Follow up to: Making the Question Go Away
This is a recanted essay!: As a result of feedback with others who have read this, I now recognize this essay as misleadingly incomplete and partially inaccurate. I keep it up as a record of how I have previously thought, but do not stand by all of it.
There are a lot of arguments out there that claim to establish the existence of an entity referred to as “God”, who typically is considered to be some sort of maximally great being, with powers that are the envy of all superheroes, such as the ability to do anything that is logically possible, including know everything there is to know. And luckily for us, God is also as loving, caring, and benevolent as any being can possibly be… or so the story goes.
I’ve already shot down a few of the, in my opinion, more terrible arguments for the existence of this entity — in “Defining Away the Ontological Argument” I showed that the ontological argument is hopelessly circular. In “Why Not to Take Pascal’s Wager” I showed that Pascal’s Wager is perhaps one of the most flawed arguments ever uttered. In “But Religion is Useful!” I took down some arguments that we need religious belief to feel good about the world.
Now I want to aim my sights a little higher and attack what is referred to as the cosmological argument, or the idea that God exists because only God can explain why there is a universe, and since there clearly is a universe, there clearly must be a God who created it.
Why would I aim here? Most people would disregard the cosmological argument in passing if found to be false, and perhaps move on to some other argument like fine-tuning or biblical prophecies, but I think this is a grave error.
Quite simply, the cosmological argument is the most important argument in the atheist-theist debate. Most nearly every religion specifically states that God created the Heavens and the Earth, as stated in Genesis 1 and many chapters of many other Holy Books. If God is not responsible for the origin of the universe, God is “out of a job” as theologian Lee Strobel puts it, and nearly every religion is rendered false. Do not underestimate the magnitude of this.
And if we do, atheism wins the day again, emerging victorious over theism once and for all.
Formulating the Kalam
The current most widely defended articulation of this argument is called The Kalam Cosmological Argument and goes like this:
P1: Everything that began to exist has a cause.
P2: The universe began to exist.
C3: Therefore from P1 and P2, the universe has a cause.
However, at this point we notice that this argument doesn’t actually say anything about whether a God actually exists or not — it just says something about the universe. To solve this, some theologians have filled in some additional premises, which I will summarize as follows:
P4: Any cause of the universe must have existed prior to the universe.
P5: Anything that existed prior to the universe cannot be a part of the universe.
P6: All physical things are contained in the universe.
C7: Therefore from P4, P5, and P6; the cause of the universe cannot be physical.
P8: God can cause the universe to exist.
P9: No nonphysical object except God can cause a universe to exist.
C10: Therefore from C7, P8, and P9; God caused the universe to exist.
P11: Something must exist in order to cause something else to exist.
C12: Therefore from C10 and P11, God exists.
This argument looks logically valid — all four conclusions C3, C7, C10, and C12 do indeed follow logically from the premises. Therefore the only way to defend atheism is to demonstrate that a premise of this argument is false.
I’m also willing to grant P4, P5, P6, P8, P9, and P11 as obviously true. Therefore I have to make my objection against P1, P2, or P8 to debunk the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
The fact that I remain atheist indicates that I do think such a task can be done.
Is Our Universe Intuitive?
Premises like “The universe began to exist” and “everything that began to exist has a cause” seem obviously true, because they are intuitive. Our every day dealing with things overwhelmingly establishes that everything we see existing has had causes, and our knowledge of the Big Bang Theory does seem to indicate that the universe had a beginning approximately 13.7 billion years ago.
And these two facts would make it appear to logically follow that God must exist, and therefore atheists are in error.
But there is indeed caution that must be taken when arguing about how the universe is based on intuitions — the universe just isn’t that intuitive. Physics as a discipline is full of extensively counter-intuitive notions.
Consider this Carl Sagan quote I first mentioned in “To Be Close-Minded”, quoting from his book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”:
At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes — an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterproductive, and the most ruthless scrutiny of all ideas, old and new…
Consider this claim: As I walk along, time — as measured by my wristwatch or my aging process — slows down…
Here’s another: Matter and antimatter are all the time, throughout the universe, being created from nothing.
Here’s a third: once in a very great while, your car will spontaneously ooze through the brick wall of your garage and be found the next morning on the street.
They’re all absurd! But the first is a statement of special relativity, and the other two are consequences of quantum mechanics (vacuum fluctuations and barrier tunneling, they’re called). Like it or not, that’s the way the world is. If you insist it’s ridiculous, you’ll be forever closed to some of the major findings on the rules that govern the universe.
Very bizarre conclusions can be demonstrably true when it comes to physics, such as the idea that matter and energy are actually the same thing, or even the idea that light is both a particle and a wave, or that a particle can be in two places at the same time.
So we should be careful when trying to establish things that are “obviously true” about physics, because physics has again and again busted our notions of obviously true and thrown them out the window. Nothing should be considered obvious when it comes to physics… even notions such as the universe beginning to exist or needing a cause.
Beginning to Exist?
Let’s look at just that. Right away, however, we can spot some problems with P1 and P2 — specifically the idea of beginning to exist is, upon further reflection, not as obvious as it first looks, but instead nonsensical. And with that, P2 becomes false, and thus the cosmological argument is false, and thus atheism wins. Could it be that simple?
Sure, we can understand the intuition that paintings begin to exist once painters specifically decide to paint them. We can all agree that there once was a time before there were houses, and then houses began to exist once builders started making them. And sure even some things as our existence or the existence of trees can be said to be caused by certain natural processes.
We can also understand the intuition that the Big Bang sets a specific time — 13.7 billion years ago — when the universe is said to have started in some fashion, so we further understand the idea that prior to this, perhaps 14 billion years ago, there must have been absolutely nothing. What was responsible for this transition from nothing to universe? After all, “out of nothing, nothing comes”. How do we get this something from nothing? Why is there something rather than nothing?
But here is the catch: right away we run into a problem because we have never actually observed something to specifically begin to exist.
Instead, we have only observed certain arrangements of matter be changed into other arrangements. All paintings must come from pre-existing paint and canvases, all houses must come from pre-existing building materials, and even growth in living organisms comes from absorbing external nutrients and converting them.
We do not see anything that actually begins to exist from nothingness, in a “poof” sort of fashion. Instead, everything we observe comes from something else.
Sure, the phrase “began to exist” does make sense in those many instances — because arrangements themselves can be distinctive apart from what they are arranged from, as I argue in “Reductionism Made Simple”. There is a real difference between a house and a pile of building materials, even if they are the same basic things, and it does make sense to talk about a house beginning to exist when the arrangement is made.
However, applying the phrase “began to exist” to the universe is wholly different, perhaps even a nonsensical concept. If things don’t come into existence but instead rearrange, then perhaps it only makes sense to apply statements like “began to exist” to objects within the universe, and not to the universe itself.
Instead, despite the universe having existed for a finite amount of time, it is also true that since the universe includes time, there was no point in time where the universe did not exist, because there was no time prior to the universe. Thus notions of “prior to the universe” are completely nonsensical and incoherent.
Thus the universe still never “began to exist” and P2 can be stunningly rendered false without even assuming an infinitely old universe. …And thus there is no need to invoke God to explain the universe, and thus the Cosmological Argument is defeated and atheism wins.
Can God Create a Universe?
The problem is also complicated because of the idea of a cause involves preforming actions on physical things within time. However, when we look for the cause of the universe, we are looking for some notion of causality without time and without preforming actions on physical things, which is a contradiction — a cause with none of the things we would consider to be a cause, and instead incoherent concepts.
Instead, our conventional, intuitive notion of causality completely breaks down at this point, and we cannot really speak anything of “causes of the universe” as we would speak of “causes of the Great Depression” or “causes of the Earth”. We’re more accurately asking something like “what is north of the north pole?”
God is said to be a mind, even if he is fundamentally, ontologically, irreducibly so. God is said to think, deliberate, and preform actions. But this sets us up with having to reconcile this set of facts:
A: Thinking, deliberating, and acting require time in which to think, deliberate, and act.
B: God existed prior to the universe, and thus existed independent of and apart from time.
There quite simply is no coherent concept of how one can think without time — doing so just is not logically possible. How did God come to decide to act to create the universe, without time? And when did God go from a period of not creating the universe to a period of creating the universe, if there is no time in which this transition could be made? When did God notice that things would be better if there was a universe, if there is no “when” to speak of?
Saying that God created the universe without time does not make any sense with the current notion of causality that we have — God must be acting within time in order to do anything. Since it is logically impossible for actions to be taken outside of time, it is logically impossible for God to have created the universe.
This would indicate that P10 is false. (And if P10 is false and P8 + P9 are true, that means that C7 must be false by process of elimination, since the universe obviously exists, and therefore the cause of the universe is indeed physical.)
It would also indicate that P2 is false, because if it makes no sense to talk about the universe being caused and it is logically impossible for the universe to be caused, then the universe could not have been caused.
These accusations of incoherence when it comes to supernatural explanations are not new. We have no coherent notion of how irreducibly mental entities can exist and operate, simply because they are so fundamentally different with what we work with and study on an every day basis.
Thus we have three problems with the cosmological argument:
- The universe did not begin to exist, because that assumes there was time prior to the universe, and there was not. Instead, it is accurate to describe the universe as having always existed, regardless of its age.
- It is logically impossible to cause something to come into existence without time in which to take the action.
- It is logically impossible for a God to think, decide, and/or act without time in which to preform these activities.
Thus the cosmological argument is unestablished and unjustified.
But that’s not all. In future posts, I’ll look to explore how to make sense of a universe that is finite in age but having always existed… we can resolve the argument more convincingly and satisfyingly if we come to a better understanding of how cosmologists and physicists currently understand causality and time. I’ll explain this new notion of causality and how it can be specifically applied to problems with the origin of the universe and God.
I’ll also look to answer some possible rebuttals to the three points that I made, such as Craig’s defenses of a created universe using arguments about infinities, as well as offer further objections against the cosmological argument.
Before commenting further, please note that this is a recanted essay that I no longer agree with.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.