philosophy science technology

causal chain

Think of causality as a chain.  (Leaving aside Aristotle’s other varieties of causation [formal, efficient and final] we’ll just focus on material causation alone…)

  • Much of the chain we can see with our eyes
  • Quite a bit more of the chain has been brought into view with modern technology and scientific methodology
  • The rest of the chain (actually, even some/most of it seen with technology/science) we can only see with our intellect/imagination, using things like reason, logic, philosophy, etc.

As our technology and methods get better and stronger, we can be sure that more and more of the chain will come into view, so to speak…  But now, as always, we cannot know how far down the causal chain we are looking.  What we may think of as 95% down the chain may be only .0001%.  (Or the chain may be infinite, if you believe that infinity is not just a mathematical concept, but has a real example – the physical [multi/uni]verse).

Enter Hawking and Mlodinow’s new book, ‘The Grand Design’ – or I should say, enter the internet flurry of talk over the new book (Ken has nicely collected the relevant links), as most people (myself included) have not read the book yet.  I have only seen the claim that physics has answered the question of why there is something rather than nothing, as well as the idea that God wasn’t ‘needed’ for the Big Bang, etc.

What this is claiming is not only that we’ve seen the final link in the causal chain – we know there are no other links.

(note: what follows is not pretending to be interaction with the new book, but rather reflecting on the issues raised by it.)

I can imagine the atheist response, “Well, you think God is the final Link in the chain, so you are also claiming ‘there are no other links’.”

At one level, I don’t disagree.  Indeed, what the atheist must (or at least tends to) claim for Nature, the theist claims for God.  Both think they have identified the Thing beyond which no other ‘T[t]hings” lie.  Based on the admittedly tiny quote I’ve seen from a NZ Herald story, Hawking seems to think that the law of gravity is the ‘Thing’ that is just simply there?  I’d be interested to see if he deals to the obvious question that this begs – namely the question of the origin or cause of the Law of Gravity.

Also related to the discussion seems to be Quantum Indeterminacy.  I’ve never ever understood how this could even begin to contribute to the question of why something rather than nothing.  Claims that matter is being spontaneously created at the quantum level go way beyond anything we can actually observe.  This is where language needs to be precise.  Rather than saying that matter flicks back and forth in/out of existence, we ought to say that it flicks in/out of observability – given our current technology and methodology.

And even if we were certain (which we cannot ever be) that we were looking at the final link in the quantum causal chain, how do you ever run an experiment to test for divine action?  Most conceptions of God as Creator (well at least non-Deistic ones) hold that God is not just the Creator in terms of ex nihilo, but also in the sense of creatio continua; faithful, sustaining, moment-by-moment, on-going creative action.  If we believe, as we do, that the Creator is to be credited (ultimately) for the lengthening of a single blade of grass, then we also believe that Quantum behaviour, however known/unknown, is also dependent (ultimately) on divine creative action.

But at another level, I do disagree.  For God should not be thought of as just another link in a chain, let alone a chain of physical causation.  God should be thought of as the Anchor at the end of the chain – which is not the chain itself, but nonetheless has a permanent, fundamental and foundational relationship to the chain.

All analogies eventually break down, so I’m under no illusion that this one has great lasting power.  But nonetheless, imagine a person happening upon the end of a long chain that goes around a corner or out of sight.  The chain is moving.  It seems to me that the atheist claim is that nothing is moving the chain – it moves all by itself.

One reply on “causal chain”

Judaism and Christianity have generally held the view that God is distinct from the physical universe. That no part of God (if one can speak that way) is made or created.
However, alongside this is the recognition that God is still intimately involved, not only out of interest, but particularly in continual sustaining and reforming of the universe’s existence.
Contrary to this perspective, some philosophical and pantheistic views equate physical phenomenon as God, as the visible aspect and substance of God.
To be sure the picture of the relationship of the universe and God is fraught with linguistic problems. Especially ones that see God so distinct that God has no ongoing participation in the universe or oppositely, God being so indistinctive that the everything is God.
For Christians, past adoption of any part of these contrary perspectives, gives rise to a false spiritual/physical duality. Biblical teaching describes an interrelated continuum, particularly distinctive when defining humankind as souls, not a creature being an amalgam of parts.
Not unusually, the just-so statements of biblical scholars, scientists and philosophers regarding there being evidence of God or no God, have to be regarded as based on faith. Faith that uses logic and reason based on presuppositions that interpret the evidence apprehended within the span of human history not limited by the scientific method.
Where people disregard any aspect of human understanding, they truncate a true and total understanding of reality. And this has a total effect on human history. An understanding that affects not only essential human relationships but also the ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ we build our physical infrastructure.
The idea that the physical universe can be explained as a complete self-sustaining phenomenon is not surprising. If the God who created it is not physical, God will not be detectable in physical terms. The physical causality we currently detect is only by degrees – macro to micro. Science doesn’t make a claim to a complete picture, no matter how adamant some promoters. It is unlikely to have that ability as well, because its presuppositions and prerequisites pertain specifically to physical phenomena, explained in physical terms.

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