Sunday, March 23, 2014

From Party Animal to Rational Animal


From the time I was a junior in high school until I was a freshman in college, I had many long and deep conversations with a close friend from Brazil, Felipe. Felipe asked me questions that caused me to have a lot of doubts about my Catholic faith. I never got to a point where I actually would have claimed "God does not exist," but looking back I would say that I was basically agnostic. I didn't know what I really believed or what I could really know for sure, and I was heavily influenced by Felipe's relativistic attitude towards truth and knowledge. A few years ago, I had become depressed and dissatisfied with the lack of meaning in my life, because I was working a job that I thought was pointless, going to school to get a job that I couldn't see myself actually doing everyday, spending most of my nights drinking and partying, and many of my mornings with a regretful conscience and a throbbing brain.  

Facing the Facts

Finally, I started to ask myself the tough questions like, "Is this all there is in life? Hating Mondays and loving Fridays? Mechanically going through the motions of life, punching your time card, checking the boxes, motivated only by the next opportunity to get a 12-pack and play video games?" Somehow I had the honesty to admit that, if God does not exist, then the answer to these questions is, ultimately, "Yes, this is it." This was a frightening realization to me, like the harsh reality we face at a funeral. We know in the back of our minds that we will all die someday, but that fact is brought into the light when we get that diagnosis, that phone call, or we have to carry that casket. The Catholic apologist Matt Fradd said in his story of conversion from agnosticism,"When you die, people will talk about you the same way you talk about people who are dead now." Like the motivation that comes from the realization of one's own mortality, the thought that my life might be meaningless motivated me. It motivated me to search for the truth about God, reality, and the purpose of my life.

Enter Philosophy

On my search for meaning and purpose I quickly came across the work of Dr. William Lane Craig. Dr. Craig is a Christian (evangelical protestant) philosopher of religion and time.  He has written many books, and has also participated in many debates with some of the most prominent atheists of today, including the late Christopher Hitchens (who died in 2011), theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and neuroscientist Sam Harris. The argument that Dr. Craig is probably most famous for defending is the Kalāam Cosmological Argument (hereafter KCA). The KCA is a deductive argument for the existence of God.  The argument was originally formulated and defended by Muslims during the Middle Ages, and the word "kalaam" means "speech" in Arabic. The argument is simple, containing just three steps:

1.  Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
2.  The universe began to exist.
3.  Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

Until modern times, the truth of the first or major (first) premise was more or less taken for granted. The idea that "nothing comes from nothing" seems so self-evident that most people find it almost redundant to even mention. This is, however, the goal of the first premise in an argument, to begin with something that your opponent will almost certainly agree with. The second premise was the one that received most of the criticism. Realize that, until the Big Bang Theory was proposed by Belgian priest Fr. Georges Lemaître, and observational evidence found to support it in the late 1920s, virtually all scientists believed that the universe was eternal, that is to say, that the universe had existed for an infinite amount of time into the past. Dr. Craig points out that the idea of an actually infinite past is very strange and has many paradoxical implications. For example, imagine you are waiting for a particular domino (which represents today) to fall in a row of dominoes. But, imagine that there are literally an infinite amount of dominoes that must fall before that domino can fall. How would that domino ever fall if you had to wait for an infinite amount of dominoes to fall before it? In other words, if the past is infinite, how did we manage to get through an infinite number of days in order to get to the present day? The impossibility of such a scenario, known as an "infinite regress," provides good reason to think that the universe must have had a beginning, without even getting into the empirical evidence that has been discovered in more recent times.

The Worst Birthday Present Ever

In 2007, at the famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday party, prominent cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin presented a theorem titled the "Borde, Vilenkin, and Guthe (BVG) Theorem." The BVG theorem, developed by Vilenkin and his colleagues, proved with a very high level of scientific certainty that any universe that was expanding would have to have a beginning in time. Vilenkin pulled no punches when he put forth the proof, saying this after he had presented it:
"It is said that an argument will convince a reasonable man, and that a proof will convince even an unreasonable man. Now that the proof is in place (referring to the BVG theorem), physicists and cosmologists can no longer hide behind even the possibility that the universe is past infinite. There is no escape. They must face the reality of a beginning," and later,"To view an inflationary universe without a beginning is impossible."
Once he had heard the proof explained, the birthday boy Stephen Hawking exclaimed, "My goodness! It has very transcendent implications!" No kidding! One journalist writing about the event in New Scientist magazine titled her article "Why Physicists Can't Avoid a Creation Event: The Worst Birthday Present Ever." With more and more evidence mounting to support the idea that the universe did in fact begin to exist, some physicists and cosmologists, worried about these implications, have resorted to attacking the first premise, that "Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence." The fact that they would go so far as to reject one of the most basic principals in philosophy, the "principal of sufficient reason," which maintains that every effect must have a cause that explains it, reveals how strong their prior commitment is to an uncreated universe.  

Let Nothing Be Nothing

If the universe really did begin to exist, then that would mean that prior to its absolute beginning, the universe was literally nothing. While it may sound simple enough, it is important to understand what is meant by the word "nothing." Nothing is the complete absence of being, and it has no properties or potentialities, that is, it does not have in itself the potential to become something. It is not the low-energy state of a quantum field or a vacuum, both of which have properties, namely, that they are conditioned by time. It is also not a void, because you can have more or less of a void, and a void is dimensional and orientable. One scientist once joked, "nothing is the stuff rocks dream about." So, if the universe was really nothing before it began to exist, then it could not have moved itself from nothing to something – that would imply that it could do something. There would have to be a transcendent cause, a cause outside of the universe, that brought the universe into existence out of nothing. Also, since there is literally an infinite gap between nothing and something, we can infer that the transcendent cause would have to be all-powerful or omnipotent (sound familiar?). Suppose someone is still willing to deny the first premise and say that something can come from nothing. This raises the question, "What is it about nothing that makes it only able to produce universes?" In other words, if something can come from nothing, then why have we never observed it? Why don't random planets, objects, molecules, or even BMW's and Border Collies pop into being out of nothing? This might sound silly, but that is only because it is perfectly consistent with a silly notion, the notion that something could come from nothing.

In conclusion, I believe the KCA is sound and that it has strong theistic (or at least deistic) implications for anyone who is willing to study it honestly (key word: honestly). It is important to realize that the KCA, along with other arguments for the existence of God, does not in any way prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God, or any particular god, but it does prove the existence of an all-powerful and transcendent cause of the universe, which is enough to refute the atheist or to reassure the person doubting God's existence. In dialogue with atheists or agnostics, it is important to remember that, once you sort through all of the rhetorical and often times emotionally charged arguments, every argument against the existence of God will be claiming one of two things:  1) that the past can be infinite, or 2) that something can come from nothing – both of which are problematic propositions and extremely difficult to support by reasoned argumentation. Thanks be to God, for all of Creation, and for giving us the ability to reason our way to knowing that He exists, as the Church maintains in her Catechism: "The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason" (CCC 286). Saint Paul wrote the following about unbelievers in his letter to the Romans:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rm 1:19-20).

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.

Grossman, Lisa."Why physicists can't avoid a creation event." New Scientist. Retrieved on 11-11-2014. URL:  http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328474.400-why-physicists-cant-avoid-a-creation-event.html. Web.

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