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An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle and an Agnostic on the Existence of God An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle and an Agnostic on the Existence of God
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-03-20 04:11:14
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Aristotle: As you know I consider the idea of God as the highest idea a philosopher can conceive of; that theology is the highest branch of philosophy; that the idea of God is a necessary one for philosophy. I suppose some will brand me a religious man. But I also think of myself as a rationalist: somebody who believes in logic, rationality, evidence, science, what you now you call an empiricist or a scientist. As such I believe that any religious beliefs must be reasonable and ought to have a certain compatibility with what science and experience reveal to us, that the truths of religion are actually provable by reason, not unlike the way scientific truths are; that reason and religion can remain on friendly terms and can complement each other without contradicting each other. Today you call this philosophy of religion “natural theology” to distinguish it from “revealed theology.”

Agnostic: really? I cannot find any evidence for the existence of God although I remain open minded and persuadable. I am eager to hear how what you just declared works.

Aristotle: I can offer you two lines of reasoning on this argument which I believe show that there is a God. One is called the First Cause Argument, also known as the Cosmological Argument. It goes like this: there are events happening all the times in the natural world that go together with the reasonable idea that everything has a cause.

Agnostic: that seems fairly obvious. After all science is based on the assumption that everything has a cause.

Aristotle: So, think of something that may be happening as we speak. Call it event A. Event A has a cause, whatever it might be. Therefore there must be some other event, event B which is the cause of event A. It is also evident that causes happen before their effects; that event B must have happened earlier than even A. But event B also had a cause, which we can call event C which also happened before it did, and event C had an earlier cause, event D, on so on ad infinitum back in time.

Agnostic: so far so good. Since we have assumed that everything has a cause, then we have also to think that there are causes for causes, back further and further.

Aristotle: But this chain cannot extent back infinitely. There must be a First Cause. This is what religious people call God. I have also called him the Unmoved Mover.

Agnostic: Now I am confused. You started with the assumption that everything has a cause, and now you tell me that there must be first event in a series, that is to say, an event that does not have a cause. Those two assumptions cannot both be true.

Aristotle: And why do you think so?

Agnostic: To repeat, you have two assumptions here: one says that everything has a cause, and the other says that there cannot be an infinite series and there must be a start to any series. This is like having the cake and eating it too. You cannot have it both ways. Either there is an event without a cause, or else the series is infinite.

Aristotle: I hear you. But suppose there is a start to the series of causes, namely God, that would not in the least contradict the assumption that that everything has a cause because God causes himself.

Agnostic: What? God causing himself? I understand that if X causes Y , then X has to exist first; but how can God exist before himself? This is nonsense. Is God the cause of nonsense?

Aristotle: Maybe we should have been a bit more precise. We should not have said that everything natural has a cause but God doesn’t have a cause. In other words, everything in the universe of physical and mental events, what science deals with, has a cause. So if natural events were all there were, then there would have to be an infinite series running backward without a start. The universe would then be eternal and a First Cause would be unnecessary. But there cannot be such a thing and therefore something not natural must have started things off. This would have to be a supernatural event needing no cause.

Agnostic: I am still confused. Why do you think that there can’t be an infinite series of events going back in time?

Aristotle: Because it makes no sense, even if intelligent people like Karl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have said it. Within nature there cannot be infinite things in nature. Within nature everything must have a start or it does not exist. The philosopher Berkeley went even further and asserted that without an observer nothing exists, but that is a different issue to which we shall return.

Agnostic: I still don’t understand why there cannot be an infinite regress.

Aristotle: look around like a good empiricist. Do you see infinites in nature? Admittedly the number of grains on a beach is very large, but they are not infinite. Everything in nature seems to be finite in number and in duration, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Agnostic: what about the infinite number of points in a line?

Aristotle: That is a mathematical abstraction which does not correspond to any reality within nature. We philosophers have known this since my time.

Agnostics: but dear Aristotle, in modern algebra we can do sums of infinite series, and in calculus we can now manage infinitely small lengths. You Greeks might have been too narrow-minded in this regard.

Aristotle: I repeat, the fact that modern mathematics can deal with infinities does not mean that there really are infinities in reality.

Agnostic: I remain unconvinced. You are just repeating the assumption that there can’t be an infinite series or a series with no start but you have not proven it rationally to my complete satisfaction.

Aristotle: Let me try. Your modern science has known for decades now that the universe is expanding. There are in fact competing theories as to why that is so. There is the Steady State Theory; the view that stuff is continuously coming into existence from a central place in the universe as we speak and it has been doing so eternally and will continue to do so forever. The stuff, after coming into existence, begins to stick together to make stars, planets and everything we see in the universe, moving outward from the point at which it originated.

Agnostic: Are you saying that, according to this theory, there is no cause for this stuff to come into existence?

Aristotle: Yes that is what the theory holds, but there is another one which may sound even more bizarre to your ears. It is called the Big Bang Theory. Think of a movie seen backward, imagine seeing things moving back to a central point where everything existing originated. From an infinitely dense and tiny point of stuff that exploded all matter congealed into stars and gas clouds and other stuff moving outward.

Agnostic: So this stuff came out of nothing? It has no cause?

Aristotle: Indeed, the Big Bang is the start of things.

Agnostic: So, according to this theory, the material universe arises out of nothing; it has no cause.

Aristotle: That is so. But there is a third theory which does not hold that the Big Bang was the first event. Before that the universe was moving inward, it was contracting for a very long time, till it reached that point and it exploded. And before it began contracting it was expanding. And then another explosion started it expanding, and so on. This is called the Cyclical Theory. It holds that cycles expansion-contractions-explosions repeat themselves infinitely back into the past and infinitely forward into the future. Here too there is no first event. It doesn’t have any causeless events as the other two theories do but it has a series that didn’t start.

Agnostic: It seems logical that any scientific theory will contradict at least one of those assumptions, given that science deals only with natural events and as such they would have to have either a first causeless event, a natural first cause, or no first event, a series without a start.

Aristotle: Indeed, the Cyclical Theory has a series without a start. The Big Bang Theory has a causeless natural event, and the Steady State theory has many events. All of them are defective.

Agnostic: How so? The Cosmological Argument is based on the assumption that certain things, a series without a start, an event without a cause are impossible but somehow these unthinkable ideas seem to be built into these scientific theories. So they are thinkable after all and what proves it is that reputable scientists have thought them.

Aristotle: It would seem so. But there is another area of modern science called quantum physics, which also features uncaused events. Simply put, this is how it works: imagine a bit of substance composed of a radioactive element. Each atom of that element will emit a certain particle at some point, and turn into another element. If the radioactive element has a half-life of, say, a year, that means that after a year, about half of the atoms will have emitted the particle. Some will do it much sooner, and some much later. The point is that there is no reason why one atom emits a particle at one time rather than another. Two atoms exactly the same in every relevant characteristic will emit particles after very different lengths of time, and there is no cause for this.

Agnostic: So that a thing exists with no cause is thinkable after all.

Aristotle: However more recent observations have begun to cast doubt on the Cyclical Theory. Modern science has arrived at an estimation of the amount of stuff in the universe. It would appear that there is not enough to produce the gravity necessary to make everything slow down and stop and start contracting. It appears that there will be an end after all. The Steady State theory has not been a contender for a while now. The only option left is the Big Bang theory. But cosmology by its own nature is continually in a state of development and change. So one must suspect that even the prevailing view will eventually change. Plato and Heraclitus might have had on target: nothing in the natural world is eternal and stays the same; you cannot step into the same river twice.

Agnostic: Fine, but the important point here is that neither the idea of events without cause nor the idea of a series of events stretching back in time is really unthinkable. So one can conceive of a universe without God.

Aristotle: Yes, but I continue to suspect that there must be something wrong with a science that includes such absurd ideas since we have already agreed that every natural event must have a cause.

Agnostic: Yes I agreed on this because it seemed rational. If your car is making a funny noise and you take it to the mechanic and he tells you that there is no cause for that noise,  that may be a sign that your mechanic is incompetent. You know there is cause and it is the mechanic who is unable to find it. Similarly when scientists have not found a cause they know that nevertheless there must be one and keep looking for it.

Aristotle: Big Bang scientists actually believe in a fist cause, something that started everything off, but which itself has no cause. What is intriguing is that religious thinkers also see God as the causeless first cause. Could they be talking about the same thing? Could the Big Bang be the same as the Divine Creator? Or, could a substitution have occurred, the Cosmos gets substituted for God?

Agnostic: Perhaps but, if there is a God, and I don’t know for sure, I certainly would not wish to pray to him or worship him as a philosophical idea, or a still point, or a first cause. That sounds like pure idolatry to me.

Aristotle: I get your point, but there is a version of the First Cause Argument that does not run into all those difficulties and it is this: no matter how science tell us how the universe came about, there is a particular question which no science can ever ask: why is there something rather than nothing? How does one even begin to answer this question unless one considers that there may be something outside the natural series, something supernatural rather than natural? This is something my colleague Thomas Aquinas is more familiar with but it is not contrary to reason.

Agnostic: But you have not told me what’s missing if you cannot explain each individual thing on the basis of the earlier thing that caused it. If you asked what explains the whole universe, then there can’t be anything else to explain it.

Aristotle: you missed the point: I was taking the whole natural universe and asking what explains it, what is its purpose and it raison d’être. You are right though in the sense that you cannot explain it by anything in the natural universe. And that is why a supernatural explanation, as believed by Thomas Aquinas may have to be envisioned.

Agnostic: if we have settled anything at all here, it seems to me that the real issue is whether a scientific cosmological theory gives a satisfactory explanation all by itself. You seem to say that a natural cosmological theory relying on natural events and causes must always be incomplete and that somehow God has to be brought in to fill the gap. But it seems to me that most scientific theories do a good job without having to rely on the supernatural. I think we can agree that in the natural world an uncaused event is unthinkable. Be that as it may, what about the second argument you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation?

Aristotle: Ah yes. I am afraid that will have to wait till our next conversation. It’s gotten late and I need to go home for supper.


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Murray Hunter2013-03-20 07:38:41
Thanks for bringing Aristotle down to we the common people.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-20 10:13:50
A footnote by way of a brief comment on the cover illustration for today’s posting showing Aristotle in spirited conversation in his Lyceum with the caption underneath “I also…think.”

Indeed, in a normal sense (for there are rare abnormal cases) rationality, or at least its endowment and potentiality is pretty much universal and it is such a rationality that allows us to imaginatively converse with our ancestors and our betters across eons and historical epochs.

One of Chesterton’s signal insights is that to go around saying “history is bunk” (as Henry Ford quipped once) while declaring that one is not interested in history and in obscure men from the past or what they thought as our ancestors on any particular subject, but only in the present moment, is to run the risk of reinventing the wheel, repeating all the mistakes of the historical past, and making a fool of oneself by showing one’s abysmal ignorance while all along hilariously and illogically claiming deep knowledge of a particular subject or issue. It is also, according to the same Chesterton, a ckear sign of great disrespect and lack of democracy and gratitude toward our ancestors from whom we have inherited, for better or for worse, the kind of world we live and have our being in.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-20 17:00:39
P.S. The whole idea of the above conversation is not to condescendingly and paternalistically make Aristotle simple for ordinary people (what the Greeks calleds contemptously "the oi polloi") as a way of placing Aristotle on a philosophical pedestal of sort, but rather to bring back a millenarian issue or argument on the mystery that is creation so that we don't run the risk of reinventing the wheel. The agnostic interlocutor (one of the oi polloi) is just as important as Aristotle, or Plato or Socrates as the case may be. As Professor Paolozzi has made clear to us, whatever is past is relevant to us in the present... Moreover, as mentioned in the above footnote, anybody endowed with reason can do it.

Leah Sellers2013-03-21 05:27:33
Brother Emanuel,
It appears that this truly Interesting Conversation holds true to your First Cause Argument and will give rise to yet other future (Time,Space,Event)Divinely Creational Conversations.
Looking forward to them, Sir.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-21 10:23:24
Indeed, stay tuned. The next one will be on the controversial argument from design. Controversial since, depending on how one interprets the argument, one either ends up extolling the virtues of, or debunking religion. Be that as it may, the important thing remains that a conversation be carried out not only among lofty philosophers but also among ordinary people or philosophy becomes an exoteric subject for elitist people who'd rather dispose of it.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-21 14:11:47
P.S. By the way, the conversation may be imaginary, but the First Cause argument is not mine but Aristotle's; in other words I am not placing words in Aristotle's mouth; that would be a misrepresentation of the philosopher.

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