The Kalām Cosmological Argument is a terrible argument – 1. Induction

Not the induction we're talking about here...It’s quite amazing how often the Kalām Cosmological Argument, or some version of it, is still used by believers to justify their faith. It seems like a naive understanding of modern cosmology, coupled with confirmation bias, conspire to keep this tired argument on life support. In this series of posts, my intention is to explain some of the ways in which KCA is a terrible argument, one problem at a time. In this first post, I’ll focus on whether it’s reasonable to apply inductive reasoning to the universe.

As a reminder, here’s how the KCA usually goes:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2. The universe began to exist
3. The universe has a cause

The first clause is an unjustified generalization that really is inductive reasoning in disguise. Inductive reasoning is a perfectly legitimate and inevitable way to reason –because it works– if you understand its limitations.

A more accurate version of the first clause could be:

Every thing that we’ve seen begin to exist has had a cause

I’ll address in a future post how even this formulation is false, but let’s focus on the induction issue for now. In this version, I removed the excessive generalization, thus pulling the induction from under the carpet and putting it in plain sight. I’ve also replaced “everything” with “every thing”. This is a really important nuance: in a similar way that “nothing” is not a thing, but is really “no thing”, the universe (i.e. the set of all the things that exist) cannot be treated like an ordinary thing. It’s in a category of its own. Inductive reasoning is the application of probability to a set of similar objects. It cannot, therefore, be applied to the universe, because there are no objects similar to the universe. And before you ask, yes, some physicists are guilty of doing exactly that.

And that is not even all that’s wrong with the first premise…


Time, causality, and prime movers

What's beyond the sky used to be a reasonable question.Sometimes we ask the wrong questions, and answer them with bad answers. One particularly bad question is: “what was there before the Big-Bang?” There are many others, but this one requires a little mental gymnastics in order to get used to modern ideas of time and understand what the consequences are.

“What was there before the Big-Bang” may have looked like a good question before Einstein (if anyone then had a clear idea of a universe expanding from a very dense original state, which they didn’t), but the revolution of Relativity in our concepts of time and space made it scientifically absurd. The word you have to remove from the question is “before”. Substitute “beyond”, and we have something to talk about, but “before” is just absurd in this context. Let me explain.

In a Newtonian, 19th century scientific framework, time and space are fundamental: physical phenomena, and the universe in general, happen in time and space, but time and space aren’t physical phenomena themselves. Einstein showed that time and space are not only relative, but are physical expressions of geometry. They are even in a way consequences of matter and energy. In other words, time and space are properties of the universe. They are of the universe, and don’t make sense outside of it (whatever “outside” could mean when talking about the universe).

As a consequence, time and space as we perceive them are not necessarily useful concepts “everywhere” (and I use that word with scare quotes to express an idea of a place that is more general than what we mean in everyday speech).

The Big-Bang is such a “place”: what scientists mean by Big-Bang is that early region in the universe where everything was so densely packed that our current knowledge of physics breaks down. It is where our ignorance begins, where taking our usual concepts of time and space seriously would lead to absurdities and infinities. The only certainty about what’s beyond the Big-Bang is that we need new science to understand and describe it.

Now if you care about metaphysical questions of origins, that leads to a serious problem: if there is no useful concept of time beyond the Big-Bang, do we still have a useful concept of causation?

Hume’s concept of causation cannot be kept in this context because it is based on time: the cause must be prior to the effect. If “prior” is meaningless, we are reduced to correlation, which can easily be reversed without contradictions.

The only causation that can be used here is the logical concept of necessary causes: if x must exist for y to exist, and y exists, then x exists. The first premise however is a tricky one…

Let’s take a favorite argument from theists, the Kalam cosmological argument. It starts with “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. There are too many problems in this statement to count, but the word we need to focus on is “begins”… The argument continues with “the universe began to exist”. We can stop right there: no, as far as we know, the universe didn’t “begin” to exist because that implies a meaningful notion of time, that we don’t have near the supposed origin of the universe. This argument simply doesn’t work.

I’ll leave you with a final puzzling thought about time and causality. Quantum physics introduced a funny notion that is that the results of some experiments cannot be predicted, and that we can only predict the probabilities of the possible outcomes. Without going into too much details, this doesn’t necessarily eliminate determinism at a fundamental level, but it does confirm that with our limited perception of time, the future is not fixed. One interpretation in particular, the Many Worlds Interpretation, sees us navigating in an infinitely branching network of possibilities. When an experiment is performed, other outcomes than the one measured may seem like they didn’t actualize, but according to Many Worlds, they did, it’s just that this is not where we are. Now here comes the crazy bit: in this interpretation, everything is still fundamentally reversible in time, and the branching that happens about the future also happens for the past. The consequence is that the past may be just as undetermined as the future is.

Have a nice day.


Infallible, part 2: Consistency is Insufficient

Kurt GödelMichael, on his way to establish the infallibility of the Catholic Church, makes the claim that consistency is the defining characteristic of truth:

The hallmark of truth is consistency. Error can always be shown, at the core of the argument, to be logically inconsistent and ultimately self­refuting. Ergo, consistency is contingent to any claim of truth.

This is of course an error of monumental proportions.

Consistency is necessary but not sufficient. Sagan's dragon in the garage is perfectly consistent, but still untrue. Alchemy was, as far as I can tell, logically consistent, and turned out to be false nonetheless. Galilean relativity is consistent, but it’s Einstein’s Relativity that coincides with observation.

In physics, consistency is not even achieved as a whole, but only within theories (quantum field theory is incompatible with general relativity for example, although each is self-consistent), which should tell you something about the usefulness of the concept. Second, nothing is ever accepted in physics based only on consistency. You need confrontation to reality. That is the real test. Superstrings are consistent, and even plausible and compelling, but as long as we haven't obtained solid evidence for them, they are not going to be accepted. The graveyard of physics is full of failed hypotheses that were consistent but did not pass the test of reality.

Even in mathematics, consistency is not proof. As Gödel has shown, no non-trivial formal mathematical system can prove its own consistency.

I'll also point out that mathematical truth is essentially different from physical reality, and that it is always circumscribed by the axiomatic system in which they are expressed. For example, the proposition “only one line parallel to a given line passes through a given point” can be true or false depending on whether we are expressing it for Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometries. The geometry of our universe is not determined by consistency.

Michael makes a stupendous but too common error when he says that “error can always be shown, at the core of the argument, to be logically inconsistent and ultimately self-refuting”. This is the illusion apologists are under when they attempt to prove the existence of God through “logic”. If I claim that if I use a flashlight from a train, the speed of the photons is going to be the sum of the speed of light and of the speed of the train, I am making no logical error, and there is nothing self-refuting here. Still, I am in error, because my claim can be demonstrated to be wrong by experimentation.

Consistency is wholly unimpressive, and saying so is not at all the same thing as saying math or physics are unimpressive. Those disciplines have a lot more behind them than just consistency. Catholic dogma? Not so much. I remain unimpressed, except by the unwillingness of apologists to understand the difference between necessity and sufficiency.

Next time, we’ll examine the claim that the Bible’s cosmogonic myths are unique in describing creation ex-nihilo.


The tyranny of liberty

Liberty BellLast night, I watched one of Glenn Beck’s shows, and it surprised me: it actually had bits of thought in it, instead of the distilled lib’ral hating I was expecting. Sure, Beck is unnervingly arrogant and assumes everyone disagreeing with him is an idiot, but, maybe under the influence of his guest Penn Jillette, he followed a coherent train of thoughts and actually was interesting. I’m disagreeing vehemently with most of what both said in the show, but I also understood something.

It seems to be a trivial observation that Libertarians would care first and foremost about liberty, but for some reason it had escaped me that it is in fact the only value that they recognize. They seem to be oblivious to any virtue that doesn’t have a simple mapping on an axis of freedom that spans from anarchy to totalitarianism, that Beck shows on his trademark blackboard at the beginning of the show. This axis, of course, exists, and the multi-dimensional complexity of reality does project on it. That’s what makes the whole worldview consistent and appealing.

Its problem is not that it’s wrong. Its problem is that it’s incomplete and simplistic. That also is, however, its greatest strength.

Penn Jillette illustrates that very well when he enumerates a bunch of complex issues and gives each a seemingly simple resolution by expressing them in exclusive terms of individual freedom, excluding any considerations of fairness, justice, or the greater good.

At 28:50, he stands with the pharmacist who would refuse to fill a doctor’s prescription that he morally objects to, and with the Catholic hospital that refuses to perform a life-saving procedure that goes against Church dogma. He also stands behind the Boy Scouts of America against gays and defends private discrimination at large. He’s “totally OK with that”.

He thus ignores the duty of the pharmacist and the hospital to his patient’s health (which is the defining virtue of the health sector), and he ignores the right of all human beings to be treated fairly, not just by the government, but by anybody who holds any kind of power, such as an employer or the holder of a monopoly.

Simplistic ideologies are dangerous because they are so seductive. They offer simple explanations to a complex world. They make everything look clear-cut and leave no place for ambiguity. By doing so, they don’t just ignore most of reality, they also exclude it from consideration, creating moral issues bigger than the few they superficially solve.

Refuse simplistic worldviews. Instead, broaden your horizons, embrace complexity and ambiguity. Consider all points of view, in every issue, before you judge. Not because they are all true, but because they all contribute to weaving the tapestry of humanity.


Objective, Transcendent, or Absolute?

God shows something to MosesThe number one cliché I hear about atheism is that lacking an objective / transcendent / absolute morality, everything is permitted, and surely we must be eating babies for breakfast. Religious people seem to be very insistent on this point, and all but attempt to push us to be immoral, telling us that we are being inconsistent if we aren’t, and that ours is a self-defeating position.

There are quite a few parts to deconstruct in those assertions. First, can the religious point(s) of view really claim objectivity, transcendence or absoluteness? Second, are the only games in town really religion and extreme relativism?

Claims to objectivity are the most bizarre to me. Objectivity is supposed to be the quality of something that is based on facts rather than thoughts or opinions. A system based on a single old book of myths then hardly seems objective. Furthermore, philosophers are insistent that one can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, values from facts, so how can any system of ethics be fully objective? There is of course Rand’s perverse Objectivism, but that is more rationalization for selfishness than moral system, and it’s only objective by name. That is not to say that facts can’t inform moral decisions: they have to. But they can’t on their own be their foundation.

The claim of transcendence is that morality is somehow from out of the material world. This is of course entirely unconvincing to atheists who tend to find the supernatural to be an ill-defined, if not outright impossible notion. Kant objected to the notion of transcendence that something that exceeds the limits of experience is only hypothetically knowable. Real knowledge requires a tie to objective reality, and that seems to exclude the supernatural.

Transcendence is a rather hand-wavy way out from the problem of understanding morality: proposing an unknowable origin doesn’t explain anything.

Most of all, it’s a claim that falls to the Euthyphro dilemma: by declaring morality transcendent, you take the “it’s moral because it’s God’s command” option, which makes morality arbitrary. Which god are we supposed to believe, given that they give contradictory commands, and that their followers all claim, with similar arguments, that they hold the One True Faith? As a consequence, anything goes.

Believers usually reject the dilemma by declaring that goodness is God’s essence, that He is one with goodness. Of course, that’s more hand-waving, circular reasoning, and nothing more than a deepity. Their own argument actually forces them to answer the problems of evil and hell. If there is an omnibenevolent and omnipotent being, why are there earthquakes and tornadoes that indiscriminately kill and cause suffering for innocent people?

Then there is the absolutism vs. relativism debate. The main problem with this one, I think, is one of false dichotomy. It is hard to argue that there aren't moral issues that are relative, and others that are absolute.

For example, you would have to be out of your mind to argue against the fact that all things being equal, we ought not to harm other sentient beings. That’s an absolute, and there is no need of a God for that to be true. It does require the existence of sentient beings to make sense, but that’s another matter.

Reversely, most people nowadays would consider it morally harmless for an adult person to get a tattoo. However, Judaism has a commandment against it, and they are forbidden in Sunni Islam (but ok in Shia Islam). They are virtuous in Hinduism, as well as in certain forms of Christianity.

That not everything is absolute doesn’t imply that everything is relative. Reversely, that not everything is relative doesn’t mean that everything is absolute.

It should be clear at this point that there are other choices of moral philosophy besides Divine Command and an absolute relativism leading to nihilism. There are actually many other options. If you are interested in a great exposition and discussion of modern ethics, Massimo Pigliucci has a series of articles on the topic, of which this is the conclusion:

Even without understanding all this about the underpinnings of so-called objective, transcendent or absolute morality, we can empirically evaluate the initial claim, which boils down, really to “religious people are more moral than atheists”. Does it work? Well, not very well.

If morality came from God, since the US doesn’t imprison people for their religious affiliation, you would expect their prisons to be filled with atheists and almost empty of believers. You should even be able to tell which one is The One True Religion: it should be the one with the lowest crime rates. Quite the reverse is true. Atheists are dramatically under-represented in prisons, with 0.2% of the population (Denise Golumbaski, Research Analyst, Federal Bureau of Prisons, compiled from up-to-the-day figures on March 5th, 1997), against 4% in the general US population. This is often discounted as more of a correlation between level of education (with which Atheism is correlated) and delinquency, but one should see a massively opposite difference nonetheless if morality really came from God. If education was the only factor in this, you would expect to see the ratio between populations with higher education diplomas out and in prisons to be higher than the same ratio for atheists. The opposite is true.

This is just one example, the more general point being that the argument, if true, should be empirically verifiable, and it is actually verified that it’s false.

Whenever statistical data is published on a morally loaded behavior and its correlation with religious affiliation, religious people act at best the same as the nones, and at worst measurably worse. If religion is efficient at one thing, it may be in inducing guilt, but statistically not a change of behavior.

One last thing... When discussing those topics with religious people, I’ve often had the impression that they were committing a category mistake, confusing goodness with some kind of conserved quantity, like a substance. As if God created a finite quantity of moral stuff and injected that into people’s souls. This is also true of love, compassion, faith and many other things.

In the end, it does look like those arguments really are designed to de-humanize atheists, to justify a sense of moral superiority and to rationalize the adherence to a flawed system. After all, if one can really be good without God, what is God good for?


That thing about contingency

AquinasOne version of the cosmological argument relies, among other assumptions, on the following:

Every contingent being has a cause.

Leaving aside the necessity of defining what we mean by "cause", and of explaining how such an inductive statement could reasonably apply to a unique object such as the universe, I want to focus in this post on the concept of contingency.

How do we know that anything is contingent? How do we know that anything could have turned out to be different?

Like free will, contingency is useful, and even essential to our human experience. The idea that we can make choices, and that these choices may result in different outcomes is how we survived and evolved. Without it, the notion of probability seems to become absurd, and human experience seems to lose its meaning. This is in itself an interesting discussion, but what we would like or perceive reality to be is not what determines it.

As far as we know, and given the laws of physics as we know them, if we know the state of a system at a given time, we can in principle derive its state at all times. There is no room for contingency, except for those so-called initial conditions. I'm saying "so-called" because those are only initial if one extrapolates to the future: if one extrapolates to the past, those conditions are final rather than initial. Even in quantum mechanics, the wave function is deterministic, and the wave function might be all there is.

In light of this, we are left to wonder how contingent those initial conditions and the laws of physics can be. Many scientists, until the end of the 20th century, thought we would eventually be able to understand why the physical constants have the values they have. Today, more and more are agreeing with Leonard Susskind that we might never know because there is nothing to know.

Does this mean that science now points to a contingent universe after all? Not at all. In fact, it's quite the reverse: the idea of a multiverse, which comes out quite naturally of string theory and inflation, indicates that the physical constants are only locally constant, and that there is a landscape of universes where all the possible values can be taken. Locally, within a universe, all that can be seen looks contingent or arbitrary, but the whole landscape possibly contains all that is possible. This is similar to the idea that the solutions to a symmetrical problem may not be symmetrical, but the set of solutions always is.

And here is the interesting idea: if all that is possible by virtue of being consistent exists, contingency disappears. This constitutes a unification between the sort of necessary existence that mathematical entities enjoy (the only kind of necessary existence that we know for sure is valid, by the way), and empirical, "contingent" existence.

Of course, this all doesn't seem falsifiable, and it probably isn't. But here is my point: the mere possibility that contingency might not actually exist is enough to kill the premise of a cosmological argument for god that "every contingent being has a cause". In order to use that premise, you first have to prove that there are contingent beings, and that may end up being a lot more difficult than one may have thought at first. And that is the problem with most of metaphysics: it holds as self-evident what in subtle ways isn't.