This essay is a substantially revised version of a paper presented to a University of Toledo conference on science and religion in April 2006.
The danger that science poses for theism is that as science progresses, God seemingly becomes increasingly irrelevant. A Creator has to have something to do. In his introduction to Stephen Hawking’s 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time, Carl Sagan remarked that Hawking’s “no boundary” quantum cosmology would erase an absolute beginning point for the universe, leaving us with “a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end it time, and nothing for a Creator to do” (Sagan in Hawking, 1988, p. x). An otiose Creator soon withers into nonexistence. This, by the way, is why irenic proposals, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s suggestion that science and religion be regarded as “nonoverlapping magisteria,” are bound to fail. Gould relegates God to the realm of value, where value somehow mysteriously supervenes on fact, which is the domain of science (Gould, 1999). Surely theists suspect, rightly I believe, that a “Creator” assigned to such a minimal and ambiguous role would soon reduce to no more than the evanescent grin of the celestial Cheshire Cat.
What theistic apologists seek, therefore, is a gap for God that cannot be closed by the progress of science, a domain for divine activity in the world that advancing science cannot seal off, marginalize, or supplant with naturalistic explanations. It is precisely the effort to locate and exploit such alleged lacunae that motivates “intelligent design” theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski to postulate “irreducible” and “specified” complexity as natural phenomena that allegedly defy naturalistic explanation (Behe, 1996; Dembski, 1998). Whatever one thinks of these efforts (I regard them as total failures; see Miller, 1999; Pennock, 1999; Shanks, 2004; Young and Edis, 2004; Perakh, 2004), prima facie the most promising location for a Creator would be in the “creation” event itself, the origin of the universe. Surely, it seems, the gap between Something and Nothing is the greatest possible gap, an ontological chasm that only omnipotence could bridge. Yet even here, as Hawking’s theory shows, science ostensibly threatens to intrude with theories that eliminate the role of a Creator, or reduce that role to insignificance. Defenders of a robust theistic Creator therefore need to say just why physical cosmology, even if it fulfills all of its ambitions, will never succeed in crossing the gap between Something and Nothing, and further, explain why this failure leaves us in need of a Creator.
One of the clearest statements of the case for a Creator, even given the progress and promise of physical cosmology, is written by Roy Abraham Varghese in his introduction to the volume Cosmos, Bios, Theos (1992), which he edited with Henry Margenau. In the remainder of this essay, I shall examine Varghese’s argument in detail and show why it fails. In particular, I argue that there is no intellectual difficulty in postulating an initial state of the universe as an ultimate brute fact, and that Varghese’s arguments to the contrary are flawed. (By “ultimate brute fact” I mean a primordial or original state of affairs, one which, though its existence is logically contingent, is not caused by, dependent upon, conditioned by, reducible to, or supervenient upon any other prior or more basic entity or state of affairs.)
Varghese begins by considering that the universe might be infinitely old, with no beginning and no end. Taking time to examine this possibility may seem a distraction since cosmologists have decisively rejected the steady state theory that postulated an eternally existing universe. But cosmological scenarios postulating an endless past are now back on the table (e.g., Andrei Linde’s “eternal inflation” scenario), so the discussion is again relevant. Varghese argues that even if the universe had existed eternally, it would still need an explanation: “Even if we admit the assumption of an eternally existing universe we are left with the problem of explaining and accounting for the eternally existing universe” (Margenau and Varghese, 1992, p. 4). He continues:
How did matter and the universe come into being? Such a question can be addressed even with regard to an eternally existing universe, because we want to know how it is that there is a universe with the property of eternal existence. It is not enough to say that the universe was always here and that we should not ask how it got here or how, if it is eternal, the phenomenon of an eternally existing universe can be explained. Why should we not ask these questions? (Margenau and Varghese, p. 4; emphasis in original).
Actually, the question “How did matter and the universe come into being?” cannot be addressed on the assumption that the universe is eternal. That assumption precludes that the universe ever came into being. What about the question about how the eternally existing universe is to be explained? This is an odd question given that the universe is eternal, and given, as Varghese never denies, that each state of the universe is scientifically explicable in terms of the laws of nature and the previous states of the universe. In an eternal universe each state of the universe is explicable in terms of the universe’s preceding states and the laws of nature. For instance, the reason that the universe at any given time contains just so much matter or energy and no more or less is explained in terms of the preceding states of the universe and the applicable conservation laws. In such an eternally existing universe, as opposed to one with a temporal origin, there is, by definition, no inexplicable initial state, but a seamless web of explicable states. But, Varghese might protest, the whole still lacks an explanation. Traditionally, the demand that even an eternal universe “as a whole” have an explanation has been put in the form of two questions: (a) Why is there something instead of nothing? and (b) Why this eternally existing universe rather than some other? I shall take it that these are the questions Varghese wants to ask.
But it is hard to see what motivates such questions. What is the further mystery we are trying to address when we keep asking “why?” at this point? Why should it surprise us that there is a universe? Why should it surprise us that we have this universe? What else should we expect? Of course, we can imagine that there might (i.e., conceivably could) have been nothing at all or that all sorts of other universes might have existed instead of ours, but this need not create any mystery. There are always innumerable imaginable possibilities whose failure to be realized creates no mystery at all. The moon could conceivably have been made of cheese, but it is no mystery that it isn’t. In general, it is no mystery why something does not exist unless, given our background knowledge, its existence was expected, or at least no more unexpected than what does exist. Nothing in our knowledge base supports the slightest expectation that the moon would be made of cheese. Nor do we have any basis for thinking that some other (ex hypothesi eternal) universe should have existed all along instead of ours. Therefore, it is hard to see how asking “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” is very different from asking “Why don’t we have a moon made out of cheese?”
What possible grounds could we have for thinking that it is a puzzle or mystery why our universe exists rather than some other imaginable universe, or even none at all? In scientific contexts, when only one out of a range of relevant alternatives (what Bas van Fraassen calls the “contrast class”; Van Fraassen, 1980) is realized, we naturally and rightly assume that there is some reason why this happened rather than that. We rightly assume that there were physical antecedents and relevant physical laws that determined, at least probabilistically, the occurrence of one event out of a contrast class. But when the “occurrence” we are interested in is the existence of the universe as a whole, by definition there are no physical antecedents or applicable natural laws that justify the expectation of an answer to our question “Why this rather than that?” What could make the universe as a whole probable or improbable, expected or unexpected? Richard Swinburne (1979) thinks that, even with no nontautological background information, we can judge the existence of an eternally existing complex physical universe highly improbable. I have elsewhere criticized Swinburne’s claims in detail (Parsons, 1989), so I shall here merely reiterate my conclusion that such arguments lead only to a maze of metaphysical imponderables from which there is no escape. In the absence of grounds for thinking that this universe, given that it has existed eternally, is unexpected, surprising, or improbable (and Varghese mentions no such grounds), the correct riposte to the questions “Why this universe?” or “Why any universe at all?” is “Why not?”
Of course, others have raised Varghese’s questions before about an ex hypothesi eternal universe, most notably Gottfried Leibniz. According to Leibniz’s argument from contingency, all contingent things–even if they have existed eternally–lack adequate explanation until they are grounded in something necessary. The argument rests upon the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), which holds that nothing can be so unless there is a sufficient reason why it is so. Clearly, the PSR entails that if the chain of sufficient reasons is not to extend ad infinitum, then all contingencies must ultimately be grounded in something that is, in some sense, necessary. Perhaps the most perspicacious and succinct comment on the PSR comes from J. L. Mackie:
The principle of sufficient reason expresses a demand that things should be intelligible through and through. The simplest reply to the argument that relies on [the PSR] is that there is nothing that justifies this demand, and nothing that supports the belief that it is satisfiable even in principle…. Any particular explanation starts with premises which state “brute facts,” and though the brutally factual starting-points of one explanation may themselves be further explained by another, the latter in turn will have to start with something that it does not explain, and so on however far we go. But there is no need to see this as unsatisfactory (Mackie, 1982, pp. 85-86; emphasis in original).
If we repudiate the PSR, then we will no longer automatically infer that the fact that something lacks an explanation means that it requires one. It might well be entirely reasonable for some logically contingent things just to be and to have no reason for their existence.
Varghese proceeds to examine a number of the salient cosmological models of the origin of the universe, including the oscillating universe, quantum gravity, vacuum fluctuation, and inflationary universe models. An oscillating universe theory holds that the history of the universe is an eternal series of expansions and contractions whereby each big bang is followed by a period of expansion, which is followed by an era of contraction culminating in a “big crunch” as all matter coalesces into a point. There follows another big bang and the cycle repeats endlessly. Varghese asks the same sort of question he posed to the eternal universe scenario: “How is the existence of this whole mechanism of eternal expansion and contraction to be explained?” (p. 6). And the same sorts of questions may be offered in reply. If the empirical evidence supports the oscillating universe model (at present it does not), then what is the motivation to ask “Why an eternally oscillating universe?” What considerations (and they would have to be purely a priori) would lead us to think that such a system is less or no more expected than a nonoscillating universe? How can we assign a meaningful probability to the existence of the totality of things? Why not an eternally oscillating universe?
Since oscillating universe models currently have little support among cosmologists, Varghese devotes more attention to Hawking’s quantum gravity model. Varghese admires Hawking’s theory because if offers an ingenious way to eliminate the initial singularity postulated by standard Big Bang theory. On Hawking’s proposal, space-time is finite but unbounded so that the universe is not eternal but does not originate in an initial singularity where all the laws of physics break down. If the universe has no absolute boundary in space or time, then the whole is explicable in terms of the laws of physics and there is no initial, inexplicable point where a creator could work. Still, Varghese rejects Sagan’s suggestion that Hawking’s cosmology would leave “nothing for a Creator to do.” Varghese notes that according to traditional theism, God is not only the creator, but also the sustainer of the universe. He quotes a review of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time by Don Page that notes that for traditional theism, even if the world has no beginning, its continued existence through time must have a theistic explanation (Page, 1988, pp. 742-743). Varghese and Page are quite right that theism has traditionally viewed creation as consisting not only of the initial creation ex nihilo, but also the ongoing creatio continuans whereby God’s continuously active power sustains all physical things in existence. According to this theistic doctrine, should God’s sustaining power be withdrawn for even a single moment, all physical things would collapse into nonexistence.
But why should any nontheist suppose that the doctrine of creatio continuans has any rational credentials? Why, for instance, would a quark require any metaphysical props to uphold its existence and underwrite its powers and liabilities? Of course, all physical things are contingent in the sense that they might not have existed, but logical contingency does not imply ontological contingency. Just because something might not exist at a given time is no reason to think that in fact its existence is maintained by something else. From the nontheist’s perspective, the insistence upon an explanation of the universe in terms of creatio continuans is just another instance of the propensity of theistic apologists to create a mystery where there is none, and then offer God as the tailor-made answer to the pseudoenigma. As for why existing things remain in existence, nontheists just do not see any mystery here and no need for an explanation.
The vacuum fluctuation and inflationary models hold that the universe originated as a quantum fluctuation in a primordial vacuum. The vacuum envisioned here is not absolute nothing. It is devoid of particles, but it is pervaded by quantum fields and is subject to random quantum fluctuations, one of which initiated the Big Bang. As Varghese therefore correctly points out, these models do not begin with absolutely nothing, but assume, at the least, that the laws of quantum physics applied “before” the Big Bang. These laws had to “already” be there in some sense in order for there to be a Big Bang (p. 9). Varghese concludes: “No scientific theory, it seems, can bridge the gulf between absolute nothingness and a full-fledged universe (or fledgling universes). This ultimate origin question is a metascientific question–one which science can ask but not answer” (p. 11).
Before examining Varghese’s case for a metascientific answer to the question of existence, we need to make sure that we are clear on just what we are seeking when we ask for a “bridge” across the “gulf between absolute nothingness and a full-fledged universe.” As Parmenides pointed out near the very beginning of Western philosophy, it is very hard to think clearly about “Nothing.” If by “Nothing” we mean absolute nonbeing (me on in Parmenides), it is essential that we not hypostasize this concept and turn absolute Nothing into Something. We must not conceive of absolute Nothing as a sort of ghostly, empty, precosmic matrix–like the primordial chaos of Hesiod’s Theogony–that existed prior to the Big Bang. Language bewitches us here. When we say things like “before the Big Bang there was nothing,” we seem to be naming something we call “Nothing” and asserting that it existed before the universe did. This way of speaking is pernicious. It creates the misleading picture that there was this empty Something–which we call by the name of “Nothing”–which somehow mysteriously gave birth to a universe. But this is wrong. The universe did not come from “Nothing.” There was no “Nothing” for it to come out of. If there was no “Nothing,” then it is nonsense to speak of a “gulf” between absolute nothingness and the universe.
If there was no reified Nothing from which the universe mysteriously sprang, how do we interpret Varghese’s demand for something to “bridge the gulf between absolute nothingness and a … universe?” It simply seems to be another way of asking, once again, why there is something instead of nothing. What, really, is the motivation for this question? What really seems to motivate the question is a highly dubious assumption, what Adolf Grünbaum (private communication) calls the assumption of “the spontaneity of nothingness.” According to this assumption, nothingness is the natural, expected, and spontaneous condition; it needs no explanation. The existence of anything (except for “necessary beings,” if any), on the other hand, is taken as problematic, as requiring an explanation or account. But the assumption of the spontaneity of nothingness seems to be a sheer prejudice. Being appears no less natural, spontaneous, or expected than nonbeing.
The basic problem with the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is that it is not clear that anything could, in principle, answer it. Presumably, if we answered that question in terms of some existing thing, X, then immediately the question would arise “Why is there X instead of nothing?” The only way to keep this question from repeating ad infinitum is to postulate an X that is, in some sense, a necessary being. However, this idea takes us into the realm of the ontological argument, introducing all of the problems associated with that argument. Varghese, wisely in my view, never invokes the ontological argument in support of his claims; in fact, he specifically rejects Kant’s claim that cosmological arguments tacitly rely upon the ontological argument (p. 16). However, he does argue that the search for understanding that begins with science should move beyond science, and that it rightly terminates beyond the physical cosmos. Paraphrasing St. Augustine, we may say that Varghese’s conviction is that “Our minds are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.” Let us turn to the arguments that support his conviction.
Why, in Varghese’s view, is it more reasonable to end our inquiries with God than with the ultimate features of the physical universe, whatever they may be? That is, why is it intellectually unsatisfactory to stop asking “Why?” even if physics completes its task and presents us with the Holy Grail of a well-confirmed, all-encompassing Theory of Everything that accounts for all known entities and forces? Varghese says that it is because no physical thing is self-explanatory, while God is:
The only viable explanation, then, for the existence of any one of the entities or all of the entities that make up the universe would be the existence of an ultimate uncaused being–a being that did not receive existence from anyone or anything else and can completely explain its own existence. This self-explanatory being is commonly called “God” and is the explanatory ultimate demanded by all non-self-explanatory entities from sub-atomic particles to galaxies. Cosmological arguments do not reason from the fact that everything in the universe has a cause in space and time to the conclusion that the universe has a cause in space and time; these arguments point out, rather, that everything in the universe is non-self-explanatory, which means that the explanation of the universe does not lie in itself but must lie in a self-explanatory being (pp. 12-13).
But in what sense could God be a self-explanatory being? Varghese is not terribly helpful here. He does tell us that God is “an ultimate uncaused being–a being that did not receive existence from anyone or anything else and can completely explain its own existence” (p. 12). But how exactly are we to take this? Does he mean that God is “an ultimate uncaused being–a being that did not receive existence from anyone or anything else” and therefore is self-explanatory? In other words, is he saying that being an ultimate and uncaused being is sufficient for being self-explanatory? Or is he saying that being self-explanatory requires something more than being an ultimate and uncaused being, so that a being could be ultimate and uncaused but still not self-explanatory?
Let’s begin by assuming that Varghese intends the former, namely, that being an ultimate uncaused being, i.e., a being that did not receive its existence from anyone or anything else, is sufficient for being a self-explanatory being. In this case, though, he never explains why the most basic or original state of the natural cosmos (e.g., a primordial singularity, quantum vacuum, or space-time foam) could not likewise be uncaused and exist without having received its existence from anyone or anything else. So, if we suppose that being uncaused and possessing existence without receiving it from something else is sufficient for something to be self-explanatory, then there seems to be no reason why an initial, uncaused state of the universe cannot be the self-explanatory cause of everything else.
Varghese also endorses an argument of Hugo Meynell’s:
Suppose that God … is that on the understanding and will of which all else depends. In that case, God, in virtue of being God, could not depend on any other being or beings. The rational theist may thus claim that God is required in explanation of the otherwise “brute facts” of the world, without being such as to require explanation in return (Meynell, 1992, p. 246; emphasis in original).
But, again, why wouldn’t this same reasoning apply to anything that occupies the apex of our explanatory hierarchies? Whatever we postulate as the original, uncaused cause of everything else would also, ex hypothesi, lack dependence on any other being or beings. We would conceive it to be “an ultimate uncaused being–a being that did not receive existence from anyone or anything else.” To reply that God is, by definition, the first cause, whereas (say) the primordial singularity could, at best, only happen to be so, is not an apposite reply. Until we are given adequate arguments to think otherwise, the necessity inherent in saying that God is the uncaused first cause can be taken as de dicto and not de re. That is, even if semantic convention dictates that nothing is to be called “God” unless it is the first cause, this is no reason at all to think that the first cause has to be God.
Well, perhaps Varghese means to assert that being self-explanatory involves more than merely being the ultimate, uncaused being. But what more could that “extra” be that is required for self-explanatoriness? Again, Varghese is not very helpful. He does tell us that “It is as absurd to ask for an explanation for the existence of a self-explanatory being as it is to ask ‘Why is a circle round?'” (pp. 14-15). Well, yes, it would be absurd to ask “What is the explanation (meaning an explanation external to that being itself) of the self-explanatory being?” But we are still left completely in the dark about just how we are to construe God’s alleged self-explanatoriness, and, in particular, how it would differ from the condition of a putative original, uncaused state of the physical universe. Worse, until and unless we have such clarification of what it means to be self-explanatory, it is hard to see how God’s alleged self-explanatoriness really amounts to anything other than just being inexplicable. If God, by definition, can have no cause or dependence on anything else (since all else is caused or depends on him), then God’s existence is placed beyond the bounds of any possible explanation, account, or understanding. Ironically, therefore, Varghese and Meynell may have only succeeded in defining God into utter inexplicability, and so making him into precisely the sort of ultimate brute fact that they decry.
Varghese’s final argument appeals to what he calls the “Principle of Explanation” (PE). The PE is the demand, allegedly essential for the very practice of science, that our quest for understanding, our practice of asking “Why?” not be halted arbitrarily, but proceed until we have answered all that can be answered. The PE cannot be satisfied with brute facts:
By its very nature, the PE on which science is based cannot rest in brute facts, facts that are unintelligible and non-explanatory. The assertion that the universe is “the ultimate brute fact” is an assertion that there is no explanation for the existence of the universe and that we should not expect any explanation of its existence (p. 15).
Varghese again quotes Meynell:
It is an ultimate consequence of our a priori assumptions about the nature of the world and our knowledge of it … that that there cannot be “brute facts.” A putative fact which turns out to be incapable of being fitted into any framework of explanation is not a fact at all; it is impossible to spell out what it would be coherently to suppose, let alone to be assure of, the existence of such a “fact.” The existence of God would not be a “brute fact” in the sense objected to, since, as postulated in terms of the argument advanced here, God, by his nature is the sort of being whose understanding and will would explain how it is and that it is of everything else without himself being capable of being explained in the same way. That on whose existence, understanding, and will everything else depended could not be dependent on the existence of anything else (Meynell, 1982, pp. 104-105).
A couple of remarks are in order here. First, there is absolutely nothing in scientific practice or the accepted canons of scientific rationality that entails that everything must eventually be explained. Given that we do someday acquire the fabled Theory of Everything (TOE), and are rationally assured that it is indeed the TOE for which we have so long sought, our quest for a scientific understanding the physical cosmos will have reached a satisfactory terminus. As Mackie observed earlier, in every scientific explanation, the explanans are temporarily regarded as brutally factual, i.e., as simply given. We may proceed to inquire about these, but only by regarding their explanations as in turn unexplained. There is no reason to think that in thus pursuing ever-deeper explanations, that we might not someday reach explanatory “rock bottom,” i.e., those physical facts that undergird all other explanations, and which themselves admit of no deeper account or explanation. In fact, reaching such “rock bottom” seems to be the goal of fundamental physics. Assuming that we reach, and are rationally assured that we have reached, such theoretical “rock bottom,” this would seem to be a cause for celebration rather than despair that we have still not explained everything. Of course, the “rock bottom” itself would remain unexplained, but there is nothing in the presuppositions of scientific inquiry that assures us that reality must turn out to satisfy every whim of human curiosity. Our principles of rationality tell us to look and hope for answers; they give us no a priori assurance that they will always be found. Hence, the mere fact per se that we can ask for an explanation of the universe is no reason to think that there must be one.
Second, as noted above, God apparently is precisely the kind of brute fact in Meynell’s sense that is “incapable of being fitted into any framework of explanation.” God, by definition, is beyond the bounds of explicability in terms of any framework whatsoever. God encompasses all frameworks; none encompass him. So, by Meynell’s reasoning, if brute facts cannot even be coherently supposed, then God’s existence cannot be coherently supposed. Besides, how exactly does God explain anything, much less everything? What was God’s modus operandi in creating the universe? How did he do it? Can we be any more explicit here than the Book of Genesis when it says that “God said … and it was?” Occult powers wielded by a transcendent being in an inscrutable way for unfathomable purposes just do not seem to be the basis for any sort of a good explanation. Theistic “explanations” therefore only seem to serve the purpose of hiding our ignorance behind a theological fig leaf.
In conclusion, Varghese and his allies (such as Meynell) have given us no reason for thinking that the universe must have been caused by God, or that the original and most basic features of the universe cannot be an uncaused reality that explains everything else but is itself unexplained. Those cosmologies that postulate baby universes–a primordial singularity or quantum vacuum, for instance–as the ultimate physical facts can reasonably be taken as postulating ultimate brute facts.
It appears, therefore, that the choice between theism and atheism boils down to a choice between ultimate brute facts–God or the most basic features, whatever they might be, of the physical cosmos. I have argued in this paper that the choice of God is not intellectually compelling, that it is entirely rational and reasonable to see the universe as needing no cause and capable of existing with no metaphysical support. The universe, insofar as it is explicable, is explicable in naturalistic terms. No logical or metaphysical principle, at least none mentioned by Varghese, requires that the world have a creator.
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Copyright ©2006 Keith Parsons. This electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Keith Parsons. All rights reserved.