Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Part 2)

For convenience, the argument again:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.

Today I want to discuss the premises of the argument. Of course, I cannot cover in great detail all the issues involved, but I do want to mention the most important points.

The first premise should be pretty much self-evident to most. Intuition and accumulated life experience tell us that things don't just pop into existence totally uncaused. Believe it or not though, there have been several objections to this premise.

Because of their generally complex and abstract nature, however, I will not cover these objections here. If you are curious, feel free to leave a comment about it and I'll be glad to discuss it there.

The second premise, on the other hand, requires some support. Especially since until very recently (the last sixty years or so) the prevailing view, even among physicists, was that the universe was eternal.

There are a couple of ways to approach this premise: philosophically and scientifically.

Philosophy: There is a very simple philosophical argument that shows, fairly convincingly I think, that the universe is not eternal. Think about it: if it were eternal, then it would contain an infinite series of past events. But it is impossible to traverse an infinite series, so it seems that we could never have arrived at the present moment. Therefore, the universe cannot have an infinite past.

Here's another. An actual infinite is impossible. If the universe were eternal, then it would be an example of an actual infinite. Therefore, it can't be eternal.

But how do we know an actual infinite is impossible? In short, David Hilbert.

Hilbert was a German mathematician responsible for a very interesting (and mind bending) thought experiment. He asks us to imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. Once we have this in our heads, imagine that an infinite number of guests arrive to check in, so that the hotel is now full. But then infinitely more guests arrive, also wanting a room, and so the proprietor of the hotel simply moves every guest in room n to room 2n, thereby freeing up an infinite number of rooms. This could obviously continue indefinitely.

The thought experiment actually gets much more complex than this, but to avoid confusion, let's just say that such a hotel results in clear absurdities (even contradiction) and so is obviously impossible in the real world. It is merely an abstraction meant to help us understand infinite sets. Even Hilbert himself said, "...the infinite is nowhere to be found in reality." 1

But what about the scientific evidence? What has modern cosmology shown us about the beginning of the universe?

A whole lot. In fact, far more than I can even mention here. Suffice it to say that nearly every serious scientist that studies these things today is convinced that the universe had a beginning a finite time ago. I'll give two brief examples.

In 1964, physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally found the straw that broke the proverbial back of the eternal universe idea. After building a new antenna, they noticed a radio noise that was not accounted for, a noise that would later come to be known as 'cosmic microwave background radiation.' It's basically radiation left over from the initial explosion of the universe, and we find it no matter where in the universe we look. Penzias and Wilson were later awarded the Nobel prize for this finding.

Secondly, physicists predicted that this background radiation, though seemingly constant across the universe, ought to contain slight fluctuations since in order for galaxies to form, the density of the very early universe (what we're looking at with this background radiation) would need to vary in places. And sure enough, upon closer examination, scientists found very small fluctuations in this radiation corresponding to galaxy formation. They also won a Nobel prize.

And I haven't even mentioned such important and persuasive topics as the expansion of the universe, redshift, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. No other theory even comes close to the Big Bang in explaining all these things.

The universe had a beginning. The logical and inescapable conclusion, then, is that it also had a Cause.

1 From "On the Infinite" in Philosophy of Mathematics, ed. by Benacerraf and Putnam.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Part 1)

So far, most of the posts of this blog have been devoted to responding to objections and/or clarifying often misunderstood points regarding Christian theism. It recently occurred to me that I have not really offered any positive argument for why I believe Christianity is in fact true.

In the next several posts, I want to remedy that.

Before I get started, I should make a couple important points. First, there are far more arguments for the reasonableness of Christianity than I am interested in covering here. I will be targeting only a few that I consider the strongest or most useful.

Second, there are various formulations of all of the arguments I will be presenting, and some are better than others. I will do my best to present each one fairly and in its (so far as I can tell) strongest form.

Third, each of these arguments, without exception, involves extremely complex discussions of often very dense material, and all of the premises are not always uncontroversial. Again, I will do my best to make the material both accessible and fair.

And lastly, each of these arguments is intended to show something a little different. None of them are intended to provide absolutely irrefutable proof of the truth of Christian theism. But taken together, I do believe that they make a cogent case that Christian theism is on the whole more reasonable than its alternatives.

Alright, enough clarifying. Let's get started!

The first argument I want to cover is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. If you read my other post where I discussed arguments for God, then you know that a cosmological argument is one that argues from some contingency in the world back to God. Well in this particular version, the contingency involved is the beginning of the universe itself.

The argument can be formulated very simply as follows:

(1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause. 1

Now before you scream it at your screen, I know that a mere cause of the universe is not necessarily the same as the Christian God. But really, it doesn't take much to get there.

Let's consider it for a moment. Any cause of the universe must obviously stand outside spacetime. But what is there that is immaterial that could conceivably act as a causal agent? Well, in the philosophical history of such things, there are really only two contenders: mind and abstract objects. But we know that abstract objects (things like numbers, geometrical figures, etc.) do not possess causal power. That leaves some sort of unembodied mind as the only reasonable candidate.

Or look at it this way: we generally explain phenomena in one of two ways. There are scientific explanations and personal explanations. Scientific explanations utilize initial conditions and sets of laws to explain phenomena, whereas personal explanations utilize the will of a person. 

For example, if you walk into a room where I am and inquire "Why is it so hot in here?" I can offer you a couple different explanations. I could give you a long and detailed account having to do with the speed at which the particles in the room are vibrating and how the neurons in your body are receiving this information and then delivering it in highly complex ways to your brain which then interprets this information as the feeling of heat. OR I could just say that it's hot because I turned up the thermostat and that you shouldn't be so warm-natured.

In the first instance, I am giving you a scientific explanation which evaluates the initial conditions (the state of the particles in the room) and the laws of nature (which govern the rest of the process) to help you understand why you are hot. In the second case, I am offering a personal explanation which deals not with physical processes at all but with my own volition.

What is the relevance of this example, you ask? Simply this: There were no initial conditions at the beginning of the universe. The Big Bang proceeded out of what physicists call a singularity. There was nothing. At all. Even what we now call 'laws' had not even been established yet. So clearly, a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe is not possible. This leaves us with only a personal explanation. There was a will involved.

There is yet a third way to tell that this cause of the universe was personal. But I'll warn you, this one is a bit more difficult to grasp. If the cause was impersonal, then we would basically be left with some sort of immaterial conditions that would facilitate the effect (i.e. the universe). In philosopher's lingo, these conditions would have to be both necessary and sufficient and would exist timelessly. Here's the problem with that: if necessary and sufficient causes exist timelessly, then so do their effects. This would entail that the universe is eternal, and we know it isn't (more on this in the next post). So, the only way for a cause to exist and its effect not exist is if the cause has free will. That is, it must be a person.

So just with this simple three-step argument, we already have an immaterial, eternal, personal cause who possesses free will. Clearly this is easily interpreted by any honest person as what we have always known as God. And we have not even considered other arguments which make more of this being's attributes clear. But we will.

Next time, we'll flesh out the premises of the kalam argument. This should be fun.

1 This formulation (and much of the following discussion) is due to William Lane Craig. The line in the argument denotes "therefore."

Friday, April 9, 2010

Silly Things to Say..."You can't argue anyone into the faith."

"It is often said that you can't argue people into faith. Well, I don't want to dispute that statement, but I do want to deprecate the idea that it is something worth saying. What can you argue people into?" 1

Generally, I think people have good intentions when they point out that people do not convert based on argument. In fact, like a lot of silly statements, there is likely a grain of truth here.

It's probably a safe bet that most Christians (or Muslims or Mormons or Hindus or whatever) do not believe what they do solely because somewhere along the way an argument convinced them. In fact, most of them probably aren't even aware that such arguments can be made.

However, there are about three things here that are rarely considered when people say, "You can't argue people into the Kingdom."

First, it just isn't true. There have been many people for whom evidence and intellectual argument played an integral part in their conversion. Sometimes it was even the deciding factor. I won't give a list here, but a couple of the most influential in recent decades have been apologists Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis himself. Strobel has actually said that he has lost count of how many people have told him that they have come to faith after reading his apologetics material. And Lewis describes his own conversion as a reluctant one, purely intellectual at first.

Also, the fact that argument may not be the deciding role in most conversions does not imply that argument is therefore unimportant. I'll be honest. Generally, I believe what scientists tell me about the world. I believe that the earth spins at seemingly dizzying speeds, all the while hurtling through ice-cold space at an unbelievable pace around a gigantic ball of fire...while I sit here comfortably typing this post.

Mostly, I don't believe this because of any arguments I've seen. In fact, odds are good that I wouldn't understand much of the math involved in such arguments if they were presented to me. No, I believe it because I have it on what I consider to be good authority. But of course, this doesn't mean that the arguments involved don't matter. They matter greatly. And if physicists ever found better arguments that led them to different conclusions about the world, my beliefs would probably change as a result.

Second, even if it were true that people couldn't be argued into belief, this would not be peculiar to Christianity. Yet this is the only context in which I have heard it used. As van Inwagen points out in the essay quoted above (which I highly recommend, by the way), people do not go around claiming that you can't argue people into believing Plato's account of Socrates or some other such thing, though this would probably be equally true. "The fact that people go about saying that you can't argue people into faith," he says, "and saying this as if it were an intelligent thing to say, is simply one more example of ... double standard."

Thirdly, if argument is the wrong way to approach conversion, then someone should have told the apostles. From the hall of Tyrannus 2 to confronting the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill, 3 Paul used argument in his evangelism all the time. In his address to the Jews at Pentecost, Peter reasoned with them about Jesus' miracles and resurrection. 4

Eventually, what it all comes down to is what means God chooses to use to bring people to Him. Everybody is in a unique place in their relationship to God, and what works for some will not necessarily work for others.

The person who says that argument can't bring people to faith is committed to saying either that God cannot use argument in this way if He so chooses, or that He always chooses not to.

And that's just silly.

* Be sure to check out John Lennox discussing the 'Evils of Christendom' in the Featured Video section.

1 Peter van Inwagen. "Quam Dilecta." God and the Philosophers, 46-47.
2 Acts 19:8-10
3 Acts 17:16-34
4 Acts 2:22-24

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Bigotry of Religious Pluralism

The title of this post probably offended some of you. If not, then I'm sure the image did the trick. The combination of the two is a sure bet.

Before I get started let me just say that offense is honestly not my intent. But sometimes shock value can be the best way to get people to open up enough in their beliefs to consider another point of view or at least to critically examine their own.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who was a convinced religious pluralist. 1 "There is one truth," he told me, "and all religions have their own way of getting to it."

Bigot is a really harsh word. It's also a good one, in that it expresses a very specific characteristic of a given person. But like many good words (e.g. 'tolerance'), it has been abused to the point that its original meaning has been largely lost in favor of a watered-down, more popular definition. Bigot used to mean someone who is so convinced of her own opinions that she refuses to even consider contrary views. However, the popular usage now denotes something closer to someone who holds an exclusive position at all, regardless of her views of other opinions.

Of course, this new definition effectively neuters the word since everyone maintains an exclusive position about something. But we don't want to say that everyone is a bigot.

So if mere exclusivity is not enough to amount to bigotry, then what makes the difference? Well, according to the old definition it's a person's attitude toward differing opinions. Does the person take them seriously? Does he accept them on their own terms, consider their merits honestly, and evaluate them based on their strongest representation? Or does he simply reject them outright, or else reduce them to some weaker, more palatable form that allows him to keep his own view intact?

My point is this: in order to be a thorough religious pluralist, one must largely ignore most of the essential claims of most religions, or else re-interpret them into some vague, watered-down version that would be nearly unrecognizable to genuine adherents of the religion. And this requires bigotry. 

So how does my friend fare here? Can all, or even most, religions really be different paths to the same truth? Only if one is willing to maintain a contradiction. 2 This is because each religion has its own claims about what the truth actually is, or if there even is one. And usually, these claims contradict each other.

For example, Islam claims that one God exists, and that He is in every way one. Christianity claims that one God exists, but that He is a Trinity. Buddhism, so far as it can be adequately understood, requires no deity of any kind and would in fact be strongly opposed to the idea that the divine and the 'natural' are intrinsically separate. The only way that these three views of God can be integrated is to make them mean something other than what they were intended to mean. It amounts to saying that the billions of religious believers in the world are simply wrong about what they believe, and that the lone, objective observer (as though such a thing were even possible) is capable of interpreting the various religions correctly.

Christianity, on the other hand, has never shied away from other claims to truth. It has confronted them head on and has encouraged honest dialogue. It is not coincidence that many of the world's top universities were founded by Christians, and that a lot of them remain committed to a Christian worldview. We trust that the truth we have received is strong enough to withstand criticism and to prevail over competing views for any honest seeker.

It is not bigotry to think you are right. It is bigotry to think that everybody can be right. Let's get it straight.

1 I will be using the term 'religious pluralist/ism' in this post in the somewhat popular sense of someone who believes that all religions are either equally valid or somehow compatible or paths to the same truth or some other variation of this idea. I do not intend it in any other sense.

2 As it turned out, my friend seemed perfectly willing to do just this. This is utterly incomprehensible to me.

* You may have been expecting a post about Easter, but there are quite a few apologetics blogs out there and evidence-for-the-resurrection posts are not hard to find this time of year. As such, I'll just link to two of them. Enjoy.