Infinite regression: an equal opportunity conundrum


“”A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!
—Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

How do Christians get out of having to say something as silly as, “It’s turtles all the way down”? It is through a loophole called, “special pleading”. It works a lot like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for logic traps. In this case, the logic trap is “infinite regression”. Convinced that the lack of scientific certainty is an opportune insertion point for god, the Christian can ask the scientist, “but where did that come from”, until the scientist is forced to acknowledge that he does not know. Triumphantly, Christian respond that they know the answer, and that the answer is God.

While the scientist can be forced into a spiral of infinite regression. The Christian evades the trap by declaring that God is the end of of the regression: the beginning of everything. He exists outside of time without having a beginning. That is the special pleading. It is off limits to inquire into God’s beginning because he does not have a beginning. If you insist on knowing why god has no beginning, the Christian’s proof is that we declare it to be the case.

The Christian does not seem to understand that the special pleading works both ways. The scientist can also speculate that matter and energy also existed outside of space and time just like god. Why should it be postulated that god was the only preexistent energy? Both the scientist and the theist can appeal to preexistence. It does not make sense for one while being absurd for the other. At best, it’s a tie. It does not advance either case. Otherwise, it is perfectly fair to ask if god is our father, who is our grandfather.

The greater rhetorical weapon belongs to the scientist. When asked about the first moments of existence, he can simply say, “I don’t know”. That is a powerful answer that is underutilized. Not knowing ultimate answers about origins does not unravel any of the work of science. It simply doesn’t matter. Perhaps we are the bacteria from the effluvia of an ancient, bygone society of otherdeminsional aliens. Who cares? It does not harm the scientific enterprise in the least bit. The scientific method is still a reliable way to proceed. If theists are forced to admit that they do not know, their whole world falls apart. Christians are forced into pretending to know all sorts of things they don’t. Otherwise, they would have to admit that they are just guessing about the whole god thing. That would be the true end of faith.

David Johnson


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