2008/04/11

Causes and effects: some reminders

There's much made of two arguments for the existence of a god. The first is the argument from design. This nefarious piece of bad reasoning is behind the immensely silly intelligent design "science" (lies) "movement" (insurgency). The idea is supposed to be that the world displays such intricate order that it must have a designer. Yet there is no reason to suppose this is true. Why couldn't matter at high energies self-organize? It doesn't require a will in order that regularities and patterns should arise. A variant of this denies the weak anthropic principle (that clearly we are in this universe because if it were otherwise we couldn't exist, which implies nothing about how "likely" it is that our universe could exist), claiming that we must be living in a designed universe, for how else is it that things could be so supposedly friendly to us? Part of the answer is to point out that almost the entire universe is inhospitable to humans. Another part is simply to point back to the weak anthropic principle: in universes where observers can't exist, they don't. And finally, ask yourself how the universe would look if there had been no designer. (I borrow from Wittgenstein, who once asked how it would look if, instead of the sun going around the earth, the earth rotated.) If you think the universe is designed, then you can't say what a nondesigned universe would be like: you've never seen a nondesigned thing. But if that's the case, why suppose it would be somehow different than what we do see? If you can't make sense of the alternative, there's agood chance you're working with a tautology or circular reasoning, and indeed the assumption that order requires a designer functions in such arguments as just such an implicit circularity-generating premise.

The second argument is the supposed cosmological argument, according to which, briefly, there must be an ultimate cause to the universe, and that cause is God. Let's set aside the obvious question why, just because there is a cause, that cause is anything like what major religions claim God is like. (You just can't get, for example, Allah or JHWH or Vishnu out of "ultimate cause".) The argument goes like this: every event has a cause, therefore there must be a cause of everything, the only thing that could cause everything is an omnipotent being, therefore God exists. Let's ignore the fallacious use of definition to support the reasonableness of the third premise, since if the universe isn't infinitely large it doesn't need an omnipotent cause, and if it is in fact just one thing ("a universe") you would only need a cause that can cause one thing; similarly we ignore the gerrymandering of the definition of "omnipotent" since it's not at all clear what that would be, if coherent. Instead focus on the second and first premises. The logical form of these two items is: (1) for all x, x has a cause; (2) there exists some y such that for all x, y causes x. (I'm ignoring intervening causes for simplicity, but that makes no matter.) But this is just terrible logic, for the (1) does not support (2): this is like saying, "There are three things, and all of them have a cause, therefore there is one thing that caused all of them." It just doesn't follow, unless "has a cause" really means "is caused by the original cause", but that would be circular. So, even if we grant that everything has a cause (and it's not clear we should, in light of the facts,e.g. quantum mechanics), the argument falls at the first fence. Now we might question whether something can come from nothing. Fair enough, but this truth, if it is one, says nothing about God, since it might be that there is some non-god causal chain that goes infinitely in both temporal directions. If on the other hand Hawking is right that there is a beginning to time, then it's not clear what it would mean for the Big Bang event to have a cause. If it means a nonphysical cause, then this will end up being question-begging again.

The problem with both arguments is reliance on some principle about the willing of Creation as an implicit premise of the argument, in each case one that makes the argument turn out circular and so worthless. Clearly the causal order of things is nothing to which we can appeal in discussing the positive evidence for the supernatural. Note also that improbability in a very large universe over a large time scale in addition to various other factors such as human gullibility and a misunderstanding of probability explains the occurrence of supposed miracles, and these too can therefore not be thought of as anything like positive evidence of the supernatural.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Oberon said...

......infinite time....infinite space....infinite possibilities.

8/7/08 19:26  

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