POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Nonsense from a nontheist?

I ran across this video today by the late Carl Sagan on a blog by an atheist technology enthusiast. First, I want to say that I mean no disrespect to the dead, but I’m really unsure how such thinking is thought to be profound by those who should know better. This post is in no way meant as disrespect for Sagan the man - though I don’t understand why anyone would sue a company as perfect as Apple Computer or say some of the silly things he says in this video. 

Take a look:

The first short section (up until 1:09) is the only serious reflection and I found here with the final seven minutes dedicated towards Sagan’s seeming enthrallment with Hinduism. I do not intend to interact with Hindu thought here, but I will say that Sagan uses this jaunt to the east in order to arrive subtly where he begins - God(s) do not exist and they are the creation of the minds of humanity. 

Throughout this piece, Sagan acknowledges the universal human desire to find an explanation for our existence and the existence of all things.  He then, sadly, seems to dismiss this quest for an answer with a bit of philosophical hand waving. 

After acknowledging inflationary big bang theory, he goes on to recognize the question as to what existed before the beginning of matter/space/time.  As many societies in culture have posited at this point some sort of supernatural explanation (God or gods created it) Sagan then puts on a courageous hat and begins to discuss this answer.  In summary form his reasoning is as follows.

  • The universe appears by observation to have begun in the past at an event we call the big bang and has been expanding since that time. 
  • What was before this? This is our question. What caused our world? 
  • Theists answer - God(s) created it
  • Sagan then questions - if you are “courageous” you will ask “Where then did God come from” 

Let me stop us here for a moment.  This is a great question.  For indeed if there is an infinite regress of causes then we actually explain nothing.  What caused the universe? god! What caused that god? Another god! Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  I quite heartily agree with him at this point.  

At this point Sagan makes a move that I find quite strange and not very brights. He asks “Why not save a step” and just assume that the universe, not God(s), was always there eternal and uncaused. In other words, something seems to need to be eternal and uncaused, so why multiply entities beyond need. We need no God, we have an eternal, uncaused universe.  In philosophy, the eternal and uncaused would be seen as a necessary entity, something that is not contingent. Something whose existence does not depend on anything else…it just IS. 

Now, my simple question is this: Did he not begin this quest with a desire to understand our universe and its origin?  Saving a step is a wise principle in philosophy that was put forth by the Christian skeptic William of Ockham. Also known as the principle of parsimony, or Ockham’s razor, this teaches us that we do not need to provide complex explanations when a simpler one will do. We need not posit something else to explain the origin of the universe if the universe itself IS the answer. The problem with Sagan’s thought here is that we can actually study this universe and conclude several things.  

  • If the universe had origin, i.e., it began to exist, then we must not assume it’s eternal existence. This is why we ask: What caused the universe?
  • What exists before (logically prior) space-time requires a different sort of answer. An explanation that actually IS eternal (not based in time - which began at the beginning)
  • If the universe is made up completely of contingent things, it is therefore must be a contingent thing and not a necessary one. And no, this is not a fallacy of composition as contingency is an expansive property.
  • If matter/space-time/energy did not always exist, we know that it is not necessary. There has to be something else that IS necessary that provides its explanation. 
  • If we can infer from science (even big bang theory, ie there was a t=0 of the big bang) and philosophy that the universe is indeed finite in time, then it is not only wise to posit other explanations, reason would compel us to do so. After-all, Sagan admits in this video that the entire human species has been, is and will continue to be obsessed with this question - not simply dismiss it.

My question back to the disciples of men like Carl Sagan is this. Why are you avoiding the question with which you begin? The answer to the explanation of all things cannot be a contingent thing in itself - it must be eternal, uncaused and necessary. If we are courageous we will ask this question and not “save that step” for that is indeed how this game was started in the first place.  

So to answer Dr. Sagan’s initial questions directly:

  • Why not save a step and assume the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Because it is not unanswerable - it is only unanswerable to those who do not like certain kinds of answers. Such closed mindedness is not good philosophy.
  • Why not save a step and conclude the universe always existed? Because we can study the universe and see that it has not always existed. 

For those who hold to many forms of theism, the answer is “God created the universe” and we stop at the eternal, uncaused, necessary being that by his own will created all things. We do not posit an infinite regress of gods or universes; we do save our steps. We also do not create all the unnecessary steps of positing an infinite number of universes (as many do today) or an infinite number of gods (as many have and will continue to do). To do so would simply create some bushes to hide in from our most fundamental questions.  What we will do, however, is give metaphysical and theological answers to describe the nature of the one who creates nature.  A natural explanation is not and could not be coming at this point. Why? God is not creation. God is of a different category than the universe that we can indeed study with empirical science. God is other. God is God. 

For those who do not like such answers, for whatever tendentious reasons, I give you back to the philosophical sophisms given by Sagan. Bon appetit!