on 10 October 2013
Given the grandiose title of this book, it is easy to see why some atheistic or agnostic readers might be put off by its content and find its arguments difficult to accept. It has been unfairly criticised by some reviewers, seemingly on the basis that a Jesuit priest is somehow (by definition) unqualified to write about contemporary cosmology, an obvious non-sequitor. I too initially approached the book with a degree of scepticism.
However, this soon gave way to an admiration for the ambitious nature of the philosophical enterprise attempted by Robert Spitzer, and the extent to which he succeeds in his basic aim of demonstrating the subtle relationships between recent advances in cosmology and traditional theological proofs of God's existence. It becomes obvious after only a few pages that Spitzer is not only very well informed about modern cosmology, but also adept at explaining it in user friendly language. I found the book to be very well written, erudite, and surprisingly accessible given its dense subject matter. Moreover, it seems to me that the arguments it presents are, when properly understood, logically compelling and fundamentally sound, irrespective of Spitzer's doctrinal background.
In effect, he presents a modern version of the cosmological proof set out in Spinoza's 'Ethics' and some of Aristotle's writings, and shows why this traditional argument for the existence of a divine power remains credible and of central importance as an explanatory hypothesis notwithstanding recent advances in scientific cosmology. At present, the main rival to theism - much favoured by atheistic scientists - is the concept of the multiverse, as it allows the apparent 'fine-tuning' of the laws of nature that we observe around us to be explained as a selection effect of multiple parallel universes, rather than evidence of design or divinity in the one universe we can actually observe. However, speculative multiverse theories suffer from a fatal logical flaw, which is that they simply beg the question of what creates the multiverse itself. As such, they simply push the question of ultimate origins one stage further back, solving nothing. They don't even succeed on their own terms for, as Keith Ward has pointed out, the ensemble of possible universes must contain one which is more powerful (in the sense of having more creative power and fewer external constraints) than all the others, in which case it will either suppress their actual existence (so that they remain mere possibilities) or co-exist with them in actuality. If the former, the multiverse theory collapses because there is only one cosmos, QED. But if the latter, the question naturally arises of who or what created the total ensemble of co-existing universes. They can't all be contingent, as this would mean that there can be no ultimate explanation of the whole, which violates the entire scientific programme to achieve a complete understanding of nature. The only way to reconcile the apparent evidence of fine-tuning with a rejection of design or divinity is to postulate a random, uncontrolled process in which an infinite number of unobservable universes accidentally generates a small sub-set capable of generating life and other forms of organised complexity. The fact that this is self-evidently a very unsatisfactory, profligate hypothesis is itself a strong indication that a 'first cause' transcending physics must exist, as Aquinas, Spinoza and Leibniz (amongst others) all recognised, albeit using different methods of argumentation. The cosmological 'proof' is a classic example of a metaphysical argument that can only be falsified on logical grounds, not by reference to empirical testing or any of the other tools of experimental science.
Of course not everyone will be convinced by the cosmological argument. But taken as a whole it seems to me that Spitzer's book does, in fact, present a persuasive re-statement of this traditional argument for the existence of a first cause (which Spitzer himself describes as an 'unconditioned reality', a neutral term that neatly sidesteps the question of whether God is a person). The essential concept is that there must be one, and a maximum of only one, necessarily existing being, which gives rise to the entire contingent world that we observe around us, even though our understanding of that being is bound to be imperfect because of our own cognitive limitations. By virtue of being the first cause, this being is the most powerful being that can possibly exist. (Any being that embodies a self-contradiction will, of course, be impossible and will fail to exist or have any power. So, for example, a God that can commit suicide will embody a contradiction and cannot exist.) Since it is unconstrained by any external forces, the necessary being will express its power to the maximum possible extent, and it is this expression of maximal power that gives rise to the astonishing world in which we find ourselves, with all its infinite diversity. This necessary being cannot fail to exist, for the simple reason that its existence is logically possible and ex hypothesi there can be nothing powerful enough to prevent it from existing. It is important to add that this is not the same thing as saying that God can do absolutely anything He wants. As noted above, the logic that constitutes part of God's essential nature may prevent God from having self-contradictory properties, and this may place limits on God's power, but these limits will be intrinsic to God's own nature, not externally imposed from the outside.
This, according to theists and pantheists, is the solution to the mystery of existence. Whilst it is not a new hypothesis, still less a strict logical 'proof', it seems coherent, can be rationally debated, and has considerable explanatory power. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of a simpler, more elegant explanation of the cosmos. It can explain the apparent evidence of fine-tuning, because the true source of the cosmological constants that lead some scientists to infer fine-tuning is the existence of a unique, necessarily existing being which cannot be other than it is, rather than a multiverse or a cosmic 'designer' who selects a universe "just right for life" from a wider palette of possibilities. The cosmological argument is also a scientific hypothesis, in the sense that it can be used to make testable predictions - one of which is that life, consciousness and other expressions of organised complexity will be relatively widespread, rather than a rare, chance occurrence, in the cosmos. Nor is it true, as Dawkins has claimed, that theism simply begs the question of who created God and why God takes the form He does rather than some other form. The cosmological argument does provide a deductive logical argument for God's existence, and explains the essence of God's nature, by virtue of a very specific, and precisely formulated proposition about the nature of a being with maximal power and its unavoidable role in generating finite things. As a hypothesis, it does not beg further questions - it represents a natural end point in the logical search for a complete explanation of the cosmos. The great merit of Spitzer's book is that he explains exactly why this is the case in a series of rigorous arguments expressed in language accessible to those without a specialist knowledge of physics or philosophy.
In contrast to many Christian theologians, Spitzer strips the concept of a first cause of any anthropocentric connotations, thus addressing one of the strongest philosophical objections to religious belief, namely that there is little empirical evidence in the world around us to support belief in a God who displays human qualities such as kindness and mercy. Spitzer is also aware that any successful proof of God's existence must present a convincing explanation of the role of value in the world, one that dispenses with wishful thinking and reconciles its basic metaphysical stance with the existence of natural and moral evil. The later chapters of the book set out his thinking in this area. He has some interesting ideas, particularly about the relationship between harmony, beauty, love and goodness as expressions of the necessary being believers refer to as God. These ideas are philosophically rigorous, carefully developed, and do not rely on sentimental wishful thinking.
Ultimately, it could be argued that, even if one accepts Spitzer's proof of an 'unconditioned reality', all it does is prove the existence of a first cause, not that this cause has the qualities of mercy and justice normally associated with a personal God. After all, the first cause could be the universe itself, as pantheists claim. There is some force in this objection - theists are generally mistaken when they argue that the Big Bang proves that the universe is contingent and has an external cause: time and space form part of the contents of the universe, so the Big Bang is an event internal to the universe, rather than evidence that something exists temporally prior to, or beyond, it. On this view, the key question is not whether the existence of a first cause can be proven, but whether we have any reason to believe that the first cause has moral qualities that make it a fitting object of worship. This is a deep mystery to which philosophy struggles to find a satisfactory answer. Clearly there is a strong sense in which a being which is the source of all that exists must possess the quality of 'goodness', but the cosmos seems indifferent to the fate of individual living things. How is this apparent contradiction to be explained?
The possibility of a timeless, impersonal cosmos, which appears to have been recognised by Spinoza, as well as by Einstein and Stephen Hawking, means that cosmological arguments of the type presented by Spitzer cannot be described as furnishing a 'proof' of a personal God that will satisfy most religious believers. 'Spitzer's God' is not necessarily a comforting one from an emotional or psychological perspective. It is not clear, for example, whether He answers human prayers. This is why the analogy with Spinoza is relevant and apt. But the flipside of this is that the book is largely successful in demolishing physical reductionism as an adequate explanation of the cosmos, and this in itself represents a considerable achievement and an important counterweight to Dawkins and his followers. Spitzer sets out a convincing argument for belief in God - but the God who emerges from this book is not necessarily the 'God of Abraham' found in biblical narratives. Whether this was the author's aim is, of course, open to conjecture.
Most importantly, perhaps, this book is an exciting and surprising intellectual journey. Few other authors have tried to tell a coherent story about the ultimate origins of the world that reconciles traditional philosophical insights with those of modern science (although Roy Abraham Varghese's 'The Wonder of the World' covers broadly similar ground and is also a compelling read). The few who have tried have, on the whole, not been very successful. For this alone, Spitzer earns my admiration. This book will prove fascinating reading for anyone with an open mind who is interested in the question of ultimate origins to which neither philosophy nor science can currently provide complete answers.