Reading Rosenberg, Part III

Continuing our look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we come to Rosenberg’s treatment of the question “Where did the big bang come from?”  As serious students of the cosmological argument for the existence of God are aware, most of its defenders historically (including key figures like Aristotle, Aquinas, and Leibniz) are not arguing for a temporal first cause of the world.  Their claim is not that God must have caused the world to begin (though some of them believe that He did, for independent reasons) but rather that He must continually be sustaining the world in existence, and would have to be doing so even if the universe had no beginning.  But there is a version of the cosmological argument that does argue for a temporal first cause of the world, namely the kalām cosmological argument.  Rosenberg does not explicitly address any specific version of either argument, but he is, in effect, trying to rebut them both.

To the kalām cosmological argument, Rosenberg has a ready implicit response: 

The best current theory suggests that our universe is just one universe in a “multiverse” -- a vast number of universes, each bubbling up randomly out of the foam on the surface of the multiverse, like so many bubbles in the bathwater, each one the result of some totally random event. (p. 36)

If the multiverse hypothesis is correct, then, while our universe began at the big bang, its cause was entirely physical insofar as it arose from the larger multiverse.  Moreover, if the multiverse as a whole did not have a beginning, it would not require a temporal cause.  Thus is the kalām argument blocked -- again, if the multiverse theory is correct. 

But why suppose it is correct?  You might think, with William Lane Craig, that “there’s no evidence that such a world ensemble exists.  Nobody knows if there even are other parallel universes at all.”  Indeed, you might agree with Craig that even if there is such a multiverse, it wouldn’t really undermine the kalām argument anyway, since (for reasons he summarizes in the clip linked to) “the past of the multiverse must also be finite” and thus in need of a temporal cause.

Yet Rosenberg claims that: 

One remarkable thing about this best current cosmological theory is the degree to which physicists have been able to subject it to many empirical tests, including tests of its claims about things that happened even before the big bang, let alone before the formation of Earth, our sun, or even our galaxy, the Milky Way.  One of the most striking was the successful prediction of where to look for radiation from stars that went supernova and exploded as far back as 10 billion years ago.  These tests came out so favorably to the big-bang theory that physicists decided to risk several billion euros on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), outside Geneva, to test the big-bang theory directly by creating the very conditions that occurred just after the big bang.  (pp. 36-7)

Did you hear that?  The multiverse theory has been subjected to “many empirical tests,” and apparently has passed them all!  That will be news to many, since the common rap against the multiverse theory is precisely that it is untestable.  Except that when you read the passage more carefully, what Rosenberg really seems to be saying is that it is the big bang theory, specifically, that has been subjected to many empirical tests; at least, the only example he gives of an empirical test is a test of the big bang theory specifically.  And that would certainly be the most Rosenberg could plausibly say.  There have been journalistic claims to the effect that the multiverse theory has finally found some empirical support, but others have called bullshit on such reports.  In any event, it would be absurd to pretend that it has been “subjected to many empirical tests,” much less passed any.

The unwary reader would certainly get the opposite impression, though.  Perhaps Rosenberg thinks that since the multiverse theory incorporates the big bang theory, confirmation of the latter counts as confirmation of the former.  This is a little like saying that since Deepak Chopra’s theory of “quantum healing” incorporates quantum mechanics, confirmation of quantum mechanics counts as confirmation of Chopra’s theory.  Maybe Rosenberg’s got material here for a sequel.  (Craig, by the way, has addressed the CERN business here.)

I doubt Rosenberg is being willfully dishonest here; I suspect wishful thinking or maybe just bad writing.  In any case, let the multiverse theory be as well-confirmed as any of its proponents could wish, it still wouldn’t undermine non- kalām cosmological arguments in the least.  An Aristotle or Aquinas would simply shrug and point out that what matters is what accounts for the fact that the multiverse keeps going at all, whether or not it has always existed. 

Now Rosenberg is aware of this.  He acknowledges that “wishful thinkers” (apparently it takes one to know one) might ask: 

“If our universe is just one of many in a multiverse, where did the multiverse come from?  And where did the multiverse’s cause come from, and where did its cause come from?”  And so on, ad infinitum.  Once they have convinced themselves and others that this series of questions has no stopping point in physics, they play what they imagine is a trump card, a question whose only answer they think has to be the God hypothesis.  (p. 37)

But Rosenberg’s got a better answer grounded in scientism, right?  Not exactly.  Or at least, out of one side of his mouth he insists that there is in fact “no reason, no reason at all” why the multiverse exists (p. 38) and that natural selection has merely made it “psychologically natural [for us to] refus[e] to take ‘No reason’ for an answer” (p. 39).  That makes it sound like we are supposed to regard the existence of the multiverse as a brute fact, without any explanation.   

Now as I have argued in earlier posts (here and here), the “brute fact” move as a defense of atheism is seriously problematic; it makes scientific explanation unintelligible and, indeed, makes naturalism tantamount to an appeal to magic.  Rosenberg accuses his critics of “mystery-mongering,” but it is precisely those who claim that there is “no reason at all” why the universe exists who are promoting mysteries, and it is precisely those who say that there is and must be an explanation who are dispelling them.

But then, out of the other side of his mouth even Rosenberg himself speaks as if there is an explanation of sorts after all, albeit one that he mixes together with another generous dollop of mystery-mongering: 

A hundred years ago, it became clear that most events at the level of the subatomic are random, uncaused, indeterministic quantum events -- merely matters of probability… Since the big bang is just such a quantum event, it, too, is a wholly indeterministic one.  It is an event that just springs up out of the multiverse’s foam of universes without any cause at all.  Why is there a universe at all?  No reason at all.  Why is there a multiverse in which universes pop into existence for no reason at all?  No reason at all!  It’s just another quantum event.  (pp. 38-39)

This isn’t a complete muddle, but it is close.  Rosenberg evidently thinks that when traditional metaphysicians and philosophers of religion insist that there must be some reason why events happen as they do, what they mean is that there must be some deterministic efficient cause; and since quantum physics tells us that there are events without causes of this sort, Rosenberg concludes that there is “no reason at all” why they happen.  But of course, that is not what traditional metaphysicians and philosophers of religion mean.  Aristotelians, for example, rather famously hold that the identification of an efficient cause is only one of four basic kinds of explanation, and many philosophers (including non-Aristotelians) would deny that even efficient causes are necessarily deterministic, but hold that they nevertheless remain true causes and truly explanatory. 

Rosenberg implicitly acknowledges the latter point when he appeals to quantum mechanics in his account of the origin of the universe.  For all his “no reason at all” sensationalism, he isn’t really saying that the universe has no explanation; he is saying that quantum theory provides an explanation, just not one in terms of deterministic efficient causes.  (Rosenberg’s “No reason at all!  It’s just another quantum event” is a rather comically inept pair of sentences, since to say that “It’s a quantum event” just is to give a reason in the relevant sense.)  As we have seen before, it is simply incompetent to appeal to the laws of physics (whether those of quantum mechanics or of any other part of physics) as if they somehow cast doubt on the traditional metaphysician’s insistence that what happens in the world requires a cause, since the laws of physics (including quantum physics) themselves are included among the possible causes of things, in the relevant sense of “cause.”

Moreover, the laws of physics (including, again, the laws of quantum mechanics) cannot in any case be the ultimate explanation of anything.  “Laws,” after all, are mere abstractions; indeed, the Aristotelian argues, talk of “laws” is really just shorthand for a description of the way concrete objects and systems will tend to behave given their natures.  (As I have noted many times, you hardly have to be a Thomist or to have any theological ax to grind to take such a view.  Cf. the work of Brian Ellis, Nancy Cartwright, and other “new essentialist” philosophers of science and metaphysicians.)  But this means that the operation of the laws of physics presupposes, and thus does not explain, the existence of the concrete physical objects and systems that behave in accordance with the laws.  In particular, “Quantum mechanics says such-and-such” cannot be an adequate explanation of the existence of the universe, of the multiverse, or of anything else, precisely because the operation of the laws of quantum mechanics is (qua description of the behavior of a concrete physical system) part of the explanandum.   And “No reason at all!” is, needless to say, even less explanatory.

Now you might still try to argue, contrary to classical theism, that the ultimate explanation of why the world exists at all lies in something other than what is pure actuality (as opposed to a compound of act and potency), something other than what is subsistent being itself (as opposed to a compound of essence and existence), something other than what is absolutely necessary (as opposed to being either contingent or only derivatively necessary).  Good luck with that.  But Rosenberg has said absolutely nothing to make this plausible.  He certainly has said absolutely nothing to show either that the multiverse theory is an adequate explanation or that there is no explanation.   

Some bonus fallacies: As I have noted, Rosenberg claims that the reason we refuse to regard “No reason at all” as a serious answer to the question of why the universe exists is that we have been hardwired by evolution to find such answers unsatisfying.  He is appealing here to a view he develops later in the book to the effect that natural selection has molded us in such a way that we always try to understand the world in terms of stories or narratives.  Hence (so the argument seems to go) we want some account of the world in terms of a “beginning” of some sort.  But Rosenberg’s eliminative materialism entails that narratives and stories, even naturalistic or atheistic narratives and stories, are all false.  Only formulas, systems of equations, etc. really give us the truth.

Now it is not in fact clear why this is supposed to render the request for an explanation of the universe somehow illegitimate.  After all, Rosenberg thinks requests for explanations in other domains are legitimate; indeed, his case for scientism rests in part on the claim that science has provided powerful explanations of various natural phenomena.  Now if the purportedly delusory tendency to try to understand things in terms of stories and narratives does not make the request for an explanation of (say) the existence of this or that species or this or that chemical reaction suspect, how does it make the request for an explanation of the existence of the universe suspect?  We are not told.  (Rosenberg’s objection to narratives as such is no answer, even if it were defensible.  Remember, an explanation of why the universe exists at all need not appeal to a beginning, nor indeed to any story or narrative at all.  Certainly a Thomistic explanation of the world in terms of purely actual cause which creates by conjoining an essence with an act of existence, or a Neo-Platonic explanation in terms of emanation from the One, are not narrative explanations, since the “causes” in these cases are timeless or eternal in the strict sense.)

There is another problem.  Part of the point of Rosenberg’s brief treatment of cosmological questions is evidently to answer a potential objection to his scientism.  He wants to rebut the charge that scientism leaves something unexplained that should be explained.  But insofar as (at least out of one side of his mouth) he dismisses the request for an explanation as resting on a delusion, his answer presupposes his scientism, for his eliminative materialism (and its dismissal of stories and narratives as such) rests on his scientism.   

We seem to have a circularity, then, reminiscent of the sort we might get from a Freudian or a Marxist.  You dismiss the very idea of the Oedipal Complex as ludicrous?  Well, that’s just what someone with an Oedipal Complex would do!  You don’t agree with Marxian critiques of free market economics as an ideological smokescreen for capitalist ruling interests?  Of course you don’t, you’re in thrall to the ideology!  You think scientism fails to provide an adequate explanation of the world?  That’s just what we should expect you to think if scientism is true!  If Rosenberg can be rescued from the charge of begging the question, it is only because, as with his remarks about the multiverse hypothesis, the sloppiness of his exposition can make an argument of his something of a moving target.

All this in what amounts to a digression.  And the main lines of argument in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality are no better.  Rosenberg’s book is the gift that keeps giving, as we’ll see in future posts.
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