Apr 22, 2010

please explain

It's been a week; an intense (well, not really, I'm only doing 4 papers, I've just spent a little long on my assignments &/or on Facebook..) tiring week, but I may as well write something. Please interact with the material below if you feel the need. I'm not making any pretensions to rigour in my use of terms; I am aware of various distinctions amongst "atheistic", "materialistic", "deterministic" etc but don't think they're too crucial here. In the future I may bolster my actual arguments with appeals to genuine authorities and remove any particularly glaring errors that you find, but for now and forever: soli Deo gloria.

Atheistic materialists often suggest that pointing to God is always an inadequate explanation.

It seems they do so for two (or so) reasons:

1) If things that God is said to explain need an explanation, then surely God is, as it were (to butcher a nicely French-sounding phrase) ‘hoisted by the same petard’. a.k.a. “who made God?”

2) God is no use as an explanation, as “God did it” could explain anything and hence can't explain anything. Forget about Spirit and persons and stuff and stick with what we know, or else don't claim to have explained something.

It is the second that I’ve had a little thought on, though they are related as I see it. The first is not, I feel, a serious contender in the race for philosophical greatness. It is part of the definition of God that He is a being who has always existed. I’m not sure on the metaphysical or ontological details of “necessary existence” and don’t feel that I need to be to reject the “who made God” question as misunderstanding the (mono)theistic position. Ultimately, sceptics seem happy to accept the reality of various brute facts (e.g. the initial conditions of the universe) without requiring further explanation. Yet philosophically there is little reason to think that these actually constitute a final explanation; people who accept them as such are simply sceptical about whether we can find an earlier cause, not that this stops many inventing billions of other universes and such for the sake of having something "scientific." Maybe you don’t think the claim that God is ontologically necessary is plausible, but I doubt that if we are actually interested in finding explanations that it can just be written off. There is plenty of literature on the subject, which the new atheists will of course compare to “learned books of fairyology” nonetheless, this philosophical literature exists, as convenient as it may be to ignore it. Note that ignorance via the well-trodden path of ridicule is nevertheless ignorance still.

The second: based on assumptions concerning what it means to ‘explain something’ - and without plenty of work in the philosophies of metaphysics, science and mind, quite circular. Some materialists will seem to want to insist that all explanations be purely deterministic (or in some cases perhaps probabilistic; it makes little difference) i.e. involve said determinists being equipped with labcoats and employed by the government in the making of impressive lists of unbroken causal series, preferably involving lots of nice solid physical objects (solid objects are decidedly not like God (quantum mechanics and the incarnation aside – no one said you had to know anything to be an atheist; after all, it’s just a lack of belief isn’t it?!), so they have intuitive appeal for those who don’t believe in Him.) Something like "you've only explained something if you've pointed to something(s) that happened before and caused it and was itself caused (deterministically), meaning it couldn't have been any other way." If we go ahead and define “explanation” according to the whims of these people, perhaps we ought not be surprised in hearing one of the less-evolved ones soon shout out “Eureka, God is dead!” Of course, their conclusion would be slightly premature insofar as it follows pretty much directly from their assumptions.

Many atheists will admit that when it comes to the beginning of the universe, they ultimately have no good explanations. Something somewhere will have to be a brute fact – it may as well be physical stuff or its quantum constituents, right? When science and philosophy begin to question the eternity of matter/energy (and time) the materialist may still become uncomfortable. What we can know for certain (i.e. on the authority of a true scientist) however is that this provides no evidence for the beliefs of Christians. For, well, they’re just whacky! Anyway, said materialist will much prefer to live in happy ignorance of any possible non-physical/scientific causes as these would, it is said, plainly be irrational and/or inaccessible to reason (whatever the r-word is.)

I’m going around in interesting but ultimately non-question-answering circles here; but the problem as I see it is that the universe is not “necessary.” It had a beginning and it it appears, could have been otherwise (as an example, the notorious physical-constants-fine-tuning issue.) Contingent facts such as these beg for some kind of explanation. The atheist crys that God is no better than his nicely ordered list of brute facts (say “the multiverse” and associated multi-verse creating systems) but she is far too quick to rule out non-deterministic causes. If the universe is in fact contingent, then looking for a deterministic cause is silly. Yet we are inclined to look for some cause; maybe we just evolved that way (to look for causes), but why beg the question? Positing a personal cause admits that it could have been otherwise, but there is a reason why it isn't - a person chose this option.

A personal agent who willed it into being makes sense of the existence our contingent universe and the astounding details therein. The atheist (conveniently turned into a pseudo-agnostic and hoping you won’t notice it) declares that things related to the start of 'all physical stuff' are “unknowable” etc. The truth is that 'cause' even in physical systems is hardly understood, so I can doubt even your most cherished 'explanations' if so inclined. But why not look more closely into accepting an actual explanation, a personal one, involving the exercise of libertarian free-will, in a similar way to which 'intentions' can be used to explain the creation of this very blog post? Particularly if everyone so dreadfully wants Christianity to be true, as is so often suggested but seldom followed through. Theologians will rightly claim that God is not in any case completely inscrutable, so those looking for causes do in fact have somewhere to go and 'God did it' will not explain "absolutely anything" with much plausibility; however, ultimately we must stop somewhere. The atheist stops in no man's land and pretends to be content. Let us not leave her there.

I note as an aside that Christian i.e. trinitarian theological reflection and revelation (e.g. the incarnation) hold particular promise in thinking about related concerns. God is not purely abstract or disinterested in the physical world.

Update: found this by biologist Denis Alexander, including the quote I believe to be tangentially related to the above discussion (emphasis added):
A second theme that we often find in the early natural philosophers is the idea that the contingency of God’s actions encourages an empirical attitude towards the natural world. The God of the Bible can do what he likes, and it is up to natural philosophers to determine this empirically, it cannot be worked out from first principles as the Greek rationalists mistakenly thought. Contingency stems from the free will of the omnipotent Creator. This point was made explicitly by Cotes in his preface to the second edition of Isaac Newton's great work the 'Principia Mathematica' in words clearly approved by Newton himself: 'Without all doubt this world...could arise from nothing but the perfectly free will of God....These (laws of nature) therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experiments.’

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