Monday, August 22, 2016

Sean Carroll, Catholicism, & Unfalsifiable Metaphysics

We interrupt your regularly scheduled quiet time on the Counter Apologist Blog to bring you an actual post!

Lately I've been doing some thinking about apologetic arguments, and that leads me to thinking about metaphysical arguments in general.  Part of this post is to help me document some ideas I’ve had about fundamental issues regarding metaphysical arguments. 

Much of this is triggered by reading posts by Catholic apologists and theologians.  Catholics are unique in that they tend to be Thomists, and so ascribe to a kind of Aristotelian metaphysics that was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas is the official philosopher of the Catholic Church, and much of their theology is based on his work. 

If the name Aquinas rings some bells, it’s because he’s the guy who has the “Five Ways” or rather five arguments that supposedly prove the existence of a god.  One of the most famous of these arguments is one for a “prime mover” or an “unmoved mover”.

The argument itself isn’t really important per-se, it’s actually air tight in terms of premises following to their conclusions.  The issue is the Aristotelian metaphysics it assumes and is based on.  Suffice it to say, if you’re using the kind of neo-Aristotelian metaphysics favored by modern day Thomists, the conclusion readily follows.

What atheists disagree with in terms of the Thomists is the metaphysics they assume.

The problem with metaphysical assumptions, especially ones that try to get to the base of fundamental reality, is that proving or disproving them is either trivially easy or impossible.  The trivial ones are easy to disprove because they assume something we can show not to be the case, and the others are so well crafted so as to be immune to disproof – though that also leaves these principles underdetermined.  We can’t actually prove or disprove these kinds of assumptions.

So it was this tweet by one of my favorite contemporary atheists, Sean Carroll, discussing an objection to his book “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”.

The objection comes from a writer/apologist named Brandon Vogt who writes at

In the book, it appears (I’ve not yet read the book) that Sean directly goes after the Aristotelian metaphysical assumption that “Everything in motion must be moved by something” and as Brandon helpfully clarifies, by motion he means any change whatsoever. 

Sean points out that the conservation of momentum casts doubt on that assumption, using the example of “objects on frictionless surfaces moving at constant velocity do not need a cause to keep moving”.

Brandon counters that at best this shows we don’t need a sustaining cause to keep an object moving, it wouldn’t show we don’t need an initial cause to start said motion. 

Brandon continues to say that by failing to distinguish between types of causes, Sean misses the point of the argument, and so fails to refute it.

The more I think about it these underlying issues, the more I have to agree that Sean hasn’t, and in fact can’t, disprove Aristotle’s premise.  However at the same time I don’t believe Brandon or anyone else can establish the premise either.  

The assumption of the naturalist is that physical stuff that makes up our universe has always existed. Right now we think the most basic form of physical stuff is what is described by quantum mechanics (QM).  The idea we get from QM is that this “stuff” has and will always operate according to these QM laws.  There is no “cause” of it to have started, and it doesn’t require anything to sustain it either. It just exists and it does its thing.
The theist will disagree with that, but that’s our position. 

A Thomist says that all changes require some kind of cause, which is backed up by our intuitions and our everyday experience.  The problem comes from example that Carroll brings up, and from another famous example, that of radioactive decay.   Eventually radioactive elements will decay. It’s completely random, and as far as we can tell it simply happens. There’s no physical cause of it, not apparently anyway, and the best we can do is predict a range in which the decay will happen (this is the half-life of a radioactive element.

You might think this would disprove the Aristotelean metaphysic, but they will respond that just because our best theory doesn’t show that there is some kind of cause for the decay, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Perhaps there’s a better theory out there that will come about once we solve other problems in physics.  

The issue is that while it’s true we can’t definitively say there is “no cause”, it certainly appears as if there isn’t one give our best information and theories.  

So the key metaphysical principle at stake in the argument gets put in this kind of perpetual underdetermined status, never to be resolved. 

Study this stuff long enough and you’ll notice that this is a very common theme for nearly any major topic in metaphysics. Metaphysical principles are relegated to metaphysics, instead of just physics, because the principles themselves are so general and crafted in a way that they can’t in principle be proved or disproven. 

So in the end, atheists will point to things like the conservation of energy or what Sean refers to as the Quantum Eternity Theorem which says either time is infinite or it is not fundamental. Either way, looking at our best description of the physical stuff (ie. quantum mechanics) the physical stuff has “always existed”. 

A theist can counter even that evidence by saying, somewhat like Young Earth Creationists, that god still created the universe a finite time ago and made it look as if it has always existed, but there isn’t evidence of this. 

In the end, the theist holds to their metaphysical principle which is based on our intuitive “every day” experience of how the world works, and the atheist points to findings from science which undermines those intuitions and principles. 

The theist can say that our evidence doesn’t truly undermine their principles, but they can’t exactly prove that we must accept those principles either.  So round and round we go, with neither side able to prove the other wrong, because of the very nature of the question being asked.