An epistemic infinity paradox, suggested by Naturalism and fine-tuning arguments

Scientists are confronted with things the sciences can’t explain all the time – why do research on something that’s been all figured out? Most of the things that aren’t explained are passed over without notice, but every now and again one finds some non-explained things that cause persons to wonder if we shouldn’t explain them by appealing to God (e.g. the “fine tuning” of the constants in the Standard Model, the low-entropy of the early universe… I’ve even seen fine tuning arguments based on the fact that ice floats). This sense that the absence of a physical law is of theological significance hits some more than others – for some the thought is like a daydream that they would feel strange to say out loud and for others it’s a hardened axiom that we could only fail to acknowledge if we were under the grip of a malevolent, materialist ideology. To someone who sees these problems as interesting research areas, and even chances to win Nobel prizes, such theological speculation is infuriating or at least inappropriate.

It seems that the two responses are mutually exclusive and exhaust all options: either the cause is natural or above nature. But it is possible for both approaches to the problem to be substantially correct. Human knowledge, especially as extended in the sciences,  is infinite, and so we can always expect both that we will find a scientific answer to a scientific question while at the same time knowing that to complete this process once and for all would involve a contradiction. Science is infinite but (or therefore) not possibly complete, and so it must relate to the unknown-that-must-be-explained as necessarily explained by a natural cause but never in such a way as to move closer to a totality. The Naturalist is thus right that the universe is causally closed in the sense that there will never be some phenomena that will not eventually be reducible to a natural cause, but this happens precisely because a complete science is a contradiction and so the very ability we have to always find a natural cause also guarantees that this search cannot terminate in a complete explanation. Infinite causes and descriptions are not all possible causes and descriptions.

And so the experimental sciences have an infinity-paradox of their own in that any given phenomena can be explained by a natural cause while (necessarily) not all can be. When we deny the finitude of the ignorance that is gradually driven out by the advance of the sciences, then the “God in the gaps” ceases to be a fallacy, for even an infinite advance of the sciences cannot exhaust that which must be explained in relation to some cause.

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4 Comments

  1. October 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Interesting post as usual.
    A couple of thoughts/questions:

    Whilst intellect is infinite, ought we to distinguish between an infinite intellect (the knower) and nature (the known) which is not itself infinite? Which begs my next question – do you hold that nature is infinite? If so how does this not begin to deify nature?

    Finally,

    The Naturalist is thus right that the universe is causally closed in the sense that there will never be some phenomena that will not eventually be reducible to a natural cause

    Surely miracles (however rare) are exceptions to this general rule? Unless I’ve some how misread you?

    • October 1, 2012 at 7:31 pm

      Nature is infinite epistemically, because as we get to know it more and more we need to use dialectical reasoning that never needs to come to a final term. There is no final theory, and no final experience of S as P that makes us see that all future S’s will be necessarily P’s (metaphysics escapes this by not being measured by experience). Still, this epistemic infinity will always find causes with a basis in reality, and in this sense there is a kind of infinity to nature.

      does this not begin to deify nature?

      I think recognizing this sort of infinity will keep us from deifying nature. Because our knowledge of things with causes is necessarily incompletable, there must always be things with causes unexplainable to our discourses. This leaves a margin of things in need of explanation that cannot be explained by our discourse. “God in the gaps” only strikes me as a fallacy if the gap is in principle closable and science can be completed. What if it isn’t, and can’t be?

      Again, for various reasons Naturalism has been forced, and will continue to be more and more forced, to define nature epistemically, viz. “nature is what can be quantified over” or “nature is what the sciences can know”. But if science is essentially unable to be completed, this account is necessarily false.

      To the second: all I’m speaking about in that quotation is natural causes, and I think there’s good arguments that we can search after causes in that line forever.

      But I need to do way more work on this before I’m confident in it. There are too many weird infinities involved for me to think I have this figured out.

      • October 1, 2012 at 7:42 pm

        thanks – that’s helpful. I must think more about the kind of infinity that nature might have. Certainly the finitude of our sensation of nature keeps us from having epistemic certainty of nature being finite or infinite. And perhaps that observation alone is enough to keep GotGaps from being a fallacy?

  2. Na said,

    July 23, 2013 at 12:48 am

    The mind of human beings will never figure out why there is existance without being told why, if the cause of existance can speak to a human. But I can give you a secret about existance if you wish… The universe is made from an infinite solid where masking particles create matter like darkness is the creator on a movie screen, not the light. You now have been given a great clue. Thank yourself for your curiosity, and best wishes to come.


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