Scientific euphemisms and equivocations
The question of cosmic origins is a perennially popular question, but most theists think the answer has been known for thousands of years. God is the ultimate cause of the cosmos.
While there’s room to disagree with that theistic conclusion, there are rational limits on the valid ways to reject it. None of the outcomes of rejecting God are appealing. They’re the sort of explanatory gaps we reluctantly accept in the wider context of our philosophical commitments.
There is nothing wrong with that, no explanatory theory is perfect. But intellectual honesty demands admitting the explanatory defects rather than rejecting conclusions by promoting misleading ideas.
When it comes to cosmic origins, the most common misrepresentation is that we can reject God as a causal explanation because one day science will answer the question of why the universe exists.
Science can’t answer this question. Not now. Not ever.
Many people doubt that is true. It contradicts modern sensibilities about the omni-competence of science. David Albert, a professor with qualifications in both physics and philosophy explains:
…ever since the scientific revolution of the 17th century, what physics has given us in the way of candidates for the fundamental laws of nature have as a general rule simply taken it for granted that there is, at the bottom of everything, some basic, elementary, eternally persisting, concrete, physical stuff.
And what the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all the fundamental laws of nature are about, and all there is for the fundamental laws of nature to be about, insofar as physics has ever been able to imagine, is how that elementary stuff is arranged.
The fundamental laws of nature generally take the form of rules concerning which arrangements of that stuff are physically possible and which aren’t, or rules connecting the arrangements of that elementary stuff at later times to its arrangement at earlier times, or something like that. But the laws have no bearing whatsoever on questions of where the elementary stuff came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular elementary stuff it does, as opposed to something else, or to nothing at all.
Period. Case closed. End of story.”
The quote is from a scathing review of physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing. Krauss’s book gives the misleading impression it answers the question of cosmic origins. Not only the title of the book, but the subtitle is – Why there is something rather than nothing.
But it turns out there is a whole lot of redefining nothing going on. In Krauss’s terms, nothing doesn’t mean non-existent, the absence of anything, it means quantum vacuum fields. That isn’t a definition of nothing you’ll find in any dictionary, but according to Krauss that’s the more interesting question.
Which does make you stop to wonder why he would use the less interesting question as the title and subtitle of his book. But never mind the book sales, Krauss is suggesting quantum vacuum fields are so nebulous as to be close enough to nothing to establish the point.
The meaning of nothing
It should be obvious you can’t come close to nothing by talking about something regardless of how nebulous and vacuous that something is. Nothing and something are, and always will be, direct opposites and logically exclusive of one another.
Nothing isn’t something. By definition. Case Closed. End of Story.
While Krauss’s misrepresentation is blatant, there’s no shortage of more subtle examples of missing the point. Most of the popular discussion takes places within the context of this misunderstanding.
Most of it centers around the Kalam cosmological argument. But despite the premises of Kalam being based on physics, the argument is metaphysics, not physics. It’s philosophy, not science.
The cosmological argument has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. It has many different presentations corresponding to the many different cultural and conceptual schemes throughout history.
The Kalam, being a modern version in a culture with a scientific mindset, uses premises which rely on physics. With those scientific premises it attempts to establish its metaphysical conclusion.
The Kalam is often presented as arguing the universe came into existence from non-existence. But this misses the point of the cosmological argument.
The cosmological argument denies this can happen. Nothing can’t create things or cause things to happen. Nothing isn’t something. If nothing is the absence of anything, we must be confused to think non-existence has causal powers. That includes the power to spawn universes, or multiverses or even so much as a nebulous quantum field.
It’s precisely this logic that things can’t appear from nothing, for no reason, with no cause, that leads to the conclusion God is the first cause. Every cosmological argument concludes God is the cause, and God isn’t nothing.
God is not only the opposite of nothing because he’s something, he’s as far from nothing as it’s possible to be. God isn’t just any regular kind of something, but a unique something which exists of necessity. God’s nature is to exist independently of any other thing. He doesn’t depend on anything for his existence, everything else depends on God to exist.
The other misunderstanding often perpetuated is what it means to say something is uncaused. Radioactive decay is often used as an example of an uncaused event along with virtual particles. But neither of these are uncaused events, they are unpredictable events.
The particles created by radioactive decay are caused to exist by unstable atoms. If those atoms didn’t exist, neither would the particles. Virtual particles are caused to exist by the background quantum fields. If those fields didn’t exist, neither would the particles. Being unable to predict their existence other than with probabilistic methods doesn’t mean they’re uncaused.
This might seem like a pedantic point, but it turns out to be a big deal. Because it means we have no examples of anything existing without a cause. None. Not even one.
If there are no examples of uncaused events, and science can’t explain why the universe exists, what does this mean for the explanatory options available to the naturalist?
Naturalist explanations of the existence of the universe
Naturalism is the claim only natural things exist, so they must deny any supernatural cause for their metaphysical theory to be logically consistent. One option is an infinite causal regress, turtles all the way down.
But the most popular option among naturalists is to say the universe is a brute fact. A brute fact is something which has no further explanation. In other words, the naturalists answer to why the universe exists is — there is no reason, it has no cause.
It’s important to be clear about what this means. It isn’t saying the universe does have a cause but we don’t know what it is. It isn’t saying science is working on it. It isn’t, because it can’t answer this question.
It’s saying the universe exists for no reason and has no cause. That’s their answer to the question of cosmic origins.
This is why having no examples of anything uncaused is a big deal. Because we have no reason to think it can happen. We can agree it’s possible, no one can show it’s impossible. But any number of things are possible, that’s never been a good reason to think it’s actually the case.
The situation is made worse when we consider we have the strongest possible inductive case that things have causes for their existence. Every single thing we know of has a cause for its existence. Not one exception. That’s a lot of evidence for things having causes.
And it doesn’t help the naturalist to say maybe the universe is eternal. Telling us how long something has existed isn’t an explanation for why it exists rather than not.
And it doesn’t help to say while everything within the universe has a cause, maybe the universe itself doesn’t have one. The universe isn’t something over and above everything we know of, it isn’t some distinct thing. The universe is just a word to describe the collection of all the stuff we know of. All of which has causes.
Brute fact is a euphemism
If the brute fact response looks arbitrary, and you’re thinking there must be some mistake, this can’t be naturalism’s answer to cosmic origins, then you understand what brute fact means.
It really is that bad.
Brute fact is a euphemism, a word used to hide an embarrassing universe sized explanatory hole. And while everyone has some holes in their explanations, let’s be clear about the extent of this hole. Let’s not misrepresent the situation to make everyone think we’re waiting on advances in science to explain it. Or worse, as Krauss does, to misrepresent that physics already has.
To understand what brute fact means should be shocking. Because it’s so incongruous with the cultural propaganda about the explanatory strengths of naturalism. We’re condescendingly told naturalism is a far more rational option than God as an explanatory theory.
But it seems to be the case that many naturalists are unaware of the expensive explanatory cost of rejecting the conclusion of the cosmological argument. They think science can explain the origin of the universe. Those that are aware of it don’t advertise it.