Category Archives: Cosmological Argument

Theism is False Because There is No Explanation?

378890256_640I was delighted to see that, even though he argues against theism, Mackie is not impressed by appeals to the anthropic principle. He sees clearly that, while it is not surprising that we don’t observe a universe that couldn’t have supported life, it is surprising that we do observe a universe that did.

A fairly common analogy goes as follows:

If one were to face a firing squad of fifty crack marksmen at point blank range, and all of them missed, it isn’t good enough to say “If I’d been shot, I wouldn’t be here to wonder why they all missed, so I shouldn’t wonder about that question now”.

This is the reason why those pressing the anthropic argument so often appeal to a multiverse. Of course, it must immediately be noted that a presumption of materialism is the only reason to consider the multiverse more likely than any other explanation. Outside of the fine-tuning itself, there is no evidence for it.

As such, Mackie dismisses the multiverse as a serious challenge to theism; he sees that it concedes the theists key points. (For those interested in that issue, I’ve written about it in the past.) Unfortunately, his alternative is no better. He insists that, the further one goes backward in time, explaining causes, the less there is to explain. Thus, he argues, something like a divine mind is far too much to deal with the little that would be left by the time one reaches the beginning of the universe.

Of course, this idea that there is less to explain as one moves into the past is more controversial than Mackie seems to think. In discussions over it, I’ve not seen it well defended. And it is definitely born out of a lack of appreciation for the actual numbers regarding the fine tuning; to call them astronomical is a wild understatement.

He also relies on the much less interesting, and much more obviously false, “what caused God” objection to insist that we stop our inquiry before getting to God. But, unlike most uses of this argument, he acknowledges the common response: that God is self explanatory in a way that the universe is not.

Unfortunately, he simply dismisses the idea without actually addressing the arguments in its favor. He references to his past discussion of the idea, which (as has already been noted) relied on an argumentum ad ignoratium fallacy and a shifting of goal posts in order to make its case.

Macke then closes with something that borders on the completely weird.  That is, he suggests that the design argument requires a reason to think that matter is contingent.

As is always the case with Mackie, I’m not sure if he’s claiming that this is so, or merely throwing out a possibility. If the former, he needs to defend it; if the latter, he hasn’t actually rebutted the argument.

To be fair, he takes this idea from Kant and Hume. Still, that doesn’t make it a good argument. There are many clear reasons why matter is contingent–not the least of which is the origin of the universe that Mackie has just been discussing. Anything which is not contingent must necessarily exist eternally. The fact that matter has an origin precludes the possibility of it being non-contingent.

The most significant thing this shows, then, is how determined Mackie is to come up with reasons to dismiss theism. I don’t take back my earlier compliments of him–I do find him far more reasonable than most.

Still, if defending his materialism leads him to suggest that matter is logically necessary, and to constantly throw out possibilities that he does not defend, theism seems a far more plausible view.

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Questions I Can’t Answer are So Unfair!

boy_child_119488After arguing against the all-too-common straw man of “the theistic hypothesis”, Mackie takes an interesting turn in his argument against design in the universe. He continues his discussion of Hume’s Dialoges, claiming that alternate explanations of apparent design are more valid and, of all things, accusing theists of taking an unfair approach.

Of course, theists often do take an unfair approach, but the idea he criticizes seems to me to be perfectly fair. Mackie points out that there are any number of explanations for the appearance of design in the universe. The regularity of the solar system, the biological features of this or that species, etc. can all be explained without reference to God.

So long as we’re discussing science, I completely agree. However, Mackie eventually gets to the idea that the initial conditions of the universe must have allowed for the regularities on which these things depend, and begins to struggle to offer a plausible alternative.

Failing to present an alternative, he relies instead on criticizing the argument itself. He doesn’t challenge any premise on any argument regarding the fine-tuning of the universe. Instead, he claims that the whole idea requires that the cause of the universe envisaged current designs–rather than simply causing them.

Surely, these arguments lead eventually to that conclusion, but Mackie is claiming that the arguments simply demand this from the beginning. I’ve read a great deal on fine-tuning arguments, and have never encountered one that requires any such thing. Rather, they tend to present design as the best explanation for the fine-tuning, but there is nothing about the premises of the arguments that require orderly systems to be envisaged. And I have no idea why Mackie thinks otherwise.

But he also makes a more interesting objection. That is, he claims that, since the initial conditions of the universe (whatever they end up being) will explain why life and other orderly systems can exist, then it is too much to wonder why those conditions, and not others, were the case. That is, these conditions explain the state we’re in, and we’d be overloading the explanation to ask why the potential for this state was in those conditions. As such, Mackie insists that we simply not ask this question.

Indeed. We would be overloading that explanation for the very simple reason that it isn’t good enough.

The fact that the conditions of early Earth explain why it is hospitable to life does not answer the question “what caused those conditions to be what they are?”. I think Mackie would agree that replying with “they caused life, and it’s unfair to want an explanation as to how they might have come to be such that they could cause life” as a valid response.

But this is precisely his argument with respect to the universe.

And this fits into what seems to be a larger pattern. The origin of the universe is the single most obvious (to materialists) problem with materialism. When issues surrounding it are raised, the materialist’s response always seems to be a variation on “let’s not answer that question”.

But, so long as one is allowed to dismiss the questions that one’s worldview can’t answer, then there is never any real consideration going on. The only thing left to do is drop the pretense that we’re giving theism a fair hearing.

But Mackie has more to say about the argument for design. I’ll continue with that next.


What are the Odds?

probability-diceI’ve found Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism” to be much more reasonable than the more popular atheist books. In discussing what he calls “the inductive cosmological argument”, he points out a real difficulty in claiming that the existence of the universe is, by itself, evidence for God.

That is, it is very difficult to calculate the background probability of the universe existing (which would be necessary for an inductive argument). Of course, this doesn’t apply to the previous arguments mentioned (as they were deductive). Still, I agree with him insofar as that point goes.

But that isn’t terribly far, because the argument isn’t simply that the universe is evidence for God’s existence. Rather, like most inductive arguments, it is an inference to the best explanation. Swineburne’s claim in making the argument is that God is a better explanation of the existence of the universe than the secular alternatives.

Given the fact that, by Mackie’s own admission, the atheistic explanation of the universe is that it exists for literally no reason whatsoever, this seems a rather obvious point. It is hard for me to imagine how anyone could disagree with it.

But Mackie does disagree.

He sees nothing strange at all about a “just because” answer to the question (which I find astonishing), and argues that divine creation is very unlikely. But this seems another shifting of his position to fit the momentary need. After all, he’s just finished arguing that we have no way of knowing the background probability for things like the origin of the universe. One is left wondering how he can know the background probability of a creation event–particularly before deciding whether or not God exists.

This being the case, he seems to have undermined his own argument.

Of course, he does raise a similar concern of the theist’s position. He claims that the omni-attributes of God are themselves infinities, which would contradict other arguments for God’s existence.

But this is very strange–unless one believes that all such arguments must work in order to accept that God exists. Rather, if even one of them is sound, then we must accept the conclusion. As such, this is no attack on the inductive argument; he should have mentioned this when discussing the Kalam.

And, in defense of the Kalam, it rejects the idea of collections containing infinite numbers of discrete parts, which is something altogether different than God’s attributes, which are one. That being the case, I don’t find it persuasive, even then. But the bigger point is that it is irrelevant to the argument he’s actually discussing.

No inductive argument is, in the end, certain. But it does seem that theism is a better fit to the data we have than the complete lack of an explanation offered by proponents of atheism.

But, Mackie has something of an inductive argument of his own–against the existence of God. I’ll get to that next.


Forget What I Said; Listen to What I’m Saying

keep-calm-and-forget-what-i-saidAfter addressing Aquinas’ Third Way (rather unsuccessfully, I’d say), Mackie turns his attention to the Kalam Cosmological Argument (for those very few who aren’t already familiar with it, I discuss it here). It is important to remember, however, that Mackie argued against Aquinas by suggesting that the world is past finite.

Those who know something about Aquinas’ arguments will know that this misses the point. But the more pertinent issue is that he opens his discussion of the Kalam by suggesting that the universe is infinitely old.

And it is my repeated contention that Mackie can’t appeal to contradictory ideas like this in order to “refute” arguments for God’s existence. He needs to present a view of how things are, and defend that view as more rational than theism.

But, if he avoids taking a stance here, he makes another claim I find easy to challenge.

That is, he claims that arguments against an infinitely old universe don’t work, because they don’t have an infinitely distant starting point. Rather, they have no starting point.

But anyone familiar with the arguments against an infinite past should see the problem with this. They aren’t arguments against a beginning point, specifically, being infinitely distant in the past, but against any point being infinitely distant. This objection does nothing to affect the argument.

In his third line of attack, Mackie points out that the same rules don’t apply in trans-finite arithmetic that apply in finite math. This is true, but completely misses the point. Rather the point is that, since the same rules don’t apply, the physical universe (which, as science has shown, is governed by the rules of finite math) can’t contain infinite numbers of things.

But, of course, most accept the idea that the universe had a beginning. The real controversy (odd as it seems to me) is over the idea that having a beginning means a thing has a cause.

Mackie simply claims that there is no reason to assume that things can’t come into existence without a cause. But I don’t think I exaggerate to say that I’d be thoroughly mocked for attempting to defend theism on grounds as flimsy as this. To seriously suggest that things can pop into existence for no reason at all as an alternative to theism strikes me as a fairly desperate approach.

He does make the more reasonable (but still poor) objection that God’s creation ex nihilo suffers from the same problem. Personally, I agree that this would be a serious objection–were it true. But, regardless of the phrase “ex nihilo”, it is not the claim that the universe has no cause. That is simply to misunderstand what theists have claimed, and attack a straw man.

He throws out other arguments, such as the idea that God cannot exist outside of time because “this would be a complete mystery” (as if our inability to picture a thing should stop the the quantum physicist from reaching a conclusion). But, in the end, he offers no reason to think either that the universe is eternal, or that past-finite things need causes. Nor does he counter the reasons given in support of these ideas.

This being the case, there remain two problems for Mackie:

1. That he’s just finished basing an argument on the idea that the universe is past-finite

2. That attacking the idea that things have causes contradicts the entire enterprise of rational inquiry, including science.


Choosing Theism or Self-Contradictions?

self-contradictionIn discussing St. Thomas Aquinas’ Third Way, Mackie attacks the idea that something which could possibly not exist will eventually not exist. I’d agree with Mackie that this isn’t a logical necessity unless one accepts the Aristotelian views of matter and essence. Still, that hardly makes Mackie’s view the most likely possibility.

And, without opening the massive discussion about the Aristotelian philosophical system, this is one more case of Mackie arguing from possibility. It is certainly much more likely that something which is contingent will eventually go out of existence.

St. Aquinas argues that, barring divine assistance, the universe simply can’t go on forever. This is not, it should be clear, the argument that the universe began to exist. Aquinas, rather famously, thought this couldn’t be proved to anyone who rejects the authority of scripture. Rather, it is the argument that an eternal universe (as nearly all atheists claimed the universe was until very recently) would need something external to sustain it. And, once one works out what sort of thing could do this, one is left with theism.

And science seems to be catching up to philosophy here in discovering that we are headed for a heat-death. Even scientists are saying that, baring divine intervention, things aren’t going to last forever. As such, I’m not sure why (other than trying to unfairly discredit the argument) Mackie wants to argue that Aquinas is wrong to suppose that things can’t last forever.

This is doubly strange in that he follows this with the suggestion that the universe doesn’t need to sustain itself forever, because it, in fact, had a beginning.

And Aquinas, I think it is fair to say, would take that “objection” as a major concession. If one is going to assert that the universe came into existence in the finite past, then one has to contend with Kalam-style arguments for God. No self-respecting atheist would have conceded that the universe was past-finite before the twentieth century.

This seems like more of Mackie’s characteristic scattershot approach, where he shifts between contradictory views as the momentary need arises. It simply isn’t a logical, systematic refutation.

Even worse, Mackie’s argument against the Second Way, you will remember, was that it is “dubious” to claim that there are not actual infinite chains of causation. But this, given the modern cosmology that leads Mackie to suggest that the universe is past-finite, is far from dubious. Rather, a finite number of operations and causes is exactly what scientists have found to be the case.

Mackie can’t simply demand that we remember this science when Aquinas (purely for the sake of argument) shows that not even an eternal universe could exist without God, then expect that we forget this when faced with arguments (from Aquinas and others) based on the idea that infinite chains of causation don’t exist.

This “heads I win, tails you lose” approach is, to me, one of the surest signs that theism has the stronger claim on truth. It can answer either set of objections, and it is only by vacillating between the two that Mackie can make his atheism seem plausible.

In the end, that strikes me as rather desperate.


Unfair Dismissal

290117-redundanciesIn The Miracle of Theism, J.L. Mackie simply dismisses Aquinas’ first two arguments for God’s existence as based on antiquated science. This is the whole of his discussion of these arguments (and I’ve already pointed out the falsehood of that claim).

However, he does interact briefly with the argument of the Second Way later in the chapter. Here, he argues (wrongly, in my view) that an essentially ordered causal series can stretch to infinity.

Or, at least, that seems like what he is arguing. As in many places in the book, Mackie attempts to cast doubt on a premise without actually claiming that the opposite is true. He seems to write as if, so long as a premise is uncertain (at all), one can completely dismiss an argument’s conclusion without concluding that the premise is false.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Second Way, I find this a good summary. But a rough explanation would be that it is an argument from efficient cause (the type of causation studied by science). It begins with the idea that, in some causal chains, the removal of any one link will prevent the effect from occurring.

This is not true in all cases. Even if one’s great-grandfather has died, this doesn’t mean that one couldn’t have been born–and that the family he helped to cause must die with him. But, in other situations, this does seem to be the case.

As such, it is very much like the first way, but taking a similar line of reasoning to efficient causation, rather than actualized potentials.

A classic example is the idea of a watch could run without a motor or a spring if only it had an infinite number of gears, each one turned by the one before it. This strikes me as clearly absurd, illustrating the point that some causal chains (called “essential”) require something that doesn’t get its ability to cause things from an external source. And this self-existent thing, as Aquinas says, all men call God.

But Mackie doesn’t seem to think so. He thinks it is “dubious” to claim that the infinite-gear watch would not turn.

And again, it isn’t clear whether he’s arguing that such a thing is not only possible, but happens in the world all the time (as he would have to argue to properly counter Aquinas), or if he’s merely casting doubt on the idea to say that we aren’t perfectly certain of it.

So long as I’m reading the book as an attack on theism, he seems to mean the latter. But, so long as I’m reading it as a defense of a secular view, he seems to mean the former.

And strikes me as hopelessly confused. In an uncertain world, it is not enough simply to say that one’s opponent hasn’t proved a position beyond all possible doubt. Rather, one must show an alternative to be superior.

But Mackie does not do this. Rather, he seems to think having any reason at all to doubt an argument for theism is a reason to embrace a secular position.

And nearly all of the intellectual support for atheist views seems to suffer from this mistake. When it has come to offering an alternative (materialism, physicalism, platonism, etc.), secular views have done much more poorly than theism. As such, many of their proponents seem to rely on presenting vague doubts of theistic arguments in lieu of a positive case for atheism.


The Unmoved Mover

Unmoved-Mover-2008-movie-5In criticizing the arguments for God’s existence, Mackie turns to the most famous collection of such arguments: Aquinas’ Five Ways.

Unfortunately, he simply dismisses the first two ways with the claim that they are based too much in “antiquated science”. This is a common enough objection to Aquinas, but is simply false.

Beginning with the First Way, this argument has its core in the observation that potentialities do not actualize themselves. That is, something already actual must first exist in order to produce act from potency (to use the traditional terms). To attempt a more modern way of putting it: a possibility can never automatically be a reality simply because it is possible. Rather something merely possible must be realized by something else.

This seems obvious, and Aquinas goes on to argue that there cannot be an infinite string of things being realized in this way, but that the beginning of the chain must be realized without needing something else to realize it.

That is to say, something has to be an uncreated, necessarily extant being. After all, it is only in the case of a being who’s existence is logically necessary do we lack any need for an outside explanation.

As always with this argument, we need to note the fact that Aquinas is not tracing causes backward in time. Rather, he is tracing them “upwards” from effect to cause without reference to time. Most have had a particular type of causation drilled into us so thoroughly that it is hard to imagine any other type.

It is also important to note that Aquinas is only talking about essentially ordered causal series. That is, those series in which removing any link in the chain will prevent its effect from happening.

So, to offer an analogy: If there were a train moving through space, Aquinas would argue (rather reasonably) that it is not enough to say that the back car of the train is pulled by the one in front of it, and that by the one in front of it, and so on. Even if one were to suggest that the train is infinitely long, this would not explain where the motion of the cars ultimately comes from. To stop the “but what moved that” objection, we need to reference something that can move solely under its own power.

Aquinas himself uses the analogy of a rock being moved by a stick which is, in turn, moved by a hand. It is obvious that were we to remove any part of this chain (the hand, the stick, the arm, or any one car from the train), the rock (or the caboose) would not be moving.

Whatever objections one can make to the science of these examples, the basic point is clear: We need what Aristotle called an “unmoved mover” in order to realize the potentialities of things–thereby giving them the power to realize still further potentialities.

And, when one works out the details to their rational conclusion, one is left with the truth that God exists.

This is the third clarification that needs to be made. Those who have read only Aquinas’ famous summary of the Five Ways often complain that he never explains why the conclusion of these arguments is God (Richard Dawkins is a particularly famous example). While it is true that he doesn’t do this in the summaries, he devotes hundreds of pages to this elsewhere.

But, what of the claim that this is all based on “antiquated science”? Mackie doesn’t explain this, but merely references an outside source (Kenny) without addressing the responses that have been made to it. But he needs to. Aquinas’ argument doesn’t depend on medieval cosmology, but on the nature of causal relations.

In fact, Mackie’s response seems like dismissiveness, rather than a serious objection. It’s not any better than Bertrand Russel’s claim that science (presumably quantum mechantics) has destroyed the notion of causation.

But, to pick up that thread, it is notable that Russel’s response is never given by an actual particle physicist. This is because quantum mechanics does no such thing. Indeterminacy is not a logic-busting response to all causation (and, if it were, would be destructive of quantum mechanics, not logic). It is based on careful observation of causal chains.

Rather it is science fiction and bad science documentaries, not actual scientists, that have taught us to doubt causation. There is (very much) more that could be said, but, at the end of the day, nothing about modern science counters Aquinas’ point.

And I don’t understand what makes Mackie so confident that it does that he doesn’t even bother addressing Aquinas’ argument in a book intended as (and which, for the most part, is) a serious critique of the arguments from God’s existence.