Belief in a creator must be rational
"Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a long shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die, couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there's a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and exclusive.
Would they fall for it? Yes, testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next.
It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control which has been honed over centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of people have been brought up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons which one day we may understand, most people fall for it (nowhere more so than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed). Now all we need is to round up a few of these faith-heads and give them flying lessons”.
(Richard Dawkins, ‘Religion's misguided missiles’ The Guardian. Saturday September 15, 2001. Retrieved 6th September, 2005 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/wtccrash/story/0,1300,552388,00.html)
The greatest question
The greatest question humanity faces is as follows: “is there a God?”
While the choice of this to be the greatest question for humanity may appear odd the truth can be ascertained simply. We have all had come to our own personal conclusions on the matter in some way. By definition even atheists have, otherwise they would not have come to any conclusion. Some of us grapple with it constantly. Others will only consider it again if close to death, serious injury, dealing with bereavement or languishing in jail. However, no one has completely avoided the question and our individual responses have undoubtedly and significantly shaped us. This is because all other questions are potentially affected by the answer and a particular direction in life is fixed once a decision is made.
On every major issue today there is dispute between the secular and the religious. Consider how your own answer to the greatest question affects your view on topics ranging from abortion to euthanasia to homosexuality to the death penalty to legalising drugs and prostitution to blasphemy laws stifling free speech to public breastfeeding to animal rights to foreign policy etc.
Other, similar questions such as “are we created?” or even “why are we here?” could have been chosen but the point is the same. The answer to this question is critical because one’s choice clearly manifests itself in everyday life and our answers to this one query undoubtedly affect how we live. In any case, the fault line between the secular and the religious has become abundantly clear and may even be widening in an increasingly polarised world.
A Fresh Approach
The aim of this chapter is not to preach but to mark out how best to look at the question of belief (or disbelief) in a Creator. Like the other chapters ahead the line of reasoning is that difficult questions must be tackled with a fresh and sincere approach. If we remain bitterly entrenched within our respective viewpoints we can only arrive back at an intellectual dead-end.
Furthermore there must be agreement that one can only impartially assess other approaches to life by first removing all previous convictions. Judging a point of view of reality (and not the reality itself) through another point of view is unreasonable and can only lead to a distorted outlook. Take for example the tendency for secular audiences to examine Islam (a view) through the lens of ‘modernity’ (another view). Any look at Islam from a secular point of view reduces it to a personal affair, an individual moral code and a set of ethics with little to say about life’s affairs. To do so is to fail to appreciate that Islam has its own worldview, ideology and complete way of life distinct from any other including the Enlightenment model of the Philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot or the Communism of Marx and Lenin.
It is only by returning to a discussion on the reality at hand that productive debate can flourish. It could be nothing except beneficial to examine key topics free from the influence of preconceived notions. Only then could we arrive at a view. Whilst we aim to address contemporary issues such as politics and equality vis-à-vis Islam it should be clear that prejudging the debate is of little help to anyone.
It is not only a view such as Islam that suffers when viewed through a secular prism. The subject of ‘belief’ does too. When western liberals discuss ‘belief’ they betray a practised ease in portraying it in stark contrast to reason. The secular assumption is that belief in a Higher Being cannot be based on reason and is, to a greater or lesser degree, based upon emotion, hence the words ‘rational belief’ appear contradictory. Of course liberals have often had just cause to do so with many notable examples throughout history. St. Thomas Aquinas argued belief in the Trinity must be based on faith alone and Danish religious philosopher, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard felt it was inappropriate to base belief in a Creator on reason, even emphasising the necessity of irrational leaps of faith.
However not all believers in a Creator do so on the basis of pure emotion. How could they? It goes without saying that absolutely nothing can be proved, confirmed or established through emotion. Could emotion prove what DNA is made of? Could emotion confirm the Congo lies south of the equator? Or could emotion conceivably establish that the political instability in the Balkans during the 1990’s was exacerbated by American determination to reduce Russia’s influence in the region, increase Europe’s dependency upon her and confer new legitimacy to NATO when it appeared increasingly redundant after the Cold War?
We can agree, in fact we must surely agree, that the answer is no but that only discounts ‘belief’ based on pure emotion which was an unfounded assumption to begin with. It certainly does not eliminate ‘belief’ itself as an option especially if we can verify that ‘belief’ in a single Almighty Creator can be based on reason and ration.
Ironically, secular liberals are often quite patronising to believers, even if believers themselves, but there’s little that can be done about it if ‘belief’ is permanently tainted with the brush of emotion, leaps of faith or even imitation. It becomes easy to dismiss the idea of believing in a Creator. The point to note is that the vacuum left by this manoeuvre (implying ‘belief’ is always emotional) allows secular liberals to promote their own framework to tackle the greatest question i.e. the scientific method.
Science against certainty?
The scientific method was a result of the Enlightenment that began in Europe in the late 17th Century. It is important to note the ultimate aim of the Enlightenment was freedom, in particular the liberation of people from the influence of religion. It was widely known that the Church had hindered progress in all fields of life socially, economically and scientifically via the intolerance to inquiry it had imposed upon the continent. The intellectual elite of Europe saw this as backward superstition, obsolete tradition and narrow-minded bigotry and hoped their own project would smash the domination of the Church and lead to ‘modernity’.
The European scientists and philosophers felt reason was the most central human faculty so they argued to be allowed to exercise it by questioning everything through scientific endeavour. They sought to challenge ideas that were held in a dogmatic manner i.e. where questioning was not allowed. This led them to clash directly with Church leaders and the political establishment who both maintained that some things were totally certain, sacred and should not be questioned.
On the surface, the determination to question to arrive at conclusions and also to use reason instead of emotion cannot be faulted. However the ‘modernist’ trend went further. Anything that claimed to be certain (i.e. claimed to be Divine) had to be confronted and opposed via reason, questioning and scientific enquiry. The commitment to use reason in all cases was hostile to any idea on life that did not originate from the human mind. This included religious guidance. Enlightenment philosophers refused to give anything an amnesty from debate and called for people to be brave enough to do without ‘belief’. Immanuel Kant eloquently summed up the Enlightenment mission as the:
Sapere aude means ‘dare to know’ but Enlightenment philosophers felt being certain was never a possibility. They equated certainty with dogma and felt compelled to fight it. After they won their intellectual clash in Europe they set about introducing secularism at a state level. Secularism is not the absolute denial of religion. It is generally not that antagonistic to religion as long as religious guidance is prevented from taking part in decisions and denied a role in public life. When this step was taken, the secular liberal democratic nation-state, a new model for organising society, was born.
17th Century empiricists such as Locke, as well as his 18th Century successors Berkeley and Hume, felt knowledge was not innate but was instead based on the senses alone. The 19th Century positivist movement of Comte developed from these ideas and felt thought would evolve from religious thinking (the lowest, most immature level) up to the highest ‘positive’ level (science). Once it had evolved it would be used in every issue. Science was seen as the height of knowledge since it never left itself open to dogma. Science challenged everything and never lapsed into certainty and absolute truths. We also find logical positivism and analytic philosophy lead by the Vienna Circle and Wittgenstein of the 20th Century. British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell summed up the position when he wrote:
From this brief timeline we witness the development of an agenda deep within the modernist project that has filtered through somewhat to today’s scientific and philosophical establishments; there is a hatred for absolute certainty.
It is correct to dismiss unquestioning dogma since it is irrational, unstable and no different to emotional faith. Questioning is clearly imperative if one is to answer the greatest question satisfactorily but the secular fear of certainty does not seem particularly rational either. Scientific thought therefore does not prize certainty but instead asks an unending, ever-increasing set of questions.
The scientific model
If one were to ask exactly how to apply scientific thought the answer should soon be familiar, as we were all taught the scientific model at school. Although the terminology differs at times the stages are roughly the same across the globe. They begin with a hypothesis followed by the design for an experiment. The next three steps of testing, observation and ongoing recording are repeated as often as necessary. Finally a conclusion is reached and an evaluation of the experiment conducted. The scientific model is widely held to be capable of assessing any issue.
Three aspects of the model stand out.
The first aspect is that subjectivity cannot be completely eliminated e.g. linguists argue that the words with which we set out a scientific project reveal inevitable preconceptions.
The second aspect is that any results are speculative. The probability of error is an accepted constant in the scientific model so other conditions exist to minimise these facts. They include ensuring a fair test, ensuring the sample population is representative and also considering a control sample.
Thirdly is the requirement for identifying a variable so it can be isolated from other variables, subjected to new conditions and observed.
From this we can see a variable must be identified, isolated, manipulated and observed for the scientific model to apply. Let’s examine these four steps in turn:
a) If variables cannot be identified the scientist would have nothing to test.
b) Without a variable isolated from other variables there is no way of knowing what
the results of testing are a consequence of. One could be testing multiple variables. The
trials would be useless.
c) If a variable can be identified and isolated but not manipulated then no
experiment can proceed.
d) If a variable can be identified, isolated and manipulated but no observation is
possible then no conclusions can be drawn, nothing can be verified and the true
scientist would not waste the time or effort.
So only if a variable can be identified, isolated, manipulated and observed could we then begin the remaining stages of the scientific model i.e. hypothesis, plan, test, subjugate, observe, record, retest and conclude. If no single variable can be identified, isolated, manipulated or observed then it is clear that the scientific model cannot apply.
This leads us to a dilemma. What if we can find instances where the scientific model cannot apply, where no single variable can be identified, isolated, manipulated or observed? This would conclusively disprove that the scientific model is capable of answering every query or even that science is the most evolved form of thinking. This would necessarily lead us to conclude that science is a branch of thinking applicable only in certain instances leaving us to locate another form of thought.
An example would be the following: What leads people in Athens, Greece to live longer on average than those in Mumbai, India? The query is too vague for the scientific model to apply especially if we find that relative life expectancy differs widely based on date of birth, household income and access to basic health care. A more defined query would be: Exactly what leads socially excluded, female teenagers from broken homes in the 10% most deprived wards in Athens, Greece to live longer on average than those in Mumbai, India?
Even though we have delineated the question further a number of variables still remain such as diet, sanitation, disease, relative cost of living and road deaths. We should also consider climate, pollution, state welfare and violent crime. Police brutality, government corruption, unemployment, the expertise of emergency services and literacy should not be ignored. What about the strength of civil society, religious observance, divorce rates, prevalence of drug abuse, quality of food hygiene and level of sex education?
Would it be possible to isolate just a single variable? Would it be possible to subject individuals to new conditions under a controlled environment to ascertain findings? For the scientific model to apply here, only one variable should be tested at a time so it would not be possible to provide a ‘scientific’ response. The only answer possible would be that there are many factors, some of more weight than others but this not a very ‘scientific’ conclusion.
We could also ask, for example, how to construct experiments based on the scientific model to address these statements:
i. Sport - Was Mike Tyson a better boxer than Muhammed Ali?
ii. Language – Which piece of literary work rates higher: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,
Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Dickens’ Hard Times?
iii. Politics – Was Margaret Thatcher a more successful Prime Minister than Tony
iv. Life – Why do we exist?
v. History – Was Muslim Spain the most tolerant place on Earth during the 13th
To answer the final query a single variable that leads to tolerance would have to be identified and scientifically defined. We would then need to be capable of subjecting other societies during the period to laboratory conditions in order to isolate the variable leading to tolerance. A criterion for evaluation, comparison and measurement would be required and the experiment would have to conclude objectively.The scientific model is clearly not built for all types of enquiry.
The question is never why… only how
It is also important to note that the scientific model is concerned with questions of how things work rather than why. So science would be interested in answering how the universe began, not why the universe began. How does a scientist begin to answer why the universe began? The questions of how and why are completely different but scientists unable to answer why instead often answer how and expect it to be sufficient.
Science can answer how things rust, not why and how we see the colour orange. Take an example of grass. Why is it green not bright blue or deep red? The scientific answer is that chlorophyll absorbs blue and red light while reflecting green. Of course this is an answer for how but we are expected to accept it as the answer for why as well.
That is not to say the scientific model itself is fatally flawed. It is not. It just has a place and cannot be used to answer every question. The scientific method is fantastic when dealing with technology, which must always be challenged. Imagine no entrepreneur ever sought to build safer motorcars since they were certain they had the safest or if attempts to eradicate all known diseases ended in hopelessness and despair. The scientific model provides us with the framework necessary to deal with these and other inconclusive matters. However it has definite limitations that render it incapable of tackling other questions and, after all, we are examining the model with a view to answering a particular question i.e. why are we here? With this in mind there can be no doubt that the scientific model cannot apply here in a discussion of why we exist (rather than how we exist).
So how best to answer the greatest question?
To this point emotional faith and the scientific model have both been found wanting when answering the greatest question. This is since emotion confirms absolutely nothing and the scientific method does not apply to questions of why things happen, only how and only in instances where the subject matter is tangible, variables can be isolated, manipulated and repeated testing can take place.
If we are to accept the scientific model of the positivists was the highest, most evolved method of thought there is the vexing question of what kind of thought process human beings had to utilise before the Enlightenment. There was certainly no reference to the scientific method in the Dark Ages of Europe. Were human beings primitive ‘thinkers’ before the work of Bacon, Kepler, Descartes, Fermat, Pascal and Newton in the 17th Century? This would mean Copernicus was a primitive thinker despite formulating heliocentric theory in 1541 CE. This would mean Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a primitive thinker since he died in 1037 CE despite writing Al-Qanun fi-l Tibb (the Canon). What opinion should we have on the thought of Albategnius (Ibn Sinan al-Battani) when his experiments in the late 9th Century led to determination of astronomical coefficients like the precession 54.5” a year and inclination of the ecliptic 23º 35’ with stunning accuracy. He also noticed an increase of 16º 47’ in the longitude of the sun’s apogee since the time of Ptolemy which led to the discovery of the motion of solar episodes. The mathematician Al-Khwarizmi lent his name to the algorithms he developed and founded modern algebra (from his book Kitab al-Jabr wal-Muqabalah). Fibonacci translated his work but he died in 850 CE. Let us go back even further to Euclid, Zeno, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates all active between 400 and 300 BCE and Pythagoras even earlier. Were they all primitive thinkers?
If not, then we are looking for an alternative way to think, one more natural, suited to the nature of humans, one without an irrational fear of certainty, the way humans think regardless of circumstance, time and place. We are searching for the rational method of thinking.
We can examine this method of thinking individually. If one were to ask you how you think about things, what would your answer be?
I answer in the following manner. Look around you. The images of what you see transfer into your head. Reach out and touch an inanimate object such as a wall, a chair, a desk, a PC, a book. Your senses are transferring impressions into you so you can ponder over them.
What stages of the process of thought can we determine from this?
Sensation took place, without which one could not ponder over things. There is also a need for reality as our senses can only be aware of things if they exist in a tangible form. There’s definitely some transfer of the sensed reality, as the sensation must get to your mind so you can ‘think’ about the sensed reality. Lastly there’s a judgement.
However something intrinsic is missing from the steps outlined thus far. This is so as sensation alone is not enough to understand a reality. One could sense a new reality forever and still move no closer to comprehension if one had no information on the issue to explain the reality. Both sensation and some degree of information are necessary.
The following examples should illustrate this. Let us begin within an example of language. If one were to pick up a book in classical (fusHa) Arabic and stare at the letters, word after word, page after page without having some understanding of Arabic (the previous information) it would not matter how much sensation took place. Reading
and understanding Arabic would be impossible if one did not have the slightest appreciation of the Arabic language. Sensation alone is not enough.
Let us imagine one who had never left a primitive village and had absolutely no idea of life outside of the rural sphere. What would a complete newcomer to a big city make of simple things like double yellow lines, zebra crossings and post boxes using sensation alone (i.e. without having any previous information on them)? Completely alone on the street at night a set of traffic lights could be sensed but would make no sense. The sensation of the sequence (red man, green man for pedestrians and red, amber, green, amber, red for vehicles) would take place but what next? In order to comprehend them the villager would be forced to look elsewhere for information either by asking others or attempting to collect some information. Observing (sensing) the response of pedestrians and traffic to the lights would provide the information. What happens when the lights go red? Why do some stop and others go? What was the flashing light when a car speeds through a red light? What was that loud, beeping sound from that angry driver?
Once the information was collected the villager could face the reality (lights go green), sense (see the green light), transfer the sensation to the brain, link it to the information already held (green man means walk as the vehicles are not free to go) and would lead to judgement (the villager would cross the road).
What about a grown man who had been kept in a cave from birth, had never even seen daylight and only been subjected to the most rudimentary ideas and information on life. He would surely struggle in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 or operating the safety controls of a nuclear power plant as without previous information no thought could take place.
The necessity of previous information for thought
What is missing from all the examples above is the previous information that explains the reality. Linking this previous information to the sensation is what leads to thinking. Sensation alone is not enough. This is also solves the problematic question of what the mind is. The mind is the previous information. From this we can now place the five stages of the method of thinking in correct order.
2. Sensation of the reality
3. Transference of the sensed reality to the brain
4. Linking the sensation with the previous information, which is the mind. The linking
is the actual process of thinking leading to thought
5. Judgement upon the reality
This is the process we all use to think about things. We would not utilise emotion or the scientific model to read a magazine, visit the WC or work out if the car was out of petrol. We would use the five-stage process outlined above and it is necessary to use this rational method to answer the greatest question.
The rational method is the basis of all thinking, even science. No experiment could be constructed without previous information (e.g. how to read and write). In fact the rational method can be found directly in many of the social sciences such as sociology and psychology. Science is incapable of testing human behaviour, as it requires tangible matter to experiment on. Social scientists either resort to prescribing Prozac for depression or follow a model of observation. Psychologists and sociologists make multiple observations of subjects over set periods without attempting to scientifically subject them to new conditions. An example of how to do so would be to take the human being out of the natural environment into a controlled environment (which incidentally is not natural for humans) and attempt to isolate what makes the human behave in certain ways. Periodic observation leading to a conclusion, without manipulation, is a part of the rational method not the scientific. Specific elements of the social sciences are also not scientific. Psychoanalysis (studying dreams etc.) fails as a science as its answers can never be verified and depend upon repeated observation without manipulation i.e. it is part of the rational method.
The rational method is clearly the natural thinking process at the base of other forms of thought (scientific, logical, philosophical, legislative etc.). It is the only method of thought that leads to certain knowledge, definite answers and truth. Use the five-stage rational method to answer basic question such as if you exist (“cogito ergo sum”/“I think therefore I am”), if you have hair, if you have ever drunk water, if you can fly etc. The answers are certain if the sensation and linking to previous information is done correctly so now all that is left is to utilise it to find the answer to the greatest question.
It would, of course, be inappropriate to come this far in the discourse and only apply thought in a lazy, irresponsible and shallow manner. Rational thinking requires us to sense precisely, ponder over the information deeply and link this to the information we already hold in a profound and enlightened way.
When we examine everything within the range of our sensations we come to the following two conclusions:
1. We cannot sense (see, touch, hear, smell or taste) a Creator
2. Everything we can sense is dependent on something else and has a limit of some
kind that it cannot surpass
We must be clear on the first point. We cannot sense a Creator. Some would have us believe in aliens or in ‘mother nature’ but this cannot be accepted as we have already denied emotion and blind imitation a role in this endeavour. Others would have us end the discussion here since no Creator can be sensed. Such people cite the phrase ‘seeing is believing’. The predicament with this is that this implies the opposite (i.e. ‘not seeing equals nothing to believe in’). This is blank, vacuous and weak.
Sensing a Creator is not a prerequisite to prove a Creator exists and never has been. We see many things in our daily lives without knowing who exactly is responsible but the result leads us to believe something definitely was responsible e.g. a sculpture requires a sculptor etc. The material cause of the sculpture would be clay but the efficient cause of the artwork would be the sculptor.
The proof of a Creator is in whether we can find evidence of creation.
This can only be proved or disproved by applying rational thought. So far the first conclusion (cannot sense a Creator) is of little help. So any answer will have to come from the second conclusion, which is the deep enlightened view on all we sense i.e. everything is limited and dependent.
Is everything we can sense limited?
We should examine the statement and particularly what a limit means in this context. Here’s a passable working definition:
Whatever is limited has a dependency somewhere or how. It is limited if it depends on something else. This can be in many ways. Does it depend on a space to exist within? Something is limited if it is contingent and requires something peripheral to it in order to bring it into existence i.e. a cause. It cannot sustain itself forever and deteriorates accordingly. We can find or deduce either a beginning or end point or both. The space it occupies can be measured and its attributes quantified. It has boundaries it cannot exceed and obstacles it cannot overcome. It is conditional; unable to prevent itself from being affected and swayed by external factors. It can be contained and is subject to constraints and thresholds. It is limited since its constituent parts are limited as they can be measured. Also it can produce or reproduce but cannot create something else out of nothing. It can be increased and/or reduced. In short it is finite since its restrictions are inherent and unavoidable. Such a thing can be marked out as limited and dependent i.e. created.
So is everything we can sense limited and dependent? Let us examine a few options. atoms require a space to exist within. Human beings are limited as we cannot fly, see into the future or escape death. Space, and the entire universe, consists of limited things such as atoms planets, stars and comets which themselves are measurable and we know the sum of limited things must be limited.
To ask if cold is limited is to ask an incoherent question. Cold cannot be measured as it is not a thing, it is the absence of a thing i.e. heat. Heat can be measured (the SI measurement is in joules), can be increased and, like all other forms of energy, requires a cause to initiate it. When we want to feel warmer we switch on radiators or light campfires. Heat results from something and is therefore limited.
Light and sound are waves. Sound is a mechanical wave. A mechanical wave can be described as a disturbance that travels through a medium, transporting energy from one location to another location. A light wave can travel through a vacuum since it does not require a medium. Both are characterised by definable properties. Light waves have intensity (brightness), polarisation (angle or vector) and frequency (colour) so the colour red is the reflection of light at a specific wavelength.
Sound waves are characterised by velocity, frequency, its wavelength and its amplitude so the intensity of sound is measured in decibels.
Both the speed of light and sound are measurable. Furthermore light is definitely limited otherwise it would always be daylight or to put it another way it would never be dark. By the same token if there is ever silence then sound must also be limited.
Can we think of infinite length? Length is measurement of something and is not a thing itself. The same can be said of numbers, which are simply a chronological form of measurement of other things. The question should not be if numbers reach infinity but if the items represented by numbers can reach infinity. We cannot guess out of our own desire for it to be true (that would be irrational, emotional belief) and we have no such previous information. Also numbers themselves cannot be without limit since every number is finite, as is the following number. Since whenever we proceed upwards we proceed towards another finite number we can never exceed the barrier of infinity.
Are ideas such as love limited? This can be answered by reference to the working definition of a limit. Is the idea of love able to exist independently of anything else or is it contingent and dependent on something else to initiate it? Ideas are inherently conditional on a mind to think of them. Ideas have no independent existence external to a mind so they are limited. Therefore love, like all other ideas, is limited. Of course if someone was willing to attempt to prove that an idea, like love, had an independent existence they are most welcome to try but both the rational and scientific methods require a reality to examine and ideas are clearly not tangible.
We can conclude that everything we can all sense is limited to some degree. One may wonder why this conclusion is important but it matters as it narrows down the options available in our search for a conclusive answer to the greatest question.
Do limited things equal a Creator?
Now we accept that all things we can sense are limited and have the rational framework of thinking in place there can now only be four possible answers to the greatest question:
1. The universe has existed for an infinite length of time so no creation ever took
place regardless of the existence of limited things (No Creator)
2. Limited things bought other limited things into existence (No Creator)
3. Limited things all depend upon each other in an unlimited cyclical chain of mutual
dependencies (No Creator)
4. Limited things were bought into existence by an unlimited cause (Creator)
We can be sure there are no other possible answers and that these four choices are all mutually exclusive i.e. that none of these options can be true at the same time as another. Therefore, let us examine these alternatives in turn beginning with the possibility that the universe has existed for an infinite length of time.
The idea of infinity has always been problematic since there is a distinction between a possible infinite and actual infinite. A figure can increase towards infinity but will never get there (since numbers are limited). We can therefore say this process is indefinite rather than infinite. Students of calculus will recognise this for the example of the function f(x) = 1/x. If one increases x indefinitely, one increases it without limit, and as x becomes very large, the function f(x) becomes very small. The graph of the function (a hyperbola) provides a straight line that is tangential to the curve at infinity, nevertheless, this will never be actualised; it will never be the case. A line on a graph that tends towards infinity will edge closer to the axis (towards a possible infinite) but will never get to the axis let alone cross it (actual infinite). Even Aristotle argued against an actual infinite; a fact which the Arab philosopher Al-Kindi famously used against him in his refutation.
Georg Cantor, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 19th Century, initiated the mathematics of the infinite (along with Weierstrass and Dedekind) known as transfinite arithmetic. Though the discipline aims to deal with the paradoxes of infinity ‘it offends common sense at every point’ (Monk, 1997). Even if we acknowledge that real numbers are greater than natural numbers (because natural numbers are a sub-set of the reals) and that there is no such thing as the next point in a continuous series of points can there really be ‘higher infinities’?
While Cantor argued for higher infinity he denied actual infinity and his work on set theory is fundamentally problematic for supporters of actual infinity. Set theory can be understood utilising the examples of axes. All things that can be used to attack others can be placed in a collection or set called ‘weapons’. The set called ‘weapons’ has subsets such as swords, guns and axes.
To a set theorist the sentence ‘all axes are weapons’ is really saying ‘the set of axes is a subset of weapons’. In other words ‘every member of the first set (axes) is a member of the second (weapons)’. A dilemma arises when we discover that Cantor proved that for any set, another set with more members (the original set’s power set – consisting of all its subsets) is constructible. If a set has n members then there will be at least 2n subsets of it and 2n is always greater than n.
This leads us to the Cantor Paradox that states that a set of all sets cannot exist since each attempt at a total set would immediately produce a larger one. Thus there is no greatest set (cf. Zuckerman, 1974) and no infinity.
Even David Hilbert, perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century, has similarly argued against actual infinity:
However despite these concerns let us examine the claim in the best traditions of debate and discourse. If the universe has always existed then the claim is that there has been an unlimited, infinite length of time before now; this known as regressus ad infinitum or infinite regression, which means continual subtraction by one. It is helpful in this instance to think of time as a chain of events. Things happen in sequential order, one moment after another so an infinite length of time can be equated with an endless chain of events. The claim that the universe has always existed is a claim that the universe has always existed up this moment. This means an eternity has passed up to this moment. This means we are currently at the end of an endless chain of events. This is impossible.
If an endless chain of events had to occur before this point we would never exist since an endless chain could never finish. I would not be writing these words and you would not be reading them now. This is so because the event in the unlimited chain of events immediately preceding our current actions (indeed our very existence) would depend upon the one before it and the one before it but this chain would never get to this moment as it is eternal and endless.
Since we do exist, I am writing this chapter and you are reading this chapter the contradiction of the claim of infinite regression should now be apparent.
This can be thought of like reserving a book from the university library that is in heavy demand (for the sake of argument let us agree this is the only copy available). If there were four people in the queue before you for the book then you would have to wait for the four to finish before using it for your assignment. Similarly if there were four thousand people in the queue before you for the book then you would have to wait for the four thousand to finish before using it. If an unlimited, infinite (i.e. endless) number of reservations stood between you and the book you would never receive it as an endless number sequence would never end.
The same example is often illustrated by reference to a sniper requiring an instruction from his superior in his chain of command to open fire. Of course his superior has to wait till his own superior directs him and so on up the chain. If the chain of command were only ten minutes long the sniper would have to wait ten minutes for the command to fire. If it were one hundred years long the sniper would take one hundred years for the command to fire. If the chain were unlimited, it would be infinite, endless and the sniper would never receive the order to fire. It is not possible for an event to exist at the end of an endless chain of event thus we cannot exist at the end of infinity. The universe has not always existed.
Many thinkers and philosophers from John Philoponus to Al-Ash‘ari to Al-Ghazali to Kant proposed similar arguments. Aquinas partially assimilated the work of Averroes (Ibn Rushd) - who believed in the eternity of the universe - to offer his own variant refutation known as the ‘traversal of the infinite’. Unlimited time before now means an infinite series of events has been completed. This means an endless journey across infinity has ended (infinity has been travelled across/traversed). Traversal requires both a beginning and end like any other journey but any start point we can think of for our journey is only a finite amount of time ago. Thus infinity cannot have been traversed since that is the whole point of infinity. It therefore cannot be true that the universe has always existed.
We must also be aware that saying the universe has always existed leaves one open to contradiction. If one said it then repeated a year later this implies infinity has just increased by a year. This contradicts the work of Ibn Hazm on the temporality of the universe when he stated that infinity cannot increase (reductio ad absurdum, third proof). This would mean the time elapsed from the beginning of time to the Norman Conquest of 1066 is also the same as the time elapsed from the beginning of time to the Fall of Saigon (Vietnam War) in 1975 and so on until today.
Others have questioned whether we could exist within an infinite chain of events, which is tantamount to proposing there is an infinite sum of finite events. Let us suppose we are exactly half way within the infinite chain of events. Infinity would have then been halved. If we were to picture the same with matchsticks then we select the median matchstick (the one exactly in the middle) of an infinite number of matchsticks. The infinite number of matchsticks is halved. Both halves add up to infinity but are infinite themselves. In fact any fraction of the infinite sum of matchsticks would equal infinity. This then produces apparent contradictions that the part is equal to the whole and that there could loads of infinities.
Now let us remove three matchsticks from the infinite sum. We have established that any fraction of the infinite sum is equal to infinity but we can be sure that three matchsticks do not add up to infinity. Thus something cannot beinfinite and finite at the same time, because of this and many other contradictions it is absolutely clear that the sum of finite events must be finite. We can thus conclude that we could not exist within an infinite chain of events.
Also after removing three matchsticks would both halves still add up to infinity or have we actually reduced the number of matchsticks? If one were to argue that removing three matchsticks would not reduce the amount from infinity then this is tantamount to arguing we have an infinite number of matchsticks no matter how many are removed. Now let us propose that we remove all the matchsticks. Do we still have an infinite number or just no matchsticks? Remember infinity cannot be reduced. We must point out here that whether we remove three or all we are still reducing the amount of matchsticks and this contradicts infinity since infinity cannot be reduced.
The second answer i.e. that limited things bought other limited things into existence if true would mean there was no need for a Creator but it contradicts reality. Could a limited thing bring itself into existence without need of something else? Could it survive and subsist without dependency on other things? Could a limited thing have always existed? Could a limited thing bring other things into existence from nothing?
These notions flatly contradict the previous information we possess on limited, dependent things. The previous information we have is that limited things do not and cannot bring themselves other things into existence and that there is always some dependency. This is part of the definition of a limited thing.
Arguing that the original limited object could have always existed (without a cause) means it is not limited, rather it is unlimited. This is the same as the first assertion that there was no start point and the universe has always existed. In effect it is another claim for an unlimited chain of events before this point and we have already refuted this.
The third answer was that all limited things depend upon each other in an unlimited cyclical chain of mutual dependencies. The proposal is that all limited things manage their dependencies in a flawless system whereby each limited thing supports another in some intricate web. Therefore the claim is there is no need for a Creator, as this web would mean no requirement for a beginning or a cause. While is suggests that all limited things would continue to exist forever due to the support each limited thing receives from others this clearly is not the case as things die out, fade and deteriorate constantly.
Instead it is often illustrated with other examples such as when humans are buried where they become fertiliser for the trees and plants so they can themselves eat the plants before being buried. The most famous example is the water cycle where for water to exist it depends upon rain and for rain to exist it depends upon clouds and clouds depend upon evaporation of water.
The flaw here is that nothing in the cycle can exist until something initiates the cycle. We know A depends upon B and B depends upon A, this is a form of mutual dependence. So for A to exist B needs to exist but B doesn’t exist until A exists, therefore nothing would exist. This simple demonstration proves that things cannot depend upon other things in the form of a cycle i.e. mutual dependence without something external first initiating the cycle.
If it is agreed that these three options have been rebutted then we arrive at the fourth and final option, which was that limited things were bought into existence by an unlimited first cause (Creator). This cause has to be eternal, without bounds otherwise it would be limited and dependent. The Creator is something unlimited and independent that every other thing ultimately depends upon. For this independent force to exist then it must be other than limited, i.e. other than quantifiable and definable. Therefore this independent thing must be unlimited. This necessitates that this unlimited, independent force chose to create and was not forced to create. Choice signifies will and intelligence. As a result we come to the rational conclusion that a limitless, infinite, intelligent force created the universe.
This is the proof that there is a Creator.
This unlimited cause (Creator) can only be one. If there are two or more then none of these causes can be unlimited. If the causes can each be separated, isolated and counted then they cannot be unlimited. The cause can only be unlimited if it is one, alone without partner, all-powerful, without beginning or end.
We can conclude this section by adding that the greatest question can be answered conclusively without resorting to emotion or by stretching the scientific model into realms it cannot deal with. Belief does not have to be emotional. In fact if it is built on rational thought, then is inherently built upon the greatest faculty of humanity, the mind.
Why can we not sense the Creator?
From the rational method we know we can only think about reality. Our senses can only pick up on reality so the question is whether the Creator is a reality within the reach of our senses? This can be understood in another way. Can a limited being ever conceive of the unlimited?
It could not be possible to sense something unlimited. No one would rationally argue the five senses of human beings could pick up anything beyond the universe. To perceive or sense the Creator would to contend that the Creator is within the bounds of the known universe. By definition whatever is unlimited cannot be contained by anything even the universe (otherwise we would have found a limit). The unlimited has no boundaries, constraints or restrictions.
Now we have established that we have a Creator it may feel natural that we should pause, if even for a second, to ponder over the enormity of the conclusion.
We are created. Creation is proof of a Creator. There is a Creator.
However we cannot rest now. The question of a Creator is the greatest because it affects the direction of our lives. So the next stage of the discussion is critical. We cannot pretend to have any conception of what is beyond our senses. That would contradict the rational method. We need to be informed by the unlimited Creator. It is completely irrational to think otherwise but since we cannot sense the Creator we have to now decide on the next step. One option is to guess blindly, using one’s own limited mind to decide right and wrong, on why we were created, if there is a purpose, what we should expect in terms of accountability, punishment and reward etc. This step cannot be discouraged enough. One would not hear a knock at the door and just ‘guess’ it was a visit from the local dentist to pull out one’s front teeth. One would not buy a can of cola and just ‘guess’ the can was full of nerve gas. So why guess when it comes to the answer to the greatest question? Human beings are rational, using thought to elevate the social condition. We have already refuted emotion, blind imitation and leaps of faith and instead emphasised using reason and ration. It is still necessary to hold to this principle.
The only reality we have is that a Creator exists.