I have been sporadically writing a series on a recent article by Sean Carroll. This is taking me several posts to respond to it fully, so I am going one section at a time. My first post gave an introduction to the topic, and covered Carroll's own introduction. My second post discussed his first main section, where he established his definitions and described the scope of his discussion. My third post discussed the definitions of "something" and "nothing". Carroll was a bit more reasonable here than many of his fellow atheists, who managed to get something out of nothing only by redefining the word "Nothing" to mean "Something." The fourth post discussed whether the universe could come into existence without something causing it, or could continue indefinitely. Carroll argued that both were plausible, and this is where his article started going wrong. In the fifth section, Carroll asked "Why this particular universe," both in terms of the fine-tuning coincidences and the structure of physical law. But he wasn't really able to give a satisfactory answer.
Now we come to the final section, entitled "Why does anything exist at all?" Here Carroll offers his conclusions. And as with the earlier part of the article, they are something of a mixed bag.
Early on in his article, Carroll offered five options to explain why there is something rather than nothing.
- Creation. There is something outside physical reality which brings it into existence, and/or sustains it. This is often identified with God or some sort of necessary being.
- Metaverse. Reality is just one member of a wider series of structures. For example, one might have pocket universes emerging from a larger structure, or a bouncing universe where one universe dies and then another begins, stretching back to infinity, although Carroll intends his concept to be more profound than this. This wider structure will be similar to our own reality (for example governed by similar rules, so it is distinct from the idea of a creator), but larger and at a more fundamental level.
- Principle. Reality is the way it is because of some underlying principle, perhaps simplicity or beauty.
- Coherence. The concept of "nothingness" is incoherent, so anything except a universe consisting of something is non-viable.
- Brute Fact. Reality is the way it is, and that's it. Eventually, the chain of explanation will reach a point where we can't go any further. The is no underlying reason why that terminus has to be what it is -- it could be different -- but it just happens to be that way, and we have to live with it.
As I mentioned earlier, I agree that these are the only real options. The only alternative I can think of is to combine principle and coherence; to say that any universe except the one we live in is logically inconsistent in some way. However, that flies in the face of modern physics: by tweaking the laws of physics, we can come up with numerous other possible universes which are equally self-consistent. That option doesn't seem to be open to us. I'll discuss metaverse, principle and coherence first, since here Carroll and I are in agreement. I'll then discuss his preferred option of a brute fact and mine of a creator.
By this he means a set of non-interacting distinct universes, with different laws of physics, and not coming from a common past.
One problem with this is that we cannot by definition have any observational evidence for this, either direct or indirect by reasoning from what we do observe. It could provide an explanation for the fine tuning coincidences: the metaverse samples numerous different universes, so some of them will be in the window where life can arise. Of course, we would find ourselves in one of those.
However, this explanation is entirely ad-hoc. There is no obvious reason why there should be a metaverse. Indeed, if the universes aren't connected by some principle or outside agency, then we can't really use another universe which has no causal, historical, or any other connection to our own as an explanation for what is going on here. In other words, the metaverse fails to answer the question. None of the alternative universes can explain why, in this universe, there is something other than nothing. Thus neither can the ensemble of universes as a whole.
Plus, of course, we still have to answer the question. The metaverse is something. It could not be there. So we ask "Why does this universe exist rather than nothing?" The answer comes, "Because it is part of a metaverse." So then we ask "Why is there a metaverse rather than nothing?" And it is clear not only is there no evidence and can there be no evidence for a metaverse as Carroll defines it, but its existence doesn't even answer the question.
This, more or less, is Carroll's argument, and I agree with it. The only caveat I might have is that his definition of the metaverse is stronger that the multiverse which is usually posited. This arises from some interpretations of string theory or inflation. Here the different "universes" are connected to our own, either in a larger multi-dimesnional space, or from different inflationary bubbles expanding in a larger subspace. I'm not sure, however, if they are connected to our own universe, these can necessarily answer the fine tuning argument (since there would still be some over-arching laws governing the multiverse, which might need fine tuning). It certainly doesn't answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Could such a multiverse have lasted indefinitely into the past? The problem here is from the second law of thermodynamics: one would have to show that the multiverse can't reach an equilibrium state. If it had, and extended infinitely in the past, then we would be in that equilibrium state. That's problematic since our solar system is not in equilibrium. The second law is derived from a small number of axioms, such as locality, which is necessary for the causal structure of the universe and thus that the universe is rational. Thus we can expect it to be satisfied over a wide range of possible fundamental laws of physics, and perhaps all of them.
Thus the metaverse and multiverse can be discarded as explanations of why there is something rather than nothing, because they don't answer the question.
Is there some principle that picks out this universe? Carroll answers that we don't know what such a principle could be. He hopes that future scientific discoveries might provide an answer.
I agree with him that science does not currently give us any hints as to such a principle. There are aspects of our best formulation of scientific law which seem to be devoid of any higher scientific principle. Appeals to symmetry have got us a long way. But the next question we have to ask is why those symmetries? And that is simply not a question that science can answer. Experiments can measure the value of parameters, notice regularities that can only be explained in terms of symmetry laws. But that is all. We cannot explain the existence of symmetry laws by appealing to a symmetry law. Yet that is pretty much the only tool that theoretical physics has had for the past hundred years.
Thus whatever this principle is, it will not be scientific. It will have to be philosophical. Science discovers what the law is. It cannot explain why it is. Philosophy obviously has a disadvantage over science in that it is one further step away from experiment. So the hope of finding some underlying principle that explains not only the nature of the universe but the existence of the universe seems to be fairly slim. And, of course, that principle would not only have to say why this particular universe, but why it exists at all. This is a much harder task. Why? Because whatever principle we suppose, it would just be an abstract concept. For example, we might search for the simplest possible universe, or the prettiest universe. But then we have to define what we mean for the universe to be simple or pretty, and that definition will be either subjective or cast in abstract terms. An I think this is true for any principle we can think of that might explain the universe. But an abstract principle cannot give rise to a concrete universe, as ours seems to be, just as acknowledging that 2+2=4 can't put four pounds in my pocket. Therefore this principle, if it exists, it must be an existent being.
However, we can still induce some attributes of this underlying principle based on the basic facts of nature. It's rationality, for example (as exemplified in substance causality), and regularity. And this is what theologians have done for the past several thousand years. So it is not as though these issues haven't been thought about. Of course, one can argue that now we have a better knowledge of science, we need to rethink things. Fine. But even so, there is a vast treasure trove of work that has already been done on this subject. We would be fools not to consult it, and adapt it as required to fit contemporary physics.
So the principle argument and the creator argument are not so dissimilar. Either the principle is solely abstract, in which case it cannot explain existence, or it is at least in part residing in some existent being, in which case it can explain existence, but collapses into a creator outside physical reality. Either way, we need not think further about this possibility.
Is the statement "Nothing exists" in itself a coherent idea? Does it entail a logical contradiction? Carroll first of all mentions the idea that we don't see a logical contradiction in saying that any typewriter (for example) doesn't exist. Had circumstances been different, then that typewriter might not have been created. If it is suddenly erased from having ever existed, then there not obviously any logical contradiction. So why should the universe be different?
This direct argument from analogy is problematic, as Carroll notes, because the universe is not like any other thing. The universe, after all, has been defined as the entirety of physical reality. It is a stretch from saying that because the typewriter need not have existed that physical reality need not have existed.
But then, neither is there a good reason for saying that reality must exist (if we leave out the observational evidence, which is what this possibility asks us to do: it states that we can deduce that things exist from first principles, without referencing any observation). And I don't think there can be. In physics, we map reality (or at least part of it) to an abstract representation. Physical space and time are mapped to a geometrical space. Physical potentia are mapped to the set of eigenvectors of an operator acting on a Hilbert space. Our knowledge of which state is occupied is mapped to a quantum amplitude. Once we have this representation, we can perform calculations and make predictions. If we are to think about an understandable physical universe, then the possibility of a mapping from physical reality to abstract representation is a necessary element of it. Every possible understandable physical universe will have an abstract representation. Given that the mapping is two way, it also seems reasonable that every abstract representation satisfying a minimal set of conditions corresponds to a possible physical universe. There is nothing incoherent about an empty set.
Indeed, there is a link between this argument and the most disputed argument for the existence of God. I personally believe that God's existence is not logically necessary, but if anything else exists (and the universe is rational) then God must also exist. But if nothing else exists, then there is no logical reason why God should exist either. However, the ontological argument attempts to demonstrate the existence of God from first principles, without reference to the existence of other things. It attempts to argue that God's existence is logically necessary. This argument is rejected for many reasons, which I don't need to go into here.
I don't, however, see why an argument that the universe (or matter, or something of an unspecified nature and state) is logically necessary (and don't forget: we are talking about a purely abstract level of discussion here since we are discussing logic; we cannot bring in observational evidence in this discussion) should fare any better than an argument that God is logically necessary. This is particularly true since the argument implies certain attributes of the logically necessary being. For example, such a logically necessary being would also have to be a necessary being (in the weaker sense of not depending on anything outside itself for its existence), and consequently cannot come into or out of existence (if we are to accept the premise that the universe is rational). Now change implies that the being has several different potentia or states. One of them ceases to exist and another one moves from potential existence into actual existence. Thus a necessary being cannot change, since change involves it ceasing to exist in one particular state. Any universe capable of change (which obviously includes our own) thus cannot be logically necessary (by change I mean in any respect, for example either in space, or in time, or not being perfectly homogeneous). And if this is true (and I have only sketched out the argument here), then the question of the universe's existence cannot boil down to it being incoherent that it doesn't exist.
Theologians have deployed the ontological argument. It's not an argument I use myself, but nonetheless we should consider what comes after it. Because they then go on to demonstrate that the end result of the ontological argument must have the traditional attributes of God. So if the ontological argument is correct, and there is something out there whose existence is logically necessary, then it can only be God. These follow up arguments are frequently neglected by the philosophical community, but they are still there to be made and answered. So the problem for any atheist who wants to demonstrate that the non-existence of stuff is incoherent is that he would also have to show the falsity of the arguments that the logically necessary thing he ends up with would have to be God (which are considerably stronger than the ontological argument itself).
Carroll's response to this question is that even if we do have such a principle, it cannot explain why the universe has this specific form. Thus an attempt to argue that it is incoherent that no universe exists doesn't answer the question we are most interested in: why does this universe exist.
So now I come to Carroll's preferred solution, the brute fact. This was defined earlier in his work twice
- Brute fact: Reality itself simply exists, in the way that it does, without further explanation.
- At the other end of the spectrum, explanations might bottom out with a brute fact: something that simply is the case, without further reason, even though it didn’t necessarily have to be that way.
However, the first definition is simply to say that there is a terminus to the chain of explanation. Note that the brute fact was defined in terms of reality, while the universe was defined as "the entirety of physical reality." With "No judgment is implied about whether things other than physical reality can be usefully said to exist," implying that there might (or might not) be parts of reality not included in physical reality. Now, the theist would claim that the terminus of the chain of explanation is God (in fact, a theist might define God to be this terminus). And this would fit this definition of the brute fact if reality includes the supernatural as well as the natural. However, Carroll also places the brute fact and God (or creator) as distinct answers to the question. Since the second definition avoids this conundrum, I will take that to be my starting point. Thus the first distinction between brute facts and the creator is that a brute fact doesn't necessarily have to be in the particular state it is in. It is the same type of thing as the beings or explanations which are derived from it. The second distinction (taken from the definition of the creator) is that a brute fact exists as part of physical reality, while the creator is outside it.
And that makes sense. Traditionally God is viewed as being unchangeable, immaterial and perfectly simple. In particular, this makes God a being of pure actuality (in Aristotelian terms). For example, the hydrogen atom is described by a series of states, corresponding to the energy levels of the electron. So we can imagine the electron continually bouncing from one level to another. This sequence can either continue indefinitely, or it would terminate in some particular starting state. But whichever state the electron started in, it would be arbitrary. We have no good reason to arbitrarily select one state over another as a starting point. It just happens to be that way. That would be a brute fact.
The alternative is that the sequence of explanation terminates with a being that has only one possible state. This would not be a brute fact, because we are not selecting one state arbitrarily as the starting point. The being started in that state because it has to exist in that state, if it exists at all. And this is the starting point that theologians use when thinking about God. God is the terminus of explanation, but to avoid having to resort to a brute fact, we say that that terminus is a being of pure actuality. That means that it must be simple (because if it were composed of separable parts, those parts would be prior to it in the chain of explanation), unchanging in either time or space, unique (because two such beings would share the same attributes but be separable, violating simplicity), immaterial (since no material substance satisfies the previous attributes), omnipotent (it must be able to influence matter, since it is the start of the chain of explanation, but its unchanging nature means that it is not just the first matter that is influenced by it, but it must interact with all matter no matter the time or place in the same way), contain a will (because it is an immaterial substance which nonetheless directs other things), an intellect (because it grasps the forms of those things it directs without becoming them), and free (from the indeterminacy of physics). Obviously I have here tried to sketch out in one sentence what I should spend at least a chapter on. But the argument above is fleshed out in all the standard textbooks on scholastic theology. But I hope that I have done enough to suggest that the alternative to a brute fact (other than an infinite regress) is none other than our old friend God.
So what reasons does Carroll give for thinking that the brute fact is a the correct solution? Primarily because he believes that he has eliminated the alternatives.
Every attempt to answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" ultimately grounds in a brute fact, a feature of reality that has no further explanation. The universe is not unique, and there are no necessary beings; even if we decide that the concept of nothingness is incoherent, at least some properties of our particular universe are ultimately contingent. By the standards of modern science, it is extremely hard to see what could possibly qualify as a final and conclusive "reason why" the universe exists.
I note that Carroll means by necessary being what I refer to as a logically necessary being, and I will discuss what he has to say on this subject in the next section. I note, however, that his discussion leaves out an alternative: a terminus of explanation that is neither a brute fact nor a logically necessary being.
Note his appeal to the "standards of modern science." This is something I would agree with; but where I would disagree is that in this matter science presents the final word. All science can do is formalise the laws of physics and describe the initial conditions of the universe. But it cannot explain them, which is what we are trying to do. To explain them, we need to turn to various philosophical world-views.
Carroll states that his conclusion shouldn't be surprising. He appeals to an analogy from astronomy. Kepler tried to fit the orbits of the then known planets into some geometrical pattern, from which one might try to deduce some reason for their orbits. But we know that he failed; the distribution of the astronomical bodies is random.
Random? Yes and no. It's random in the sense that there is no underlying pattern or principle behind the orbits of the planets. But we also know that they can be explained in terms of a sequence of causes and effects stretching back to the birth of the solar system and beyond that to the explosion of whichever star or set of stars from the previous generation of stellar bodies in which the iron and other elements that form the core of the planets was fused together.
Carroll also discusses the fine structure constant (which defines the strength of the electromagnetic force). People searched for patterns to explain its values. Now we know that the quest is hopeless; it just seems to be an irrational number that doesn't depend on any others. In this case, Carroll is begging the question: the fine structure constant is one of the philosophical principles we are trying to explain. So it can't be used as an illustration of a brute fact, since that is what is under dispute.
So what arguments can be used against the nature of the universe being a brute fact? Firstly, it is unsatisfying. It is the easy way out. It is similar to people saying that Aristotle's physics was a brute fact, so there was no need to investigate further. In short, it is refusing the question before people have had a chance to examine it.
Secondly, it cannot be proved that whatever you identify as a brute fact is, in fact, the terminus of the series of explanations. Whenever you get to what seems to be an end state of the chain of explanation, if it is a brute fact rather than something which can only exist in one state, it is always possible that there is another explanation behind it. You can never show that the state of affairs you have is truly the end. The only way you can be sure is if you end the chain of explanation with something like the theist God, the unchangeable, uncreatable being of pure actuality.
This leads us to the favourite new atheist objection to God: if God is the explanation of the universe, then what explains God? The theist answers this by saying that his definition of God is the being which cannot have a prior explanation without implying a contradiction (and then what this entails in practice is worked out in detail, and the attributes of such a being are found to coincide with the traditional attributes of God). But this question can also be turned against Carroll's brute fact. If a set of brute facts are the explanation of the universe, then what explains those brute facts? And here the one who believes in brute facts cannot turn to the theist answer, since a brute fact is defined as something which could in principle have a deeper explanation, but happens not to. The brute fact is defined as being at the end of the chain of explanations. But it is also defined as being of the type of things that need not be at the end of the chain of explanations. Clearly something is amiss here.
Now could we argue that the universe could not have a deeper explanation, but the chain of explanation stops with the laws of physics and initial conditions, and can go no further in principle as well as in practice? But, of course, there are those who claim that the universe can be explained in terms of deeper principles, for example the theologians. The theologians' explanation might not be correct, but that it can be articulated shows that deeper explanations than the supposed brute fact are possible in principle.
Then we can argue that saying the explanation of the universe reduces to a brute fact ultimately means that the universe is irrational. Reason, of course, is the movement from premise to conclusion, or, in terms of the physical world, from cause to effect. If that sequence is broken, and there is at any point an effect without a cause, then the rational universe and thus science is a fraud. One of the goals of science is to make predictions about future events from knowledge of the present. These predictions are expressed in terms of probabilities. But all probabilities are conditional, in this case on the initial state and the underlying laws. If effects can happen without a cause, then all that logic goes out of the window. One cannot express a probability for something with no connection to what came before it. As soon as you find a rule that states there is a certain probability for the effect to appear in certain circumstances, then to define that probability you have to parametrise the effect occurring in terms of some model. But if it is described in terms of a model, then it does not appear for no reason; the model itself encodes a reason.
So we cannot have something happening for no reason at any stage of the causal sequence if the universe is to be understandable (and if the universe is not understandable, then it is difficult to account for the fact that we do understand it very well already). "Any stage" includes the start of the sequence. There is nothing special about the start of the sequence of causes, unless we suppose it to be fundamentally different from all that comes after it, as those who argue for the creator do. We can't say that once the universe has began, we can't have an effect without a cause, in any of the causal sequences, but we can right at the start. Because that would imply that the occurrence of the causeless effect depends on the external circumstances. And as soon as you start saying there is some dependence on something else (even if it is a prevention of the effect), you are saying that the effect does have a cause. In the brute fact model, of course, the starting point is of the same sort of thing as everything that follows it, so one can't use the theologian's escape.
So, in terms of causality, the brute fact model undermines science. It leaves us with no confidence that scientific predictions will be successful, because if a brute fact happens once it can happen again, and if it happens during our experiment, then we will get an inexplicable result. Our whole extrapolation back to the origins of the universe and to the most fundamental scientific law is based on the premise that all across those chains of reasoning there are no brute facts introducing new features into the universe. If we suppose there are brute facts, we undermine the process that was used to describe the initial state that we (if we accept that it was a brute fact) we believe can't be explained further.
Of course, Carroll isn't discussing sequences of physical causation, but a sequence of explanation. Does this make a difference to the argument? Not enough to undermine it. For a chain of reasoning is undermined just as much if we introduce an element of irrationality -- something which does not follow from what preceded it -- at an intermediate step. So if we feel that we can introduce brute facts at the beginning of the chain of explanation, then why can we not also introduce them later, and destroy whatever logic led to the purported brute fact in the first place?
Of course, every rational argument depends on at least one axiom which cannot be proven within the context of the underlying logic. So one might argue that every rational argument contains at least one brute fact. But the universe is not a rational argument. We can apply reason to understand it, at least partially, but there is some physical basis that underlies the logic. So the terminus of explanation we are looking for is something in reality, not something in abstract thought.
And this undermines the idea that the laws of physics could be the sole ultimate explanation. The laws of physics (including the mysterious parameters) are an abstract description of physical processes. They themselves cannot be an explanation for reality because they are not part of reality, but only a description of it (or part of it). Expressed as a mathematical law, the laws of physics cannot cause anything. All they can do is describe a relationship between different existent beings. Just as my drawing lines and angles on a piece of paper doesn't cause light emerging from a lamp through a slit onto a screen. If we are to explain the universe, we have to ultimately come to some being or set of beings. Which brings us back to causality, and the assumed absence of brute facts in causal systems.
So if the sequence of explanation has to terminate with a being or set of beings, the next question must be what attributes must this starting point have so that it could be a reasonable end point. This is the question which Carroll does not discuss. But it is one that a great many people have thought about, and which we should think about.
So now we come to the final option. The earlier definition was the following:
Creation: There is something apart from physical reality, which brings it into existence and/or sustains it. This hypothetical entity is often identified with God in the literature, but there is not necessarily any strong connection with a traditional theistic conception of the divine.
Carroll lists two main reasons why people might argue for a creator. Firstly by an analogy with complex mechanisms in our experience; we know that they only arise through the work of somebody who designed them. Secondly, the idea that the "laws of nature" are inexplicable without a law-giver, just as human laws require a parliament or king to fashion them. Carroll dismisses both these analogies as not really relevant, with some justification. Arguments from analogy are only good if there is a strong resemblance between the two things; and clearly there is little resemblance between a pocket watch and the universe. However, I will come back to the legal argument, because I am not sure that needs to be presented as an argument from analogy.
Next he turns to the classic new atheist argument: if we invoke the creator to explain the existence of the universe, then we have to then explain the existence of the creator. Carroll is at least aware of the response: the creator is different from the universe, and explains His own existence. But why then can't we just say that the universe explains its own existence?
There is a footnote which Carroll provides here which is worth citing in full:
All else being equal, a self-explaining and necessary universe would be a simpler overall package than a self-explaining and necessary creator who then created the universe. But to most advocates of this general strategy, necessity seems like a more natural property to attribute to a supernatural creator than to the natural universe.
Carroll notes that he argued earlier that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent, although as I commented at the time, he here confused the two notions of logically necessary (i.e. whose non-existence involves a contradiction), and necessary as in not contingent (i.e. which doesn't depend on anything outside it). He argued against a locally necessary being, but what we need to avoid the explanatory regress is something necessary in the second sense. While every logically necessary being is necessary, it is not so clear that every necessary being is logically necessary. At least, Carroll hasn't proved this.
So, Carroll concludes, invoking a creator doesn't solve the problems of the brute fact; we just terminate the sequence of explanations one step further than we need to. So why not just say that all of reality is the end point rather than invoking a creator?
I'll finish by quoting his conclusion.
The existence of a creator of the universe should be judged on ordinary empirical grounds (does it provide a useful explanatory account of observed features of what we see?), not on a priori arguments for its necessity.
I immediately note the false dichotomy (particularly since he means logical necessity when he writes necessity). I also note the lack of justification for this statement. Why should we restrict ourselves to one type of reasoning, if others should prove useful?
So what do we make of this?
I'll start by addressing his summary of the reasons why appealing to a creator seems appealing. I note that he just lists two relatively modern arguments: the argument from design, and the idea that laws need a lawmaker. I think that he is right in saying that as expressed these reduce to arguments from analogy, which are only rarely useful. The second flaw of these arguments is that they are based on a mechanistic philosophy of physics, which a theist has little reason to accept, and which is very much out of line with contemporary physics anyway.
However, I will dwell on the lawmaker argument a little longer. Historically, the idea of a lawmaker came first (albeit not expressed in those terms), and it was only much later that the idea of laws came after that. The reason that laws were supposed was that God was rational, regular, constant in time and space, and actively sustains all the matter in the universe. God's actions in sustaining the universe would therefore be rational, regular and constant in time and space, and apply equally to all matter. They could thus be described without direct reference to God (although, obviously, they indirectly depend on God). From this, the notion of the laws of physics arose in the late medieval period. Clockwork had just been invented, where the movements of the gears and weights followed regular and predictable patterns, and it was suggested that the motion of the planets could be thought of in terms of similar principles. This analogy was then taken by the late renaissance and early modern mathematical scientists and natural philosophers, and a new philosophy of physics drawn from it. Because the laws so formulated don't directly reference a creator, people started to wonder whether the creator might not be redundant, and thus atheism was born. [Apologies for being over-simplistic: I will claim that this is one reason behind the birth of atheism. It will be too bold to claim that it is the only reason. For example, another factor that led to atheism was the recasting of God as a rival explanation to science rather than the more traditional thinking that God is the explanation of science.]
The laws of physics are just a mathematical description. It is not Newton's law of gravity which causes objects to fall; it describes how they fall. Nor does the curvature of space time and the geodesic equation cause objects to fall: if anything, this is even more abstract than Newton's theory. An abstract description cannot cause a physical object to do anything. The concepts of geodesics and the space time metric are all notions that arise out of a geometric representation of reality. But they are not themselves direct representatives of physical things. So we are left with the question of why matter moves as though it were forced to follow geodesics of a space time curved by matter as described by Einstein's field equation. On the table we have the original reason proposed by the medievals who first launched modern physics. What is the atheist response? Carroll seems to prefer the brute fact answer "they just do," which just declares the question unanswerable. Surely we should not be satisfied with that?
Then, of course, there are alternative reasons why people believe in God. I'll skip over the teleological argument to be briefer, and focus on two. The first is the experiential argument. People have experienced what they claim to be the presence of God as something tangible. By itself, of course, this might not mean much -- just a misfiring neuron. But when it is backed up with something such as a prophecy or physical sign, then we have to take more interest. Obviously, atheists dismiss miracles using various arguments, none of which are actually much good. [All rational arguments are based on premises; in this case premises taken from a philosophy of physics, together with a definition of a miracle that equally only makes sense in the context of their own, or perhaps a related, philosophy. Those who wield such arguments assume that their philosophy of physics is correct. But what if there is an alternative philosophy of physics that explains the physical data equally well, or perhaps even better, but which lacks the key premise that their anti-miracle argument relies on? What the argument against miracles then reduces to is a dismissal of observational evidence because it disagrees with a pre-conceived philosophy, which is asserted without evidence to be better than the theist philosophy of nature -- how unscientific is that?] This, I can say, is probably the primary reason why people believe in God. They find the historical evidence for whatever miracle is at the basis of their own preferred religion to be compelling, and it is also backed up by their own personal experience, or miracles they witness themselves.
Secondly, we have the traditional philosophical arguments, and in particular I want to focus on the cosmological argument, or the argument from efficient causality. I know that atheists have their objections to this argument, but I have discussed those elsewhere and don't intend to do so here. Efficient causality links one being in a particular state, with either the same being (i.e. same form and matter) in a different state or a different being (different form or matter). It may be that an effect has several causes, or a cause several effects, but we only need focus on one of them. At each junction, we need only take one of the paths, and we ultimately finish in the same place. Each link in the chain represents either one individual being or a small number of individual beings. There is then an argument that the chain can't continue indefinitely or be circular, and we are left with an initial member of the chain which is usually identified with God. But here I will just call It the First Cause.
Every member of the chain of causality is an individual being. That includes the First Cause. When discussing the part of an explanation that is dealt with by efficient causality, the First Cause is the terminus of the chain of explanation. In other words, it is the subject of Carroll's discussion. Carroll asks why the universe itself couldn't be the First Cause. The answer is obvious. The First Cause is a single being. The universe is not a single being. The laws of physics are not a being at all. Therefore neither the universe nor the laws of physics can be the First Cause.
The next question is what attributes the First Cause must have. Clearly there must be something different about it. We know that everything else in the chain can come into existence, or can change its state. If it is possible for something to happen, then given enough opportunities it will happen at least once (that's the definition of possible). So the First Cause must be different, something which logically cannot come into existence or change its state. We immediately have that it possesses the divine attribute of immutability. Neither can it change its state across space, for similar reasons, so it possesses the divine attribute of omnipresence. Nor can it be composed of parts, because those parts would be prior in the sequence of explanation. We now have simplicity and unity. No material being satisfies these properties, and so we conclude that it is immaterial, that is outside the scope of physical universe. It nonetheless can generate change in objects outside It, and in an immaterial being we call the power to do that a will; which must be coupled with an intellect, because It is able to grasp the forms of that which is generated. Being outside of space and time, It cannot be biased towards the matter at the start of the universe, and so has to relate to all matter whenever it is. Thus it sustains the matter in the universe, and directs it (albeit through secondary causes).
One can object that this is based on the argument from efficient causality, and Carroll doesn't phrase his paper in these terms. But it is still relevant. The question is "Why is there something rather than nothing?" The question "Why?" was asked in two different ways, and one of these (Carroll's section 3) refers to the efficient cause of the earliest things in the universe. So although Carroll doesn't name efficient causality, that is still the type of explanation that he spends at least some of his time considering.
The other question (Carroll's section 4) asks about where the laws of physics originate from, which is not related to efficient causality. The concept of "the laws of physics" arose in late Medieval Europe. Thus there is no direct correlation between this question and standard Aristotelian thought. The role played by the laws of physics was taken on by the final causes and powers of individual beings. A contemporary Aristotelian would describe the laws of physics as a summary of these total effect of these final causes of individual objects. And, of course that's where the teleological argument (which is not the argument from design) comes into play. It demonstrates (or attempts to demonstrate) that the existence of these natural tendencies in material objects implies the existence of an immaterial Will. And, of course, one then builds on this to show that this Will must possess the other traditional divine attributes.
Carroll once again favours the idea that laws of physics are either a brute fact, or can be explained by more fundamental principles which ultimately end in a brute fact. For example, classical electromagnetism and optics is the small ℏ limit of quantum electrodynamics. We could have taken classical electromagnetism as a brute fact, but now we see that it arises from a more fundamental theory. Similarly, I don't think that Carroll would object if the standard model of particle physics, which incorporates quantum electrodynamics, arises as a limit of a more fundamental theory, and that theory as a limit or application of something more fundamental, and so on. [Or the standard model is just an effective field theory derived from something more fundamental.] But he argues that the sequence of explanation should end in some theory which is a brute fact; it could be different, but just happens to be the case.
The medieval philosophers asked themselves the same question. Obviously, their physics was different, but there is a similar process of explaining ideas in terms of more fundamental theories. They concluded, like Carroll, that there has to be something at the end of that chain of explanation. But, unlike Carroll, they then asked themselves what attributes such a termination should have if it were to be the sort of thing that might terminate an explanatory series. And, as in the argument from efficient causality, these turned out to be the traditional divine attributes.
Finally, I need to address that final comment of Carroll's. Does the idea of a creator provide a useful explanatory account of observed facts? Obviously it does for miracles, but that's another issue.
So let us think back to the birth of modern science, in the late medieval period. Experimental and mathematical science were at that time seen as rival approaches -- it wasn't until Galileo a bit later that they were brought together. But there was a still a big step made in formulating the basic assumptions of physics that we now take for granted: that the laws of nature exist and can be studied in themselves; that they are unchanging in time or space; that they can be understood objectively in terms of (mathematical or other intellectual) abstractions; that everything obeys the single principle, and so on. These are not obvious ideas. It is very difficult to find a philosophical framework in which they are justified. The Chinese and Indians, for example, were in many ways more advanced than the Western Christians of the time. They had some great and highly intelligent and creative thinkers. But they never came close. Modern atheists have inherited this tradition, but didn't originate it, and it is difficult to justify these principles from an atheistic world-view (most atheistic world-views instead presuppose them).
The people who set upon this path were influenced by three sources; firstly Christianity; secondly the Greek Socratic philosophical tradition (of all the Greek philosophical traditions, the one with the closest affinity to theism), as mediated through early Christians such as Augustine and Boethius, and Jewish and Islamic commentators; thirdly the Greek and Indian mathematical traditions as combined and systematised by the Arab scholars. Aside from the mathematics, they were motivated by theism. They adopted these assumptions because they viewed science as a description of God's actions and it would thus reflect the divine attributes. If they were wrong about God's nature (and, say, the Chinese were right), then there would be no reason why the universe would have such properties, and modern science would be a failure. Perhaps they just hit on the answer by luck. But that doesn't mean that theism ceases to be a valid explanation of these aspects of science.
Modern science is what grew out of their thoughts. It has taken seven centuries and still going, but the success of science is their vindication. But every time a scientific breakthrough is made, confirming these basic assumptions of science, it is a further explanatory success of the theistic outlook.
I would, of course, go further than this, and have argued that not only the broad outlines but many of the finer details of contemporary physical theory can be deduced from principles drawn from theism. (I can't get everything; I need to draw in some experimental data such as that there are three space and one time dimension, and that the physical universe exists). I won't say that I have the final word; no doubt my arguments need to be strengthened and improved. But I have certainly tried, and, by doing so, done more than the atheist.
So when Carroll states that the idea of the creator needs to have explanatory success, there are three responses. Firstly, that explanatory power is not the only way in which we can deduce that an idea is sound. The most important historical philosophical arguments for God are deductive. The most important practical argument for God is from direct observation of God's special effects. Thus even if there were no explanatory consequences of God's existence, we would still have reasons for believing in Him. Secondly, the idea of a creator does have explanatory power. Many of the fundamental assumptions behind modern science were drawn from it. The other assumptions of science don't contradict it, at least not the God of classical theism (although they might contradict other notions of god). And if my own arguments are correct, then it can explain far more than this, but many of the details of the standard model. Thirdly, we should put atheism to the same test. Can an atheistic world view explain the laws of physics? In particular, can the brute fact approach do so? It seems strange to demand a stringent condition for one hypothesis, but leave it off for the others. At the very least, can it even match the postulates of those original theist founders of modern science (as something derived from some form of atheism rather than something assumed by it), and explain them in terms of some more fundamental principle?
I have come to the end of this series now, and I find myself agreeing with much of what Carroll writes in his article. Only when he discusses God do I find myself in disagreement with him, and that's mostly down to the fact that we have different understandings of and use different definitions of God. Like most of the new atheists, Carroll doesn't understand much about theism, and it shows.
So my main criticism of Carroll is not that he is going in the wrong direction, but that he doesn't go far enough. He reasons that the sequence of explanations must have an end point. But he doesn't ask what would make a reasonable end point. What attributes it must have that make it stand out from the rest of the sequence. In terms of efficient causality, this is clear enough. Every being in the sequence beyond the First Cause can have a cause. If the First Cause were a similar type of being, then it too could be caused. So if it could be caused, and there was an infinity of time (or whatever plays the same role as time in whatever lies beyond the big bang), then it would have been caused, contradicting that it is a first cause. The only alternative is to say that the First Cause is something different, something that by nature can't change. And pondering on this leads us to the classical notion of God.
So Carroll's argument was generally good, but his problem was that he didn't think through its implications enough. If he did, he might have found himself retreading the paths of the medieval philosophers and theologians.
But what is the difference between a brute fact as a final explanation, and God as a final explanation? I had a comment to my last post, which is worth addressing here.
Aquinas writes in De Potentia 3.17 co, when we ask why the world came to be when it did, or why it is of its size or location, the answer is not in necessity or in some inherent "best" but simply in God's will ("non potest huius ratio reddi nisi ex voluntate producentis") and wisdom.
I do not see how this functionally different from saying "God did it." When we get to God's will as an explanatory principle, we admit that our understanding of the world reaches a point beyond which is inscrutability, since God’s will is not known to us.
Theists maintain that an appeal to God (what I consider an appeal to God's will, which implies of course God's intellect) is different from saying that we arrive at brute fact. Because God exists necessarily and His essence is identical with His existence, etc., appeals to God are not appeals to brute fact.
Since we have no direct access to God's essence, being forever on the near side of the dividing line of analogical predication, it's not clear to me how God don't cash out as brute fact appeals.
Aristotle on the other hand accomplishes the same without needing to give his god a will. The upshot is that in Aristotle, the kind of necessity by which nature exists and operates is not the hypothetical necessity needed by Thomas, but absolute necessity: cf. Metaphysics Lambda 7 1072b10-13. More economical. A consequence down the road is that Aristotle does not need to distinguish between eternity, "aevum" (Aquinas' mode of measuring duration of existence of separated, immaterial substances) and time. Aristotle only needs time, which is eternal, the principle of prior-posterior, in a universe that is eternal and by necessity (and, for him, "best"). More economical!
But WHY is the universe this way and not some other way? One person says, "it is God's will." Another says, "it's brute fact." Maybe the focus of difference will turn out that at least on Aristotle's picture (and in most of ancient dogmatic philosophy except possibly Plato), there is no possibility in reality, only in imagination, that there could have been a different universe, even if on a day to day level there can be automatic events here and there. The Thomist on the other hand seems to be able to allow that in reality, not only in imagination, there could have been a different universe. I'm not sure whether it's an interesting gain to preserve for God the option of having created different universes than this one, since this one is the only one we have. It doesn't seem to further scientific inquiry to maintain that God could have created a different universe - it only serves theological ends. But if we're debating whether God exists, then we can't take it as given that the principle subject of theology exists.
First of all, I should note that Christians (at least Western Christians, Roman Catholics and classical Protestants) regard God's intellect as having priority over His will. There is also a distinction between God and the will of God. God is a single, being. The will, on the other hand, proceeds from God. So while it is an element of God, it shouldn't be equated with God as a whole (we are getting into Trinitarian doctrine here, and the distinction between the different persons of the Trinity). So equating God with God's will is problematic.
Secondly, the claim is that we have no direct access to God's essence, as we are on the wrong side of the analogical divide. Now I agree that analogy is important in scholastic thinking. When we say that God has power and we have power, we are arguing analogously. Power in God is not the same thing as power in us; but there is enough of a resemblance that we can talk about the power of God analogously to human power. But not everything understood about God is done so using analogy. As I argued, we deduce God's simplicity and so on from His being the terminus of the chain of explanation. The chain either has to continue indefinitely, or be a brute fact, or a simple being. This is not an argument from analogy, but an argument from deduction.
Next, I ought to discuss the final paragraph. There is no possibility in reality, only in imagination. It doesn't seem to further scientific inquiry to maintain that God could have created a different universe. Firstly, physicists don't use their imagination to write down their theories, but their intellect. If we were restricted to what we can imagine, we would never have come up with quantum mechanics. The whole point of the mathematical structure of theoretical physics is to put aside the limitations and vagaries of the imagination. Secondly, it is now part of scientific inquiry to consider other possible universes. It is not only theology that leads us to that, but science itself. Indeed, theology is here more restrictive than science, since theology tells us to expect a fine tuned universe and science doesn't. The only principle of logic that might constrain the physics of the universe is the principle of non-contradiction. And that is simply not sufficient to remove all possibility. Absolute necessity might be more economical, but it is not the universe we live in.
Hume defined a cause as a necessary connection between two things, say A is the cause of B. My objection here is to the word necessary. I certainly think it necessary that (unless B is God) there is a connection. But, like most physicists, I regard the universe as fundamentally indeterminate (meaning only that even if we fully understand the present, it is not possible to make definite predictions about the future). I don't think there is any other reasonably conclusion that can be drawn from quantum physics. So what this means is that given A we can't predict through deduction and calculation that B will result, or when B will result. It need not have been B. It could have been C. But nonetheless, if B results, then A would be the efficient cause of B.
Now I should emphasise that this relates to our ability to make predictions. If it is possible to understand what is to us the future by some means other than making predictions, then one can have a definite knowledge that B followed A. When we look back at past events, we know what happened, even though they were still governed by quantum indeterminacy. That's because we don't know what happened through knowledge of A and a prediction, but because we know that B happened by either remembering or checking some historical record. In the same way, God, sitting outside of time, sees all events not in succession but together. So God knows that B followed A because He sees both of them together, even though knowledge of A by itself doesn't necessarily entail that B will follow.
I maintain that substances have their own final causes. A could lead to either B or C or D or .... But it is not the substances themselves that cause the change to happen. A by itself is not a sufficient reason to explain why B emerged at that particular time. Now, I personally accept that everything needs a sufficient reason (obviously this statement is controversial, but to discuss this controversy here would be a digression). So this means that A alone is not enough to explain why it was that B and at that moment of time. We need something else in addition to A. Clearly, that something else can't be physical, since if it were it would sit in our equations somewhere and physics wouldn't be indeterminate. Thus we are looking at a non-physical agent, and the obvious candidate is God (I recognise that I ought to justify that statement, but I don't want to here as it would be a digression).
Now, that God might choose either B or C or D, and the precise moment of actualisation, indicates that God's will is not determined (with the same meaning that even with complete knowledge, we cannot predict the outcome; however, we can observe the outcome through means other than prediction). In other words, God has a free will. [In fact, I find it hard to combine the principle of sufficient reason and thus a rational and understandable universe and physical indeterminism without postulating a free will outside the material universe which directs matter.]
The comment I quoted above created a juxtaposition between Aquinas, who argued for God's free will in contrast to Aristotle who didn't. Aquinas argued that the universe could be a different size, and Aristotle implied that it had to be this size out of necessity. Famously, Aristotle also argued for an eternal universe, which Aquinas rejected (on theological rather than philosophical grounds), and we reject today on scientific grounds. So the type of necessity by which the universe operates is a hypothetical rather than an absolute necessity, in support of Aquinas and against Aristotle. If the operation of the universe comes down to a hypothetical necessity, then it seems likely that the origin of the universe would be similar. In other words, God could have created a different universe, with different symmetry laws and a different number of dimensions, or chosen to not create a universe at all. It just happens that God choose this one.
We can formulate numerous different possible and self-consistent laws of physics. Each of these corresponds to a different possible universe. We have no good reason to prefer one over the other, except through experiment and observation. If we suppose that the universe was created by God, and God is only constrained by logical consistency, then God certainly could have created any of these universes. Thus we find ourselves in agreement with Aquinas' view that the universe is only hypothetically necessary, only in many more different ways than Aquinas realised.
Of course, this is where the fine tuning argument comes into play. For we need only suppose that God's intention was to create rational animals such as ourselves, and His freedom in how to create the universe is drastically curtailed. So rather than a massive choice over physical parameters and symmetries, God only has a single decision to make, and then a much more limited choice of physics consistent with that decision.
Now come to what I think is the main point of the comment. It argues that the difference between a series of explanations terminating in a brute fact and a series of explanations terminating in God is that a brute fact is defined as something which could in principle be different but happens not to be, while God has to be the way that He is. But if God had a choice about which universe to create, does that mean that God's will could manifest itself in different ways, one of which results in this universe, and another in that universe, and another in no universe at all, and hence that God could manifest himself in different states? Thus there is no difference in principle between the God explanation and the brute fact explanation. Or, alternatively, if we argue that the chain of explanation must terminate with a simple entity, then that entity cannot be God. God is at best an intermediate step.
The first question is whether an indeterminate (in the sense of unpredictable) explanation is still an explanation. Here we are discussing the results of a free will. For example, will I end the next sentence with the word axolotl or the word diplodocus? And even after analysing my style, and pouring in great depth over everything that I write, I think predicting what the word will be is a feat beyond any man, woman or diplodocus. So that's an example of free will in action. So is there an explanation for why I wrote diplodocus there instead of axolotl (or, indeed, some other cauliflower)? Yes: the explanation resides in my free choice, and ultimately myself. I am the explanation for each of those words. So it was impossible to predict what I wrote, but looking back at it, we can see the word and how it followed from my choices as I typed. Now the deed is done, the choice is fixed. There is only one me, a multitude of possible choices, but only one actual choice. My free will is not inconsistent either with there being many choices in principle, nor only one choice in actuality. So it is a indefinite connection in the sense of prediction (going from myself to the word), but an absolute connection in the sense of reading it now it has been typed (going back from the word through my choices to me). The future is indeterminate. But now that I am in the future (compared to when I typed that last sentence), I can see that there was only one thing that happened in practice.
So whether whether a choice is absolute or indefinite depends on how we look at it. This isn't to say that it could be two contradictory things simultaneously, or there are two separate worlds, one where it is one thing, or another where it is another. It only means that we need to be careful with our definitions.
Obviously, the analogy with either time or composition has difficulties with we try to apply it to the timeless God. But, I think there is a resemblance. We are searching for an explanatory principle. That is to say, what we know about is the end of the chain of reasoning (analogous to a later time), and what we are searching for is the start (analogous to an earlier time). God has free will, and could have created numerous different universes. So, just as there is one present and multiple possible futures, from knowledge of God we can't deduce which of the universes will be created. However, knowing the universe, we can induce the existence of the single God. Note also that God shouldn't be identified with His Will. The Will of God is something that proceeds from the Godhead and God's logos (intellect is prior to Will).
So I don't accept that because God could have created different universes, that means that God could exist in different states. Unpredictability does not mean that it is indeterminate in terms of its state.
But how does this relate to the explanatory power of God? If God could have created numerous different universes, how can knowledge of God allow us to deduce that this universe can emerge?
Of course, one does not need to be precise to have explanatory power. Even if we can make some statements about the universe, even if not completely determine it, that is still some progress. Secondly, we need not just postulate God, but also assume some characteristics of God, i.e. a God who wanted to relate to rational animals. Thirdly, the nature of God, and the need for the universe to be consistent and consistent with God's nature, also constrains the possible universes that could have been created. So it is not a complete free-for-all, where anything imaginable could have happened. Thus the possible universes that could arise given that theism is correct is smaller than the total set of all possible universes. God still has a choice to make, but it is more restricted than we might find in an atheist metaphysics. And thus theism still has some explanatory power.Reader Comments:
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