First Something

by Brian 17. October 2010 01:11
A good friend of mine told me about a question his teenage son raised the other day. This particular question has been asked many times throughout history and it is one I frequently hear and read about: If the universe was created, who or what created God? Often theists dismiss the issue by saying: God is eternal and uncreated – as if this will resolve the problem for adults or even middle school kids. It is true, contingent entities have an antecedent explanation or cause and noncontingent entities do not. But for many of us, merely placing God in the noncontingent category and everything else in the contingent category seems like an intellectual shell game.
Given arguments for God’s existence based on contemporary cosmology, a more refined question along the same line emerges: If God doesn’t need a reason or cause for His existence, then why does the universe? In other words, if we are willing to accept something could be necessary and uncaused, then why not the universe? Of course if the universe had a beginning, the question is moot. If you want to delve into whether or not the universe began to exist; William Lane Craig presents an excellent case in this technical article.  Since theories past, present and probably future come and go leaving us with something like the standard Big Bang model and an ultimate beginning, perhaps the question is put to bed – or is it?
Nontheistic cosmologists have been working for decades to get around the uncomfortable implication of the universe beginning to exist. They have hypothesized all sorts of alternatives. Stephen Hawking has recently posited a necessary First-Law (Physics with a capital ‘P’) where the observable universe or universes necessarily obtain out of nothing. There are multiverses, pocket universes, bubble universes; the list goes on. Regardless of the specifics of these theories, they all attempt to do one thing; posit a natural and noncontingent first-something from which our observable universe is part of or emerges from. By doing so, they avoid an ultimate beginning falling outside a naturalistic framework of understanding. More to the point, these theories attempt to skirt a supernatural explanation. I will refer to their first-something as the Universe (capital ‘U’). 
The Christian apologist might simply direct the honest seeker towards Craig and others and say: The evidence strongly suggests an ultimate beginning of the Universe; things that begin to exist have a cause; therefore, the Universe has a cause. This cause transcended space and time and had immense creative power. This may be credible to some (myself included), but not everyone. The problem with this approach is the speculative theories offered by nontheists to deny an ultimate beginning have created a lot of noise and obfuscation. In the current climate, it is difficult to persuade the casual seeker by discussing cosmology. It’s an uphill battle when you hear soundbites from the major media claiming the universe sprang into existence out of nothing but Physics alone. One really has to delve into a lot of data and theory to form an intellectually responsible position. What I want to present here is a basic apologetic for general consumption and one you can share in a few minutes.
The idea starts out with an unarguable truth: The fact anything exists at all, rather than nothing, entails a first-something. This is a basic metaphysical principle very few would disagree with (theists and nontheists alike.)[i] As far back as Parmenides, the metaphysical assertion “from nothing, nothing comes” has been one of the most confirmed and accepted principles of ontology. Given this principle and the absurdity of an infinite causal regress; the fact anything exists at all entails a first-something, uncaused and uncreated, otherwise nothing would exist. So now on to the second step of the apologetic…
The first-something is without an external ground or cause and is a bare fact unswayed by our unanswered questions of how, what or why. As I mentioned, nontheistic cosmologists say the Universe is the first-something. Theists say God is the first-something. These options form an exhaustive disjunction; forcing a choice. The first-something is God or the Universe.[ii] The question: Who or what created God? is absurd if God is the first-something. Likewise, the question: Who or what created the Universe? is meaningless if the Universe is the first-something. The real question we face is: Who or what is the first-something; God or the Universe?
The third and final part of the apologetic is to show God is the more plausible first-something by contrasting the plausibility of the two disjuncts. We may even start at par, leaving out all experiential and religious experience, with two immeasurable entities beyond the event horizon of the Big Bang, beyond direct observation. The points below help to lead an honest seeker towards the more plausible choice:
1. Matter and energy reveal a wholesale winding down as described in the second law of thermodynamics. Noncontingent entities do not wind down or dissipate. Why should we apply to the wider unobservable Universe that which we cannot apply to the observable universe? On the other hand, abstract objects (like numbers) as conceptual entities do not wind down or dissipate. If an ultimate Mind is the source and locus of abstract entities it would seem to have a permanence not found in matter.
2. Theistic and nontheistic cosmologists agree the observable universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life.[iii] When faced with a choice between the Universe and God as the first-something, which choice is more congruent with the reality of fine-tuning? Purposeless matter cannot intend life. Intentionality is more at home with mind than matter. On the Universe view, conscious observers are accidental byproducts. But where is our sense of economy here? Why such an astounding, complex and downright bizarre byproduct? No, conscious observers, with minds, are more congruent with a First-mind than with a First-matter.
In conclusion, the fact anything exists at all entails a first-something. We are faced with the question: Is the first-something God or the Universe?  This is a real dilemma one cannot escape and is based on solid metaphysical grounds. I believe God is the more plausible choice based on at least the two points above. An atheist coworker when confronted with this challenge chose the Universe as the first-something and told me we should “just accept it in all of its beauty and complexity for the gift that it is.” Such a slip of the tongue needed no response.

[i] Sometimes skeptics suggest things do come from nothing, like virtual particles spontaneously popping into existence in a quantum vacuum. But such an environment is actually something and in no way violates the principle. Others may argue for an infinite regress of causes (either by eternal past events or some sort of cyclical loop - but these ideas do not have much support in philosophy or science.) 
[ii] I ignore in the phrase “God and the Universe” any sort of pantheism and all of the insipid suggestions from skeptics like: Zeus, gods, super-intellects, aliens, flying spaghetti monsters, etc. If one really wants to include pantheism one might alter the disjunction between Mind and non-Mind (matter).
[iii] There are about twenty or so parameters in the Standard Model of particle physics today, many of which if varied even minutely would result in a universe unsuitable for life. Cosmologists try to get around this problem via the prodigal idea of a multiverse and the observer effect. The multiverse is a metascientific theory since we cannot observe anything beyond the horizon of our local universe. Furthermore, cosmologists who appeal to the multiverse to account for fune-tuning, fail to recognize the mathematical limit (universal improbability bound) fine-tuning entails. Anything less likely than one in 1e150 is not just highly improbable, but practically impossible to occur with specificity. A practical example is flipping an honest coin 500 times. After doing so you would have an improbable event greater that one in 1e150. For all intents and purposes, it is impossible (because the odds are so small) that anyone at any time could present the sequence in advance of flipping the coin.This is true even if you tried this in every location of the universe since the beginning of time. 

Hawking at it again!

by Brian 11. September 2010 23:31

The combination of ABC’s Nick Watt and master physicist Stephen Hawking the other night was about as disappointing as it gets within mainstream television news. I’ve witnessed a pattern on ABC going back to Peter Jennings. They appear to have an anti-religious and especially an anti-Christian agenda – perhaps fodder for a future post. We see evidence of this once again, just a few months after a similarly specious interview. As for Stephen Hawking's latest comments, I respectfully suggest he is looking to go out with a big bang of controversy or his mind is quickly approaching maximum entropy. Hawking has coauthored a soon-to-be-released book with Leonard Mlodinow called The Grand Design and makes some astonishing, if not outlandish statements – such as:

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going…because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

Oh Really? What happened to the 2500 year-old metaphysical principle of ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes) and what is this new theory conveniently called spontaneous creation? Did Hawking discover something recently to wipe away one of the surest and most fundamental axioms of ontology? Of course not! I heard nothing mentioned in Nick’s interview or any other news save for the dubious M-theory which has been around for years. Nick Watt even sums up his piece with Hawking by saying “It may take years, generations, centuries perhaps, for scientists to test Hawking’s theory that our world was created by physics alone.” That hardly sounds convincing. Hawking most likely; and other proponents commenting on this topic most certainly; offer nothing more than a thought experiment. Real nothingness remains impotent.

Hawking appears to be offering the metascientific idea of a First Law preceding the universe. But this is fraught with problems. First of all, scientists ought to reject ad hoc or prodigal explanations that cannot be verified – whether we speak of multiverses, mother-universes or Physics as a first-cause. Second, an ontologically-prior Law spontaneously generating a rich, complex and fine-tuned universe suitable for conscious life is so pregnant with telic implication one can only be disingenuous to offer the idea within a naturalistic framework. This may be why Hawking also throws out Einsteinian versions of God like Intelligence or Sagan’s Cosmos. If we just capitalize the first letter then all is well. It reminds me of scientists who recognize the mathematical difficulties of abiogenesis on Earth, so they push the problem further into space by suggesting life on Earth was seeded. Same deal here…heaven forbid the first-cause is God, so let’s suggest Physics instead. It used to be God or the Universe as the eternal Alpha. Now we know the universe began to exist, so Hawking leaves us with the choices of God or Physics - and he chooses Physics. Deconstructing what is really going on here...

Hawking, just prior to the release of his new book, joins the irreligious team at ABC to offer a few teasers from his forthcoming bestseller. Robin of ABC introduces Hawking as the physicist who “has been called the smartest man in the world.” Nick goes on to refer to Hawking as “our world’s most famous scientist,” obviously referring to ‘living’ scientist. Nick says, “Hawking has no need for God.” Hawking says, “God is unnecessary,” and “there was no hand of God” at the beginning. He goes on to say, “The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator. “ So, according to the master scientist, the universe began to exist for no other reason and by no other cause than…wait for it…wait for it…Physics! Nick smiles looking forward to a few beers with his buddies and Hawking smiles because he's in the limelight and book sales are promising.

All joking aside, allow me to conclude with the facts all sides of the debate should be able to agree upon:

1.    Nothing substantive has been offered as an explanation for Hawking’s new pronouncement. Yet ABC promotes spontaneous self-creation and the non-necessity of God as if it were the sort of thing smart physicists believe.

2.   Even if Hawking does lay out a theory of everything where the universe creates itself out of nothing, it’s unlikely to be confirmed by science. More likely; what will be offered by Hawking, if anything, will be a metaphysical principle, and will need to be dealt with by philosophers of whom Hawking is hardly qualified.

3.   The idea of simply capitalizing the first letter of physics, laws of nature, gravity, etc., offers no explanation whatsoever as to the first cause of the universe. Something more has to be offered and by Hawking’s own self-imposed standard for truth, a scientific explanation - one that is verifiable and falsifiable. Of course neither of which is likely considering we are talking about a 13.7 billion year old singularity.

Supporting links:

Edge of Evolution

by Brian 7. August 2010 21:40

I recently finished The Edge of Evolution by the author of Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe. Although I enjoyed the book and learned more about the debate; Behe will appear to readers to have wandered further into no man's land between literal Creationism and neo-Darwinism. As such, I suspect he will not find much company there. I say this realizing full well Intelligent Design (ID) from a theoretical standpoint is agnostic regarding the Designer and therefore wandering from Creationism is somewhat of a non sequitur. We have to remember the theory itself is coincidental to Behe’s theology, and his Christianity. Dembski’s explanatory filter, a core component of ID, is a mathematical approach to detecting design causation. We use it all of the time without even thinking about it. It’s when the filter is applied to microbiology things get dicey - and that is what ID proponents like Behe are trying to unravel. When skeptics conjoin ID and Creationism, the debate gets muddled – and that is what the critics are doing.

I went online to find a single reasonable critical review of the book and was disappointed by all of the ad hominem rubbish out there. As much as I don’t care for Dawkins, his review was the best I could find, and it was poor to say the least. The bottom line: There are gaps in the Darwinian synthesis. Darwinists say Behe appeals to God, and they appeal to current evidence and future scientific discovery. Behe appeals to probabilities too insurmountable for current Darwinian mechanisms to ever overcome, and says Darwinists wave-off the problem with “just-so” stories. Apart from Behe appealing to God (which he does not do in this book), both sides show verisimilitude. I just wish Darwinists would put forth a well-argued critique of work like Behe's instead of mere bad-mouthing.

Behe’s book read like a slight retreat from "Black Box" by moving the beachhead a little closer to orthodox Darwinism. I think everyone was a bit surprised by his position on common descent which is clearly more at home with Darwinists than many ID supporters. For those open to theology where the Creator front-loads design at the singularity, Behe’s view is workable. But integrating such a theology into the Christian worldview is not trivial. Where do material processes stop and design start? Behe tries to answer this question in the book by looking at real-world examples of evolution in action and showing how ineffectual material mechanisms are in obtaining significant change. His arguments are forceful, but not conclusive in my opinion. The real theological challenge remains open for Christians like myself. Where does episodic-supernaturalism end and God’s creative unfolding process begin.


About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

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