Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #12
Flew’s Chapter 8 is titled DID SOMETHING COME FROM NOTHING?1 I find cosmology quite disorientating, but I’ll give it my best shot.
Twelfth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.2
A brief history of beginnings
Right at the start Flew makes two connected statements – one I understand and one I don’t.
In his 1984 The presumption of atheism3 Flew apparently
defined a cosmological argument as one that takes as its starting point the claim that there exists a universe.
That much I follow. But then:
By universe, I meant one or more beings caused to exist by some other being (or that could be the causes of the existence of other beings).
I am stumped already. I cannot understand why causation should be intrinsic to a ‘universe’. If we took a position of extreme scepticism on causation, would that mean we could not be absolutely certain that our universe was a ‘universe’? The first leg of the disjunction (one or more beings caused to exist by some other being) implies that if the universe was that, it would by definition be created (caused to exist) by a being which was not itself. So if we do not want to be committed to a created universe, we would have to take the second leg (one or more beings… that could be the causes of the existence of other beings), which implies that a universe (if it is not itself something which is created) must be something capable of creating something outside itself (to preserve the parallel with the first leg).
Alternatively, if we relax the ‘boundary’ of the universe, by allowing the being that created the universe (first leg) or the being(s) the universe itself created (second leg) to be themselves within that universe, we are committed either (first leg) to a universe created by something it already contained (which makes little sense to me) or (second leg) that a universe is by definition something where creation is happening. Even that seems an unnecessary stipulation. Surely what is intrinsic to a ‘universe’ is being, not creating?
I must be missing something fundamental.
The next bit I think I do understand. He is explaining what he used to think in his bad old atheist days. In any chain of explanation, ultimately you get to a statement which you just have to take as a brute fact. Otherwise you go on forever. You either accept that statement (p) as a brute fact or you ask ‘why p?’ and get the answer ‘p is because of q‘: so now q is a brute fact – and so on:
In The presumption of atheism and other atheistic writings, I argued that we must take the universe itself and its most fundamental laws as themselves ultimate. Every system of explanation must start somewhere, and this starting point itself cannot be explained by the system. … This is a consequence following from the essential nature of explanations of why something that is in fact the case, is the case.
Suppose, for instance, that we notice that the new white paint above our gas stove has turned a dirty brown. We investigate. We discover that this is what always happens with that sort of stove and that kind of paint. Pressing our questioning to a second stage, we learn that this phenomenon is to be explained by certain wider and deeper regularities of chemical combination: the sulfur in the gas fumes forms a compound with something in the paint, and this is what changes its color. Driving on still further, we are led to see the squalor in our kitchen as one of the innumerable consequences of the truth of an all-embracing atomic-molecular theory of the structure of matter. And so it goes. At every stage, the explanation has to assume some things as brute facts: that is just how things are.
A theist or a deist might claim the ultimate brute fact is a god. But atheist Flew
did not see how anything within our universe can be either known or reasonably conjectured to be pointing to some transcendent reality behind, above, or beyond. So why not take the universe and its most fundamental features as the ultimate fact?
This makes sense to me. The explanation ‘because god created it’ has always seemed more invention than explanation.
But, for Flew, that was before the Big Bang:
[M]y two main antitheological books were both written long before either the development of the big-bang cosmology or the introduction of the fine-tuning argument from physical constants. But since the early 1980s, I had begun to reconsider. I confessed at that point that atheists have to be embarrassed by the contemporary cosmological consensus, for it seemed that the cosmologists were providing a scientific proof of what St. Thomas Aquinas contended could not be proved philosophically; namely, that the universe had a beginning. [My emphasis: significance to be explained later.]
…If the universe had a beginning, it became entirely sensible, almost inevitable, to ask what produced this beginning.
OK, but I hope it is not too pedantic to point out that although asking the question may be reasonable and understandable, just because the universe had a beginning does not mean that beginning had to be produced. It is easier to imagine that a universe which had a beginning might be a universe which was created – than to imagine a universe had been created such that it had no beginning. But we do not have to assume that a universe which had a beginning must have been created.
For Stephen Hawking, though, the Big Bang does not seem to mean the universe must have had a beginning. Flew quotes:
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end, it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?4
I think this implies that even if we acknowledge the Big Bang, the resultant universe could be ‘self-contained’ and therefore have no beginning; and therefore not be the kind of thing which might have a creator.
[A]nyone who is not a theoretical physicist is bound to be tempted to respond, like some character from Damon Runyon’s Broadway: “If the big bang was not a beginning, still it will at least do until a beginning comes along.”
An interesting statement this – effectively that although the Big Bang may not actually qualify as a beginning, it could be enough of a beginning for anyone who does not understand why the Big Bang may not qualify as a beginning.
In reviewing the book when it came out… [My emphasis.]
A brief history of time was first published in 1988. The review is dated 1996. Indeed the review was clearly written several years after A brief history of time was published because it refers to its several years of continued success:
…as of February 1993 it had been on The Sunday Times best seller list for 205 weeks…7
So why say: ‘In reviewing the book when it came out‘?
Anyway, I read the review and found a great deal to agree with. In fact the Antony Flew of 1996 voiced a number of arguments against the Antony Flew of 2007 which I myself have been struggling to articulate.
For example he refers to Stephen Hawking’s 1993 book Black holes and baby universes:8
There, in his interview for Desert Island Discs, [Hawking] said that after all his theoretical work “You still have the question: why does the universe bother to exist? If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question”…
Indeed you can. But it is important to appreciate how little has been achieved by this verbal manoeuvre. You have simply stipulated that the word ‘God’ is to be equivalent to the expression ‘the cause of the existence of the Universe’. And this verbal manoeuvre does nothing to establish even that there actually is or was a cause of the existence of the universe, much less than that cause was and is the Mosaic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.9
A few paragraphs later comes the Hawking quote about the ‘self-contained’ universe (4 above):
Hawking himself… went on to argue in A Brief History of Time that if, as he now believes, “the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have no beginning nor end, would simply be. What place then for a creator?”… But what place then for any other kind of cause? Why should we not simply accept the existence of the universe, as theists simply accept the existence of their God, as being itself the ultimately unexplained and inexplicable brute fact?
It is important here to recognize that any explanatory system has ultimately to end in something which is not, or some things which are not, themselves explained. This is a consequence which follows from the essential nature of explanations why something, which is in fact the case, is in fact the case. Suppose, for instance, that we notice and are puzzled by the fact that the new white paint above our gas cooker so quickly turns a dirty brown. The first stage is to discover that this is what always happens, with that sort of stove, and that kind of paint. Pressing our questioning to a second stage we learn that this phenomenon is to be explained by certain wider and deeper regularities of chemical combination: the sulphur in the gas fumes forms a compound with something in the paint, and that is what changes its colour. Driving on still further we are led to see the squalor in our kitchen as one of the innumerable consequences of the truth of an all-embracing atomic-molecular theory of the structure of matter. And so on. At every stage explanation is and has to be in terms of something or some things which, at least at that stage, has or have to be accepted as unexplained brute facts that is just how things are.10
(Déjà vu anyone?)
The conclusion, therefore, is that until and unless he can find sufficient evidencing reason rationally to justify him in believing that the universe is created and maintained by a personal Being having a purpose in so doing, Hawking ought to adopt the position … that the existence of the universe and the subsistence of whatever may be discovered to be its most fundamental laws ought simply to be accepted as the explanatory ultimates for which no further explanation is either necessary or possible.11
I urge anyone who has read There is a god also to read the 1996 review. The 2007 Flew of There is a god claims that in the early 1980s he was beginning to reconsider his antitheological stance. Yet the 1996 Flew is still the bad old atheist of yore:
[I]t is only in so far as you believe that you have sufficient evidencing reasons rationally to justify your believing in the existence and activities of God that it becomes reasonable for you to hypothesize that your God caused the universe to exist and the Big Bang to occur. Absent such a prior belief, physicists choosing to speculate about the nature of the possible but physically unknowable cause of the Big Bang would be bound to seek for a cause of the kind which they and their colleagues have discovered to be operating within the knowable Universe. Just about the last idea which would ever enter such unprejudiced heads is that of creation by an omnipotent, omniscient, incorporeal, personal Being. And, even if they did entertain such an idea, they would surely hesitate to add to it the idea that the Creator acts as a partisan within the creation, favouring some kinds of conduct and penalizing others.12
So even if we admit a god into our cosmological speculation (for example by defining ‘god’ to be the answer to the question: ‘why does the universe exist?’) there is no justification for identifying any postulated ‘god’ of cosmological discourse with the Mosaic god of Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
The confused audit trail of what Flew now thinks he thought when adds more fuel to the controversy over the creation of There is a god. Perhaps There is a god is itself really self-contained, with no boundary or edge, no beginning or end? Reading it certainly feels like that at times. Maybe that is what made it WINNER OF THE CHRISTIANITY TODAY BOOK AWARD.
3 Antony Flew, The presumption of atheism, 1984.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.