Tom Gilson
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40 thoughts on “Some Things We Can Know About the Ultimate Cause of Nature

  1. No time to comment on all of these at the moment, but here are my two main objections.

    Theological simplicity isn’t logically necessary. What is necessary is that the parts of the system not be reducible. I assume this is what you mean when you say “not composed of parts.” There’s nothing wrong with parts as long as those parts don’t reduce to something more fundamental. Further reduction would contradict the premise, but having multiple irreducible parts does not.

    As for point (4), that’s really a theistic assumption, and is not a constraint on first causes generally. This is because you assume that the first cause is external to the universe (which is begging the question). If the universe has a first event (i.e., an initial uncaused state), then there is no need for anything external. There is no creative force outside the universe because there is no creative force at all. There’s no need for every N dimensional bounded manifold to sit in an N+1 dimensional space. There’s no need for anything to be outside the physical universe, even if spacetime is bounded.

    Theistic assumptions are embedded again in (5). There, you assume that there is an external creative force which creates time. This begs the question. If the initial state of the universe is uncaused, then it satisfies the self-existence condition because it terminates the regress.

    Just stating things more generally, any solution to first cause is going to look like a list of conditions or rules that have no prior causes or deeper explanations. This list could be written {L1, L2, L3,…}. If any one of these could be written in terms of something else (reducible), then that would refute the premise that we had the minimal, simplest list. This is true whether we look at physicalism or theism.

    In the case of theism, the L’s would be the attributes of God, whatever they might be. In the case of physicalism, one solution is to say that the set L1, L2,… consists of the laws of physics plus initial conditions. If there is no prior cause for the initial conditions, and no deeper explanation for the laws, then the set {L} is satisfactory as a first cause.

  2. doctor(logic)

    If your putative ultimate cause C consists of parts that are non-reducible, then by what principle, law, process, rule, etc. do those parts relate to one another? Any such principle etc. ruling over the nature of C renders C less than ultimate. So you are wrong on that count.

    My point 4 was based on the necessity of the ultimate cause’s being simple. Since I don’t think you’ve overturned that necessity, I don’t think you have a starting point for the objection you’ve raised here. That’s one answer to what you’ve said. But there’s something even more important to be settled.

    You say it’s not necessary to assume the first cause is external to the universe. Indeed, if C is some natural first cause, that would be a very poor assumption for me to make! But in order to get to where you’re going, you have to posit a first event as an initial uncaused state. I’m confused. Is it an event or a state? There’s a huge, huge difference between the two, and that difference comes right to the core of the debate.

    I’ll let you answer that before I say anything else. We can’t proceed with this until you get it straight in your own mind. Your clarification on that is also essential to the discussion concerning point 5. Thanks.

  3. Tom,

    If the ultimate cause C consists of parts that are non-reducible, by what principle do those parts relate to one another? Any such principle ruling over the nature of C renders C less than ultimate

    I don’t understand this at all. As long as the components of C cannot be reduced to the results of prior causation, and as long as the interactions between the parts of C cannot be reduced to prior forces, why should that disqualify C from being ultimate?

    To try to create a theistic (if not necessarily Christian) counterexample, let’s suppose that God’s power and God’s goodness were different, irreducible parts of God. And let’s further suppose that God’s goodness limits the use of God’s power to effecting good actions, i.e., God’s goodness + his will + his power determine subsequent states. I don’t see why God’s goodness being distinctly a different part than his power would disqualify such a god from being a first cause. It’s not as if his power is being prior caused by his goodness or vice versa. Both can exist as simultaneous parts of the first cause.

    Is it an event or a state?

    There might be problems in taking a purely ontological approach because there’s really no time in the absence of events to delimit points in time. But that’s a different discussion that’s not directly relevant to this one. For simplicity, let’s posit an initial state rather than an initial event, and let’s just assume we can tag non-events with a time coordinate. In the simplest case of a physical first cause/state, imagine there’s an initial state at t=0, and there are timeless laws of physics that dictate necessary states at subsequent times (a deterministic universe). There are other variations on this theme that can be imagined, but the one above is simplest. The state at t=0 has no prior cause, but it is the cause of future states.

  4. I don’t understand this at all. As long as the components of C cannot be reduced to the results of prior causation, and as long as the interactions between the parts of C cannot be reduced to prior forces, why should that disqualify C from being ultimate?

    Alright, I’m curious if something. Let’s say at t=0, there existed a Rubik’s Cube. Not even a special one, other than the fact that it exists at t=0. At t>0, entirely through physical law, the events of the Big Bang take place.

    Would the Rubik’s Cube be ‘ultimate’ by your reckoning?

    there are timeless laws of physics that dictate necessary states at

    So you’re not accounting for the laws either? The laws are given – they are real things, contingent, yet timelessly existing, brute – and the state is also contingent and brute?

  5. dl,

    Before I respond further to you on components and forces I need clarification. Does “cannot be reduced to the results of prior causation” mean “uncaused”? To my mind, “cannot be reduced” carries hints of epistemology—our inability to do this “reducing” by means of physical research—which is in a different category than what we’re talking about.

    I understand the quest to unify the basic physical forces, and that when you speak of a force that cannot be reduced to any others, you might have something like that grand unified theory in mind. It could conceivably reveal to us one force that “cannot be reduced” to any others; indeed, one that need not be reduced to any others. That answer only applies to the principle by which your irreducible components relate to one another, though, and it is still not clear to me that irreducible in that sense has anything to do with uncaused.

    If it is not uncaused, then it is not ultimate. That should be clear enough.

    Regarding an event or a state, you are (for simplicity) positing an initial state. This state is comprehensive: there are no events, period. So it is timeless. You can’t just assume you can tag non-eventness with a time-coordinate; comprehensive non-eventness is different from what you called “non-events” (your use of the plural there is telling; I caution you to be more careful). But somehow t-is-meaningless transitions to t=0, and events start happening. How does this state of comprehensive eventlessness accomplish that transition? What is it in this eventless state that causes something to happen? Wouldn’t it require some event to make that transition begin? But that’s contradictory, which points to the impossibility of an eventless state being the ultimate.

    What is a timeless law of physics, by the way? Do you mean timeless in the sense of always and eternally true (in whatever sense laws of physics are true)? Or timeless in the sense that it bears no relation to the time dimension? Either way, could you explain for me the principle by which such a law could obtain in a state of comprehensive eventlessness?

    Now, if instead the ultimate is an event, and as you have reminded us the universe is (on your view) deterministic, then this causal event had to have produced its effect instantaneously. Its first effect, and the whole causal chain that followed therefrom, must have taken place at the same instant that it first gained the ability to cause that effect; which, if it is ultimate, must have been infinitely long ago; which means that the universe has already been running deterministically for an actually infinite length of time. It should have run out of gas by now.

    An initial eventless state runs into a contradiction, and there is also a serious problem attending the idea of an ultimate initiating event.

  6. Crude,

    Every brute fact is ultimate. That includes brute facts that are introduced today, e.g., if nuclear decays are ontologically random, then the times at which the days occur (and the direction of the products) are brute, ultimate facts.

    If the universe started as an ordinary Rubik’s Cube, then, yes, that cube is ultimate. The cube is uncaused (by supposition), so while is may resemble the 1980’s toy in every way, it has no causal connection with they toy.

    So you’re not accounting for the laws either? The laws are given – they are real things, contingent, yet timelessly existing, brute – and the state is also contingent and brute?

    Correct. Nothing about the ultimate can ever be accounted for. Not even in theism. If it could be accounted for, then it would be reducible to some form of causation.

  7. Wow.

    Is nuclear decay ultimate in the relevant sense here?

    Agree with your last paragraph, by the way, but I don’t see how you’re going to put all your ultimates together.

  8. Tom,

    I’m not trying to make an epistemological statement. I’m just saying that any uncaused condition is brute and ultimate.

    But somehow t-is-meaningless transitions to t=0, and events start happening. How does this state of comprehensive eventlessness accomplish that transition?

    I think you’re thinking in analogy with our world of everyday experience, and cannot see what I’m talking about. Please bear with me through a few examples.

    Example 1: Consider a mathematical sphere (spherical surface). It’s surface is mapped out in latitude and longitude. Being humans, we have a hard time imagining a 2D spherical surface without that surface being embedded in a 3D space. But it is possible to imagine the 2D surface without a third dimension by considering a projection, like a map you would see on the wall in a classroom.

    This 2D mathematical object does not need a creator. There’s no time dimension in this hypothetical picture. The sphere is a timeless (since there’s no time dimension) mathematical entity. The surface is two-dimensional and bounded.

    BTW, I believe it was Gauss who proved that you don’t need an N+1 dimensional space in which to embed a bounded N dimensional manifold. In other words, the sphere doesn’t have to live in a 3-dimensional space.

    Example 2: Now consider a mathematical cone (conical surface). It’s a timeless, two-dimensional structure that has a distinct “pointy” end. (Let’s suppose the cone it infinitely long towards the non-pointy end.) Being humans, we can’t help thinking of the cone as a 3-dimensional object sitting in a 3 dimensional space, but we’re really talking about a 2-dimensional surface. As with the sphere (globe), we can cook up a 2D projection of the cone. However, unlike the spherical surface, the cone has a discontinuity at the pointy end. Whereas at most points on the surface, the surface is smooth and continuous, and every point is surrounded by other, arbitrarily-nearby points, the end of the cone is a special case.

    What I’m saying is that spacetime could be like the cone. All our experience is on the smooth 2-D surface of the cone, and we infer from our experience that the cone is pointy at the (Big Bang) end. One possibility is that the cone is embedded in some higher dimensional space. But it’s also possible that the cone is all there is, and it’s not embedded in a higher dimensional space. Since time is just an internal coordinate on the cone (just like latitude was an internal coordinate on the sphere), spacetime is eternal. There’s no time outside the cone, and indeed there nothing outside the cone.

  9. Tom,

    Continuing…

    If we want to describe the brute, ultimate facts of the cone, we’ll come up with a minimal parametrization of the cone. There will be a height and a longitude.

    Obviously, if the universe is like a cone, that cone is not some featureless 2-D surface. There are events, matter, forces etc which take place on that surface. Not all of the structure on the cone is random – some parts of the structure are necessitated by others. So a minimal, brute, ultimate description of the universe will include its basic structure, those facts that aren’t fixed by other facts + laws operating on the surface.

    In other words, laws + initial conditions describe all of spacetime, and that spacetime is eternal in the sense that we should properly regard it from the outside as being like a static, eternal object.

    One more analogy. Think of the universe as a movie with frame #1 being the initial state of the Big Bang. The movie is eternal because time = frame number. The movie itself has no frame number.

  10. Tom,

    Is nuclear decay ultimate in the relevant sense here?

    If aspects of nuclear decay are truly random, then yes. They would be facts that cannot be accounted for by any other facts.

  11. No, nuclear decay is not uncaused. It requires the presence of fissible material, for one thing. That material is part of the causal stream leading to nuclear decay. There is more to that causal stream, of course. Obviously there is one widely respected version of nuclear physics that says some of that causal stream is blank, with the result that there is literally nothing that causes a particular particle to decay at time t1 rather than time t2; or, that there is literally nothing that triggers the particle’s decay whenever that might be. Let’s take it that this interpretation, though controversial, is nevertheless accurate. It still wouldn’t mean that nuclear decay is uncaused. It would only mean that there’s one branch in the causal stream leading up to it that’s empty. Other branches are not so empty.

    We’re looking for something that’s truly uncaused. Nuclear decay is decidedly not ultimate.

    I’m working backward; I’ll have something to say shortly about your other comments.

  12. I’m just saying that any uncaused condition is brute and ultimate.

    Is God an ‘uncaused condition’? Most theists I’m aware of will agree that God is ultimate, but deny that God is brute, much less a brute condition.

    And that’s part of the problem here. As near as I can tell, your response to Tom basically boils down to “Well, maybe nature just exists, period, without explanation or cause or purpose or reason or necessity.” You’re not giving an ultimate cause of nature – you’re saying that there is none. Inexplicably, nature exists.

  13. I will admit that dl’s cone illustration is a fresh perspective for me and I’m going to take some time to think about it.

  14. Crude,

    I think the problem you have with the word “brute” is that the word has a different meaning in other contexts, i.e., a brute is a savage. Instead of the word brute, let’s use the term “inexplicable in principle” (IIP).

    Would that work for you?

  15. Tom,

    I agree with what you’re saying about nuclear decays. I’m just saying that if the time of a decay (and the direction of its products) is truly random, then the random aspect of the decay is uncaused, brute and inexplicable. The entire decay isn’t but some aspects of it are.

  16. DL,

    I think the problem you have with the word “brute” is that the word has a different meaning in other contexts, i.e., a brute is a savage. Instead of the word brute, let’s use the term “inexplicable in principle” (IIP).

    Er, no. Why would you think my problem here has anything to do with, say… troglodytes? Nothing I said even hinted at that.

    The problem I pointed out is that God is, from what I’ve read from most philosophers and theologians, not offered as some brute fact. Nor do I think Tom’s OP is rightly conceived as ‘Come up with some brute facts to base nature on.’ That’s trivially easy.

    And it’s also one part of the problem I have with the cone example: The cone itself isn’t doing any work in the explanation. You may as well say, maybe there’s no point to the cone – maybe it’s the tip is chopped off, and that’s where t=0. Why is there even there even something approaching a cone shape, as opposed to any other shape?

    At best, the cone is neat because it reflects popular timelines of our universe. But when you cash out what it means, all that’s being said is, again, “Well, maybe nature just exists, period, without explanation or cause or purpose or reason or necessity.” All that you get by adding the cone example is, “And maybe it’s shaped like a cone for the same reasons.”

  17. I’m still thinking through the cone thing.

    But I’m also flummoxed by your whipsawing back and forth from epistemology to ontology and back again. You’re back into epistemology this time: “Inexplicable in principle.” It’s not about whether anyone can understand it or not. It’s about whether it’s caused or not.

    I’m also having trouble sorting out what nuclear decay has to do with anything, now that we agree it’s not uncaused or ultimate.

  18. Crude,

    I agree that my uncaused start isn’t doing work, and I agree that, in theory, we could cut the cone before the vertex. (Though, there’s a rational reason not to cut the cone after apparent history begins.)

    But the question isn’t about “doing work”. It’s about what is necessary for something to be uncaused.

    Moreover, the only work that could possibly be done by the ultimate uncaused thing would be prediction of all the subsequent caused things. And the Big Bang singularity does precisely that.

    A creator doesn’t do as much work as a Big Bang singularity. If you don’t assume anything about the creator, then the creator could do anything, including not make a universe at all, or make any alternate universe imaginable. A generic creator doesn’t predict our universe. If you fine-tune the creator, and say “we’re only considering those creators who would make a universe just like ours”, then you’re still not saying anything predictive or verifiable beyond physics, and not doing any work. It’s not as if you’re adding to knowledge by conjecturing about undetectable external causes. That does no more work than an unpredictive multiverse theory.

  19. Crude’s question about the cone might provoke a rejoinder, “Why in theism is there anything like God, rather than something else?” The philosophical answer is Anselm’s: God is that than which no greater can be imagined. That one principle leads to a considerable stream of coherent and complementary attributes of God. (There is also a revelational answer which is much, much more richly informed, but we’re not working on that level here.)

  20. Tom,

    I guess I don’t see the direct relevance of Anselm to this question. The question being, “what are the constraints on a first cause or an uncaused thing from which all other causation flows?”

    The question wasn’t “what’s the greatest thing imaginable which is uncaused and from which all other causation flows?”, which would certainly beg the question.

    Just because we can try to imagine the greatest possible thing doesn’t mean that thing exists. I’m not even convinced that the greatest imaginable thing is even meaningful.

  21. Tom:

    Please be aware DL is stealthily peddling his anti-Principle of Sufficient Reason nonsense behind the crafty use of the qualifier “if” as it applies to nuclear decay.

    As a specialist in things nuclear, I can assure you DL is not doing science even when qualifying with the word “if.” He’s permitting current quantum mechanical mathematical formalisms to actualize the reality they’re merely meant to describe and enhance our ability to make predictions.

    Those formalisms are limited because the observations of quantum events are limited: it’s a simple concept that most physicists learn at some point… except, apparently, DL. Just because our ability to probe nature at that level is not fine enough does not mean that nature itself is “random.” To assert (as he would love to do, but can’t because he’s unable to back it up) that quantum events are ontologically “random” because the mathematics supposedly dictates this (1) does not follow (mathematics can’t do that–only dumb human can), and (2) is to assert contingent material objects and physical phenomena arise without cause.

    That provides him the cover–albeit nonsensical–to assert the universe or the so-called “laws” (there are no such things–they are metaphors) are brute facts that need no explanation… hence avoiding the issue of why something exists rather than nothing. In other words, he assumes that of which he sets out to convince himself. It’s not just that he’s got the philosophy wrong, he’s got the logic wrong: he literally embraces a fallacy!

    Realize, from another perspective, just how dumb this idea is (I’ve heard such nonsense from others as well): DL is also hiding behind a misappropriation of the Principles of Complementarity and Correspondence. Why? Ask him at what level material objects or physical phenomena transition from “caused” to “uncaused” and visa versa from from wave to particle and visa versa… and then get ready for a good laugh. (Remember the guy I told you about who believes overall the universe has no meaning, but that there are pockets of “negative” and “positive” meaning? It’s on the same level of dumbness.)

    To believe, as DL does, that the concept of causality writ large is a purely scientific concept is to believe a flying spaghetti monster really exists. I prefer Everett’s (from O Brother Where Art Thou?) characterization of such beliefs: dumber than a bag of hammers.

    Finally, it’s precisely at such junctures that philosophy shows its strength and certainty over the modern empirical sciences: a solid realist philosophy of nature explains why ontologically random events are impossible. Period. Physics can’t do that… just like physics can’t reduce the concept of motion to merely dx/dt. Period.

  22. Constraints, eh? You’re begging the question again.

    Your ready rejoinder to the ontological argument has nothing to do with the topic at hand. I didn’t raise that issue.

  23. Anyway, the real question has to do with the degree of ad hoc-ness of our respective approaches. Your cone is as ad hoc as they come. It just is, uncaused, partaking in being without explaining being (God is being; he does not partake in it). It has no reason to be the way it is rather than some other way. What it is, it is. And it’s absolutely crammed full of particulars: that initial level of entropy, that other relationship between mass and energy, some cosmological constant or other, and gazillions upon gazillions of little instances of uncaused decays of radioactive particles. All of them just what they are.

    Theism is so much more economical than your cone!

  24. DL,

    But the question isn’t about “doing work”. It’s about what is necessary for something to be uncaused.

    I disagree. It’s certainly not about ‘what is necessary for something to be uncaused’, because that implies that that there’s an explanation for the ‘uncaused thing’ in question. But your ‘uncaused things’ here have no explanation, period. There’s no “reason it is uncaused”. It just is uncaused, period, end of discussion.

    A creator doesn’t do as much work as a Big Bang singularity. If you don’t assume anything about the creator, then the creator could do anything, including not make a universe at all, or make any alternate universe imaginable.

    That relies on a number of assumptions about what we can know about a creator – that ‘God’ is entirely unbounded in every relevant way (logical or otherwise), that no investigation (philosophical or otherwise) can inform us about God in relevant ways, etc. I see no reason to accept those claims.

    A creator, certainly a sustaining creator, does plenty of work. Now, if you mean “well, it doesn’t do any work that I can’t do just by saying ‘it’s an inexplicable brute fact, period'”, sure. But you can pull that out at any time – it’s the God of the gaps for atheists.

    Moreover, the only work that could possibly be done by the ultimate uncaused thing would be prediction of all the subsequent caused things. And the Big Bang singularity does precisely that.

    First, you don’t need the Big Bang singularity to do that – you just need any uncaused state. It could be any point after where you’d normally suggest a singularity. Even fairly far down the line – just regard any extrapolations we’d normally take prior to said state as a useful fiction.

    Second, prediction and explanation are not equivalent terms. You can make predictions while still lacking explanation, and you can have an explanation that is valid but doesn’t make an exacting prediction.

    Either way, to go back to the key point here: At the end of the day, all you’re saying here is “Well, maybe nature just exists, period, without explanation or cause or purpose or reason or necessity.”

    And let me ask you this: Would you say it’s rational for someone to believe this? And I’ll note that there’s no way to scientifically test this claim.

  25. Holo,

    I know that DL’s interpretation of quantum decay is controversial at best. I just thought that I could get to my point equally as well without bothering to engage him on that one.

  26. Tom,

    The question being, “what are the constraints on a first cause or an uncaused thing from which all other causation flows?”

    Constraints, eh? You’re begging the question again.

    Um, constraints as in having no forms of prior causation. Constraints as in necessities.

    Anyway, the real question has to do with the degree of ad hoc-ness of our respective approaches.

    So what of your points (3), (4), (5) and (7) in the original post? You said they were necessary for an uncaused thing. Are you taking that back?

    As for economy, I don’t think you have a rigorous definition of what makes a theory economical. You talk about God as if he is simple, when he’s extremely (perhaps infinitely) complex. If he’s so complex, he’ll have millions or an infinity of parameters that describe his thoughts from one moment to the next. If I handed you a physical theory with a million parameters that I couldn’t explain, you would say that wasn’t economical. But you only think God is economical because you don’t bother to consider what it would be like to enumerate God’s parameters.

    On the other hand, if simplicity doesn’t have anything to do with the number of parameters, but instead with the ability to simply state what’s happening, then I’m sure we could do something similar for a physical theory.

  27. You talk about God as if he is simple, when he’s extremely (perhaps infinitely) complex. If he’s so complex, he’ll have millions or an infinity of parameters that describe his thoughts from one moment to the next.

    God as conceived, offered and argued for traditionally is not “extremely (perhaps infinitely) complex”, much less does He have changing thoughts “from moment to moment”. Even if you were to take an unorthodox view of God, it’s not clear that this view would work compared to “whatever it was, it existed brutely, has no explanation, and no mind at all”. I’m in the minority around here in thinking that even a Zeus-like deity has more going for it intellectually than what you’re offering.

  28. Crude,

    Either way, to go back to the key point here: At the end of the day, all you’re saying here is “Well, maybe nature just exists, period, without explanation or cause or purpose or reason or necessity.”

    And let me ask you this: Would you say it’s rational for someone to believe this? And I’ll note that there’s no way to scientifically test this claim.

    Based on observation, it’s rational to believe that there’s nothing more than physics. I wouldn’t say it’s rational to say the chain of causation is finite or infinite, since the world could look the same either way.

    Here’s why I say this. In your last comment, you said I assumed that we could know nothing about the creator. That’s not strictly true. Consider the following two statements:

    1) The world was created by an intelligent creator that transcends physics.

    2) The world is governed exclusively by physics.

    Neither (1) nor (2) are specifically predictive. Statement (2) taken as is, has no parameters or equations, and it doesn’t even tell me about Newton’s Laws. It’s almost totally vague. It says, the laws of physics, whatever they are, account for all our observations, whatever they are.

    Likewise, (1) is almost totally vague. The creator, whoever it is, accounts for all our observations, whatever they are.

    However, there are more possible worlds under (1) than under (2). Under physics, every entity is governed by the laws of physics. Under a supernatural creator, you can have a physical universe plus entities that are not governed (or not completely constrained) by physics (e.g., angels and demons).

    Even knowing nothing about actual physics or an actual creator, this already puts theism at a disadvantage. We don’t see any beings that are physically invulnerable, myths about angels and demons notwithstanding. Only a subset of created universes are devoid of supernatural creatures, while all physical universes are devoid of supernatural creatures.

    Now, this doesn’t mean that theory (1) is completely ruled out. A theory can overcome a probability disadvantage by proving itself in experience. But to do that, it has to be predictive. If a theory doesn’t preferentially predict what we see rather than what we don’t, then it gains no ground from experience. Theory (2) gains ground when we fine-tune it to predict what we see. We take observations, refine the theory, then it successfully predicts, making our fine-tunings justified.

    Theory (1) could do the same, in principle. Mental attributes could be fundamental, and there could be a form of mental regularity. The universe could be governed by will. I could wish for a chocolate cake, and one could appear in violation of conservation of energy. I could cast spells, for example. Or, every time I blaspheme, I could get an electric shock. There are lots of ways that a non-physical theistic universe could be predictive and scientific. As it turns out, theists are prediction-phobic. They refuse to say that their theories are scientifically. Given that refusal, theory (1) will never catch even the most finely-tuned physical theory. You can fine-tune a creator to predict what we see in experience (ALWAYS AFTER THE FACT), but you’ll never have any justification for the fine-tuning.

  29. Crude,

    Is God’s mind at least complex enough to consider all possible universes? What about considering moral situations? What concepts dwell in the mind of God? Are there a lot of them? If God makes a decision, I assume there are criteria for deciding, right? One result is better than an alternative? How much memory does God have?

    Please tell me why God’s mind is simpler than my mind, because my mind is pretty complex. It’s vastly more complex than the Standard Model, for starters. The Standard Model has about 20 parameters. Takes a lot more than 20 parameters to describe my mind.

    If you want to describe God, you’ll need something far more complex than our physics. Not only this, but God’s mind has to be able to choose to implement our physics over some other physics.

    Suppose you wanted to build a mechanism capable of interacting with millions of humans over thousands of years. That system is massively complex. It’s not simple.

  30. doctor(logic), if you’re going to talk to us about what’s rational, before you get into asserting things like the chain of causation would look the same infinite as finite, or comparing numbers of possible worlds, or ruling out “theory 1,” you really owe us an answer:

    Is your approach to the knowledge of God not question-begging?

  31. DL,

    Based on observation, it’s rational to believe that there’s nothing more than physics. I wouldn’t say it’s rational to say the chain of causation is finite or infinite, since the world could look the same either way.

    But “physics” is entirely open-ended for you – again, you don’t know what “ultimate physics” is or will be, or even that such a thing exists. You’re not saying much more here than “based on observation, it’s rational to believe there’s nothing more than what actually exists, whatever that turns out to be”.

    Here’s why I say this. In your last comment, you said I assumed that we could know nothing about the creator. That’s not strictly true. Consider the following two statements:

    No, let’s not. There are arguments and evidence that aim to establish knowledge about God, including God’s essence by necessity. Granted, we can also know some things about God given empirical observation – but that doesn’t speak to the point I’m making.

    Even knowing nothing about actual physics or an actual creator, this already puts theism at a disadvantage. We don’t see any beings that are physically invulnerable, myths about angels and demons notwithstanding. Only a subset of created universes are devoid of supernatural creatures, while all physical universes are devoid of supernatural creatures.

    I could just as easily say that the majority of the “physical universes” operate according to supernatural physics in whole or in part, and therefore naturalism is at an immediate disadvantage. You’re obfuscating heavily here by saying “all physical universes are devoid of supernatural creatures”, since “supernatural” is undefined and “physical” can mean pretty much anything. To say nothing of the claims that no supernatural beings have been observed – this probably goes back to “Well, if we observed them, we’d have scientific investigations of them.”

    The universe could be governed by will. I could wish for a chocolate cake, and one could appear in violation of conservation of energy. I could cast spells, for example. Or, every time I blaspheme, I could get an electric shock. There are lots of ways that a non-physical theistic universe could be predictive and scientific. As it turns out, theists are prediction-phobic. They refuse to say that their theories are scientifically. Given that refusal, theory (1) will never catch even the most finely-tuned physical theory. You can fine-tune a creator to predict what we see in experience (ALWAYS AFTER THE FACT), but you’ll never have any justification for the fine-tuning.

    Again and again you make this claim, and again and again the answer is: You are trying to reduce God to some kind of law, when it’s not appropriate to do so. But better yet, I can do you one better here: Even in your own examples – if every time you said certain words you got an electric shock, if every time you wished for a chocolate cake you got one, you could still subsume that under ‘physical theory’ in principle. These things just happen, period, inexplicable, full stop, no God needed, those are just the laws we ended up with.

    You may as well be telling me “If God existed, some things would take place that are physically inexplicable.” Then I point out, “Well, quantum level events are at least in part physically inexplicable.” But then you can turn around and say, “Aha, but those are brute events. No one or thing is causing them, they Just Happen.” Your “just is, full stop” ‘out’ is always available. Even if this or that prediction gets falsified, you’ll simply change your prediction because, darnit, that’s how science works, isn’t it spiffy.

    Meanwhile, arguments for God are offered regardless of physical particularity – as in, while some of them are inferred from our experiences, others work regardless of any particular “physics”: Any motion at all will do the trick.

    To sum it up: You’re demanding theists not only make a postulate that science cannot address, somehow investigatible by science, but it comes with the hidden demand that “It has to be something I couldn’t alternately explain, even if you grant me unseen physics or brute facts”. To give another example: This is like asking me to produce an artifact that could only be explained by the workings of some mind, limited or unlimited… while at the same time stipulating “By the way, I can insist that anything Just Exists Period if I want to.”

  32. DL,

    Is God’s mind at least complex enough to consider all possible universes? What about considering moral situations? What concepts dwell in the mind of God? Are there a lot of them? If God makes a decision, I assume there are criteria for deciding, right? One result is better than an alternative? How much memory does God have?

    DL, are you insisting that if God exists, He must be mechanical in some respect? He must be ruled by some physical laws that oversee the physical operations that make up His mind? Because that’s clearly the assumption you’re working with by asking these questions. Even if you don’t accept the arguments for aseity or Pure Act or otherwise, you’re going to have to argue against them if you want anything out of me here. It won’t do just to assume they’re false and treat God as some kind of machine or natural organism.

    But hey, I’ll run another response for you too: Given what you’re assuming here, you’re arguing against Zeus, or Thor, or some deity like that. But Zeus or Thor don’t need to be infinitely complex, or even ‘non-physical’. Better yet, they don’t even need to be uncreated – they can be part of some chain of causation, whether infinite or not. Judging by the standards you’re throwing out here, coupled with observations of what humanity itself is capable of technologically, you should grant a fairly high credence to the claim that such a god or gods exist.

  33. Crude,

    But “physics” is entirely open-ended for you – again, you don’t know what “ultimate physics” is or will be, or even that such a thing exists.

    The same applies to God. You don’t know the mind of God, nor even if there is one.

    There are arguments and evidence that aim to establish knowledge about God, including God’s essence by necessity.

    Whenever I attack one leg of theistic apology, anther one is alleged to keep it propped up. If God exists necessarily, then fine-tuning arguments are irrelevant. I don’t intend to talk about all the legs at once.

    Otherwise, I like the counterargument you’re trying to make, but it still doesn’t work.

    Let’s say for the purposes of this argument that physics is something with is, at root, non-mental, and in which minds are not especially privileged. And a supernatural world is a world in which minds are more fundamental than matter and energy. This division makes my argument work. There’s an inherent asymmetry.

    To say nothing of the claims that no supernatural beings have been observed – this probably goes back to “Well, if we observed them, we’d have scientific investigations of them.”

    Just because something is supernatural doesn’t mean it’s not scientifically detectable. If I can reliably cast Harry Potter’s spells, then you know scientifically that mind appears more fundamental than matter and energy.

    You are trying to reduce God to some kind of law, when it’s not appropriate to do so.

    Says who? Any person with character is lawful, even if just by probability.

    Even in your own examples – if every time you said certain words you got an electric shock, if every time you wished for a chocolate cake you got one, you could still subsume that under ‘physical theory’ in principle. These things just happen, period, inexplicable, full stop, no God needed, those are just the laws we ended up with.

    Just to reiterate what I said earlier in this comment: if physical is interpreted as “at root, non-mental”, then your objection doesn’t stand.

    You may as well be telling me “If God existed, some things would take place that are physically inexplicable.” Then I point out, “Well, quantum level events are at least in part physically inexplicable.” But then you can turn around and say, “Aha, but those are brute events. No one or thing is causing them, they Just Happen.”

    The inexplicable isn’t a basis for belief in God. That would be gaps thinking. The basis for rational belief in God will be positive evidence for God, not just inexplicable stuff. God would need to be a better predictor of events than physics (e.g., my getting hit by lightning will violate conservation of energy, charge, etc.).

  34. Crude,

    DL, are you insisting that if God exists, He must be mechanical in some respect? He must be ruled by some physical laws that oversee the physical operations that make up His mind?

    No, I don’t think I have to do that. If you want to describe my mind, whether mechanical or not, how many parameters does it take? Even if you can only describe my mind in terms of probabilities, there are structures in my mind. Concepts, memories, desires, thoughts. There’s a LOT of stuff there. I don’t see how you’re going to escape complexity.

    I don’t understand your Thor and Zeus argument. Why should I give them high credence? They’re still a lot more complex than the Standard Model, and a lot more fine-tuned.

  35. DL,

    The same applies to God. You don’t know the mind of God, nor even if there is one.

    And this assumes none of the arguments for God or understanding of God work, to begin with.

    Whenever I attack one leg of theistic apology, anther one is alleged to keep it propped up. If God exists necessarily, then fine-tuning arguments are irrelevant. I don’t intend to talk about all the legs at once.

    No, fine-tuning arguments are not irrelevant. And you have a nasty habit of attacking legs of theistic apology that are made of straw – see the ‘God is a mechanical structure’ move.

    Let’s say for the purposes of this argument that physics is something with is, at root, non-mental, and in which minds are not especially privileged. And a supernatural world is a world in which minds are more fundamental than matter and energy. This division makes my argument work. There’s an inherent asymmetry.

    What would “more fundamental” mean? That whatever exists has irreducibly mental properties? But that could be *our* world for all we know, and in numerous ways. One thing’s for certain: Minds exist in our world, and in any “supernatural” world at least one mind exists. Whereas in any “physical” world, as you define it, no minds need exist. Looks like the supernatural world just got a point in its favor by your own standards.

    Your argument not only continues to fail – it just got worse.

    Just because something is supernatural doesn’t mean it’s not scientifically detectable. If I can reliably cast Harry Potter’s spells, then you know scientifically that mind appears more fundamental than matter and energy.

    No, we would NOT know that scientifically, any more than you’d know it if you could reliably cast spells in World of Warcraft. Is mind more fundamental than matter and energy in video games now?

    You’d get as far as “I say these words, I get these results”. But physical law – especially under your unbounded view – can simply work that way, period. It’s just one more mysterious brute fact. You eternally have an out if you want to.

    Just to reiterate what I said earlier in this comment: if physical is interpreted as “at root, non-mental”, then your objection doesn’t stand.

    And I’ll repeat again: Determining whether the world is “at root, mental or non-mental” goes beyond science anyone. Science can’t even tell you what the root of the world is or where explanations actually stop.

    The inexplicable isn’t a basis for belief in God. That would be gaps thinking. The basis for rational belief in God will be positive evidence for God, not just inexplicable stuff. God would need to be a better predictor of events than physics (e.g., my getting hit by lightning will violate conservation of energy, charge, etc.).

    “Physics” for you includes “anything at all, explicable or not, brute or not, from laws to states to situations”. God is not posited as an agent in competition with physics – God is an explanation of physics. You’re demanding “evidence for God” that physics can’t explain, which is not only just a poor way to approach this, but in principle you can give “physics” a blank check in every possible way. And when you tried to tighten that up with the “okay, well, natural physics would be physics that is non-mental”, you ended up with physics that isn’t open to scientific verification.

  36. DL,

    No, I don’t think I have to do that. If you want to describe my mind, whether mechanical or not, how many parameters does it take? Even if you can only describe my mind in terms of probabilities, there are structures in my mind. Concepts, memories, desires, thoughts. There’s a LOT of stuff there. I don’t see how you’re going to escape complexity.

    I don’t need to escape the complexity for your mind – you’re a limited being, just like me. It’s God for whom you have to show such mechanical complexity is necessary, or how the concepts of Pure Act or aseity are false. Get crackin’.

    I don’t understand your Thor and Zeus argument. Why should I give them high credence? They’re still a lot more complex than the Standard Model, and a lot more fine-tuned.

    Where to begin.

    For one thing, you don’t know that the standard model is fundamental in the relevant way. Meaning, it’s an open question under your view whether our universe ‘just is’, or whether it’s part of some greater – even infinite – chain of causes and relations.

    Further, you say they’re ‘fine-tuned’. But complaints of fine-tuning are inapplicable here, because nothing about deities that are Thor- or Zeus-like requires you to end at them in a chain of explanation – or indeed, ever end at all. At the same time, you have no idea, nor can science tell you, when you’ve definitively hit any rock-bottom brute-fact that Just Is – in fact, science has more than once surpassed what was previously assumed to be Just Given. Given your clinging to science as such a standard, any apparent end to the explanatory chain should strike you as exactly that: At best, merely apparent.

    That sticks you with being open to an infinity of explanations in all directions, even if science only focuses on only certain, practical explanations within its limited sphere. Now, given that one thing science has shown is an ability for intelligent agents to achieve some impressive feats technologically, even naturally, you’re going to need a justification for never including any agent – that Zeus-like deity – anywhere in the causal chain you have to be open to, at least in principle. And it only takes one agent like that anywhere in the chain to establish some form of polytheism or paganism as true.

    Granted, you don’t know for certain the extent of that chain or what’s in it. But the question is what you have to be open to given your assumptions. And with those factors in mind, I say you’ll be hard pressed to rule out an agent like that not only as possible, but likely.

    What I’m saying here is not only are you incorrect in treating God as conceived by orthodox Christianity as, in essence, ‘Zeus’, but – if we run with your assumptions and standards – you don’t even have a good argument against Zeus-like deities anyway.

  37. dl,

    You’ve answered my question about question-begging, and I have answered you in a different light with a new blog post. For the record let us also make it clear that your approach to the knowledge of God is not question-begging—not, that is, unless we are talking about the God of Christianity; but in fact we are.

    Your defense against the charge of question-begging (a form of irrationality, I remind you) is to inform us that your approach is just fine as long as God behaves in a certain way. You seem blind to the fact that it is not fine if God does not behave in that certain way; you seem blind to the fact that the God of Christianity is not like the one your defense applies to; and thus you seem blind to the fact that your defense against question-begging is another fallacy, what I have elsewhere called the Wrong God fallacy.

    The credibility of your claim to superior rationality still suffers from your reliance on clearly identifiable fallacies.

    You seem blind, as I have said, to these fallacies. It is a doubly dark blindness, for your blindness to your irrationality in this matter leaves you blind to a reality you might see if you would open your eyes.

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