Infinite regression and the Infinite

 

I recently began reading Richard Dawkin’s notorious book The God Delusion.  While many of his arguments are interesting and most definitely worth discussing, one of his arguments (which goes back long before Dawkins) stuck out to me.

This argument is the idea of an Infinite Regress, and it is one that has interestingly enough historically been used both as a support for and an argument against God.  To quote Dawkins:

There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question ‘Who made God?’, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed. (The God Delusion pg 136)

Before carrying on, I feel obliged to offer a bit of background information.  An Infinite Regress is when the truth of a certain proposition is dependent on an earlier proposition, which in return is dependent on an even earlier one, ad infinitum.  In mathematical terms P(n-1) is dependent on p(n), p(n) is dependent on p(n+1) as n goes to infinity.  The argument generally goes as follows:

Theists look around the intricate design of the world and conclude that it must have a designer.  To get a bit more specific, our world seems especially attuned for life to not only begin and evolve, but ultimately thrive.  Many things that we take for granted in nature, if different by even tiny amounts would result in the impossibility of our creation (For more on this read this short PDF http://www.ichthus.info/BigBang/Docs/Just6num.pdf).  Because the world is so perfectly fit or “designed” for life, we can rationally conclude that the world must have a designer, i.e. God.

This argument brings to mind a familiar Midrash regarding Avraham:

And G‑d said to Abraham: ‘Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house…'” (Genesis12:2) — To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” G‑d looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe. (Genesis Rabbah 12:1)

Even after discovering evolution, we are still left with the question of, what started the entire process of creation in general?  Since we generally view the world in a cause and effect type manner, we argue that there had to be a First Cause, aka a God, that, if nothing else, started the system of events leading to our creation.

In response to this however, Richard Dawkins and other atheists argue that we are falling into our own trap.  A God which is complex enough to design the universe must himself be just as, if not more, complex than the universe in which he was able to design.  Thus, we would need another first cause (or God) to have created God and so on.

Instead of using God as a first cause which created the universe, Dawkins is forced to use the Anthropic Principle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle).  In a nutshell, this principle states that no matter how unlikely it is that: 1) our universe was created with the exact constants to support life somewhere. 2) our world resides in a perfect place within the Universe to support life. 3) inanimate matter became animate . 4)  the eukaryotic cell (a cell needed to support complex life but not found in simple bacteria) was born.  And 5) consciousness arose in humans – since we are here observing it, even though it in Dawkin’s words “needs some luck to get started “…and …”also needs major infusions of luck” (The God Delusion pg 169), it must have happened because we are here.

Dawkins allows for this luck by noting that there are around a billion, billion planets in our universe.  This number is so great that even if the odds seems ridiculously low against a creature like human beings existing at all, the odds only need to be one in a billion billion because we are here, with consciousness and everything, discussing it!  Dawkins is even willing to take this idea one step further and appeal to different theories of a multiverse to account for the tiny probability of us being here.  As a side note, even after he lays down this idea, it seems that he is still left with the question “what started it all”?  Whether or not our universe is the only one, and the Big Bang started it billions of years ago, or our universe is just one in an infinite number of universes, we are still left with the question “when or how did it all begin?”.

Dawkins is forced to use the reasoning put forward by the anthropic principle because he does not want to get caught into what he considers an infinite regression, by saying that God created the world. Whether or not explaining the origins of the universe without falling into some sort of infinite regression is a question that I will leave the reader to think about.  What I wish to address now, is why it makes no sense to say that using God to explain the origin and evolution of the universe is an infinite regress.

For starters, one can easily say that Dawkins’ argument only makes sense to a materialist (one who thinks everything in the universe is made up of matter and there are no other substances).  Intricate things, made up of matter would need a creator whereas things outside the realm of nature (God) would not need a creator.  It is understandable how a materialist could view God as in need of a creator, but if we are willing to allow there to be other “stuff” in the universe besides matter, then we could simple say that a non-material creator would never be in need of creation himself.

Another answer is that arguing that God is an infinite regression is missing the entire point of the nature of God.  God, according to many streams of Jewish thought, is an infinite being.  We often hear people saying that God is the Ein Sof (infinite).  In the words of the Zohar:

Before He gave any shape to the world, before He produced any form, He was alone, without form and without resemblance to anything else. Who then can comprehend how He was before the Creation? Hence it is forbidden to lend Him any form or similitude, or even to call Him by His sacred name, or to indicate Him by a single letter or a single point… But after He created the form of Man, He used him as a chariot wherein to descend, and He wishes to be called after His form, which is the sacred name “YHWH” ( Zohar, part ii., section “Bo,” 42b)

We understand God to be unbound by time or space- the definition of what is truly means to be infinite.  We cannot say that God is an infinite regression because he is himself infinite.  Given that God, in his very essence, is an infinite creature, contained within God is the entire infinite regression that would supposedly be needed to account for God himself. To one who views everything as finite, than yes we would be stuck in a never ending chain of “Gods” or Causes.  As for us, we do not need to appeal to the anthropic principle or different theories of a multiverse; nor worry about claims of an infinite regression, because God is the infinite regression needed to explain himself.

To prompt further thought on this article, I will include a link to a video that helped me formulate some of my conclusions on this topic:

 

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