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Here is another guest post. The last one by The Thinker has had a thread which has exploded. This one is interesting, and one very similar to my lines of argumentation. Neil is a friend of mine with whom I lost contact. We played ultimate frisbee together at uni, and formed a team with other uni players after our last years. Then I went travelling and the team fell apart without me (well, that’s my story). And I haven’t really seen him in a dozen years. Then, when I debated Randal Rauser about the Nativity, he found out through facebook and contacted me – it turns out that we are geekily interested in the same things. And so here is his guest post. A pleasure to have it here, and hopefully we can meet up again soon for a beer. That said, although I have been playing rugby for the past 10 years (gave up when the twins were born), I met an old ultimate couple this weekend where we threw out the idea of one last tournament together – getting the old crew back together. So, Neil, you game?

Anyway, enough irrelevant personal shite, back to science and philosophy. Here it is:

 “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it.” Aristotle, ‘Poetics’, 335 BCE

We live in a world of cause and effect, beginnings, middles and ends. This is an empirical world view based on what we see around us, everything seems to follow the core principle that for any given event, you can point to a cause. We are evolutionarily conditioned to this outlook, if hunger does not cause you to eat, or seeing a tiger not cause you to run or hide, your prospects are bleak. We conform ourselves, we are born, live and die.

Atheistic determinism takes this cause and effect principle and extrapolates it to the nth degree; who you are, the decisions you make are all predestined, your neurology demands it which is determined by the world around you as you develop, which itself is determined by a wider set of cause and effect dominos, traceable back to the Big Bang itself and driven by the laws of physics.

The causal principle is also intrinsic to theistic thinking. Your motivation for following the rules is casual; if you are suitably pious you are rewarded with your place in heaven, if not then hell, or if you prefer a non-Judaeo-Christian outlook on life, the Buddhist principles of karmic action and results. At the heart of the theistic view is the notion of creation and a creator. Whilst it’s fair to say that those who believe in the Genesis story are a minority, there is a widespread belief in God as the creator of the wider cosmos. In the Kalām cosmological argument God is the ultimate cause, the finger that pushes the first domino and creates the Big Bang, the Catholic position of theistic evolution points to God as the cause of the evolutionary process.

“Everything starts somewhere, though many physicists disagree. But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. They wonder how the snowplough driver gets to work, or how the makers of dictionaries look up the spelling of words. Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting, knotting, ravelling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here, here, is the point where it all began…” Terry Pratchett, ‘Hogfather’

Philosophically we are able, just about, to grapple with the concept of infinity. When we talk of dominos we can see that given enough dominos it is possible that the tumbling might continue forever. When we talk of cause and effect it is also understood that each effect can itself be a cause of another effect with another effect following ad infinitum. Infinity is big, by definition it is never ending, but as beings conditioned to seeing a never ending set of casual chains we can just about wrap our brains around the enormity of an infinite future.

And yet this concept thrown into reverse is conceptually much harder. The premise that every effect has a cause begs the question of where the cause came from, but we are conditioned to things having a beginning, we are inquisitive creatures that want an explanation as to why. Indeed navigating back through time along the causal chain is like the classic children’s question of ‘Why? But why?’ asked unendingly when they are told to do something they don’t want to do. Eventually the parent despairs and answers ‘Just because!’. Where the idea that there will always be a time after is easy, the idea that there was always a before makes us uneasy.

It is, however, a difficult concept to dismiss, no matter your theological leanings. Whatever you might imagine to be a prime cause demands the question of where did that come from? How does it come to be? If every effect has a cause, then something cannot come from nothing.

This is the causality paradox; causality directly implies a creator, but denies the possibility of creation.

In the case of the Kalām cosmological argument the answer of ‘God’ as the primary cause is no better than the parent’s ‘Just because’. Ultimately it is an answer that dismisses the possibility of a universe that simply appears from nothing in favour of an omnipotent being that simply appears from nothing; or a universe which has, in some way, existed eternally in favour of an omnipotent being that has simply existed eternally – a prime example of special pleading that does nothing to answer the question why or how.

The same challenge of course is presented to the atheist/physicist. Prior to the detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation, majority scientific opinion favoured a steady state model of the universe and initially rejected the notion of the Big Bang, in part due to the religious overtones of a beginning to time. But with near universal acceptance of the Big Bang model* our universe seems to have been constrained to something with a beginning, with its origins in a singularity, so why and how does that singularity exist? Just because?

*As an aside, it’s worth noting that even if a scientific theory sounds religious, and is developed by a theist (Georges Lemaître was a Roman Catholic priest), show us the evidence and science will cheerfully revise its view.

Well no. Even at the time Big Bang model was first being developed, Albert Einstein considered a cyclic model of the universe, a never ending series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches. If you apply Occam’s razor to the question of what could cause a singularity containing the entire universe, the simplest answer would be a collapsing version of that same universe. While this seemed to be initially ruled out by the understanding of entropy at the time, cyclic models of cosmology have continued to be developed, some based around the implications of string theory and multi-dimensional space, some around the existence of dark energy.

Perhaps the most interesting current model is Loop Quantum Cosmology (LQC) which is a physical consequence of the theory of Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG). LQG is a large area of research which attempts to describe the quantum properties of gravity in order to combine quantum mechanics and relativity. LQG applied to the early universe and the physics of the Big Bang leads to the consequence that the evolution of the universe can be continued beyond the Big Bang, replacing it with what has been coined the cosmic Big Bounce.

What all of these models point towards is a universe that simply exists, a case of simple harmonic motion writ large, bouncing along forever. What they tell us is that causality is an inadequate description of the world, there is no ultimate cause, no agent that could be termed a creator.

Is this a better answer than ‘Just because’? How does an ever present universe differ from an ever present omnipotent being? Well for one thing, the universe empirically exists. Aside from that ‘Just because’ presupposes the question ‘Why’, and if we abandon the notion of causality the better questions are rather ‘what’, or ‘how’. The answers are simply ‘this, the universe’, and ‘cyclically, forever’.

Causation is a human myth, a combination of our desire to understand an ultimate why, evolutionary imperative, and a personal view of the world that is embedded in time. Because we have a beginning, a middle, and an end, we project that briefness, that constraint onto our view of the world around us. Reject causation, and what we have would be better termed sequentiality, that is simply that one thing follows another, from eternal past into eternal future.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...