[3.3.] Can Science Explain Everything?
Last time we considered local design arguments, especially Paley’s, and thought about whether the existence of complex, well-adapted organisms is better explained by the hypothesis that they were made by an intelligent creator or by the hypothesis that they evolved (in part by way of natural selection).
We will now shift focus and consider a different kind of design argument: a global design argument, one that cites some general feature of the universe and says that it is best explained by postulating the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful creator.
[3.3.1.] The Something-Rather-Than-Nothing Argument.
Is there any general feature of the universe that is best explained by the hypothesis that God exists?
Here is a global design argument that suggests that there is. The first premise describes a surprising observation (O):
O: The universe contains something rather than nothing.
If a being outside of space and time had created the universe such that it contains something rather than nothing, then O would not be surprising.
Therefore, a being outside of space and time created the universe such that it contains something rather than nothing. [Call this OST, for “outside of space and time”]
The idea behind this argument is that in order to explain why there is a spatio-temporal universe—a universe in which there are physical objects that take up space and events that occur over time—we must hypothesize that there exists something outside of that spatio-temporal universe, something that created that universe.
[3.3.2.] Types of Scientific Ignorance.
As with Paley’s local design argument, we might think of turning to science to see whether it can provide a competitor to OST, i.e., a hypothesis that is a better explanation of O (the fact that the universe contains something rather than nothing).
Perhaps surprisingly, Sober maintains that science cannot provide a competing hypothesis to explain the fact that the universe contains something rather than nothing.
To see why he takes this position, we have to take account of the following distinction—
“in practice” scientific ignorance (df.): a temporary gap in knowledge; current ignorance about things that we have good reason to think that science will one day be able to explain.
· Sober’s example: why do some species reproduce sexually and others reproduce asexually? At the moment, science can provide no definitive answer to this question. But there is no reason for thinking that scientists won’t eventually find the answer.
· There are many, many other examples in all branches of science (one of my favorites: has there ever been life on other planets in our solar system?), and there probably always will be.
· Suppose that a theologian proposes as a hypothesis to explain the existence of sexual reproduction: “It’s God’s will.” Further suppose that this is currently the only available explanation. Were we to accept it simply because it is the only one available, we would be committing the “only game in town” fallacy.
“in principle” scientific ignorance (df.): a permanent gap in knowledge; ignorance about things that science is inherently incapable of explaining.
· According to Sober, science will never be able to answer the question: why is there something rather than nothing? Our current scientific ignorance of this question is not merely current. It is permanent. This is a question that science will never be able to answer in principle.
[3.3.4.] Why Science Can’t Explain Why There is Something Instead of Nothing.
Why is there “in principle” scientific ignorance? In other words, why are there some questions that science can never answer, not even in principle?
Sober explains that there is “in principle” scientific ignorance because of how scientific explanations of events work:
· Science explains an event, E, by describing the cause or causes of E.
· The cause(s) of an event E must happen before E, i.e., they must come before E in time.
· Some events are parts of other events. For example…
· But if one event (E1) causes another (E2), E1 cannot be part of E2… it cannot be part of the event that it causes, since it has to come before that event.
So in order for science to explain an event E, it must be able to describe events that come before E in time and which are therefore not a part of E.
According to Sober, science cannot answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” because the question is about the event that contains all other events: the universe.
To answer that question, science would have to be able to cite some cause of the universe, and therefore some event which is not part of the universe. But by definition, any event that science could describe would itself be part of the universe, and therefore that event could not be the cause of the universe being the way it is (containing something rather than nothing).
Call this the Limits of Science argument:
1. If science can explain the existence of x, then it can describe some cause of x’s existence.
2. Therefore, if science can explain the existence of the universe, it can describe some cause of the universe’s existence. [from 1]
3. An event that causes x cannot be part of x.
4. Therefore, if science can explain the existence of the universe, it can describe some event that is not a part of the universe. [from 2 and 3]
5. Any event that science can describe is part of the universe.
6. Therefore, science cannot describe an event that is not a part of the universe. [from 5]
7. Therefore, science cannot explain the existence of the universe. [from 4 and 6, modus tollens]
[3.3.5.] Should We Accept OST?
If Sober is right, then science cannot provide a competing hypothesis for OST (“a being outside of space and time created the universe such that it contains something rather than nothing”).
Does this imply that should we believe OST? Not necessarily.
We should not accept it simply because it is the only available theory; to do so would be to commit the only-game-in-town fallacy.
To the degree that you find the story about a being outside of space and time causing the universe to happen to be mysterious, you may have a reason to hold off on accepting OST.
Obviously, the concept of a being that exists outside of all space and time is mysterious. But does it even make sense? Do we really even understand what such a being would be? Do we understand what we are saying when we assert that such a being exists?
Further, do we understand what it would be for such a being to cause the universe to come into existence?
· Our understanding of causation depends on a temporal relation between cause and effect (“temporal” means having to do with time). If one thing or event causes another, then the first must happen at a different time than the second. Sober’s example is of a rock that is thrown at a window and causes the window to break. The rock being thrown cannot happen at the exact same time as the window breaking. There is a temporal relationship of earlier-than/later-than between those two events. So how could something that is outside of time cause something that happens in time?
· And how should we understand the phrase “outside of time,” anyway?
· It might be a reasonable position to take, to say that we should not accept OST because what it is says is simply too unclear.
Sober’s point of view is that OST, the theological explanation of the fact that there is something rather than nothing, is too puzzling to be acceptable.
But he also objects to it on the grounds that it is really not an explanation at all but instead the tacit admission that you don’t have an explanation. He applies this point both to theological explanations of the existence of complex, well-adapted organisms and to theological explanations of the fact that there is something rather than nothing. [see Sober p.82]
[3.3.6.] The Principle of Sufficient Reason.
In taking the view that there are some things that are inexplicable (incapable of being explained), Sober is rejecting the principle of sufficient reason:
principle of sufficient reason (df.): the thesis that “everything that happens in nature has an explanation.” (83)
Anytime scientists (or any researchers) address a new question, they assume that that question has an answer. This is a methodological assumption of inquiry: if you are going to bother to try to answer a question, then you must be assuming that there actually is an answer to your question that you are capable of finding. (Sober gives the example of neuroscientists looking for an explanation of consciousness.)
But the fact that scientists us the principle of sufficient reason as a methodological assumption of inquiry is no evidence that the principle is true. Sober suggests that it is not true and that there is at least one fact that we are incapable of explaining: why there is something rather than nothing.
[3.4.] The Argument from Evil.
The Argument from Evil is an argument against the existence of a certain kind of God — an all-PKG (powerful, knowing, good) God. This is how God is conceived by many major religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Sober discusses four different versions of the Argument from Evil, the final one being the strongest.
[3.4.1.] First Version of the Argument from Evil.
1. If God were to exist, then that being would be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good (all-PKG, for short).
2. If an all-PKG being existed, then there would be no evil.
3. There is evil.________
Hence, there is no God.
This is supposed to be a (deductively) valid argument; that is, this argument attempts to put forward premises which, if true, would guarantee the truth of the conclusion.
We need to ask two questions: is it valid? and are the premises actually true? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then the argument is sound, and so it’s conclusion is true and there really is no God. (There is a lot riding on the question whether this argument is sound!)
[126.96.36.199.] First Version: Valid?
Is this version of the argument valid? Sober says that it is. To see whether he is right, let’s look at its argument form:
1. If p, then q.
2. If q, then r.
This argument is like two instances of modus tollens compressed together. But this might not be easy to see, since the way Sober states it leaves one of the two conclusions implicit. To make this more explicit:
1. If p, then q.
2. If q, then r.
4. Hence, not-q. (implied by 2 and 3, modus tollens)
5. Hence, not-p. (implied by 1 and 4, modus tollens)
Since the argument just consists of two different modus tollens steps, it is valid. So a theist who wants to defend against the argument will have to argue that not all of the premises are true. So let’s consider whether the premises actually are true.
[188.8.131.52.] First Version: True Premises?
Let’s tackle these one at a time…
Premise 3: There is evil.
What is meant by “evil”? In the context of arguments about God’s existence, “evil” is typically understood to mean suffering of innocent beings—in other words, suffering of beings who do not deserve to suffer. This can be categorized in two ways:
· human evil: suffering of the innocent that results from the actions of human beings, e.g., the Holocaust and other instances of genocide; the suffering caused by murderers and rapists.
· natural evil: suffering of the innocent that results from something other than the actions of human beings, e.g., cancer, Tay-Sachs disease, and other deadly and painful diseases; hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and other naturally occurring events.
Premise 1: If God were to exist, then that being would be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good (all-PKG, for short).
This premise is not true by definition… It is not like “If Jim is a bachelor, then Jim is unmarried.” Some religious traditions have maintained that there is a God, but that God lacks one of the three properties captured in the abbreviation “all-PKG.”
So it is possible to reject premise 1.
But doing so would be very difficult for many Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Many people in those three traditions regard God as being infinitely powerful (omnipotent), infinitely knowledgeable (omniscient), and infinitely good.
Premise 2: If an all-PKG being existed, then there would be no evil.
Sober describes the reason usually given for thinking that premise 2 is true:
Premise (2) is usually defended as follows. If God is all-good, he wants to prevent evil. If he is all-knowing, he knows the difference between right and wrong and knows how to prevent evil from coming into existence. And if he is all-powerful, he can prevent evil, should he wish to do so. So God, is he is all-PKG, has both the inclination and the ability to prevent evil from occurring. (109)
The project of explaining why premise 2 is false – that is, of explaining why an all-PKG God allows evil to occur, is called theodicy:
theodicy (df.) the attempt to explain why an all-PKG God would allow evil to exist.
Here is one way that traditional theodicy has tried to explain why an all-PKG God would allow there to be evil in the world:
Evil is needed for “soul-building” – to make us better people (to give us strength of character), we have to suffer (or witness the suffering of others).
Sober considers the objection that if God were all-powerful, he could simply create us with strong souls, without making us first undergo suffering. [see p.112]
[3.4.2.] The Second Version of the Argument from Evil.
Sober concedes that some evil might be necessary for soul-building. But he is suspicious that not all of the evil in the world can be explained in that way. So he modifies the argument to take account of this (112-113):
1. If God were to exist, then that being would be all-PKG.
4. If an all-PKG being existed, then the amount of evil would not exceed a soul-building minimum.
5. The amount of evil does exceed a soul-building minimum.
Hence, there is no God.
Is this version of the argument valid? YES—it has the same logical form as the first version.
Premise 4: If an all-PKG being existed, then the amount of evil would not exceed a soul-building minimum.
The challenge for theodicy is now to explain why God would allow more evil in the world than is absolutely necessary for soul-building.
A traditional second reason (in addition to soul-building) why God might allow innocents to suffer is free will: “God made us free: this means it is up to us whether we do good or do evil. A consequence of this freedom is that there is more evil than would be strictly necessary for soul-building.” (113)
This criticism of premise (4) raises a whole tangle of very difficult philosophical questions about free will. [see Sober p.113] We will return to the question of free will, what it is and whether we have it, later in the semester.
Sober acknowledges that some instances of the suffering of the innocent might be necessary as a consequence of humans having free will.
But he is skeptical of the idea that all evil can be explained by soul-building and free will:
· If God had intervened to stop Hitler’s embryo from developing, He would not have been interfering in anyone’s free will (Hitler’s parents would still have been as free as otherwise). This would have resulted in humanity experiencing far, far less suffering than it actually did experience. We would have had just as much free will, but much less suffering. So not all suffering is necessary for freedom.
· Diseases like the bubonic plague do not result from the free actions of human beings, and they cause untold pain, death and suffering.
[3.4.3.] The Third Version of the Argument from Evil.
These kinds of consideration lead to a third formulation of the Argument from Evil (114):
1. If God were to exist, then that being would be all-PKG.
6. If an all-PKG being existed, then there would be no more evil than the minimum required for soul-building and as a consequence of human freedom.
7. The quantity of evil found in human history exceeds the minimum required for soul-building and as a consequence of human freedom.
Hence, there is no God.
The argument is definitely valid. If you think that both premises are true, then you have to admit that the argument is sound, and that an all PKG God does not exist.
A different response to the argument is to set aside theodicy (with regard to this version of the argument, theodicy would attempt to argue that the second premise is false) and engage in defense –to argue that we do not have good reason for thinking that premise 6 is true. [see Sober pp.114-15]
The defense that Sober is suggesting is something like this:
We are only humans, with limited intellects – far more limited than God’s (if God exists). Why assume that we can figure out the minimum level of evil needed for soul-building and free will? It is entirely possible that God’s plans for us are far more complicated than we could ever hope to understand. Maybe there is some further goal (besides soul-building and free will) that God is trying to attain, a goal which requires exactly the amount of evil there is in the world, but no more than that.
Is this defense the intellectual equivalent of giving up? A critic might say that this defense amounts to taking the position that God is far too complicated for our limited intellects to understand, so we can’t really reason about him. To take this position is to abandon philosophical investigation of God. If we can’t trust our intellects to reason about God correctly, then there is no point in reasoning about God at all. We may as well stick to religion (worship) and give up philosophical thinking about religion altogether.
[3.4.4.] Evil as a Reason for Thinking God Doesn’t Exist.
Sober concludes that there is probably no sound version of the Argument from Evil (no version of the argument that is both deductively valid and has all true premises).
But he does believe that the existence of evil in the world is a reason (not an absolutely definitive one, but still a reason) for thinking that an all-PKG being does not exit (116):
“E” = a detailed description of the various kinds of evil that exist
1. If an all-PKG God existed, you would expect E not to be true.
2. If an all-PKG God did not exist, you would expect E to be true.
3. The Surprise Principle
E is strong evidence against there being an all-PKG being.
This is an abductive argument… do you think it is a logically strong example of that kind of argument?
Stopping point for Monday June 14. Your first test is tomorrow! REMEMBER TO BRING A BLUE BOOK IN WHICH TO WRITE YOUR TEST ANSWERS. The test will be at the beginning of class. After that we will take a break and then reconvene and begin working through the material in Sober chapter 12, so you should also read through that material at least once before class tomorrow.
 For a list of some of the most intriguing open questions of science, see John Roach, “Journal Ranks Top 25 Unanswered Scientific Questions,” National Geographic News, June 30, 2005, URL = <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/06/0630_050630_top25science.html>, retrieved June 14, 2010. This short article refers to content from the journal Science that is available here: http://www.sciencemag.org/sciext/125th/ , retrieved June 14, 2010.
This page last updated 6/14/2010.
Copyright © 2010 Robert Lane. All rights reserved.