April 27, 2009

A Question of Cosmic Origins

This is part 1 of a 10 part series. The introduction can be found here.

The first topic relates to the great historical question of origins and trades on concepts found in the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

1. Creation

The overwhelming consensus of science is that the entire cosmos (including space and time) came into existence at a finite point in the past. All of our observations, equations, and physical laws testify to a point of origin for this universe.

In light of the troubling evidence for a beginning, and that we may not even be able to find a natural cause in principle, what explanation is given to the questions, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and "Where did it all come from?"

Francois Tremblay proceeds to take issue primarily with the logical composition of my question.

Asking "why is there something rather than nothing" is a fallacious question since "is" implies existence and "nothing" implies non-existence. It's a question that Christians like to ask because it's by definition unanswerable, not because atheists have no ready answer but because the question itself is contradictory.

Roderick T. Long further elaborates the objection.

It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of the whole of existence – whether that whole includes a God or not. Any attempt to explain existence has to appeal either to something in existence or something not in existence. If it appeals to something that’s already in existence (be it God, quarks, or whatever you like), then you’re not explaining all of existence; and if it appeals to something not in existence, then you’ve offered no explanation at all.

My point was not to ask a trick question, but to seek a reaction to the fact that this universe gives evidence of a beginning. When I speak of something and nothing I am speaking from the materialist's perspective. Of course, as a theist, I believe that "something" has always existed; I have a "first cause" or "prime mover."

Long basically understands this, as he continues:

The concept of explanation applies only within the realm of existence; that’s why both theists and atheists agree that chains of explanation stop with something whose existence has (and needs) no explanation beyond itself – whether it’s God or energy.

This is a good observation, and actually is the kernel of the response I would make to George Self when he asks, "If a xian wants to take the beginnings back to some god that made it all, I would ask, 'but who made god?'" Something has to eternally exist or there would be nothing right now. Something cannot come from nothing. We suggest that this something is God, whose very definition includes the idea of self-existence and eternality. If the atheist will not allow an eternal God to stand as an acceptable first cause, even in theory, then the atheist has no grounds to lean upon an eternal universe (or energy) either.

The problem that I point out with this question is that even if it might be conceptually possible to have an eternal universe (which I could argue against as well), by all indications this one had a beginning. I am not asking for an explanation for the universe, which might lead to the counter-question of why there is a God; I am asking the atheist what he (or she) does with the evidence for an origin to the universe.

Alison Randall takes (in my mind) the sensible position that "nothing does not and has never existed . . . because you can't have anything come into existence from nothing."{1} This serves to underscore the problem of our current observation that all space, time, matter, and energy burst onto the scene at a finite point in history. If it can ever be said to have come from "nothing," or no prior state can be identified, then materialism will have hit a dead end in one of its most important avenues of justification.

Randall then goes on to postulate that "everything always existed . . . as a dense singularity of energy-matter." Here's where we could get into an arcane scientific discussion and I could ask things like, how "infinitely small" (as the singularity is often described) is distinguishable from "nothing," how something natural could exist prior to the space-time continuum in which existence is defined, and why a gravity well isn't happy eternally staying that way.

But I don't need to go here, because there is not even agreement on the idea of the origin of the singularity. For instance, inflationary theory, which is the prevailing big bang model, says that the singularity was generated by something like a "quantum fluctuation." Membrane theory doesn't even have a place for a singularity, and one of its advantages is the very fact that it doesn't have to wrestle with the difficulties associated with one. As this physics article explains about one of the big bang models that require a singularity,

The problem with the Big Crunch/Big Bang model is that the mathematical laws of classical general relativity do not work at a singularity. And if scientists cannot mathematically understand the singularity, they cannot, in theory, fully understand the geometry of spacetime, either before the Big Crunch or after the Big Bang.

Randall continues her response:

I don't pretend to know a lot about it, but [the Singularity/Big Bang model] seems to be one of the best explanations we have right now, along with other ideas . . . like string theory, multiverses, and such.

Umm, which theory was it that is the "best explanation?" She lists these other things because there is NOT an explanation right now, only theories, else we wouldn't have other contenders vying for dominance. I think Randall knows this, but she adds this parting shot to show where her preferences lie:

The theories that are made from observable evidence are a lot more juicy and intriguing than ancient mythologies.

Unfortunately, the only observations and evidences we have say nothing more than that there was a beginning to this universe. There are not so much theories made from observable evidence as there are only theories seeking evidences as to how that happened by "natural" means. This is exactly why there is so much excitement over things like the Large Hadron Collider and Planck satellite, which are hoped to offer supporting evidence for one or another idea (though how we can prove the nature and events of something "outside" this universe using observations born of the laws contained within it I do not know).{2}

The bottom line is that there's really not an explanation for the origin of the universe, and naturalistic explanations are simply occasions to engage in sci-fi narratives. As Leon Lederman (Nobel Prize winner in physics) says in his book, The God Particle:

A story logically begins at the beginning. But this story is about the universe and unfortunately there are no data for the very beginning. None, zero! We don't know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billionth of a trillionth of a second — that is, some very short time after the creation in the Big Bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up. We are in the realm of philosophy.

This is where the discussion must ultimately end. As George Self concludes, "I'm quite comfortable saying, 'I don't know, and neither does anyone else.'" And one blog commenter summed up the responses by saying, "I don't know, but science is looking into it."

Fine. That is an honest and somewhat acceptable answer. Every worldview must be permitted some mysteries. But if this is a satisfactory response for all the intractable problems of materialism, then atheists shall forever be free to think themselves rational, since science will always be "looking into it." However, I doubt they would be so kind as to allow us to reply to their tough questions with, "I don't know, but our theologians are looking into it."

Without overstating my case, it seems reasonable to say that evidence for a beginning to this universe is at least problematic for materialistic atheism. And even while atheists can avoid a proof for God by eternally leaving the question open to scientific investigation, we should be able to say that a cosmic origin is at least consistent with theism, particularly classical Christian theism.{3}

After offering his shrug to the problem of cosmic origins, Self adds this addendum:

Even if I wanted to assume that time had a beginning at some point in the distant past that still does not prove that the xian "god" created that point. Perhaps the cosmos was started by a unicorn or a magic genie.

Unfortunately, this does not at all avoid the problem for the atheist. A magic genie or unicorn with the power and knowledge to create our universe would still be a god, for all practical purposes. What Self does do is touch on the fact that the Cosmological Argument is limited in the work that it can accomplish. Even if the atheist were to concede the need of a creator, it is another thing to demonstrate the nature of that creator. For this reason, the Cosmological Argument can never be more than an argument for theism in general{4}, and must work in conjunction with other arguments to arrive at the God of Christian theism.



  1. There are some who disagree with Alison and are bold enough to accept the premise that there once indeed was nothing. Dr. Peter W. Atkins (himself an atheist) holds that the "nothing" managed to split itself into the positively and negatively charged universe that we enjoy today. Tada! The Force stays in balance, since "nothing" has yielded a universe with a net charge of nothing, and may return to such in the future. It's all virtual nothingness with no gross explanation required. It all sounds rather artful as a high level theory, but explaining exactly how "nothing" managed to send itself on an extended holiday is where it begins to unravel.
  2. I might conversely say to Randall, "Theories with a long philosophical pedigree are a lot more juicy and intriguing than ideas from sci-fi movies."
  3. You can expect this to emerge as a recurring theme in each of my questions.
  4. In fact, cosmological arguments have been in play since long before Christianity was founded.
Part 2 can be found here.

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10 Replies to the Atheists

A while back I wrote the article, 10 Questions for the Atheist. It has elicited a number of responses since that time, particularly on some recent blogs. I thought it might be time to do a follow-up series to deal with replies to each "question" in my article. I'll proceed by taking each question in turn — one per post — and addressing some of the responses I've encountered.

I began the article with this statement:

Atheism, by definition, holds that there is no God and nothing beyond this world of matter, space, time, and energy. Consistent with this viewpoint come a large number of necessary truths and the problems relating to them. Atheism is not made rational merely by the rejection of the evidences for God; it has its own wares to sell and difficulties to overcome. Here is a sampling of the kinds of issues which atheism is obliged to address.

By this, I mean to point out that atheism is more than just a rejection of the God proposition. It is its own proposition. It makes its own worldview claim and is saddled with certain questions and mysteries that still emerge and must be answered in a way consistent with atheism. Theists are often charged with having a too-easy answer for life's mysteries: Goddunnit. Questions of origins, design, morality, and consciousness may be "conveniently" dispatched by appeal to the Deity, but they are left on the table for the atheist to address. And if the atheist has no solid answer to life's most compelling and fundamental questions, then exactly what is it that justifies atheism as a rational contender? Why believe atheism to be true apart from compelling answers to such questions? Why not be agnostic at most?

One atheist responds to my opening statement as follows:

We already have another word for that, it’s called "materialist." Atheists are not beholden to hold to any positive claim about whether there is something "beyond this world" (whatever that means exactly). There are atheists who believe in supernatural things like souls, ghosts, weird energies, and so on. So we have to assume that [the] whole set of questions here is not actually about atheists at all, but rather about materialists. (Francois Tremblay)

I will have to agree that "materialist" is probably a better word for what I describe here, and that this represents a subset of the "atheist" population. However, it is the largest subset, the most vocal, and in my mind it is what most reasonably follows from the concept of atheism. I am not, here, concerned with atheists who make room for spiritual elements, and apparently Tremblay does indeed know what I mean by "beyond this world," since he continues on to list several fine examples of otherworldly things, like souls and ghosts. It seems to me that if one is comfortable with the idea of immaterial beings, then there isn't any principled difficulty with the idea that one Being might be greater than us and precede even the material world that we inhabit.

Next I'll move on to my "questions." Each one is presented with a bit of contextual setup, followed by one or more actual questions to the atheist that relate to the topic. The setup is unfortunately brief, of necessity, but is itself food for discussion.

The responses I'll be addressing come from the following persons:

This is the introduction to a 10 part series. Part one can be found here.


Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN