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Debating Kalam: Dustin’s Response

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Dustin and I agreed to exchange opening statements before the debate, so I’m going to be posing the text of the first half of the debate we had on Wednesday. My previous post has my opening statement, this post has his response, and the next one will have my response to his response. He didn’t end up reading his speech exactly as he prepared it, but hit on pretty much all the same points and I didn’t have to make many changes to my prepared response.

Although I don’t think it mattered much in this debate, if you are going to be arguing against Kalam in a debate, do not agree to exchange opening statements. It helps your opponent much more than it helps you. If you took the time to prepare, you should be pretty familiar with all the arguments in favor of Kalam. But if your opening statement contains objections that are difficult to answer, giving it to your opponent before the debate might allow him or her to come up with something that sounds like an adequate response. It’s a little harder to come up with bullshit that doesn’t sound like bullshit in the middle of a debate.

Anyway, here’s Dustin’s speech:

The kalam cosmological argument, though it pretends to be based on scientific principles, is nevertheless riddled with flaws. Allow me to restate the argument:

  • The first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • The second premise is that the universe began to exist.
  • The conclusion is that the universe was caused, and this cause is known as God.

The argument is indeed valid, but the problem is that all of the premises can indeed be rejected, most notably the first premise, and even accepting the premises, the conclusion does not necessarily demonstrate that a God defined in the traditional senses exists.

Does everything that begins to exist have a cause? Modern physics denies this premise. Many events at the subatomic level are completely random and occur without a cause. The energy fluctuations that occur in vacuums are just one example of an uncaused event. My opponent argues that we never see macroscopic entities like dogs, cats, and hamburgers randomly pop into existence, and that is correct. That is because these uncaused events only occur on a subatomic level, where the science of quantum mechanics applies. Macroscopic objects like dogs and cats, of course, are not subject to these fluctuations for a variety of proposed reasons, of which the most prominent is decoherence. To use another example, it is well-known that quantum mechanics shows that photons can behave in ways similar to particles and waves, depending on the experiment. But no one then argues that wave-particle duality is impossible because we never see cats and dogs behaving as both particles and waves. If you shoot a cat toward a slit in the double slit experiment, it will not create an interference pattern characteristic of a wave, but instead a particle-like and flustered cat imprint in one spot on the wall! My opponent has also claimed that denying causality would impede science, but this is clearly not the case if one gives only a cursory glance at the flourishing fields of cosmology, quantum physics, and other areas of theoretical physics that accept uncaused events. Because the events are uncaused, scientists can't say with deterministic certainty whether an event will occur, but he or she can use statistical analysis to get an idea of the probability. Hence, science can still be practiced even without assuming every event is caused, contrary to the claims of my opponent. The idea that uncaused events exist is so well demonstrated that the kalam cosmological's first premise is highly unlikely to be true, even if it does seem intuitively true to those of us who live in the macroscopic world. Physics, unfortunately, is not intuitive.

Given the seemingly insurmountable problems with the first premise, it is not necessary to also deny the second premise. If the first premise is incorrect, the whole argument fails. As such I can accept that the universe began to exist with ease. Even so, I will make a few general comments about ways in which the second premise could potentially be incorrect, and rebut some of the philosophical justifications made for the premise.

One of the reasons given for the premise that the universe began to exist is that an actual infinite cannot exist. That is, if the universe always existed, its eternal extension backwards through time would be an actual infinite. This is not necessarily true, though. It is important to note that the argument does not deny potential infinites. The universe can continue to exist throughout the future indefinitely, but this is not an actual infinity. It only means that the universe's existence is limitless. But if this applies to the universe's future, it can also apply to its past. If the universe never began, it would be limitless, not infinite.

Many appeals are made to the weirdness that results when adding and subtracting different infinite sets in the Hilbert Hotel example, but merely because it leads to weird results doesn't mean an actual infinite is impossible. Subtract all odd numbers from all even numbers, and you are left with the result of infinity. (That is, infinity minus infinity equals infinity.) But subtract all numbers greater than 3 from all positive numbers, and you are left with 3. (That is, infinity minus infinity equals three.) This is certainly weird! It is also weird that light behaves like a wave and a particle. But the reason it is weird is only because there are different classes of the infinite. It is only confusing if you think of infinity as a single number, not unlike 3, and not a class of various sets of numbers containing infinite members. It is also important to remember that physicists are not claiming that the number infinity exists. Numbers are only tools used to describe reality, not existing entities in their own right. Thus, it isn't that the number infinity exists, but that the universe has existed for an infinite number of years. There is nothing problematic about saying that. But as I noted previously, it is more proper to say the universe has no limit forward or backward in time. As such, it seems the philosophical justifications in support of this premise are not unquestionable. In the end, a priori arguments such as these should not decide the case of whether infinity exists---we should let reality and empirical evidence decide.

What does the empirical evidence say concerning the matter of a universe beginning to exist? My opponent is correct to point out that the universe implies a beginning in time. This is because observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the expansion of the universe, and so on show that the universe was once condensed into a single point. The mathematics show the laws of physics breaking down at the point of the Big Bang known as the singularity. Time and space are thus created at that point. The evidence listed in support of the Big Bang is correct, and I will not question it. However, while it seems clear our own universe had a beginning in time (and time itself had a beginning), it doesn't necessarily imply that our universe was caused by God. Before the Big Bang, physicists cannot say what happened. God, in fact, is the least likely explanation, and modern physicists do not seriously entertain that idea. Because uncaused events are common at the subatomic level, and the universe was once reduced to a subatomic point, we can explain the creation of the universe as an uncaused event. This would certainly be the most parsimonious explanation. However, physical models of the universe are not complete; we are working with lots of missing puzzle pieces. For example, relativity and quantum mechanics are not consistent with each other. As such, some cosmological theories have been proposed that hypothesize extra dimensions, multiple universes, and other fantastic elements in a manner that renders relativity consistent with quantum mechanics. These are generally known as String Theory, M-Theory, and a host of other names. Some propose that there are multiple universes, with our own universe being a single bud among an endless landscape of possibilities. While these are not quite empirically supported, they at least have the advantage over conjectures about God in that they attempt to render the mathematics consistent! But the most reasonable stance to take concerning the creation of the universe, given our current knowledge, is to admit we don't know. These ideas also show that the cause of the universe may not have been God, but budding from other multiverses.

It should also be said that even if the argument were valid, it would not demonstrate that God exists in the traditional sense of the word. All the argument demonstrates, if true, is that the universe was caused by something. There is no additional evidence as to what attributes this cause may have (or even that it was the first cause), much less that it has the qualities of a personal God, like the ability to think and the characteristics of omnipotence and moral perfection. It strikes me that if the argument succeeds, it does so only by relying on the elusiveness of properly defining what God is. It is not unlike proving that a plastic object used to heat bread exists on my kitchen counter, and then proclaiming that this object is God. No, it is not a God, but a toaster. And to the kalam argument I can respond that, no, it is not a God, but a cause, and this cause may very well be what string theorists allude to when speaking of our universe budding from additional universes. My opponent argues that the cause must be immaterial, but presumably if the universe arose out of nothing (as in a vacuum fluctuation or sea of virtual particles), then in a sense we can call that immaterial, but it is not a god. The attempt to argue that the cause is personal and capable of thought is likewise faulty. Big Bang cosmology only demonstrates that the current laws of physics as we know them break down at the time of the big bang. My opponent argues that there cannot be a scientific explanation since there was no natural world before the Big Bang, and therefore it cannot be accounted for by laws operating on initial conditions. He then concludes that the cause is best explained in terms of agents and volition. But there are plenty of other possibilities that I've mentioned, including the idea that our universe is one of many in a multiverse, or that there was nothing prior to the Big Bang and our universe simply resulted from a quantum vacuum fluctuation. These are possibilities that are taken seriously by physicists that do not require characteristics like agency, and hence my opponent is simply wrong to think the physics points to agency as the only reasonable cause. In fact, it is the most unreasonable cause of the three, because in science we generally observe that agency results from brain function, and there is no model for agency existing in some immaterial sense. Likewise, vacuum fluctuations are already known to exist so that explanation in particular is more parsimonious than any God hypothesis.

kadir karabaş said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:09 PM  
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