biga

An Atheistic Argument from the Big Bang

The Big Bang event may be one of the most important scientific discoveries about the origin of our universe. Observations by American astronomer Edwin Hubble in 1929 and the final discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation in 1964 confirmed predictions by Friedmann and Lemaître and convinced scientists of the expansion of the universe from a denser, hotter, primordial state. It was a turning point in the history of science. No longer was the universe thought to be a static, timeless, unchanging entity. The Friedmann-Lemaitre model gives the universe a backstory and more than that: a beginning. Physicist P. C. W. Davies explains: “most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.”

The idea of an expanding universe has not only revolutionized the field of science and been a unifying theme in cosmology but has had profound implications beyond those disciplines. According to the British astronomer Stephen Hawking, “If the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be”. But he admits, “so long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator”. This has been too uncomfortable a conclusion for some. Robert Jastrow, physicist and founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, comments:

“There is a kind of religion in science. . .This religious faith of the scientist is violated by the discovery that the world had a beginning. . .as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examined the implications, he would be traumatized. As usual when faced with trauma, the mind reacts by ignoring the implications – in science this is known as ‘refusing to speculate’ – or trivializing the origin of the world by calling it the Big Bang, as if the universe were a firecracker.

Consider the enormity of the problem. Science has proven that the universe exploded into being at a certain moment. It asks, what cause produced this effect? Who or what put the matter and energy into the universe? …And science cannot answer those questions…The scientist’s pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation.” (God and the Astronomers, pps 113-15)

But while the fact that our universe both has a beginning and arose from nothing provides powerful evidence for a personal Creator (see Stuart’s post on the Kalam Cosmological Argument), Quentin Smith, philosophy professor at Western Michigan University has put forward the unique claim that the Big Bang is incompatible with God’s existence. In the book Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology, Smith sets out this argument:

1. If God exists and there is an earliest state of the universe, then God created that earliest state of the universe.

2. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent.

3. A universe with life is better than a universe that does not contain life.

4. Therefore, if God created the universe then the earliest state of the universe must either contain life or ensure that life will eventually emerge.

5. There is an earliest state of the universe and it is the Big Bang singularity.

6. The conditions of the earliest state of the universe (infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density) were hostile to life.

7. The Big Bang singularity is inherently unpredictable and lawless and consequently there is no guarantee that it will produce a universe where life can emerge.

8. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the earliest state of the universe will produce a universe where life can emerge.

9. Therefore, God could not have created the earliest state of the universe.

10, Therefore, God does not exist.

Does this argument succeed? There are several problems that are immediately apparent (for a full discussion read William Lane Craig’s response in that book), but two weaknesses are serious enough to undermine its conclusion:

Firstly, God is not obligated to create a universe that contains life. It does not follow from premise 2 and 3 that God must create a universe with life. God could indeed have a reason for creating a world with life. He may, in fact, freely choose to create a world because of the good He may want to bring about. But just because God possesses a reason for creating a universe, this does not impose a necessity on Him. Furthermore, the Christian theist will deny that in order for God’s goodness to be expressed, He must create a universe with life. Apart from creation, God is neither lonely nor in need of objects for his benevolence. Within the Trinity and the fellowship of three persons united in one nature, God’s benevolence is fully and perfectly expressed.

Secondly, God could guarantee life through His subsequent intervention. The assumption that God must pre-programme life-hospitable conditions into the initial stages of the universe is perhaps the most significant problem for this argument. Why must God embed this capacity for life into the universe from the very start? It is not at all illogical for God to causally direct the evolution of life through his subsequent providence and care. This is, in fact, quite consistent with the classical Christian view that God not only created the world but remains living and active within it (Matthew 6:26; Ps 147:8-9; Job 38:41, etc).  According to Smith, however, this would be “a sign of incompetent planing . . . The rational thing to do is to create some state that by its own lawful nature leads to a life-producing universe.” However, this is an arbitrary and anthropocentric constraint on God. Why think that God is incompetent because he does conform to our standards of efficiency? In his response to Quentin Smith, William Craig cites the American philosopher and professor at the University of Notre Dame, Thomas Morris:

“Efficiency is always relative to a goal or set of intentions. before you know where a person is efficient in what she is doing, you must know what it is she intends to be doing, what goals and values are governing the activity she is engaged in… In order to be able to derive the conclusion that if there is a God in charge of the world, he is grossly inefficient, one would have to know of all the relevant divine goals and values which would be operative in the creation and governance of a world such as ours.”

Not only is efficiency proportional to the ends desired, but efficiency is only a significant value to someone who has limited time or power.  For a God who lacks neither, Smith’s complaint against God’s intervention into the natural order of causes is unwarranted. Furthermore, there are many reasons why God might choose to be causally engaged in the activity of creation. Craig points out two: (i) God could delight in the work of creation and (ii) God might want to leave a general revelation of Himself in nature.

Smith has failed to show that the Big Bang is logically incompatible with God. Instead, the theistic explanation of the initial cosmological singularity remains superior to its atheistic  rival. To believe that our universe simply came into being out of nothing without a cause, furnished with a set of complex initial conditions so bizarrely improbable as to to ridicule comprehension, then accidentally evolved to fall into delicate balance with life-permitting conditions must be taken as wildly implausible at best, and plainly absurd at worst. The Big Bang, rather than taking us away from God, brings us closer to the Creator of Christian theism.

Notes:

Reason and Religious Belief by Michael Peterson,  William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach and David Basinger, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Atheism, Theism, and Big Bang Cosmology by William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Oxford University Press, 1995.

21 replies
  1. Philip says:

    Another problem with Smith’s arguement is in points 7,8 where he apparently places a limit on God’s foreknowledge of the universe. He presumably has in mind the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or something similar, however to limit God’s omniscience by it is an unjustified assumption. For God’s knowledge to be limited by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle would imply that he has to physically measure stuff in order to know it, which would be limiting God to a constraint of philosophical materialism contrary to the Christian concept of God.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Apart from the faults already highlighted, I think that there are a number of problems with premise 3 itself.

    1) By what measure is a universe with life better than a universe without life?

    2) Is atomic machinery life? If (as has been done) we grant the pre-existence of God as life, is not the term “life” more applicable to the substance of the type that God is, and less relevant to a fully-predictable chain of chemical reactions? Should not the question be whether this atomic, matter-based universe incorporates the substance of God or not?

  3. Stuart says:

    Jonathan’s second point above would negate Smith’s premise 6.

    One big problem I think (I say ‘I think,’ because I’m pretty sure now, but could be wrong – or not completely right) is Smith’s use of “the earliest state of the universe” to denote the singularity. He correctly points out that the singularity is “infinite temperature, infinite curvature, and infinite density,” (it is also where time=0.) But if that is the case, then the singularity is literally nothing. Making his premise 9 correct, as God did not create nothing.

    If “the earliest state of the universe” is taken to mean some point where t=not zero, and “infinity density, etc.,” is only finite, premise 6 would be correct, but 7 would be incorrect. This is shown by the initial conditions there already in that “earliest-state” which are finely-tuned for biological life later in the universe’s history. These initial conditions make the teleological argument from cosmic fine-tuning so forceful.

  4. Robin Boom says:

    I have an issue with point 2. Smith ascribes the creator to the God of Christian theology. An intelligent designer, would have amazing knowledge, but not necessarily be all-knowing (omniscient). A creator may be extremely powerful, but not necessarily all-powerful (omnipotent). A creator need not be benevolent. A benevolent God is certainly part of Christian theology, but not part of many other religious or deistic views of God.

  5. Other Simon says:

    The argument put forward by Smith is the stupidest argument I can remember seeing.

    But I do have a side point. I do not think that the universe can have had a beginning. Or rather, to state that the universe had a beginning is an incoherent statment. Consider:

    Physicist P. C. W. Davies explains: “most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.”

    What Davies says here is incoherent. The word ‘beginning’ he seems to use as some sort of extra-universal time; a time that is independant of the universe such that term ‘beginning’ even makes sense (This concept in and of itself is incoherent, for if there was a time before the universe was created, then that time would also be a part of the universe, by definition of the word ‘universe’). But then he claims that spacetime was created in the big bang. i.e. AT the beginning of the universe. In other words, time is an internal property of the universe.

    The net claim, then, is that there was a time before spacetime was created. And this is just a terribly incoherent statment.

    I think that the contemplation of the universe as a whole is an impossible exercise. After all, how could one make statements about the universe as a whole? On what would those statements be grounded? I think there is necessary self-contradiction and mystery here, and I think we should embrace that.

  6. Stuart says:

    Hello Robin Boom,

    Smith is right on Premise 2 as that is the concept of God in traditional Christian theism, as well as Islam and Judaism. That is the concept of God Smith wishes to disprove, so that is the concept of God he utilises in his argument.

    You are right in that the Kalam Cosmological Argument does not prove an omnipotent and omniscient creator, but it does prove there is a tremendously powerful being, which is at least consistent with Theism. With supplementary arguments a personal being can be proved, and therefore this being must be tremendously intelligent – which is again consistent with the traditional concept of God. You are also right that the Kalam cosmological argument does not speak to God’s moral character.

  7. Stuart says:

    Hello Other Simon,

    Based on how our previous discussion “Conflict for the Darwinian Dispute” and how it ended (see comment # 9 December 2009 at 3:44 pm in particular) its odd that you would critique Smith’s argument (an atheistic argument no less) on its coherence. If truth is relative, if logic is outmoded and outdated, then the fact that the statement “time began” is incoherent hardly matters does it? Especially when your own philosophy is incoherent.

    Here, you are to be congratulated in actually making an argument. However, your argument is flawed in that there is nothing inherent in the word or concept of “beginning” that implies a prior state of affairs – only a subsequent state of affairs.

  8. Other Simon says:

    Stuart,

    Logic is not outmoded. It is just that one needs to be aware that logic should serve us, and not the other way round. It may even be that Smith’s logic is completely airtight, but I don’t care much for his premeses.

    Here is another invocation of empiricism: There has never been an example where humans have observed a beginning of something, without there being a time previous to that beginning. To postulate that there is one particular event that should be the exception is, again, ad-hoc, just as it is to postulate something didn’t need a cause.

  9. Stuart says:

    Other Simon,

    You state, “there has never been an example where humans have observed a beginning of something, without there being a time previous to that beginning.” However the postulated singularity is just such an event.

  10. Stuart says:

    Other Simon,

    Three pointed questions…

    (1) You then deny the “universe” (all natural phenomena) had a beginning, and is therefore eternal in the past?
    (2) If so, do you deny this on the basis that you have never observed an event where there was no time preceding it? Or on the basis that the notion is incoherent? Or both?
    (3) How is the statement “time itself had a beginning” incoherent?

  11. Other Simon says:

    I deny that the universe (by which I mean EVERYTHING!!!!) can have had a beginning by way of empiricism: we have never observed a beginning without a time before. This does not mean that I deny the big bang, but I would claim that the big bang had a cause.
    But it is, of course, possible that I am wrong. All I am claiming is that, using science/empiricism/logic the most sensible conclusion is that there is always a temporal cause for things.
    I would not commit to an opinion on the beginningness of the universe. I would not insist that it was eternal. Again, all I am claiming is what we have learned from looking at the world around us (empiricism): nothing we observe seems to be without cause.
    (Indeed, in understanding that time is a property OF the universe; not beyond it, I don’t even know what it would mean to state that the “universe had a beginning”. To state this is not unlike asking what a musical note sounds like when there is no matter around, for a musical note needs matter like time needs a universe; music is a property of matter, just as time is a property OF the universe (I would seriously recommend that you have a look at some laymans descriptions of the Relativity theories, Stuart, to get an idea of what time even is.))

    I think the statement “time itself had a beginning” is incoherent because the word beginning is parasitic to the word time. When we talk about beginnings, we always observe causes which lead up to that beginning. In this way the prior causality is a necessary and empirical part of the term “beginning”. Now “prior causality” is talking about a time previous to that “beginning”.
    Since the term beginning always involves a previous time, the phrase “time itself had a beginning” is nonsense, because, empirically, there must have been a time before that “beginning”, but at the same time the phrase is claiming that there is NOT a time before the “beginning”.

    You can do away with this contradiction by just insisting that there is a beginning which has no time before it. But such a claim is bad science: we never observe this.

  12. Stuart says:

    Other Simon,

    Deciphering your reasoning is very difficult. Its hard to see why you think some things, and not others.

    For instance, you deny the universe could have a beginning because we have never observed a beginning with no time prior to that beginning. Yet you do not deny the Big bang. The difficulty is manifold. For one, Big Bang cosmology states that space and time had a beginning. So, odd though it may seem to other readers, it is the Christian (myself) who is with the science on this one, and the objector who is picking and choosing from science. For two, neither have you observed an event where matter popped into existence, so consistency would require you not only to deny the coming into being of time, but also the coming into being of matter also, not to mention energy and space as well. For three, if time is required in order for the Big Bang event to be caused, time is also required in order for the state of affairs immediately chronologically prior to the Big Bang event to be caused, and so on ad infinitum. What you have then is an eternal universe, which is precisely what Big Bang cosmology would deny, and which is far more problematic philosophically than what you imagine is incoherent with the statement “time itself had a beginning.”

    The next difficulty is you think there needs to be a chronologically prior state of affairs to the Big Bang in order for the universe to have a cause. Newton solved this problem by imagining a heavenly realm with an eternal and spiritual time, in which, at some point God created the natural time in which we exist, experience and measure. While I’m not of this opinion myself this would solve the difficulty you have in conceiving the beginning of the universe. In fact, Newton’s solution and yours fit very well together. However, it doesn’t seem to me obvious that a chronologically prior state of affairs is needed in order for something to be caused. We observe instances of simultaneous causation all the time. Witness the log that displaces the water in the river. Or the ice in the eternally frozen in the lake cold temperature. Or my brain function allowing me to live. In each of these three cases the effect is chronologically simultaneous to the cause.

    I am in agreement with you that nothing we observe is without a cause. To this I add, we observe the universe, including time. Therefore, the universe, including time is not without a cause. Now the nature of this cause must be time-less, etc…

    I do not however agree that because we never observe something it therefore is bad science. Are you really willing to dispose of all cosmogony as bad science? How about history, macro-evolution, hypotheses in forensic investigation, archaeology, atomic theory and sub-particle physics? Empiricism doesn’t seem to me to be “fruitful.”

  13. Other Simon says:

    Stuart,

    Yes I am confused by your post also. Doh.

    I agree that an eternal universe is a problem, as is the statement “time had a beginning”. I hold that statements about the universe as a whole are not possible. This is why we always end up with contradiction and circularity.

    I am quite appalled that you think that Newton’s solution is a solution at all! This again highlights our difference of focus. You think that purporting a heavenly realm which is immune to the causality of this world is a solution. While I think that where empirical evidence is non-existent imaginations have proven to run wild.

    Not sure about your three examples. The log causes the displacement of water, not the other way round. The temperature causes the ice to be frozen, not the other way round. Your life is contingent upon your brain function. Your life does not stop and then your brain, it’s the other way round.

    I assume you meant cosmogeny (as opposed to cosmology). Yes, I actually do disregard cosmogeny as bad science. I remember when I was a child I used to try to think “what was before the world was here?” “God” was my ernestly-held answer. “And what was before God?” I would then wonder. It always made my brain sort of space-out – I loved pondering this. I think there is necessary contradiction and circularity when we try to explain Everything.
    I think that all of those disciplines you mentioned are based on empiricism. They are all branches of knowledge in which we take known experiences and extrapolate them (Wiki). We cannot do this with the universe as a whole – we have no experience of this sort. This is how empiricism works, I think. Why did you say that you don’t think empiricism fruitful?

  14. Edgar Andrews says:

    Interesting discussion on the theology of the Big Bang! Site visitors may be interested in my new book “Who made God?” where I discuss the matter at some length, including a whole chapter on the origin of time. My conclusions are the exact opposite of Quentin Smith’s! The book should by now be available from Kurong Books and can also be obtained from Amazon. Further details on whomadegod.com.

  15. Stuart says:

    Other Simon,

    I hold that statements about the universe as a whole are not possible.

    A self-contradictory statement.

    Not sure about your three examples. The log causes the displacement of water, not the other way round. The temperature causes the ice to be frozen, not the other way round. Your life is contingent upon your brain function. Your life does not stop and then your brain, it’s the other way round.

    I didn’t say these things were the causally backward, as you accuse – though I do see I misspoke on the cold temperature example. I meant it the way you have put it. And in each case we have simultaneous causation.

    I did say cosmology – which is correct, not cosmology or cosmogeny – a misspelt word I believe. And the fact of the matter those examples are not based on empiricism. You have not experienced these things, but as you say, extrapolated them. What you have done is shifted the goal posts – from actual sense experience to what you can imagine as plausible given what you know from sense experience. And if empiricism cannot give you knowledge of history, evolution, etc, then it obviously fails your own test for truth which is “Fruitfulness.”

  16. Other Simon says:

    Stuart,

    “A self-contradictory statement”

    Yes! Statements about the universe as a whole are necessarily self-contradictory and circular! They are all nonsense. They have to be.

    Ah, I understand what you meant with your examples now. My point is not, for example, that the log needs to be in the water before the water is displaced. My point is that there is always a time before the log was in the water. And a time before that, and before that etc. etc. etc.

    You have not experienced these things, but as you say, extrapolated them. What you have done is shifted the goal posts – from actual sense experience to what you can imagine as plausible given what you know from sense experience.

    Okay, so you are claiming that I have shifted the goal posts because these examples of empiricism are extrapolations, as opposed to experiences.
    My response is: Give me an example of something empirical which is not an extrapolation. Empiricism is always an extrapolation! Otherwise all you have is sensory input. Every field you listed involves observation and extrapolation. Indeed, a field which does not involve empiricism is completely and utterly useless.

  17. Edgar Andrews says:

    Interesting discussion on the theology of the Big Bang! Site visitors may be interested in my new book “Who made God?” where I discuss the matter at some length, including a whole chapter on the origin of time. My conclusions are the exact opposite of Quentin Smith’s! The book should by now be available from Kurong Books and can also be obtained from Amazon. Further details on whomadegod.com

  18. Anon says:

    Other Simon,

    “Empiricism is always an extrapolation”

    My computer isn’t any extrapolation, it is working again and again. We can repeatedly observe it working any day you like, under whatever controlled experiments you can come up with.

  19. Other Simon says:

    Anon,

    You just extrapolated into the future by claiming things about what your computer can do in the future. That is empiricism!

  20. Sapient2051 says:

    I am not sure that many atheists would agree with premise 3. Of course if it is better that a universe contain life it is also better for all choices allowed under free will end in good results. Without free will and every choice ending in good results you can't have a three-O god.

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