6/05/2008

The Universe as Illusion vs. The Ontological Argument

Skeptic magazine gives a summary of possible explanations for the universe we live in. The article (“Why This Universe?: Toward a Taxonomy of Possible Explanations,” Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Skeptic, Volume 13, Number 2, 2007.) starts with the question “Why is there something rater than nothing?” and notes many of the alternatives scientists and philosophers put fort as possible answers. This listing, or taxonomy, is intended to promote useful discussion about the alternatives.

The article states that each of the alternatives given is “logically permissible.” This is a misnomer; “logically permissible” implies that there is a cogent argument in support of the explanation. Since many of the explanations are contradictory, this cannot be the case. To imply otherwise makes no sense. The author does note that these possibilities “should not be mistaken for scientific theories or even scientific possibilities.” I agree, but would add that logic in and of itself excludes all of the possibilities except one: theism.

I will grant that many of these explanations are theoretically possible, that is, taken individually, they are internally consistent. They are possible in that sense, but one must successfully argue for the truth or falsehood of each in order for them to be logically possible.

I will give a series of posts that address many of the possibilities given in the article. I have given logical arguments for God’s existence elsewhere, and I do not plan to repeat all of the argument’s details for these posts (see here and here to get started). I will start with the notion of the universe as an illusion.

To quote R. C. Sproul, “if something exists - if anything exists - then that which exists is either an illusion, self-created, self-existent or ultimately created by something that is self-existent.” All alternatives in the Skeptic Magazine article reduce to one of these four. I will take each of the four alternatives in a slightly different order: illusion, self-created, created by something self-existent, or self-existent. I apply these alternatives to you, your own being. (Quote from here.)

The universe could theoretically be an illusion. But, if you find yourself in an illusion, there is one truth you can be certain of: you exist. You must exist because if you did not exist, there would be no one to have the illusion. You are not an illusion, so you must have an explanation for your own being. We must now explore different possibilities.

You cannot be self-created. For anything or anyone to create itself, that thing must exist before it exists. I hope that last sentence gives you a splitting headache, because it is supposed to. It is not logically possible to exist before you exist. You would have to be existing and not existing at the same time and in the same way. That is not logically possible.

Now we can explore what we mean by something that is “self-existent.” By “self-existent,” I mean something that has always been, something that has the power of being in and of itself. It cannot not exist. That is, it exists necessarily. To clarify, I turn to Sproul:

… if something exists, then something exists necessarily. This piece of paper that I’m holding cannot exist unless there is some necessary existence somewhere somehow that has the power of being in itself. If there ever was a time when there was nothing - absolutely nothing - then nothing could possibly exist now. And whatever is eternal and self-existent is ontologically transcendent [of a differing order of being] to everything else. (Quote from here.)

We can know a few things about this necessary being. If it must be in and of itself. If this being causes all that is to exist, it must exist independent of the universe it creates, or it must transcend the universe. Since it exists outside of the universe it causes, it is not limited in its being by anything or anyone else.

Something that has always existed would not have a changing being because to change means to be limited by something or someone else. Change also means to stop being one way and start being another way, but the cause of all that is cannot stop being. Therefore, the cause of all that is cannot change. Norman Geisler expounds on what it means to exist in the way I am describing, to exist necessarily:

… necessary existence means that He cannot not exist—so He had no
beginning and no end. But it also means that He cannot “come to be” in any
other way. He must be as He is necessarily. He can’t become something new. That removes all change from His being—He is unchanging... In fact, since a necessary being cannot not be, He can have no limits. A limitation means “to not be” in some sense, and that is impossible—so He is infinite. Also, He can’t be limited to categories like “here and there,” because unlimited being must be in all places at all times—therefore, He is omnipresent. All of these are attributes that follow just from knowing that He is necessary. (Quote from here. See Norman Geisler here and here for further argument.)

Now the other option is that you have existed forever. First of all, this runs contrary to all of human experience. You are conscious of a time when you began to be. You have a first memory. In addition, you are not capable of maintaining your own existence forever, and you are conscious of that fact. You can cease to exist. That is why you spend so much time and energy preserving your life.

Second, our being changes. Scientific studies that show that even our very cells die out and regenerate. We are literally not the same physical being today that we were yesterday. We grow old. We take ill. We are injured. All of these things are a change in being or essence.

If you cannot be self-existent, then you are left with a self-existent cause of your own existence. Other arguments lead to the same conclusions, and I have tried to expound on them here.

Quotes from R. C. Sproul are from the article “God’s Existence and Atheism: R.C. Sproul talks to Peter Hastie,” Copyright Australian Presbyterian July 2002, as downloaded from here on 7/27/07.

Quotes from Norman Geisler are from the article “Questions About God: What Kind of God Exists?” by Dr. Norman Geisler as downloaded from here on 6/4/08.

7 comments:

steve martin said...

I don't even waste my time trying to convince people of the existence of God.

I wait for the opprtune time when life has reall got them by the you know whats and then I tell them that I know how they feel, I've been there myself or I might even be there now myself, but that Christ will make it all right someday and that the death on the cross was for them and that He loves then and will never leave them.
If they say, "I don't believe in that Jesus stuff.", I tell them that that is ok, that there may be a time in the future, maybe when they hear from the doctor that they have cancer, or maybe even on their deathbed, when they will want to call out to Jesus. I tell them that He will be there for them.

And then I leave it alone...and pray for them (myself).

J. K. Jones said...

People are ultimately reached for Christ because God’s Spirit works a change in their hearts and minds. God can do that in many ways. In some, He effects a change of mind through convincing arguments.

He never does this without some form of change in mind and heart. People don’t change their minds without a reason, and God provides that reason for all who repent and believe. Some of the reasons He provides are intellectual argument, but not all.

JK

that atheist guy said...

Sproul quote:
" illusion, self-created, self-existent or ultimately created by something that is self-existent"

Isn't that just about the universe itself? Can you put individual humans in one of those 4 categories?

I could say a person was born, but not created, which isn't in one of those categories. If for the sake of argument we assume a deist god which created the foundation of reality, but not people directly then I don't think humans fit in that scheme. (Although the universe as a whole would.)

Simpler example: a salt molecule. Did it exist before the Sodium and Chlorine ions came together? No. But the molecule wasn't created.

This idea would be compatible with theistic evolution, where God creates the substrate, but not the pattern which grows out of it.

J. K. Jones said...

TAG,

It is good to hear from you again.

“Can you put individual humans in one of those 4 categories?”

Anything or anyone can be put in one of those categories. A person exists. The conditions under which a person exists include oxygen, correct temperature range for survival, absence of cosmic radiation, a world to live on, a sun warming that world, etc. This string of current conditions cannot be infinite; one caused by another, caused by another, and so on. Only something with the power of being in and of itself can cause any one thing in this set of necessary conditions to be right now.

An infinite regress of things that are dependent on something else to exist is absurd. You end up with things like adding 1,000 to infinity and getting infinity. Alternatively, we can examine the proverbial hotel with an infinite number of rooms. If you check in 100 guests, you still have as many rooms as you had before anyone checked in. An infinity of actual things is manifestly irrational. The rules of math do not allow it.

In addition, an infinite regress of causes of the current existence of any person or thing could not account for its own existence. In the case of existence (or being), the whole cannot be greater than the sum of its parts.

“Simpler example: a salt molecule. Did it exist before the Sodium and Chlorine ions came together?”

That is not relevant. The molecule exists now. Therefore, there must be a cause of its current existence in the here and now. This cause must have the power of being in and of itself. Since it has the power of being in and of itself, it has always existed and cannot cease to exist. This is called a “necessary being.”

[I am not arguing from the series of causes that reaches into the past as William Lane Craig usually does. I am arguing from the current existence of any thing or things, as Sproul and Geisler formulate their typical arguments. It is a form of the argument from being, and it is the primary argument used by Aquinas.]

JK

that atheist guy said...

JK wrote:
"That is not relevant. The molecule exists now. Therefore, there must be a cause of its current existence in the here and now."

But the molecule didn't exist before it was formed. There are two ways to look at this particular example:

1. A sodium ion happened to float near a chlorine ion, so they react and a molecule of salt is formed. Nothing created it, so I don't see how it could be in one of those 4 categories.

2. If we are looking at ultimate causes, then yes, maybe I agree it must be in one of the 4 categories, but only when we look at the entire chain of causes. For example all the way back to God creating the very quarks in the past which will eventually form that salt molecule.

So from one perspective (2) God created the molecule, albeit indirectly. Or maybe if you believe God is sustaining reality at every moment, or the fact that God created the laws of chemistry you could also say he created that molecule.

But from another perspective (1) God could have just created the "building blocks" and never planned for the salt molecule to form. (It might not matter either way.) In this sense, the formation of that salt molecule does not fit in any of the four categories, since the formation "just happened".

Re-reading the original quote I think Sproul is talking about sense 2 because he uses the phrase "ultimately created", which doesn't sound like "directly created".

J. K. Jones said...

TAG,

“If we are looking at ultimate causes, then yes, maybe I agree it must be in one of the 4 categories, but only when we look at the entire chain of causes. For example all the way back to God creating the very quarks in the past which will eventually form that salt molecule.”

How does this line of argument help your position?

For the sake of argument, a person cannot deny their own existence. This existence must be accounted for. Reasoning back to a first cause leads us to a powerful being with the ability to act or not act (choice, a prime attribute of personhood) who must have always existed (see search label “Cosmological Argument”). Reasoning from the ability to design a system that could lead to beings as complex as a person leaves us with a being who is super-intelligent (see search label “Teleological Argument”).

Your existence as a person, which you cannot deny, leads us to a Person who looks a lot like the God of the Bible.

“God could have just created the "building blocks" and never planned for the salt molecule to form. (It might not matter either way.) In this sense, the formation of that salt molecule does not fit in any of the four categories, since the formation "just happened".”

It still fits in one of the categories because God had to get the ball rolling. It would then be created by a self-existent being. I know this could take us down a long, complicated path. I would like to cover that ground in a future post on Deism.

JK

that atheist guy said...

JK wrote:
"How does this line of argument help your position?"

I'm not really supporting a particular position. I think I described two perspectives, and I suppose one is deistic and the other is theistic.

Anyway, I'll keep an eye our for your post on deism.

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