infinite thoughts

I went to TANSA’s first event for the year, and the talk (by Prof. Wilf Malcolm, emeritus professor of Mathematics at Victoria, and at one time the Vice Chancellor of Waikato) was on relating the Mathematical concept of Infinity to God.  Much of the math (or ‘maths’ if you’re a NZ-er) went over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway.

In reflecting on the talk/discussion, it occurs to me that in my discussions with atheists, I’ve encountered two views that seem to me to contradict one another?  I don’t claim to have deep understanding on this stuff, but conversation always helps me learn, so any thoughts are welcome – as always.  Here are the two views I’m talking about:

On one hand, it seems the very concept of infinity is kind of poo-pooed as fluff, irrelevant nonsense, ‘adding infinity to infinity’, ‘adding integers and ‘tweens’, ‘never crossing a room by only going half the distance at a time’ and ‘layers of infinite magnitude’, etc.  The common complaint is that none of this has any bearing upon reality.

But then on the other hand, when an infinite First/Final Cause is put forward as an ultimate/infinite explanation for the existence of the cosmos, the predictable, ‘just think for a moment longer’ typical response is: “oh yeah? but what caused the cause?”  For every ‘final’ cause suggested, the word ‘final’ gets promptly ignored and a prior cause – or indeed a string of prior causes – is insisted to be necessary.  I can see no other conclusion than that atheists think that the cosmos has an infinite number of prior causes (or is its own infinite source of self-causation).  But what happened to infinity having nothing to do with reality?

8 thoughts on “infinite thoughts”

  1. I can’t speak for others but the times at which I pull out the old “oh yeah? well what caused God?” is where the theist has first set up the argument as being “everything must have a cause” whereupon they invent a new ‘thing’ which caused all the other things and yet does not need a cause.

    I personally have absolutely no idea whether infinity actually exists in the real world (outside our mental ability to perform recursions) and my only objection is the assumption that there *is* such a thing as infinity in order to hang a whole lot of other beliefs on. Perhaps infinity is real but I’ve yet to see a demonstration outside of recursive mental constructs (in which we can also try to imagine a God who exists but who doesn’t belong to a set of all things that exist).

  2. Helpful feedback, Damian,
    For me, I think everything we see (to leave possible things we cannot see aside for the moment) points to a cause ‘behind’ or ‘underneath’ it, so the problem of a seemingly infinite (or at least not fully knowable) regress seems unavoidable, and I (of course) think Monotheism is eminently reasonable in its distinctions between the causality we see, and a First, unique, kind of Cause – as well as the kind of ‘existence’ we ‘see’, and a primary, unique kind of Existence, etc. I really don’t mind if grammatically this seems contradictory, because conceptually it works, and is an actual explanation of the infinite regress.

  3. I think your problem here, Dale, is you have set up your argument in your head – and attributed beliefs to your “atheist” which may not be real. Surely one can be an atheist and have a whole range of ideas on “infinity.” The concept really has nothing to do with atheism (which has, after all, very little content). Individuals may make the arguments you have postulated – but they do that as individuals, not as representatives of an ideological school of thought.

    Might I suggest that the concept of a “final cause” may be just as much “fluff, irrelevant nonsense “stupid” as the concept of “infinity” you describe.

    I think problems arise when a useful mathematical concept like “infinity” is used to describe things to which it may not really apply.

  4. Surely, Ken, if you can say that a Final Cause ‘might’ be fluff, etc., then you would surely be open to the possibility that it ‘might’ just be utterly true and reasonable as well? Or do you have a prior anti-Final-Cause philosophy which forces you to prefer the ‘fluff’ opinion?

  5. The real point of the “so what caused god” argument is to highlight the point that either it is an infinite regress or it isn’t. This is a proper dichotomy. If god is the first cause then it is not an infinite regress, it is finite. And if a finite number of causes is sufficient to explain the world then the need for god to end the infinite regress vanishes. If something is needed to cause god then the infinite regress isn’t solved by god. Either way god isn’t an answer to the infinite regress problem.

  6. Ian,

    If god is the first cause then it is not an infinite regress, it is finite. And if a finite number of causes is sufficient to explain the world then the need for god to end the infinite regress vanishes.

    Really, how so? What is problematic with a God (who is said to be infinite, btw, but let’s not muddy the waters further) being the ‘end’ of a (finite or infinite) regress??

    If something is needed to cause god then the infinite regress isn’t solved by god.

    At least not that god, anyway… which is precisely what monotheism says.

  7. It is very problematic if the major argument you have for god existing is that he must exist logically because of the infinite regression argument… My point is that it takes away the necessity for god via that logic, not that it specifically excludes god via that logic.

    And are you really saying monotheism allows for multiple gods? Isn’t that polytheism? :)

  8. I don’t think it’s a major problem at all, and I of course never said it was the major/only argument. And I still don’t think logical necessity for an ultimate cause is taken away.

    And correct, monotheism doesn’t allow for other gods, my point was about the logical process of evaluation getting one eventually to a One God.

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