Sneaking in Materialism through the Back Door

Somebody on Dr. Feser’s blog (see my blogroll at the top of the page) linked to this really cool comic somebody made about the cosmological argument. A little juvenile perhaps, but smart nevertheless.

Anyway, poster Ben p wrote an objection to the argument in the comments section. I tried to respond there and it didn’t go through, and so I’ll post my response here. His post:

An objection (you guessed it, from science). That this objection is based on relatively recent science (recent in the scale of history, that is) means that it avoids having to congratulate myself that I have seen through some fundamental hole in the cosmological argument that thousands of years of philosophers have been unable to see.

The cosmological argument depends on the inductive inference that since everything we can observe depends on other things for its existence, it must be a universally applicable rule that every thing that exists depends on something else for its existence. It occurs to me that the atomic theory of matter, the law of conservation of energy, and mass-energy equivalence (e=mc^2) cut the legs from under this premise. If all things are really just different rearrangements of fundamental particles, which particles are equivalent to all other particles, and which can in theory be converted into one gigantic sum of energy (or mass) which can never increase or decrease but is eternally immutable, than in a very real sense there is only one “thing”: the universe itself as a whole. Now, of course, you cannot establish a trend with only one data point, so the inference from induction falls apart. We cannot make an inference from this single example of a thing whether or not things depend on their existence from something outside them. A priori, it is just as likely that “things” are self-sufficient as contingent.

Here was my response:

Your answer sounds tricky, but you have a problem: You’re presuming materialism in advance.

Your answer might make sense if *only* material things exist. I don’t know enough about science to rebut it and I’m not smart enough to cut holes in it philosophically, so maybe you’re on the right track there.

BUT – Matter is not the only thing in the universe that exists…or at least we can’t just assume that in advance. To establish that things like intellect, consciousness, et cetera either don’t exist or are somehow only material in nature is going to take quite a bit of legwork. Alternatively, you can try and establish that somehow intellect is just rearranged and there are no new intellects, but even then you run into a whole host of other problems.

And until any of that that is established, your objection is useless…and if it is established your objection is actually pretty much useless anyway, since proving materialism disproves God almost by definition.

So, good effort. But not quite.

Any thoughts?

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9 Responses to Sneaking in Materialism through the Back Door

  1. See, the problem I have with his argument is that we have observed the point of origin of the universe. Which implies that it came into being. Which implies it got its existence from something else.
    Here’s a link to an article by Stephen Hawking where he explores the idea of the beginning:
    And here’s an article where scientific evidence suggests the universe has an origin:

    • From Hawking:

      …the Pope told the delegates that it was OK to study the universe after it began, but they should not inquire into the beginning itself, because that was the moment of creation, and the work of God. I was glad he didn’t realize I had presented a paper at the conference suggesting how the universe began. I didn’t fancy the thought of being handed over to the Inquisition, like Galileo.

      I call BS. I want the quote.

  2. Crude says:

    I think you have an interesting response here, and I think it’s actually apt – but it takes a bit of thinking to see why it’s correct.

    First, I think part of the problem here is due to the comic itself. ‘Whatever begins to exist has a cause’ – that’s Kalam, isn’t it? Not Aquinas. And if we’re talking Kalam, we’re going down the road of William Lane Craig, who has a response to Ben’s eternality objection in the form of arguments about the impossibility of the temporally (actually) past-infinite. Maybe the comic author means something different here, but if they mean the First Way, then ‘whatever begins to exist’ is the wrong principle to use in this context, given what I understand. Instead it’s the argument from motion/change.

    That would mean that your response, while accurate (Ben at least implies that matter/energy is all that ‘ultimately’ needs to be explained), may be going off in the wrong direction. If we’re down to talking about Kalam, then we’re in Craig’s territory – arguments about the impossibility of an infinite temporal past, and yet more contemporary cosmological considerations (Big Bang, etc, etc) are where the real game works. But the distinction you point out at least somewhat undercuts the principles Ben is talking about – those are scientific principles that consider only matter. Whether matter is all that needs to be considered is out in the open.

    The real focus here seems to be on contingency considerations (is Ben going to argue that energy – in fact, the exact composition of energy we have – exists necessarily? There’s a reason why not many philosophical atheists argue necessity with respect to the universe), Aquinas’ arguments (for which even the assumed eternality of energy means nothing, since a temporally infinite past isn’t a concern), and more.

    • I actually didn’t understand it to be Kalam. My understanding of Kalam is that it ultimately comes down to saying that the universe itself has to have begun at some point.

      But Aquinas’s argument IS “whatever begins to exist has a cause”, isn’t it? I believe I’ve even seen Dr. Feser use something very similar to the train analogy. It’s basically just saying “No, it’s impossible to just ‘pop’ into existence from nothing”. Something had to create us.

      I think Ben’s argument was that nothing has actually “begun” to exist. It’s just been manipulated from one form to another (for an easy analogy, think shaping play-dough). My response is that even if matter and energy has never “begun” to exist that doesn’t account for immaterial things such as intellect. That seems to be an eminently straightforward response to me.

      • The Deuce says:

        But Aquinas’s argument IS “whatever begins to exist has a cause”, isn’t it?

        Actually, Aquinas’ arguments are “present tense.” It’s more like “Whatever is changing is being caused to change” and “Whatever is existing is being caused to exist in the way that it is.”

      • The Deuce says:

        Or, I should say rather, “Whatever is existing contingently is being caused to exist in the way that it is.”

      • Crude says:

        Deuce already gave an explanation, and I think others have pointed it out as well in the thread. The train analogy that Feser uses is with regards to immanent causation, which applies to motion/change, not temporal.

      • Hmmmm, it’s interesting if this leads into the Kalam. I don’t know, though, I don’t really see this necessarily leading to what I understand as the Kalam idea of the universe having a beginning.

      • The Deuce says:

        It doesn’t. In fact, Aquinas didn’t think it could be philosophically proven that the universe had a temporal beginning, and so didn’t attempt to argue for it. He actually assumes, for the sake of argument, that it has existed eternally into the past, but goes on to demonstrate that it must be held in existence at every moment by God.

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