Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Why Atheism is Irrational

Philosophical propositions are routinely challenged, but perhaps none more than theism. By definition, theism is the proposition that God (or some supernatural being) exists, whereas atheism, quite obviously, rejects that assertion. Indeed, generally speaking, atheism would appear to be the natural result of education, while theism would presumably be attributable to relative ignorance. Atheism is just common sense…right? The so-called Atheist Manifesto certainly tries to make that case:
Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (87% of the population) who claim to never doubt the existence of God should be obliged to present evidence for his existence…

It is obviously not possible to “present evidence”, i.e. empirical evidence, so that “obligation” is really no obligation at all. Furthermore, “religious dogma” is altogether separate from the concept of supernaturalism—from a phenomenological stand point. Regardless, I can, and will, demonstrate that atheism is, in fact, misguided and irrational; and conversely, that theism is inherently rational.

My intent here is not to prove the specific identity of the “supernatural entity”; my intent is to demonstrate that reason and logical inference dictate that an omnipotent, transcendent agent must have been responsible for the existence of the universe. Moreover, the entity in question must be a necessary being, as opposed to a contingent being. But before proceeding further, a definition of terms is in order:

omnipotent: possessing an infinite amount of power, ability, etc.

transcendent: that which is apart from the universe; other than matter and energy.

universe: the totality of matter and energy.

necessary being: a being that cannot cease to exist; it exists by virtue of its own power and had no beginning.

contingent being: a being that can cease to exist; it does not exists by virtue of its own power and had a beginning.

There are, primarily, three types of arguments for the existence of a supernatural entity: telological (think of “Intelligent Design”), ontological (Anselm, Descartes, et al—“arguments from a priori and necessary premises to the conclusion that God exists”) and cosmological (“It uses a general pattern of argumentation (logos) that makes an inference from certain alleged facts about the world (cosmos) to the existence of a unique being, generally referred to as God.”). In my view, the first two are rather weak and speculative, so I’ll focus on the third, which sufficiently makes the case for a “creator”.

Firstly, there’s the deductive argument from contingency, which Bertrand Russell cavalierly dismissed by claiming that the universe is "just there, and that's all". Such a statement ignores the (arguably) most primary philosophical question: what is the origin of the universe?

No serious thinker disputes the occurrence of Big Bang—the initial explosion of “the singularity” (the entire universe compressed into an “infinite density”) from which the universe leaped into existence, so to speak. That said however, there seems to be some reluctance to determine what, if anything, caused that event to occur.
Since the universe is expanding as the galaxies recede from each other, if we reverse the direction of our view and look back in time, the farther we look, the smaller the universe becomes. If we push backwards far enough, we find that the universe reaches a state of compression where the density and gravitational force are infinite. This unique singularity constitutes the beginning of the universe — of matter, energy, space, time, and all physical laws. It is not that the universe arose out of some prior state, for there was no prior state. Since time too comes to be, one cannot ask what happened before the initial event. Neither should one think that the universe expanded from some initial ‘point’ into space. Since the Big Bang initiates the very laws of physics, one cannot expect any physical explanation of this singularity; physical laws used to explain the expansion of the universe no longer hold at any time before t>0.

One natural, albeit novel, explanation for the Big Bang goes like this:
Paul Davies argues that one need not appeal to God to account for the Big Bang. Its cause, he suggests, is found within the cosmic system itself. Originally a vacuum lacking space-time dimensions, the universe “found itself in an excited vacuum state,” a “ferment of quantum activity, teeming with virtual particles and full of complex interactions” (Davies 1984, 191-2), which, subject to a cosmic repulsive force, resulted in an immense increase in energy. Subsequent explosions from this collapsing vacuum released the energy in this vacuum, reinvigorating the cosmic inflation and setting the scenario for the subsequent expansion of the universe.

An answer to Davies’ argument is as follows:
Craig argues that several problems face this scenario. For one thing, how can empty space explode without there being matter or energy? Since space is a function of matter, if no matter existed, neither could space, let alone empty space, exist. Further, if the vacuum has energy, the question arises concerning the origin of the vacuum and its energy. In short, merely pushing the question of the beginning of the universe back to some primordial quantum vacuum does not escape the problem of what brought this vacuum laden with energy into existence. A quantum vacuum is not nothing (as in Newtonian physics) but “a sea of continually forming and dissolving particles which borrow energy from the vacuum for their brief existence” (Craig 1993, 143). Hence, he concludes, the appeal to a vacuum as the initial state is misleading. Defenders of the argument affirm that only a personal explanation can provide the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe.

Other objections to The Causal Principle might arise from a quantum-mechanical perspective. An answer to that can be found here. Those objections notwithstanding, the fact remains that matter and energy (of which the universe is made) is contingent, i.e. there was a “time” when it did not exist; it is finite. But some have suggested that the universe is non-finite.
…since we cannot ”exclude the possibility of a prior phase of existence” (Silk 2001, 63); it is possible that the universe has cycled through oscillations, perhaps infinitely, so that Big Bangs occurred not once but an infinite number of times in the past and will do so in the future. The current universe is a “reboot” of previous universes that have expanded and then contracted (Musser 2004).

That sort of reasoning evades the question of origin. That is, the implication is that matter and energy has always existed; that there was never a point at which the material universe did not exist. In order for that to be true, the universe must posses necessary being. To be sure, the laws of physics dictate that “energy can be neither created nor destroyed”; but is that ultimately the case—as in at the inception of the universe?

Now, some hold to the notion of spontaneous generation (with respect to the origin of the universe). This, in essence, is the idea that the universe spontaneously came into existence all by itself (note: there is no entry for this at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This concept is manifestly absurd, as the universe would necessarily have had to exist in order to create itself. Conversely, a Personal Explanation for the origin of the universe is far and away more plausible.
Personal explanation is given “in terms of the intentional action of a rational agent” (Swinburne, 1979, 20). We have seen that one cannot provide a natural causal explanation for the initial event, for there are no precedent events or natural existents to which the laws of physics apply. The line of scientific explanation runs out at the initial singularity, and perhaps even before we arrive at the singularity (at 10−35 seconds). If no scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws) can provide a causal account of the origin of the universe, the explanation must be personal, i.e., in terms of the intentional action of a rational, supernatural agent. One might wonder how a supernatural agent brought about the universe, but acceptance of the argument does not depend on an explanation of the manner of causation.

In light of elementary cosmological phenomena, logical inference and reason, I am persuaded that the universe is not only finite, but indeed was created by an omnipotent necessary being that transcends it. I have not, at this time, endeavored to advance a particular theology; I have, however, shown that atheism is inconsistent with reality. Therefore, the obvious conclusion is that atheism is irrational, whereas theism is inherently rational.

Update: A slight, though not insignificant, error was pointed out by my friend Apesnake:
"To be sure, the laws of physics dictate that matter can be neither created nor destroyed" Energy can not be created or destroyed. Matter (one type of energy) can be created along with anti-matter (with a seemingly slight asymmetry towards matter) from energy and is done so in particle accelerators when the energy of collision is converted into mass-containing particles. Energy can also be created if an equal amount of negative energy is created in the same system at the roughly the same time as discussed below.

The correction has now been made; and I highly recommend Apesnake’s response to those who are interested in this sort of discussion (and, of course, to everyone else).