16 Reasons Why I Believe In God: (1) The Origin of the Universe

8:17 AM James 8 Comments

In 1927, a Belgian priest named Georges Lemaître used Einstein's General Relativity equations to propose a radical idea: the universe is expanding! Two years later, Edwin Hubble confirmed Lemaître's hypothesis; it later became known as the "Big Bang" theory. The idea of an expanding universe did not sit well with a number of physicists, however, including Einstein. Why? Because it meant the universe had a beginning, and they knew that has enormous theological implications!

Fast forward to the present. Due to a number of dramatic empirical confirmations in the last century, scientists now can't deny that a Big Bang occurred and the universe is expanding. However, many physicists have been trying to come up with models that explain the evidence and include a Big Bang, yet somehow avoid an absolute beginning to the universe. Like the physicists of Lemaître's day, they fear that a beginning requires a theological explanation. They're right. Unfortunately for them, it now appears the universe almost certainly had an absolute beginning.

Famed physicist Alexander Vilenkin has proved mathematically that all the models physicists have conceived of to avoid a beginning, must themselves have a beginning.[1] His proof has been reported by numerous science journals and blogs. He also explained it in person at Stephen Hawking's 70th birthday "party." One science writer called it "the worst birthday present ever" (Hawking is one of the physicists who has been hoping that the universe doesn't have a beginning). Here's why all of this matters.

Religious philosophers and theologians have been offering cosmological arguments for God's existence for thousands of years. The one I find the most persuasive is called the Kalām cosmological argument. It was formulated by Islamic philosophers during the Middle Ages, and has been made popular again by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. The argument can be summarized as follows:
  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Simple enough. Premise 1 seems pretty intuitive and appears to be confirmed by all our experiences (we don't tend to observe things popping into existence without a cause). Premise 2 has been dramatically confirmed by science. And the conclusion follows inescapably from the premises. So, what does this have to do with God, you ask?

Think about this. If the universe began to exist, that means it had a cause that brought it into existence. In other words, something had to make the Big Bang happen. What could that cause be like? It can't be a physical cause -- matter came into existence at the Big Bang. Nor can the cause be something that exists in time or space -- they are products of the Big Bang as well. So, the cause of the universe has to be something that is non-physical, spaceless, and timeless (i.e. eternal), yet unfathomably powerful. These are all qualities traditionally attributed to God. Thus, the origin of the universe provides a powerful reason for belief in God's existence.

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Common Objections:

1. If everything requires a cause, then who made God? The argument doesn't say everything requires a cause -- only things that begin to exist. If God is eternal, then he doesn't have a beginning. He therefore doesn't require a cause. In that case, it doesn't make sense to ask, "Who made God?" It's like asking, "Who made the thing that wasn't made?"

2. In our experience, causes are always physical. Thus, there can be no non-physical causes. The cause of the universe cannot be physical because matter did not exist prior to the Big Bang. So, either the universe just popped into existence from nothing without any cause (something contrary to both intuition and experience), or it has a non-physical cause. Which one seems more likely? (Stay tuned. In subsequent posts I'll show there are good reasons to think there are non-physical causes).

3. Quantum particles come into existence without a cause. Do they? Quantum particles are said to emerge from a quantum vacuum that is constantly fluctuating with energy, and is governed by physical laws and forces, such as gravity. Sounds like there are plenty of possible causes there. It would be more accurate to say that some quantum events/particles appear to occur without any detectable cause. That's very different.

4. The universe created itself from nothing. That's nonsense (and I'm not the only one who thinks that). Physicists who claim such things are making horrible equivocations -- they're equating "nothing" with something. By "nothing" they mean the quantum vacuum mentioned earlier, which is definitely something, and which requires an explanation of its own.

5. Our universe may have had a beginning, but the multiverse it's a part of is eternal. Not likely. Vilenkin (himself, a strong proponent of the multiverse) admits that his theorem applies to the multiverse as well. In other words, if there is a multiverse, then it too had a beginning. Other scientists and philosophers have independently argued that the past can't be eternal (see the Kalām argument in more detail), and that multiverse theories may not even be scientific.[2] But even if it were eternal (and actually existed), the multiverse may not be able to escape the argument offered in my next post.

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Further Reading:



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Endnotes

1. There is one new model I haven't had a chance to investigate yet. Roger Penrose released a book in 2012 in which he proposes an eternal cyclical model of the universe. I haven't read it, but reviews seem to suggest it is speculative and untestable. At this point, I don't have any reason to think Penrose's model is any less susceptible to Vilenkin's theorem than the other models. But even if it were, it would have to contend with the argument in my next post, as well as philosophical arguments against the existence of an infinite number of universe cycles (see below).

2. In the paper linked to above, in section 3.4, titled "Problems With Infinity," the authors write, "Can there really be an infinite set of really existing universes? We suggest that, on the basis of well-known philosophical arguments, the answer is No." They go on to cite several mathematical and philosophical problems with the idea of there being an actual infinite number of things in existence. That is essentially what the Kalām argument does as well. These arguments would equally apply to Penrose's new model mentioned in the note above. If an actual infinite number of things can't really exist, then there could not be an infinite number of past cycles in the universe, as Penrose is suggesting.

8 comments :

  1. I'm glad to see a cosmological argument different than the ones I've seen before, but I have a few of questions about premise 1:

    1) You say that its truth is observationally confirmed. Given the truth of the laws of conservation of matter and energy, we should never have observed things coming into or leaving existence, so we should not have observational confirmation of premise 1. That we do not see things coming into being uncaused (because we do not see things come into being at all) is a lack of experiential denial, not a confirmation. If not on the basis of experiential confirmation then, on what basis should someone accept premise 1?

    2) What ontological status are causes required to have for this version of the cosmological argument to follow? If one does not regard causes as having any ontological status (like Hume for example) does the argument fail?

    Consider the Humean perspective. We have no direct experiential access to causes, but only impressions of events. When an event token of one type is repeatedly witnessed to accompany another event token of another type, we form (by psychological habit, not necessity) the idea that event type A causes event type B, though no sense data corresponds to causation itself. We can then generalize from a statement about event types to predict that a token of the type A will cause a token of the type B, and thus have a predictive theory without causes having any ontological status at all. So in this perspective, causes have only an epistemological status. Under this view, premise one reads as an incomplete idea because there is only one impression referenced: things coming into existence. There should be one witnessed event of a given type accompanied by (or better, concommitantly variant with) another event of a given type. Events cause other events; to speak of a cause as a noun is shorthand if causes do not have ontological status. It seems at least awkward to refer to God as an event.

    3)This argument seems pretty similar to Aristotle's ruminations about it being absurd that the universe should be an infinite regression of causal events. What we get from Aristotle to avoid the infinite regress is the most basic entity required to avoid regress: an event that has causal power but that was itself uncaused. It seems like the argument above, if valid and sound, requires nothing more than Aristotle's uncaused first cause, which is substantially less property laden than anyone's idea of, for example, the God of Abraham and Moses. The argument would underperform then, if its intent is to be evidence for anything like what most people consider to match up to their idea of God.

    I'm sure I'm not the first to come up with these objections, so I'd be interested in how they're usually dealt with by advocates of the Kalam cosmological argument.

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    1. 1)It is true that we do not have direct observational confirmation of premise 1. What we do have are the observations showing the universe to have a beginning. That beginning is an effect that requires a cause. A cause *could* be the same as the effect itself, in which case you end up with a self causing effect, a property known as aseity. Either the universe itself has aseity, or else something else (which caused its beginning) does. Observation of the universe and its physical laws do not offer up any evidence that it bears the property of aseity. Something else, then, must bear this property. We call this other thing "God."

      2)Humean thought is interesting, but quickly devolves into a hyper-skepticism where almost nothing can be known, and the scientific method itself becomes useless for arriving at truth without error. Queue the "brains in jars" or "Matrix" types of conjectures to become thoroughly enmeshed in an intriguing but pointless series of arguments. For serious considerations on origins these types of objections are really not very useful, unless one wants to stall the discussion in a never ending helix of red herrings and rabbit-trails.

      3)It *is* quite like Aristotle's ideas, and *does* end up with his uncaused first cause (which I have decided to call "God"). Further identification of this uncaused first cause (or entity with the property of aseity) with "the God of Abraham and Moses" does not occur until one takes its existence seriously and begins to search for clues as to its further properties in nature. since we are considering nature to be the product of this "uncaused first cause," nature itself should tell us some things about it. There are also a number of books that claim to be direct communication from this being (like the Koran, the Bible, etc.), which bear investigation since one of the clues that nature yields up about its originator is that it is likely a sapient designer who would have a vested interest in communication with its creation. That is a topic for another stage of the discussion though...

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  2. Hi Brandon, thanks for your comments! Great questions! I'll try to respond in the order that you asked them.

    1) First, we do observe things coming into existence. For instance, you came into existence. You did not always exist. The atoms and energy that make up your body preexisted, yes. But, unless you are prepared to argue that you are "merely" atoms and energy and nothing else, then you have to admit something new came into existence, and obviously due to a cause (your parents). Second, the laws of conservation of matter and energy only apply within the system of the universe. It's possible that there could be input of matter or energy from outside. The laws would only preclude new matter or energy coming into existence if the universe is definitely a "closed" system. But that's up for debate. Third, I said that in addition to experiential confirmation, premise 1 is also intuitive. We naturally want to attribute causes to things that begin to exist - call it an a priori conviction. In the absence of good reasons to doubt it, I think that intuition is valid.

    2) Even though I'm somewhat sympathetic to Hume's idea that causation is vague (Hume is one of my favorite philosophers), I think his argument is ultimately self-refuting. Hume invokes causation when trying to explain why we make causal connections between events. As you explained, repeated impressions and psychological habit are the causes of our causal reasoning. But you can't say causation isn't real, and then explain why we incorrectly make causal connections by appealing to more causes. It's circular. Understandably so - causal reasoning is very hard to deny, which further demonstrates the intuitive nature of it. We can't seem to get away from making causal connections, even when we try.

    As far as the ontological status of causes, I don't think event-event causation is the only kind of causation. I also believe there is substance-event causation. Substances (in the Aristotelian since) can make events happen. For instance, I can make my arm raise in the air. I'm not an event, I'm a substance. So, I don't think we'd have to refer to God as an event. He is a type of (Aristotelian) substance.

    3) Aristotle postulated a First Cause to explain the motion of the "spheres" (universe), not their existence. Aristotle believed that a First Cause was required to set the universe in motion. But, if I remember correctly, he and most other ancient Greek philosophers believed the universe was eternal. So the Kalam argument differs from Aristotle's in that respect, even though they are similar.

    You're correct that the Kalam argument does not require the God of the Bible. In the Introduction to this blog series, I list a number of important caveats to keep in mind. One of them is that most of the arguments I'm offering point to the God of monotheism, not Christianity specifically. Another is that none of these arguments is a standalone "proof" of God's existence. Rather, they are reasons. Taken cumulatively, they show belief in God is rational. Check out the Introduction if you haven't already. It may clear up some questions.

    By the way, anyone who accurately explains Hume (as you did) earns immediate cred in my book! :-)

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  3. If the cause is not physical, in what way can we meaningfully speak of God causing the universe to exist? It would seem that forging any causal connection between God and that which is not God would ultimately signal a fundamentally materialist conception of God, one that is tempered only by fairly transparent rhetoric.

    I honestly do not understand why theists insist on trying to establish the cosmological argument. If a non-material God does exist, and is concomitantly the creator of all things that are other-than-God (I believe this, btw), it would seem that the most *reasonable* approach to talking about origins would be to stop at mystery. A rational acceptance of mystery is better than a unthinking contradiction of one's own beliefs, IMO.

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  4. Hi Exist-Dissolve, thanks for your comments! It's nice to get some critical feedback from someone familiar with philosophy.

    I disagree with a couple of things you said or implied:

    (1) You said, "forging any causal connection between God and [creation] would ultimately signal a fundamentally materialist conception of God." How so? We rationally posit non-physical causes all the time. For example, your beliefs cause you to take certain actions, yet your beliefs are not physical things. Similarly, many scientists believe the laws of nature cause things to happen, yet the laws themselves are not physical (see #3 in this blog series). Please give an argument to justify your assumption that every physical effect requires a physical cause.

    (2) You said, "A rational acceptance of mystery is better than a unthinking contradiction of one's own beliefs." I agree. But where's the contradiction? There is no logical inconsistency in believing that some physical effects have non-physical causes. If you think there is, then you need to provide an argument showing how.

    I look forward to your response.

    Kudos on being open to mystery and trying to avoid contradictory beliefs. Those are good things. But I think your criticism of the cosmological argument is misguided. All the scientific and philosophical evidence suggests that the physical universe had a beginning. If you accept the evidence, and you agree that whatever begins to exist has a cause, then the only rational conclusion is that the universe had a cause. But the cause can't be physical, because matter didn't exist prior to the universe's origin. So it must be a non-physical cause. There is no contradiction in believing that; and it is a belief arrived at *by thinking*, not "unthinking."

    Accepting the cosmological argument does not preclude mystery. There is still plenty of mystery to go around. For instance, *how* God created the universe is a complete and wonderful mystery. But *that* he did is a rationally justifiable belief.

    If you're interested, stay tuned for my next two blog posts in this series (#7 and #8), to follow soon. I'll show that (a) believing everything is physical results in a contradiction (something you're trying to avoid), and (b) there are non-physical causes.

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  5. You'll have to forgive my ignorance, I am not well-educated in philosophy or, especially, science. However, if we grant that the universe did have a beginning in the Big Bang, has it not be theorized that the Big Bang was only one of several such events? That at a certain point the universe will cease expanding and begin imploding at an equally rapid rate, until all matter is compressed into a singularity and another Big Bang (and thus, another universe) begins, as it has, eternally?

    I could be completely off-base, though I vaguely recall hearing that theory posed when I was in college. But that was a few years ago, and if I'm even recalling it correctly, which is no certainty, it may have been disproven or disregarded by now.

    That all said, I have really enjoyed the posts I have read in this series and am eagerly anticipating devouring more soon!

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  6. Hi Thaddaeus, thanks for your comments and kind words! Glad you're enjoying the series.

    You're right, there are theories that fit a cyclical model of the universe as you described (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclic_model), but, to my knowledge, they are not as widely accepted by scientists as the standard model is, for a couple of reasons:

    (1) There doesn't appear to be enough matter in the universe to cause a strong enough gravitational pull to make the universe reverse direction and implode in a big crunch.

    (2) The expansion of the universe is actually getting faster, not slower. That makes it even less likely that it will reverse and implode. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accelerating_universe

    The most likely scenario to play out in the future of the universe would be its continued expansion and "heat death" - where everything gets further and further apart, and usable energy eventually runs out, resulting in a cold and "dead" universe.

    So, I think there are observational reasons to reject cyclical models as not our best models. But there are also great philosophical and mathematical reasons to reject them, too.

    If you look into the Kalam argument in more detail, it provides reasons to doubt that an actual infinite number of physical events is even possible (the paper I linked to in Endnote #2 explains a little bit).

    If a cyclical model of the universe were true, then it would mean there has been an infinite number of "cycles" (i.e. Big Bangs and Big Crunches) in the past. But, if we have good reasons to think that an actual infinite number of physical events is impossible (which I think we do), then that would be a good reason to doubt cyclical models.

    Maybe check out one of the books I suggested - either the Case for a Creator or the Kalam Argument.

    I hope that helps!

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