The physicist Sean Carroll is a really nice guy—not strident at all, but uncompromising in his godlessness. But Sean’s affability doesn’t immunize him against attack, for he’s recently published an essay in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (see my take on this execrable volume of apologetics here, here and here) that is one of the book’s two or three pieces that doesn’t kiss the butt of Christianity. (The book’s editors falsely claimed that it would not be a volume “defending or promoting Christian faith.” What a joke!) You can read Carroll’s excellent essay online. It’s called “Does the universe need God?” and the answer is “Hell, no!”
That, of course, will inevitably raise the hackles of theologians, who earn their daily bread from asserting the opposite. In particular, it’s ticked off the smug and foolish priest Father Robert Barron, who has responded to Carroll below, mistakenly calling Sean’s pieces a book rather than an essay.
We’ve previously encountered Barron, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago and Rector*/President of Mundelein Seminary/University of Saint Mary of the Lake. In May of this year I wrote about his complaint that atheists were at fault for not being nihilistic enough, and in July of 2010 I discussed Fr. Barron’s request for Christians to pray for Christopher Hitchens.
Watching this guy is like listening to fingernails on a blackboard, and in this video he scratches about scientism for nearly nine minutes:
It’s the usual trope: “science can’t explain the beauty of Michelangelo’s work,” and “science can’t analyze truth, meaning, and goodness.” He decries the “incredible arrogance” of scientists who claim otherwise. But really, which scientist does that? We might one day be able to explain emotions like love or the admiration of beauty—and perhaps many moral intuitions—by analysis of brain patterns and evolution, but “meaning and goodness” will probably remain the purview of philosophy for a long time to come. Note that I said “philosophy,” not “religion.” For religion has made no progress in any of the “nonscientific” questions Father Barron raises, and of course the whole point in his decrying scientism is to enable religion. Sadly, different religions have different standards of truth, beauty, and meaning (Islam prohibits music and depictions of the human figure, for instance, which aren’t considered beautiful; and to a Catholic, the good life doesn’t include nonmarital sex). Give me secular philosophy over theology any day!
Barron then goes on to make—get this—the cosmological argument for the existence of God, though he dresses it up in fancy words appropriate for his Sophisticated Parishioners™. But it still hasn’t progressed beyond the arguments of Aquinas. As Barron argues:
“This process [the chain of contingent "causes"] must end in some reality which is not contingent; whose very nature it is ‘to bei: in sum esse—being itself [note how he adds gravitas to this his dumb argument by using Latin words]. This is precisely what serious believers mean by ‘God.’ That is why God is not one fussy cause among many; one element within a mechanistic system. God is rather the answer to this question: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ‘Why should there be a universe at all?’ ‘What finally explains contingent reality?’”
And my responses, hardly novel, are these:
1. The universe may well not be “contingent.” That is, not everything, including physical phenomena, must have a contingent “cause”. Why does a radioactive atom decay when it does? As far as we can tell, and as physics tells us, there is no “cause”. It just happens at a given moment, and it’s a probabilistic phenomenon. In light of quantum mechanics (and also earlier philosophers), the notion of “cause” in the universe is outmoded. And if quantum phenomena have no cause, why must the universe? Ergo, the universe could have caused itself, as physicists keep telling us. Barron is simply wrong when he argues that “one must evoke an extrinsic cause to explain why matter behaves this way.”
2. I know this question makes theologians snicker, but I still think it’s a good one: “WHAT CAUSED GOD, THEN?” Their usual response is that God doesn’t need a cause, for He is the “Uncaused Cause.” But that’s just semantics; you terminate a (false) infinite regress in something that is by definition called “God.” But that could be the universe, in which case the universe is God. Saying that “God” is the ultimate cause is like saying, as Dan Dennett argues, that “Fred” is the ultimate cause, for you can call the Uncaused Cause anything you want. It’s not an explanation, but a semantic device to make the questions stop.
And I needn’t point out that even if you accept an Uncaused Cause, that is no evidence that it corresponds in any way to the Abrahamic God of Fr. Barron, or indeed to the God of any religion.
Finally, if there is a cosmic “being” that created the universe, what was it doing before the universe was around? Just sitting around twiddling his celestial thumbs? SOMETHING had to bring God into being, amirite? If theologians want to argue that the Abrahamic God needs no cause himself, then they have to do more than assert it: they need to provide evidence. And, of course, that is just what Fr. Barron doesn’t want to do: at the end of his spiel he argues that God is beyond scientific proof or disproof.
Sean has a brief response at Cosmic Variance, “The absolute limits of scientistic arrogance“, which includes this riposte:
As good scientists, of course, we are open to the possibility that a better understanding in the future might lead to a different notion of what is really fundamental. (It is indeed a peculiar form of arrogance we exhibit.) What we’re not open to is the possibility that you can sit in your study and arrive at deep truths about the nature of reality just by thinking hard about it. We have to write down all the possible ways we can think the world might be, and distinguish between them by actually going outside and looking at it.
So tell us, Fr. Barron, how did your lucubrations in your library lead you to the notion that the Uncaused Cause was the God of Abraham, who spawned a divine son who was resurrected?
What this clip does show, beyond question, is that theological explanation has not progressed beyond that of medieval times.
*I strove mightily not to mis-type this word.