Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Contingency and the Grand Logical Hiatus

I first heard this argument in 1973!

The above picture was published on a Facebook thread by an atheist. It was used as the basis for a rebuttal of the first cause argument for God. The idea of getting something from nothing was also tendered as perfectly OK providing we use the “sophisticated” concept of “nothing” used by physicists, such as, perhaps, the quantum vacuum. Below I publish the answers I gave. I’ve always agreed that the Kalam First cause argument (as promoted by William Lane Craig, for instance) is a poor argument for God, although I took issue with the “something from nothing” argument.

First Cause Argument. Arguments which presuppose a well-defined concept of “cause and effect” in order to either deny or affirm theism are in my view fundamentally flawed.
Firstly: In physics time appears as just another coordinate of the space-time canvass on which the patterns of matter in motion are impressed. This loss of time as a special coordinate immediately raises a question over the preferred use of time as the basis for some kind of “cause and effect” notion requiring the arrow of time to define it. The arrow of time is a little problematical in physics (although not in human subjective experience!)
Secondly: Physics is about the mathematical description or understanding of pattern. In some of these patterns, in particular the highly disordered patterns of randomness, the concept of cause and effect is rather ill defined. (Note: “cause and effect” is probably most well defined in Newtonian physics)
In the light of these considerations I’ve long suspected the Kalam first cause argument for God to be bogus. (Even though I’m a theist).   
Something for nothing? Perhaps the concept of an empty or null set is the nearest we can come to defining “nothing” with any mathematical rigor. But on this reckoning we find that the complex set of mathematical objects describing a “quantum vacuum” which could (conceivably) generate our current universe is far from “nothing”. The one-liner mathematical basis for this indictment of the notion of “something coming from nothing” is found in data compression theory: It is impossible to compress a data set to “nothing” (i.e. no data). Ergo, “something from nothing” simply doesn’t stack up from a mathematical point of view.

The problem of contingency A corollary of this is that contingency is necessarily built into the mathematical objects with which we attempt to understand and describe the cosmos: Physical theorizing always entails the preferential selection of particular mathematical objects: Viz: Of all the possible mathematical objects that occupy platonic space only a tiny apparently arbitrarily selected subset has been “chosen” to work for our universe. This asymmetry of selection can be expressed by the question: “Why has one small set of mathematical objects been put up for physical reification in preference to others?”
Physicist Max Tegmark has realized that this contingency issue needs some explaining and so this has prompted him to come up with his “Mathematical Universe” concept. Here, the “preference enigma” is removed by simply postulating that somehow all mathematical objects, and not just some, have been reified as truly existing ontologies and our universe is just one of those reified ontologies. This theory of Tegmark’s is a form of extreme “Copernicanism”.
The fact is physical “explanation” is philosophically shallow and actually only goes as far as providing us with descriptive understandings of the status quo. In one sense “explanation” of this kind utterly fails to satisfy our intuitively felt yearning for answers to the problem of contingency; Viz Why this particular Universe? Our intuitions seek to appeal to some deeper obliging logic, than “It just is!”

Tegmark’s MU is just one attempt to provide something deeper; it’s not a good answer in my view but it at least takes our philosophical yearnings seriously, as do other attempts such as the simulation argument, various multiverse arguments and theism itself. They all represent attempts by the mind of (wo)man to go beyond a mere understanding of the status quo and make sense of that enigmatic cosmic contingency by immersing it in some higher level justifying narrative.


That the problem of brute fact contingency will always be with us is a mathematical truism. It is conceivable, though, that for some people “scientific explanation” in the sense of providing a complete descriptive understanding of the contingent cosmic status quo will be enough to fully satiate their curiosity, perhaps to the extent that they may even regard the asking of any deeper question about “why” to be meaningless.  (cf Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.). But the fact is the restless and inquiring spirit of (wo)man is unlikely to be satisfied with that, as Max Tegmark, in his own eccentric way, has demonstrated. The inevitable logical hiatus left by science will always invite further imaginative speculation and revelation.

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