Monthly Archives: January 2013

Could God Create a Universe with an Infinite Past?

This question has implications for the kalam argument. Proponents of kalam claim (roughly) that an actually infinite series by successive addition is impossible, therefore the past must be finite, and the universe must have a beginning. Of course, if an actually infinite series is impossible, then God couldn’t create a universe with an infinite past, because even omnipotence can’t bring about an impossible state of affairs. But the question remains: is an actually infinite series impossible? If not, couldn’t God create a universe with an infinite past if he so chose?

The answer to this question depends on one’s intuition about whether or not supertasks are possible. Perhaps we can pump these intuitions by taking an example. Could God create a Hilbert’s Hotel (HH)? HH is a hotel with infinitely many rooms. William Lane Craig famously argues that such a scenario generates contradictions and is therefore impossible. For example, let’s suppose that the hotel is full and an infinite number of new guests arrive. The clerk simply moves all of the original guests to a room double their original room number. They now occupy all the even numbered rooms, leaving the odd numbered rooms vacant for the new guests. So far, so good. But let’s suppose all the guests in the odd numbered rooms check out the next morning. How many check out? An infinite number. How many are left? An infinite number. But let’s suppose instead that all the guests in rooms 4 and up check out. How many check out? Again, and infinite number. How many are left? Three. However, in both cases the same number of guests check out. This contradictory result is designed to show that a HH is impossible; ditto for an actually infinite series.

HH shows that the concept of infinity is strange, paradoxical even. But lots of philosophical notions are strange. I’m not convinced that HH shows that an actual infinite is contradictory and therefore impossible. So we return to the question: Could God create a HH? Wes Morriston seems to think so. He argues that God could create a HH by successive addition in two hours. Here’s how (quotation in italics):

During the first hour, God creates the first room. During the next half hour, He creates the second room, during the next fifteen minutes, He creates the third room, during the next seven and a half minutes, He creates the fourth. He continues in this manner until two hours have elapsed. At that point, God has created infinitely many rooms.

This seems like a plausible way for God to perform a supertask given the requisite (plausible) assumptions. Of course, this does not show that all supertasks are possible, but it does seem to show that an omnipotent God could create an actually infinite series by successive addition. Since ‘an infinite series by successive addition’ is the very thing that kalam proponents declare is impossible, this conclusion should give them pause. It also implies that God could create a universe with an infinite past.

But kalam proponents may have a response available. For example, one doesn’t need to maintain that an actually infinite series is impossible; one could offer a weaker claim, namely that while an actually infinite series may be possible, it is not possible to have an infinite number of causal influences in the history of the event. This is demonstrated by the Grim Reaper paradox. This tack is advantageous because it allows for the possibility of God creating an infinite series by successive addition and thus needn’t rely on the alleged impossibility of HH. It also avoids one of Morriston’s other objections: the possibility of an actually infinite future. The kalam proponent could accept the possibility of HH and an infinite future while still maintaining the modified premise. Finally, it’s neutral with respect to one’s theory of time (presentism or eternalism). For all of these reasons, I think this is the tack that the kalam proponent should take.

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Multiverse, Ad Hoc-ness, and Simplicity

In my past post, I suggested that theists could use a multiverse response to the problem of evil, much the way atheists do in response to the fine tuning argument. I also suggested that one objection to the theistic strategy might be that it’s ad hoc. However, it’s not obviously more ad hoc than the atheistic strategy. It then occurred to me that one could argue that the atheist’s multiverse (roughly the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics) is not invoked simply to account for the evidence of fine tuning, but to explain other phenomena (e.g. why gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces). Also, given a certain interpretation of the way the laws of physics work, the laws entail a multiverse.

The question of ad hoc-ness is also related to simplicity. Theists sometimes allege that a multiverse is less simple than invoking God as an explanation. As we’ve seen, however, there is a response available to the atheist: the atheist isn’t invoking a multiverse per se, but the laws of physics (which happen to have a multiverse as an entailment) and the laws of physics are quite simple. Of course, theists who embrace the multiverse don’t object to the multiverse on grounds of simplicity. So how are we to assess the simplicity of an atheistic multiverse versus a theistic multiverse?

Well, atheistic multiverses arise from a certain interpretation of the laws of physics, which are quite simple. Some other physical multiverse theories have universes arising from a ‘parent’ universe. There is thus a single entity from which multiple universes are created. On the theistic multiverse model, universes are also created by a single entity, God, who is said to be simple (I’ll leave aside for now debates over divine simplicity). So the theories seem to be on a par.

What of the question of ad hoc-ness, then? I think the atheist could still press the point that s/he invokes the multiverse to explain a range of data, whereas the theist only invokes the multiverse to counter the argument from evil. But the theist also has a response available: multiverse theory explains a range of theological data. For example, the multiverse might supply an answer to the problem of ‘no best world.’ Perhaps the reason that God didn’t create the best of all possible worlds is that there is no such thing. Perhaps the concept of the ‘best world’ is like the concept of ‘the highest number.’ Perhaps, then, God, in his freedom and goodness, simply creates the full range of creation-worthy worlds, some of which contain evil, even lots of it. So there is a problem, that of no best world, that the multiverse hypothesis best explains. It’s still not obvious to me that this move is any more ad hoc than the atheist’s appeal to multiverse.

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Wait for it…

Wait for it… – Imgur.

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Multiverse as a Response to Fine Tuning and Evil

I think that the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) is the best theistic argument. I also think that the Problem of Evil (POE) is the best atheistic argument. Recently, I commented on a dialectical strategy that theists could use in response to the problem of evil. Given that fine tuning is very surprising given atheism and evil is very surprising given theism, these arguments cancel each other out. In other words, the probabilities are balanced and we’re basically left with agnosticism. The theist and atheist could put forward other arguments to raise the probability of their respective positions, but they arguably will have given up their strongest arguments.

That’s one way to go. But it also occurred to me that these arguments, construed probabilistically, are parallel in form. If true, then a parallel rebuttal strategy could be used in response to each argument. I’m thinking specifically of the multiverse response to the FTA. Briefly, if there were an infinite, or near-infinite, number of universes, then the fact that ours has the constants necessary to permit intelligent life is less surprising. Similarly, one could take a multiverse line with respect to the POE. It turns out I’m not original in suggesting this. Some theists (e.g. Klaus Kraay, Robin Collins, Donald Turner) have argued that if theism were true, one would expect there to be a multiverse. If there is a God, we’d expect him to create the maximum number of creation-worthy worlds, where ‘creation-worthy’ is defined as having a greater balance of good over evil in the long run. On this assumption, it wouldn’t be surprising that some worlds contain evil (even a lot of it) and we just happen to be in one of those worlds. The parallel to the atheist’s strategy with respect to the FTA should be obvious.

Of course, the theist would be sacrificing the FTA to the POE in this event, and the theist would have to weigh whether this dialectical move would be a net loss or net gain. I’m inclined to think that it would be a gain. Even without the FTA, the theist still has several weapons in the arsenal (cosmological arguments, moral arguments, pragmatic arguments) whereas without the POE, the atheist’s reserve is less formidable. I’d make a case that the argument from hiddenness is still quite strong, but it doesn’t seem to resonate with the same rhetorical force of the POE. I don’t know how the atheist should best respond, especially if he relies on the multiverse objection to the FTA. Perhaps it’s best to find another response to the FTA, but that doesn’t necessarily prevent the theist from appealing to a multiverse to counter the POE. I suppose the atheist could argue that the multiverse is ad hoc with respect to the POE. But it isn’t entirely clear that the theist’s use of multiverse is any more ad hoc than the atheist’s use of it. In a debate context, then, this may be the theist’s best strategy.

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Prometheus

I watched the film Prometheus last night. Overall, I was disappointed. It was heralded as Ridley Scott’s epic prequel to Alien and I was expecting a similarly entertaining movie. Instead, the film, at least for me, never really got rolling. There was a good movie buried in there somewhere — there were promissory notes for a better film — but the film never delivered on those promises. Perhaps some would say that the movie was at least ambitious and didn’t follow the script of a typical Hollywood sci-fi film. Granted, it tried to be high concept and deal with deep questions of faith and human origins. Unfortunately, it came up short.

The point of this post, however, is not to review the film. Rather, I’d like to take the opportunity to explore some of the more interesting philosophical questions it raises. Let’s take the idea of human origins. Since I’m going to reveal plot details, I’ll give the obligatory ‘Spoiler Alert.’ The premise of Prometheus is similar to that of many a History or Discovery Channel special: extraterrestrials visited ancient civilizations. Two archeologists (?) discover glyphs that reveal the location of the extraterrestrials’ home. So, explorers are sent out to find them. But the aliens didn’t just visit humanity; they engineered humanity. I’m not sure how the characters know this so early in the film; it’s never explained. But the plot later reveals that the aliens — who are called ‘the engineers’ — are responsible for humanity’s creation. In other words, the film broaches, in an unconventional way, the issue of Intelligent Design (ID). There’s even an exchange between the two principal characters and a biologist, in which the latter says that they’re throwing out three centuries of Darwinism on the basis of some cave paintings.

It’s interesting to frame the ID issue in this way, however, because it strips away a lot of the political and religious agendas behind the ID debate. Now, I’m not a proponent of ID. But I don’t reject it on a priori grounds like some of its critics. In other words, I reject it because I don’t see the evidence, not because I believe that it’s unscientific in principle. After all, if the scenario in Prometheus were true — and I’m not suggesting for a second that it is — that would appear to be an uncontroversial case of intelligent design. It wouldn’t necessarily disprove Darwinian evolution or show that a naturalistic origin of life is impossible (where did the aliens come from, after all?) but it would be a case of intelligent beings having engineered life on this planet — perhaps with humanity in mind. This differs from the theological picture, of course, but hypothetically it fits the strict definition of ID. I’m aware that those who promote ID are theists — even though they emphasize that their position isn’t theological and doesn’t specify the creator(s) — and I’m not trying to provide grist for their mill, but I don’t see any way of denying that the scenario presented in Prometheus is a case of intelligent design strictly speaking. As such, isn’t it at least possible? Wouldn’t we need to reject it on a posteriori rather than a priori grounds? Shouldn’t this also be our approach with respect to the ID debate?

There’s also a parallel in the film between the engineers’ relationship to humans and humans’ relationship to sentient robots. David, an artificial intelligence, asks one of the characters why they created him. The response: “Because we can.” David replies, “Can you imagine how disappointed you would be if your creators’ gave you the same answer.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Again, there’s some interesting material here that could be explored, but the film doesn’t do much with it. It’s too bad that the viral marketing for Prometheus was more intriguing than the movie itself.

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Roundtable on Problem of Evil

One more time on this issue. HT: exapologist

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