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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, January 07, 2011

Uthman Badar on religion (3)

Having claimed, implausibly, that atheistic thinkers rely on some kind of narrow, self-serving conception of rationality, Uthman Badar illustrates what would be involved in his "broader" and true rationality by referring to the traditional arguments for the existence of God.

This is rather strange, since so much has been said by philosophical atheists about these arguments. They are, indeed, part of the religious heritage that merits rational critique. Accordingly, it's quite misguided to claim that neglect of these arguments is a weakness in contemporary atheism. If relatively little is said about them by some atheists who currently have a high profile, it's because they are so widely acknowleged, even by many (probably most) theistic philosophers, as being inconclusive. There are, of course exceptions - philosophers who think that one or more of these arguments is strong. But of course there are also plenty of atheists (as well as plenty of theists) who have produced searching criticism of each of them.

To his credit, Badar doesn't even say much to defend any of the traditional arguments and acknowledges that much has been said in response to them. His point seems to be that atheists are ignorant of the arguments or discount them from the start (because they fall outside of atheists' narrow, self-serving conception of reason). He almost seems to be saying that the existence of these arguments is news to people like me. But if that's what he thinks, it's obviously not the case.

In any event, Badar offers a version of the Kalam Cosmological argument as the strongest proof in his - or perhaps his organisation's - estimation. A problem here is that he does not set out the argument in a form that makes very clear what premises he relies on or how they are supposed to lead deductively to a conclusion. Usually this argument begins with a claim to the effect that anything that has a beginning, or that begins to exist, has a cause and that the universe itself is a thing that has a beginning (or, speaking tenselessly, begins to exist). The conclusion is thus that the universe itself has a cause. There then has to be some footwork to show that this can't go on forever and that there must be some kind of first or ultimate cause, which must be a thing that has no beginning, and must also be shown to have such attributes as personality and volition.

This all gets very murky very quickly. Do we really know that everything that has a beginning has a cause? If so, what is the meaning of the word "cause" here? It's not as if our notion of causation is entirely straightforward. If quantum events have "causes" in some sense, are the "causes" (perhaps statistical laws) necessarily the kinds of things that can be said to have beginnings and thus require causes of their own? If our notion of causation is such that quantum events don't have causes, doesn't this mean we should reject the major premise of the argument?

And why adopt it anyway? It looks like a contrived way of avoiding the more obvious, but disastrous, claim that everything has a cause - which very quickly provokes the question "What caused God?" There are questions as to whether the universe itself had a beginning in the same sense that objects and events within the universe do. That line of thought can quickly take us into conceptual issues about what it even means to say that something has a beginning, as well as to the latest cosmological theories and how well they line up with our concept (whatever it is) of something having a beginning.

There's then some footwork to try to show that the cause of the universe must be a personal agent rather than something impersonal, such as an unknown (to us) mindless mechanism that exists from eternity. Again, this footwork is typically very suspect, and I doubt that any assumptions supporting it have a rational basis.

Badar starts his version of the argument as follows: "the material world ... comprises of [sic] temporal phenomena that depend for their existence on other temporal phenomena and so forth. Such a series cannot continue to infinity, for if it did no one thing would satisfy its dependence and nothing would exist. The fact that things do exist necessarily implies a finite series and, in turn, the existence of a being who determined both the existence of this series and the specific attributes or properties that define it."

This is all very quick and confusing, but I suppose something like the standard version of the argument can be found here with some ingenuity. The idea seems to be that we can't have an infinite regress - an actual infinity - of caused things with beginnings in time. At some stage the regress must come to an end in something (Badar tendentiously calls it a "being") that was not caused and had no beginning. This is very dubious. He tries to give it some support - more rhetorical than anything else - later on in his article. But really, the most we can really say is that actual infinities are mind-boggling to beings like us. It's not at all clear that they are logically impossible (mathematicians seem to be able to work with them okay) or that they are any more mind-boggling than any of the alternatives once we start down this path of thought.

In any event, Badar tells us: "By rational extension, this being [sic] must be eternal and without beginning, otherwise it is temporal and forms part of the series. It must also be sentient for a timeless cause producing a temporal effect requires an independent will. Finally, effecting so grand a creation as the universe and all that it contains necessitates knowledge and power."

But none of this follows without a helluva lot more. E.g., where does Badar get the premise that "a timeless cause producing a temporal effect requires a rational will"? Perhaps he can support this somehow (some theistic philosophers have attempted to do so), but as it stands it is just a bald assertion with no particular evidence in its favour, and not even any particular intuitive appeal, at least to me.

And where does he get the premise that creating something as "grand" as the universe requires knowledge and power? I suppose that an intelligent being that consciously designed and created the universe would, indeed, have to be powerful and knowledgeable, so perhaps we should accept it if we get to the point of accepting the conclusion that an intelligent being consciously designed and created the universe. But we also know that highly complex outcomes can be produced over time through processes that don't possess power in anything like the sense that God is supposed to (though they must be "powerful" in the trivial sense that they can indeed produce such outcomes). Nor are such processes "knowledgeable" in any relevant, non-metaphorical sense.

I'm not going to claim that the Kalam cosmological argument is just hopeless. It can be refined in various ways to (purport to) give support to the various premises that it relies on in one place or another. However, even the best expositions of the argument end up being murky, puzzling, and inconclusive. I doubt that the version offered by Badar would convince anybody, relying as it does on assertions that simply do not appear at all self-evident.

Theists who believe that some kind of cosmological argument is adequate to prove the existence of something remotely recognisable as the Abrahamic God are welcome to keep trying. From historical experience so far, it seems like a futile effort, but no one can be certain of that in advance. Perhaps one day I'll encounter an argument that convinces me. I'm open to it. However, it will need to rely on premises that really are self-evidently true, or are supported by some kind of evidence sufficiently powerful to persuade an outsider to the belief system.

It hasn't happened, and I expect it ain't gonna happen ... but philosophical theists are always welcome to develop and refine their arguments.


Ken Browning said...

I think the first premise of Kalaam's needs to be reworked into something like this:

Setting aside for the moment evidence arising within quantum mechanics concerning non-causality and based on our current understanding of broad scientific evidence, everything that begins to exist within space-time has a cause. Since space-time is a feature of the universe, it is not possible to make a definitive statement about the causality issue concerning the universe from evidence dependent on the already existing structure of the universe.

DEEN said...

Quoting Badar:
"It must also be sentient for a timeless cause producing a temporal effect requires an independent will. "
But isn't sentience a temporal effect too? Or applying a will (independent or not)?

Besides, even if someone would be convinced by the Kalam Cosmological Argument, it would only get them to deism, not theism. Never mind getting to Yahweh or Allah from there.

Dimitri said...

Wow a lot of hubbub for just trying to prove or disprove god. Coming from a astronomically simplistic point of view (i.e. blunt), god exists. We see it in creation and stuff like that. Not to mention that the Satanists out there, the true ones don't just sit around. They go though "spiritual training" in order to fight God and Co. Essentially, if god didn't exist, then why are there Satanists? From what I have found out (doing an extensive essay witchcraft and stuff), Satanic covens aren't exactly glee clubs. Just a thought.

Blake Stacey said...

1. All the effects of "will" and "reason" have been to rearrange the matter and energy within the physical universe in manners which obey basic natural laws.

2. In order to imagine a mindful entity which can "will" whole universes into being, one must attribute qualities to Mind which no mind has ever been observed to have, and which for any sensible definition of "mind" might not even make sense.

3. Once you've gone that far, why not attribute the ability to create causality, universes and natural law to other entities? If you say you can imagine a Mind which can do all that, why not dream up a super-potent version of the number 22 which can do the same?

Amanda said...

"If god doesn't exist why are there Satanists" is the new "you doubt this is possible, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS?"

Alex said...

Dimiti asked:
"Essentially, if god didn't exist, then why are there Satanists?"

For the same reason people look for big foot; they are deluded or think it is an entertaining joke.

From the article:
"It must also be sentient for a timeless cause producing a temporal effect requires an independent will."

Wouldn't the timeless cause only be capable of existing in a manner which creates the effect? So it does not require an independent will as it is not capable of existing in a form where it does not create an effect.

bad Jim said...

It strikes me that anyone making a First Cause argument must also be puzzled by Zeno's paradoxes.

What puzzles me is the supposition that, since an infinite series of natural events is impossible, there must be an infinite series of supernatural events instead.

Russell Blackford said...

Or the supernatural event somehow takes place outside of time, whatever that means. It's hard for beings like us to get our heads around any of the alternatives here. But that's hardly a reason to say that the alternative we should, as a matter of rationality, accept is one involving God.

Richard Wein said...

Russell, I agree with you. The Kalam argument takes some of our familiar intuitions as inescapable while downplaying others, cherry-picking according to whether the intuition supports the desired conclusion. Craig, for example, rejects the possibility of an infinite sequence of events extending into the infinite past. But he's willing to accept a scenario where an intelligent being exists for infinite time without events and then decides--out of the blue--to create a universe! By framing the argument as a deductive one (essentially a God-of-the-gaps argument) and not as an inference to the best explanation, he avoids comparing his preferred answer against the alternatives. Typical apologetic special pleading.

Ken Browning said...

"Or the supernatural event somehow takes place outside of time, whatever that means."

How can it mean anything since causality necessitates dimensionality including both: space for storage of the information to process causality; and, time to actually carry out the decision process to create? For instance, the statement, "Let there be light" includes both a passage through time as the words are thought or spoken and storage of information about 'letting', 'being' and 'light'.

March Hare said...

"Essentially, if god didn't exist, then why are there Satanists?"

If (Abrahimic) God DOES exist then the only thing we really have to go on are the 3 holy books then, quite frankly, I'm siding with Satan.

Why would Satan punish an atheist (or anyone?) since the atheist has done exactly what Satan did, rebelled against a tyrannical and schizophrenic deity.

If Satan is going against God's wishes then he would be unlikely to have hell as a place of torture since that would be exactly what God wanted, he'd make hell a pleasant place, perhaps plotting a takeover (or liberation if you prefer) of heaven.

Just saying, we only have God's (revealed) word that heaven is good and hell bad. Having read the Old Testament it very much appears that God is the bad one of the two.

Dimitri said...

I must say I am tending toward agreeing, which was why I brought it up. I just think that true Satanists don't just say "screw whatever Christianity is supposed to be, so I'll go the whole extreme, and just call myself a Satanist". No, they practice it, not just walk around saying they are. And to practice means they go against God and fight against him in almost incomprehensible ways. If they didn't believe god existed, then why be anything?

Earnie said...

A universe without cause and from nothing – What is nothing? Take away all of the planets and stars and galaxies in the universe. Then take away any other matter, anti-matter, dark matter as well as all energy and dark energy. Then take away space, time and all other corporal and temporal stuff. And while you’re at it take away all other universes, dimensions, timelines and such things. Now do you have nothing?

Well, some people say there is more than that. So for good measure take away all ghosts and spirits, angels and demons as well as all other mystical energies or forces. Oh, and let’s not forget heaven and hell, purgatory and all other such places. Then to finish the job take away all gods and all other spiritual and mystical stuff. Now do you have nothing? Just to be completely sure take away any other stuff that is unknowable or unimaginable by mere humans. Now we have nothing.

So if we start with absolutely nothing, how did we get here? About 13.7 billion years ago, in an insignificant corner of the infinite nothing, a random imperfection appeared. For a few seconds it looked like something interesting might happen because the anomaly was expanding extremely rapidly, like a firework exploding in the black of night. But no, it fizzled out and the residue started drifting away into the nothingness. That anomaly was the big bang and the residue is the galaxies, and in a few tens of billions of years the last trace of our universe will disappear back into the infinite nothing. This trivial and temporary imperfection will be gone and nothing will reign supreme once again.

Some cosmologists suspect that the big bang was not the only imperfection that ever happened in the nothingness, there may have been and even may now be other universes. After all, it would be asking a lot of the limitless and timeless nothingness to be absolutely and always utterly perfect in every way. Even if the nothingness is 99.9999999999% perfect, that gives plenty of scope for random brief imperfections like universes. Even many universes could appear and disappear without perturbing the limitless, timeless nothing.

So the idea that “God done it” is just childish, a simplistic attempt to explain life, the universe and everything. Stone Age peoples had not yet evolved the cognitive abilities to comprehend limitless and timeless nothing and so invented gods in their quest for perfection and meaning. The harsh reality is that our entire universe is a fleeting imperfection in nothing, without cause and without meaning.

Dimitri said...

What uniformitarianism and and such Evolutionary outlook. In that case you might as well condone suicide and screw space travel.

Earnie said...

To the contrary, once you truly comprehend that the whole universe is utterly void of any purpose or meaning, that humans are simply the random result of directionless natural selection and nothing more, alone in a universe that cannot know or care, that could wipe us out in a single blink of a pulsar… Only then, only then my friend, will you really understand how utterly precious each and every human being is, how every day alive and conscious is joy beyond compare. Only then will you appreciate the glorious and terrifying truth that the human race is totally free, masters of our own destiny, bound only by natural laws and the edge of the universe. We are free to drive ourselves to extinction on this pale blue dot, but we are also free to move out into the universe and make it our home. A universe that is so vast, so beautiful, so awe inspiring that our descendants a million generations hence will still marvel, like Darwin, that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”.