Aug 21 2012

Causes, creations and preconditions

I’ve been following Russell Glasser’s online discussion with Pastor Stephen Feinstein, in which the latter claims that he can prove that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.” By mutual agreement, it’s a public discussion between just those two parties, but I can’t resist the temptation to supply a little offside commentary, because it looks like Pastor Stephen has made a misstep already, in only his second post.

It is not good enough for me to say, “Russell, I agree with you that this world is real, that we learn from the senses, that reasonable standards are necessary, and that bald assertion fails to prove anything.” By the way, I agree with you on all of these things, but with one revision. However, I want us to account for these things. What are the necessary preconditions of this universe, as we know it? Why are we able to rely on our senses? What are the necessary preconditions for our senses to be reliable? Why must there be reasonable standards? What are the necessary preconditions for any standards at all that avoids the hopelessness of relativity? Epistemology will help us construct workable lists of what things are necessary in order to make these assumptions of ours a reality. Furthermore, we cannot even take epistemology for granted, but must ask what are the necessary preconditions of it too? And at the end of the day, atheism cannot provide for these necessary preconditions.

By the way, his “one revision” is that he adds the proviso that we can learn from reason and deduction as well as from direct observation via the senses. And to that I would add the additional proviso that, while this is true, human reasonings and deductions can be fallible, and are therefore subject to verification. It’s all well and good to draw conclusions, and if we apply the rules of logic correctly (to include having premises that are complete, correct, and concise), then we can even draw reliable conclusions. But we still need to verify them by measuring them against the infallible standard of reality as it exists outside of our own minds.

Enough of that tangent. Let’s look at Pastor Stephen’s assumption that the universe, “reasonable standards,” and epistemology all have preconditions. There’s a bit of ambiguity there, in that there are actually two different types of precondition. A material precondition is when there is a cause and effect relationship between some phenomenon B and some pre-existing condition A, such that B cannot occur in the absence of A. Thus, for example, we can say that the presence of water is a material precondition for the existence of human life, because if you remove all the water from our bodies, we die.

A logical precondition is less tangible, but is the same general idea: you have two things, A and B, that are related in such a way that the first cannot be false if the second is true. The logical preconditions for the existence of a circle are the existence of a center, a radius, and a circumference. If the circle exists, then its center, radius, and circumference cannot NOT exist. Thus, the logical preconditions for a thing are the set of things that you know must be true if some other thing is also true. (Personally, I think the “logical precondition” approach is a bit awkward, and it’s actually much easier and clearer to stick with the principle that truth is consistent with itself. )

Now, which kind of precondition does Pastor Stephen mean when he says that the universe, reasonable standards, and epistemology all have preconditions? He’s surely not talking about material preconditions, because that’s a cause-and-effect relationship, which is an inherently chronological relationship. When we talk about one thing causing another, what we mean is that at a certain point in time, X does not exist or occur, and then at some later point in time some cause C happens, and after that X begins to exist/occur. That means that in order for a thing to have a cause, there must be a point in time where it does not exist or occur.

If a thing is true at all points in time, then it cannot have a cause, because there is no point in time where it is not already true, and hence there is never any opportunity for anything else to cause it. Time, for example: obviously time itself exists at all points in time, and therefore time is uncaused and uncausable. Time, however, is merely one of multiple dimensions in the space-time continuum, so when we say that time is uncaused and uncausable, we’re really saying that the space-time continuum is uncaused and uncausable.

Constants are another uncaused and uncausable phenomenon. By definition, a constant is a quantity that is the same at all points in time. That’s what makes it “constant” instead of variable. If it could be caused to assume a different value at different points in time, it would not be a constant, but since it exists as the same quantity at all points in time, it does not and cannot have any cause. Same for the laws of physics: we may see various caused phenomena operating according to these laws at different points in time, but the laws themselves are the same at all points in time. That’s what makes them laws.

If we further observe that e=mc2 and that the total mass-energy in the universe is also a constant, then that implies that matter and energy are also uncaused and uncausable—transitions between one state and another can be caused, but the existence of the whole, in whatever state, is the same at all points in time and is therefore uncaused.

It would seem, then, that Pastor Stephen has no grounds for making any kind of material First Cause argument for God’s existence, since the material universe (i.e. space, time, matter, energy, and the laws and constants of physics) are all uncaused and uncausable, and thus have no material preconditions. Tomorrow we’ll turn to the question of logical preconditions.


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  1. 1

    Pastor Stephen Feinstein says that “atheism is untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.”

    So when he expresses disbelief in the existence of Ganesha (that Hindu god with an elephant’s head) his atheism regarding Ganesha is “untenable, irrational, and ultimately impossible.” ?

  2. 2
    A Hermit

    Thanks for this. I run into this “everything has a cause” argument from time to time, it’s nice to have some clearly articulated counterexamples.

  3. 3

    I would have missed this exchange if it wasn’t for your post here. The debate is good, and so is your addition to it here.

    Atheists need to be able to definitively answer presuppositional apolgetics, and I think Russell has got the right track to doing exactly that.

  4. 4

    I don’t think Russell can penetrate the shields around Feinstein’s brain. He will never see the validity of the argument that his choice of believing in God as a ‘first cause’ or ‘necessary’ being is completely arbitrary and devoid of meaning.

  5. 5
    David Evans

    I don’t think Feinstein is here primarily concerned with material preconditions. His questions seem to boil down to:

    How do you know your senses are reliable?
    How do you know your reasoning faculty is reliable?

    and his answer will be, you can’t know, therefore God.

    I suppose our answer will be “because if they weren’t generally reliable, natural selection would have removed us from the game”, with caveats about the need to continually check their reliability against experience and each other.

    It is of course true that this argument itself depends on our reasoning faculty. But then, so does his.

    1. 5.1
      Deacon Duncan

      In other words, you have to be a complete agnostic in order to be his style of Christian. :)

  6. 6
    Russell Glasser

    Hi Deacon Duncan,

    I just wanted to let you know that I’ve finished the final post of the debate. You can see it here along with the full list of previous posts:

    1. 6.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Awesome, thanks for the update!

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