Mikespeir wrote this morning,
If I have to come up with a model for how the universe is self-caused–or self-existent, if you prefer–then you need to do the same for God.
That’s a fair request, except that a model is not really what I’m asking for. The problem is in the term “model” itself. I’ll try to explain why here. This will get into some rough sledding for some readers, but I encourage you to strap on and give it a go.
Let’s suppose nature is self-existent (it’s not self-caused, by the way—which is not a matter of preference, it’s a matter of logical coherence). If nature is self-existent, then something that either is/was nature, or something within nature, or something perhaps much harder to describe than that, caused all the rest of nature to be the way that it is. Let’s not specify what that cause is or might be quite yet; it’s not necessary to do so. We can simply call it C for Cause.
Given this indefinite cause C, what might be possible to say about a model for C? When I think of a model, typically I think of something like parts coming together according to some plan. That’s the quick/crude way to state it. We have to be careful not to conceive of it in contemporary/everyday terms, so I don’t want to imply that a model has to involve physical parts in order to be a genuine model. It could instead be different aspects of it, different functions, any conceivable subset at all of entities of any type. The point is that it’s not a simple unity; there is some kind of composition to it. These parts/aspects/sub-entities/whatever need not actually come together, assembled out of some prior existent; but every model I know of includes entities functioning together by virtue of some working-together-principle or -process, whether that be some plan, law, necessity, design, chance, or whatever.
So the idea of a model involves a subset of entities (broadly understood) working together according to some working-together principle.
That is not what I’m asking for that in the case of any natural cause C for nature. It couldn’t be, for it would be asking you to give me an obviously wrong answer. Suppose you were to supply a model in that sense. If you did that, you couldn’t be providing me with any self-existent cause C. You could only be providing me with a cause C that is dependent in some way upon its subset of entitites and their working-together principle. If this cause C is dependent on anything else, then it’s not the ultimate cause, and it’s not self-existent.
(Note how intractable this is. Suppose you wanted to resolve the problem of C‘s dependency by pushing back to its component entities or working-together principles. Could you push back far enough to reach some other cause C’ that is the real ultimate cause? Suppose the answer were yes. Then suppose you were to try to come up with some model for this real ultimate cause C’. Oops. If you try to model C’, you’ll face exactly the same issues you faced with C.
There’s no way out of that loop. There is just no modeling the ultimate cause. It is impossible in principle. Note, by the way, that what I’ve said applies equally to God: there is no model that explains God. That’s consistent with what I wrote in the post where Mike asked this question.
So does that put us both in a pickle? Not quite. We could still propose a depiction or a theory of some ultimate natural cause C, just as we can propose a theory or depiction of God as the ultimate cause. How could we do that, without falling into the trap set by trying to produce a model? Well, even though there are some things we could never affirm about the ultimate cause, still there several things we can say about it cause, things that are necessarily true. Here are some of them:
- It is necessary. It cannot be contingent upon any prior of any sort, for if it were, it could not be the ultimate cause.
- It is self-existent. If its existence partook of any other other existence, then it would either be a contingent being dependent upon that other existent, or our picture of ultimate reality would involve of pair of necessary beings related by some principle that ruled over their relationship. In that case C (or God) would not be ultimate.
- It is simple in the theological sense of the term, which I need to explain so you don’t think I’m unfairly imposing theology upon a-theology. “Simple” in the theological sense does not mean easy, or comprehensible, or inertly monolithic. It just means “not composed of parts.” I gave the reason for this above, in showing that we could not model the ultimate cause C.
- It is capable of causing effects external to itself without undergoing change within itself. Obviously the first cause C or God must be capable of causing something. But it must do it without any effect within itself, for this reason: (see also 5): Its parts cannot be re-ordered or rearranged, for example, as it causes external effects, for it has no parts. Its external effects cannot be produced by some internal force, for it has nothing within itself to push against. And so on.
- Further in connection to 4: One of the effects that C or God must be able to produce is time and space. Big Bang theory is just one reason (the most widely familiar) that we believe space and time are effects produced by a cause or causes. If C or God caused time, then C or God is not within time. Now, to undergo change is to be different at time T1 than at T0. Times T1 and T0 do not apply to that which is not within time. Therefore C (or God) must be able to effect change without undergoing change.
- Being necessary, self-existent, and unchanging, C or God must be eternal.
- The ultimate cause C or God must have the ability to initiate some causal action producing some effect, without being acted upon externally. Now we come to a point where I think a non-theistic C‘s chances suffer most obviously. To initiate without being acted upon externally sounds a lot like “to decide to do.” I don’t know of anything within nature that can initiate anything without being acted upon externally. But we do know of something that can do it from within a theistic picture of reality: Mind.*
So the theistic view of beginnings includes this: that God is the powerful, initiating, necessary, self-existent Mind who acted externally to himself in producing nature as an effect. This is a depiction or description, not a model. This is by no means an exhaustive description of what we can know about God, but it takes at least as far as one significant fork in the road, where a theistic conception of beginnings seems more coherent than one in which nature is self-existent.
That’s how it appears to me. Other views?
*There is of course debate over whether Minds can actually initiate any causal action independently of external causes. Physical determinists argue that all states and actions of mind depend on states and actions of the brain. I trust it’s easy to see that this is a question that does not apply to the current issue.
Here’s why: the deterministic view of mind is philosophically dependent on physicalism, a strict form of atheism. I don’t think anyone comes to disbelieve in free will on any other grounds than that. If we assume determinism then we are assuming there is no God, and we’re begging the question whether God is the ultimate cause. Stated another way: the depiction of reality we are working with, conceiving of God as the ultimate cause, is a depiction that includes freedom of choice rather than requiring strict causal determinism, for strict causal determinism is a conception foreign to it. If the atheist/skeptic says “you must include determinism in your picture of reality,” the answer would be, “Determinism is part of a non-theistic picture of reality. Are you saying you won’t accept a theistic picture of reality unless it’s non-theistic?”