Why We Must Be More Modest
It is a sobering fact of Philosophy that everything we think we know actually stands on shaky philosophical grounds. Anyone that has studied Philosophy academically will be aware that general scepticism about what we can claim to know is incredibly difficult to shake off.
What many will not be aware of is how difficult it is to justify the scientific method philosophically. Although anybody that knows this fact will not seriously consider abandoning the use of the scientific method, there is no solid philosophical reason why we should continue to use the scientific method. The problem of induction has been with us at least since Hume’s famous discussion of it in the 18th century, and it strikes right at the core of the mechanisms employed in scientific inquiry. The problem is still hotly debated in modern day Philosophy and no convincing solution has been agreed upon.
To put it succinctly, the problem of induction maintains that we have no reason to suppose that laws of nature that governed phenomena in the past will continue to govern phenomena in the future. Science is all about elevating the relations we see in natural phenomena to the status of timeless laws. If the problem of induction has no solution, the scientific method rests on murky waters.
But that should not be a reason to throw science away! Everything you think you know is on equally troublesome ground! Descartes was probably right when he announced that our own existence is the only thing we can be sure of “Cogito ergo sum”.
The take home lesson from this is not that we should abandon the scientific method, but that we should be sobered by the realisation that everything we know is uncertain.
It is not difficult to find online forums and blog posts that proclaim facts and arguments as if they were certain. People of all philosophical alignments will do this. Theists will proclaim what they believe to be indisputable facts like: “Something must have caused the Big Bang”, and atheists are often guilty of prophetically declaring their favourite origin story for the universe: “Quantum fluctuations produced the universe” or “Many-worlds explains fine-tuning”.
What Theists Should NOT Do
In general, nearly all of the scientific community will agree that the Big Bang model is broadly correct. At a time 14 billion years ago, the content of the universe was squashed into a much smaller space and temperatures and densities tended to infinity. Very few serious physicists will deny this.
What is not agreed upon is how the universe worked in the first seconds it existed. Some physicists will argue for a singularity at the beginning of the universe, others for an oscillating universe, some even argue that we’re living inside a black hole. The point is that there are many viable ideas about what happened closer to the time of the Big Bang.
What is universally agreed however is that at the moment of the Big Bang, Physics did not behave how it does now. Most will argue that laws of nature obtained (although some will dispute even this) but that we don’t know yet what these laws are.
In any case, my point is that everything we think is certain – laws of logic, laws of causality, laws of nature, probably don’t work when applied to times close to the Big Bang. Whenever theists claim that “the universe began to exist and so must have a cause”, this claim is based on logic that applies to things we see around us in the old, mature universe, but we have no current reason to support that this logic obtains at the Big Bang. Causation is a physical concept, and if the laws of physics are strange at the Big Bang, the logic of causality will be too.
It’s a category error anyway to claim that because everything we see in the universe that begins to exist has a cause, that we can apply this logic to the entire universe itself.
Don’t take me to mean that the ordinary laws of causality definitely don’t apply to the early universe, they may indeed do. The point however is that there is no reason to suppose that they do, it’s much more likely given the incomprehensible conditions at the beginning of the universe that they don’t.
What Atheists Should NOT Do
There is no model of the early universe that has considerably more support than any other in the scientific community. It is wrong then to assert any particular model as being “the” alternative explanation of the origin of the universe to God.
What’s important is not that one of these models is the way that the universe works, but that there are a wide range of models that are viable as alternative explanations of the universe to God. All of these explanations have their difficulties, but this is to be expected. If one of them had no difficulties then we would already have solved the problem. The important thing is that none of these alternative explanations have fatal flaws. They’ve all got issues to sort out, but they are all viable models and could be the way that the universe actually functions.
We don’t know exactly what happened at the Big Bang, but we have a range of ideas without having to resort to a god of the gaps, and this is what atheists should focus on.
Anyone that makes certain claims about the way the universe worked at the time of the Big Bang is speaking with an authority that they have no right to maintain. Until we have a better understanding of the Physics of the early universe, we should not apply conventional logic to it. All that can be done is to analyse the logic within suggested models of cosmology. Many theists are guilty of appealing to logic without a cosmological model, many atheists are guilty of settling on a particular model as being the only viable one.