Friday, September 20, 2013

The Kalam Argument Sucks.

Kalam: God as a boundary condition!

This event at Holy Trinity C of E Church in Norwich looks very interesting: It’s a talk by a Dr. Peter Bussey (who lives in Norwich). Dr. Bussey is Emeritus Reader in Physics and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow. He appears to be part of a prestigious academic Christian scientific community who are probably not getting the recognition and air-time that they deserve in some Christian quarters*

Unfortunately I won’t be attending the event, so I’ll have to make do by commenting on the article as it appears on Network Norwich and Norfolk.

“In the beginning was the Word”. One very old argument for the existence of God states that everything that comes into being has a cause. Our universe has come into being. Therefore it must have had a cause, and the obvious candidate for this is God. The Big Bang model of the universe has provided a new impetus for this argument. However, there are a number of recent theories that see our universe as having had an earlier existence, prior to the Big Bang, which could possibly be infinite.

My Comment: The concept of “cause” envisaged here is one that is very much bound up with time: The reasoning goes something like this: “It wasn't here before today but it is here now, therefore it must have some prior cause”. I have trouble with this concept of “cause” given that physics seems to be a way of describing the patterns of physical ontology using mathematical functions. If an ontology has a given pattern, is the cause of this pattern to be found in an antecedent conditions or in the mathematical constraint that describes that pattern everywhere and everywhen?  In this sense “causes”, so-called, are found everywhere and everywhen and not just in past “boundary conditions”. I would therefore question whether it is meaningful to talk about a concept of “cause and effect” strictly bound to antecedents. In particular, a very temporal concept of causation is inappropriate to statistical patterns constrained by functions that control distributions; it is meaningless to try and explain the elements of these statistical patterns without reference to the timeless logical objects that constrain it.

In his talk Dr Bussey's talk will consider the plausibility of these scenarios and their impact, if any, on the argument for God as the first cause, known as the “Kalam argument”. The Kalam argument relies on the universe not being infinitely old.

My Comment: Binding the “Kalam argument” to a universe of finite age bears out what I have already said, namely, that the concept of causation being offered here is very much bound up with antecedents.  In this argument God takes his place amongst an identity parade of possible antecedent “causes” some of which may be designated as “natural” as opposed to “supernatural”. If one opts for the “supernatural” cause God becomes merely “the first cause” at the beginning of a chain of otherwise “natural” causation. If you are a deist then you believe that once the “first cause” has acted he stands aside and lets things run their “natural” course.  In fact Western Christian theism may actually be not so far removed from deism; the only difference being that in Western Christian theism the “first cause” is believed to occasionally “intervene supernaturally” in an otherwise quasi autonomous natural order. Thus, if you take away these “interventions” you are back to deism! The dualism here is apparent: The natural and supernatural orders are sharply distinguished as two different categories of causation.

 Quantum physics enables a causal ‘arrow of time’ to be more clearly identified than in classical physics, making better sense of the idea of a First Cause.

My Comment: What I think is being envisaged here is that the random reduction of the state vector in quantum mechanics entails a physical algorithm that every so often clears its “memory banks” of information thus making physics irreversible. (Not true in the parallel histories interpretation of QM). This will give an absolute direction to time and a stronger reality to the progressive sequential nature of physical processes, thus paving the way to a non-cyclic cosmology with an initial temporal hiatus that lends itself to the "first cause" paradigm.

There are serious problems with physical infinities and this requires that an argument for an infinitely old universe has to be rigorously stated. Considerations involving increase in entropy production, stability and the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem suggest that the universe (or any time-extended cosmos) is very likely to have had a start in time.

My Comment: The general mathematical principle being invoked here can be found in algorithmics. The computations inherent in some functions cannot be meaningfully wound back in time indefinitely. There comes a point when the computations prior to a certain time in the past are undefined. So yes, it may well be that the physical computations that run our cosmos have a definite start time. However, it is one thing to hypothesize physical functions that can’t be run back in time indefinitely and quite another to make one’s theology depend on it.

From this it follows that the Kalam argument holds, but the argument should also be seen in the context of wider theological viewpoint.

My Comment: The Kalam argument follows if your theology sharply distinguishes between natural and supernatural causes as events; that is, as objects embedded in history. In fact the argument here isn’t much more sophisticated than this: “If you can’t find a “natural” cause that did it, then God must have done it!” (Notice the past tenses here!). But if the computations of physical functions do indeed run past the “big bang” you’re back to square one because the Kalam argument is then negated.  “Natural causes did it, therefore God didn’t do it!” (Incidentally: From my reading of Genesis 1 it is not 100% clear that we have there an absolute beginning)
I have must say that I'm a little bit disappointed that scientists like Peter Bussey are still toying with the Kalam argument (if only to consider its merits and demerits) as I had hoped they would have moved on from this dualist dichotomy. In the Kalam argument God is evoked as a kind of special temporal boundary condition. If the cosmos does have an absolute beginning it would simply be another facet of  The Grand Logical Hiatus in which our cosmos is immersed. The logical edge of the universe is everywhere and everywhen and not just in the distant past where the ability of physical algorithms to meaningfully describe the patterns of the cosmos runs out. Once again God’s eminence is being stressed at the expense of his immanence. This is the paradigm of Western dualism for you.

Some relevant links:

* Just as an example, here is Uncommon Descent's anti-academia extremist Denise O'learly pronouncing on the kind of Christian community Peter Bussey represents: (Dated 19 September)

....that usually nominally Christian, group waves a halo over the tax-supported public promotion of atheism in the Western world in the guise of “science” and suggests that we all raise our eyes upward while Darwin’s followers manage the microphone and the till … Uh no, here at UD, we keep our eyes dead level, thanks. 

Notice O'Nearly's reference to "tax-supported public promotion of atheism" which I have emphasised in bold. See here for more on this subject:

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