Christian apologist Dr. Vince Vitale asks, “Can the universe have always existed? Can it extend infinitely back into the past, with no beginning?” He answers these questions in the negative, and to support his Christian God hypothesis, he presents a cosmological argument:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

I will explain Vince’s reasons behind the argument, and then explain my reasons for thinking it doesn’t support his Christian case.

Vince offers two “scientific” reasons to support the premise that the universe began to exist. First, he claims that evidence from cosmology shows “the universe had an absolute beginning at the Big Bang.” Second, he appeals to the second law of thermodynamics. He argues that because entropy will increase to the point of thermodynamic equilibrium, and because there still exists energy in the form of heat within our universe, it could not have existed forever, but must have began to exist a finite time ago. From this he concludes that the universe had a cause.

He then asks, “What would the cause have to be like?” Here Vince introduces an additional argument to get from there being a cause, to God. Vince claims that the cause would have to be outside space and time, “for it would have created space and time.” He also argues that the cause would have to be “highly powerful, and highly creative,” and claims, “It’s hard to think of a better candidate for that cause than God.” (see time stamp 11:18)

Why that’s not enough

1. An absolute beginning?

First I will say that I’m not a physicist and I do not have the expertise to speak to his scientific claims with any real authority. That said, I think Vince may be overextending his conclusions. The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why or how the matter in the universe originated, and it doesn’t suggest an “absolute” beginning. Alan Guth is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and a leading expert on the Big Bang. He writes:

[The Big Bang theory] describes how the early universe expanded and cooled from an initially very hot dense state. It describes how the light chemical elements that we observe today were synthesized during the first 200 seconds or so of this expansion period. And finally, although work in this area is still in progress, it seems to describe very well how the matter in the universe eventually congealed to form the stars, galaxies, and clusters that we observe in the universe today.

There is, however, a key issue that the standard big bang theory does not discuss at all: it does not tell us what banged, why it banged, or what happened before it banged. Despite its name, the big bang theory does not describe the bang at all. It is really only the theory of the aftermath of a bang.

[The] standard big bang theory says nothing about where the matter in the universe came from. In the standard big bang theory, all the matter that we see here, now, was already there, then. The matter was just very compressed, and in a form that is somewhat different from its present state. The theory describes how the matter evolved from one form to another as the universe evolved, but the theory does not address the question of how the matter originated. (Emphasis mine.) [1]

Given what Guth says, the scientific evidence does not suggest an “absolute” beginning to the universe, only an initial period of expansion. What we call “space-time” may have had its origin at this point, however there still may have existed something. The Big Bang doesn’t rule this out. In other words, space and time could be an emergent feature of some more fundamental stuff. So there seems to be a significant error in Vince’s “scientific” argument.

With respect to the second law of thermodynamics, I see no reason why an atheist or skeptic cannot agree that the total entropy of a closed system will increase over time (leading to a state of equilibrium), and still reject Vince’s theistic conclusion. Why should we think that an isolated system, such as our universe, could not undergo a reversible process?

It seems to me we can accept Vince’s conclusion, “The universe had a cause,” without accepting theism, or Christian theism. For one thing, if we grant the conclusion, nothing in the cosmological argument suggests that the cause must still exist today. It could be that the cause ceased to exist at the moment of the Big Bang. Maybe it got destroyed. Or maybe the cause transitioned into the stuff of the universe. Because these are open possibilities, Vince’s leap is unjustified.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that the cosmological argument presupposes the ontological argument because of the jump that is made from “some kind of cause” to a necessarily existent being. Vince makes this leap to “God,” because, he claims, he can’t think of a better explanation. But not being able to think of a better explanation is not a reason to claim that theism is true (that would be an argument from ignorance, which we have already seen once from Vince thus far.) He actually needs to defend his contention. Without a defense of the ontological argument, Vince is going to have to offer some other reason for thinking there exists a necessarily existing being, who is the God of theism.

2. A timeless personal agent?

Instead of defending his assumption that a necessarily existent being exists, Vince asks, “What would the cause have to be like?”, and introduces what he thinks are reasons to make the leap to theism. He claims that the cause would have to be outside space and time, and would have to be highly powerful and creative. This entails a timeless personal agent. I will argue this claim doesn’t make sense, and it becomes difficult to square with the notion of there being a cause for time itself.

Try to imagine God existing without the universe. Try to imagine that only God exists, and nothing else, in a truly timeless state. There is no temporal succession, no one moment after the next—time simply doesn’t exist. How could it be possible in such a state for a person to have an intention to will for an event to occur, and then have it occur?

God existing without time means there would be no temporal gap between him existing without the universe and the first moment of the Big Bang (that is, the first moment in time). In other words, there could not have been a moment when God did not intend the universe to begin existing; God’s intention to create the universe would necessarily be timeless and eternal, never having a beginning. A timeless God could not have gone from not intending the universe to begin existing, to intending it to begin existing, to having it actually exist. All states of affairs without the universe would necessarily occur without temporal distinction, eternally unchanging. What follows on this view is that the intention, the cause, and the effect of the creation of the universe must have been simultaneous.

And so, we can formulate an objection to Vince’s claim as follows:

  1. Change cannot happen without time.
  2. Intending to bring about a new state of affairs requires change.
  3. Therefore, intending to bring about a new state of affairs cannot happen without time.

The first premise is an obvious metaphysical intuition: if some change occurs then there must be one moment after the next, or a succession of temporal states, for the change to occur in. The second premise is a powerful inductive inference: making a free will choice to bring about a new state of affairs requires a certain degree of change in mental states—knowing the difference between A and B and finally choosing B over A requires a minimal amount of change. From these facts we can conclude that intending to bring about a new state of affairs cannot happen without the reality of time.

The theist may try to push back against (2), the premise that intending to bring about a new state of affairs requires change. William Lane Craig proposes a way around the problem with an example of simultaneous causation in the case of a heavy ball resting on a pillow: he claims the effect of the dent in the pillow occurs simultaneously with the cause of the ball. This is meant to show that a cause can be causally prior but not temporally prior to its effect. But if the ball is placed on the pillow, as it would be in time, then the cause does in fact precede its effect. Because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, the cause must be both causally and temporally prior to its effect, and so simultaneous causation is physically impossible. However, this would not show that such a thing is also metaphysically impossible. Let us assume for the sake of argument that simultaneous causation is possible in the broadest sense. If so, Craig’s example would involve a ball and a pillow existing beyond the universe; that is, the “cause” and the “effect” would both exist timelessly and eternally. But notice what this difference entails: here we are saying the effect can exist timelessly and eternally, never having a beginning! This introduces several serious problems for the defender of the cosmological argument.

First, there is an epistemological problem: How are we able to know which of the two events in this timeless state is the cause and which is the effect? Under temporal conditions we can know that dents form in pillows when heavy objects are lowered onto them, and heavy objects do not suddenly appear on pillows when dents occur in them. That is, we can be justified in saying which event is the cause and which is the effect because of repeated observations showing one bringing about the other. But this test cannot be applied to God. If God’s existence and the beginning of time are atemporally simultaneous, it still remains an open question: Did God cause time, or did time cause God? The counterargument, “If time can cause God, why don’t we see Gods begin to exist all the time?” doesn’t work here because what happens in time—that is, within our temporal experience—doesn’t determine what is metaphysically possible or impossible. As we just saw, having a good reason to think that simultaneous causation within the universe is physically impossible does not warrant the claim that it is also metaphysically impossible. The same holds for time simultaneously causing God from a changeless, eternal state.

Second, if we hold to (1), “Whatever begins to exist has a cause,” then an eternally existing effect doesn’t need a cause! Craig’s definition of “begins to exist” is very specific; however, a static or timeless effect would still manage to escape the need for a cause. This alone should render Craig’s example no good.

Third, simultaneous causation in the way that Craig envisions it may bring about absurdities and paradoxes, and we may be inclined to think it to be metaphysically impossible. If a cause and its effect can exist simultaneously from a timeless state, then it seems perfectly within reach for a first-order cause to be the effect of a second-order cause which is the effect of a third-order cause which is the effect of a fourth-order cause… ad infinitum. If infinite-order simultaneous causation is absurd and difficult to believe, then so is first-order simultaneous causation; and hence we have reason to reject it. So upon analysis, the theist’s rejection of (2), the premise that intending to bring about a new state of affairs requires change, is inadequate. We have good reason to think it is more probable than not that intending to bring about a new state of affairs requires a minimal amount of change. This necessitates time, and a series of before and after temporal relations. But this leads to a contradiction for Vince: if a sequence of mental events can only happen in time, then the claim that God intended to create time and then time began to exist is no different than saying time existed before time existed. [2]

As Vince says, “That is a very odd option.”

3. Still a mile away from Christian theism

When Vince speaks of “God,” he’s speaking of the Christian God–the God of the Bible that was reveled in the person of Jesus Christ; one that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect. However, even if we grant the conclusion that the universe had a cause, we’re still a mile away from this notion of God.

The cosmological argument still leaves open the possibility that the cause is only powerful enough to create one big bang and nothing more. Or, it could be that our universe was the last in a series of failed attempts. Or further still, it could be that the cause was carried out by a pantheon of less than perfect beings. Vince’s argument doesn’t eliminate these possibilities, nor does it demonstrate that the cause is powerful enough to do everything that is logically or metaphysically possible, so it therefore fails to demonstrate an all-powerful and all-knowing, single cause.

The same objection can be said about moral perfection. The cosmological argument offers no insight into the moral nature of the cause, so moral perfection is not a logical conclusion. The cause could be indifferent to human existence, or it could be a blend of good and evil, or it could be ultimately evil. Vince seems to simply glosses over these possibilities, and land on his particular conclusion without rational support.

Conclusion

We’ve seen Vince’s two “scientific” reasons for thinking the universe had an absolute beginning, both of which fail to justify his claim. The evidence from Big Bang cosmology doesn’t explain why or how the matter in the universe originated, or if it came into being wholly apart from previously existing materials. And the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t rule out the possibility of the initial conditions of the universe being the result from some prior natural state.

Also, Vince makes a leap from there being a cause of the universe, to that cause still existing today and existing necessarily, without rational justification. This leap assumes the ontological argument, which Vince hasn’t defended. The line of reasoning that he does offer, that of a timeless personal agent who is creative, ends up running into complications of needing to assume time in order to create time. I presented a counterargument for thinking that the mental act of intending to bring about a new state of affairs requires time to already exist.

Lastly, we saw that the conclusion of the cosmological argument doesn’t rule out the possibility of a cause that is very different from the one that Vince has in mind: it could have ceased to exist, or be many beings, or one, that are less than perfect, and possibly indifferent to human existence, or evil in some ways. Christian theism is certainly not entailed by the argument. Moreover, an atheist or naturalist, if they wish, can agree that the universe had a cause, and simply say that it was nothing like the typical causal interactions that we see within the universe. Maybe it was a quantum event, like an eternally existing singularity or an eternal quantum vacuum, or maybe our present universe is just one of the many forms in which all of existence takes in an eternal process of transformation.

References

  1. Alan Guth, http://www.counterbalance.org/cq-guth/index-frame.html
  2. For more, see Spencer Hawkins, Contra Christian Apologetics: A Skeptic’s Response to the Arguments for God, https://www.createspace.com/6486792

 

 

 

 

 

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