not believing in an existent God. He quotes Fitz James Stephen, “…If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that anyone can prove that he is mistaken…What must we do?… Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”5

In his Pensees,6 Pascal argues that a decision to believe in God can be reformulated as a wager. To him it is a better bet to believe and follow religious dogma with its minimal downside in exchange for the possibility of an infinite joyous afterlife then to choose disbelief with its minimal upside. Of course the skeptic can simply counter, belief requires behavioral change and sacrifice of our only demonstrable asset – our lives. Alternatively, it seems unlikely that the mere hope of future benefits can lead to genuine conviction.

The last explanation  of religious belief is well expressed by philosopher, Roger Scruton; it  derives from “metaphysical loneliness.” In this formulation, the gap between human longing and satisfaction drives man to believe he is not “of this world, but only in it” (his italics). Humans resolve this dilemma by resorting to belief in a transcendental deity and religious ritual.7

In summary, the basis for most belief in the existence of God is not strict proof, but inexact and subjective reckoning. There are two basic types –  compelled as in the case of a mystical experience or a perceived miracle, or justified, as with faith, will, or hope for potential future benefit.  Metaphysical longing is perhaps explanatory of belief in God if neither logical argument nor other subjective reasoning succeed.

 

1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, p. 693 – definition 2.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 3, pages 165-166.

3James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Penguin Books, 1982. ISBN 978-0-14-039034-6, pages 380-381, 422.

4Honderich, Ted (editor), The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8, page 615.

5James, William, The Will to Believe and Other Essays. Dover Publications, New York, 1956. ISBN 48620291-7, pages 1-31.

6Pascal, Blaise, Pensees. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 33, pages 214-215.

7Scruton, Roger, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. Penguin Books. New York, 1999. ISBN 0 14 027516 9, page 89.

SUBJECTIVE BELIEF IN GOD

“The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason”- Blaise Pascal

The absence of a definitive proof of the existence of God does not make belief in God irrational. In fact the original belief in God for humanity and individuals was not based on logical argument, but subjective considerations. These include in rough order of frequency and cogency (except the last):

1.   Faith

 2.   Mystical experience

 3.   Revelation

  4.   Miracles

  5.   Will

  6.   Pascal’s wager

  7.   Response to the human metaphysical predicament

If we define faith as “belief that is not based on proof,”1 it could be argued that as nothing is certain or absolutely proven, all human beliefs are based on faith. Thomas Aquinas states faith stands between scientific knowledge and ordinary opinion, involves the unseen, cannot be arrived at by reasoning, and depends on divine grace. Friedrich Schleiermacher sees it is a kind of feeling of absolute dependence on a higher reality. Soren Kierkegaard sees critical human truths as subjective and emphasizes the objective uncertainty of the religious realm must be reached by a ‘leap of faith.’2  Skeptics however are troubled by the apparent overlap of faith and superstition.

Regarding mystical experience, William James in two of his 1901 Gifford lectures addressed mysticism as a justification for belief in the divine. He identifies four characteristics of the mystical experience – (1) ineffability- cannot be expressed, (2) noetic quality – feeling of knowledge and profound illumination, (3) transience (typically <1-2 hours), and (4) passivity or abeyance of the will. However he notes mystical states are authoritative only for the individual experiencing them.3

By revelation I mean religious texts accepted as evidence of the existence of God (as opposed to direct revelation by God which I would include in mystical experience). Obviously, the Bible, Koran, and the Vedas serve as justification of the beliefs for many religious. The validity and historical accuracy of these texts is of course open to debate and acceptance of their divine origin must still be based on faith.

Miracles are defined as “violations of a law of nature by a supernatural being.”4 They are presumably rare in occurrence and hence the source of belief by the minority. In addition the concept of a miracle suffers from some logical inconsistency – can an event occur in the world and still not be defined as natural? Lack of explanation by known physical law is not proof of supernatural cause; as an explanation it simply begs the question of cause.

(continued next post)

ARGUMENTS AGAINST GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART II

“God cannot do all things…his own death…bring to pass that one who lived did not live…he hath no power over things past…nor that twice ten should not make twenty. Whereby is proved the power of nature, and how it is she only which we call God.” – Pliny the Elder

The last section presented the argument from evil as evidence against the existence of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. In this section we will think through some additional reasoning used in challenging the existence of a deity with these attributes, and as creator of the universe.

The first type of contentions are based on the logic of God’s presumed characteristics.  The term all-powerful appears to be logically inconsistent. Can God make 2+2 = 5?  Does God have the power to limit His own power or to end his existence? If God is all-good, does he have the ability to cause evil? Presumably the answer to these questions is no, in which case there is a limit to his power. The traditional response to these arguments is to say that his power is limited to the logically possible. But in that case God is limited by something outside of Himself, logic, making God something less than the greatest being imaginable or the totality of reality.

Similarly, if free agency exists, then God cannot force a free being to act in a particular manner, and again He is limited. If free will is real, then God cannot “know” what a free being will do. It seems odd if not irrational to say God always knew Shakespeare would write Hamlet, and every word of the play before Shakespeare wrote it; in which case, is Shakespeare truly its author?  Rational limits on God’s power and knowledge undermine  the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience .

The second type of disputation is from the scientific standpoint. As we learn increasing details on the origin of the cosmos and the physical laws that govern it, it appears to be progressively unnecessary to postulate a creator. It simply adds unverifiable and unnecessary complexity to cosmology. If any evolving scientific explanation is countered by the theologian as being just one more step back to the final explanation of a ‘hypothetical’ divine being, it appears no better than insisting on the existence of unicorns in the absence of evidence for them.  Philosophically, the theologian should be able to present positive evidence of His existence in the face of modern science rather than default to the position that scientists or nonbelievers must disprove his existence.

At the end of the day, logic and common experience of the world appear unable to prove the existence of or even a high likelihood of the Divine (at least in the traditional form). Rather faith, mystical experience, and the like  seem to be the basis for most religious belief. We will discuss these in the next blog.

ARGUMENTS AGAINST GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART I

“Before the holocaust, Jews believed in God but not the devil. But after the holocaust, Jews believed in the devil but not God.” – Elie Wiesel

 

There are in fact no philosophical proofs against the existence of God, as such. Rather the traditional arguments are against God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. The basis of this argument is that there is evil in the world, which is logically inconsistent with such a divine being. Most of us have experienced this doubt when confronted by horrible natural disasters or great human evil. The deaths of so many in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany or natural disasters such as a tsunami invariably make us ask: “would an all-powerful and all-good God permit this?”

The rebuttals to this argument from evil are called ‘theodicy’  (the roots of this word are  ‘god’ and ‘justice’) a term first used by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. The argument from evil has remained a challenge for Christian theologians,  the various refutations to the argument include the propositions that evil is due to:

1)  punishment by God for sin especially original sin of the first humans  – i.e. it is justified,

2)  free agency of imperfect beings including humans and demons (especially Satan), that is, free will is a good worth consequent evils,

3)  logical requirements – i.e. the current world is the best of all possible worlds (Liebniz’s position),

4)  it’s function in moral strengthening (the higher-order goods defense),

5)  illusion, misinterpretation, or simple privation, or

6)  reasons beyond human understanding  (the conclusion of the biblical Job).

None of these is completely successful and the details of these responses are beyond the scope of this site. However readers will have little trouble finding detailed discussions in readily available books and on websites and in debates posted on YouTube.

Nonetheless, for most philosophers, I suspect the reality of evil in the world makes an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God implausible and perhaps a logical contradiction.

ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART III

It is clear that science too rests on faith; there is no science without presuppositions.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In the last two sections, we examined the ontological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. Now we will look at the teleological argument which is based on thinking about the possibility of a design of the universe (also seen in Aquinas’ fifth way). It was most clearly articulated in its early form by William Paley in his Natural Theology. He points out that while we might find a stone on the ground and assume it to be unworthy of explanation, if we find a watch on the ground, we naturally ask how it came into existence recognizing the parts are so placed as to demonstrate a purpose and thus require a designer. He then applies that metaphor to the universe in general and to living beings in particular, seeing them as mechanisms with many interacting parts that similarly must have a designer, that is, God.

David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion counters that there are a finite number of configurations of particles and given adequate time, they would eventually take on forms that appear designed- that is suggesting chance could lead to the apparent design of the universe and living things. He also points out that this argument allows for multiple designers, perhaps mortal rather than divine, and that the imperfections in the universe argue against a particularly excellent designer.

Later science, including physics, cosmology, and biology (for example the theory of evolution) undermined much of Paley’s simplistic argument, but left an enigma. We appear to be able to demonstrate many of the physical laws underlying the universe, matter, and life, but the probability of the universe appearing spontaneously in a form with these finely tuned physical laws appears to be unlikely to be the result of chance alone. For instance take the finely tuned gravitational or cosmological constants which mathematics tell us could not have been off by 1/1060 to 1/10120 without the universe flying apart or collapsing in on itself.

Science’s best answer to date is the theory of a ‘multiverse’ where there are an infinite or very large number of ‘universes’; the one we inhabit being a fortunate one where galactic stability and physical laws allow life – the corollary being that if this universe did not meet those criteria, we wouldn’t be here to question it, as may be the case in alternate universes.1

However the idea of a multiverse borders on metaphysical speculation and is not based on science per se. Moreover the postulation of infinite universes seems to violate ‘Ockham’s razor’ wherein explanations should not multiply assumptions unnecessarily. Alternatively, the skeptic would point out the infinitesimal likelihood of a spontaneous creator with the ability to fine tune the universe we inhabit.

1Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, 1996. ISBN: 978-0-307-29117-2, Chapter 8.

ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART II

“…the truth about God such as reason could discover would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

Last time we discussed the ontological argument for the existence of God. Now we will examine the cosmological argument which is based on thinking about contingency in and of the universe. For a philosopher a contingent thing may be or may not be, or might have been or might not have been, that is, it depends on something outside itself. For instance, you and I are contingent; we might have never been born, but were brought into existence by the actions of our parents. The color of grass is green to the human eye, but might have been otherwise, that is, there is nothing about grass that logically demands it be green. Alternatively a non-contingent thing is necessary or necessarily true and cannot be imagined otherwise – take for example the equation ‘2+2=4.’

The cosmological argument looks at the contingent facts of the universe and proceeds backwards to find an independent or non-contingent explanation. It was developed most famously by St. Thomas Aquinas in the first three of his five proofs for the existence of God, called by him the ‘Five Ways’* in Summa Theologica. Expressed briefly, they are:

1.  Motion – what is moved must be moved by another and so forth, but one cannot go back infinitely, therefore there must be a first mover which is God.

2. Cause – all contingent things have a cause and again the non-infinite regress takes one to the first cause which is God. 

3. Possibility – all individual things are possible, but must derive from something ultimately necessary, that is God.

This is an example of an a posteriori argument; it depends on experience of the world rather than entirely on logic. There are cogent arguments against it, for example, David Hume argues that an infinite series of causes or motions is not illogical and needs no outside explanation. He also denies the meaning of necessary existence and points out that the universe itself might be necessarily existent. Very involved arguments continue into modern times, some of which make up an entire chapter in Baruch Brody’s Readings in the Philosophy of Religion and an intriguing entry in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 2 for the curious.

Perhaps the critical take-away is that the cosmological argument is the theologian’s answer to the question: ‘Why is there anything at all?’- perhaps the most profound question in philosophy. Later we will consider other proposed answers.

 

 *The fourth and fifth ways are briefly:

4. Gradation of things – each comparison of a thing, for example its goodness, must be compared to a greater thing, the greatest being God

5. World Governance – things are directed to an end, which requires an intelligent director which for the universe is God.

ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART I

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use.” – Galileo

 

During the middle ages, scholars wanted to marry faith and philosophy on the question of the existence of God because even though they believed faith trumped reason, they felt the two should not be inconsistent. From their efforts were derived three ‘proofs’ of the existence of God known as the ontological, the cosmological, and the teleological proofs. It is not the place of this site to present in detail the proofs themselves and the debate they raise, rather to summarize them and lead the reader to resources where he can explore them should he choose.

The Ontological proof was first developed by St. Anselm in his Proslogium published in the 11th century. Briefly his argument is as follows:

 1.  A being which no greater being can be conceived and as such exists in our     understanding.

2.  It is greater to exist in reality than not to exist in reality.

3.  Therefore a being which no greater being can be conceived must exist in        reality.

This type of proof is called a priori, that is based on pure logic and not experience of the world. It is not convincing; to most it appears to suggest actual existence from a simple idea, but philosophers including the monk Guanilon, a contemporary of Anselm, struggled to disprove it. Guanilon’s argument comes down to saying that understanding the words ‘being which no greater being can be conceived’ is not the same as being able to actually conceive or understand the actual proposed being; in fact Guanilon does not believe any human can understand God. I tend to agree; it seems similar to the word ‘infinity’ which I understand without actually knowing exactly what it is.

However, most philosophers feel the best counter-argument to Anselm was Immanuel Kant’s contention as presented in his Critique of Pure Reason that existence is not a predicate at all, i.e. an existing being is not in fact ‘greater’ than the idea of it.

THE QUESTION OF GOD

“There is one God, supreme among gods and men, resembling mortals neither in form nor in mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. Without toil he rules all things by the power of his mind.” – Xenophanes

The next great problem in the search for a path to a philosophically guided life is the immense question of the existence and nature of God. As we discussed earlier, prehistoric man used the concept of divine spirits to explain otherwise mystifying events in the world. This carried over into early civilization as anthropomorphic agents with superhuman abilities that interact in various ways with mankind and expect worship and sacrifice. After thousands of years, during what Karl Jaspers calls the axial age, some cultures  – especially the Hebrews, but also Zarathustra and some Indian and Greek philosophers- began to realize polytheism was unnecessarily complex, even illogical, and began to proclaim or argue there was only one God or at least one supreme divinity (it is difficult to know exactly when atheism appeared and how widespread it was at any given time due to cultural restraints on its proponents). In any case, polytheism essentially disappeared by modern times leaving only two fundamental questions:

1.   Is there a God?

2.  What is His* nature?

The following blogs will address these two questions in a systematic order. First we will look at arguments for and against His existence. Thereafter we will look at different ideas on his attributes followed by theoretical reasons to believe in his existence outside of proof. Then we will make a very brief survey of the subject of religion, followed by the possible means to make contact with God and explore the concept of a relationship with Him. Last we will examine the reasonableness and consequences of the positions of atheism and agnosticism.

If the reader already has firm beliefs on these matters, it may be tempting, even reasonable, to skip the rest of this section. However if those beliefs are not based on careful reflection, they are not philosophically valid as such. As always, short cuts in philosophy may lead to error or enduring doubts.

*I will use the customary capitalized male article and possessive in reference to God as preferable to using the word, ‘God’ repeatedly or the neutral ‘It’ or even the feminine ‘She.’ However of course, like most people, I do not believe God has gender in the human sense and the male gender is only used for simplicity.

SYNOPSIS OF GOOD AND EVIL

“Where there is good, there must be evil.” – Lu Wang, 13th century Chinese metaphysician.

In summing up the place of good and evil in a personal philosophical program, the following points are worth emphasis.

You will have to choose an understanding of the words ‘good’ and  ‘evil’ that is comprehensive enough to encompass their full meaning;  an error in definition may have later consequences. My definition of ‘good’ is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe . Notice that omitting the latter meaning neglects the value of other living things. Evil then is the opposite.

Goods and evils can be classified as I have done in Table 1 in the Appendix, but the reader may have other thoughts, and the exercise of writing them down is likely to be helpful. Goods can be intrinsic, that is, good in themselves; or instrumental, that is valuable as means to other goods. They can also be internal to the individual and/or external, that is, outside the individual or shared. Intrinsic and internal goods are likely to be more vital to personal meaning and fulfillment. Goods can be ranked, albeit inexactly, but the summum bonum or highest good for most of us is likely to be the dual hope of happiness and meaning.

Evil can be natural or due to free agency; the latter being caused by accident or human imperfections of immaturity, error (especially mistaken certainty), weakness, selfishness (especially self-aggrandizement), and malice. Therefore the twin goals of self-perfection and humility are potent means to limit evil.

Humanity tends to view the universe as the stage for a conflict between Good and Evil, and this mythology has great power in our lives. Varied philosophical sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and separate oneself from it is to be a force for good; that is, good will – the commitment to do good – is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it. Traditionally the ‘saint’ and the ‘hero’ are the two apex manifestations of the self-perfection, humility, sacrifice, and selflessness that allow humans to side with goodness in the universe, and achieve apotheosis.