At New Scientist, Amanda Gefter Keeps the God Hypothesis in Play

A recent article at New Scientist titled “Existence: Why is there a universe?” by Amanda Gefter concludes rather inconclusively, implying that the God hypothesis cannot be removed from the intellectual table:

Our understanding of creation relies on the validity of the laws of physics, particularly quantum uncertainty. But that implies that the laws of physics were somehow encoded into the fabric of our universe before it existed. How can physical laws exist outside of space and time and without a cause of their own? Or, to put it another way, why is there something rather than nothing?

The laws of physics might have been somehow encoded into the fabric of our universe before it existed?

By whom (or Whom), pray tell?

Were you so inclined, how might you get from Amanda Gefter’s questions to the stunning conclusion that God wrote, as it were, the universe’s “code”?

It appears that there’s really only one (rational) way to do this, and it isn’t through science. Instead, you’ve got to add to physics metaphysics.

Here’s how Father Robert Spitzer puts it in his thought-provoking book, New Proofs for the Existence of God (Eerdmans 2010, p. 23):

The scientific evidence for a beginning [to the universe] can be combined with a metaphysical premise (such as “from nothing, only nothing comes”) to render a metaphysical conclusion that there must be something beyond physical reality which caused physical reality to exist.

But could science discover something that undermines Father Spitzer’s metaphysical premise that “from nothing, only nothing comes”? For example, the following observation also appears in Amanda Gefter’s New Scientist article:

Emptiness [based on quantum theory] would have precisely zero energy, far too exacting a requirement for the uncertain quantum world. Instead, a vacuum is actually filled with a roiling broth of particles that pop in and out of existence. In that sense this magazine, you, me, the moon and everything else in our universe are just excitations of the quantum vacuum.

This would seem to render scientifically naive the whole idea that something can’t come of nothing, and so vanquish (for reasonable people) the God hypothesis.

But does it really? I would answer no.

Why?

Because a quantum vacuum operating under the laws of quantum indeterminism is still something. It’s not, strictly speaking, absolutely nothing. And this is why Amanda Gefter concludes her article the way that she does. Here’s her conclusion again:

Our understanding of creation relies on the validity of the laws of physics, particularly quantum uncertainty. But that implies that the laws of physics were somehow encoded into the fabric of our universe before it existed. How can physical laws exist outside of space and time and without a cause of their own? Or, to put it another way, why is there something rather than nothing?

So it appears that Amanda Gefter’s questions, at least on theist terms, are simply not answerable without adding metaphysics to physics.

But what about atheism? If you’re an atheist, can you just stick with physics and drop the metaphysics altogether?

Once again, I think the answer is no.

Why?

Because a person’s atheism must itself rest on one of the following metaphysical assumptions:

  1. Something cannot just come out of absolutely nothing; therefore, something has always existed, and that something—whether it is matter or the laws of physics—is eternal.
  2. Something can come from nothing; therefore, the quantum laws of physics may have just popped into existence “out of the blue” and so had a causeless beginning.

In short, if you affirm or deny God’s existence, then you can’t simply claim to derive warrants for your belief from science, but must support your position—if you are to be a rational person—with appeals to metaphysics as well.

No philosophical rest for the wicked, theist or atheist.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to At New Scientist, Amanda Gefter Keeps the God Hypothesis in Play

  1. Ray N says:

    Is it metaphysics to say in all probability it is thus and not thus, as in the 2 choices you gave us at the end of the article. Since we haven’t got total knowledge in anything, we actually kinda going around half cocked with a little bit of knowledge while thinking we know it all. Just because we know enough to accomplish things(or just enough to be dangerous), I think of the novelty of radiation, and how it was touted with great medical effects and other benefits, and tremendous positive properties, and products were manufactured to sell these wonderful breakthrough benefits, yet it turns out radiation kills you. Then there’s DDT, all the herbicides, pesticides and bad stuff Rachel Carson’s book warned us all of. This area of the g-d hypothesis, or 1st cause, can we ever know everything enough to say categorically yes or no, our Universe has nothing to do with a 1st cause?But can’t we just go with the ‘probabilities’ of what little knowledge we have, and chunk the metaphysical part to the dung heap?Metaphysics explains nothing but gives an appearance of a meaning what it actually does not have. Meta=woo.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Ray,

      I agree with you that there will always be “God of the gaps” arguments that theists can plug in, metaphysically, to keep their worldview in play. But this doesn’t mean that an atheist should dispense with paying attention to metaphysics. You should be conscious of the premises you’re working from (even if you regard them as obviously reasonable and plausible).

      And remember: atheism itself has its “atheism of the gaps” arguments (such as the multiverse hypothesis to account for the universe’s “fine tuning”).

      To pretend that human reasoning takes place without axioms derived from metaphysics is to be willfully obtuse.

      –Santi

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