Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An Interesting Example of Foresight

I sat in the audience at a recent religious discussion panel and had the good fortune to share conversations with two of the panelists after it had finished. Both panelists (the Muslim and Christian panelists), when questioned about why they believed (or why I should believe) presented practically identical variations of the first cause argument.
While I think that the standard response to the first cause argument (where did God come from, then?) is all well and good, I prefer to rely on my own brand of confusing weirdness - a sort of mathematical argument that even though the universe has a finite age, there does not need to have been a first instant of time, and hence no first cause is needed. Additionally, I like to object to the prohibition on infinite causal chains and to the crucial separation of cause from effect in the early universe, but this time I focused on time as a spatial dimension and so (possibly) finite but unbounded.
The difficulty with this argument, as I said explicitly several times during these conversations, is that it dispatches nicely with the question of a first cause, but it proposes no answer to the question of "why is there something rather than nothing?" - the best formulation I have yet heard for the idea apparently being pondered.
I was surprised, however, that both panelists seemed extremely resistant to the question being phrased in this fashion. It makes sense for them to resist it, since "God" is a clearly unsatisfying answer to this phrasing, presumably being a "something" himself, but I find it distasteful to think that the panelists had seen this consequence of the phrasing and consciously resisted it. Instead, I am left with the puzzle whereby, if they were being honest and candid about their thoughts, why would they have refused such a clear restatement of the question at hand?


Tanath said...

"I like to object to the prohibition on infinite causal chains..."

*Shakes fist* :P

Even if we allow for the possibility, there's no evidence to justify a claim of an infinite causal chain. Of course, if we don't rule it out, then that keeps us from being shunted to the "obvious" conclusion that there's a first cause...

Yiab said...

I don't need to justify the claim that an infinite causal chain actually occurred in order to counter the first cause argument, I only need to point out that we can't assume it didn't, shifting the burden of proof to the other party.
If they could provide reasonable justification for the unlikelihood of an infinite causal chain, I could accept the assumption of finiteness.

Tanath said...

Yeah, I kinda pointed that out. :P

An "infinite causal chain" is a misuse of infinity! :P I'd like to see justification for a claim of anything which exists that is infinite.

Yiab said...

Well, I have a couple of contingent answers for that.
If you believe that Planck length and Planck time are ontological limits as well as epistemological limits, then physical reality is discrete on the Planck scale and so finite. If you don't subscribe to that ontological claim, then space and time may very well be infinitely divisible.
If the universe continues expanding forever, then of necessity that gives us a potential infinity in the dimensions of spacetime itself, but that would likely not meet your requirements.

Tanath said...

Yes, I think the Planck limits appear to be ontological, and not merely epistemological. The universe also appears to have a finite size. And the expansion of the universe "forever" doesn't count. It's still an ongoing process, and as such is limited by time, even if there is no spatial limit in sight (so to speak). It will always have a particular value depending on how much time has passed.

Seems to me there are only potential infinities, never actual ones. The very notion of infinity seems to me, only validly applicable in certain contexts.