Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Isn't the Universe God?

It's often argued that the universe must have had a cause and that this fact is more probable with the belief that naturalism is false and theism is true. The naturalist objects that if everything has a cause then God must have had a cause. This objection is philosophically naive for several reasons, but Ed Feser at First Things explains one of them in a review of a book by atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss. Feser writes:
A critic might reasonably question the arguments for a divine first cause of the cosmos. But to ask “What caused God?” misses the whole reason classical philosophers thought his existence necessary in the first place. So when physicist Lawrence Krauss begins his new book by suggesting that to ask “Who created the creator?” suffices to dispatch traditional philosophical theology, we know it isn’t going to end well.

In general, classical philosophical theology argues for the existence of a first cause of the world, a cause that does not merely happen not to have a cause of its own but that (unlike everything else that exists) in principle does not require one. Nothing else can provide an ultimate explanation of the world.

For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for example, things in the world can change only if there is something that changes or actualizes everything else without the need (or indeed even the possibility) of its being actualized itself, precisely because it is already “pure actuality.” Change requires an unchangeable changer or unmovable mover.

For Neoplatonists, everything made up of parts can be explained only by reference to something that combines the parts. Accordingly, the ultimate explanation of things must be utterly simple and therefore without the need or even the possibility of being assembled into being by something else. Plotinus called this “the One.” For Leibniz, the existence of anything that is in any way contingent can be explained only by its origin in an absolutely necessary being.

But Krauss simply can’t see the “difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one.” The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.
Leibniz's point is that the universe is itself contingent and the sum of all contingent entities. That is, the universe's continued existence is dependent upon something beyond itself which must not be contingent since, if it were, it would be part of the universe. Thus, that upon which the universe depends must have necessary being, meaning that whatever it is, it depends on nothing else for its existence. It's uncreated, uncaused, and self-existent.

There's more of Feser's critique of Krauss' book at the link. His review, like reviews by philosophers of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and similar works by other atheistic scientists, shows the value of philosophers in the marketplace of ideas. We might say, paraphrasing Einstein, that science without philosophy is blind. Certainly a lot of scientists are intellectually handicapped by their failure to understand the philosophical implications of what they write about, particularly when they write about God.