Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

This question has been bugging humanity since forever. “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. It’s usually thought that we have no answer. But I think modern physics actually answers this question. This post will explain how.

It’s all down to two insights from modern physics.


I think a large part of the force behind the question is due to our intuitions about grounding. We think “Why is this car here?”, “Well, because the driver drove it here”. One fact is grounded in another. The present is grounded in the past, which is grounded in a deeper past, and so on. So for every existing thing, there is always some thing that grounds its existence, some foundation on which its existence lies.

But the Theory of Relativity showed us that reality just doesn’t work that way. What exists is all of spacetime, an entire four-dimensional structure. Rather than a three dimensional space that’s evolving in time, with one part being caused by the parts prior to it, we have a strangely-structured reality where past, present, and future all exist equally, all of them are parts of the four-dimensional spacetime which alone exists. The me that’s writing this right now, the me that was a year in the past, the me that will (I hope) be a year from now – all of them exist to the same extent, all of them are part of the atemporal reality.

And hence, none of them “grounds” the other. The equations of general relativity describe the structure of this four-dimensional spacetime, but in it the past does not determine the future any more than the future determines the past (or the right determines the left); indeed, the equations are symmetric in all four dimensions (the distribution of matter violates this symmetry, but let’s not get into that). Four-dimensional spacetime has a structure, described by Einstein’s equations, but no part of it grounds some other part. It all just exists, as it is, atemporally.

So there is no grounding for reality. Reality just exists, as it is. Indeed, no grounds for it is possible, for to ground something we need to have some independent, separate, thing which exists to act as the ground; and nothing exists outside of reality, nothing that can ground it. Thus, the whole idea of seeking to ground reality is wrong-headed.

Many Worlds

That still doesn’t answer the question – granted that there is no “ground” to why reality is the way it is, we’d still want to understand why is there something rather than nothing. Here I think it helps to broaden the question. Instead of wondering why there is something rather than nothing, let us consider why is there this reality, rather than another.

Things could, supposedly, have been otherwise. From tiny changes like my name being different, to huge ones like finding ourselves living in Paradise, surrounded by angels. Infinite possibilities. But it seems that only one possibility, out of this entire infinity, got chosen. Why only one? Why this one? Why not some other one – like, say, that there would have been nothing?

Here the other great theory of modern physics offers an interesting insight. Quantum mechanics strongly indicates that it’s just not true that only one possibility got chosen. Instead, all possibilities got chosen, all possibilities exist equally.

Consider throwing a tennis ball at a wall which has an open window in it. Our experience tells us that there are two options here – either the ball will bounce off the wall, or it will pass through the window. When we throw the ball, only one option out of these possibilities will occur.

Quantum mechanics tells us that this intuition is wrong. It’s an illusion caused by statistics – we see things work out this way because the ball is made up of lots and lots of tiny particles. If we’ll throw tiny particles at the wall, something else happens. If we throw, say, an electron at the wall, reality splits. In certain parts of reality – in some worlds, so-to-speak – the electron bounced off the wall, and in other parts of reality – in other worlds – the electron passed through the window. Both possibilities are part of reality, they equally happen. Quantum mechanics tells us that all possibilities are actualities, that reality doesn’t contain just one possibility but rather it contains all of them. Reality is a plenum.

Now at this point I should caution the reader that the above is only one interpretation of what quantum mechanics tells us about the world. I think it’s the correct one, and we can leave the reasons why for another post. The important idea here is that this option opens up a new way to look at the question we’re dealing with.

The idea that reality is a plenum answers the question. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Well, it’s because it’s not. All possible realities exist, including the one where there is nothing. It’s just that we, being something, naturally find ourselves in the possibility that contains something, rather than in that which contains nothing”.

But more than that, the idea of the plenum changes the question. The question now becomes “Well, why is there a plenum? Why do all possibilities exist, rather than only some possibilities, or only one – say, that there is ‘nothing’?”

Notice, however, how the tables have turned. In the original formulation, “Nothing” appeared more plausible. We asked why Something exists rather than Nothing because it seemed to us that Nothing would be simpler than Something, that it would be easier to understand why Nothing exists. Now, however, things are the other way around. The idea that all possibilities exist is simpler than the idea that only some – say, the odd realities, in we were to count them – exist. It’s easier to accept that all possibilities exist than that some arbitrary parts of this structure-of-possibilities exist.

It’s now apparent why there is something, rather than nothing – it is because all possibilities exist, because reality consists of all possible realities, including the possibility that there is ‘nothing’. They all exist atemporally and without any outside “ground”, as what exists is not grounded in anything else. And this all structure is much more plausible than the hypothesis that only one of these realities – say, the one that has Nothing – exists, as there is no reason to think reality is bounded in this way.

Two Caveats

This answer is fine as far as it goes, but I think there are still two big problems with it.

First, the force of this argument is rather weak. It’s enough to sway the pendulum to the other side, to make use realize that a reality which is a plenum is actually more plausible than one which contains only a single possibility – but it’s not enough to make us see why reality needs to be this way, why it has to be the full plenum rather than a single possibility.

Secondly – we still don’t have very good evidence that all possibilities are manifest. What quantum mechanics actually says is that all of the possibilities within the laws of physics exist equally. Cosmological models and speculative physics like string theory extend these laws, maintaining that the laws in our universe are but a single possibility within a larger multiversee which answers to broader laws; but even in these theories, reality still conforms only to certain physical laws, rather than truly containing all possibilities. The only serious attempt I am familiar with to claim that reality indeed contains all possibilities is the so-called “Mathematical Universe” theory proposed by quantum cosmologist Max Tegmark. But this is still a wild conjecture, that lacks any considerable justification. We just don’t have good evidence, yet, that reality is a fully plenum, containing all possibilities – although this idea is indeed gaining popularity and plausibility as our knowledge of physics progresses.

This, then, is my answer to this Big Question: it seems plausible that reality is the way it is because it is every way – but we still don’t have the evidence to say this with any degree of certainty.


Coyne against Panpsychism

The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has long been against panpsychism. He recently published a blog post against the position, or more precisely against an argument raised by Philio Goth in favor of that position. I want to make a few comments on Coyne’s counter-argument. During it, he says –

the absence of evidence that [a rock] has any experience at all—which includes the absence of sense organs, nerves, or any way to get “qualia”—means that we needn’t even consider the idea.

That’s the key point – a rock certainly doesn’t have sense organs, nerves, and so on. But it is quite clear that what’s important about these is not that they’re made of carbon, but rather the (amazingly-complex) information processing they do in the brain. Presumably other types of similar but non-organic information-processing WOULD be conscious. That’s the key idea of modern panpsychism.

No modern panpsychist maintains that tables have a human-like Mind or spirit. They have what conscious content their physical information-processing supports. This clearly doesn’t include anything complicated like vision, pain, self-consciousness, or so on.

Once you accept that information processing is the key, you’re led to try to develop a theory that captures the kind of information processing that DOES lead to consciousness. This theory must fit the consciousness of human brains (that’s the empirical test the theory must meet), yet be general enough to be applicable to any system (if only to say that “this system doesn’t have any consciousness”).

The thing is that once you’re thinking in terms of information processing, you realize a rock DOES engage in some sort of – VERY basic – information processing. So does your theory attribute to it some, VERY low, consciousness?

There are two camps here. One, led by Tononi, maintains a principle of “Exclusion”: noting that a group of humans does not have a shared consciousness, they maintain that we need to identify only the places where the information processing is most concentrated (using the right metric), and there will be consciousness there but not a united consciousness. So that a rock will NOT have a single unified consciousness, just like a group of humans would not, but it would have parts with their own minuscule consciousness – nothing like the complex human mind! – just like that group of humans has parts (the humans) which are conscious.

Others, chiefly Koch, see no need for the principle of exclusion. One can recognize the highly complex consciousness of each individual in the group while also at the same time recognize the flimsy and very weak information processing, and hence consciousness, of the group as a whole. What you end up with is a picture of reality as overlapping consciousnesses – the rock has parts which have a slight consciousness, and also has a slight consciousness as a whole.

I’m more attracted to the latter view. It seems more parsimonious and less arbitrary.

But Cyone’s main attack is against the ‘continuity argument’, which maintains that since human brains are matter that is conscious it’s more parsimonious to assume all matter is. Coyne remarks,

But the continuity argument seems to me flawed. Mind is an emergent property, but so are many aspects of life that distinguish it from non-life: metabolism, hereditary material, directed movement, an “intentional stance”, and so on. Yes, all of these properties are ultimately reducible to molecules, in the sense that their actions must be consistent with the physics of the constituent atoms. But that doesn’t mean that, at some stage in evolution, emergent properties can arise that are not derivable from the properties of atoms.

The problem with this is that “consciousness” is unlike “directed movement”. Directed movement is ultimately physics, at a higher lever of description. It is about physical states and their dynamics. Consciousness is about internal states, about how something feels like from the inside rather than what its physical state is. And that’s gap that just can’t be crossed. Phenomenal properties are not reducible to to physical ones, they are not derivable from the objective (as opposed to subjective, if any) properties of atoms.

That’s why the panpsychists maintain that we need to add a psycho-physical law, in addition to the physical ones – we need to say that such-and-such a system feels like that. The attempt to produce a working panpsychist theory of consciousness (i.e. to make one that does actually make verifiable predictions about the human mind) is the attempt to come up with such a general (and correct) law.

Finally, Coyne also raises the claim that panpsychism is a religious idea.

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude.

Modern panpsychism is a naturalistic idea – it is the attempt to construct a theory that will explain how consciousness arises in human brains without any appeal to souls, without violating the laws of nature, without any thing supernatural. It may very well be that some adherents of panpsychism, or those pushing it, are doing it for religious reasons, I don’t know, but regardless the theory is fundamentally and strongly a naturalistic attempt at explaining consciousness.

As for the idea of a “conscious universe” – this is diametrically opposed to modern panpsychism. Far-away parts of the universe are causally separated from each other so they engage in no joint information processing and, hence, would have no single unifying consciousness. None at all. If any religiously-minded people are attracted to modern panpsychism because they think it includes a universal consciousness, they are sorely mistaken.

Why Carrier is Right on Fine-Tuning

EDIT: This post has been edited to better reflect Luke Barnes’ position.

Recently, Richard Carrier has re-opened his public discussion with Luke Barnes on the fine-tuning argument, in a blog post (for Barnes’ reply, see his own blog post). Their discussion is quite tedious and personal, but at the heart of things I think Carrier is right: fine-tuning is evidence against God, for the reasons Carrier champions. I’ll explain.

I think Luke Barnes, who supports the fine-tuning argument, uses a somewhat misleading terminology. What I take “fine tuning” to be, and what I think most physicists do, is the empirical finding that we live in a universe with laws of nature such that if the constants in these laws were to be altered slightly, then the laws would describe a (different) universe where life cannot evolve or survive. The constants in this sense seem to be “fine tuned” to produce life. Let us call this fact about the laws of nature of the universe we actually live in “FT”.

The fine-tuning argument is then the argument that this fact indicates that God exists. Now in judging whether God exists or not, we are contrasting two hypotheses. It does the atheists injustice to say that they simply don’t believe God exists; rather, they believe the world is natural. Barnes usefully provides a way to characterize this view: the atheists believe that all that exists is Lagrangian, meaning that it is described by one particular uniform, local, set of laws of nature. Let us call this hypothesis “N”, for “Natural”. The question is then whether the data that fine-tuning holds (FN), supports the God hypothesis (G) or naturalism (N). The real question here is whether the data is more likely under G or N.

I think Barnes confuses fine-tuning with a slightly but importantly different mathematical fact. This fact is that in the space of all possible natural (Lagrangian) universes, the ones bearing life are exceedingly rare. This is because life, as we know it, is a very complex phenomena, and its evolution even more so. In order to “build” such a thing from the very simple, local, uniform building blocks that a Lagrangian provides, you need to get things just right. Thus, the Lagrangians that support life are very sparsely distributed among all possible Lagrangians, and even small deviations from them (changing one constant by a bit) will mean a universe that isn’t life-bearing. (At least, that seems to be plausible; there is no way to actually calculate any of that.) Notice that this is a logical fact about the nature of Lagrangians (i.e. of natural hypothetical universes). It makes no sense asking what is the likelihood that we will observe it or what is the likelihood of something given it, just like it makes no sense to ask what is the likelihood that we will observe “1+1=2” or to ask what is the likelihood of something “given” that “1+1=2” (since “1+1=2” is true regardless of what else we consider “given”).

Now, what Carrier essentially argues is that we should be very careful to distinguish the finding that there is Life (let’s call it “L”) from the finding that there is fine-tuning (FT). He rightly claims, and Barnes agrees, that given that there is life in the universe, and given that naturalism holds, the probability that we will find fine-tuning is 1; P(FT|L,N)=1. This is because the few hypothetical Lagrangians that do support life are fine-tuned. In contrast, given that there is life and that the God hypothesis is true, the probability of fine-tuning is lower than 1, since God could have created life without fine-tuning; P(FT|L,G)<1. It follows from this that the evidence of fine-tuning supports atheism – the fact that we find ourselves in a fine-tuned universe lowers the probability of God. I think in this Carrier is right.

Theists in contrast often argue that if we just consider fine-tuning on its own, then it is more likely under theism than under atheism. This is because the probability of fine-tuning given atheism is very low, since the probability of life under atheism is very low, since most Lagrangians don’t support life; P(FT|N) is low. In contrast, the probability of fine-tuning under God is supposedly fairly high, since God wants to create life and he might as well do it with uniform laws; so P(FT|G) is high since P(L|G)=1.

This argument is problematic in that fine-tuning is a separate fact from life, and is only relevant in those universes that have life. So we can’t just write P(FT|N). We have to take each piece of data on its own to maintain clarity. We have to write P(FT|L,N) – and similarly P(FT|L,G). And Carrier is still right – the new data FN is certain under naturalism, so that P(FT|L,N)=P(L|N), whereas it is less than certain under the God hypothesis so that P(FT|L,G)<P(L|G), so that the new information FT actually lowers the probability of the God hypothesis.

Now, this isn’t quite Barnes’ argument. Barnes instead essentially argues that since life is rare within the space of all natural (Lagrangian), the fact that we find it in our universe indicates that the process that chose which Lagrangian to instantiate was highly-biased towards choosing life-bearing Lagrangians. Implicitly, of course, this implies God chose which Lagrangian to instantiate.

Note that this amounts to what I will call the “argument from life”, namely that life is much more likely under God than under naturalism; P(L|G)=1 whereas P(L|N) is very small. And this is exactly the same place where the more usual theist argument leaves us – having established that Carrier is right that the finding that our universe is fine-tuned (FT|L) supports N, we are still left with the question of whether L does. So – how can the atheist reply to the argument from life? Well, he has two replies to this.

First, one can note that the specific God hypothesis the theist is working with is already carefully selected to fit the data that there is life. There are lots of other gods we can think of, that won’t create life. So the fact that P(L|G)=1 isn’t really saying much. To be fair, we should really consider all possible gods, and there is really no way to calculate the likelihood of life under that theory but it stands to reason it would be very low too. Or, if we decide to limit ourselves to just the life-permitting gods, then we might as well limit ourselves just to the life-permitting natural universes, and then P(L|N)=1 too.

In Barnes’ variant of the argument, this amounts to saying that even though a natural Lagrangian-selecting process that chooses a life-bearing Lagrangian seems unlikely, a divine ones that does so is also unlikely. (Technically, the atheist here doesn’t accept that there is a process that chooses the Lagrangian; rather, there simply is a particular Lagrangian. So what Barnes’ really shows is that if you believe in Naturalism is that life is surprising (assuming that Lagrangian space is indeed sparse as is assumed); and the atheist replies that it’s surprising if you believe in God, too.)

This objection is closely related to the fact that one can’t really do rational probabilistic analysis unless one knows beforehand how to divide the landscape of possibilities. The answers you get from a probabilistic analysis, especially one involving infinities such as the values of the constants in the Lagrangians or the possible types of deities, will depend on how you divide the infinite range of possibilities up. This is part of the reason why I said above that we can’t really calculate how common are life-bearing naturalistic universes among all naturalistic universes.

Secondly, one can object to Barnes’ (or the more usual) argument by declining Barnes’ characterization of naturalism. I said above he effectively defines it as maintaining that there is one Lagrangian – implying that there is one uniform, local, simple set of laws of nature. But quantum physics seems to suggest otherwise. A big part of our understanding of the laws of nature that we have involves the idea that some of the “constants” in our laws didn’t start that way, but rather had a range of possible values and “froze” at the values we see (this is called “spontaneous symmetry breaking”). This occurs in a quantum theory, and one of the leading interpretations of quantum theory – the leading one in quantum cosmology, I think; this is the Many World Interpretation – is that whenever there are multiple possibilities, all of them are realized, each in a separate parallel universe. Thus, instead of reality consisting of the laws of nature we have in our universe, with their current values of the constants, contemporary physics suggests that reality actually consists of a multiverse with numerous parallel universes, each with their own “constants” of nature.

This is hardly well-established science; it’s just an interpretation of current science (although one I tend to believe in, for reasons unrelated to the fine-tuning argument). If one adopts something like this view, then, one is led to define naturalism not as there existing one Lagrangian but rather a plethora of Lagrangians describing parallel universes, perhaps even an infinite variety of all possible Lagrangians. In such a multiverse, the probability of there being a Lagrangian universe with life in it is 1; P(L|N)=1.

We have therefore reached the stage where both under naturalism (in the multiverse sense) and under theism the probability of life is 1; so the argument from life fails.

Now the question becomes – which is more likely, the multiverse or God? That’s yet another argument to be had, but I’ll simply note that I think the multiverse is strongly suggested by well-established physics, whereas God is a childish, anthropomorphic (in the “mind of a human”, not “body of a human”, sense), metaphysically incoherent (when the so-called “theologian’s God” is meant), and is in short a highly unlikely hypothesis. At any rate, this question bears little relation to the question of whether fine-tuning implies that God exists – which, as I argued above, it does not.

On Scholastic Metaphysics: Feser vs. Scientism

This post is part of a series on Edward’s Feser’s book “Scholastic Metaphysics”.

scientsimidolFeser’s book opens [1] with an excellent attack on “scientism”, which he defines [2] to mean that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything”. I think his critique of scientism is very good, but that Feser needlessly limits himself to this extreme definition. His critique actually cuts deeper.

Feser begins by simply noting that this position is self-contradicting since it itself is not a scientific claim. This is a valid point against his extreme definition of scientism, but let’s abandon it and consider instead a milder scientism, that agrees that pure reasoning can also establish knowledge, such as in mathematics and epistemology – (mild) scientism will then be a philosophical truth, established by pure reason.

What’s important about Feser’s argument is that his arguments focus on invoking the limits of science . Feser writes,

“…scientific inquiry rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: the assumption that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; the assumption that this world is governed by regularities of the sort that might be captured in scientific laws; the assumption that the human intellect and perceptual apparatus can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since scientific method presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. … There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a “cause”? What is the nature of the universals referred to in scientific laws – concepts like quark, electron, atom, and so on? Do they exist over and above the particular things that instantiate them? Do scientific theories really give us a description of objective reality in the first place or are they just useful tools for predicting the course of experience? … science depends upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results” (p. 10-11)

He later notes further limits of science:

“the “laws of nature” in terms of which science explains phenomena cannot in principle provide an ultimate explanation of reality. …since the ultimate laws of nature presuppose the existence of the physical universe, they cannot intelligibly be appealed to as a way of explaining the existence of the universe.” (p. 18-19)

You don’t have to believe in Feser’s extreme definition of scientism in order to acknowledge these truths. Feser is indeed entirely correct. Science does depend on philosophy.

Now scientism is widely argued against, but it isn’t because its advocates adopt the extreme stance. Rather, “scientism” is in practice the position that philosophy can do less than the philosophers, artists, humanities professors and so on claim, and science can do much more than they suppose. Feser’s critique of scientism is important because it shows just how widely philosophy is required, even for advocates of scientism. Only philosophy can clarify and justify the presuppositions of science or the scientific method itself, ponder the interpretation of scientific theories, or, perhaps, provide ultimate explanations.

There is still a lot to argue about, however, regarding the balance of power between science and philosophy. Feser maintains that philosophy can provide us with the right underlying metaphysics, that “we can know a fair amount about the existence and nature of God through reason alone”, and presumably also use it to establish knowledge in other fields, such as ethics. Advocates of scientism usually maintain instead that philosophy can generally say nothing about the external world (god included), and that some fields that are supposedly “not scientific”, like ethics, actually are.

This argument cannot be decided at a glance. One needs to actually look at the arguments of the Scholastics, to see if for example they can indeed establish something about the world – and that’s what Feser’s book is all about. So it’s very fitting that Feser opens his book with this issue.

The Bad

Feser doesn’t quite present the above argument against scientism, however. Instead, he errs in putting forward a series of arguments against scientism which are, ehm, not very successful.

Feser’s first major argument against scientism is that extreme scientism is false because either its advocate should accept that philosophy is great too, in which case extreme scientism is simply wrong, or else he should redefine “philosophy” to be part of “science”, which makes extreme scientism pointless. But in both options, what Feser effectively arrives at is not a denial of all forms of scientism, but rather a mild scientism: knowledge can be obtained by both evidence-based reasoning (inductive reasoning, science), and pure reasoning (logic, philosophy). To move forward, to show that mild scientism is wrong, Feser will need to show that there are yet further ways of knowledge (divine revelation, perhaps?), or that philosophy can establish a lot regarding e.g. god, or that science can establish little beyond the traditional “scientific” fields.

Unfortunately, Feser’s attack on scientism mostly tries the latter approach, by putting “limits” on science. He makes some good points, but overall most of his “limits” do not apply. Take, for example, the idea that science has to presuppose that there is an objective world, external to the mind of scientists. Why must we accept that as a presupposition? Why can’t we accept it, and judge its merit, as a theory?

Feser’s second major argument against scientism is that the qualitative properties by which we perceive the world – color, the feeling of heat, and so on – cannot be captured by science. Science attempts to reduce them to quantitative underlying properties, such as the frequencies of light waves or the temperature of molecules. But that, says Feser, is simply selection-bias. Science fails to find color because it cannot measure color, so it measures frequencies and calls it color. “It would be ludicrous”, claims Feser, “to suggest that if the description physics gives us of the world does not make reference to some feature familiar to us in ordinary experience, then it follows that the feature in question doesn’t exist.”

But why should we believe our folk concepts exist? The burden of proof is on Feser here, both because he is claiming something exists and, more importantly, because he multiplies ontological entities needlessly. We believe that the scientific model is the true underlying reason for our qualitative experiences because of evidence-based reasoning, because the scientific description accounts so well for the myriad aspects of our experiences.  To believe, that on top of that something “qualitative” exists that makes no further difference – that is ludicrous. For example: to believe that on top of the existence of light rays in various frequencies (the existence of which Feser presumably accepts) there is also “color”, which exists in the light rays apart from their frequencies, simply because our unlearned folk conceptions and our perceptions see color instead of frequencies – that is ludicrous. It’s not evidence-based reasoning, nor pure reason – it’s just irrational thinking.

Now Feser further claims (p. 16) that denying that our qualitative conscious experiences really exist is incoherent because we base our science precisely on evaluating these same experiences. But we naturalists never deny the existence of said experiences, we just reduce them to things like underlying brain states. The pressure in the gas canister exists very much, even if it’s just a statistical property of the gas molecules rather than an independently existing property of the gas. So does the apple exist, and so does its red color, and so too the perception of this color in the brain – on the basis of which and similar perceptions we base our science. There is no incoherence here.

Feser’s third major argument is that laws of nature, and hence science, cannot provide ultimate explanations. I agree with that (we’ll perhaps get to deal with laws of nature in more depth later in the series, and I’ll explain why). But then Feser goes on to say,

“Nor will it do to suggest that ultimate explanation is not to be had anyway, so that science cannot be faulted for failing to provide it. For one thing, this is itself a philosophical claim rather than a scientific one. For another, the claim is false, as we will see later in this book when discussing the principle of sufficient reason.” (p. 20-21)

Well, it is a philosophical claim, but the claim is true. We will perhaps see that later in this series, when we’ll discuss the principle of sufficient reason. Until then, I’ll say only that mild scientism isn’t threatened by the idea that philosophy can find an ultimate explanation, but that in practice I don’t believe that it can.

Feser’s fourth argument against scientism is that the principal reason for adopting it, the success of science, is not convincing. Certainly, the success of science shows that it can acquire knowledge about the qualitative things it measures and tests. But “it simply doesn’t follow that there are no other aspects of the natural world”.

I’ve already noted above that the burden is on Feser – if he wants to claim there are other aspects to the natural world, he needs to show it. But more importantly – that’s not the main argument for accepting scientism, not precisely. Even putting aside arguments from pure reason,  – it isn’t just that science is successful, but that it’s exhaustive. We believe that there are no other aspects of the natural world because there does not appear to be any room left for them. The physics we have seems to explain how we see, say, perfectly. Oh, our explanation of color vision is not truly complete. But it’s so full and elaborate, and coincides so well with all the other things that the same physics explains, and our experiments so lack any other effect that seems to imply that some other feature of reality is, even occasionally, influencing events here – that it is just implausible that we’re missing something so fundamental here. It appears eminently more reasonable that we’ve already accounted for what exists and how it works, and whatever we’re missing will be a result of the same physics that works so well to describe everything we have understood so far.

To see that that’s the case, consider if our scientific understand was more fragmented (as it once was). Say we knew the equations of the dynamics of water, and for how light bends in matter, and so on – but had no general theory, only a hodgepodge of partial theories that failed to cover significant phenomena. Then it would make sense that there is still lots of knowledge missing, lots of elements of reality we don’t know about and that might be affecting the myriad phenomena that we don’t understand. Even if we had many centuries of extremely successful (but piecemeal) science and technology, that conclusion would still hold. In reality, of course, we are in the opposite position – we do have general theories, which are immensely successful in explaining virtually all phenomena, so that the little we don’t understand seems far more likely to be explicable in the same terms then to suddenly require something completely different.

There are many other points Feser makes in this section (section 0) that I disagree with, but I’ll finish with just one: Hume’s Fork.

“Hume’s Fork, the thesis that “all the objects of human reason or inquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact” … Now Hume’s Fork is notoriously self-refuting, since it is not itself either a conceptual truth (a matter of the “relations of ideas”) or empirically testable (a “matter of fact”).” (p. 26)

I would claim in contrast that Hume’s Fork is a conceptual truth.  To somewhat simplify our discussion, let us consider only propositions. They can be true in the logical sense, where a proposition is true due to the meaning of the concepts as they’re spread out by logic; and they can be true in the empirical sense, where the proposition is true because it corresponds to reality. Thus, “Rain is wet” is an empirical truth if we’ve only seen rain and now experience that the way it feels corresponds to wetness, and “Rain is wet” is a conceptual truth if the concept we have of rain already contains that it’s wet. That there are these two possible senses to the Truth of a proposition is a conceptual truth.

“there are truths – namely those of logic and mathematics – that do not plausibly fit in-to either of the two categories Hume and his naturalist descendants would, in Procrustean fashion, try to git all knowledge into. Truths of logic and mathematics have a necessity that propositions of natural science lack and an objectivity that mere “conceptual analysis”… would seem unable to guarantee” (p. 26-27)

I would claim in contrast that mathematical and logical truths are analytic, or conceptual, truths. What objectivity they have, what correspondence with reality they have, is in much the same way as other concepts. “1+1=2” seems to have “force” in the real world, when it does, because our real-world model of what “1” and “+” and so on are corresponds well to the conceptual relations between these objects. And when the pointing goes awry, when the correspondence fails, then too the result will fail – push two clouds together, and you get one cloud.

Hume’s Fork basically is mild scientism. It says that you can think things through using pure reason (philosophy, logic, mathematics), or using evidence-based reason (empiricism, science); and that’s it, there are no further “ways of knowing”. Add to that the Humean position that morality is about discovering scientific facts such as the pivotal role of empathy is human legal thinking (his position in his Principles of Morals), i.e. that ethics is a scientific field; and Hume’s general skepticism of the ability of philosophy to establish anything, especially in metaphysics – and presto, you have mild scientism in its full form. Feser is, very much, fighting Hume and his naturalist descendants. And Hume is winning.

[1] This is technically still in the Introduction, but this is where the philosophical work of the book really begins.

[2] Feser is actually using a definition lifted directly from pro-scientism philosopher Alex Rosenberg, so it’s Rosenberg’s definition rather than Feser’s. But Feser chose to address this definition, and not others.

The best arguments for God ?

Over at “Why Evolution is True”, Jerry Coyne has made a post I’m deeply disappointed with and would like to rant on. It’s about a new book that, it seems, provides the standard (Scholastic) proofs for god, focusing on the arguments from Contingency (god must exist to support the existence of all other things) and an argument from Divine Simplicity (God exists because good, beauty, etc. exist, and god is identical to them). Coyne is actually responding here to another atheist (?), Oliver Burkeman, that scolds atheists for not facing such arguments and pointing to the new book as something they should read to contend with them. Unfortunately, Cyone demonstrates in his response precisely why Burkmen is right. So I’m going to write this post to demonstrate and bemoan this fact.

1. Anthropomorphism vs. Theology

Cyone begins his post by noting that the theologian’s god isn’t the normal believer’s god. 

“The vast majority of believers don’t even read theology, and are barely aware of the arguments for God made by Sophisticated Theologians™.  So is it our real duty as atheists to refute those arcane theological arguments, or to prevent the harm done by religion?

Well, that depends on your goals. If you want to have social impact – sure, go ahead and demolish the less sophisticated and common views. But all people also want to be right. If you want to believe in the right thing, and you believe in atheism – then you need to look at the best arguments for god, not at the most common views. 

I want to be right. It’s what draws me to philosophy. And delving into theology is fun, too, as Coyne says. So this is why I vote for going after the theologian’s god. (As well as the common one, of course; we can do both.)

There is another point to be made here, however. I don’t believe most believers are as shallow as Coyne makes them out to be. He points to polls showing great belief in demons, for example, as evidence against belief in Sophisticated Theology. But I think many believers – theologians and laypeople – do both. A religious person might think of “demons” and hold rites to exorcise them, for example, yet maintain that this is an anthropomorphic allusion to, say one “inner demons”. Certainly many people will go fully anthropomorphic, but still.

2. Irrefutable because it’s untestable

Coyne then discusses three interpretations of “the opposition’s strongest case”. I have no big beef with the first two. It’s the third one that sets the tone of his post, however, and boy does he get this one wrong. It’s so wrong I don’t know where to begin, so let’s just go over it slowly.

“…people like Hart have proposed conceptions of God that are so nebulous that we can’t figure out what they mean. 

No. The concepts of a “Necessary Being” or “Divine Simplicity” may be incoherent, but they aren’t particularly nebulous. The problem with traditional theology isn’t that it’s nebulous – it’s that it’s wrong.

 And because they are not only obscure but don’t say anything about the nature of God that can be compared to the way the universe is, they can’t be refuted. To any rationalist or scientist, this automatically rules them out of rational consideration, for if an observation comports with everything, and can’t be disproven, it is totally useless as an explanation of reality.

First of all – the phrasing of the scientific method here is awful. If a theory [not an observation] equally comforts with everything [theories need to make predictions, not iron-clad predictions] then it can’t be verified [never “disproven”, and not only falsification but also positive verification is possible], and belief in it cannot be empirically justified [which does not mean that it’s useless as an explanation; consider, e.g., interpretations of quantum theory].

But the whole point is that the theologian claims his theory is justified by pure reason – by philosophy alone. He claims, for example, that only god can explain existence. We need to show why this non-empirical argument is wrong – not to dismiss it out of hand because it isn’t empirical.

 I might as well say that there’s an invisible teddy bear that sustains the universe, and without my Ineffable Teddy there would be no cosmos.  But nobody can see that bear, for he is the Ursine Ground of Being: ineffable and undetectable, though his Bearness permeates and supports everything.

You might. And to counter that I’d need to argue in turn why it is unreasonable to assume existence requires such ursine support. I could not dismiss the theory for lack of empirical evidence, for the theory has been designed to be immune to such empirical evidence. C’est la vie – you need to contend with the actual hypothesis being raised, not with what you want the hypothesis to be.

On this “ground of being”, Coyne continues

Not only is this meaningless (I’ll read Hart’s book to see if I can suss out any meaning), but it’s also untestable.  And there is not an iota of evidence for such a God, so on what grounds should we believe it?

The “meaningless” here refers to things such as ” God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all”. I don’t think that’s meaningless. I think it’s not true, and even ultimately incoherent – but that’s not the same as “meaningless”. [Just like “1+1=3” is not true and ultimately incoherent in that it’s self-contradicting, but yet it isn’t at all meaningless.] Coyne is simply failing to understand the opposition.

What follows is, in a sense, even worse – from lack of understanding to sheer ignorance.

Hart claims that this is the conception of God that has prevailed throughout most of history, but I seriously doubt that. Aquinas, Luther, Augustine: none of those people saw God in such a way. And it’s certainly not the view that prevails now, as you can easily see by Googling a few polls.

Seriously ? Coyne can’t recognize this extremely traditional theological fare as the standard Scholastic view, held in the West all over the middle ages ? By Christians, Muslims, and Jews ?  The view most certainly held by Aquinas (he gave the formulation of the argument from contingency!).

I’m not sure about Augustine (he certainly saw god as perfection; not sure about being the ground of being, however). Luther I’m not clear on, but he basically marks the end of the Scholastics anyway (“Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light”).

It is certainly not the view that prevails now. But we’re talking about the “the opposition’s strongest case”, remember ? And while it’s not easy to judge what is the best case without delving into the options first, it is at least initially plausible that an idea held by so many philosophers/theologians for so long should be on the short list of contenders. Something we should look into, to verify that we’re holding the correct view.

 I can make up yet another God with just as much supporting evidence Hart’s: God is a deistic God who has always been there but has done nothing. He didn’t even create the universe: he let that happen according to the laws of physics, from which universes can arise via fluctuations in a quantum vacuum. My God is just sitting there, watching over us all, but only for his amusement. He’s ineffable and indolent.


I claim that my Coyneian God is just as valid as Hart’s God, for neither can be tested, and thus there’s no reason to believe in either.

Once again – the point is that Hart (the Scholastics in general) are raising arguments why their god is to be believed in, even though there is no empirical evidence to support that theory. You can’t raise another empirically untestable god and claim that he is just as likely simply because they’re both untestable [that smacks more of modern, “reformed”, theology]. You need to actually show why the Coynian God is as likely as the Scholastic God, or (preferably) to simply show why the Scholastic God is improbable.

Burkeman writes, explicitly, “If you think this God-as-the-condition-of-existence argument is rubbish, you need to say why… the question isn’t a scientific one, about which things exist. It’s a philosophical one, about what existence is and on what it depends.”. Right on. Coyne in response replies…

Therefore it’s immune to refutation.  Whether God “is” now depends, as Bill Clinton anticipated, on what your definition of “is” is.  

Aha. And Coyne’s (and my!) position that God doesn’t exist depends on what the definition of “is” too. Welcome to Philosophy 101. Now if you want to make a metaphysical claim (such as that God doesn’t exist / Scientific Realism is correct) then go ahead and make the philosophical case for it, instead of complaining one needs to make a philosophical case for one’s metaphysics.

Cyone then complains that history isn’t a good argument.

Hart wrong in claiming that his conception of God is valid since it’s the one embraced most consistently through “the history of monotheism,” but, as all scientists know, how widely something is accepted is no evidence for its validity.  …  just because a bunch of Sophisticated Theologians™ agreed on God as a Sustainer of the Universe and Ground of All Being does not make it so.  Why on earth does that argument have any force at all?

Just because a bunch of very smart guys, from the days of Aristotle to Luther, believed something doesn’t mean it’s true. But it is enough, I think, to merit intellectual consideration. It’s something that’s so big in our intellectual history that one should check it out before ruling it out. That’s all.

Let’s skip ahead. For his last point, Coyne notes that Hart argues that we pursue God when we pursue Good – again, fairly standard fare, (wrongly) equating the abstraction of “good” with the actual existence of good, and incoherently identifying Good with God (the doctrine of Divine Simplicity). Coyne replies

 If you define God as simply the set of our most admirable aspirations, then of course God exists. But you could also define God as the set of our most unpalatable aspirations: greed, duplicity, criminality, and so on.  And that kind of god could also exist by definition: as the Ground of All Evil.  I claim that, in fact, there’s just as much evidence for that god as there is for Hart’s God. 

That’s abysmally failing to grasp the (very poor) Scholastic argument. The idea isn’t that any set of aspirations exists and grounds being. It is rather that a certain set of aspirations is such that each is identical to the others and also identical to God. This is sheer nonsense, but it’s just not the argument Coyne is arguing against !

Coyne finishes by addressing several questions to Hart. I’ll give brief Scholastic-like answers to each, as I understand things.

1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that this is the kind of God that most people have accepted throughout history.)

Hart would seem to reply that he knows god is the ground of all being on the basis of knowing, from philosophical analysis, that our contingent existence requires a necessary being to ground it, and that this being is identical with the good, with beauty, and so on so that it deserves to be worshiped and be called god. 

I would reply that Hart’s metaphysics is baseless if not totally unsound, and his doctrine of divine simplicity is on the deep end of the latter. 

2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?

Hart would probably employ the standard Scholastic arguments to support such claims. I would reply that these presuppose that these are “perfections”, rather than abstractions that we value and nothing more.

3. What would the universe look like if your God didn’t exist?

Hart would probably reply that the universe would be impossible without god, just like it would be impossible to have a universe where “1+1” didn’t equal “2”. I would reply in turn that his god concept is incoherent, due to its Divine Simplicity, and implausible due to his essentialist (“transcendant”) metaphysics, and more, so that it’s likely that his god is impossible. And that if it was possible, the universe would look very different (due to the argument from evil and so on). 

I haven’t read Hart (nor did Cyone), but this doesn’t appear to be new stuff. It’s all been done before. Coyne has read lots of philosophy of religion. I fail to see how he could not address such simple allusions to standard Scholastic philosophy and dismiss them as they should be dismissed, at the philosophical level. 

Hello world!

This blog will contain my musings on the Big Questions – atheism, epistemology, the mind-body problem, and all that jazz. I expect to mainly write in response to other people’s answers, however, and hence the title – writing about the big answers, rather than the big questions.