Monday, 11 May 2009

Scott Pruett replies to atheists: Cosmic Origins

Scott Pruett, who asked 10 questions for atheists and to whom I replied here, has started writing replies to various answers provided by atheists in his own blog. I do appreciate that Pruett is attempting to address and engage with "us" and not just asking question without bothering to see what the replies were.

He deals with the complaint raised by many that he was not actually addressing atheism per se with:
I will have to agree that "materialist" is probably a better word for what I describe here, and that this represents a subset of the "atheist" population. However, it is the largest subset, the most vocal, and in my mind it is what most reasonably follows from the concept of atheism. I am not, here, concerned with atheists who make room for spiritual elements, and apparently Tremblay does indeed know what I mean by "beyond this world," since he continues on to list several fine examples of otherworldly things, like souls and ghosts. It seems to me that if one is comfortable with the idea of immaterial beings, then there isn't any principled difficulty with the idea that one Being might be greater than us and precede even the material world that we inhabit.
Well, for the purposes here, I am a a posteriori naturalist, the result of a deflationary metaphysics, still this is a broader category than either materialism or physicalism, and, it is true, all being united in rejecting supernaturalism. Secondly as I noted in my answers, many atheists who do reject the one big god, still can have supernatural beliefs and certainly many Buddhists would have much to say against the conclusion that Pruett makes in his last sentence. The idea of one Being greater and preceding everything is still a huge leap even if one grants supernaturalism.

Pruett then answers some replies to his first question in his post A Question of Comsic Origins.
Now my answer basically was:
So the simple answer is we do not know, but if one desires to attempt to answer we can say the hypothesis of a creator god is both on coherence and Occam principles well near the bottom of the pile of candidate answers. I have no need to dwell on this question any further as it is also incredibly unlikely that any answer would make the remotest substantive difference to my life. I have bigger questions to examine that might bear more significance to me as an atheist and as a naturalist.
Another point I made on this and the his next two questions was:
If we had settled for the comforting falsehoods of religious explanations we - and Pruett himself - would have known far less about the origins and order of the universe and abiogenesis. It was only by questioning and rejecting those comforting explanations and seeking the truth in answers in nature that we now know what we know. Pruett seems to have this upside down, we have the latest and best answers to these age old questons. The knowledge upon which Pruett - however inadequately and biased he forms his questions - are the answers that any naturalist would provide.
Anyway Pruett addresses various answers but of interest is him saying, in reply to another respondent, but could equally apply to my reply:
Fine. That is an honest and somewhat acceptable answer. Every worldview must be permitted some mysteries. But if this is a satisfactory response for all the intractable problems of materialism, then atheists shall forever be free to think themselves rational, since science will always be "looking into it." However, I doubt they would be so kind as to allow us to reply to their tough questions with, "I don't know, but our theologians are looking into it."
I prefer approaches that explain more rather than less and this is where Pruett's world-view falls down. As for this question, I do not think this problem is intractable. Very difficult for sure but not intractable. Maybe it is, but our knowledge as it stands on this topic is barely 50 to 100 years old and much is of more recent origin. This is work in progress and yes "our physicists are looking into it" but what a contrast here there is to theologians - they have been looking into this for nigh on 2000 years (at least Christian theologians) and what have they contributed to our current knowledge of cosmic origins? Nada, niente, nothing. Pruett's last sentence here is based on a false analogy, our complaint over theologians is their repeated failure to contribute to such knowledge, an accusation that simply cannot be made over physicists.
The bottom line is that there's really not an explanation for the origin of the universe, and naturalistic explanations are simply occasions to engage in sci-fi narratives.
Sci-fi is science fiction not fact, of course. Good science fiction - apart from it's literary qualities which dont apply here - is something is must be scientifically not just possible but plausible. Regardless of Pruett mistakenly using this as a pejorative term what he offers, by contrast, is something that, given everything we know is highly implausible. His choice is far closer to fantasy than good (or bad) science fiction.
Without overstating my case, it seems reasonable to say that evidence for a beginning to this universe is at least problematic for materialistic atheism. And even while atheists can avoid a proof for God by eternally leaving the question open to scientific investigation, we should be able to say that a cosmic origin is at least consistent with theism, particularly classical Christian theism.
No, this is not consistent with classical Christian theism. Is this consistent with a modern reformed Christian theism - one that rejects Young Earth Creationism and other bogus scientific claims- probably yes but so what. There are numerous creation myths and they all share the same 1 out of 2 probability of asserting an origin versus not asserting an origin. Most, if not all, could be suitably reformed as has Christian theology in the light of insights from science. There a likely a high number if not an infinity (many not invented or imagined us of course)of consistent explanation for the origins of this universe in the cosmos. Consistency is a bare minimum requirement, necessary yes but sufficient no. One needs much more than that to have a viable and plausible explanation and Pruett offers none.

Pruett finishes on an interesting point:
Even if the atheist were to concede the need of a creator, it is another thing to demonstrate the nature of that creator. For this reason, the Cosmological Argument can never be more than an argument for theism in general{4}, and must work in conjunction with other arguments to arrive at the God of Christian theism.

Well the creator could have destroyed itself in the creation of this universe and there are many other answers, granting the dubious need for a "creator". Pruett is correct to make this concession as the gap between a creator "god" (or as Pruett has it by defintion that the creator is a god) and the Christian God is huge and this God is highly unlikely based on on other arguments.

Note that for me this whole process serves to provide insight into a radically different world-view from my own, as a world-view such as Pruett's has never made the slightest bit of sense to me. It would be nice if I could see how it could make sense - which is a long way from being correct of course - but nothing I have read from Pruett or from comments to my answers here, such as by Tom Gilson, have helped, yet. That is I fail to see why anyone has the urge to seek answers as they do but do recognise that such urges can lead to the type of answers they give. It is the underlying motives behind constructing a world-view that Pruett and Gilson espouse that is deeply puzzling. Maybe the exercise of engaging in this will help me certainly understand what these urges are.