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Cosmological argument (from contingency)

  1. Mar 25, 2005 #1

    Math Is Hard

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    My teacher presented us with this version of the cosmological argument:

    1. Something is contingent.
    2. If something is contingent, its ultimate cause is either self-caused, uncaused, itself merely contingent, or a necessary being.
    3. Its ultimate cause is either self-caused, uncaused, itself merely contingent, or a necessary being.
    4. Its ultimate cause is not self-caused.
    5. Its ultimate cause is not uncaused.
    6. Its ultimate cause is not merely contingent.
    7. Its ultimate cause is a necessary being.

    The question I have is regarding premise 6. What does it mean for something to be "merely contingent"? In the first premise, "something is contingent" it is meant that there is something here that did not have to be here.

    So in premise 6, is this "merely contingent" ultimate cause that is being ruled out to be thought of as a thing that has existed forever, or are we talking about a member of an infinitely backward-regressing series?

    I hope that made some sense. Thanks in advance for your help.
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  3. Mar 25, 2005 #2


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    For starters, 2 and 3 are logically inconsistent. An 'ultimate' cause cannot be contingent. If it's contingent, it has a cause hence not ultimate. Still, it's obvious the causal chain must eventually break down. An infinite chain of a priori conditions is impossible simply because it would require an infinite amount of time to execute.

    Assertion 4 is pretty torturous. A cause cannot be its own cause? That makes my head hurt, looks to be circular, but can you rule it out with complete certainty?

    Assertion 5 simply collapses under its own weight. How can you say an ultimate cause is not uncaused? Is that not the same thing as saying it's caused? In that case it's not the ultimate cause - unless of course it's self caused.

    Assertion 6 is the only one that appears to be logical and unambiguous. Maybe that's why it doesn't seem to fit.

    Assertion 7 is the same as saying somethings just are the way they are and there is no explaining it. I'm ok with that. It is however possible we have just reached the end of out ability to comprehend emergent phenomenon.

    I trust you are suitably confused by now. No need to thank me.
  4. Mar 25, 2005 #3

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    I will thank you anyway. I am flattered that you stopped by to look at my post. Things must be awfully slow in A/C today? :biggrin:

    We went into this argument understanding that it is highly problematic. It is even rejected by most modern theist philosophers, yet the thing hangs around as something we must analyze in order to ground ourselves in philosophy of religion studies.

    Assertion 2 and 3 I'll let go for the time being, since the rest of the argument is devoted to picking at these.

    For assertion 4, a thing most certainly cannot cause itself. This doesn't work logically. Something cannot be in existence before it existed to cause itself. I am pretty certain we can satisfy ourselves with this claim.

    Assertion 5 falls under more scrutiny. I am troubled with this but the answer I need to produce for the "pro" side of the argument is that "things do not appear to happen without a reason". All contingent things have causes, and this is what we experience in our day to day lives. BUT then I need to refute this later on the "con" side by saying that at the quantum level, it seems that things do happen without reasons. Particles and anti-particles pop into existence randomly - no cause required. (Am I completely comfortable with this? No. I don't have enough education to make such a claim. This is something I gleaned from a philosophy lecture.)

    For assertion 6, the argument seems to be (in favor of the cosmological argument) that even if you had an infinitely regressing series, you still have to explain the series itself. The counter-argument, (from my notes), is "does an infinite regress require an explanation"? Not sure what to make of that. And I'm still not sure if we even mean a forever regressing series or a forever existing thing, just by looking at the argument.

    From what we learned in class, assertion 7 runs into trouble because we have to decide how we get from a "necessary being" to God. God has to be a better candidate for a necessary being than the universe itself. Sorry I have a short answer on that one but I am still working though this.
  5. Mar 26, 2005 #4


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    I was not terribly popular with philosophy professors. I questioned every assumption like a good scientist and they had issues with that. I assumed it was because the scientific method is too primitive to be useful in examining the 'big' issues. No wonder they said I did not play well with others. Were I in your philosophy class, I would ask these questions:

    Define contingent
    Define ultimate cause
    Define the difference between cause and contingent
    Define a necessary being
    Explain assertion 1 - are all somethings contingent?
    Is an ultimate cause something? If not, what is it? - and please go into detail to explain any answer other than 'nothing'.
  6. Mar 26, 2005 #5
    We may benefit here from a more scientific approach :
    I'd like to offer you an example from spacetime theory which shows that it is possible (at least in principle) for a "thing to cause itself".
    Imagine we have a time machine (before you howl with objections, there are several ways within the accepted theories of spacetime that a time machine could, in principle, operate). Imagine some scientist in the future sends back to me, through this time machine, the answer to some (as yet unanswered) problem in maths or science. I now publish that answer, and it becomes part of accepted science. Years later, a scientist in the future finds my paper in a journal, and decides to send the details contained in the paper back to me (in the past).
    I hope you see the circular cause-effect relationship.
    Now - where did the original idea come from?
    Quantum mechanics suggests that strict cause and effect may be a macroscopic illusion. At the quantum level, it seems that quantum events can occur without any prior cause (ie spontaneously)

    MF :smile:
  7. Apr 12, 2005 #6
    Chronos - I understand your objections to the argument, but feel they can be overcome. Mostly they seem to be related to problems of language.

    1. Something is contingent.

    This assumes that something that is contingent exists. This may be true or untrue depending on what exactly is meant by 'exist'. Kitchen tables can be said to exist, but they are epiphenomenal on the particles and waves that constitute them, and the spacetime that contains them, and so on. So there is a sense in which we can say that waves and particles, time and space, exist in a stronger sense than do kitchen tables.

    If we give the word 'exist' its very strongest possible ontological meaning then all epiphenomena do not exist, and all that truly exists is what is not-epiphenomenal (not-dependent, not-contingent). This is the way 'exists' is used in Buddhist texts, (with one important proviso that doesn't matter here).

    In this view all the phenomena that appear to us to exist are in fact epiphenomena (contingent/dependent), and there is only one phenomenon that truly exists, that is not contingent on something else. So in this view, at the deepest level of analysis, the first statement in the argument premise is not true. However things that are contingent/dependent do appear to us to exist, and in this sense the statement would be true.

    2. If something is contingent, its ultimate cause is either self-caused, uncaused, itself merely contingent, or a necessary being.

    3. Its ultimate cause is either self-caused, uncaused, itself merely contingent, or a necessary being.

    I have no problem with these two, except would prefer 'substance or entity' instead of 'being', since to say 'being' is to make an assumption.

    4. Its ultimate cause is not self-caused.
    5. Its ultimate cause is not uncaused.
    6. Its ultimate cause is not merely contingent.

    The example of self-causation backwards and forwards through time seems incorrect to me. It's reminiscent of the Wheeler-Feynman model of time in which advanced and retarded waves cause events in the past and the future. The problem is that even in these kinds of models something has to start the causal ball rolling, and self-causation seems to be equivalent to non-causation. So I'd go along with statement 4.

    All these three statements suffer from their wording which, on the surface, seems to just assume that there is such a thing as "Its ultimate cause". However I feel this is just a problem of language. It could be re-written "The ultimate substance or entity from which which the universe arises is neither self-caused, uncaused or contingent". That's how I read it anyway.

    7. Its ultimate cause is a necessary being.

    Perhaps the argument shows that all phenomena except one must be contingent and that this ultimate non-contingent phenomena must be necessary. However it seems like jumping to conclusions to call it a being.

    I take 'contingent' as equivalent to 'dependent'. That is, a thing which has "merely" a contingent existence is something that could not exist withour dependence on other phenomena. Thus a kitchen table has merely a contingent existence, as does gravity, mass, motion, baseball, colour, human beings and, according to some, everything else that presents an appearance to our senses or intellect. (Kant seems relevant here, with his 'transcendent reality'). Something which is not contingent can 'exist' while being the only thing that does.

    The argument as given shows, or sets out to show, that something must have a non-contingent existence and that this is God. The first conclusion seems reasonable, since it would be odd if there were more than one fundamental non-contingent thing, and odd if there weren't one at all. However to show that this thing is God would require a new and different argument, and a very clear definition of 'God'.

    This is the paradox. Neither answer makes sense. It is a metaphysical question and as such is undecidable. There is no way out of it, except perhaps Lao-Tsu's nondual "causeless cause" or "Tao". The Tao is not a cause (and is not not-a-cause!) but could perhaps be said to supply the contingent condition necessary to the existence of epiphenomena, and thus of the universe. (To a Taoist scientists study only epiphenomena, things which are not ultimately real).

    Intellectually this fundamental thing must be conceived as being either a cause or not a cause, for what else could it be? This is a case of "tertium non datur". It is inevitable that according to reason it must be one or the other, a cause or not a cause. This is why we have metaphysical questions (and discussions like this). Metaphysical questions embody the assumption that one of their answers is right and the other wrong.

    But a Taoist would argue that this is dualism, and the cause/not-caused dilemma is simply evidence that this ultimate non-contingent 'thing', God or whatever, cannot be conceived but can only be known directly, and also evidence of the limits to reasoning, the impossibility of encompassing within our two-value systems of reasoning something which is ontologically ultimate but which is neither a cause nor not a cause. To do so would give rise to all sorts of inconsistencies in any system of philosophical reasoning.

    A Taoist would say, I think, that because of all this if this ultimate thing is to be represented in any system of reasoning it must be by way of an undefined term, a term that points to the thing but which implies nothing about it beyond its undefinability. This term could be 'Tao' but there are many others. I think I read somewhere that Sufis have 99 official names for it.

    This thing/not-thing is presumably something like a 'wavicle', neither a particle nor a wave and thus impossible to conceptualise in terms of particles and waves. "Incomprehensible to us" as Richard Feynman says of them. If you look you'll find that the term "Tao" plays precisely the same role in Taoist epistemology as the term "wavicle" does in the epistemology of QM.

    Because of the existence of this other view (Taoism etc.) the argument you were given by your tutor would, in my opinion, represent an argument not just for God, but also for the Tao, Buddha-nature, Allah (in Sufism anyway), Unicity, and many other terms used to denote the ultimate non-contingent phenomenon. Therefore to me it does not represent an argument for the existence of God.

    However, whether this thing can be called God depends only on the definition of God, and it can get confusing. While probably agreeing with the argument you gave in outline at least, as a general rule a Sufi would argue vehemently that Allah is not God, a Taoist would argue that the Tao is not God, Buddhists would argue that Buddha-nature is not God and so on.

    Also, it's a slightly strange argument. It sets out to show that there is something that exists necessarily, something that is not contingent. It then simply assumes that having done this the existence of everything else is explained. In other words it assumes not just that God (or whatever) is non-contingent and exists necessarily, but also that God is not caused but is causal. This is counting chickens before they've hatched. It may be logically inevitable that what is ultimate is non-contingent and necessary, but it is not at all obviously reasonable to suppose that something that is uncaused can be causal.

    This issue has had some attention recently because this is how scientists think of consciousness, that it is caused but not causal. The same basic idea with the opposite polarity. (It may be just coincidence of course, but it's odd that it is God (or whatever) and consciousness that turn out to be the only two things in the scientific model of the universe that have this lopsided property). This idea, which is known as "assymetric supervenience" in consciousness studies, makes little sense to me. I can't make a knock-down argument against it because the issues are too complicated, but there have been one or two good ones in the literature.

    Absolutely, it's an interesting question. I hope this makes some sort of sense also.
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2005
  8. Apr 12, 2005 #7


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    You didn't have very good philosophy professors. Philosophy is all about questioning assumptions after they have been uncovered. There are generally tacit premises upon which all knowledge depends. In fact, a big part of one of my favorite classes this semester is questioning the suppositions of science, sort of the reverse of your 'good scientist' case.

    Empirical methods probably aren't appropriate when dealing strictly with abstract arguments (which I would argue are unlikely to actually prove anything about empirical reality), but I would like to think that we can be scientific without being empirical, at least in a limited sense. We can formulate hypotheses and work out the logical consequences. The difference comes in in that science tests these consequences for consistency with empirical reality. Philosophy tests for internal consistency.

    I think Canute's definition of 'contingent' is too weak for what is meant in this argument. The way the term is commonly used in metaphysics is to denote any object that could possibly not exist. In this sense, any object X is contingent if, and only if, it is logically possible for X not to exist. All "logically possible" means is that if X did not exist, a contradiction would not result. In this sense, it can be argued that everything in our universe has a contingent existence, not only tables and chairs, but even the atoms and forces and laws of physics that constitute them. In fact, the universe itself seems to be contingent, which is how this argument works.

    'Ultimate cause' is a tricky one. Let us consider the framework of evolutionary biology. According to many evolutionary biologists, the ultimate cause of any animal's behavior is selective pressure. The proximate cause can be something much different. The squirrel climbs the tree to find nuts. The proximate cause of its climbing the tree is to find a nut. The ultimate cause, however, is that far off in the evolutionary past, ancestral proto-squirrels that climbed trees were more likely to pass on their genes than proto-squirrels who did not. This is as far as biology goes, but we can go farther. The cause of organisms existing in the first place can be traced back to a chemical evolution in which non-living matter gave rise to living cells. The cause of this can be traced back to conditions that existed because of the way the solar system was formed, which can be traced to the death of an earlier star. Ultimately, modern cosmology traces all events back to a single event, the big bang. The big bang, in this sense, is the "ultimate cause" of all other events within the universe. Since this is a theological argument, presumably the formulator did not want us to conclude that the big bang is the ultimate cause of our universe, because the big bang is itself contingent. It is logically possible that it might never have occured.

    Hopefully, at this point, the difference between 'cause' and 'contingent' has been made explicit. A cause is an event or an agent, whereas 'contingent' refers to a state of existence that is not logically necessary. The connection is that a contingent being is one that must have been caused - at least that can be drawn from this argument. Whether or not it is true that a contingent being must have been caused remains to be seen.

    'Necessary being' can defined negatively as any being that is not contingent. From our earlier formulation, it should be clear that this means that any being X is necessary if, and only if, it is not logically possible for X not to exist. This means that a contradiction would result if X did not exist. As such, there was never a time at which X came into existence, meaning X is not caused. In this way, X is conceived of as the ultimate cause of all other beings, which are themselves only contingent beings.

    'Assertion 1' should be referred to as 'premise 1' or even simply '1' if you prefer. It means only what it says and nothing further should be read into it. So let us restate it: Something is contingent. Now that we have defined our terminology, we can see what this statement means. There exists at least one being that is a contingent being. Do we accept this premise? Sure. It is logically possible for my pillow not to exist. In fact, for most of the universe's history, my pillow did not exist. So 1 is a true premise.

    To answer your final question, yes, an ultimate cause is something. All things are something. I believe your tacit question was whether or not an ultimate cause is a contingent something. It is not - again, according to this argument (we should not simply accept that this is the case, however).

    Now that you have the necessary tools that any good philosopher has at his disposal; that is, a full and complete understanding of the technical jargon used and the form of the argument being made, you can evaluate the argument. There are two questions that any philosopher must ask:

    1. Is the argument valid? If the answer is no, we stop here. If the answer is yes, we move on to:

    2. Is the argument sound? By 'sound' is meant a valid argument in which all of the premises are true.

    This argument is valid. It is a hypothetical syllogism followed by a series of disjunctive syllogisms, both of which are valid argument forms. Premises 1-3 are true as far as I can see. That leaves us to evaluate premises 4-6 in order to determine whether or not the conclusion 7 is true. Would you care to take a stab at it?
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2005
  9. Apr 12, 2005 #8


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    By the way, I just wrote a short response paper regarding another form of cosmological argument a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it would be helpful, as it touches on some of the additional issues being brought up here. I don't want to retype everything, so I've just attached the file.

    The articles I'm referencing can all be found online:






    Attached Files:

  10. Apr 14, 2005 #9

    Excellent post. It clarified a few issues. However I have some quibbles.

    I'd say that on analysis this is equivalent to the definition of contingent that I gave (although as you say yours is more in line with its usage by Western philosophers). In yours a contingent object can not-exist without contradiction. In mine contingent objects do not exist, in the sense that they are epiphenomena, and it is only what these objects are epiphenomenal on that can be said to truly exist. In this respect our two ways of looking at contingency seem equivalent. In your view contingent objects may not exist and in my view they don't, at least not in the same strong sense that a non-contingent object exists.

    Yes, in this respect the argument seems to hold water.

    To be picky, what the animal wants is not thought to influence its behaviour. 'Wanting' implies consciousness, and consciousness in evolutionary biology is non-causal. (It seems to me that it is also asssumed to be non-causal in evolutionary psychology, which is odd). But this is off-topic.

    Hmm. Off -topic again, but to me this fails to explain why the first squirel to climb a tree did so.

    It's the prevailing conjecture but not yet a known fact.

    Yes, I've never heard anyone argue that the BB is not contingent. Philosopher Colin Mcginn, one of the few who speculate on this issue, has suggested that consciousness originates in a non-spatial reality 'prior' to the BB and, by implication, might be the non-contingent necessary being under discussion.

    Good point. It relates to mine about whether something that is not caused can be causal.

    Here we disagree. I would argue that premise 1 is only true in a way, and that it is false in another way. This is because I see epiphenomena as having only a dependent existence, and thus as not truly existing. It's a small point, but I feel it's an important one. I would argue that only a thing which is not epiphenomenal can truly be said to exist (in an ontological sense, as existing intrinsically rather than extrinsically, as having implicate rather than explicate existence, to use Bohm's terms).

    Again I would split hairs. There are reasonable metaphysical systems in which there is no ultimate cause, just a necessary ultimate condition which provides the possibility space in which epiphenomena like our universe can arise.

    It seems to me that although 4-6 seem to be reasonable assumptions they are nevertheless assumptions. So I'd say that as given statements 1-6 are all premises. If some supporting argument were given then perhaps 4-6 could be turned into provable concusions, but those arguments are not given. To be honest I'd say that strictly speaking even 7 is a premise, since it assumes an ultimate cause without any suporting argument. That would be acceptable if there were no other possibility, but there is.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2005
  11. Apr 14, 2005 #10


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    Maybe. Let's clarify something here. You note that things like table and chairs and my pillows are epiphenomenal on the fundamental particles that constitute them. Are you suggesting that the fundamental particles have a necessary existence? It seems to me that no matter how fundamental you get - that is, even if the particles themselves on epiphenomenal on something else that exists in a more basic and eternal sense - it is still logically possible that this fundamental thing might not have existed and so has a contingent existence. The only way around this is if you go the Spinozan route and speculate that there truly only exists one substance in the universe, unified and whole, and that this one substance necessarily exists because it would be a contradiction for nothing to exist. Is this the route you've taken?

    Not necessarily. There are materialist conceptions of how desires can be causally relevant. The best is probably Fred Dretske's. In his conception, the squirrel can be said to desire the nut whether or not it experiences any subjective state of desire.

    Well, that's the thing about ultimate causes. You can, in principle, go back as far as the first cause of everything, but to explain squirrel behavior in an evolutionary framework, we have to establish a cutoff point somewhere. In many ways, this point is arbitrary. There is a cause of the first squirrel climbing a tree, but what this cause is is not relevant to an evolutionary explanation (perhaps it was chased, perhaps it simply followed light and it was lighter at the top of the tree, whatever). That doesn't mean the reason isn't relevant to other explanatory frameworks; it is, just not to an evolutionary framework.

    [By the way, don't take my word for this. As far as I know, evolutionary ethologists that formulate sociobiological explanations of animal behavior don't get into the reasons that the first animal of a given species behaved in a certain way other than to say that, for whatever reason, they possessed genes that caused them to, but I could be wrong.]

    It's just an example. The point is simply that we can trace a causal chain back as far as we want. Where it leads we don't necessarily know. A first living being arose for some reason, setting off the chain leading to squirrel behavior.

    That sounds very similar to William Craig's cosmological argument that I talk about in the file I uploaded.

    That's actually be brought up in discussions I've had regarding Craig's arguments. It isn't brought up in anything I linked to, but Craig's justification for saying that God can be uncaused is that God is atemporal. As such, he never came into existence. Without temporal succession, there is no causation. I don't see how he can then move to say that God, as an atemporal being, can be the cause of the universe. If being atemporal means you don't need to be caused, shouldn't it mean that you also cannot be a cause? Heck, how could you even have any kind of action without time?

    I think it's faithful to the conception of contingency that the framers of the argument intended. Whether or not a pillow can be said to exist in a fundamental sense has certainly always been in question. Most of the modern rationalists probably would have said that it did not. Still, it clearly exists in some sense, in that I do place my head on it at night. It has a sensable existence in that I can detect it through touch, smell, and other senses. There is something that is the cause of these sensations and it is this something that I refer to by the use of the term "pillow." Whatever it is that I am referring could logically not exist and so is contingent.

    Of course. There are plenty of alternate systems that I personally find perfectly reasonable that don't require a single ultimate cause of all other things. There are also systems that do require an ultimate cause, but that don't require that the cause be a necessary being. That is actually my main bone of contention with this particular argument. Premise 6 seems completely unjustified. Although none of the premises are certainly true, I can think of plenty of backing for all but 6. I cannot see any good reason to believe 6, unless of course we assume that non-existence is itself a contradiction. Personally, I don't make this assumption.

    Yeah, that's the thing with simplified argument forms like this. Each of the individual premises has either argumentative of evidentiary backing, but it isn't provided by a simple reading of the bare-bones argument itself. Thankfully, I'm familiar from past experience with most of the supporting arguments, and hopefully Math is Hard's professor has taken the time to provide her and her classmates with them as well.
  12. Apr 17, 2005 #11
    No, I'm not arguing that particles and waves have a necessary existence. But I am arguing that whatever ultimately underlies them must be necessary. Seconlyd, yes, my view is quite close to Spinoza's. I feel that most of his argument works, and that many of his conclusions are close to the truth. However I feel his conclusions are wrong even while being closer to the truth than most theist arguments.

    The problem with arguing that there is nothing that necessarily exists is that this would mean the possibility space of the universe (all that there is) includes a state of non-existence. If so then eventually the universe will be in this state, and once there will remain in this state. I suppose it's possible, but if so then we're damn lucky to have evolved before it reached this state. Also if the universe has an ending then it must have had a beginning, so to me an ending to the universe implies ex nihilo creation.

    This is just a redefintion of the term 'desire' to suit his hypothesis. In normal usage desire implies consciousness. What he is saying is that squirrels can act as if they were conscious without actually being so. Many people say the same of human beings. But we know for certain that just because we cannot prove an animal has desires it does not follow that they don't.

    "In higher animals the use of the term ‘instinct’ to describe complex behaviour became progressively more difficult because of the interference of increasingly large doses of judgement and reason: ‘ The orang in the Eastern islands, and the chimpanzee in Africa, build platforms on which they sleep; and as both species follow the same habit, it might be argued that this was due to instinct, but we cannot feel sure that it is not the result of both animals having similar wants and possessing similar powers of reasoning.’ "

    Darwin (Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex)

    It seems to me that Darwin was a lot more cautious about these matters, and rightly so, than modern neo-Darwinists.

    Fine. It's always easier to leave out from a theory the things that we can't explain within it.

    It seems that way to me also. I think it's a major copout that undermines the entire edifice of current evolutionary theory. This is one reason I find Dennett's book on evolution as incoherent as his book on consciousness.

    This looks like a paradox, but it is not a paradox in the nondual view of cosmogenesis, just the way things are. What is ultimate exists yet also does not. To say it does or does not exist always leads to paradoxes. Also, the fact that causation requires the existence of time, and that time cannot exist until something else does, is the reason that Buddhists say that at the deepest level of analysis nothing exists and nothing happens. By 'nothing exists' is meant 'everything that exists (in the normal sense of the word) is epiphenomenal' (is contingent, relative, dependent etc).

    I agree with your scepticism. If an entity is atemporal then I'd say that it can neither cause nor be caused. Causation seems to requires temporality. The problem is, what causes time? It cannot be something that is temporal. I'd argue that our notion of causality, which is a 'classical' level concept, is faulty.

    Quite right. I should have said that I don't think it's possible to show that these premises are true or to make a successful argument for their truth, but I cannot object to the argument because it isn't given.
  13. Apr 17, 2005 #12
    what theory in spacetime allows you to travel backwards in time without going faster than the speed of light?

    also, i don't think our universe acts the way it does in 'Back to the Future'. even if everything else holds up, and you sent someone back in time with important scientific data, it wouldn't be the same existence as the one we're in now, it would splinter off into an alternate reality.

    i think recursion's plausability depends on how general you define the scope of the initial cause (on an atomic level, organic level, etc)
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