"Reconciling" science and theism. A perspective from a non scientist


(John Dalton) #61

I don’t think so. What does it mean for something to be “immaterial” or “supernatural”? It’s certainly outside of my experience, and I’ve never heard any illuminating explanation of the concepts.

The thing is that it hasn’t been “discovered” in any tangible sense. If it had, nothing like a cosmological argument would be necessary. All we really have is people thinking about it and coming up with various ideas on the topic. I do find it suspicious when the ideas tend to pump ourselves up as some kind of chosen species, in the absence of any firm evidence for thinking so.

I would say I am rather suspicious of that as well :slight_smile:

(Matthew Dickau) #62

You may be misunderstanding me in some way, because I certainly have no idea how this refutes what I said.

The cosmological argument concludes that the “universe” = all of physical reality has a cause. (I have made that equation a couple times in this thread, to be clear about how I am using the word “universe” in this context.) My claim, which you are saying is clearly false, is that the cause of all of physical reality cannot be part of physical reality, because something cannot be the cause of its own existence.

In your supposed counterexample, the cloud is not the cause of its own existence. The wider atmospheric environment causes the cloud to form, but the cloud itself isn’t there to cause anything until it forms, so it certainly did not cause itself to form.

Because a quantum field is a physical thing, and so is part of the universe. In order to produce the universe, it would have to produce itself. (Like a reverse Ouroboros vomiting itself out of nothing, perhaps?)

Now, you could argue that the universe doesn’t need a cause at all, because it exists eternally and necessarily in the form of some kind of quantum field that produced everything else in the universe. But that is an objection to a different part of the argument (Premise 2), not the inference about what properties a cause of the universe must have.


That’s quite a bit different from the usual conception of the universe which is everything we can observe. This would be the finite universe we live in which started with the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago.

If “universe” includes everything that physically exists then that would also include God. God would be part of the universe.

(Matthew Dickau) #64

Far from being outside your experience, you are more closely acquainted with something immaterial than any physical thing: you own thoughts and conscious experiences. Now, you probably believe that those things are really emergent from the physical, and I disagree with you there. But that doesn’t change the fact that the mind and the brain are conceptually distinct, and it is easy to imagine an unembodied mind.

You don’t think we can arrive at knowledge through reasoning?

(Matthew Dickau) #65

I know, which is why, when I layed out the cosmological argument earlier, I tried to make this difference in usage clear:

Perhaps I was being too brief. But in the philosophical literature on the cosmological argument, as far as I am familiar with it, it is always (at least) all of physical reality in view.

How do you justify that claim? God is not a physical thing. “Physical iff real” is something denied by every theist.

(John Dalton) #66

It’s not easy for me at all. The only minds we know of are the product of physical brains (good call :slight_smile:)

I don’t see how that follows from what I said. I’m saying that if we had discovered God, and therefore had knowledge of his existence, and of the cause of the universe, it would be unnecessary to make a “cosmological argument”. It would be superfluous. Really the argument in itself isn’t much. Why is anything here? It’s impossible to fathom that it could be for no reason whatsoever (for me anyway). It seems that you think you have specific knowledge about the cause. Wherever that supposed knowledge is coming from, it’s not coming from the cosmological argument.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #67

Though I think the cosmological argument is valid, I also agree with this. This why I focus on Jesus in my explanation of why I think God exists, is good, and wants to be known.

(John Dalton) #68

For me, there’s too much uncertainty there. I don’t even know if the universe must have a cause. As I said, I can’t understand how it couldn’t, but none of the suggested explanations I’ve heard are any more explicable. Your focus is a lot more understandable to me. Put another way, I understand that people have many reasons for believing in God, but I don’t think the cosmological argument is a good one.

(Matthew Dickau) #69

And my contention is that the cosmological argument is itself a way of having some knowledge about God. So it isn’t superfluous at all - unless you insist that we can’t get knowledge about God from such reasoning. But why can’t we?

It’s coming from the conclusion of the cosmological argument, that the universe has a cause, and reasoning what something must be like in order to be the cause of the universe. Obviously we do not get everything about God from the cosmological argument, as I’ve already said in this thread. But we do learn some things though it.

(John Dalton) #70

No reason why we can’t. But I don’t see how any knowledge has been generated. I’ve briefly explained why not above.

I would contend that the reasoning I bolded is not part of the argument, but that doesn’t mean the reasoning can’t be done of course. I’ve seen people at times insert definitive ideas into the premises, which is another story and I guess not what you’re talking about. What do you think we can learn from it? Why do you think that “something” must be like (presumably) the Christian God?


I think this is key.

Philosophically, one might get to where Aristotle got in his thinking, but not much further.

Through natural revelation one might be able to come to some conclusions about a Creator - but those conclusions will only be Law and will have no Gospel.

It is through Jesus we see the heart of God.

(Matthew Dickau) #72

I looked through your posts in this thread, and could not find an explanation. But I’m hoping I can provide a positive counterexample. Here is what I think we can reason about the cause of the universe:

  • The cosmological argument arrives at a cause of the universe with the premise that the universe is contingent. (Another version uses the premise that the universe has a beginning.) If the cause of the universe is likewise contingent or has a beginning, it will also have a cause. We are looking here for the first cause, so we go to the end of the regress: and to terminate the regress the first cause must be beginningless and exist necessarily. (The regress can’t go on forever or circle back on itself, as either of those would be violating the principle of sufficient reason; a full exposition of the cosmological argument would elaborate on this point.) So we learn: the first cause is eternal, uncaused, and necessarily existent.
  • Also, Occam’s razor recommends avoiding postulating entities without reason, so unless we have some reason to believe differently, it is justifiable to believe that the first cause created the universe directly, rather than creating something else which created the universe.
  • In the course of defending the premises of the cosmological argument, one would have already argued that anything physical is not plausibly the kind of thing that can exist necessarily. (Or, in the other version of the argument, without beginning.) So we learn: the first cause is immaterial, i.e. non-physical.
  • Because space itself is part of the universe, the first cause is responsible for its creation, and therefore cannot be constrained to be within it. So we learn: the first cause transcends space.
  • The first cause obviously must be able to create the universe, so we learn: the first cause is immensely powerful.
  • And anything immaterial, transcending space, and immensely powerful would have to be either something like an impersonal, universe-generating force, or something like an unembodied personal mind.

That’s what I think we can get from just reasoning about the fact that the universe has a cause. Other arguments for God’s existence can get you further properties; Occam’s razor advises the hypothesis that the beings pointed to by the disparate arguments for God’s existence are in fact one and the same. (Some of the arguments actually show that such a being must be unique, so that they all have to be the same; I’m thinking of the ontological argument here.)

Please note that I’m not claiming that these lines of reasoning give us certain knowledge. (I don’t believe knowledge requires certainty; whatever degree of certainty is associated with knowledge is a byproduct of having sufficient justification for rational belief.) But I do believe these are very plausible and justifiable inferences to make about the nature of the first cause, which, if true, makes them knowledge.

(John Dalton) #73

Cheers. Clearly we’re not going to agree about this, so I’ll just clarify my viewpoint. In general, I don’t believe we can reason our way to knowledge about concrete issues where so little evidence is available, and this is a perfect example. It’s “fumbling about”.

To me, none of this is helpful. We start with a seemingly inexplicable problem: why is anything here? We instinctively want a “first cause” so we find a way to get to one. But the posited cause is equally inexplicable. Why is the first cause here? No amount of naked reasoning or definitions are going to get by that. You may as well say there’s an infinite regress; it’s no more or less understandable. These are questions which we simply do not have sufficient information to speak authoritatively about. The reality is that that is the state of our knowledge. That’s it in a nutshell.

I believe that there are definitely things in this whole equation which lie outside of our current knowledge and almost surely always will. They might well be impossible for us to understand or even imagine. In fact, I think that’s rather likely given what we know and how improbable it all seems.

(John Dalton) #74

I’ll try to go back on topic here :slight_smile: There might well be bias or resistance to the idea. But I think science will ultimately recognize the empirical. If the supernatural can affect our physical reality, I contend that that it is possible to make empirical judgments about it. If the contention is that supernatural activity is empirically undetectable by definition, I don’t see how we can separate it from the imaginary.

(George) #75


Sure… empirical judgments about ANY thing that happens can be made… but that’s not the same as being able to develop a theory of the event, and an explanation of the event.

It’s an impossible expectation… you can’t control variables when the variable is super-natural.

(John Dalton) #76

Difficult? Sure. Impossible? The cynic in me would like to say that it indeed would be impossible :slight_smile: but I don’t see why.

(Matthew Dickau) #77

I’m still not sure why you believe this, especially in this case. If this is a perfect example of “fumbling about,” there should be obvious flaws, or at the very least potential flaws, in my reasoning. But unless I’m misreading this conversation, you’ve at least conceded that the universe must have a cause, but then declined to point out anything wrong with my reasoning about what the first cause must be like if it does exist, and simply insisted that we can’t know anything about it.

Why you are so confident that we can’t know anything about it is what I am still not clear on.

Well, the answer to that question is simply that it is impossible for the first cause to not be here. Like it is impossible for 1+1 to equal 3, or for something to be the cause of itself. It is an axiom of reality. That’s what “necessarily existent” means.

Now, you might think that is really no better than saying that the existence of the first cause is just a brute, unexplained fact, as you have said. But the only alternative is to have the existence of the universe as a brute, unexplained fact. And for someone to whom the cosmological argument appeals (like myself), the universe is less fit to be the subject of that kind of brute fact than God, as the reasons given to support the above premise 2 would get into. (For example, it is arguable that God is simpler and far less arbitrary than the universe.)

I agree with you on the first part; I simply disagree on where that boundary is. As for the second part, that is a probability judgement that is highly dependent on the very question we are trying to answer; so I don’t really think we can say if it is improbable or not.

But, you’ve moved to wrap this up. Thanks very much for the discussion!

(John Dalton) #78

I don’t think we know that, no.

In short, there’s too little information to work with. We know our physical reality is here. We know things about its history up to a point. That looks like it to me. Cosmologists are pushing our knowledge outwards, but I don’t see any way of making large extrapolations on the base of our limited knowledge.


(Neil Rickert) #79

I want to comment only on “the universe must have a cause”.

The only meaning of “cause” that we could possibly have, comes from our experience of causes within this universe. I have no idea what it could even mean to say that the universe has a cause.

(Matthew Dickau) #80

Meant to say “might” here; you’ve conceded it’s a genuine possibility.

Why can’t it mean the same thing? Some of our concepts about reality are clearly applicable beyond the universe, in any possible reality. (Logic and mathematics, for example.) Why not cause and effect?