Why I am not an atheist

I am not an atheist. I wish that I were. Specifically, I wish that I were a physicalist-atheist: Everything is ultimately reducible to physical existence, and nothing exists outside the physical universe; neither Zeus nor leprechauns nor any other mythical being exists; all belief should be based off of science and the scientific method; and everything in the universe (humans included) can be theoretically explained by scientific, empirical, physical knowledge.

I do not believe these things for a number of reasons. I will write about the methodological problems of science/empiricism in the future. This post is dedicated to the big question: does God exist? Get ready.

If you are familiar with the debate at all, you know what a headache it is. There are so many arguments out there, so many bad arguments. If only there were a way to sort through all that nonsense and just focus on legitimate arguments. Oh, wait! It sounds like a good time to apply that methodology which I’ve been writing about for so long! Perhaps logical reasoning can shed some light on the most heated debate around.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about religion. I am not talking about a soul. I am not talking about an afterlife. All arguments which people appropriately use against religion do not apply to the argument for the existence of god. Period.

So, we first define our terms. When I say “God”, I simply mean what Aristotle meant: a prime mover, or an uncaused cause. In other words, something not part of this physical universe which was responsible for it being in motion/existing. That’s it. “God” doesn’t mean an old man with a white beard, or some ethereal being who loves you and intervenes in your life.

To begin, I have to spend considerable time setting up the logical framework for this argument. This is incredibly important, if painstaking. Unless you are in a rush, don’t skip this part.

-The Framework-

Here’s a quick primer on one rule of logic: the proposition “P or not P” is true. Here’s what that means: replace P with any well-formed premise, and that above sentence is true. Crude examples: “It is raining, or it is not raining. I exist, or I do not exist. The cat is on the mat, or the cat is not on the mat.”  (These are not quite completely precise for reasons that aren’t important now.) All of these sentences are true, given their structure. Propositions are true, or they are not true. There is no third option.

The application of this logical rule: God (an uncaused cause) exists or God does not exist. This is true. Now, we can expand this one level further:

If God exists, either:
(A. The universe has an infinite timeline
(B. The universe does not have an infinite timeline

If God does not exist, either:
(A. The universe has an infinite timeline
(B. The universe does not have an infinite timeline

Formally, it looks something like this, where:
God = G
Infinite timeline = I
“Not” = ~

-The argument in symbols-

(a. G or ~G
(b. I or ~I
(c. If G, either I or ~I
(d. If ~G, either I or ~I

Seems straightforward. Why go through this formality? It has to do with the title of this piece. I do not claim that God exists. I claim “not-atheism”. Specifically, my focus is on premise D. If there is no God, there still must be either an infinite timeline or not an infinite timeline. If it can be shown that both of these are unsatisfactory, the logical conclusion must be not-atheism. My belief in non-atheism revolves around whether or not there is an infinite timeline.

So, if atheism, “I or ~I”. I have already written about why “~I” is false. The idea of the universe having a beginning without an uncaused cause is nonsense. This logically whittles the atheist down to one position: if atheism, there must be an infinite timeline. If there is no infinite timeline, atheism must be false. And thus, we would arrive at the conclusion, “not-atheism”.

That is the logical framework of the argument. Let’s get into the meat.

-Why I am not an atheist-

First, the conclusion: there is no movement or progression along an infinite timeline. We experience a finite series of events in the present, therefore, there must be a beginning (a first cause). Sounds too confusing, so I’ll give a few examples:

Example 1: The infinite relay race

Imagine you are in a relay race. You just received the baton from the person behind you. Can you conclude anything? Let’s break this down.

First, what do we know? We know that you just received the baton; this must happen in the present. The “present” is in relation to the immediate “past” (when you know you didn’t have the baton), and the “future” (when you know you hand the baton to the person in front of you).

Let’s say you take a look behind you. Can there be an infinite number of runners back there? Could that baton have passed over an infinite number of hands before reaching yours? Nope. It couldn’t have, by the very nature of what “infinite” means. Here is the nature of that nature:

-Infinity-

Most people don’t understand the word “infinite”. They assume it’s just a really, really big number. It’s HUGE, right? Well, it isn’t. In fact, “it” isn’t a “number” at all. Infinity is a concept. It is a never ending set. This is a 1-minute video which gives you a quick idea about the funny nature of infinity.

So, infinite + 1 = infinity. Infinite times itself infinity times = infinity. How does this apply to the relay race? Simple, if you looked behind you and saw an infinite number of runners (never mind the practical impossibility of this), you could rest assured that the baton would never reach you; it would never even be in sight! Let’s look at it from the baton’s perspective. Why at the point at which the baton is in the hands of the person behind you, is it there and not 100 people further down the line? Why wouldn’t it be 100000 people behind? Or 1000000000000000000 people? It certainly must have passed the hands of all those runners, right? In fact, given the nature of infinity, it would have to progress over an infinite series of runners to reach you. Infinite. Not really big, but never ending. See a potential problem? If this is still fuzzy, don’t worry, we have a few examples to go:

Example 2: The line at the diving board

This will illustrate the point from a different perspective. Let’s say you find yourself in an infinitely long line at the pool, waiting to get on the diving board. How long would you have to wait until it’s your turn? Well, given that infinity is not just a really big number, think about it like the Hilbert’s Hotel situation. There aren’t a billion people in front of you. Not a billion-trillion-trillion. Not even that number raised to the billion-trillion-zillionth power. Not even close. Not even THAT number raised to the zillion-kagillion-fafillion-mamaillion-smellyillionth power. In fact, how ever big that number is (I might have made up some of those words), it is not even a fraction of a fraction of infinity, literally. There is a never-ending amount of people in front of you. Can you ever reach the end of something that never ends? Think logically, not empirically (empiricists would say: “well, we would have to scientifically test such a claim!”). This is the incredible nature of infinity.

Now, imagine you are standing in line as a teammate-baton-holder from the previous example. The diving board represents the real “you”. Will the “real you” ever receive the baton? No, it will never get there. But if it did, you could conclude that the line behind you must not be infinite. One more example:

Example 3: Ball on a plank

Think of a long wooden plank. Now, imagine a ball rolling along that plank. The location of the ball along the plank represents the “present”. As the ball rolls further down the plank, time progresses. You could actually think of time being measured by the location of the ball at a given time in relation to a previous location of the ball.

Now, imagine that plank being infinite in length. With a sharpie, you mark a spot on the plank directly in front of you representing the present. The ball has an infinite amount of distance to go on that plank before it reaches you. Will it ever? Remember, it doesn’t have a really long way to go; it won’t take a really long time. It has an infinite distance to roll. It will take an infinite amount of time. It is like counting back from infinity. It can not be done. You can not even start. That’s right, there is not even a starting place to roll the ball from. To imply there was a start is to deny that it is infinitely long.

Now, what happens when the ball does roll in front of you? Can you logically conclude that it could not have passed over an infinite amount of time or an infinitely long plank? Yes, I think you can. Let me tie this back to the infinite regress problem of the universe:

-Our universe, in the present-

Events happen in the present. (the ball reached us; we got to the diving board; we received the baton; we speak chronologically in the present, etc.) This experience should be follow with the question: “Why did event X happen?”

Why did the domino just fall over? Well, the cause was the domino behind it; it fell. Why did that domino fall? Well, the domino before it fell into it. Why? You get the idea. Can we logically conclude that such an event was merely one in an infinite set? No. Not if it happens in the present. An event in the present could not logically exist without an ultimate reference point: a cause which was not caused by any cause before it. If such a thing did not exist, a present event could never be reached.

Another name for this: God. An uncaused cause. An answer to the infinite regress problem. A “prime mover”, as Aristotle put it (to crudely summarize: he believed nothing could cause its own motion; therefore, there must be a first mover, which was not moved by anything before it).

So let me be absolutely clear, again: this does not mean a prime mover loves you. It does not necessarily follow from this that Allah wants you to submit to his will, and if you do, you get a bunch of virgins once you die. No. It just means there is an uncaused cause. It means there are not an infinite amount of past events, if events happen in the present.

If this argument is sound, it leads one to the conclusion of non-atheism, or at least non-anti-uncaused-cause-ism. At the absolute least, know that it is preposterous to dismiss arguments for the existence of this kind of god. Many people try desperately to ridicule those of us who are integritous enough to believe in a prime mover in the face of mockery. Please, feel ridiculed no longer. There is certainly at least one logical, reasonable argument for the inaccuracy of atheism, regardless of how passionately one tries to dismiss you as a crank for the conclusions this seems to imply.

However, as I will write later, there are still a couple of interesting ways to get around the infinite regress problem and be a reasonable atheist. I don’t find them compelling, but you’ll just have to wait to read and decide for yourself.

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9 Responses to Why I am not an atheist

  1. Pingback: Three a week: God | one free mind

  2. Mattheus von Guttenberg says:

    Why wouldn’t it be 100000 people behind? Or 1000000000000000000 people? It certainly must have passed the hands of all those runners, right? In fact, given the nature of infinity, it would have to progress over an infinite series of runners to reach you. Infinite. Not really big, but never ending. See a potential problem?

    Xeno’s paradox. Yawn. If your logic were true, Achilles would never reach the finish line. You’re misapplying mathematical principles. Just because it’s true that there are an infinity of numbers between 7 and 8 does not make it impossible to count to 10. As a point of fact, we are currently in the present, and present events were caused by antecedent events (otherwise known as Universal Causal Determinism). An infinitely regressive universe is a corollary of UCD. The fact that we cannot articulate “how many” events that have existed is meaningless. The idea of time itself in an infinitely regressive universe is meaningless; we use it as a relative measurement, but there is no beginning.

    In a debate over the existence of God, Richard Carrier (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/carrier-wanchick/carrier2.html) responds to the same argument you’re making:

    “Wanchick also attempts “logical” arguments against an eternal universe, but these arguments contradict the sound analysis of experts in transfinite mathematics.[6] First he argues that if there were “infinite past events” then “it would be impossible to reach” the present. Therefore, “since we have reached the end, the set of past events must be finite.” But this argument requires the assumption of a starting point, which requires abandoning the premise to be disproved (that the series of past events is infinite, and therefore there was no starting point), rendering his argument fallaciously circular. For if there has been an infinite series of events, then there are an infinite number of actual places we could have appeared in that series, up to and including now. So our existence cannot argue against our being elements within an infinite series.”

    If causation exists (as we both presuppose), then all current phenomena are a product of previous causes. Previous causes were themselves “current phenomena” at some point in time, and so the chain moves down. There’s no question of a first physical cause because all events require previous causes. The argument that it’s infinite and we can’t count to infinity is meaningless. You didn’t have to elaborate on the relay race or the diving board for people to agree you can’t count to infinity. But so what? Unless you can offer a knockdown argument against UCD – or at least, the idea that all events have causes – you have progressed not an inch.

    I personally have come to the conclusion that we cannot escape an infinite regress. Wikipedia summarizes nicely:

    “There now seems to be only two possibilities – a dilemma: there is either (a) an infinite chain of causes which never “started” per se, and (b) something started causality as we understand it, but does not itself need to be caused. In other words: Did the universe or some event prior to it always exist? Or, if something needed to start the universe, what started that something – and how can we really prevent an infinite regress of causes?”

    To argue that there exist some events or substances that were not caused is to deny causality. If it is the case that God or some force “created” the universe, logic would dictate that we inquire into the causes of these beings as well.

  3. Steve says:

    Zeno’s paradoxes don’t apply to this argument (though they are excellent, and only an arrogant fool would dismiss or yawn at them). There is a difference between an infinite series of events and an infinite division between events. An argument that is concerned with trying to fit infinity between events (or points) A and B is different than one that is concerned with the infinite series of A, B, C, D, E, and so on.

    Zeno is concerned with infinitesimals; you have X, and you keep cutting it up into smaller and smaller bits, ad infinitum. In his examples, X is a set distance between two points.

    I can illustrate the differences in the arguments by analogy. Zeno is talking about pie. Specifically, about the pieces of a pie. He doesn’t think you can actually divide the universe up so that you get “one pie”, because everything in the universe “is one”; it is supposedly indivisible. Pie X is actually composed of little pieces of itself, fractions of pie. You can keep cutting the pieces of pie in half, ad infinitum, so that you will never actually reach the stage of one whole pie, you will always logically be a little bit short. This is the nature of an infinite division.

    I am not concerned with infinite division, but an infinite series of complete events. I am not concerned with cutting one pie up into smaller pieces, but whether or not you can an infinite number of whole pies can exist. This means I am not concerned with dividing up the whole distance X between the arrow and the target, but whether or not the arrow would ever hit the target if it was shot over an infinite number of non-fractional obsticles.

    (I say non-fractional obsticles because one might argue that “one” obsticle is actually an infinite number of obsticles, because you can keep dividing that obsticle into littler micro-obsticles.)

    I want to know, if you reach the diving board, can there be an infinite number of whole people behind you? I am not concerned with cutting the people up into smaller and smaller bits to prove that a person can not exist separate from the universe.

    Again, Zeno is really saying, “You can’t have point A and B and a line in between, because all lines must be infinite.” (Because you can have an infinite amount of fractions [micro-points])

    I am saying “You can’t reach point C if there is an infinitely long line behind you.”

    Also, you might say, “well, any movement whatsoever is over an infinite amount of physical things; there is no such thing as a “whole” amount of anything because it can always be divided.”

    I say there is a good logical response to this. Physical things must have an ultimate level of existence; you reach a point where you can’t divide any more in physical reality, only mentally. Let’s say the base “bit” of physical existence is the sub-quark (which is made up). It is only a mental exercise to say “cut a subquark in half, what do you get?”. This can not be done in physical reality. If it could, you as a complete, finite whole could never exist, for the reasons that Zeno pointed out. You can not add up infinity to get a finite number. Motion would also be impossible. Luckily, it isn’t.

  4. See Krauss and Hawking says:

    Such a pity that you went to all that trouble to reproduce the flawed and rebutted WLC argument.

    Feel free to watch the Lawrence Krauss & Steven Hawking videos on youtube.
    Not only is the WLC reasoning you copy flawed (as has been pointed out manytimes) but there is actually a scientific theory to explain it.

    Choice between a flawed contradictory philosophical argument, and a scientific approach consistent with obersvational evidence ? Tough choice !

  5. Shade says:

    Please refer to David Mills “Atheist Universe” book, specifically chapter on first cause.

  6. KemalCS says:

    WLC uses actual and potential infinity in a very different sense.

    An actual infinity is something which is completed and definite and consists of infinitely many element

    Potentially infinite sequence or a series is potentially endless; being a potentially endless series means that one element can always be added to the series after another, and this process of adding elements is never exhausted.

    Unlike WLC thought, it has nothing to with physical reality.

    Atheists do not claim that material world began to exist infinite time ago. It never began to exist. Therefore past is potentially infinite, not actual infinite. So Hilbert Hotel is irrelevant about atheists’ claim. Hilbert Hotel shows that material world began to exist infinite time ago is a false. Yeah but who claims that. It’s just a straw man.

    For example, according to current cosmology universe will always exists..its expansion will never stop. So we can derive that future is infinite. 5 minutes later, it will be still infinite because when I say future is infinite or universe does not have an end, I don’t say that universe has an end infinite time after. Catch the point?

    KCA also depends on A-Theory of Time. According to A-Theory of Time only present really exists. Future do not exits yet, and past is already past. In B-Theory of time, past, present and future is equally real and our sense of time flow is an illusion.

    If Einstein – Minkowski interpretation of STR is true, then B-Theory of Time is true. That’s why Craig uses Neo – Lorentizan interpretation of STR not Einstein – Minkowski interpretation which is accepted by majority of scientist

  7. Pingback: The methodology of trust | one free mind

  8. ftn says:

    The argument that I will never reach the diving board isn’t valid over infinite time. Let us suppose that the diving board is very high, and the people in the line apart from me are all the same, so we can define one minute as the time it takes one person to dive.
    Then, for every person in the line, there is a minute of infinity-minus-one time before now when that person can dive. Then, there is still a minute in which I can dive, and (because of the infinity-plus-infinity thing) there is still also a minute for everyone after me, even if infinite people ‘cut in’ in front of me. Infinite time can fit just as many busloads of infinite people as infinite rooms can. Equally, if you try to tell me that for each minute, there is a person who wants to dive before me, then that doesn’t change the fact that I can wait an extra minute for every additional person just as easily as that person can be found. While I don’t dispute your premises, your deductions aren’t sound.
    Also, infinite busloads of people wouldn’t fit into the hotel, as you claim in passing. The hotelier can hardly tell everyone to walk down to the infinity-times-their-room-number-plus-oneth room, because then there are infinite people in room infinity-plus-one (that’s a lie; room infinity-plus-one doesn’t exist at all, and the person in room 1 can’t walk to a room for which there isn’t an infinite busload of people). That is the difference between the number of rational numbers (fractions) and the number of real numbers.

  9. Pingback: The methodological error of "faith" | one free mind

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