The First Cause Argument
I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Divinity of Doubt: The God Question” by Vincent Bugliosi. It is a book that argues – poorly, I think – for Agnosticism as the only “logical” position to take on the god question. While much of his book is used to poke logical holes in the concept of God as accepted by Christians, he spends a few chapters tilting at the atheism windmill as well.
I think before I address a part of his book that I found particularly problmatic, I need to discuss the concept of atheism vs. agnosticism. What, exactly, do I believe on the question of god?
Well, I believe that there is absolutely no evidence of god’s existence. Every argument I’ve heard to “prove” the existence of god simply does not stand up to logical scrutiny.
Lack of a convincing proof does not, in itself, disprove the existence of god but I do believe it casts the existence of god into considerable doubt. In fact, I have enough doubt that I feel comfortable calling myself an atheist.
Do I allow the remote possibility that there is some sort of godlike being? Yes, I do allow that possibility.
But because I view that possibility as so remote, I don’t think that I can qualify myself as an agnostic. If we are concerned with being literal about our definitions, one could argue that I am defining myself incorrectly.
I don’t believe so. Any doubts I may have are so minute as to be irrelevant. Calling me an agnostic because of a few minor question marks would be the equivalent of calling me a political independant because I occasionally agree with conservatives.
Bugliosi spends a considerable amount of time supporting his agnosticism by arguing the “First Cause” justification for god. He does not suggest that the argument proves god’s existence. Rather, he suggests that the atheist response is unsatisfactory.
In fact, he goes further and says “About the question, if God created the universe, then who created God? I truthfully am somewhat surprised that great minds can so quickly and blithely dismiss the first cause theory by this one question.”
He goes on to say that the intelligence of Stephen Hawking and Bertrand Russell “lose altitude” in his mind as a result of their “far too casual respose” to the argument. What bothers me is his failure to understand the reasoning behind the argument which is, I think, quite sound.
I should back up for a moment and explain the “first cause” argument and the typical atheist response (with which I agree).
The first cause argument, if I can paraphrase is as follows: Allowing that the universe originated with the Big Bang, what made the Big Bang happen? Who put the particles in place that would need to have reacted to cause the event to take place? We don’t know where it came from. It must have been caused by god.
The atheist response is this: well where did god come from?
To which the answer is: God is eternal.
Bugliosi considers the atheist response to be unacceptable because:
If we go back and back and back to the point where we have a single particle of matter (or dust or energy) in the otherwise nothingness of space and if atheists say that we know no God created that particle (and/or universe) because if he did, who created him, then I ask them who, in their mind, did create the first particle? If they agree, as it would seem everyone must, that everything in existence that can be seen by the human eye or scientifically measured was created or induced by something else, they cannot exclude from this immutable principle of existence the first particle. And if their position is “yes, someone or something must have created the first particle,” my response is that this acknowledgement of theirs precludes them from asking their follow-up question (then who created God?) because whoever (or whatever) created the particle has demonstrated that we cannot as a question of him (or it) that could logically be asked of every other human, entity, or thing that ever existed. The reason is that inasmuch as what he (or it) has done in creating the particle out of nothing – something that no person, entity, or thing we know of in history has done or ever will do – is transcendent and otherworldly, it thereby exempts him (or it) and make him (or it) immune from the follow up question, Then who created God?
I’ll get into why I think the question (where did god come from) is valid in a little bit. The argument above suggests that the question cannot even be asked but it rests on a series of assumptions that are not supported by facts.
To consider just one of them – ” If they agree, as it would seem everyone must, that everything in existence that can be seen by the human eye or scientifically measured was created or induced by something else.”
Why must “everyone” agree up on this? Physicists, in fact, don’t agree. I’m not a physicist – and neither is Bugliosi. The difference between him and me is that rather that making an assumption, I actually did a little bit of research. Not a lot, mind you, as that link was the first one I found on Google after searching for the term “particles created from nothing.”
Bugliosi could not have done this reasearch because he proudly states that he doesn’t own a computer. Did he have a research assistant with a computer? Before one makes a blanket statement on which we all “must” agree, I think one needs to make sure that the statment is correct.
I further have an issue because I don’t believe he understands why an atheist uses the argument. The idea that matter can spring into existence without any outside force is something that is as confusing to me as it is to him. I would need to do a whole lot more reading to completley understand how it happens.
But I’m no less confused by the idea that matter can’t be eternal but god can. As Carl Sagan said, if your choice is between “the universe has always been” and “god has always been and he created the universe,” why not save the step? How does an eternal god make sense out of the question?
It doesn’t. It confuses the question. Because of that, I think that the atheist response to the First Cause argument is completely logical. You can’t simply point at something you don’t understand and say “god must have done that” and consider it to be a valid argument.
Bugliosi’s quote above seems to be that if we assume that someone has to be magic to be god then god is magic and because he is magic, I don’t get to ask where he came from. Magic stuff just is. I don’t agree. If god can be eternal or come from nothing, so can matter.
Bugliosi’s issue with the Big Bang Theory seems to be that in his reading on the subject, he doesn’t find physicists who answer the question “where do the matter come from?” He thinks they are being evasive. I think they are being honest.
They don’t exactly know. “I don’t know” is a valid statement. “I don’t know so it must have been god” is not.
Problem is, when a scientist says “I don’t know,” it immediately becomes a “gotcha” moment. “See, you don’t know everything!”
Well if they knew everything, they wouldn’t need to do research, would they?
On the other hand, whenever a scientest says something really fair like “well, we have a lot of evidence that the Big Bang Theory is correct but we don’t yet know how those first particles got there,” the immediate response is “well, that must have been God because God is magic!”
It is not a dodge to say “well, where did God come from? Where is your evidence that God did it?” If the reponse is “God is magic” rather than “I don’t know,” then my question is valid. Neither one of us know the answer. In my case I say that we don’t know everything because – let’s face it – the Big Bang happened a long time ago.
What I do know is that the absence of a complete explanation is not the equivalent of an explanation for god. Especially when your basic argument (something can’t come from nothing) is based on an assumption that is incorrect.
I have a lot of other problems with Buliosi’s book that I may address in later posts. He engages in a rather clumsy take down of evolution that involves a whole lot of “logic” and no biology. While I’m not a biologist, I’ve clearly read (or at least comprehended) more on the topic of evolution than he has.
Thing is, I agree with him about 75% of the time. Most of the book is focused on addressing the tenets of Christianity that simple don’t make sense. Even there, though, I’m not happy with his arguments.
I think that there are some fair arguments to be made in favor of agnosticism vs. atheism. I don’t feel that “Divinity of Doubt” makes any of them with particular skill. Anybody want to borrow it?