Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reasonable & Responsible

Continuing some reflections from the book “New Proofs for the Existence of God” by Fr. Robert Spitzer, let’s consider the significance of infinite vs. finite past time and why the discussion might matter.

Most scientists accept and that our universe is 13.7 billion years old and that the big bang actually happened as the beginning point. When Fr. Spitzer refers to “the universe”, he does not mean only our universe as in one of many, he means ALL physical reality (time, space, matter, energy, etc.); anything that is not nothing.

There are several speculative scenarios about the universe where “something” was supposed to have happened or physically existed before the big bang, so the big bang is not really the beginning of the universe or the beginning of time. These scenarios are called Past-Extended Big Bang models or PBBM’s. In the book, Fr. Spitzer runs through many arguments for the Standard Big Bang model as the most reasonable & responsible model; where the big bang IS the beginning of time and of all physical reality (you’ll need to read the book for all the excruciating details).

The discussion reminded me of the problem analysis method we use where I work. Specific inputs about a specific problem (data, experience, judgment, knowledge) are used in a specific troubleshooting process. Before using (or wasting) company resources testing random possible causes, we first determine the most probable cause via reason alone; this becomes the cause we test first without any absolute proof that it is actually correct. The most probable cause is the proposed cause that has the most reasonable assumptions, the fewest assumptions and the overall simplest assumptions given ALL the inputs available; reasonable & responsible as Fr. likes to put it.
He says:
“In view of the extensive applicability and preponderance of evidence for a beginning of the universe (and the narrow and tenuous path which must be taken to get around it), it can be concluded that the evidence currently supports a reasonable likelihood of a beginning – a point at which the universe came into existence.”

Other interesting discussions revolve around the odds of an anthropic universe (one that will allow the emergence of ANY life form) materializing by itself as a random occurrence. What are the odds of all the necessary physical constants being set precisely as they are? An analogy was given in the book to demonstrate something that is physically possible, but might be called statistically impossible; it involved a monkey and a keyboard. What are the odds of a monkey randomly typing at a keyboard and outputting a perfect transcript of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? There are no laws of physics that will prevent the monkey from hitting all the right keys, but to think this will happen by itself is unreasonable & irresponsible. If we did see it happen would we say, “That’s one lucky monkey” or would we suspect an intelligent agent was influencing the monkey somehow

What else is physically possible, but might be called statistically impossible? How about a game of pool? What are the odds of you breaking a pool rack only to find that the balls settled back down (randomly) to reform the same exact triangle? Again, there is nothing in the laws of physics to stop it from happening, but it won’t. If it did happen would you say, “What an interesting coincidence” or would you be spooked out of your mind?
Think of winning the lottery, but not just once. What would be the odds of winning one thousand times is a row? There is nothing preventing you from picking all the right numbers every time, but to think this will happen is unreasonable & irresponsible. If somebody won that often would you say, “Lucky-bum” with a shrug of the shoulders, or would you say the game was rigged. The same is true with the remarkable fine-tuning observed in the universe. To think it can all happen randomly is something unreasonable and irresponsible. Creation must be rigged in our favor so to speak.

So back to why contemplating infinite vs. finite past time might matter. Things happening BEFORE the big bang obviously bring back discussions of infinite past time, space, matter and energy. This is a very helpful assumption to hold on to if we are to say there is no God because an infinite universe brings infinite possibilities, which makes improbability disappear. This explains away the analogies of the monkey with the keyboard, the spooky pool rack and the mega lottery winner.

Even with the big bang as the beginning of time, an infinite number of dimensions to our universe (a multiverse) will still bring back a discussion of infinite possibilities, but Fr. Spitzer explains in the book that a multiverse cannot currently be verified through evidence. Of course, one might find it easier to believe in an infinite array of universes than an infinite deity, but this would rest on FAITH and not observation.

Seems to me, Fr. Spitzers' book is all about intellectual honesty coupled with reason's responsibility. Using reason alone, we can construe that an intelligent unconditioned reality must have been the cause of every conditioned reality, or in other words, there must be something beyond "the physical" which caused "the physical" and that something must be intelligent. Even with no absolute empirical proof and no faith, this becomes the most reasonable & responsible conclusion given all the inputs we have, including the new inputs from contemporary physics and philosophy.

Today's Gospel was appropriate:
"I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?"
John 3:12



  1. "“That’s one lucky monkey” or would we suspect an intelligent agent was influencing the monkey somehow"

    You're playing up the random with out the natural selection. Through natural selection you don't need a designer. The monkey typing analogy for evolution is common but incomplete unless you posit a mechanism that selects for proper words sentences and paragraphs. This is the all random fallacy of evolution. Evolution is non random selection of a randomly varying replicator and unless you have both, you don't have a valid comparison.

    1. Hi R1,
      Thought you might chime-in. The monkey comparison used in the book has nothing to do with the theory of evolution. It is just to demonstrate something so improbable, it would be considered impossible. It was compared to the odds of ALL the physical constants falling right in place for any universe to support life (as a random act,not a feed-back loop).

    2. I don't want to take us too off on a tangent, but Ben's point is valid. He is talking about all possibilities being equal. That means there are no forces or rules to make one combination of events more likely than another.

      Let's take natural selection. It takes place within a framework of pre-existing mechanisms that do in fact limit the randomness of the outcomes. However from where did THOSE mechanisms arise?

      In Ben's example, we remove that question since there are no pre-existing mechanisms to limit the outcomes. The mechanisms are precisely what is being created/generated at the Big Bang.

      It is no mystery why a widget gets created in a factory, but what is mystifying is how one believes that the FACTORY is randomly created...

    3. "Other interesting discussions revolve around the odds of an anthropic universe (one that will allow the emergence of ANY life form) materializing by itself as a random occurrence."

      But life does not arise by random occurrence. That's the point I was seeking to clarify.

      As to this universe being "fine tuned" for life, several points.
      1) most of this universe is incredibly unsuitable for our form of life.
      2) We may find other forms of life that have evolved to exit under vary different conditions
      3) Other parameters could lead to different universes in which other forms of life could evolve.
      4) There is no reason to assume that the various parameters that make up this universe are not related. The assumption that they are arbitrarily variable is not necessarily true. It's analogous to the old theological argument as to whether God can set the moral laws of the universe or if he is confined by them (i.e. - could God create a universe where "Thou shall murder" is the norm).

    4. R1,

      "But life does not arise by random occurrence." How do you substantiate that? How exactly does life "arise"? There's a Nobel in it for you if you have that answer.

      But seriously, the argument is that the universe's configuration either came about through random chance or not. If not, you HAVE to posit a non-random/planned source. There really is no other option. I.E. if the big bang had the design in it, how did it get there. If it didn't then there are no relationships that science can describe and discover. There are no other logical options. Random and planned are exclusive opposites.

    5. 1. “Other forms of life, other parameters, and different universes” Are these facts or are they more like assumptions?

      2.“The parameters of our universe were set at the big bang there is nothing these parameters can relate back to since they were set from the beginning.” Is this factual or more like an assumption?

      I’m not a betting man, but I’d say the average scientist would find the second statement more factual/reasonable.

    6. "But life does not arise by random occurrence." I should have said life does not evolve by purely random methods.

      How did the universe originate. I don't know, no one does. Does that mean God did it? No. Two hundred years ago, one would ask that same question about the variety of life on the planet and the answer was God did it. Now we know life evolved into its many varieties not through unique creation of each species but through a slow but true process of evolution by natural selection.

      Evolution is now accepted by all except some religious fundamentalists (the Catholic Church certainly accepts it.) so the claim is shifted to the origin of the universe. If science comes up with an explanation for this, would you abandon your belief in God or would it shift to another gap in science's knowledge?

      The points I listed are points to consider. I'm making no claims to them, only that they are ideas that need to be considered before the immediate "God did it" assumption is proclaimed.

    7. R1,

      To stay on topic, (my fault!) let's drop evolution for another post. Ben's post primarily deals with the origins of the universe which do not (to our knowledge) have pre-existing conditions.

      Evolution is another thing altogether since it deals with changes within a running system.

    8. Albert Einstein once said that either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. Whether it’s an eclipse or a rainstorm or evolution or the big bang, one can still say “God did it” (ultimately).

      Science is just tracing back the causes of things, and they are now stuck at the standard big bang model as the end of physical causes. Since we always observe that from nothing only comes nothing, the “thing” that caused physical reality must be outside of physical reality, and other evidence shows that it is unreasonable to think the beginning of physical reality was a “dumb” event (random). That’s really all the post is about.

    9. You say science is "stuck" at the big Bang, and maybe it is. But it's been "stuck" many times before in the past with seemingly no explanation as to how to get around it, but it does. Leaving the evolution example aside, go to the age of the Earth. By the late 1800's, geologists realized that the earth must be billions of years old but physicists were at a total loss to explain how the sun could generate energy for that length of time. The best they could come up with was about 100 million years. They were stuck and I'm sure there were those that said, it was God who kept the sun burning all that time. A few years later, in 1905, a patent clerk, 3rd grade, in Bern discovered a totally new form of energy source and that problem was solved.

      As to the question of "nothing coming from nothing", take a look at Lawrence Krauss' new book. "A Universe from Nothing" where he describes the very complicated physics of "nothing" and draws together established quantum mechanical phenomena (virtual particles) with new directions on dark matter and dark energy and shows the indication of a solution to that dilemma.

      My over riding point is that there may be things that science can't explain, but don't count science out so quickly and appeal to divine intervention as a cause for those questions that have no answer.

    10. Dr. Krauss seems to be suffering from a violation of the law of non-contradiction. If there are laws, then there is not nothing. We are talking about absolute nothing. No thing. At. All.

      He is assuming something and calls it nothing. That is neither reasonable nor responsible.

    11. Of course we don’t count science out. Whatever leads to truth is good, but science IS absolutely stuck; stuck in the physical. Things like purpose, justice, morality, goodness, beauty, etc. are all realities outside the physical sciences. God is pure spirit (non-physical) this is why science gets “stuck” trying to deal with the question of God or any of the ultimate questions I’ve listed.

      Other lines of reasoning (metaphysics, philosophy) can deal with these questions and can rationally point to “a God” using only reason, but reason alone is never enough. Faith is the other necessary reality to see the big picture.

    12. But people without faith still experience "purpose, justice, morality, goodness, beauty, etc.". Why? because they are physical.

      Take the example of "love". How can a materialist explain love. I can only explain it ultimately as a verb, by giving examples of situations where one person demonstrates love of another. But a religious can explain love as a noun? No. Because every definition of love you give is a set of actions. Does love exist separate from actions, or potential actions? No.

    13. Things like purpose (meaning), justice, morality, goodness, beauty, love are all physical things? Really? What components are they made of? What scientist discovered them and where is the data? How were they created? Where are they located now and where did they come from? When did they come into existence? How many kinds are there and how are they measured against each other? What is their trending data (increasing, decreasing, stable)?

    14. No, the actions are physical things. I used the example of love. You can't define it without describing physical actions.

      It's like the idea of height. You can't define it absolutely, only relative to other objects. Technically there is no such thing as height, only relative comparisons and height has no absolute physical existence. But no one doubts that height is a valid descriptor because we all, mostly implicitly, acknowledge that it is relative.

      The same with love. One talks about love, but it only exists in physical actions or thoughts.

    15. Height is how we describe physical size and can be measured with well-defined units and specific instruments. Try to do the same thing with love, morality, etc. Our physical actions are the EFFECTS we observe of these things, not the things themselves. I’m sorry, but if you hold the premise that the items I've listed above are all physical/material things, then there is not much more we can discuss. They are real, but not physical.

    16. I used the example of height because like love it's definition requires reference to an external reference. In the same way love is always defined by actions. I may claim to love my wife but if that love is not demonstrated in actions, then the claim is hollow. It may be a chicken or egg thing, but to me love without action is not true love.

    17. "love without action is not true love"
      Agreed! Well said.

  2. "This explains away the analogies of the monkey with the keyboard, the spooky pool rack and the mega lottery winner." You don't need an infinite time, only a selection procedure.

    For instance in growing a crystal of salt, what are the odds of trillions of sodium and chlorine ions aligning themselves in a perfect cubic crystal with very precisely separated atoms as compared to more expected random collection of atoms. Put this way the odds are vanishingly small. Perhaps it is God that creates the salt crystal (and that might mean the new agers are onto something) or there is another factor at work here.

    1. I agree. However, post-Big Bang, where would this knowledge/procedure come from? One would have to posit an extra-systemic source to avoid randomness or pure chance (i.e. directed or undirected.)

      Again, within the physical universe as it is, those mechanisms are already in place and randomness is reduced. (i.e. the factory is already running)

    2. But the analogy remains valid. Just as a crystal growing either requires the intervention of a deity or an additional physical principle, the existence of this universe in this form, doesn't necessarily lead to a God of the gaps type argument. We know so relatively little about the creation of this universe, the jump to God as an explanation seems both premature and potentially dangerous as like evolution, if this is explained away without the reliance on a deity, does that mean God does not exist?

    3. " the existence of this universe in this form, doesn't necessarily lead to a God of the gaps"

      I agree. It does not NECESSARILY lead to God. However, as Ben titled the post, it is the most reasonable and responsible model.

      Everything COULD be randomly as it is. However, that is not reasonable. It is more reasonable to suspect a designer when you encounter design.

    4. The Theory of Evolution should have taught us, if nothing else, that design need not come from a intelligent creator. The illusion of design is part of the natural world around us. Paley has been proven wrong.

    5. Unfortunately there is no scientific basis for this statement. Where is the control universe with no God to compare it to?

      One can say that the universe looks no different with or without a God, but we have never seen a universe without a God.

      A universe without the fine-tuning of an anthropic universe is overwhelmingly probably going to be a dead one.

    6. We have only one sample of life evolving yet we accept the Theory of Evolution. This may change if we discover life on a distant star but it's probably not going to happen any time soon.

      "but we have never seen a universe without a God." Rather one could equally say we have never seen a universe with a God.

      I'm not a big fan of the multi-verse theory of there being an infinite number of universes mainly because it makes assertions that can't be tested, both in practice or even in theory. But the converse explanation you offer of a divine creator, leads to the same problem.

      Note : The late Christopher Hitchens would often say that a deistic God was impossible to disprove but that even if such a creator only God existed all the work was still ahead of the theist.

    7. R1,

      Wow. So basically you do agree that there is no scientific basis for your statement regarding the "illusion of design" since we do not have a control universe with no God to compare it to. Yet you assert that the control universe is the one with God. That is what we are trying to prove. That is not following the scientific method. You cannot assume your opinion is the base case.

      Mutliverse theory is a way to make the randomness of the big bang less random. Instead of one throw of the dice, a multiverse provides an infinite set of rolls of the dice so that SOME universe would have the necessary conditions for life. However, the conditions that produce a multiverse suffer from the same problems as a universe. The multiverse would have to also be fine tuned to produce random universes.

    8. The assertion that this is a universe with God is as valid as that this is a universe with magnetic monopoles. There is no evidence to accept that assertion.

      I hope I'm not belabouring the evolution analogy but one can claim their is a God because evolution is guided. Then the question is to show evidence where evolution is guided as opposed to proceeding natuarally. One cannot assume the htpothesis to prove the hypothesis (that's begging the question). Once can assume the hypothesis to refute the hypothesis (that's reductio ad absurdum)

      Once again I have issues with the multi-verse hypothesis but in some of it's incarnations it assume an infinity of universes being created with and infinity of parameters. We have evolved in a universe with compatible parameters.

      The reason I object to it is that it requires me to accept an assertion that can never be disproven. It's like a belief in God. Once can't disprove it, once just fails to accept it as a solution.

  3. Here's the Christopher Hitchen's talk that describes how Deism is irrefutable but even with that concession, the Theist has all his or her work ahead of them.


    1. Wow that was a really bad misunderstanding of Aquinas' argument where if you can conceive of anything, it must exist. That is not at all what Aquinas stated. Aquinas' argument is that the most perfect being will have (by virtue of being perfect) all attributes and includes the attribute of existence. Such a being if it has existence will in fact exist. It applies to no other beings. You may disagree with this as many have, but his statement of it is ridiculous.

      The rest of the video I can agree with insofar as the supernatural cause of the Big Bang is not necessarily the God of the Bible. That cannot be shown directly from the evidence in Fr Spitzer's book.

    2. The ontological argument is generally attributed to St. Anselem, Aquinas actually objected to this line of reasoning and didn't include it in his five famous proofs because he objected to man claiming to understand the essence of God. You may be thinking of Aquinas' forth way or gradation of being. (things are hot so there most be a hottest thing, etc.)

      (despite being an atheist now, I took a course in Aquinas while in graduate school and still a practicing Catholic)

      And the problem going from deism to theism is the crux of the matter. As an example I may think there are life on other planets and that's okay. It becomes questionable when I start telling people what these beings want us to do, what to eat, who we can marry and how our laws should be implemented.

      We don't have a world of deists. We have a world of thousands of religions/denominations with conflicting beliefs and moral imperatives each claiming exclusive knowledge of the divine command.

      As for me, my guess is that there is life on "a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse"

    3. If that's the case, then he was also incorrect to attribute it to Aquinas, so...

      It is NOT the crux of the matter. We are only taking it from atheism to Deism at this point. The rest of the matter is a different arena. Let's not try to do too much at once.

    4. But not one who is marking this argument is a deist (in fact I know of very few).

      One can post a deistic God who created the universe, but it leaves you nowhere, solves nothing and only serves to stifle inquiry into does a non deistic solution exist.

      Thomas Jefferson was a deist, but fortunately a man who shares a birthday with another great US president (Abraham Lincoln) was not and he spent 20 years of his life researching and writing his Origin if the Species.

    5. I strongly disagree. In what way does it leave you "nowhere"? It is a large step from no God to some God. Further steps are certainly required to find "which" God.

      That's like saying, Newtonian physics, since it doesn't explain quanta correctly, leaves you nowhere. It's a big step on the way.

  4. "4) There is no reason to assume that the various parameters that make up this universe are not related. The assumption that they are arbitrarily variable is not necessarily true. It's analogous to the old theological argument as to whether God can set the moral laws of the universe or if he is confined by them (i.e. - could God create a universe where "Thou shall murder" is the norm)."

    There seems to be an assumption in the last sentence that moral laws existed before any creation came to be. Let me ask you all this question: Did the laws of physics exist before matter was created or came to be? In other words, can the laws of physics that we know today, gravity, motion, etc...have existed if there was nothing NOTHING that the laws could have exerted their forces on(matter)?

    If the answer is yes, then to what purpose and how do we know they existed? I am asking here because I really don't know. But, if the answer is no, that the laws of physics only came into being once matter came on the scene, then why assume that moral laws existed before creation of man? Does God need a moral law to guide him and is it possible for the laws to contain him? God is not good because of the good he does. God is not loving because of his infinite love for us and his creation. God is good and loving because they are part of his being. He has no need of moral laws because the morality is part of what he is.

    We are not human as opposed to an amoeba because we can walk and talk, think and reason, but because our dna proves it. It is part of OUR being. Our essence. All goodness and all loving is part and parcel of God's being. If God is creator of life, then no, he could not have made Thou shalt murder as the norm. That would be contrary to his being of being all good. The moral laws that we have today were establish by God in whom all morality is contained and part of his being, as a guide for man to live by. I had a rule for my children that all homework was to be done before anything else. It was a rule for them. I did not live by that rule as a parent because I had no need of it. Yet that rule is in a sense part of me because of my past experience in knowing that it is a good thing for homework to be done. Am I contained by my rule? Nope. Neither is God contained by moral laws, because morality is contained in God and has no need of laws.

    The existence of the laws of physics before creation of matter? Anyone?

    1. Hi Bobby,
      How goes the battle? Seems to me, if there is no physical reality then there would be no physical laws. If big bang is the beginning of all physical reality then my understanding is that the physical laws/constants/conditions were set at that moment.

    2. I have no idea if the laws of physics existed before the big bang or not. I also have no idea if the laws we now experience are defined in some way by the process of the Big Bang or if there is variability in their statement.

      My specialty is not cosmology or particle physics (but the rather mundane study of magnetic materials) but what I've read of the processes that occurred after the Big Bang is that matter wasn't present initially (only energy) and that our current four forces arose from one super force that scientists are attempting the recreate the conditions for in their particle accelerators.

      I paralleled that with the theological question that asks if moral laws are created by a a creator deity or are they absolute. |For example could a God have created a universe where only women could act as God's representative on Earth or was that arbitrary? It's not a Gotcha question, it's just an interesting parallel. Although from your answer to seem to side with God haad no choice in the moral laws Catholics proclaim

      I thought in Catholic theology we are human because we have souls. Indeed the only caveat Catholic teaching adds to the Theory of Evolution is that at some point in the past, ensoulment occurred (whether for all humans at the time or just two I've never had an answer).

    3. The Ordinary CatholicApril 12, 2013 at 9:40 AM

      Ensoulment occurs when a new human life is conceived. As far as a universe where only women act as God's representative, in my faith that would not be possible, for God is perfect in all ways and what he has created and deemed ordered could not be anything but perfect. If the "perfect" solution would have been women representives, then that is what it would have been. God has no need of anything, choices or not. Moral laws are for man to follow in order to live in a more perfect union with God and his fellow man as they were created in his image. The source of all morality is the perfect being of God.

    4. Pius XII's Humani Generis deals with this stating that at some point in the evolutionary process "pre-existing and living matter" had a soul added to in (like in the concept of ensoulment at conception)

  5. The Ordinary CatholicApril 12, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    Yes you are correct that we are human in that we also have an immortal soul. I used dna only as an example of what identifies us as humans in the material sense not the spiritual. I tried using that example only to explain in a very weak way how all goodness and love IS God, not just a part of God. As I said, He is ALL good and ALL love not for what he does but because its what He is, the source.

  6. Ben, thanks for your answer to my question. The battle? It continues as you well know lol. There is never a dull moment when it comes to defending the faith is there? :)

    1. True. Since the battle hasn’t killed us, I assume it’s only making us stronger. ;-)

  7. Just one last comment on this, but not from me, from Neil deGrasse Tyson


    Enjoyable discussion.

    1. Here is another discussion you might enjoy.
      What if I denied the existence of science?

  8. Ben, doesn't Stacy have a great blog? I visit there often and the caliber of those that defend the Church in the comments section is outstanding, but on the flip side she does have many others that are coming out of the woodwork with some of her posts! :)

    1. We like it so much, it’s already on our blog roll. Not sure if you like Star Wars, but Joe and I use a phrase for people like her…“The Force is strong in this one”.