Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Belief Part 3 - Ending the Beginning

In Part 2 of this series I talked about Thomas Aquinas' "five proofs" for the existence of God. There are a couple of things to add before we go onto other arguments. In the last post, Einstein, Hubble, and Lemaître demolished Fre Hoyle's steady state model of the universe, but there are two other logical replies to the "uncaused cause" argument that are commonly given to avoid a universe with a beginning.


The multiverse hypothesis holds that the universe exists because all things that can exist exist, everything that can happen happens. This not only appears to get around the origin of the universe, but of any need for any sort of deity, belief, moral stricture, etc. Everything is random. There are a couple of problems with this, both logically and scientifically. First off, the logician might say "OK, why does everything happen, rather than nothing" which is really Thomas' "why is there something rather than nothing" question repackaged. You still have to posit and uncaused cause, only now it's for everything, not just the universe.

Secondly, if everything that can happen happens, why doesn't it happen in our universe? Why don't the laws of physics suddenly change? Why doesn't the laptop I'm writing on turn into a grapefruit? How can we ever believe in a scientific principle, when those principles can change at any given time?

"Oh, but Mike, they can't!" you reply. Why not? Show me, if everything that can happen happens, how you can ever posit that something can't happen in this universe. Perhaps this is the universe where gravity reverses every 13.7 billion years, which happens to be tomorrow? If you believe in an ordered universe, then you have to suppose that not everything that can happen happens, and if you're going to put some restrictions on it, occam's razor would suggest that rather than limiting it to only those universes you like, using a large number of restrictions, you might as well go the whole way and say there's only the one, and it's the one we're in and this is how it works.

Besides, evidentially we can only say there is one universe, despite attempts y some to wish that every bit of unexplained data "leaks" in from another universe. Once again occam's razor suggests an argument from evidence is stronger than one based on wishing.

Bouncing Universe

The second argument against the beginning of the universe is the "cyclical universe" or "bouncing universe" hypothesis. This is the one Stephen Hawkings resorts to in his latest book. In this we suppose that the universe either repeats itself forever, or changes each time (which is basically a serialized version of the multiverse). Either way, there are still two flaws with this hypothesis. First off, in the sense that this is a serialized multiverse, it is subject to all the counterarguments above. Secondly, the second law of thermodynamics makes it impossible. Like a ball that bounces a bit lower each time, our bouncing universe is subject to entropy and will run down.

In fact, what Hawking conveniently left out of his book were all the scientific arguments against the bouncing universe. One of these is the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Theorem (BVG). In 2003 Borde Vilenkin and Guth came up with a proof that says that given the laws of physics, any universe or system of universes (whether they be bouncing or multiverses) where the universe has a Hubble expansion rate greater than 0, must have a beginning.

In fact, this proof is vastly applicable to just about any model universe or multiverse that could be produce our universe. Alexander Vilenkin put it this way in 2006:

We made no assumptions about the material content of the universe. We did not even assume that gravity is described by Einstein’s equations. So, if Einstein’s gravity requires some modification, our conclusion will still hold. The only assumption that we made was that the expansion rate of the universe never gets below some nonzero value, no matter how small. This assumption should certainly be satisfied in the inflating false vacuum. The conclusion is that past-eternal inflation without a beginning is impossible.

Kind of hard to hold to eliminate a "first cause" at this point, no?

I think this puts the last nail in the coffin for the arguments against Thomas' five proofs (or at least all the ones I know - do you know any others?). I realize that at this point all I have addressed is "does the universe have a creator". I have not shown that that creator is an "invisible friend in the sky" or even that the creator is an intelligence, only that a creator exists. It's going to take a long time to get to that.

In the meantime, I would like to highly recommend Robert Spitzer's book New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy. The physics section will give and awful lot to chew on, such as the above.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Belief Part 2: Doubting Thomas

This is the second post in a series on the existence of God. I've read and heard a lot from atheists of late, and frankly I have not found one who is willing to consider any possibility outside of their belief system (and of course, they deny that they ave a belief system when clearly they believe so strongly that God can't exist they will forgo logic and reason to keep that faith). My purpose in writing this series is to explore what we can know about God through reason, and if it is "unreasonable an unscientific" to believe in God, or, as I contend it is more unreasonable and unscientific to believe He doesn't exist.

Of course, no discussion of the existence of God is complete without referring to St. Thomas Aquinas' "five proofs". His "five proofs" are the basis of many arguments from theists and atheists alike. Thomas wrote these almost 800 years ago, and so you'd think there was nothing new to say, but modern science has added some new observations. Let's look at them.

First Mover - since objects at rest remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force (e.g. Newton's laws), the observation that objects are in motion implies an outside force to set them in motion. One can appeal to forces like gravity and explosions for things to "move by themselves" but each requires potential energy to have been put in the system (e.g. for a star to form via gravity it must have been formed from particles which were already separate against gravitational forces).

Philosophically speaking the "movement" can be something other than physical. I've couched this in terms of physics because it is the easiest for me to discuss. I never personally found this argument to be compelling because it seems to me that if the universe were always in motion, that motion could be simply transferred, as one billiard ball will set another in motion, and the second can come back and hit the first. It wasn't until college physics that I learned that this position doesn't work. More on this after I discuss the other two.

First Cause - things cannot cause themselves. Therefore, all that exists must have been caused to exist by something. To posit that the universe caused itself presents the dilemma refuted by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time and Space, which he terms "turtles all the way down". Oddly, Hawking uses the argument that the universe caused itself in his latest book The Grand Design. I guess he only accepts logic when it supports his conclusions.

At first I found this argument unconvincing, because I had read books on quantum mechanics about how particles spontaneously came into existence in a vacuum. However, a vacuum isn't really nothing. As a physicist will tell you, there is space-time, and that is required for quantum laws to allow particles to come into existence. What makes space-time? According to Hawking gravity, a warping of space-time, creates space-time, which creates it. Beginning to sound like turtles?

The other argument I find used involves hypotheses like multiverses. I'll be covering these in a later post, but to whet your appetites, the scientific principle of Occam's Razor suggest that relying on something imagined to replace something you claim is imagined does not improve your position. Plus the multiverse is just another layer of "turtles". It does not address a first cause.

Contingency - all things in the observable universe are contingent on something else for their existence. Therefore the thing which brought them into existence existed without them. There must be something which exists outside of the universe.

Fr. Robert Barron, in his excellent PBS series "Catholicism" explains this in terms of a cloud on a Summer's day. The cloud exists because of the humidity, pressure and temperature of the air. Those conditions are caused by things like sunlight hitting the Earth, and the very composition of the atmosphere is influences by things like the respiration of plants. Those in turn depend on things like gravity, nuclear forces, evolution etc. Ultimately there comes a point where we get to the universe itself. To posit the universe is not contingent is not supported by any evidence, and in fact all evidence points to all things being contingent. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that there exists something outside the universe.

Of course, Fr. Barron is much more eloquent than I am. After all, he's a TV star. However, I think you get the point. And saying that the thing outside the universe is more universes (AKA the multiverse again) is falling back to the "turtle" argument.

The main thing about all three of these arguments is that they involve "the buck stops here". When people refer to these and say "turtles" they obviously haven't read or didn't understand these proofs. They are persuasive because to avoid them you have to postulate "turtles". You might ask "well, why can't the universe have gone on forever?" That was a position held by astronomer Fred Hoyle.

Fred Hoyle was a brilliant astronomer, cosmologist, and the man who coined the phrase "Big Bang" to disparage the theory proposed by Georges Lemaître. Monsignor Lemaître was a priest and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, who proposed that the universe was expanding from a single point, which he called the "primeval atom". Hoyle supported a theory called "steady state" which claimed that the universe was eternal and constantly renewed itself.

A detailed discussion of what went on would take more than this post, but suffice it to say Einstein's general theory of relativity coupled with Edwin Hubble's observational evidence, put the final nail in the coffin of the steady state model. Hoyle later recanted his steady state claims, and even left atheism and became a theist because of science. I'll cover his story in more detail in a future post as well, because his change of heart was due to science, not revelation.

That someone can today insist that the universe always existed, or regenerates itself simply does not fit with observed scientific evidence or with established laws of physics. For instance, the second law of thermodynamics states that entropy never decreases. Any claim that the universe exists forever or regenerates has to assume a magical way that this and other laws of physics can be suspended. I see no reason to think that this sort of imaginary process is any more likely than God.

The last two proofs of Thomas are different.

Greatest Being - some things are greater than other things. Therefore, there must be a being of perfect greatness, from which all other things derive their greatness.

This argument is based on ancient Greek philosophy, but I find it unconvincing, since there is an assumption that such a perfect being exists as proof that one exists. One argument in favor is that existence is greater than non-existence, so if the greatest being did not exist, it would not be the greatest being (and therefore the greatest being must exist).

I don't hold with the assumption that if we can imagine a being it must exist. Ironically, that is an argument used by some atheists to support the "all possible timelines" model of explaining the universe. They assume that the reason the universe exists is because everything that can exist must exist. By that argument, of course, God must exist (unless He can't exist, which is something they will argue without evidence).

Intelligent Designer - purpose requires intent. Since there are things in the universe that work towards a purpose, they must have been an intelligence who directed them towards that purpose.

This is another argument I find weak, because it supposes that the universe has a purpose without offering evidence to that end. I believe there is evidence to that end, which I will explore in a future post, but without that evidence, it would seem to be a circular argument - it relies upon intelligence behind the universe to prove intelligence behind the universe.

Your mileage may vary. I know some find one proof more compelling than another. However, I have yet to see a refutation of the first three proofs that does not rely upon a logical or scientific contradiction, or just plain wishing. If you know of one, I would be more than happy to hear it.

There are dozens more proofs to be covered and lots of counterarguments to debunk, so this series is for now open ended. The next post will begin to cover a different class of proofs.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Does this make sense?

A number of months ago I began thinking about a series of posts on belief. I want to start from the beginning with "Is there a God?" and "What is God?" and see where it goes. I know that a lot f greater minds than I have already pondered and written on the subject, and so much of what I write will be my understanding of others' work.

But before I even get that far I'd like to spend a moment pondering whether it is even a useful question to ask about God. These days, so called "new atheists" deride the whole idea that we should (be allowed to) think about God. They dismiss the whole concept as useless.

I would maintain that there are several important reasons to be concerned about the existence of God.

Pascal's wager.

Blaise Pascal based his logic on probability theory, specifically expected value. Here's how it works.

Let's say I want to decide whether or not to play the NJ Lotto Pick 6 lottery. I can calculate the odds of winning, which are 49 choose 6. That's a mathematical shorthand which works out to one chance in 13,983,816 of winning (let's call it 14 million to make things simpler). But is that good or bad? It depends on the payout. As I write this, the jackpot is $2.7 million.

That means 1/14,000,000 of the time I win $2,700,000 and 13,999,999/14,000,000 of the time I lose $1. So the expected outcome is (2.7 - 14)/14 or $-0.81. In other words I can expect to lose 81 cents on each ticket by playing the lottery. Or, to look at it another way, if I bought all possible tickets I would spend $14 million but only make $2.7 million (meaning I would have lost $0.81 per ticket). I should not play.

If the jackpot were $27 million, however, my expected outcome would be (27-14)/14 or $0.93. In other words, I could expect to almost double my money (if I played enough times - obviously for a single ticket I either win or lose).

The principle is that a large enough payout makes it worthwhile to play, even if the odds of winning are small. Pascal applied this to theology. He claimed that if you don't know whether God exists, it is a good bet to behave as if He does. Pascal's reasoning is that if the probability that God exists is anything greater than zero (in other words unless you can absolutely prove He doesn't exist), the benefits of heaven vs. hell so far swamp the small price of living a moral life that it pays to live a moral life.

Now, this is not a perfect description of the problem. For one thing, the wager assumes that we are "justified by works alone" which is anathema to Christians (including Catholics). However, it does show why it makes sense to determine whether or not there is any probability of God's existence (and heaven and hell).

Abstract knowledge

It is in man's nature to know things, even if the knowledge is not immediately applicable to his situation. For instance, astronomers study the early universe not because it is useful for their lives per se, but because it is interesting, and who knows what may come out of this information in subsequent generations.

One of the things that amuses me is how many people will defend that Steven Hawking talks about the origin of the universe, but deride theologians doing the same thing. At least the theologians are using metaphysics to try to answer a metaphysical question. Hawking is using physics to try to explain metaphysics. The best he can possibly come up with using those tools is "turtles all the way down"*, which, ironically, is a phrase Hawking himself uses to ridicule Thomas Aquinas' unmoved mover. Apparently as brilliant as he may be in physics, Hawking does not even understand the basic concepts of metaphysics.

I'll be debunking Hawking in a future post, but my point is that even many atheists believe the question of God's existence is important (even if their methods of answering the question are flawed).

* BTW in his latest book Hawking does exactly that. He states that space-time is created by gravity. Gravity, of course, is a curvature of space-time.

Discovery of universal truth

Relativists will tell you that there are no universal truths (except, the truth that there are no truths). So, given that they have thus demonstrated that there is at least one universal truth, can we discover more? Is there an underlying meaning to it all? If not, there's certainly no reason to read blogs. If there is, then the question of interest is "what is truth?"

Understanding humanity

Most people throughout all of history have had a belief in God. Some scientists believe that the human brain is "hard-wired" for a belief in God. Given how much effect God has had on humanity, it makes sense to study the existence of God even as purely a phenomenon to understand how humans think.

It is interesting (in a sad way) to note how the secularists who claim that our lives should be ruled by sex because our brains are wired for it insist that religion should be abandoned because our brains are wired for it. If sex is useful, then so is theology.

Finding joy

Everybody wants to be happy. There are innumerable self-help books out there to help you to find happiness. Yet study after study has found that the most joyful, peace filled, contented people in the world are those who devote their lives to God. If knowing God is a path to happiness, then it becomes personally advantageous to find out.

I'm sure there are many other reasons, but these are a few I came up with for wanting to find out if there's a God even if I didn't already know what I know about Him.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


More gaps in blogging, as real life intrudes on my online presence. However, now that everyone has said everything there is to say about the "occupy" movements, I thought I'd add my $0.02, since nobody else has said it. Or perhaps they have and I've been too busy to read it.

From what I've read the occupiers are "the 99% fed up with the greed and corruption of the 1%". It sounds reasonable. It sounds great! But what does that really mean?

When my oldest son took the SAT the essay question was along the lines of "is it possible to get ahead in life without acting immorally." He took the position "no, you can't" - not because he believes that (he claims) but because it is the more easily defensible position. Society paints the rich and successful as being evil, and certainly there are many examples to choose from.

But there are also counterexamples. Consider Bryan Bedford, CEO of Frontier Airlines and featured on "Undercover Boss". Consider all the philanthropy that exists that would not be possible had individuals not had the money to give.

I'm not trying to hold the rich up as paragons of virtue, but I think it is ignoring the plank in your own eye (Matthew 7:3-5) to imply that the not-as-rich-as-the-99% are blameless. Our country has always held the principle that anybody could be successful if they worked hard. It seems that the occupiers deny that principle. Their cynical, might-makes-right attitude I find no less corrupt than the unequal distribution of wealth they protest.