Thursday, February 07, 2008

blogging from my car

I can't write stuff down while I'm driving, so lately I've been using my flip video camera to help me remember stuff. Usually, I just put "to do" stuff on there, but recently I came up with some blog ideas. I was just going to use the video clip to remind me of what I would blog about later, but I figured I'd just go ahead and post the video as is. This is what it's like when a thought first comes to me before I figure out how I want to write about it.


At 2/17/2008 1:41 AM , Blogger Timothy said...


There was one part of your latest blog that I particularly disagreed with - though it's not related to the main topic of the post, hopefully you won't mind me commenting anyway :)

So, you're saying that people can believe that a cat can be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time? In my experience, the only time people can hold illogical believes such as that is when they don't understand the implications for what they're saying. In other words, anyone who completely understood what it meant for a cat to be both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time would be unable of believing that idea. I, personally, cannot conceive of a cat that is both pregnant and not pregnant. Can you? I also cannot conceive of a square circle. I can say the words, but try as I might I cannot conceptualize a square circle in my head.

Thus, it seems to me that human minds cannot operate outside the realm of logic. People can disagree when they argue because they hold different assumptions about something, or because they don't understand all the implications behind what one person is saying, or because they are falling prey to one of the logical errors that humans tend to make (such as denying the antecedent), but all of these to me are evidence that we make mistakes in reasoning - not that we are capable of conceptualizing illogical ideas.

There's more I could say on the subject, but I'd like to see what you have to say about it first.

At 2/17/2008 10:57 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Timothy, I suspect that you're probably right. All I know is that a lot of people claim that they believe in contradictions. Whether they actually can or not, I don't know. It does seem inconceivable that if they really understood what was being said, it would be impossible for them to believe it.

At 2/26/2008 10:26 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Schrödinger's kitten eh?

I do not find any of the arguments for the existence of god to be persuasive. Since I do not have trouble 'getting' most arguments of comparable complexity, I reckon the likelihood is that they are flawed rather than that I am missing something.

At 2/26/2008 10:31 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Oh, and you didn't try out your English accent! Did you want to get your diploma from the Dick Van Dyke school of accents first?

At 2/26/2008 6:40 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I'm going to do my next blog with an English accent just for you, psiomniac.

Of course I'm not claiming that anybody who doesn't find arguments for God pursuasive just doesn't understand the arguments. I'm saying that some of the premises in some of the arguments for God are the sorts of things you either see or your don't. Like the premise that something can't come out of nothing with no reason or cause. I don't know how I could prove that. All I could do is think of different ways to get the person to rationally "see" it.

At 2/27/2008 10:10 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Like the premise that something can't come out of nothing with no reason or cause. I don't know how I could prove that.
Well quantum mechanics says this premise is just false, so I think you'd have a job to prove it.
That aside, I think we need to untangle affect (or emotion), intuition and intellect. As humans we can do something that no computer can do, which is see analogies. This process can feel like 'getting it' and it can have an emotional component in my view. But sometimes this is true of the kind of intuition one might experience that the premise you mentioned is true. It just seems obvious almost as a gestalt perhaps. I just think that in this case, the intuition is mistaken, but it might explain why some find particular versions of the cosmological argument convincing.
Mind you, there are other problems with the argument as I'm sure you know. If god is an exception to the premise that something can't come out of nothing without reason or cause then we have limited options:
1. God is in some way eternal.
2. God is self causing.
3. An infinite regress.

We can save ourselves an explanatory step by saying that either 1 or 2 applies to the universe itself, whereas 3 with its infinite panoply of meta-deities is clearly unsatisfactory.

At 2/27/2008 10:07 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Quantum mechanics doesn't falsify the claim that things can't pop into existence uncaused out of nothing. Even in pair production, particles come from something. Likewise, in vacuum fluctuation models of the beginning of the universe, the universe doesn't come into existence uncaused out of nothing.

Cosmological arguments may have other problems, but I don't think you've raised any of them. If it's true that nothing can begin to exist without a cause or reason, then nothing could exist unless something has always existed. There are good reasons to think the universe had a beginning, which means there must be something that has always existed and that isn't the universe.

At 2/28/2008 4:51 AM , Blogger Timothy said...

Regarding quantum physics, I have read that there are some people who theorize that certain things on the quantum level are truly random - this was in reference I believe to particle movement, and not particles coming into existence, but the implications are the same. What I would say to that is that the people creating such theorizes must not understand those implications, for they are fatal for our entire system of logic. If there are events that happen randomly - that is, if there are effects with no cause - then our ability to conclude anything whatsoever goes out the window.

Interestingly, I noticed that C.S. Lewis said the exact same thing in chapter 3 of his book, Miracles. Quote, "Some modern scientists seem to think... that the individual unit of matter moves in an indeterminate or random fashion.... Those who like myself have had a philosophical rather than scientific education find it almost impossible to believe that the scientists really mean what they seem to be saying." This is because, of course, it it were true, logic would null and void.

If I might also add - it is precisely because of this belief that all effects must have causes that we recognize that there must have been a first cause, itself being the effect of nothing else, that started everything. If not, we would have an infinite regression of cause and effect back through time, and that is just as bad as having effects with no causes.

At 2/29/2008 5:05 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Quantum mechanics doesn't falsify the claim that things can't pop into existence uncaused out of nothing.
Well, I think we have to be a bit careful there. Quantum mechanics certainly allows particles to appear uncaused from nothing in the sense that if the laws of quantum mechanics were to operate in a perfect vacuum then a particle could come uncaused into existence. The point is that you might then argue that this is not 'from nothing' since the laws of quantum mechanics would have to be operating meaning that a 'perfect vacuum' is unstable. But I think this causes more problems than it solves for the cosmological argument because it highlights the fact that we have no meaningful conception of 'nothing' and so we cannot really specify its properties.

Cosmological arguments may have other problems, but I don't think you've raised any of them.
In contrast, I think I have raised the only important problem. This is interesting in itself because it relates directly to the theme of your original blog.
Just out of curiosity and in order to explore the idea about why people find arguments persuasive a little further, could you sketch what you consider to be the 'other problems' with the cosmological argument?

There are good reasons to think the universe had a beginning, which means there must be something that has always existed and that isn't the universe.
This is one area that can qualify as a problem for the cosmological argument. By the way, I think the jury is out on whether the universe had a beginning. But that is another story, the main problem even if you accept that something that is not the universe has always existed, is that there is no good reason to suppose that it corresponds with any of our notions of god.

At 2/29/2008 5:09 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

As an aside, I wonder whether, from a health and safety perspective, blogging from your car is advisable.

At 3/02/2008 8:00 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...


By "nothing" I mean absosmurfly nothing at all--not even any background radiation, energy fluxuation, force fields, or anything whatsoever. I mean nothin'! I agree that particles can emerge from a perfect vacuum if all you mean by "vacuum" is the absense of matter. You might imagine a person drawing a perfect vacuum in some container by removing all the molecules from it. But that's not what I mean by "nothing." Even in a perfect vacuum, you'd have some background radiation or energy of some sort. It's well nigh impossible to create such a "nothing" anywhere in the universe.

In pair production (where an electron and a positron are formed), the particle pair comes from the collapse of a gamma wave function. When I was in nuclear power school, we even used to do calculations to determine the kenetic energy of the resulting particles by doing mass/energy calculations. I think you have to have a gamma of at least 9 MeV to produce an electron/positron pair. We know the mass of a free electron, so we do a mass/energy converstion, and whatever energy is left over is transfered into kenetic energy of the particles. And we could do the same thing in pair anihilation. We can know the energy of the gamma given off if we know the initial kenetic energy of the particles. And we can do these kinds of calculations to determine the energy given off in a fission reaction, and in various other kinds of nuclear reactions (e.g. various kinds of radioactive decay). These calculations would not be possible without the assumption that energy is always conserved. In other words, the total energy is constant. Energy is neither created nor destroyed; only altered in form, and mass is a form of energy. Nuclear power depends on this principle. Without it, it would be very difficult to design reactors. We wouldn't know how dense our fuel ought to be in our fuel cells, how much burnable and non-burnable poison to load, how much decay heat to account for in our cooling system, etc.

You asked what I thought were the problems with the cosmological argument. Well, I did say there may be problems with it. Since I think at least some versions of the cosmological argument are sound, I can't tell you that there are any problems. I can only say that there are certain weaknesses. In other words, there are a few things that I think make the argument probabilistic rather than certain.

1. It's at least possible that there are some laws of nature or metaphysical principles that we're just unaware of. The unknown always removes absolute certainty. Around 2000, it was discovered that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and so far nobody knows why. It would seem that gravity would cause the expansion to slow down. So there's something going on out there that we don't know about. There are hypotheses, of course, but so far they are nothing but speculation with nothing testable to substantiate any of them.

2. While Ockham's razor may leave us with one supernatural entity to bring the universe into existence, Ockham's razor is only an epistemological thumb rule. It's not a necessary metaphysical principle. Why envoke unnecessary entities to explain something when one thing will suffice? It's at least possible that there are two or three gods, all co-eternal, who brought the universe into existence. Because of Ockham's razor, it would be hard to argue for more than one, but there still could be more than one.

3. Even if we apply Ockham's razor to the cosmological argument, we still don't arrive at the Christian God. The cosmological argument may demonstrate that there is a supernatural, eternal, necessary, sentient, and very powerful being, but it doesn't demonstrate that the being is all powerful or all knowing or benevolent or anything like that. At best it just increases the probability of the Christian God. It's one clue to the existence of the Christian God, but by itself, it doesn't amount to a full proof.

At 3/03/2008 6:20 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think the weakness in your argument is twofold. First of all, Occam's Razor cannot be credibly deployed to leave one probably christian god, second, you can't really rule out the notion that absolutely nothing is inherently unstable. In fact, it is difficult to answer the problem of why there might be something rather than nothing but I can't see that positing a sentient being accords with the principle of parsimony.
Hume pulverized the cosmological argument and I can see nothing in what you have said that serves to reconstitute it.

At 3/03/2008 6:24 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

So we agree on at least one weakness. But I am puzzled as to why you think any deity can be deduced in a way that could be described as 'sound'. Could you elaborate?

At 3/03/2008 7:04 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, Ockham's razor certainly can be employed to argue for monotheism over and against polytheism, but you're right to say that it wouldn't leave you with a probably Christian God.

I'm not sure what you mean by saying absolutely nothing could be unstable. I can't imagine what "unstable" would mean in the context of nothingness. "Unstable" seems to assume there are some sort of conditions or properties that the "nothing" has, but if there is really nothing, then there can't be any properties, and if there are no properties, then instability can't be a property had by the nothing. To say that nothing is unstable is to treat nothing as if it were something. But maybe I'm not understanding you.

I have never found "So & So puverized such & such argument" to be very convincing, especially in light of the fact that the debate rages on even to today. Would you find it convincing if I told you that "So & So pulverized Hume's refutation of the cosmological argument"? I don't think Hume even addressed the kalam version of the cosmological argument.

I wouldn't expect anything I've said to reconstitute the cosmological argument. I haven't even given you the argument. All we've been talking about is whether pair production is a counter-example to the principle that something can't come from nothing. There are a couple of versions of the cosmological argument (the kalam version and the argument from contingency) that I think are sound, but I don't think the comment section is a good play to lay them out. Maybe I'll do that in a future blog.

In the meantime, William Lane Craig has some poscasts on those arguments if you want to check them out. Go here and scroll down about half way. You'll see one podcast on the "Argument from Contingency," five parts to the "Kalam Cosmological Argument," and then a question and answer session. I listened to the kalam cosmological argument ones, and it appears that there's at least one session missing where he talks about why whatever created the universe must be a personal being. But he has several articles on the argument, and I think he discusses the issue in at least two of them: "Must the Universe have a personal cause?" (near the top) and "The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe" (near the bottom). I would read the bottom one first, because the one near the top is a response to somebody else's rebuttal.

If you want a more indepth treatment, I would highly recommend Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology that Craig co-authored with Quentin Smith. It's a book length debate between the two.

I know that's a lot to read and listen to, but if you'll be patient, I might blog on it sometime.

Since I don't want to go into the details of the arguments in these comments, I'll just answer your last question generally. I think cosmological arguments are sound because the premises are true and the conclusions follows from the premises. I think the contingency argument shows that there is a being that is personal, immaterial, eternal, necessary, very powerful, and who created the universe. That, it seems to me, amounts to some sort of deity. Although it isn't proof specifically of the Christian God, it is certainly consistent with the Christian God. Any argument for theism and against atheism would increase the probability of any deity, including the Christian God.

At 3/04/2008 7:25 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

psiomniac, Ockham's razor certainly can be employed to argue for monotheism over and against polytheism,
Only if you think that there must be a god via other arguments, like the kalam-otherwise Occam won't stop at one god of any description.

I'm not sure what you mean by saying absolutely nothing could be unstable.
I'd prune that and say I'm not sure what you mean by absolutely nothing. You can specify it but I really don't know what it entails. I can trick myself into imagining the sort of nothing that has no time, space, causality, properties and so on. But it is like trying to imagine being Genghis Khan and wondering why I am thinking in English.

I have never found "So & So puverized such & such argument" to be very convincing,
Nor should you. We could rehearse the arguments and counter arguments instead, but you have said that you think this is not the place. So I cite Hume and you cite Craig.
I'll try to look at the links you have posted and in the meantime I would recommend Hume's 'Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion' if you have not read it already.

I think cosmological arguments are sound because the premises are true and the conclusions follows from the premises.
I know what 'sound' means. But I don't buy the argument from contingency. I guess it all comes back to the theme of this: why do some people find arguments convincing and others not? And we don't even agree on that!

At 3/05/2008 10:39 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

I have that book by Davis Hume, but I haven't read it yet.

At 3/08/2008 7:22 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I read some of the first link and also reread some of the recent formulations of the kalam to refresh my memory. I think it is interesting that you consider the argument sound whereas I see that Hume's criticisms of the standard cosmological arguments apply to Craig's formulation of the kalam although in order to see why, we would have to go into more detail than you would wish here.
There are also contemporary counter arguments which I find compelling. A good overview can be found here.


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