Nature Cannot Have a Natural Origin

In a recent discussion in this space, I made the argument that the Big Bang posed a particular problem for dogmatic naturalists.

A naturalist is someone who holds that all events in nature have a natural explanation.

A dogmatic naturalist is someone who holds that all events whatsoever, whether in nature or out, have a natural explanation, or, to put it another way, that even things which seem at first glance not to allow for a natural explanation must be assumed to have one, despite any evidence or common sense to the contrary.

‘All events in nature’ is a phrase that refers to the cosmos, or the universe. (Because the possibility of parallel timespace continuums was discussed, I was careful to define ‘universe’ for the purposes of this discussion to mean the one sum total of nature. All things that happen in timespace, this or any other, even if internal singularities or boundaries make them mutually unable to touch, are inside the universe. By this definition, the multiverse imagined by Roger Zelazny or Michael Moorcock is a universe: the shadows or particular worlds are merely parts, continuums, worlds, or areas within it. I introduced this terminology to avoid ambiguity. If you wish to use an equally unambiguous terminology, feel free.)

By the universe, I mean nature. I mean the realm of extension and duration, which an observer has or could gain empirical knowledge through the medium of sense impression, where effect follows cause, and natural laws define the external forces operating on bodies. I am not including those things which are arguably mental, a priori, noumenal, or, if you prefer, spiritual. I am not including the Platonic world of forms or the logical realm of pure mathematical ideas as part of nature, part of physics: they are not, strictly speaking, part of the universe or dependent on the Big Bang in terms of cause and effect. No event at one millionth of a picoseconds after the Big Bang went off makes twice two equal four or makes it so that “A is A.”

Unfortunately, in my argument, I used the word ‘supernatural’ which caused an ambiguity.

My argument was this:

1. According to the latest scientific model, the universe had a starting point some 15 Billion years ago.

2. Not just the matter and energy in the universe came into being then, but, rather, nature itself came into being, which includes time itself.

3. There is no point in history ‘before’ time came into being, any more than there is a latitude ‘northward’ of the North Pole: the wording is meaningless.

4. Not just the matter and energy in the universe came into being then, but, rather, nature itself came into being, which includes causation, the category of cause and effect.

5. There is no cause in the chain of cause and effect which ‘caused’ causation came into being, any more than there is a latitude ‘northward’ of the North Pole: the wording is meaningless.

6. Not just the matter and energy in the universe came into being then, but, rather, nature itself came into being.

7. There is no natural cause for nature itself. We cannot speak of the laws of nature (and I mean that real laws indeed, universal laws and not mere local ordinances) arising from the operation of the laws of nature, any more that we can speak of a latitude northward of the North Pole.

Given this, there are a finite number of cases:

1. Despite the principles of science, we say everything came from nothing for no reason, and there is no rational account to be made of the event. Logic and science alike must fall mute, and there is no making sense of it.

2. Despite the appearances, we say the event was not the origin of the universe and the beginning of time, but merely a local event, pertaining only to a local area of the universe, that section of timespace occupied by us.

3. Despite reason, we say the event was caused by another type of cause which operates in some medium of time unknown to us, called “imaginary time” or “othertime” where events have a relationship not like cause and effect, called “othercause and othereffect”, and some previous but natural and mechanical something, a thing like the universe but not the universe, called an “otherverse.” Some othercause in the otherverse operated across othertime to produce the universe, but this cannot be called supernatural, because it must be assumed that the otherverse has its own laws of nature, which are as blind and automatic as our own.

4. If we assume science and reason still obtain, and if we assume things are as they appear, we say that since the argument eliminates any natural reason for the event, by process of elimination, a supernatural reason must obtain.

I then asked which of the four cases satisfied the principle of parsimony, that is, which required the fewest unsupported assumptions?

Nothing can be said about the first case: it is merely an insolent denial of the principle that underpin both scientific reasoning and reasoning in other fields. If things happen for no reason, there is no reason to discuss it.

Please note that if the first case were slightly reworded, it would be reasonable. If the first case were merely the claim that empirical knowledge reaches a halting point at the origin of timespace, fair enough. Obviously there can be no empirical knowledge of those things empiricism cannot address.

The second case has nothing to support it, and merely rejects the empirical data, which says that the Big Bang was the origin of the universe. We are left with either the possibility that there was a true Big Bang sometime earlier than our apparent and local Big Bang, or the possibility of an infinite regress of causes. The first possibility reverts to the case under discussion: even if the Big Bang is earlier than seems, it is still the origin of timespace, and no natural cause can be given for such an origin. The second possibility not only dismisses the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it leads to the logical difficulty of there being no cause that defined the successive effects: if you have an infinite row of already-toppled dominoes stretching out without limit to your left, on what grounds can you state that at one time any given domino was toppled by its previous domino? While you can have a number line with no origin, I do not see how you can have a chain of cause and effect with no origin, because causes have to actually happen to produce the next effect.

The third case makes several assumptions for which there is no warrant, no evidence, and no rational argument either for or against. First, it assumes “othertime”, a meaningless concept invented for no other purpose than to participate in this discussion. We see no evidence of othertime anywhere in the empirical world, and logic does not allow us to deduce a category of “othertime” given anything in the world of ideas. It is not defined. Likewise for “othercause and othereffect” and “otherverse” and so on. 

The third case reverts to the fourth case, that is, “othertime” is eternity and “othercause” is final cause, unless we make an additional unfounded assumption: that the otherverse is like ours a natural universe, bound by timespace, and governed by blind and automatic laws of nature. But since the otherverse exists only as a meaningless neologism—it is a place before time and outside of space where something like events but not events happen—this assumption begs the question.

The fourth case is, of course, the commonly held opinion of mankind.

Now, one counter-argument that surprised me went something like this:

1. I define the word “supernatural” to mean that which does not exist. “Natural” means that which is governed by laws of nature, and anything outside this would therefore have no laws, no reason, nothing sensible can be said about it.

2. Since the fourth case is the supernatural case, it assumes a paradox: that which cannot exist does exist.

3. Ergo, the third case, no matter how many unfounded assumptions it makes, how farfetched those assumptions are, is more parsimonious than the fourth case.

This counterargument is one that approaches a weak spot in my argument, merely because I did not define my terms.

By “supernatural” we, of course, did not mean that which does not by definition exist.

I say:

1. Everything is either natural or supernatural

2. All of nature (the universe) did not arise from a natural cause

3. Hence all of nature arose from a supernatural cause.

4. Therefore the supernatural exists.

He answered, more or less, like this:

1. Everything is natural; the supernatural does not exist.

2. All of nature (the universe) did not arise from a natural cause

3. Hence, all of nature arose from another kind of natural cause unknown to man, which is not a supernatural cause, because everything is natural.

4. Because everything is natural, the supernatural does not exist.

His argument is circular. Yes, if we assume at the outset that the supernatural does not exist, and yes, if the universe as a whole can have no natural cause, then, yes, we can conclude that the universe does not have a supernatural cause.

But this circular logic eludes the heart of the matter. If, as modern science says, not just stars and planets, matter and energy, and not just time and space, but also the laws of nature and the laws of cause and effect have an origin, either 15 billion years ago or earlier, then that origin-event has no natural explanation.

By a ‘natural explanation’ here I mean an explanation that defines the effect only in terms of mechanical cause (sometimes called historical cause). Mechanical cause means the motions of inanimate bodies, which are moved under external pressures and forces, not by deliberate design, and having no final cause nor purpose.

Mechanical cause is sharply distinguished from final cause, which applied to intelligent action, or animate action, which is done for the sake of a goal or end-result.

To make this distinction clear: when an evil assassin from SPECTRE throws James Bond out of an airplane, Bond falls in the fashion described by mechanical cause. The forces acting on his body (gravity, lateral momentum, wind resistance, and so on) define or describe the parabola of his fall. (We can discount the minor local motions caused by his moving his limbs as he falls, which, at best, might change the cross-section of his wind resistance.) However, the act of throwing Bond out of the plane has a final cause, which implies some end the assassin hopes to achieve, and a selection among available possible means to achieve it.

Final cause does not necessarily imply reasoned deliberation. We routinely speak of final causes in relation to the passions of animals and the motions of plants, and even to the design of tools; we speak also of the ‘end’ or purpose of evolution or of the free market or of masses of people, even though a certain care and precision is needed when speaking this way to avoid the pathetic error of attributing human characteristics to non-human things. A flower turns its head toward the sun due to mechanical causes of flexing its stem, brought about by the impact of heat and light, but it is no error to say the action has a final cause, which is to achieve the end of preserving the plant’s vitality by efficient absorption of sunlight. To say the plant yearns for or seeks sunlight is not an error; to say that a falling body yearns for or seeks to position itself at the center of gravity with the planet is.

Now then, nature in the sense of physics deal only with mechanical causes. Physics has no need of the category of ends and means, and no concepts to deal with it. A study that deals with living beings, such as economics, or ethics, is not in this position: economics makes statements about reality that cannot be understood except by recourse to the category of means and ends: the law of supply and demand, or Gresham’s law, or Say’s law, cannot be understood without reference to the ends sought by men participating in the market, and the means used.

By these definitions, the pathway of the fall of James Bond from the airplane would be defined by natural causes, defined by the forces working on him. The purpose or end intended by the evil SPECTRE agent by throwing Bond from the plane would not have a natural cause.

If this terminology seems odd, let us use the slightly more technical terms of phenomenal and noumenal.

The fall-path is a phenomenon. The motion of the falling body is an empirical fact, and we learn of these facts through our sense impressions. All knowledge of the natural world comes through our sense impressions. The intent of the evil SPECTRE assassin is not a phenomenon. Even if the physical aspects of the words he uses to describe his motive are phenomena, such as the mass & location of the ink-molecules in his letter to us, or the pressure waves issuing from his throat accompanying his spoken report, the meaning of his words, and the thoughts, concepts, ideas and categories behind those meanings are not phenomena, and are not known through empirical data.

The things not known through phenomena are called “noumena”. To use a simple example, the way we know the SPECTRE assassin is a person and not a wax dummy cleverly designed by the Deceiver hypothesized by Descartes, is because we have noumenal knowledge of our own self-awareness, and through a rational process of judgment, we see that the motions and actions of the SPECTRE assassin that he is a rational being like ourselves. We are immediately, without the interposition or interpretation of any sense impressions, aware of our own internal noumenal reality: our self-awareness, our conscience, our deliberations regards to ends and means, and so on.

We do not even attempt to explain the assassin’s act in terms of measurable magnitudes of outside forces. While some fools have speculated that, given sufficient knowledge, the location of every atom and particle in a man’s brain would describe and depict imponderables such as his intention and his purposes, a moment’s reflection will tell you, dear reader, that even this precise information will be an inadequate description, nay, a false description, of what is really going on, for the same reason that me telling you the size and position of the ink-molecules of the signs, symbols, and pictoglyphs in letter in a language you do not read—no matter how many numbers I use to describe the physical constitution of the letter and its ink— will not tell you if it is a love-letter or a ‘Dear John’ letter.

Freudian psychology at one time made windy promises that the noumenal reality of the human consciousness could be analyzed into hidden motives, but even Freud was not so foolish at to strip their hidden motives of this final causes. For a Freudian, my desire to throw James Bond from an airplane is caused secretly because my subconscious mind is trying to overcome Oedipal complexes related to my mother, or somesuch: but this is clearly a depiction of a final cause. I am using this means (tossing James) in order to achieve that end (coupling with my mother). All Freud says is that the means and ends are hidden from my conscious mind. I think I am trying to kill Bond to usher in the triumph of SPECTRE, but actually it is all about the teddy bear my father, Dr. Evil, never gave me when I was two.

The radical materialist says that all final causes can be reduced to descriptions of magnitudes of external forces in operation. He says that if the location of all atoms and electrical impulses in my brain were known, the event would be known. You would know, for example, that electron 102703 in nerve cell 8879855 triggered nerve impulse 2055665 to stimulate arm muscles to move 26.6 inches with 100 foot-pounds of force in time 0.3 seconds to move mass 205 pounds a distance of two feet. You could know exactly what the physical characteristics of the pressure-waves issuing from my throat were, but unless you, a person with a mind, know what the MEANING of those symbols called “words” were, you would not UNDERSTAND or COMPREHEND the POINT of my ACTION. I capitalize the words here to emphasize the parts of this event which are not phenomenal, but noumenal.

The philosopher David Hume, who said that nothing which could not be reduced to the measurement of a magnitude was not knowledge, would say that meaning, understanding, comprehension, points, purposes, actions, aims, means, ends, and the whole vocabulary we use to describe intellectual, internal, spiritual, mental, and human action is not knowledge. This involved him in an immediate paradox, since his own statement was purposeful. It was not until Kant that a vocabulary to distinguish noumenal from phenomenal knowledge was proposed.

So let us avoid the oddness of saying that deliberate action has no natural explanation, but instead say that deliberate action has no explanation in the world of phenomena. It is not something that can be described, or even addressed, in terms of mechanical and external forces.

Rewording the argument with this clearer terminology in mind, it becomes:

1. Everything is either phenomenal or noumenal

2. All phenomena (the universe) did not arise from a phenomenal cause

3. Hence all phenomena arose from a noumenal cause.

The only known noumenal causes in human experience have to do with the deliberate acts of conscious beings. Hence: by analogy, all phenomena arose from the deliberate act of a conscious being: a Creator.

Two other counterarguments were proposed, but which contain simple errors, and need not detain us long. First it was argued that proposing a Creator implied an infinite regress– for who created the Creator? (this argument may have come from the same pen that argued that there is nothing wrong with an infinite regress of causes). This objection merely conflates final and mechanical cause: a timeless and eternal being has no mechanical cause any more that 2+2=4 or A is A has a mechanical cause. Only inside in the universe, in the realm of empirical phenomena, are we dealing with chains of mechanical cause and effect. By proposing a non-phenomenal, non-empirical reality, something similar to the noumenal or mental (or spiritual) reality already abundantly known to us, the issue of a mechanical cause to a noumenal reality is rendered moot, if not meaningless. A planet or star, no matter how old, is a contingent being, in that it might have been another way or been brought to into existence earlier or later. A principle of logic, such as A is A is a necessary being. We can neither imagine a universe where self-identity does not exist, nor could it have been brought into existence earlier or later. By this example we can see that there are some things which simply do not fall under phenomenal, mechanical causation.

The other counterargument was that the Creator thus deduced is not necessarily the Christian God as described in Church teaching. This statement is true, but not relevant, since what was being offered was an argument that nature cannot arise from nature, but must arise from supernature. Atheists are so eager to dismiss the Christian god they seem to forget that the existence of any supernatural entity of any kind whatsoever destroys philosophical naturalism. All a supernaturalist need do to win this current argument with a naturalist is point to a single supernatural thing, demigod or devil, elf or deva, or even a gnome.

(Dawkins makes this same blunder when discussing Aquinas’ ontological proof of the existence of God–he is so quick to say that the other properties of the Christian God are not proved, he overlooks that the property called existence, granting these premises, are proved. This says something about the psychology, or perhaps the deviltry, underpinning the modern atheism. They may not believe in Jove or Janus or Jotans or Jinn, but they loathe Jehovah.)