One common theme running through atheology is the contention that atheism enjoys at least parity with theism in terms of its explanatory power. This parity is most immediately evident in our modern answers to proximate questions about the workings of the world and its contents, where supernatural explanations have steadily given way to physical ones. Few learned minds, for instance, feel compelled to invoke divine agency to explain earthquakes, mental illness, or the adaptation of organisms to their environments. Aside from a handful of creationist holdouts, even those who add an extra supernatural layer to these phenomena typically concede that this is not required for such “proximate” phenomena. Believers typically will agree that there is at least parity between atheism and theism even where science has yet to settle on an exact mechanism (as, for instance, in the case of lightning strikes).
Far more controversial is the contention that such parity extends even to more recalcitrant philosophical questions, such as why there is something rather than nothing, why the laws of nature take the form they do, and how it is that brains can be conscious. This particular controversy is fascinating to me, because it goes to the heart of my own atheism. I am not very satisfied with the answers secular philosophy gives to a number of metaphysical questions, so I incline towards agnosticism about them. The thing that keeps me from turning to religion for answers is that I do not believe theism is in any better position to provide them. In every instance I have examined where secular philosophy faces a mystery or anomaly, the moves that theists make to explain them can be matched by corresponding moves from atheists. Often, I do not think a particular move should be made by either side, but that is not to the point: the matching is what is important, since it opens theism to elimination by considerations of parsimony. In other words, I don’t believe in a god because, as Laplace was purported to have said, I have no need of that hypothesis.
Paul Herrick, to the contrary, believes that I do have need of that hypothesis. In an exciting recent article on the Secular Web,1 Herrick critiques part of another Secular Web article by Richard Carrier,2 where Carrier presents some parity arguments that are commonly used against the modal cosmological argument.3 Although I find much of great interest in Herrick’s article, much to agree with, and much to disagree with, I will to try to limit myself here to what I think is the weakest point of his critique; namely, his fourfold response to the atheistic contention that, for all we know, the universe itself exists necessarily.
I am just going to quote Herrick’s objections here:
First, it is completely ad hoc: There is absolutely nothing about the material universe that seems in the least bit metaphysically necessary, and Carrier offers no independent, positive, theoretical reason to support positing the necessity of the universe. Absent an independent reason for attributing necessity to the cosmos, the hypothesis of a necessary universe is for Carrier nothing more than a way to avoid an unwanted (theistic) conclusion.
Second, there are strong theoretical reasons to suppose that the necessary being at the end of the cosmological explanatory regress, if such a being were to exist, would have to be metaphysically simple, i.e., noncomposite. For instance, it would seem that any composite being depends for its existence on its parts, or on the condition that its parts stay together, which would make it contingent rather than necessary.
Moreover, any composite being, by its intrinsic nature, inevitably raises further questions. How did its parts come together? Why those parts and not others? Why that many parts and not some other number? What holds the parts together? That the above questions logically arise in the case of any composite entity suggests that nothing composite can serve as a rationally satisfying regress stopper. Therefore, since the physical universe is composed of something like 1056 protons and like numbers of electrons, photons, and other subatomic particles, and since the whole system is governed by an enormously complex set of mathematical laws of nature, the material universe hardly has the look of a metaphysical simple. Thus there are strong philosophical reasons, independent of theism, to suppose that the material universe is not itself a necessary being.
Furthermore, there are scientific reasons to suppose that the physical universe is contingent. As I have already observed, current cosmology tells us that the physical universe began to exist a finite time ago. If contemporary science is right, the physical universe is not a necessary being, since a necessary being cannot possibly be something that came into existence. Notice that Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, two important authorities on the matter, strongly affirm the contingency of the universe in their discussions of final theories in physics.
Some readers probably already are getting an uneasy feeling about what Herrick is doing. Just to be sure, they will want to know what Herrick means when he talks about the universe. Here it is:
By “the universe” I mean “the material universe,” the complete collection of all existing things composed of matter. By “matter” I mean “that which physics studies.” Thus, the material universe is a large collection of particles and fields composed of, or reducible to, quanta of mass-energy existing within space and time. I also take it that each of the particles and fields composing the material universe is contingent, since current physical theory holds that each of these items came into existence at a moment in time in the past, and anything that came into existence is certainly contingent.
In other words, Herrick is identifying the universe with the material contents of spacetime. This is important to know.
The reason it is important to know is that the material contents of spacetime rarely are the kind of thing modern atheists have in mind as a candidate for necessary existence. It is true that historically there have been many atheists who have done so, especially before the advent of relativistic physics, since all they knew of was atoms and void. But I would be surprised if this is what someone like Carrier had in mind. It is not, mind you, that I think all of Herrick’s arguments are good even against a cosmology like that of the ancient atomists, but since I think the fourth objection is decisive against such a picture, I don’t see much value in showing how ancient atomism would navigate safely past his first three objections. But I do want to show how it is possible for some atheistic cosmology to do so, and as fortune has it, I will be able to make the case by appealing to contemporary cosmology.
There are several important differences between Herrick’s definition of the universe and the definition modern science offers. First of all in modern physics, spacetime is part of the universe, so that an origin of the universe would be an origin of space and time as well. Accordingly, even if the universe has a finite past, the notion of the universe “coming into” existence at some point in the past does not make sense, since the universe has existed at every point of time there has ever been. One cannot therefore appeal to modern science in the way Herrick does to demonstrate the contingency of the universe. This answers Herrick’s fourth objection.4
A second difference is that according to Big Bang theory, as one presses further into the history of the universe, the “material” furniture of the universe steadily becomes more and more unified, and there are fewer parameters to worry about. Push early enough, and Herrick’s 1056 protons vanish; in fact, if we go by the equations of general relativity alone, everything ends up vanishing into a single point of infinite density. Of course, the actual story is more complex that what we get from general relativity alone: without a theory of quantum gravity, science does not actually tell us anything set about the nature of the universe before Planck time.5 However, the trend in the known history of the universe is one of unification and simplification as one approaches the origin. This tends to defuse Herrick’s second and third objections, concerning composites. Let me offer advance warning: there is an extension to the third objection that I will come back to later on.
Herrick’s final objection is that to assert that the universe exists necessarily is completely ad hoc. Is it? To establish the contrary does not require reference to physics at all. As Herrick himself points out, even a sound contingency argument would not establish the existence of a god; it would establish that something capable of generating a universe exists necessarily, but it would not follow that this being has any of the other manifold attributes required by a god. An atheist who accepts the entire contingency argument can refer to an unknown necessary something that gave rise to the universe without worrying about the details of physics. Far from being ad hoc, this is simply a refusal to go beyond what is warranted by the premises of the argument. Given that it takes Samuel Clarke one page to set forth the contingency argument, and the entire rest of his book to argue that the necessary being is God, it seems a bit unfair to accuse atheists of grappling for any means to “avoid an unwanted (theistic) conclusion” when they settle only for what is required.
So, I am completely in agreement with Herrick that if someone looks at the material contents of the universe and says that those things are necessary, the way atomists have done for atoms, then he is out of court, and theism is in a better position, simply because ancient atomism is no longer scientifically plausible. But I don’t think this is at all the situation the atheist is in; Herrick’s objections founder on both a more modern understanding of cosmology, and a more charitable understanding of the philosophical moves available to atheists. I would add, though, that I do not mean to fault Herrick for focusing on this kind of picture; atheists sometimes do use the word “universe” ambiguously, so that it seems they are indeed defending the kind of picture Herrick critiques. And historically, of course, many atheists did have precisely the commitments Herrick critiques. It would thus be advisable for the heirs of such arguments to tighten up their (our) language to try to avoid causing confusion.
My apologies, but we’re not done yet. You may remember that I said I would have to return to Herrick’s third objection. I will do so here. In the process, I will be covering some of the same ground as the anonymous reviewer, but my emphasis is different, so I hope not to step on any toes.
We saw that as far as can be told, modern cosmology resolves all concerns about the configuration of material objects in spacetime. But the objection can be, and usually is, pushed back a level. The objection becomes: whatever laws and initial conditions are in effect in the earliest moments of the universe, why those laws and initial conditions? Instead of worrying about an arrangement of matter, we worry simply about why physics itself takes the form it does rather than some other form. Ultimately, in its most general form, the argument becomes: why are things, at their deepest basis, the way they are rather than some other way? Theists go on to say that while this is an insoluble mystery for the atheist, it is easily explained by a necessary God who chooses for things to be the way they are.
How can an atheist respond? Obviously enough, with a parity argument. If there is a God, then that God, with his particular nature, is part of the way things are. So why are things that way, and not some other way? Why, for instance, does God have the exact nature he has, and not some other nature? When the theist responds that God exists necessarily, and has the nature he does necessarily, the atheist points out that this is something an atheist can just as easily say about nature. It is true, it seems like nature could be different, and we can imagine nature being different, but we can do the same thing for God. Look at what Herrick was led to in responding to the reviewer: he had to argue that God necessarily had libertarian free will and was necessarily loving in a way that compelled him (sort of) to create a universe like ours. But it seems like God could be different than that, and we can imagine God not having free will or not being loving. So for Herrick to argue that it is not possible for God to be different, he must concede that appearance and imagination cannot be a solid guide to what is actually possible.6 If the theist is going to allow himself to fix apparently free parameters in the concept of God, there does not appear to be any basis on which he can restrict an atheist from doing likewise to apparently free parameters in nature. Parity seems to hold.
There are two theistic strategies I am familiar with for trying to break parity at this stage. The first is by appealing to the presumably longer pedigree of the concept of a necessary god. Against this, I would argue in the first place that I don’t think the idea actually has a longer pedigree (since a necessary nature goes back even past the Presocratics to certain myths that have a primeval natural world spontaneously coughing up gods); and, in the second place, that a bad idea with a long pedigree is on exactly the same footing as a bad idea with a short pedigree. Parity holds.
The second theistic strategy is to invoke the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is the doctrine that all of God’s attributes are in fact identical to one another and to his existence. If this doctrine were true, it would mean that there can be no free parameters when considering God’s nature. I confess that I cannot understand this doctrine any more than I can understand people who seriously deny modus ponens. But that is not to the point, here. What is to the point is that I see no reason why, if theists are allowed to make such a move, an atheist should not be allowed to match it by asserting that all of the seemingly free parameters of nature are in fact identical to one another and to the necessary existence of nature. Parity seems to hold.
I hope I have provided good (if quick) reasons for why parity arguments stand up to Herrick’s defense of the modal cosmological argument. If not, I hope this will at least stimulate further discussion on the web. In any case, I do not claim to have proved that a sound modal cosmological argument cannot be formulated, just that doing so will require more work than Herrick seems to think. There obviously are many open leads that theist and atheist alike may be able to exploit in trying to seal the modal cosmological argument or blow it open once and for all. One of the things I did not discuss was the status of brute contingent facts, which are a completely different animal than necessary facts, and yet which may have a significant role to play in parity arguments. Another was the question of whether it is coherent to talk about necessary beings, or whether it makes sense to make an inductive argument to the existence of such a being, when merely establishing its possibility would entail that it in fact exists. There was the problem of how imagination relates to modal reasoning, which I could only gesture at briefly in a footnote. These are all important things that must be left for another time or better minds.
1 Herrick P. 2006. Contra Carrier: Why Theism is Needed to Make Sense of Everything. Spotted 16 June 2006.
2 Carrier R. 2000. Ten Things Wrong With Cosmological Creationism. Spotted 16 June 2006.
3 Modal cosmological argument is Herrick’s usage. Unless something has changed during my absence from the university, contingency argument is the standard usage. I will use them interchangeably here, since both sound good to me.
4 I admit this is not quite right, since there are cosmological models that do have the universe being generated from something else, which indicates contingency. I do not dwell on this because it just pushes the discussion back to whether or not this “something else” is contingent, and renders the contingency of the material contents of spacetime irrelevant. My discussion in the “Further considerations” section should make up for my breeziness here.
5 See my article, Does Big Bang cosmology prove the universe had a beginning?
6 This is an important point. The disconnect between imagination and possibility is most clearly shown in Louis Pojman’s (ed.) Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology: Third Edition (Wadsworth, 2002), in the exchange between Alvin Plantinga and William Rowe on the modal ontological argument, where it is shown that God qua necessary being is either necessary or impossible, which means that either we cannot imagine God existing, or we cannot imagine a universe with no God, or we can imagine something that is not possible, all of which seem wrong.