Monday, February 07, 2011

A Millenia-old Scientific Prediction

Let me ask two distinct questions: first, Did the universe begin to exist? and second, Does the universe have a cause? Since there are two conditions we are dealing with we can put the possible combinations of these conditions into four possible positions one could hold:

1. The universe began and it has a cause.
2. The universe didn't begin and it has a cause.
3. The universe began and it doesn't have a cause.
4. The universe didn't begin and it doesn't have a cause.

In theistic religions, 1 has been the most common option. But it should be noted that there were still some who held 2, that the universe, despite not having a beginning, still has a cause (such as Aristotle, Averroes, and the Latin Averroists). There is a good reason for this: simply showing the universe had no beginning is not sufficient to show that it has no cause; many forms of the cosmological argument argue from the premise of an infinitely-old universe.

Historically, the response of atheists was to accept 4, that the universe has neither a beginning nor a cause. Prior to the advent of Big Bang cosmology, position 3 was empty; at least I've never heard of anyone who accepted it, and the calls in the academic literature to find anyone who fits into it have gone unanswered. And yet it seems to be the position that atheists are driven to today. Of course, the fact that it has not been accepted historically does not mean that it is not a viable position to hold, but it surely gives us food for thought.

Ultimately, the claims that the universe began or that it did not amount to scientific predictions. The claim that it did have a beginning has been empirically verified by contemporary cosmology, and the claim that it did not has been empirically disconfirmed. And historically, the first category consists solely of theists, while the second category consists mostly of nontheists with a few theists. However, while theists argued for the universe's beginning, they did not think refuting this would refute theism -- in other words, while their prediction that the universe began could be falsified, their theism could not be (at least not by this factor). Atheists, however, gave no such indication: if you refuted the universe's eternality, then you would refute atheism, since it was accepted by all parties that if the universe began, it must have a cause. So the atheists' prediction was falsifiable, and by the same lights, so was atheism.

The problem, again, is that the atheists' prediction has been falsified. Thus, it would seem that atheism has been falsified. Yet atheists often claim to base their views on science and accuse theists of ignoring science. Surely this is backwards. Theists and atheists alike made a scientific prediction, the theists have had their prediction substantiated and the atheists have had their prediction refuted. In order to salvage their position, atheists have had to embrace a position that never occurred to anyone because it rejects the principle of causality. They have had to redefine their position so that it is no longer disproven by science. Again, this does not amount to a refutation of atheism, but if the tables were turned, do you think theists would be given the benefit of doubt?

(cross-posted at Agent Intellect)

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum

30 comments:

Pedro Erik said...

Great, James. Lucid and clear.

James said...

Thanks Pedro, but the post came from my fellow blogger Jim S. I am sure he appreciates your words.

Matko said...

The atheist can still argue that even if there is a first cause or a necessary being, we can't establish that that first cause or that necessary being is God. Until that is accomplished, the cosmological argument fails as a proof of God's existence.

Hiero5ant said...

Let me ask two distinct questions: first, Did the universe begin to exist? and second, Does the universe have a cause?

1) Apparently, and 2) I don’t know, and neither, sir, do you.

In theistic religions, 1 has been the most common option.

It is certainly true that many theists have argued for this, but (as you note) it is not a given that theism entails this. Moreover, since theism is apparently compatible with both, and since nontheism is agnostic on the question, I have to suspect your claim that “atheism has been falsified” is meant as some sort of deadpan satire.

One can, through creative pretzel bakery, twist and wrap and coax the two mutually exclusive creation stories in Genesis to divine a non-contradictory reading satisfying the criterion of “bare logical possibility”, but if you look at the story of land being separated out of primordial water oceans 6,000 years ago, squint real hard, and decide “the *real* message of this is that ‘there must have been a beginning’”, I submit you might as well conclude that the parable of the Fox and the Grapes is really about the stunning “prediction” that mammals are heavier than air.

What about the so-called “scientific” status of this “prediction”? It’s true that Democritus correctly predicted the existence of atoms, and Anaximander correctly hypothesized that mankind descended from fish, but when you examine the purported reasoning, find that it resembles scientific evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing much less than it does “serendipitous speculation”. So one can grant that a non-infinite past is an empirical hypothesis without granting it scientific status.


Historically, the response of atheists was to accept 4, that the universe has neither a beginning nor a cause. Prior to the advent of Big Bang cosmology, position 3 was empty; at least I've never heard of anyone who accepted it, and the calls in the academic literature to find anyone who fits into it have gone unanswered. And yet it seems to be the position that atheists are driven to today. Of course, the fact that it has not been accepted historically does not mean that it is not a viable position to hold, but it surely gives us food for thought.

Once again, is it atheism that maintains this or atheists? Why should someone who finds it difficult to credit the accuracy of stories of water-walking fish-multipliers be required to have any position about the origin of the universe more than he’s required to predict who will win the superbowl?

The problem, again, is that the atheists' prediction has been falsified. Thus, it would seem that atheism has been falsified.

Ism. Ists. Really.

Hiero5ant said...

(cont'd)

Theists and atheists alike made a scientific prediction, the theists have had their prediction substantiated and the atheists have had their prediction refuted. In order to salvage their position, atheists have had to embrace a position that never occurred to anyone because it rejects the principle of causality.

Only a few lines ago you (correctly) observed that neither an infinite nor a finite past would falsify the hypothesis, so (on this specific issue), you would have to admit that divine origins is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, and so just to that extent un-scientific.

They have had to redefine their position so that it is no longer disproven by science.

1) Ists are not isms.
1.5) Do you have any examples of any specific Ists who argued at a time T their Ism required the one, then at time T+1 after some specific development in science denied this?

2) This is one of the more headscratching lines of ‘criticism’ one ever sees against a generally secular, rationalist outlook. “lol you changed your mind just because new evidence came in!”

3) From my layman’s understanding it is simply not a settled issue within physics whether the topology of the Big Bang is a genuine singularity, or finite but unbounded, or any number of possibilities my tiny mind hasn’t the maths to comprehend. As always, there is no room for a priori dogmatizing when it comes to the results of future empirical inquiry. Unless I’ve been hopelessly misinformed about the actual state of the actual science done by actual scientists, it appears that an uncaused universe remains at the level of “tentatively quite reasonable based on what we currently know.”

4) As long as we’re going to accept GIES (“Gut-level Intuitions Everyone Shares”) as somehow probative of advanced theoretical physics, here are some intuitions: a) to be caused is by definition to be caused by a temporally prior event and b) everything that begins to exist, begins as a rearrangement of previously existing things. I submit that these GIES, which militate against a caused universe, are on epistemically identical footing with the GIES that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. So we have what amounts to proof against proof, with ‘proof’ defined way, way, way down. But then there are excellent scientific reasons to believe B is false, which circles back nicely to Democritus and Anaximander earlier – philosophical speculation along the lines that “it stands to reason” that unobserved parts of the world must be a certain way are cute, but they are at best proto-science even when they happen to make fortuitously correct predictions. Intuition-mongering, no matter who is doing it, cannot be made into a substitute for real science, and it’s a shame that people who might otherwise be genuinely interested in real cosmology spend so much time mongering intuitions at each other instead of something more edifying.

TheOFloinn said...

The atheist can still argue that even if there is a first cause or a necessary being, we can't establish that that first cause or that necessary being is God.

He can argue that; but he would be wrong. The reasoning is quite clear, once you have gotten to the necessary existence of an unmoved mover (which Aristotle did) as a being of pure act. From this, a host of conclusions follow like toppling dominoes.
+ + +
the two mutually exclusive creation stories in Genesis

There are not two stories. Gen 1 is a poem in honor of the Sabbath. The mythic stories that start in Gen 2 are not creation as such.

Observer said...

Hiero

Would you kindly provide the indisputable evidence for something coming from nothing?

The scientist you speak of who argue for an uncaused universe are all hard core atheist such as Stenger. That is hardly an objective view. If it is, why is it?

Johan Viklund said...

Observer.

When did "tentatively quite reasonable based on what we currently know" become equivalent with "there exists indisputable evidence for"?

Hiero is just making a statement of what a lot of physisists are saying. I don't think that this specific prediction has been tested yet though, so we'll have to wait and see.

unkleE said...

Jim,

Thanks for this most interesting post. But I think you have left one factor out of the argument. Certainly our universe began at the big bang, but it could have conceivably been caused by an earlier universe, which in turn .... Thus it can still be claimed that the total sum of all space, time, matter and energy has existed forever. I think that view is nonsense, for all the reasons that people give to show that an infinite number of events is impossible, but I think modern atheists may still say perhaps our universe has a physical cause (option #1), but overall it's all eternal.

Anonymous said...

When did "something coming from nothing without cause" become reasonable, even 'tentatively', eve 'based on what we (correction: don't) know'?

Answer: When the alternative started to look displeasing and disturbing. Though there's a certain grim humor in a group so often stomping about science and reason being willing to sacrifice causality altogether. Or better yet, call that sacrifice quite reasonable.

Observer said...

Because it is metaphysical nonsense that is contrary to all reason to assert something came from nothing Johan. If Hiero has such evidence that would destroy one of the most basic principles of logic and science then I think he should bring it to the table. If he does not have such evidence he should ditch that absurd argument.

DWPittelli said...

The Big Bang does not necessarily imply a universe with a beginning. We could be in an oscillating universe (bang, expansion, collapse, then bang again). And I understand that string theory, for example, appears to include the strong possibility of many new universes forming at the collision boundaries of older universes. Now, I will grant that I do not understand string theory, and that it is at least somewhat speculative and not universally accepted, but from what I know of cosmologists and physicists, its impetus -- like that of most great theoretical work -- is a conception of mathematical beauty or symmetry, not some attempt to do away with religion, which they would ignore in any case.

Johan Viklund said...

Why so aggresive? ;)

Anonymous. You are putting up strawmen. No-one is abandoning causality, where did you get that from?

Observer. Whether it's metaphysical nonsense or not depends on your metaphysics of course. I can imagine metaphysics that allows ex nihilo creation. I don't see how it would destroy the most basic principles of logic and science. The proposition is not "Nothing that happens has a cause and everything is random", which would be preposterous and against the most basic principles of science and logic.

In either case. I don't find it interesting defending any speculative scientific hypothesis of the origin of the universe. It tends to be quite uninteresting since in general, no-one of the conversation members understand the hypothesis discussed (neither atheists nor theists).

The Cosmological argument however, is a lot easier to discuss. And the main issue I have with that is that it doesn't really tell us anything about the beginning of the universe. I don't see how a creator increases our understanding of the world. The only effect it has is adding more questions, that are almost impossible to answer. "Why did the creator create the universe?" "How did the creator do it?"... The second question is almost (but not quite) equivalent with "How come there is something rather than nothing?", which is what the cosmological argument tries to answer.

Which brings me to the question of why I should accept an explanation for a phenomenon which has the effect of rephrasing the question slightly and adding more (and bigger) questions to the mix? I don't need an alternative to reject such an "explanation".

My logic here might be flawed. If it is, I hope it can be pointed out.

Observer said...

My metaphysics teach me from nothing comes nothing. Zilch . Nada.

If you or Hiero have any example of an exception to that principle I would be very curious to see it.

Stenger abandoned causality when he argued the universe came from nothing and so did Quentin Smith when he argued the universe caused itself.

Hiero himself abandoned causality when he stated it is possible the universe was uncaused.

If I accept God created the universe I can preserve causality, if I go with atheistic arguments I have to reject it. This is not a hard decision.

The Widget said...

Surely the simplest asnwer is that we don't know but there are some fine minds working on the problem.
The real problem is using the word'God' for what might or might not be a first cause. It risks linking the 'first cause' to conceptions of 'God' which emerged only in the last four thousand years in the cultures of the Middle East and which later developed into the three major monotheistic religions. There is absolutely no reason why any such link should be made.

Johan Viklund said...

Observer:

I think you are taking more away from those those statements than were put in there. But that doesn't really matter. Some of them are scientific hypotheses, and therefore the only way of settling the issue is via empirical inquiry. Which remains to be done.

I'm agnostic to whether it's possible or not until it has been proven, one way or the other. That is the only defendable position.

_My_ atheistic argument is that a creator in the beginning doesn't explain anything. Or rather, it can explain anything, which makes it useless. So maybe you can keep your causality, but you still don't know why there is something rather than nothing. I don't either, so according to my standards, we're on at least equal footing (I would say that I'm slightly better of, having one less parameter in my model).

Observer said...

Widget decides to engage in the genetic fallacy and Johan thinks that things coming from nothing or creating themselves is the product of brilliant minds, not desperate minds. As it is I think I will keep a deity for my explanation and let atheist surrender causality and therefore any intellectual credibility.

Anonymous said...

Can 'Observer' please explain what he means by 'the genetic fallacy'?

Observer said...

Widget does not want to consider the concept of God because it came to existence 4000 years ago. However the truth of an idea rest on it's own merits, not who or when the idea was made. Widget is attacking the idea of God simply by saying it has it's origins in antiquity

Johan Viklund said...

Observer:

Whether I think that or not is irrelevant. Can you please try to focus on the subject at hand?

Now can you tell me why there exists something rather than nothing instead. You seem to claim to be able to do that.

Observer said...

Well actual I am simply defending the rather obvious principle of causality against irrational attacks on it by atheists.

Johan would you please give me an undisputed example of nothing creating something or an object creating itself. Surely if " brilliant" mind such as Stenger and Smith support it you should be able to explain why they do.

Johan Viklund said...

Observer,

Where did I claim to have any empirical evidence? Have I even defended the position? I think not. What I have been trying to do (obviously I have failed) is to say that I think that you generalize too much. For example, it doesn't obviously follow that ALL causality gets destroyed from the proposition that some things are uncaused. Maybe it does, but that position has to be argued for as well.

I don't even know who this "Stenger" is. I have seen one debate on youtube where Quentin Smith appeared (if that's who you mean), he argued very badly and tried to defend a quite strange position. I must say that I do think that most atheists fail when they try to argue against a creator.

If you want to point out problems in my world-view it might be a good idea to find out what it is first.

Observer said...

Make this very simple. I absolutely refuse to remotely consider the possibility of something from nothing or something creating itself without the strongest of evidence. Furthermore I will say anyone that holds to that possibility without strong evidence is an idiot in my book PHD or not. Maybe that is rude but I do not know any other way to say it.

Honestly my comments were directed at Hiero but you are asking me to be open minded to something I consider to be as absurd as a 4 side circle.

If you accept causality we will get along fine, if not I do not think we will have any ground for a dialog.

Johan Viklund said...

What's the point of doing that? I mean, I thougt you sincerely wanted to get Hiero to change his views. But now you're saying that all you wanted was to publicly exclaim "Hiero and everyone who things as Hiero is an idiot!".

Observer said...

Well I call a spade a spade Johan. If one denies Causality one is moron, it is just that simple. I can really care less to change his mind as facts do not go away just because someone is ignorant enough to deny them.

The Widget said...

If we accept Observer's hypothesis that there is a 'First Cause' this does not ,of course, say anything about its nature. It may have been subsumed in the causation of the universe.We simply do not know. It is therefore highly misleading to refer to this 'First Cause' as God when this word is already used to describe a specific higher power within the monotheistic religions where it has its own history. It just ends up confusing everyone. It seems reasonable and more fruitful for discussions to keep the 'First Cause' hypothesis completely separate . When the monotheistic relgions were being formed , no one had any idea of the immense chronological gap between the appearance of the universe and the very slow evolutionary emergence of the human species and their conception of God was developed within the context of a recent universe with human beings in at the beginning. It is surely wrong to transfer the concept 'God' into such a radically different context as that provided by the findings of modern science.

Observer said...

Widget

Do a google search on the genetic fallacy and read your argument again.

I am not a philosopher but I consider myself to be an intelligent person.

Arguing against causality is a move of desperation on the part of certain atheist philosophers.

There has to be a reason for this desperate gambit though to make them take such an extreme action. My educated guess is that they know an eternal non divine cause is very very problematic for their arguments, and for that reason they would rather lose causality then concede an eternal cause.

Anonymous said...

Quite often, a creationist will be heard to exclaim, “I’ve been studying evolution for years and I’ve never seen evidence of a single transitional fossil! I’d be genuinely interested to see some.” Two things are inevitably true in those situations. The first is that both claims are false, and the second is that no more knowledgable creationist -- even those who certainly know that’s not true -- will step in and correct them, keeping a united public front.

I see a professional historian of science not only co-blogs, but has posted in this thread. Perhaps he can fill you in on the timeline of some of the most important discoveries of last century’s science. Briefly, quantum indeterminacy as embodied in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows that, as far as experiment can determine, certain observations cannot be derived even in principle, from even maximal states of knowledge of initial conditions.

“That just can’t be right, on philosophical grounds,” said many people.

”Well, tough cookies,” said observable, repeatable experiments. Observable Reality 1, Dogmatism O.

Quantum cosmology is an attempt to make what we know to be true about the universe on relativistic scales compatible with what we know to be true about the uncaused nature of certain events on the very small scales, and it’s horrifically complicated, contentious, and still unresolved. But if even Einstein can be proven wrong when he tries to insert claims that “just have to be right” on intuitive grounds, it’s dollars to donuts that smug, anonymous blog commentors who’ve never even heard of the most important scientific theory in the last 100 years have about a 0.0% chance of correctly predicting the outcome of future physics.

Might I also add:

No response to my pointing out armchair dogmatizing is no substitute for patient agnosticism.

No response to the fact that a finite past is not entailed by theism, nor its negation by nontheism.

No response to pointing out the desperate handwaving required to make modern cosmology compatible with Genesis texts about primordial water oceans.

No challenge to the claim that disbelief in one explanation does not entail another explanation.

No comeback to the assertion that it’s a virtue to change your view when the evidence leads that way, not a vice.

No reply to the gut level intuitions which annihilate their counterparts in first cause arguments.

Hiero5ant said...

P.S. Blogger software ate my handle.

Hiero5ant said...

Blogger also ate my comment. Lo, the virtues of composing offline.

Quite often, a creationist will be heard to exclaim, “I’ve been studying evolution for years and I’ve never seen evidence of a single transitional fossil! I’d be genuinely interested to see some.” Two things are inevitably true in those situations. The first is that both claims are false, and the second is that no more knowledgable creationist -- even those who certainly know that’s not true -- will step in and correct them.

I see a professional historian of science not only co-blogs, but has posted in this thread. Perhaps he can fill you in on the timeline of some of the most important discoveries of last century’s science. Briefly, quantum indeterminacy as embodied in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows that, as far as experiment can determine, certain observations cannot be derived even in principle, from even maximal states of knowledge of initial conditions.

“That just can’t be right, on philosophical grounds,” said many people.

”Well, tough cookies,” said observable, repeatable experiments. Observable Reality 1, Dogmatism O.

Quantum cosmology is an attempt to make what we know to be true about the universe on relativistic scales compatible with what we know to be true about the uncaused nature of certain events on the very small scales, and it’s horrifically complicated, contentious, and still unresolved. But if even Einstein can be proven wrong when he tries to insert claims that “just have to be right” on intuitive grounds, it’s dollars to donuts that smug, anonymous blog commentors who’ve never even heard of the most important scientific theory in the last 100 years have about a 0.0% chance of correctly predicting the outcome of future physics.

Might I also add:

No response to my pointing out armchair dogmatizing is no substitute for patient agnosticism.

No response to the fact that a finite past is not entailed by theism, nor its negation by nontheism.

No response to pointing out the desperate handwaving required to make modern cosmology compatible with Genesis texts about primordial water oceans.

No challenge to the claim that disbelief in one explanation does not entail another explanation.

No comeback to the assertion that it’s a virtue to change your view when the evidence leads that way, not a vice.

No reply to the gut level intuitions which annihilate their counterparts in first cause arguments.