Sunday, August 19, 2012

Addendum: Objections and Answers to "The Münchhausen Trilemma, the First Cause and the Infinite Regress"

In this article, I reply to possible and actual objections to my article about the Münchhausen trilemma; as well as additional thoughts popping up.

Objection #1: "You're phrasing it all wrong - the argument is about everything that has a beginning!"

Youtube user GunneLPercher came up with that one. Fair enough. I'm talking about events, not contingent objects per se. Let's investigate this.

The Cosmological Argument is not a single argument as such - it's a family of arguments, all based on a similar, but not quite the same, logical structure. It might be impossible to track down every single last possible phrasing, so some broad-brushing is necessary. However, the above version, stemming from the Kalam and rephrased slightly by Prof. William Lane Craig, is indeed one of the most popular ones, so I should acknowledge it here.

The kalam cosmological argument is
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. (Premise 1)
  2. The universe began to exist. (Premise 2)
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause. (Conclusion)

This is copied straight from CreationWiki, so there can hardly be any suspicion of misrepresentation.

I would answer to this objection that all my main contentions still apply. Whether you call the second part of causation "effect", or "event", or "what begins to exist", the points about inductive reasoning, the question of whether causation is actually a singular chain, and the potential infinitesimal "nature" (for lack of a better word) of causation itself still stand. How would we gather any knowledge about the cause? How would we know, except by definition, that it is itself uncaused? How can we determine whether the universe's cause has itself a cause?

If you assume that the universe began to exist (which may or may not be the case), then it may be a good guess that it had a cause. If you then move on to define this cause as uncaused, so to set up a First Cause argument, you're simply rooting for the second option of the Münchhausen trilemma. That doesn't make the original reductio ad absurdum any more valid (or less valid, for that matter).

And of course, it presupposes causality (like all syllogisms do), so everything I said about causality still stands.

Furthermore, the above phrasing has the distinct disadvantage of unnecessarily lumping time and causality together in a clumsy attempt at an argument from common sense, or from intuition. Just because, inductively, causality correlates nicely with the flow of time, that doesn't mean that this is necessarily so on a metaphysical, apriori level. Correlation does not equal causation (which is a somewhat ironic statement in this context...).

Thirdly, the syllogism above doesn't answer the question. If you want to use it to set up a First Cause, you are relying two more implicit assumptions: 1. that causality is linked to a forward flow of time on a metaphysical level; 2. that causation cannot take place in an infinitesimally small span of time.

Both of those would first have to be shown in order to be able to make a point.

By the way, there is a good read here. Good additional points there!

Addendum #2: (not an objection) From the article linked in the previous sentence.

In short, intuition pumps about the impossibility of actual infinites only work because they are false analogies. They require a beginning in order to make sense. For example, you cannot build an actual infinite through successive addition or if you knock down an infinite set of dominos, you’ll never reach the end. These rely on you to start counting or start the dominoes. When viewed in the correct light, it’s no longer a problem. If the dominoes are falling for an infinite number of moments, then how many dominoes will have fallen? An infinite number!

I was hesitant to say something to that effect in my first posting, because infinities are notoriously hard to wrap one's head around, if one is not a mathematician. But the above quote does a lot to convince me that my initial assumption that the argument that "you cannot traverse an infinite chain" has merit, is actually false.

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