Answering my Readers: the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church edition
The paragraph Alana quotes (adding the conclusion of the argument, which she didn’t quote) says:
Q. About subtopic (a), How is it proved from the existence of the universe that there is a God apart from it?
1.) The universe, (the earth and the heavenly bodies) could not come into being of itself because it consists of matter, which is inert. (A body is called inert, when it of itself, without external influence, cannot change its state.) Therefore there must be a personal Power apart from it, which gave it its beginning. And this personal Power is God.
The conception the Reverend has of matter seems taken straightly from scholastic philosophy, with no contamination from modern science. It is unclear what is to be understood by the “state” of a body, but on any natural reading, the assertion that matter is inert in the defined sense is false. As a very simple example, take an lump of an unstable element, such as uranium; left to itself and without external influence, it will emit spontaneously (at times not predictable except in a statistic, probabilistic way) a radiation of particles (radioactivity) and its atoms will transform gradually into different ones. Contrary to what I hastily wrote in a comment to the previous post, this also can happen to elementary particles: the muon, for example, transforms spontaneously into an electron, a neutrino and an antineutrino, even though it is currently believed to be elementary (not composed of more basic particles). There are hundreds of other examples one can give of material systems that change their state without external influence, and one does not need fancy complicated physics: how about a digital clock, continuously updating the display? An ordinary alarm clock, suddenly ringing? A volcano erupting? And so on…
But leaving aside all this, the argument is still an obvious non sequitur. Substituting the definition of “inert”, the structure of the argument is:
(1) Matter cannot change its state without external influence.
(2) Therefore, it could not come into being of itself.
(3) Therefore, there must be a personal Power apart from it, which gave it its beginning.
How does (2) follow from (1)? (1) is only about how matter can change, while (2) is about how it can begin to exist. Okay, perhaps we can allow for “coming to exist”, as a subspecies of change, though it sounds strange. But (3) certainly doesn’t follow from (2) and (1). No argument is made to show that matter could not have existed forever. Even if such an argument could be made, it still wouldn’t follow that it was created by a personal power. “Personal” qualities (consciousness, intelligence, purposefulness, etc.) are empirical features of the world that we see exemplified in only a few beings on the surface of a tiny planet. To attribute them, without any argument, to the unknown First Cause of the universe is to make a gigantic leap in reasoning that cannot be left unjustified.
I see this as the main stumbling block of cosmological arguments for a deity, even those that are much more sophisticated than this one. I do not find the case for a First Cause or a Necessary Being persuasive (I think I can conceive perfectly well an infinite regress of causes or explanations), but even if there is an Ultimate Explanation, maybe it takes a “formal” nature more akin to a physical or mathematical principle than to a Being; and even if it is a Being of sorts, I have never seen any good reason to suppose it to be a personal one. Most of the arguments for this that I have seen depend on a spurious dichotomy between Matter and Persons (or in other words, between mechanical and teleological explanations), together with a spurious conception of Matter as “inert” and Persons as “active” (or in other words, of mechanical explanations as always needing further ones, while teleological ones get a free pass as acts of will.)
All these are concepts and distinctions that fit perfectly into the scholastic, medieval view of the world and very badly into the modern scientific one. I’m not saying that modern science can prove medieval philosophy to be “wrong”, except in a few peripheral matters. One can always start from a philosophical system, declared to be a priori known, and interpret the whole of world and science according to it. But I find it more reasonable to begin with modern science as a solid starting point (there is much more agreement among scientists that among philosophers, after all!) and then try to build up a philosophy that squares well with it. And according to such a naturalistic philosophy, purposes and intentions are not free-standing fundamental metaphysical categories but just features of the way we describe and explain at a high, emergent level the behaviour of some very complex material systems –us.
I have sidetracked, however, discussing more general cosmological arguments and my opinions on them, rather than concentrating on Rev. Demetry’s arguments. This is sensible, because Demetry’s next arguments are unbelievably silly. The Introduction to the document does not give any dates, but one can infer from it that Demetry lived in the twentieth century, and not too long ago. Were it not for this, this argument would make me think he was writing in the sixteen hundreds. His scientific knowledge has not surpassed that stage:
2.) The Universe, according to the astronomers, moves, and moves regularly, and in circles (rotates). This rotating movement needed a power apart from the universe to produce this motion, and, in order that the power should not be exhausted or become larger or smaller, a Personal and Omnipotent Power is needed to renew the power which is lost on account of the friction of the motion, and to regulate it so that the motion might always be uniform.
The Universe rotates??? God renews the power lost in the friction???
*shaking my head in disbelief, as if having seen a living fossil in the wild.*
Demetry seems to be taking a leaf from Isaac Newton, who argued that God’s action was needed to keep the solar system perpetually moving because otherwise the perturbations that some planets cause to the orbits of others would make it unstable. But even Newton (and Kepler before him) knew that the planets do not move in circles but in ellipses. And the idea of the whole universe rotating is even more obsolete: it only makes sense in the geocentric cosmology that Copernicus and Galileo overthrowed. It is not only the Reverend’s philosophy that is medieval… Of course, even in Newton’s days his argument was attacked on philosophical grounds by Leibniz, who said it was diminishing of God’s perfection to have to tinker continuously with his creation like a clumsy watchmaker. The point was rendered moot when later it was proven that Newton’s calculations were wrong and that the Solar System can survive by itself without any external tinkering. Nowadays arguments for God from misunderstandings of physical cosmology invoke more usually the Big Bang; their philosophy is not much better (see the link for my comment), but their science is at least updated.
I will not go on with Demetry’s next arguments for the existence of God, which are not much better than the ones above. I will, however, quote a passage that made me jump in my seat when I saw it, from the section on the Trinity. We read:
Q. Can we understand the Holy Trinity?
A. No, because it is a mystery.
Q. What is a mystery?
A. A mystery is a truth which we cannot understand.
So far so good; I would certainly accept that there are many truths we cannot understand at present, and maybe there are some that we cannot even understand in principle (though this would depend on how we understand “truth”; deep philosophical waters await there). Of course I would reject that the Trinity is one such truth, and moreover I would reject that we can ever have warranted belief in a truth if we believe we cannot even in principle understand it; one could also wonder what is meant exactly by believing something you do not understand, beyond repeating the words in an empty way. But certainly there is material there for a thoughtful philosophical or theological discussion. Look, however, how Rev. Demetry tries to argue this matter:
Q. Is it right that we should reject everything which we cannot understand?
A. No, because there are many things which we do not understand, but which exist, and which we use continually; for example, magnetism, electricity, gravity, etc.
*blinks and stares*
Snarky reaction: “Well, the fact that you don’t understand them doesn’t mean anyone else can’t, after just a couple of years of basic physics courses!”
More serious reaction: We do understand magnetism, electricity, and gravity; I can write, in just a couple of lines, the equations that these phenomena satisfy in all conditions that have been studied so far. Of course, this understanding is not complete: we don’t know for sure if these same equations hold in other conditions we haven’t tested yet; indeed, we have reason to believe they don’t hold –for example- at very small length scales, and we do not understand what equations replace them. But exactly to the degree to which we don’t understand these phenomena, we lack as well any warranted beliefs about them. To the extent that we don’t understand gravity at the quantum scale, we do not hold the belief that gravity “exists” at that scale, and in that sense we “reject” it, or at least we remain agnostic. So as an analogy to the Trinity, this is absolutely dreadful and backfires completely against the Reverend: following the analogy would be a good reason for me to not believe in the Trinity. Even knowing next-to-nothing about the theological conception of the Trinity, I am sure I could write a better defense of it than this one, in the spirit of Sean's recent post.
I hope I have answered Alana’s question without being too aggressive or dismissive. I do not think that religious people are necessarily stupid or even irrational (see here), and I think some theological arguments deserve to be taken seriously. But I'm sorry to say that I cannot take seriously those of Rev. Constas H. Demetry.