Reply to Vic Reppert on Cosmological Questions

My friend Vic Reppert was kind enough to address some responses to my “Atheist Manifesto” on his Dangerous Idea blog. I would like to address his comments. Vic and I go back thirty years or to the time that we were both students at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. I think Candler had a similar effect on both of us—it drove us to philosophy. Vic’s remarks were in response to one paragraph of my “manifesto”:

When asked for reasons for thinking that God exists, most people reply with amateur versions of the first cause or design arguments. For most people, even philosophers like William Lane Craig, the idea that the universe “came into existence out of nothing” is just absurd. After all, in our ordinary experience things don’t just pop into existence or spontaneously disappear (except socks in the washer and car keys). As Craig puts it somewhere nobody would expect a full-grown Bengal tiger to just materialize out of thin air. In short, from nothing comes nothing. However, this reasoning is fatally flawed. Our common-sense expectations about things coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space/time universe with all its conservation laws in force. We have no experience at all of the beginning of space/time itself, and there is no reason whatsoever to think that our everyday intuitions would apply to such a situation. If the physics of the last century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions simply might not apply to the realities studied by fundamental physics. You and I cannot be in two places at once; an electron can. I have no intuitions at all about the beginning of space/time, and if I did I would not trust them.

Vic responds:

While not necessarily giving a full and complete endorsement to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, surely everyone accepts some version of the causal principle. We think there need to be causes for things. We want to know why. This search for an answer to why questions doesn’t stop when the ordinary methods of naturalistic science offer no more answers. To then turn our curiosity off and say we shouldn’t look for any more answers because certain methods are not available to us seems question-begging. While some versions of the causal principle are too strong, others seem presupposed by the success of human inquiry.

Further, if we restrict the use of common-sense principle to what goes on within the physical universe, what other principles do we have to similarly restrict. How about Ockham’s razor. Why should superior success of simpler theories to more complex ones within the physical universe make someone think that this sort of principle can be extended beyond the physical world. If the causal principle has to be restricted, then this one does too. If the atheist wants us to accept an Ockham’s Razor argument for atheism (which Parsons does appeal to in his reply to Moreland), but also insists that we restrict the causal principle to a naturalistic framework, then he or she needs to explain why she can make both moves. I think there’s an inconsistency here.

Of course it is always rational to ask “why?” and to seek the reasons for things, but, as one of the minor characters in Gone With the Wind says to Scarlett, “Askin’ aint gettin’.” Proponents of cosmological arguments, whether or not they make an explicit appeal to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, generally seem to assume that there must be a cause of the universe, and, of course, they have a tailor-made candidate waiting in the wings. The universe might have a cause. It is entirely rational to look for one. But our common-sense intuitions, shaped by our experience of things within the space/time universe, give us no grounds for saying that space/time itself must have had a cause. Neither does the fact that we are curious mean that we must always find an answer. The universe could be a brute fact.

If we were to pursue our “why” questions as far as we could go, there could only be three possible outcomes: (1) Our quest goes on forever. We always find causes of causes of causes and never reach an end. (2) Or search ends with a brute fact, some ultimate or primordial entity or state of affairs that just is with no cause or reason for its existence. (3) Our search ends with some entity or state of affairs that, though it has no external cause or conditions, is, in some sense, its own cause or its own sufficient reason. The problem with (3) is that, despite centuries of philosophical lucubration, nobody has ever succeeded in saying satisfactorily what it would be for something, anything—including God—to be self-caused or its own sufficient reason. If we were to say that God is his own sufficient reason because he is a logically necessary being, then we are headed towards that particularly fetid philosophical morass, the ontological argument. If we say that God is self-sufficient because he is uncreated, indestructible, and dependent upon nothing else, then it is not clear why the ultimate physical entities, whatever they might be, could not be self-sufficient in this sense.

Faced with such problems, some theists, like Richard Swinburne, have rejected the Principle of Sufficient Reason and admit that the universe might exist as the ultimate brute fact. In this case, the issue between theism and naturalism comes down to a choice between ultimate brute facts—God or the universe (or the primordial singularity, or the multiverse, or colliding branes, or whatever cosmologists settle upon). Despite decades of following the arguments of the best theistic minds, I have yet to hear a single good reason for giving the answer theists want.

Vic also thinks that I have been inconsistent. I say that we have no assurance that our ordinary intuitions about causality apply to putative ultimate realities, yet I have invoked principles of simplicity or parsimony against theists. But why should Ockham’s razor apply beyond the physical realm if causality need not?

I regard the principle of parsimony or simplicity—the injunction to not multiply entities without cause or, when other things are equal, to prefer the simplest hypothesis—as a strictly heuristic, methodological, or procedural rule. Unlike Swinburne, I do not see it as an a priori metaphysical principle. At bottom reality may be simple. Or it may be complex. We have no way of knowing ahead of time. Further, if reality is complex, it is surely unlikely to be complex in just the ways that we might antecedently stipulate. By adding gratuitous postulations to our hypotheses we merely increase the number of ways we are likely to be wrong (we give more “hostages to fortune,” as it is frequently expressed). The only way to proceed is to start with simple hypotheses–recognizing that they might well be too simple–and to complicate our hypotheses when, and only when, our simple hypotheses prove inadequate.

The appeal to Ockham’s Razor that I think Vic is referring to is on p. 189 of the book Does God Exist? where I am commenting on the debate between J.P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen. I quote Carl Sagan in his preface to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Sagan is commenting on Hawking’s “no boundary” proposal that would eliminate the primordial singularity of standard big bang theory and thereby eliminate an absolute beginning of space/time. Sagan comments that Hawking’s proposal leaves “…a universe with no edge in space, no beginning in time, and nothing for a Creator to do (p. 189).” I comment: “If there is nothing for a Creator to do, we had best follow Ockham’s Razor and dispense with the idea (p. 189).”

My criticism here is methodological, not metaphysical. If Hawking’s “no boundary” is sound, then hypotheses postulating a Creator are point

less; as Laplace said to Napoleon, “There is no need for that hypothesis.” Again, I am not making a claim about what is likely or unlikely to exist; I am pointing out that unnecessary hypotheses are, well, unnecessary.

I would like to thank Vic for his comments. My job is very demanding, even in the summer, and listing blog postings on my annual report won’t impress my dean, so I won’t have time for an extended series of replies and counter replies. But I do appreciate the chance to respond and may be able to do so again if Vic has any further thoughts. In all fairness, he should post a brief “theistic manifesto” and let me take a crack at it!