Nate, who blogs at Finding Truth, and I have been internet friends and opponents for maybe 6 or 7 years. We read each other’s blogs, sometimes comment and occasionally blog in reply to each other.
Recently, in response to a question of mine, Nate blogged on the question of whether the beginning of the universe was a difficulty for atheists to explain (Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 2: Something from Nothing).
Nate made the following points (I have tried to summarise him fairly):
- We don’t know if there was “nothing” before the Big Bang which started our universe off. In fact we don’t even know if a state of nothingness is even possible.
- Thus “How did something arise out of nothing?” may not be a meaningful question, and certainly not evidence for a god.
- Perhaps the universe, or something else, has always existed, and there is no beginning to explain.
- In the end, we simply don’t know, and “ignorance is not the basis for an argument”.
In this post I consider the argument about the origin of the universe (generally known as the Cosmological argument), and Nate’s responses.
Two different forms of the cosmological argument
There are two different forms of the cosmological argument we need to consider: one based on a beginning and one based on an explanation. I feel Nate has really only considered the first of these.
The Kalam Cosmological Argument
- Everything that begins has a cause.
- The universe began.
- Therefore the universe has a cause.
Nate hasn’t objected to premise 1, but some atheists do. They say either that some quantum events don’t have causes, or that while everything within the universe might have a cause, that doesn’t mean the universe as a whole must. This is apparently the fallacy of composition – the error of assuming that what is true of a member of a group is true for the group as a whole. For example, every person in word has a mother, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the world has a mother.
But we can modify premise 1 to: Almost everything we know of that begins to exist has a cause. And this is hard to disagree with.
But did the universe begin?
Several of Nate’s objections relate to this premise. It seems to me he has raised four objections, all of which have plausible answers.
1. Was there something before the big bang?
Some cosmologists believe that our universe has resulted from a previous universe or an ensemble of universes. But there are two different uses of the word “universe” here. If we define “universe” as everything composed of matter and space-time that has ever existed or ever will exist, then there was, by definition, no “thing” prior to the universe.
2. Is the state of “nothing” possible?
The Kalam argument actually says nothing about nothing. (Of course the question is often phrased as “why is there something rather than nothing?”, but it isn’t essential to the argument.) So this objection appears to be irrelevant. If the universe began to exist, then as far as the argument goes, it doesn’t matter what we think was there prior to its existence.
3. Has the universe always existed?
There are several arguments that suggest it couldn’t have always existed. The two most convincing seem to me to be:
- It is impossible to count to infinity. Therefore it is equally impossible to count backwards to minus infinity. So a sequence of events can never begin an infinite time ago, for if it did, we could count backwards to minus infinity.
- Every physical event causes entropy (a measure of the amount of energy no longer available for use) in the universe to increase, so that in a long but finite time, entropy will reach its maximum and nothing more can happen. (This is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the best established of all physical laws.) If the universe was infinitely old, this state would have already been reached.
4. Is this argument based on ignorance?
Well, the argument exists, and it is logically valid. So to assess it we need to make a judgment on whether each premise is more likely to be true than false. I have argued that there are good reasons to suggest that they are. If so, the conclusion that the universe has a cause is more likely to be correct than not, and ignorance has nothing to do with it.
The Leibniz Cosmological Argument
- Anything which exists has an explanation of its existence in the necessity of its nature or in an external cause.
- It isn’t necessarily the case that the universe must exist. (i.e. it is possible that it didn’t exist).
- Therefore the universe has a cause.
Philosophers have identified two types of beings or things: necessary things whose nature it is to exist (they couldn’t not exist), and have no external cause, and contingent things, whose existence is explained by factors outside themselves, and which could possibly have not existed, or they could have had different qualities.
This argument depends on these definitions, and argues that the universe is contingent, and can in fact be defined as everything that exists that is contingent. Therefore it cannot necessarily exist, but must be caused by something that does necessarily exist.
Note that this argument is applicable whether the universe has always existed or not.
But these arguments haven’t proved God!
No they haven’t. But they have suggested persuasively that it is more likely than not that the universe has a cause. And this cause must, if the arguments are accepted, be non-material, outside of time (= eternal ?) and must necessarily exist. That is quite an interesting conclusion, particularly as I have never seen any plausible entity that meets that description except God.
So both forms of the Cosmological Argument can have extra premises and conclusions added to point more clearly to God.
In conclusion ….
I have addressed each of Nate’s objections, and shown that the Cosmological Argument can (arguably) meet those objections. We can summarise the overall arguments this way.
There are only three possible ways to explain the universe: either ….
- it had a cause outside itself; or
- it had no cause outside itself, but has always existed; or
- it had no cause outside itself, but began to exist without any cause.
Option #1 suggests the existence of a creator God.
Option #2 requires the universe to exist for no reason or cause, and to defy the second law of thermodynamics. It is therefore doubly implausible, and neither of these two requirements can be explained.
Option #3 also requires that the universe began without cause or reason, which again has no explanation.
The implications of a lack of explanation
Atheists often say they cannot explain how the universe began, and they are quite comfortable with that.
“A hypothesis is a suggested solution for an unexplained occurrence” (Live Science). If we have no explanation, then we have no hypothesis.
So if we accept either option 2 or 3, we have no hypothesis to compete with the theistic hypothesis that God is the best explanation of the the cause of the universe. They might be comfortable with having no explanation, but they are actually saying that they have no alternative to offer to the theistic conclusions.
That is tantamount to saying that the theistic conclusion is by far the most likely conclusion, because there is no other one!
I am comfortable with that conclusion too! And so I believe the explanation for the universe is indeed a “problem for atheism” and a strong indicator that God probably exists and created.
As Terence McKenna said: “Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.”
Photo: Part of the Small Magellanic Cloud Galaxy (NASA)