Friday, October 8, 2010

Begging the Question: More God Talk: Whither the Cosmological Argument


I'm going to make some comments just going down your post; although I fear there are still too many issues to address in this limited space.

1. First, notice that the argument offered, by your own standard of "rationality," is clearly a rational argument. The argument depends on reasoning from premise to conclusion, and premise (1) has "relation to the world." That is, it is clearly an empirical claim about the existence of causes and effects in the world. This is important to observe since I don't see any mention of "faith" here.

2. I did not anywhere claim that Dawkins and Harris don't discuss this issue. What I meant was that they don't address the (real) issues here but oversimplify and make too many cheap shots. This is to say that I don't think they take these things seriously enough (if they did, why would they spend so much time attacking straw men?). But let's just turn to the argument.

3. The first cause (in time) version. Yes, one response to this is to attack premise (3) "There cannot be an infinite regress of causes." As you note, mathematicians make use of an infinite series of integers, so there is some reason for thinking that an infinite series is not impossible (and, hence, (3) is false). Now, Dawkins' observation that this has something to do with "personal credulity" seems entirely besides the point. Either we have a clear grasp of what an infinite series involves or we don't.

I don't see how anything here depends on "a personal decision". More importantly, there is a sensible response to this objection, which is to observe that "integers" are not the same as "causes" and so your analogy breaks down. Yes, maybe integers can make an infinite series but integers are not the same thing as events (or objects) that stand in cause-effect relations (think of a bowling ball hitting a pin--these don't seem much like integers--can an integer "hit" something else?).

So the appropriate issue here is to determine "what has to be the case for a series of causes-and-effects to occur?" This seems like a perfectly reasonable question to me (even one scientists might want to ask). And then the next step would be to evaluate the various answers to this question. Now my point here is not to defend this particular response to your objection as correct.

My only concern is to suggest that this response has nothing to do with faith or superstition or "the days of yore." This seems like a reasonable disagreement to try to sort out that depends on a better understanding of the concept "cause," "effect," "explanation," etc.

3. Your point that "the argument is one of massive circularity" I don't understand. An argument is circular when it says "p, therefore p" or, maybe "p because q (and q=p)". I don't see any such mistake in this argument (the conclusion (4) is not simply a restatement of (1), (2), or (3)). The disagreement turns on the issue of how to understand the above concepts I mentioned about which there is debate. This has nothing to do with circularity.

4. Now we move to the second version (contingency). You note that on another interpretation the argument claims "that nothing can be the cause of itself but that God is the cause of himself so that God is beyond the universe." This is close but not quite right (again, I think there is a substantive issue here!). The traditional view is NOT that God is "self-caused" but that God is "un-caused." These are entirely different ideas. If God were self-caused, then he would have to be the cause of himself, but this would seem to imply that he would have to exist (as cause) before he existed (as effect). But that makes no sense. To say that God is un-caused is just to say that he has always existed and was not "caused" to exist at some time. So you are not attacking the official view believers accept.

5. Now, you make an interesting point that relates to this. Doesn't THIS response concede that infinity is not a problematic notion (if God has always existed infinitely). I think this is the right kind of thing one should say here, but notice that this point **takes us right back to the analogy with mathematical integers** (this is why I said there is a substantive issue about the mathematics analogy). The traditional view is that God is not himself "a series" so there is no similarity with an "infinite series of integers." (I mean, nobody thinks that God is just like an integer.) So this response has some problems and needs work.

6. Again, let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that such a reply to this objection is ultimately right. But I do think that whether this particular disagreement can be settled turns on the proper understanding of concepts like "series," "integer," "God," etc. There are genuine issues here that require careful investigation.

7. You next bring up the concept of "necessity" here, and dismiss this as another instance of "circularity." The ease with which you do this is concerning to me, so let me say the following (there is too much to say about this issue in such a short format). I agree with you that there are difficulties understanding the concept of "necessity." But I don't see any circularity here. Let me just say that I think you have not done nearly enough work that would be needed to establish that this concept has no sense and doesn't advance the argument (e.g., Leibniz invented calculus (along with Isaac Newton) and he thought that this was a legitimate concept, and he was no dummy). So I don't think you can dismiss this issue so quickly.

Let me say what I think follows from this:

(i) I'm glad that your comments make no mention of "religion as an anachronistic legacy for the days of yore." What the argument we're considering suggests is that there are real issues here entirely independent from this. Indeed, I'm struck by how much of your post makes my point by going on at length about these issues--we cannot simply sweep away theism as "foolishness" because there are substantive issues to address that reasonable people can be concerned with.

(ii) Your claim that this involves "circularity" "arbitrary assumptions" etc. doesn't really apply. There are problems with this argument, as I have said, but they have nothing to do with circularity and I think turn on disagreements about the basic issues involved.

(iii) Last, I still am curious why any of this can be thought to redound to the credit of the new atheists. Nothing you have mentioned so far is not a well-known response made by philosophers of previous generations. All of these points have already been made by David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Ernest Nagel, etc. (many years ago). So I don't see what the new atheists have added to this debate except a very hectoring tone.


Couchmar, I'll try do deal with some of your points.

Firstly, I fail to see how my essaying a rational argument helps your side of the position. The utlimate issue is whether the cosmological argument, as a prototypical "rational argument", ultimately rests on faith. That I try to show that by premises-which I hope "have relation to the world"-- leading to conclusions has nothing to do with the sturdiness of rational arguments for the existence of God. And it has nothing to do with my thesis of underlying faith. I simply have no other way of arguing: no one does who really is arguing. At any rate this point seems to be obiter dicta.

Respectfully, I believe you have qualified, moved from, one part of your opening position. Now you say some of the new atheists indeed deal with the traditonal sets of arguments for God's existence, as opposed to assertions of "crassness" and not dealing with them at all. I will not get into an argument of weighing how much or well they do it. They are not after all writing papers for the Journal of Metaphysics or whatever. They are admittedly doing some popularizing and there is nothing wrong, crass or disrespectful about that enterprize as such. And if they are hectoring or intolerant, I think their subject deserves that tone, that there is room for that tone in these discussions because, stated baldly, religion is a hangover from magical thinking from the days of yore, nothing more than that.

I don't think I have any problem with your paragraph 3. Infinite regress does seem counterintuitive to me, but never would I use that seeming as necessary premise in a series of logical propositions forming an argument about the existence of God, just as I wouldn't--remembering the criterion of " premises bearing relation to the world"--have the intellectual audacity to transform my counterintuition into a telling account of the nature of the universe, its constituents, and its relation to temporality and how we understand of finiteness and infinity.

I'll leave all that to the only ones competent to speak of these matters, scientists who do this kind of scientific work. Hawking is devastatingly correct--as in a different context is Searle- to say that on these issuses science has outstripped philosophy and left is a kind of anachronism. Cosmologizing that cannot contend with the best scientific thinking--however provisonal, necessarily--about the nature and consituents of the universe is laughable, as are, ultimately, however much fun they are, and however much of a living they provide for academic philosphers, "rational arguments" for the existence of God.

I think it's worthwhile and important, as you say-- and here, among many other places, philosophy has great usefulness--"to try to sort out...a better understanding of 'cause', 'effect', 'explanation' etc." But even here cause and effect will need for example, to accommodate the bizarre relations betwen seemingly "uncaused" events in quantum physics.

In a nutshell, none of any the above valorizes the cosmological argument.

As to whether the cosmological argument suffers from circular reasoning, I'm happy to substitute begs the question in place of circular reasoning. To we laymen the terms are virtually synonomous, but perhaps some academic logicians following Aristotle will want to make distinctons.

One mode of question begging is explicitly or implicitly to assume, without demonstrating, a proposition in the premise. Question begging abounds in your formulation of the argument. Saying that cause has to be further questioned and refined, and causality runs through the entire argument, merely reinforces in relation to the ultimate nature of the universe and its constituents the artificiality of the notion of cause as it exists in the argument. That artificial meaning of cause is assumed without being demonstrated in the entirety of the argument. The synthetic attack on this notion of cause derives from what science knows and doesn't know. Once the inadequacy of cause is so shown, then its question begging fallaciousness is also made out.

Given the exploding of the notion of cause in relation to the imponderability of the universe, for which the best we can do is--apparently--to mount a provisional hypothesis of a Big Bang, it seems utterly meaningless to assert your conclusions 5 and 6, and the definition of God in in 5.

And how is the argument not circular? It starts from something purely analytical--which is not demonstrated--God as an uncaused first, cause--and converts what isthat definition into a synthetic proposition by a chain of question begging reasoning. The entire argument, which is a fudge on cause, implicitly assumes a defintion of deity only to reiterate it in its conclusion.

I appreciate the calrification between self caused and uncaused. But I'll sort of stop here.

I think I have said enough above to show that the cosmological argument is logically unsustainable and to make the cultural or perhaps psychological point that it's a thin veneer or reasoning masking the faith that so obviously underlies it.

I suspect that for academic philosophers the play of argument is enjoyable and that in its rehearsing there is much to be learned about logical reasoning and it is, therefore, worthwhile as an academic discplining and training of philosophy students. But to end where I began, it's hard for me even to begin to imagine anyone not shot up with faith taking the cosmological argument seriously as a telling rational, persuasive argument for the existence of God of traditional religion.

So there may be serious issues presented by the argument for philosophy as a discipline and for philosphers in their doing of philosphy, but there is no serious issue presented by it for the validity of cosmoligizing religion asserting its truth claims. None!

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