Saturday, 19 May 2012

Adventures in public philosophy

I was in the Spurriergate Centre in York today for lunch, and remembered that I'd tried and failed to engage them in philosophical conversation a while ago. Here's the letter I sent them:

Dear Spurriergate Centre,  

I visited your café on Sunday 7 November with my wife and son. We enjoyed our drinks and food, and reading your website suggests that you do admirable community and social justice work. 

However, while we were in the café, there was a video playing on continuous loop on a large screen. It offered an argument about the creation of the universe. I think you’re doing yourselves no favours showing it, because it’s a very bad argument.  

The argument was as follows:  

There are only three possible explanations for the existence of the universe: 

a) it created itself; 

b) it has existed eternally; or 

c) it was created.  

a) was dismissed as impossible, because ‘nothing comes from nothing’ and ‘the first law of thermodynamics forbids the creation of energy’ 

b) was said to have been disproved by Einstein and Hubble 

c) was then interpreted as the claim that the universe was created by an ‘eternally existing' being with ‘superior knowledge’ and ‘no matter’ The rest of the video then illustrated passages from Genesis.  

There are several things wrong with this argument. In the first place, (a), (b), and (c) aren’t the only possibilities: Maybe this universe grew from a seed produced by another universe, like a plant. Maybe the universe continually expands, contracts, and then expands again in a new big bang. 

In the second place, the argument against option (a) doesn’t work: the first law of thermodynamics and other natural laws are features of the created universe. They don’t tell us anything about how universes are created. 

In the third place, on the argument against option (b): you don’t get to cherry-pick just the bits of science you like. If you accept Einstein, what reason have you to reject the paleontological, genetic and other evidence that animals weren’t all created at the same time in their current forms? But if that’s true, Genesis is false.  

In the fourth place, the argument for option (c) contradicts the argument against option (a): if the first law of thermodynamics applies to universe-creation (as the argument against (a) requires) it also forbids the creation of energy by this being of superior knowledge. Where did the matter/energy for the universe come from, if it can’t be created?

In the fifth place, even if option (c) is the best, and the universe was created, that doesn’t show that it was created by a being with the characteristics stated. Why only one being? Coral reefs, for example, are complex and beautiful things created by large numbers of simple creatures with no plan at all. Why ‘superior knowledge’? Why shouldn’t the universe have been created by accident? Or by unconscious processes? Why ‘eternally existing’? Why shouldn’t the creator itself have been created by a previous creator, itself created by another one, and so on? Maybe universe-creation is a craft like traditional boatbuilding: honed by generations of makers, none of them particularly clever or powerful in themselves, each relying on gradually accumulated wisdom and inherited tools. 

None of these are original counter-arguments – most of them are in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (first published in 1779).  

I don’t mean, by objecting to your video, to denigrate your faith or work. But respect for others requires telling them when you think they’re wrong. And I think you’re wrong here.  

Best Wishes,  

Dr Sam Clark 

Lecturer in Philosophy, Lancaster University.
And here's their eventual reply:
HI Sam
thank you for your message, I shall pass it on to our pastoral manager.regards
Jesper Sorensen, Centre Manager 
 Philosopher 0, public 1.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, philosophy's a bit like a dead language: it often only persuades, or is even understood by, other philosophers. Non-philosophers are usually content to openly disregard it as sophistry or just plain nonsense when it works against their position. I'd doubt your letter made it very far, coherent and pointed though it was; a pastor skim-reading it would probably read enough to note that it was an atheistic objection and disregard it after that.

    Nevertheless, it was worth sending. It might plant the seed in the mind of someone in management that not everybody visiting the restaurant is swayed by or comfortable with the presentation so that, if nothing else, they lose the illusion that they're preaching to the converted.