Hello Anthony, and hello readers!
I would like to thank Tony for suggesting this debate. He and I met in the comments section of the debate he had with Sean McGuire. I know he is a good person, is a family man, and likes to think about big ideas. It’s that last one that gives me reason to want to engage in a battle of ideas with him. In that debate he said that God is a necessary being. Months later, I posted a quote on Facebook that said any reason you have for why God can be necessary is a reason the universe can be necessary:
You can read Tony’s position at his blog. To summarise, he thinks only God can be a necessary being. In other words, God is the only thing that doesn’t have cause. Therefore, God must exist.
Tony is trying to convince us that God exists using a reasonable sounding argument. He will say God must exist if the universe exists. Every good argument starts with making assumptions called premises. If the assumptions are true, a good argument will be correct. If the assumptions are false, even the best argument can be wrong. I will show that Tony wants things to be true that we don’t know are true. That we should not accept his argument because for it to be true we need to know facts we don’t currently know.
For Tony to win this debate he must show that his assumptions and guesses are true. But, the best knowledge we have do not support his assumptions. Often times his assumptions are really just guesses. We don’t know they are true.
The idea is simple. There are things we know exist, like chairs. A chair is what philosophers call a contingent being. In the philosophical sense, a ‘being’ is a thing that exists. ‘Contingent’ means that it needs something else to exist. To cause it or sustain it. Without a universe full of atoms, chairs could not exist.
We know that chairs are contingent, but what about the universe? Many Christians believe that the universe itself is contingent. What is the opposite of something being contingent? That is something being necessary. In this sense, necessary means that it is self-sustaining and also not caused by something else. That it simply exists in and of itself. Believers like Tony claim that God is necessary, not contingent.
Here are three sets of facts. They show why we do not know that the universe is contingent or that God is necessary. Tony, these are why I believe your assumptions are not sound assumptions.
- We know the universe exists by direct observation, but we only know about the observable universe. Many cosmologists believe the universe might extend past what we can see. We cannot be sure about the extent of what is in the universe. So, it seems premature to be certain about the universe as-a-whole. We cannot be sure we can see the entire universe, only what astronomers call the ‘observable universe.’
People try to convince others with arguments about what the universe is like as-a-whole. Or what it’s properties are as-a-whole. But these arguments are based on guesses or misinformation. We might not be able to observe the whole universe. Everything we know is about the observable universe only. And, it is mostly about things inside the universe.
Let me be specific: we don’t know if the universe is contingent or necessary. We don’t know if it is all of reality or only part. We don’t know if there are other universes. We literally don’t know anything about how universes come to be, or if our universe always existed. That is the limit of our knowledge.
- We don’t actually know anything about the properties of any gods or goddesses. Any argument about the Christian God being contingent or necessary is not supported by observation. (It’s also not biblical, but that doesn’t matter to atheists.)
This means that any claims about God being a certain way are just guesses. We have no reason to believe those claims are true. Most arguments for the properties of what God is like are based on unfounded assumptions. Over the years theologians have argued that certain views of God make more sense. But these are not observed properties of God, and are not based on evidence. (They aren’t even biblical.)
- Any good argument for why God is necessary would also work for the universe. Likewise, any good argument for why the universe is contingent would also work for God. All contain assumptions we cannot be confident are correct. Assuming they are correct is like building a house on sand.
For these reasons, I believe it is wrong to boldly say that the universe is contingent or that God is not contingent. (I also believe it’s wrong to say the universe is necessary or that God is not necessary.) The fact is we don’t know.
Tony, your position is that God is the only necessary being. For you to defend this position you would need something other than assumptions that ‘make sense.’ To do this you would have to have access to evidence that indicates your assumptions are true. Until then there is no good reason to believe that the universe is contingent, that God is necessary, or that the Christian deity is required rather than some other god or goddess.
You believe that the universe is contingent. That is a very specific claim. I cannot accept that claim because we don’t know what the universe is like. We know what our part of the universe is like. But we don’t know how the universe acts ‘outside’ of the universe, if such a place even exists. We cannot see the entire universe from the inside. We can only see to the cosmic light horizon. The universe could be either contingent or necessary.
We can trace the universe back billions of years to near the Big Bang. But scientists tell us that we don’t actually know what happened at the start. There are several models. At most one can be right. And they may all be wrong. But the observations we have, also called evidence, points to history having been a certain way.
Some people like to ask, ‘what happened before the Big Bang.’ This is a big question. And its answers are hard to understand. There are basically three possible categories of answers.
The first possible answer is that the question doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking what is north of the north pole. Cosmologists believe that time could have come into existence with space during what people call the Big Bang. So there was no time before the Big Bang. Maybe. This is most likely true if the universe is necessary. In this case, there was nothing before the Big Bang and the universe. Just as you believe there was nothing before God. The universe only has the appearance of beginning at the big bang. (So it’s not right when you say scientists agree the universe began. That is not their position. It’s considered a possibility.)
The second possible answer is that perhaps time here works differently than time in an ultimate reality. I know that reality exists. I know that the universe exists. I tend to assume they are both the same thing. But maybe the universe is one part of reality. Maybe there is a multiverse. Maybe we live in a singularity of another universe. This would also be the case if God created the universe in a greater reality, or ultimate reality. There are many possible ways this could be true. Most making for interesting science fiction rather than good scientific models. But some are tentative models that cosmologists think are possible.
The third is that the universe extends back before the Big Bang. Perhaps the Big Bang itself was simply some catastrophic event in the history of the universe. The truth is that no scientist knows. And neither does anyone else.
Cosmologists and physicists don’t know which of these are right. And maybe there is a fourth option we haven’t thought of yet. That’s because we don’t know much about the nature of the universe. We really don’t know what a universe is. We don’t know if there is more than one. We don’t know how a universe can come to be (if it does). Any claim that universes have certain properties as-a-whole is something we don’t know.
You said that everything that begins to exist must have had a cause. But we don’t know if the logic of things inside the universe applies to the universe itself. You said the universe had a beginning. It appears that the observable universe may have had a beginning. But scientists aren’t settled on this point.
Tony, I know you are a smart man. You are well read. You are thoughtful. That’s on top of everything else I know about you. You have a family. You enjoy a good sci-fi action movie. (Did you finally get to see Independence Day 2? Was it any good?) But you and I have to be more than just smart. We have to endeavour to being wise.
“The wise man is one who
knows what he does not know.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
There are two mistakes people make when they talk about the universe. The first is to assume that the universe as-a-whole is the same as the stuff that is inside the universe. A chair is contingent. Everything else in the universe is contingent as far as I know. But the universe is not inside the universe. We don’t know if it operates on the same rules. We should be wise enough to know that we don’t know how a universe acts or what properties it has as-a-whole.
We also like to choose from the options we can think of, but forget we may not have thought of all the options. We are limited people who can make mistakes. We are not perfect. We should be humble. We should realize that we don’t have all the answers. In these debates, people will say ‘here are two or three options, and all but the one I like are false.’ They will then assume the one they like is right, since that choice is the only one left. But this ignores that maybe there is a something we don’t know that shows all the ideas we have are wrong. We must keep our minds open to alternative possibilities we haven’t thought of yet.
The greatest challenge to finding truth is when something sounds like it makes sense. I’m sure many Christians could read your opening statement and say ‘that makes sense.’ But just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true. Our great grandparents believed things that made sense to them, but no longer makes sense to us now. People commonly reject a new idea because it ‘doesn’t make sense.’ Or people accept new ideas because it sounds sensible to them. But our intuitions can be misleading if they are based on questionable assumptions that we don’t even realize we have made. Living on Earth makes us assume things that might be wrong about the universe.
In this debate, you started by saying God is a special case. You believe everything that exists must be contingent, with only one exception. You believe this exception is God. (That is, your conceptualization of the Christian god.)
I would argue that the God you believe in would also be contingent if he existed. In your opening statement you said that God must be living and intelligent. But consider what that means. That means that God both exists and is a person. But for that to be true there must exist a world, or reality, in which the rules of logic apply. Let me explain:
Just look at the everyday world. I am a person. A rock is not a person. There is a difference between a person and a non-person. Something cannot be both a person and a non-person at the same time. This is the rule of non-contradiction and the rule of identity in action.
What if there was no rule of non-contradiction or identity? What if that’s not how reality worked? Then saying that God exists becomes meaningless. This is because in that bizarre reality God existing is not different than God not existing. Thus, God could not exist to create an ordered reality, because at the same time he exists he also doesn’t exist.
Imagine a reality in which there was no logical cause-and-effect relationship. Then God could not create the universe or the Earth. If there was no cause-and-effect, the Earth could be created without a creator. Or, God could go to create the Earth and nothing would happen! This doesn’t make any sense. In order for God to exist, be a person, have the will to create the world, and create the world, he needs reality to exist as it is. He needs order to already be there.
You imply that God is required for the universe to exist as an ordered, logical place when you argue he is needed to bring about the universe. But you assume God didn’t need those things. If he existed I would think he does. How can God sidestep this problem of needing reality to exist? And if he can sidestep it, then it makes as much sense to say that the universe is everything, and that God is not required. Or any other deity.
Next, I’d like to briefly touch on you claims about life. You said that God must be alive and he must be intelligent. I’m not sure how this could be true. Maybe it is true, if he exists at all. But living things exist inside the universe and are made up of biology. Does God have a biology? If not, what does it mean to say he is living?
Is God intelligent? Intelligence is the property of a mind. This implies God has a mind. But we know that minds are what brains do. A functioning brain generates the phenomenon that we call mind. Much like an MP3 player using digital information to vibrate the air. But what we hear is the phenomenon of music.
I don’t think you can say something is a living being, a person or intelligent if they don’t have a body. Especially if it is immaterial and don’t exist inside the universe. As far as we know you need a body inside the universe to have those things. Perhaps one day we will make a computer with a mind. But it still needs to have a mind generating machine to act in place of a biological brain. Now it maybe possible to have a body outside the universe. It may be possible to have a mind without a body. But until we know, it’s just a guess you’ve made. And it’s a guess you are resting your argument on.
So I’m not with you when you say that God is living. Even if God exists, I don’t know that he is living. (He also wouldn’t be a he, technically.) And so by your logic he couldn’t have created living beings if he isn’t living.
But even there, I must disagree. You are stating that life cannot come from non-life. The evidence doesn’t indicate that. Many scientists think that it is possible. Especially with the research in to self organizing systems. But to be extremely accurate, we don’t know either way. But we have some good leads that all point to it being possible. Your guess that it isn’t possible is not backed up by facts. You are just using an guess to then say God must have done it. I’m not impressed by that argument.
The truth is, we don’t know. I believe we should be humble in our approach. This means trying to know the limits of our knowledge. You say that the universe is contingent on God. You say God must exist, or else the universe wouldn’t exist. But we don’t know God exists.
I know that makes sense to you, Tony. I get that this flatters your belief in God. But I think we should always be suspicious of things that agree with us. We are humans. We have to work hard to be rational. We have to work hard to not make mistakes. We should be humble enough not just to doubt others we agree with, but also to doubt ourselves. Instead of being proud and declare answers we cannot know, we should be humble. We should accept the limits of what we know.
“Trust those who seek the truth
but doubt those who say they have found it.”
― André Gide
In this case, we don’t know if the universe is contingent. If it is, we don’t know what it’s contingent on. And we also don’t know God is necessary. Or that God exists at all. Your haven’t provided any evidence for your beliefs. You have just made “what if” arguments based on assumptions and guesses you think are true. Until we know they are true I think it’s reasonable to remain unconvinced that gods or goddesses are necessary. Do you have any evidence for your beliefs?
To all the readers, thank you for staying with me to the end of this 3 000 word post. I hope to see you here next time.
To Tony, I look forward to your rebuttal. I’m sure you will have interesting things to say. More, I am sure I will find it a challenge to respond to them. I appreciate the opportunity to activate my neurons and do some hard thinking with you on this topic.
- Since I’m debating a Christian I have used the title God throughout for Yahweh. These arguments work for any deity at all. Not only the gods and goddesses from ancient mythology, but any future concepts.
- In order to write as clearly as possible, I’ve chosen to also use the pronoun he when discussing Yahweh. This is to reduce the cognitive load on people not used to thinking about other deities. This topic is hard enough as it is.
- I think I have made it clear that on the topics we have discussed here the correct answer is we don’t know. In some places I have put forward possible explanations, models or examples. Do not take this as me saying that I believe they are true. My point was that they are possibly true given the knowledge we have accumulated as a species.
- Being means anything that exists. Some people argue concepts are example of non-contingent things. But concepts are not things or beings. They are mental abstraction that require a mind to sustain them. If there were no minds, there would be no concepts. Concepts are how minds model aspects of reality.
- 2016-07-27: The original post used the word prove 3 times. I thought this would confuse the technical term for proof with the common usage of the word for a few readers. These instances were changed to clearly mean have evidence or reasonable indication that the claim is true.