Saturday, December 10, 2016

Why 'Existence Always Existed' Is Likelier Than 'Something Created All Existence,' or: The Conjunction Fallacy in Cosmology

Stuart K. Hayashi

Fall-Winter 2009 semester at Hawaii Pacific University




Two Questions
Question 1: Suppose there is a woman named Linda, and here is what we know about her: She writes a lot of poetry about capitalists exploiting the masses. In her free time, she wears a beret and attends performance art shows. She reads Noam Chomsky books and is trying to be a raw food vegan. Which of the following is likelier?:


  • A. Linda is an executive at a big bank.
  • B. Linda votes for left-wing progressive political candidates, owns a Che Guevara shirt, and works at a big bank as an executive.


  • According to a psychology experiment by Keith Stanovich and Richard F. West, people who score high on the SAT are more prone to answer B than are people who scored average on the SAT.


    Now here's another question.

    Question 2: Which of the following scenarios is likelier?:

    • A. Some entity always existed. If you try to pinpoint some moment in the past when this entity began to exist, you won't find it; its existence is eternal.
    • B. Some entity always existed. If you try to pinpoint some moment in the past when this entity began to exist, you won't find it; its existence is eternal. In fact, this entity is beyond sapient; it makes choices. Moreover, this entity created all other entities existing; everything that exists, exists because of this entity. This entity created all of Existence; there was a time when there was absolute nothingness, and, at the same time there was absolute nothingness, this entity already existed. This entity is also responsible for all morality. It is the final arbiter of moral judgments, and it is the final arbiter of all purpose. If you have a purpose in your existence, it was decided by this entity.

    In both cases, the likelier answer is A.



    Overcoming the Conjunction Fallacy
    Here is the reason. When it comes to the first question, both of your options say that condition X (Linda is a bank executive) is present. The notion that Linda is not a bank executive is not an option. However, option B says that not only is Linda a bank executive, but she is also a political progressive (condition Y). Many people who score high on the SAT notice from the description that Linda fits the stereotype of a political progressive, and therefore they select option B. But in terms of formal logic, A is likelier, because only condition X must be present for A to be true, whereas B requires both conditions X and Y to be true.  The likelihood that X is true is greater than the likelihood that both X and Y are true.   It can be mapped out as follows:

    • If X is true, then A is true.
    • If X and Y are both true, then both A and B are true.

    Logically, then,  A is likelier. That option A does not refer at all to Linda's political progressivism does not stop A from being likelier than B, because B being true presupposes A being true, whereas A being true does not presuppose B being true. When people who score high on the SAT answer that B is likelier, they fall prey to a logical fallacy called the Conjunction Fallacy.

    It is for that same reason that in Question 2, answer A is also the likelier option. For either option A or B to be true, some entity always had to exist. Once again, option B cannot be true unless option A is also true, but option B does not have to be true for option A to be true.



    Option A: Existence Always Existed; That’s It
    Option A refers to an idea from Aristotle's heyday that the Totality of Existence does not need to be created by some external source. That is, Existence does not have to be created by God; something always existed and, if you try to pinpoint some time in the past when Existence emerged into existence, you will not find it.

    Some people proclaim that the Big Bang disproves option A, as the Big Bang created the universe. That reflects a misunderstanding of the Big Bang. When physicists talk about the Big Bang, they do not mean that there was absolute nothingness and then an explosion happened, from which all Existence emerged. The idea behind the Big Bang is that at one time, "the universe" was in a particular physical state unalike what it is presently. Then "the universe" underwent some change that altered its form; this change is described rather metaphorically as an "expansion." The use of the term expansion is metaphorical, as it is not exactly the same as the type of "expansion" we normally talk about in our everyday lives; it's not the same as a sponge expanding or a bread loaf expanding.

    The Big Bang Theory therefore does not refute the idea that Existence, in some form, already existed. If there was a great "expansion," it presupposes that there was already some entity there to "expand." If we say that the Big Bang created the universe, that statement only makes sense if we make a distinction between "the Totality of Existence" and "the universe as we presently know it," with "the universe as we presently know it" being a subset subsumed under the greater category of "the Totality of Existence." If the universe had to "begin," that universe had to begin within the greater Totality of Existence, which already existed and always existed.

    In The Elegant Universe, Cornell University physicist Brian Greene seriously entertains this idea:

    ...[Maurizio] Gasperini and [Gabriele] Veneziano suggest that there may be a whole prehistory to the universe... In this so-called pre-big-bang scenario, the universe began in a vastly different state than it does in the big bang framework. ... because the pre-big bang epoch involves its own inflationary expansion, [Alan] Guth’s solution to the horizon problem is automatically built into the pre-big bang cosmological scenario [New York: Vintage, 2003 trade paperback second edition, p. 362, emphases author’s].



    There Was a Time When Nothing Existed, But At the Same Time Something Existed Before Anything Existed and Then It Made Everything Else That Exists?
    Since Thomas Aquinas's time, many theologians and also lay believers scoff at the notion that some entity (the Totality of Existence) always existed. They call it highly improbable, ridiculous. Rather, they say, there was a time when there was absolute nothingness and then God had to put something there. Hence, God created somethingness, as opposed to the nothingness.  But this is a self-contradiction, because anything that exists counts as an entity. If God always existed, then God counts as an entity, and this means that there was already an entity that always existed. Therefore, in Question 2, both options A and B are premised implicitly on the understanding that some entity always existed and did not need to be created by some external creator.

    For option A to be true, we only need to say that some entity always existed. For option B to be true, option A must be true -- some entity always existed -- and, in addition to that, the entity necessarily possesses some other traits: it is sapient, it makes choices, it created every other entity, and it imbued those other entities with purpose.

    There is another manner in which this can be worded:

    Question 3:  Which is likelier?

    • A. The Big Bang happened.
    • B. The Big Bang happened, and it was caused by an entity that is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent, and the source of all ethics and the final judge of everything. 


    Many people laugh at those of us who say that for Question 2, option A is likelier -- those of us who say that some entity always existed, and that we need not presume this entity to possess so many anthropomorphic traits, such as making choices and creating. We are mocked for thinking Existence always existed and then leaving it at that. Those who laugh at us dismiss that scenario as unlikely. But those laughers overlook that they themselves are saying some entity already always existed and did not need to be created, and then their belief requires assigning various other traits to this entity. People who presume that option B is likelier are falling prey to the conjunction fallacy.