Posted on 08 June 2012.
Let’s get back to basics. The following is a case against a cosmological argument for the existence of God.
Intelligent (not “folk”) Christians will repeatedly tell you that faith and reason are both used in their theologies. Unlike the laity and the unwashed masses, they don’t rely completely on faith, or belief without evidence. Indeed, the Christian religion in its many forms has a long history of logical attempts, from Aquinas to Calvin, at trying to prove the existence of God and the plausibility of their doctrines. This is perhaps due to the fact that certain intellectuals in each tradition simply cannot reconcile their rationality with their religion’s doctrines.
Through tireless philosophical refinement of initially primitive and unimpressive doctrines such as the Genesis myth, we get sophisticated logical arguments such as Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways. Seeing these attempts at logical proof, though, I am personally baffled by the intelligent theist’s recourse to faith. If God is provable through reason, of what use is faith? If faith is sufficient, why use imperfect human reason?
Philosophical arguments for God take various forms, such as the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments. There are, of course, many criticisms against most, if not all, of these. The cosmological (first cause) and teleological (purposeful design) arguments are empirical arguments, taking the world as it is and reasoning that there must have been a Creator.
One of the most interesting of these arguments, for me, is the Kalam cosmological argument. Unlike most arguments for God, it intends to at least be scientific in its attempt at proving that a personal God exists. Through its most vocal proponent, theologian William Lane Craig, the Kalam is used to argue that the universe must have had a cause. Formally stated, the Kalam appears as such:
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.
Everything that begins to exist has a cause
Premise (1) asserts that everything that begins to exist has a cause. This statement evades criticisms such as those that Bertrand Russell put forward against Aquinas such as, “Who made God?” Since the Kalam argument states that everything that begins to exist has a cause, God, who is eternal and never began to exist, does not have a cause.
Physicists such as Victor Stenger have argued that not everything that begins to exist has a cause. When an electron increases in energy to an excited state and returns to its ground state, a photon appears. This appearance of the photon occurs spontaneously and is not a deterministic consequence. That is to say, in Stenger’s words, it is “without cause.” The same is true for the radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus. We can know the probability of decay but it is impossible to say exactly when the decay will occur.
Atomic nucleus decaying an alpha particle (helium nucleus)
William Lane Craig readily counters this by saying that that is not true causeless existence since nature, which God presumably made, is necessary for such events. However, Craig must now accept that probabilistic causes, if they are “causes” at all, are possible mechanisms for the beginning of the universe. This severely weakens the notion that a personal God predetermined the moment of creation with a purpose.
However, even accepting Premise (1) as true, we can move forward and still see that the Kalam argument ultimately fails in its misuse of time.
The universe began to exist
The discovery of the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe was very popular among theists. The Big Bang, they suggest, is proof positive that the universe began to exist. When Georges Lemaître first proposed the model, Pope Pius XII saw this as scientific evidence for creation, “it seems that science of today, by going back in one leap millions of centuries, has succeeded in being witness to that primordial Fiat Lux when, out of nothing, there burst forth with matter a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and reunited in millions of galaxies.”
Timeline of the universe
Theologians and apologists such as Craig and Dinesh D’Souza find that since the universe as we know it began 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang, then the universe began to exist and it had a cause for its existence. Craig, in the Islamic tradition of the Kalam, suggests that since the universe began to exist 13.7 billion years ago, then there must have been a “particularizer” to decide to begin the universe at that moment and not a moment before. And since this particularizer has the capability to decide and distinguish between moments, then this must be a personal kind of God with a mind analogous to ours (therefore not the deist’s God).
Remember, though, that Craig can no longer require this decision to create the universe to be particularized by a personal God since he must allow that probabilistic causes are possible causes for the universe. The mechanical circumstances necessary for atomic decay are all already in place, even though the effect of a decayed nucleus is delayed. The nucleus could decay in 2 seconds, it could decay in 100 billion years. This defeats the necessity of a personal God deciding to create the universe 13.7 billion years ago and not 12 or 20.
As James Still has seen, Craig’s view of time results in severe problems for the Kalam. It seems that in his view, time exists not in the physicists’ definition of time. Physicists use time in the relational view, where time exists relative to bodies in motion, like ticking clocks. This is integral to Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, where the experience of time changes depending on velocity and the presence of mass. This effect has been confirmed and global positioning systems would fail without the corrections predicted by relativity. More importantly, general relativity shows that, if the universe did begin to exist, time itself began along with space, energy, and matter.
It makes no sense in the relational view of time to suggest that the universe could have had begun a moment before since there were no moments “before” the Big Bang, which is when time started ticking. Therefore, Craig seems to see time as absolute in his metaphysics. Personally, his view makes no sense to me. Perhaps he believes that events can be absolutely simultaneous regardless of frame of reference, which goes against special relativity. At the very least, we know that Craig clearly does not mean “time” in the way it is used by scientists.
It has been suggested that it is possible that the universe has simply always existed—a “brute fact,” in Russell’s words. This would remove any need for a creator since the universe did not “begin to exist.” However, Craig counters this by supporting Premise (2) with the following argument:
(4) An actual infinite cannot exist.
(5) An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
(6) Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.
Through this argument, Craig contends that it is impossible for the universe to have always existed since this would require an infinite temporal regress of events. Craig uses the example of Hilbert’s Grand Hotel to show that an actually real infinite would lead to absurdities.
Briefly, David Hilbert’s paradox of the grand hotel shows that if you have a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, it can accommodate an infinite number of guests. It should then be full after checking in an infinite number of guests. But, if another infinite number of guests should wish to stay in the hotel, one would only need to move the first set of guests to odd numbered rooms and the second group into even numbered rooms. You have now accommodated another infinite number of people in a supposedly full hotel. Craig argues that since this is a counter-intuitive result, then an actual infinite must be impossible.
It is important to note, however, that counter-intuitive results show up in science all the time. The greatest example of this is the discovery of wave-particle duality. A particle can be at many places at the same time. A particle can have many states at the same time. It is therefore not true that counter-intuitive results are necessarily impossible. However, we need not reject Craig’s use of Hilbert’s Hotel to see that Premise (2) in the Kalam is problematic.
Contrary to how Craig views the Big Bang model, the standard model of cosmology does not necessarily see the universe as beginning from a single infinitely dense point—a singularity. This prediction that the universe began as a singularity, via the Penrose-Hawking theorems, was because the Big Bang was erroneously viewed purely through the lens of General Relativity. Both Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking would later revise their position. Taking into account the physics of quantum mechanics, which would dominate at the extremely small scales of the earliest moments of the Big Bang, Hawking says, “There was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe.”
Imaginary time can be described as time as if it were like a dimension of space.
It is completely possible, as Hawking suggests in A Brief History of Time, that the universe has no boundary in time. This means that t = 0 (where t = time) is merely in the middle of a continuous line of imaginary time (a concept necessary to describe quantum tunneling), like how the South Pole is not the end of the Earth, but just another point along the longitudes. Trace the longitude going through the poles of the Earth and you get a finite but unbounded geometry—a great circle; the same could be true for four dimensional space-time. It therefore stands to reason that time need not have a beginning, as a singularity would suggest.
In quantum tunneling, a particle can break through a potential energy barrier even if it has less than the energy necessary to overcome the barrier. The very much real physics of the particle when inside the barrier can be described using complex, or imaginary, time.
In any case, singularity or no singularity, the scientific relational view of time avoids the problem of an infinite addition of events leading up to today because, although the age of the universe is finite, it is also true that the universe is eternal and has always existed. There has never been a time when there was no universe.
The universe has a cause
Craig asserts through an absolute view of time that actual infinities cannot exist. This would also apply to God. God cannot have existed through an actual infinite addition of events going back to nowhere. To get around this, theologians can assert that God is eternal not in the infinite number of events sense but because he is timeless. Unfortunately for the theist, since God is timeless, there would also never have been a time when God did not create the universe. The eternal universe would also be timeless in the same sense.
If Craig is to retain his absolute view of time, he must also reject the impossible timelessness of God. God must have begun to exist and himself have a cause. We can repeat Bertrand Russell’s challenge, “Who made God?” If Craig is to accept the physicists’ relational view of time, he must also accept that the universe is “eternal” in the same sense that God is eternal. Premise (2) fails and God is then an unnecessary explanation for the universe’s existence.
As Paul Draper notes, another problem with the Kalam cosmological argument is that it equivocates two senses of the phrase “begin to exist.” The strength of the Kalam cosmological argument is that it purports to be a proof of God from the evidence. It uses inductive reasoning to show that since everything begins to exist from causes, then the universe must also have begun to exist from a cause. However, the things we see to begin to exist begin in time. The universe, if it began to exist, began with time 13.7 billion years ago. We have no experience, no valid intuition, of things, let alone universes, beginning with time. Craig therefore commits the fallacy of equivocation in reasoning from the example of ordinary objects that the universe must also have a cause. Even if we accept Premises (1) and (2), the conclusion of the Kalam cosmological argument remains invalid. The eternal universe remains a brute fact.
The Kalam cosmological argument was a very strong case for the existence of not just a supernatural creator, but a personal one with a mind and thoughts. Because of the supposed impossibility of infinities in the real world, there is indeed a real problem for the naturalistic existence of the universe.
All of these arguments, however, have been fatally challenged by what we know today about the universe. The necessity of a personal creator is refuted by the existence of natural mechanisms for probabilistic causes. This means that naturalistic causes need not have their effects occur immediately after. The eternity of the universe is also supported by the dependence of time on space. In other words, without the universe, there was no time. Without time outside the universe, there was never a time without a universe. Hence, the universe has always existed and a creator is unnecessary to explain its existence.
It was perhaps impossible to have been an intellectually satisfied atheist until the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics. The refutation of the Kalam heavily depends on the evidence that supports these theories. This did not have to be how nature is. As we learn more about the peculiarities of the universe, the God-shaped hole at the end of the universe is all but plugged.
All images are public domain except image on quantum tunneling by Jean-Christoph Benoist. Licensed under Creative Commons.