Word-shuffling proofs for God: why semantics can't answer the "big questions"

Introduction

It never ceases to amaze me how some people think they can prove the existence of a God – any God, never mind a particular kind (Christian, Muslim, Jewish etc.) – through the mere shuffling of some words on a piece of paper.

It's as if the incessant buzz of indifferent life, the imperceptible creak of tectonic movement, the whirling of the planet through space, the furious solar storms on our sun, the vast spans of silent emptiness between trillions upon trillions of isolated worlds, the birth and death of stars and galaxies – all of it is somehow expected to stop, bend on one knee and acknowledge a trivial (frankly, pathetic) gesture by some transient life-form on a rocky planet tucked away in a rather nondescript corner of the universe.

It's as if such a gesture could somehow elevate just one of many hundreds of thousands of unsubstantiated, pre-scientific cosmologies that have, and will continue to be, believed on our little world; a planet where life happens to have pre existed all of humanity for the better part of 3.5 billion years and will more than likely continue well after our species is gone. As if concrete evidence proving the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent God can be presented via some rather tedious word games.

Imagine for a moment if this was how you tried to prove your case in a prosecution:
    "Your Honour, the State has no witnesses and tenders no affidavits or exhibits. Instead, your Honour, I'd like to read out some abstract thoughts I had about why you should convict the accused..."
"Ah," you might say, "but you're talking about a court case. That is different." You'd be right. What we're talking about here is not just some Earthly legal issue. It is only the most central, perplexing question we humans could ever ask, namely:
    "Why is there something instead of nothing?"1
I fail to see why such a question can be determined via standard of proof permitting some abstract thoughts scribbled onto a piece of paper without one jot of actual evidence. The mind boggles.

The Cosmological Argument

Consider the famous "Cosmological Argument". What is this? Let's cut to the chase shall we? It is no more than this:
    "Something must have created the universe! It seems intuitive to me that it simply must have! It must have been (my) God!"
We can dress this up in "better" language of course:
    All things that exist must have a cause.
    The universe exists.
    Therefore it must have a cause.
    That cause is God.
Pardon me, but this is just fancy wordplay. If this is your position, just come out and say what you really mean. You think your God (probably some Middle Eastern variant of the Bronze or early Iron Age) exists because you can't fathom the idea of something without a cause! As if what you can or can't fathom matters at some cosmic level; as if you were born with some sort "all-seeing eye" – rather than the ability to perceive less than 3.5x10-26% of the electromagnetic spectrum (that's a lot of zeros, by the way). You think God must exist because you can't imagine an infinity of time stretching in both directions, when in fact your limited spatial/temporal perception does not equip you to understand time2 as anything other than "linear"3 (which, according to the theory of special relativity, it isn't – I'll get back to that in a moment).

You assume there ought to be something at the end of a long chain of "causes" – the "cause of causes". Something that started it all off.4

So what's wrong with that assumption?

My central objection to a "cause of causes" argument is to question the first premise: why things that exist must have been "caused" - or more specifically, why someone/something must have caused (ie. created) the universe.

Do we really know enough about cosmology to think that the limited "rules" of physics which we observe on a daily basis (including "cause and effect") apply in every situation across the universe never mind to the universe as a whole (particularly as regards the event known as the Big Bang)? The answer is, I think unequivocally, no. (Certainly quantum events do not appear to be "caused" in any sense; scientists can only assess probabilities of whether they will or will not occur.)

So is the question "What caused the universe?" even a valid one? I doubt it. The question is too simplistic – circumscribed by our own poverty of perception, knowledge – and yes, even imagination. It arises from an "intuition" based on how we experience spacetime – an intuition that serves us well on a daily basis, but which fails us in a broader perspective.

If you doubt me, consider this:

If, say, a rock were pushed, it would move faster – right? Therefore a rock moving at the speed of light would move faster if it were pushed – right?
    Wrong.
We know that the "rules" of physics "change" as we get closer to the speed of light. The speed of light appears to be an absolute limit. The rock would not move faster if pushed. Our "intuition" on such things would be of no use to us at all. Counterintuitive things happen throughout the universe. They happen under massive gravity. They happen when things get incredibly small (we know from the Large Hadron Collider that some subatomic particles can be in two places at the same time – freaky isn't it?).

And when it comes to the Big Bang, what can we really say about this singular event? Only one thing: the universe was so unstable at that point that you can throw any "rulebook" out of the window. Intuitions we take as "truths" can all be tossed, as can any Newtonian or even Einsteinian physics. We can safely say that we laypersons know nothing about the Big Bang and practically nothing about what happened after it. But, more importantly, while physicists (specifically cosmologists) know a little about the events immediately after the Big Bang, they also know nothing, and I mean nothing, about event itself. Or what there was "before" the event (if such a concept is even meaningful – which I doubt).

Let's just say that if you thought colliding protons produced some "freaky shit", you ain't seen nothing!

So, armed with our pathetic ignorance of this vast universe, especially at the time of its "birth" (if that is even a correct term), are we really going to invest total confidence in a concept like "cause and effect"? Can we really be certain that "all things that exist must have been caused"? Or that "something can't come from nothing?"1 Freaky things are already known to happen (remember the 2 subatomic particles being in different places at the same time?). Why is our imagination so impoverished that we persist in thinking we can intuitively "know" something (ie. the "cause" of the Big Bang) that the world's top physicists arguably cannot even begin to study (and the conception of which might be meaningless)? Why do we imagine that our limited conceptual framework is remotely appropriate to proving there is a "cause" of everything?

To a small extent we are still no different to our cave-dwelling ancestors who looked at the stars and postulated that they were distant camp fires. Or our Bronze Age predecessors who thought that the sun was drawn by chariots. Or our medieval forebears who thought the sun, in fact all celestial bodies, revolved around the Earth. For the time being, we just don’t know enough to reach any conclusions about the "origin" (if that is even the right term) of the universe. We don't (yet) have the right tools even to allow us to ask all the right questions. Telescopes, particle colliders and other tools of modern physics have let us dip our toes into the waters of the cosmic ocean. But our guesses at this point about the singularity that gave rise to the Big Bang are bound to be inaccurate. And, most importantly, our "intuition" is bound to be hopelessly unreliable.

Our limited (and inaccurate) perception of time and space

So let's go back to that marvellous piece of reasoning, the "Cosmological Argument". Graphically it might be represented as follows:


This seems to accord with what we know about the Big Bang: time "began" some 13.7 billion years ago.

And yet, this seems totally counterintuitive. Especially when none of us has any experience of time other than of a kind that appears to be linear – in both directions! Consider this hypothetical exchange:
    "What happened yesterday?"
    "Oh that was creation day."
    "And what happened before that?"
    "There was no "before that"?"
    "Oh? How so?"
    etc.
As far as our perception goes, it isn't meaningful to talk of either an "end" or a "beginning" to the time line. To try to impose some sort of "stop" at one end seems totally arbitrary and illogical.

In my view, the main problem with this analysis is the following: it assumes that our "linear" perception of time is accurate to begin with. It's a fair bet that it isn't. There is good reason to think that we simply don't perceive time in a way that is in any sense complete or accurate. As Einstein famously said: "...for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one."2

In this respect, time is a bit like space; both seem, on an intuitive level, to be infinite. I remember when I was about 5 or 6 asking my older brother where space ended. He said:
    "There is no end."
    "How come?"
    "Well imagine if you came to a big brick wall with a sign that said 'End of space'."
    "Yeah? Wouldn't that do it?"
    "No. Because what would be behind that wall?"
    "I dunno."
    "Nothing. More empty space."
The point of this exchange is not to show that my then 8 or 9 year old brother knew a lot about spacetime. It's just that we can't perceive spacetime accurately or fully. We perceive it to be "infinite"; time is a "line" extending forever in both directions while space is a nothingness that is infinite in all directions. (The only way in which the universe could be "finite" is if, while travelling in one direction, you eventually came back to the same spot – ie. the universe was like a giant "ball". Even then, what would be outside that ball?)

So we experience time as "linear" and infinite. But then again, we know from Einstein's theory5 of special relativity that time almost certainly isn't anything like linear. (I suspect that "infinity", on the other hand, is de rigueur for "non-linear" time!)

According to special relativity, time is relative and "tenseless".2 The present moment is no more real than any past or future moment.

Under this theory,5 time is really another mathematical dimension of the universe. We experience space as separate from time. We experience it as something that has only 3 dimensions (height, width and depth). But in fact it has (at least) 4 dimensions – time being the fourth. The division between space and time is, necessarily, an artificial one. That's why physicists speak of "spacetime".

And that spacetime can be "curved". Our limited perceptive abilities make this impossible to imagine. (Empty space is "curved"? How does that happen?) The best we can do is offer 2 and 3 dimensional models by analogy: pictures of flat surfaces that have a well-like depression, for example. "Intuitively" it seems to make no sense, yet hard data confirms it; a great deal of astronomical observation is only explicable if spacetime is curved, exactly as relativity proposes. That's why relativity (encompassing both special and general theory4) is the currently accepted model; it is backed up by hard evidence.

Accordingly, the universe almost certainly never "started" in time; it just "is" and has "always been". Time is one of its dimensions. It exists "tenselessly" in four dimensional spacetime. Talk about "beginnings" and "ends" are, in actuality, meaningless. There is no "timeline" and the concept of one is simply a function of our limited perception. Past, present and future are all equally "real" and always will be. But this is impossible for us to fathom. We humans are forever trapped in bodies that cannot perceive of anything but linear, "tensed" time.

When it comes to our limited senses, and our limited knowledge regarding the Big Bang and the Big Questions, the best thing to do is acknowledge that we are still only marginally better off than our cave-dwelling ancestors. At this point our guesses as to what occurred at or "before" the Big Bang are going to be pure speculation.

Which brings me back to that "Cosmological Argument":
    "God exists because I can't think of how the universe could have come to be the way it is. I have to put some sort of "explanation" on it. I'm going to pick something that fits my needs; concepts of space and time that adhere to my own (limited and inaccurate) perception, onto which I will superimpose a suitably anthropomorphic "being" who just happens to fit with my pre-existing religious schema."
Right. Good one.

You see, apart from the obvious problems arising from a reliance upon misleading "human intuition", the biggest problem that this argument faces is this simple inescapable question:
    Who made God?
This is usually followed by some mad scrambling. Some "frantic semantics". "God exists beyond spacetime. He doesn't need a cause!" That would be my favourite. It is called "special pleading". This is when you make up a special exception to suit yourself. You might as well be saying: "You can't see my pet unicorn because he's got a special invisibility cloak. It also means you can't feel him.". Don't protest – if you're a proponent of the Cosmological Argument, you're not doing anything different. Your reasons for why your God doesn't need a creator have exactly the same flavour. You can dress it up in fancy language but you're still doing the same sort of thing. Why? Because your excuse is "bespoke"; it is "made to order" much like the pet unicorn's invisibility cloak. Except that your "cloaking device" is the expression "beyond spacetime" (a concept of which we have no experience – and which, as an expression, might not even be meaningful).

You see, I'm not buying it. If your God doesn't need a cause, why not skip a step and say "The universe always existed?" Indeed, that is possibly a direct interpolation of the special theory of relativity; time is not "tensed" and therefore "beginning" and "causation" don't seem to have any meaning.6

The Kalam "fix" to the Cosmological Argument

The purported "answer" is to say: "But we know the universe didn't always exist!"

Dr William Lane Craig, one of the world's "leading Christian apologetics" has "refined" the cosmological argument along these lines. It's so simple, really:

The universe must have a cause because it did indeed have a beginning. God didn't have a beginning. So he doesn't need to "play by the rules". He's "beyond spacetime." (Not again!) Talk about special pleading!

This argument, called the Kalam Comsological Argument, is a dusted-off specimen from a medieval Muslim archive. It "fixes" the Cosmological Argument by replacing "that which exists must have a cause" with "that which begins to exist must have a cause". Yeah – that wordplay just knocked the argument right out of the park! Not.

Let's put aside the obvious special pleading and the wordplay. Let's examine the elephant that has quietly crept into the room; the one masquerading as the purported answer to "what caused your God?" That elephant is this:

Who says the universe even "began to exist"?

I can see the immediate retort:
"The Big Bang does! The 'scientists' say so!"
I see.

Let's leave aside the irony that the "mere theory"5 of the Big Bang is now the centrepiece of a grand "proof" of God. Let us also leave aside likely misconceptions of "time" and "beginning"6 (which are hardly addressed by the Kalam "fix" of inserting the words "begins to exist" into the Cosmological Argument).

Let us instead examine whether the Big Bang really does mean what Dr Craig and others think it means (I can hear the voice of Inigo Montoya as I write this!):

The Big Bang might well be when the universe started to form into the shape as we now know it. But to suggest that there was necessarily "nothing" before the Big Bang is unsupported by current evidence. You see, from all our observations, matter is not "created". It is just "recycled". Like spacetime, matter and energy seem to have always been there. All the stars, planets etc. are made up of atoms that once formed other stars and planets. And before that they formed parts of interstellar gas resulting from the Big Bang. And before that it seems this matter/energy was all in one, very tight, very small bundle about which we know nothing, other than some "smoke trails" seem to lead back to such a singular event.

What was there "before" this singular event? On our current understanding, this question is misconceived. "Before" is not a valid concept, given that space and time expanded simultaneously at the moment of the Big Bang.

The most we can say is that the singular event appears to have "arisen" from a "quantum vacuum"; it certainly did not "arise" from the kind of "true nothing" envisioned by Dr Craig and others.1

It's true that the Big Bang marked the beginning of our current spacetime – ie. the observable, verifiable universe. But we have no information to suggest that there was a "true nothing" "before" the Big Bang. For all we know, the singularity (or the quantum vacuum that "gave rise" to the singularity) might have been "eternal" or "beyond spacetime".6 No one knows. Only one thing seems certain: nothing suggests that the universe sprang from "true nothing" within Dr Craig's conception. The Big Bang is not evidence of this, as the video below eloquently explains:



Even if the singularity was "preceded" by "true nothing" (and that is a very big "if"), how do we know that the singularity and the universe to which it "gave rise" is all that there is and ever was? After all "universe" means the "totality of everything that exists". Can we be confident that the observable universe is meets this description?

What if there are universes within universes, or parallel universes (the various "multiverse" hypotheses)? What if the Big Bang was "preceded", and will be "followed", by a "Big Crunch" in an endless cycle (another set of hypotheses)?

There are many such hypotheses. We can prove none of them. They remain speculative. Sitting amongst them all is a speculation that is so poor in conception that it barely even qualifies as a "hypothesis": namely that an "intelligent being created the universe".

Why do I say this is conceptually poverty stricken? Because it doesn't really "answer" anything. Instead it simply poses even more questions, all of them (by definition) unanswerable (God is, after all, meant to be "unknowable").

You see, the big problem with a concept like "intelligent causation" is this: so far there has been absolutely no evidence of intelligent causation in any cosmological event or process.

Ever.

There is no sign of "intelligence" in the condensation of interstellar gas into stars; none in the creation of heavier elements in the stars; none in the death of stars and birth of planets; none in the formation of organic molecules. There is no reason to suppose that "intelligence" is necessary for abiogenesis. It is manifestly unnecessary for the evolution of life from single celled animals to more complex multi-celled animals (yes, really – if you doubt me do some proper research into the theory5 of evolution). It is totally redundant as an explanation for the development of brains and thought. Last, there absolutely nothing to suggest that consciousness, self-awareness or intelligence is anything but a physical process occurring in a brain.8 All these things are explicable through mechanistic, non-sentient means – ie. physics, chemistry and biology. Try as we might, we have never found any evidence of a "ghost in the machine". Or, for that matter, a "ghost" that sits "beyond spacetime".

But the biggest objection to a "God hypothesis" still awaits us. Because positing that the Big Bang really was a "beginning" and that a "supreme intelligence" (otherwise not seen or even hinted at in all observable cosmological events) sat "beyond" that beginning, still leaves unanswered the ultimate question:

Where did this supreme intelligence come from?

No amount of obfuscatory language or special pleading can disguise the problem that this question remains unanswerable – despite the purported "Kalam fix". It is just as problematic as it was under the standard Cosmological Argument. Kalam tries to shift your attention away by making some unsubstantiated assertions about the beginning of the "totality of everything that exists" – assertions that depend6 upon an outdated model of time and an unnecessarily complex modification of the theory of relativity5. But the problem of "what caused God" remains. Conveniently it is, once again, shifted to a category "beyond spacetime " (whatever that means) so that he/she/it "doesn't need a cause". Again, this is simply asserted – no evidence is offered. Put simply, the "proof" amounts to this:
    "I am asserting that the universe had to be "made" by an intelligent being. I am asserting that this being was always there. What "fixes" the earlier problems is that I'm now basing my assertions very loosely on some unfounded assumptions I've made about what happened at the moment of the Big Bang – a singularity about which physicists presently know nothing."
So much for an Earth-shattering "proof"! What we have here is a speculation (based on a series of flawed assumptions and bald assertions) that raises more questions than it answers; one that is the very opposite of Occam's razor. Instead of stripping the question of "why is there something instead of nothing?"1 down to its most basic level, this speculation smothers it with an anthropomorphic enigma – for no apparent reason other than that it matches the "wishlist" of a particular pre-scientific belief system. And presumably it does so only because science doesn't (yet) know the answer to the ultimate question.

Now let me be clear on this: just because science doesn't know something doesn't mean it gets "trumped" by someone with a "guess" – especially one that just conveniently happens to dovetail into certain religious beliefs.

For Dr Craig and other "Kalamists" to "prove" that a God exists, they would need, as a starting point, irrefutable evidence that the A-theory of time5, 6 is correct and not the prevailing B-theory of time.4

Second, they would need irrefutable evidence that the Big Bang definitely was the beginning of the totality of everything that exists. There is no such evidence.

Third, even if there were such evidence, the Kalamists would still face the (I think, insurmountable) burden of proving that the Big Bang was "caused" by some sentient being (and not by some sort of non-sentient process that we don't yet understand); in other words that the Big Bang was a deliberate "creation" by some form of "intelligence". I think Mr Krauss1 might have something to say about that.

Fourth, even if they met this burden, they would still face the further burden of proving that this "intelligence" was their particular God (in Dr Craig's case, a Christian God) and not some other God (eg. the original "Kalamist" God, Allah, or maybe Zeus, Apollo, etc.).

The Transcendental Argument

Now to the extent that I might have dismissed the whole "beyond spacetime " thing, perhaps I've being a bit hasty. After all, it is possible (and I say this with the greatest reservation) that there is "something" that "exists" (disregarding the spatial/temporal implication of that term) "beyond" spacetime: the quantum field/vacuum to which Krauss refers is one possibility.

In other words, maybe, just maybe, there is "something" (or maybe a "kind of nothing"!) that is "absolute" and does not depend on spacetime. This is certainly something about which we can speculate. But we can't really reach any conclusion as a consequence of this speculation – for the simple reason that there is no evidence at all upon which we can base our speculations.

Unfortunately it is this speculative possibility that has been distorted into the 3rd (and most absurd) "proof of God based on word shuffling" argument. This argument, propounded mostly by a Christian apologist named Matt Slick, is called the "Transcendental Argument for God" (TAG). What's that? Well in a nutshell it goes like this:
    "Okay, I can't use special pleading and unfounded assertions to say God doesn't need a "cause". But I still think there's something that is beyond spacetime – something that is "absolute". This thing can only be a mind. And that mind must be God."
Nice.

Except for one thing. We have still have no proof of any of this. And if there is anything "absolute" and "beyond spacetime", what reason would we have to suspect it is anything like a "mind", never mind "God's mind"? At the moment the latter is no more than a wishful thought. But let's follow Mr Slick's argument here:

"You see," Mr Slick might say, "we already know some absolutes: they exist in logic. One example is "A cannot be non-A" (known as the "Law of Noncontradiction"). These are concepts. And concepts can only exist in a mind. So if absolute things like this exist beyond spacetime, there must be a mind beyond spacetime. That mind can't be human, as humans are constrained by spacetime. Accordingly these concepts must "live" in an immortal mind – a mind that is beyond spacetime. In other words, they must exist in God's mind."

Assuming things like the Law of Noncontradiction really are "absolute" (has anyone checked those freaky subatomic particles lately?), this argument still holds less water than a colander. Why? Because if you find this argument compelling you've fallen for the oldest trick in the book. While you weren't looking, some nifty sleight of hand took place:

Mr Slick has quietly "slipped in" a false assumption, namely that an "absolute" like the Law of Noncontradiction can only "exist" in a "mind". In other words, it can only exist if someone thinks of it.

This is total nonsense. Let me explain why:

Let's assume an absolute exists. I won't pick "The Law of Noncontradiction". Instead I'll pick mathematics in general because it seems to be "absolute" enough to me. Now it's true that mathematics can be something we think of; it can be "conceptual". But it isn't just conceptual. It is something else too.

Saying it is "just conceptual" is the same as saying "If there were no one to think of a mathematical absolute, it wouldn't exist." Eh? That's a bit like the old "if a tree falls in a forest and no one sees it fall, does it really fall?" question. I frankly don't care about such philosophical meanderings. Let's be brutally frank here: Mathematics exists. Whether we are here to use it to calculate things is irrelevant. We couldn't have a universe without it. It doesn't matter whether no mind ever evolved to "think it"; the rules of mathematics would still be here.

It just so happens that our minds can think of mathematics. So what? Does this mean that if all sentient species became extinct, the laws of mathematics would no longer apply? Would the tree have also no longer fallen in the forest? As they say in text-speak: Lol.

Slick's "trick" is to argue that:
    "Something absolute can either be "conceptual" or "physical". Mathematics isn't physical, so it must be conceptual, right?
Wrong.

This is where Slick has used sleight of hand. He's used what's called a "false dichotomy". What is this? Let me give you an example:

Saying something "is either black or white" is a false dichotomy because it ignores all the shades of grey - and everything else. The correct dichotomy is "black or non-black". That is the only way in which you capture all the shades of grey (and all the other things!).

And so back to Slick's dichotomy, namely that "something is either conceptual or physical". What nonsense! Something is either conceptual or non-conceptual. Or it is either physical or non-physical. You can't start mixing these terms. They describe different things! Slick's dichotomy is no better than saying things are "either apples or oranges". Yes, he would be right if he said that things were "either apples or non-apples". But comparing apples to any other fruit is clearly pointless. The same applies to comparing "conceptual" and "physical".

Now I don't give a fig (or apple!) whether mathematics is "conceptual". It can be. It is arguably also "non-conceptual". The latter doesn't mean it must therefore be a "physical thing you can find under rocks" (as Mr Slick likes to say). It just means that it doesn't have to depend on a mind (human or Godly) to exist. Mathematics is mathematics; presumably it is an "absolute" (although remember, we're really still speculating here!).

Mr Slick likes to ask: "Well if it isn't conceptual and it isn't physical, what is it? Give me a third opton!" Maybe Mr Slick, just maybe, it is exactly what you say your God is: "transcendental" – ie. "beyond spacetime". Maybe such "absolutes" are the only thing that can be said to exist beyond spacetime. Who knows? After all, their very "nature" as "non-physical" means that they are not locatable in space or time (where a "thought", comprising an electrochemical impulse in a brain, does exist in space and time, albeit for only a fraction of a second).

But this brings us to the what is arguably the biggest flaw in Mr Slick's TAG argument:
    Do logical absolutes even have a "nature"?
After all, aren't logical absolutes used to describe the nature of things that do exist in a physical sense? In other words, maybe logical absolutes don't have a "nature" because... they are a "nature"! They are part of the nature of the universe - and almost certainly part of the singularity and the "quantum vacuum" that "preceded" it. They aren't "something separate" requiring some form of "disembodied mind" to conceive of them in order for them to "exist".

Talking about a logical absolute as if it is actually a "thing" that "exists" independently with its own "nature" simply assumes these things. In this respect, Mr Slick's whole argument is inherently circular.


Scott Clifton calls out Matt Slick far more eloquently that I ever will


I strongly suspect logical absolutes have no greater "separate existence" from physical things than time has from space; they are inextricably linked to the physical universe in a way that we humans cannot fully perceive or comprehend (due to our limited perceptive ability, as previously discussed).

So, at most, the TAG argument might prove that something like mathematics doesn't depend on spacetime and might "exist" as some sort of "absolute" even at or "before" the Big Bang - but only if one cares to assume that logical absolutes not only describe spacetime but also any quantum vacuum that "preceded" spacetime. That is an intriguing concept. But how in the world do we get from this to the notion that some sort of disembodied "mind" is required to "house" logical absolutes?9 That, I am afraid, is totally unsubstantiated. It is wishful thinking based on a false dichotomy, extrapolating from a woefully limited human perception and an even more woefully limited individual imagination.

The biggest problem of all: "creation" of "something from nothing" by a "supreme intelligence"

But the biggest problem of all facing the Cosmological argument, the purported Kalam "fix" and the Transcendental variant is simply this: If we are to accept any of these arguments, then we must accept that at some point a "supreme intelligence" (whose own nature and origin remain a mystery) "created" everything out of... well, nothing.

In fact this is the creationists' biggest trump card. In endless Youtube videos they say something like: "Okay you atheists, tell me this: where did we, everything, come from? Something can't come from nothing!"

It is interesting to note how people like Dr Craig are only too happy to say "authoritatively" that "something cannot come from nothing" when no one has ever seen "true nothing" (at least, as they would define it)! Not only has "true nothing" never been observed - for all we know, it might be impossible.

But leaving that aside, what creationists don't realise is that their suggestion that "something can't come from nothing" doesn't "prove their point" that "God did it." In fact, it tends to suggest the exact opposite. Why?

Well, I've already noted that in the present universe matter is never "created"; it is just "recycled". So is energy.

We are made of stardust; every atom in our bodies comes from an exploding star where heavier elements condensed under extreme heat and pressure. The planets, moons, asteroids and comets owe their origins to the same source. Stars themselves are made of interstellar gas, principally hygrodgen, that came from the Big Bang, accreting due to the force of gravity.

As I've explained, for all we know, all of this matter might well have "always existed" (if that is an appropriate concept of "time"); even when it was bound up in one tiny singularity at the moment of the Big Bang; even if it only existed as form of "potential" in a quantum vacuum. We certainly have no evidence that it was the product of intelligence. To assert that, we would need at least some evidence that intelligence can "create" things. We have none.

Yes, we humans can "create", say, furniture. But that furniture is "created" from wood, screws, glue etc. We don't bring its constituent matter into "existence"; we simply "recycle" pre-existing matter. The is true of everything we "create". In point of fact, an intelligence has never, ever been seen to create anything.

Dr Craig is known to have argued that an objection such as this is "absurd"; after all, he was "created" - why shouldn't the universe have been "created"? Except Craig wasn't created out of nothing. He was "reassembled" out of stardust through purely naturalistic factors. No part of him came from "nothing".

The appeal to a supreme intelligence as the "creator" of "something from nothing" is just an argument from ignorance - nothing more. It suggests: "I can't explain how things got to be the way they are. So I'm going to say that an invisible man in the sky used "magic" to turn nothing into something. You can't explain the "origin" of the universe, so my (extraordinary and totally unsubstantiated) appeal to "magic" must be correct."

Sorry Dr Craig, Mr Slick et al. Just because scientists don't know the answers to everything doesn't mean you get to fill the gaps in their knowledge with guesses invoking supernatural myths from ancient religions. Don't pretend that you have some sort of "proof" for these guesses - not when your main premise (the "creation" of "something from nothing" by a "supreme intelligence") is totally unsupported by any observation or other evidence.


Again, Scott Clifton calls it like it is - a slam dunk against "Kalam" and Dr Craig personally

Conclusion

So the next time someone says "So where did we come from? How can something come from nothing?" just remember this:

You're not saying that "we came from nothing". You're saying you came from your parents, who came from their parents, etc. etc. right back to the first cell and before that to abiogenesis. You're saying that our bodies are made of matter that came from an exploding star; that our universe has condensed out of gases that resulted from the Big Bang.

And what happened "before" that? That question probably makes no more sense than "what is north of the north pole?"10 The question is based on assumptions arising from our very limited and inaccurate day-to-day perception of time as linear and as "separate" from space. Given our human limitations (and the limitiations imposed by the observable universe), it is possible that we will never know how the Big Bang (not to mention the singularity and any "quantum vacuum" which gave rise to it) "came to be".

But just because you can admit that you don't know something, doesn't mean someone else's anthropomorphic "guess" is going to be "right". Just remember those cavemen pondering the distant campfires in the sky. Why weren't they right? Because they didn't know enough. Nor did the sheep herders of some desert tribe, who imagined a "man in the sky".

If history has told us anything, it is this: the truth about the "origin" of the universe is bound to be very, very different from those early imaginings. It is probably going to be freaky. It will certainly be beyond our meagre perceptive capacities. It will certainly defy our daily intuitions. Because if those capacities and intuitions were anything to go by, the sun really would revolve around the Earth (it seems to move in the sky, right?).

People can scribble their "proofs" down on bits of paper all they like. Space will keep expanding, the world will keep spinning round and life will go on. Wordplay might work magic in Harry Potter and Bewitched. In real life it means precisely nothing.

Footnotes:

1. Physicist Lawrence Krauss tackles the "big question" head-on in his book "'A Universe from Nothing' Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing". I note however that his concept of "nothing" is disputed by philosophers and theologians.

I'm not sure there is any real difference between:
  1. Krauss' "nothing" (a "quantum vacuum" where virtual particles can come into and out of existence, apparently without cause); and
  2. the philosophers' "nothing" (a hypothetical "true nothing").
Until we have a "true nothing" to examine, we probably won't know one way or the other.

For the time being, Krauss' analysis is the closest we've come to understanding how the universe "began". It is an attempt to understand how matter/energy might come into existence through non-sentient, physical processes (just as stars, galaxies, planets – even life itself – have apparently come into existence via processes devoid of any "intelligent" intervention). This compares favourably with some kind of "magical" creation by an "intelligent designer"; an "explanation" that raises many more questions than it purports to answer.

Yes, Krauss' analysis doesn't go that one step further to answer where the "quantum vacuum" came from - but at least he doesn't just make a wild anthopomorphic guess! We might never get closer to the "whole truth" than Krauss has - for the simple reason that, as I have noted above, questions about "before the Big Bang" might be meaningless.

2. See this quote. The theory of time applicable under Einstein's special relativity is called the "B-theory". It postulates that time is "tenseless"; there is no absolute present moment – time is relative. The present moment is no more real than any past or future moment. Events may be described as "earlier than", "simultaneous with" or "later than" others – in other words events are relative in time to others. But it is incorrect, or rather inaccurate, to speak of those events as occurring in the "past", "present" or "future".

If this is hard to fathom, remember: we humans are equipped with a very limited sense of perception. My advice? Don't bother trying to "imagine" what time actually is – it's impossible to "understand it on an intuitive level". You might make sense of it mathematically, but you'll never "see" time for what it truly is.

3. An alternative time theory, one that is not presently supported, is the more traditional "linear" model, called the "A-theory" under which there actually is an "absolute present moment". A proponent of this sort of time model was the physicist Hendrik Lorentz. Needless to say, Einstein's theory of special relativity – with the "B-theory" of time – has superseded Lorentz' model.

Some people like William Lane Craig still cling to a "neo-Lorentzian" model of an "A-theory" of time and have adjusted relativity to suit. On what justification? Why would one prefer Craig's more complex account of relativity of Einstein's simpler one? Well for Craig it is easy: In his book "Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity" he says: "[W]e have good reasons for believing that a neo-Lorentzian theory is correct, namely the existence of God in A-theoretic time implies it so that concerns about which version is simpler become of little moment..." (from page 179).

Ah nice one Dr Craig. You're saying:
    "My proof of God relies on a theory of time. That theory should be preferred to Einstein's simpler theory because God fits into my theory and doesn't in Einstein's."
Congratulations on making what is the most patently circular argument I've ever read. And I'm not the only person to have noticed this - see the video below:



4. It's worth asking why the "cause of causes" has to be some anthropomorphised "being" envisaged (let's be honest here) by some illiterate desert tribes a couple of thousand years ago. Why in the world would that be a reasonable "cause"?

5. Some people think that the word "theory" as used by scientists is equivalent to "wild guess". It isn't. It is actually equivalent to "that which is verified by actual evidence". A good example would be "the theory of gravity". Yes, it is a theory. But it is testable and verifiable. We rely upon it not just in our everyday world, but in order to send satellites into orbit, to send probes further into the solar system and to examine and determine the existence of planets orbiting other stars (astronomers notice a slight "wobble" in the star caused by the gravity of the planet). It might just be "theory" but for our lay purposes we might as well call it a "fact". Not all theories are quite as solidly evidenced as the theory of gravity; but to qualify as a "theory" (rather than a mere hypothesis) there must be a sufficient standard of hard evidence – and this standard is actually very high.

6. What many proponents of the Cosmological Argument don't seem to realise when they speak of God being "beyond" or "outside" spacetime is that, in a sense, the universe is itself "beyond spacetime" in the sense that it is "is and always will be". Time is "tenseless". While it is true that certain events precede others, each moment is no less "current" than another. This is an inescapable consequence of the special theory of relativity (see note 2).

Surprisingly Dr Craig notes this in "The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology" at pages 183 to 184. There he states:
    "From start to finish the kalam cosmological argument is predicated upon the A-theory of time. On a B-theory of time the universe does not in fact come into being or become actual at the Big Bang; it just exists tenselessly as a four-dimensional block which is finitely extended in the earlier than direction. If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and therefore the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived."
Well said Dr Craig! Bravo!

Except you reach the opposite conclusion...? Oh, that's right: you disagree with Einstein and think time is "tensed" because that would fit better with your own religious beliefs (see note 3 above)!

7. The term "Big Bang" was coined by astronomer Fred Hoyle – some believe as a pejorative term, because he adhered to the former "steady state" cosmological model. Needless to say, there might not have been any "bang". It is more an expansion of spacetime from an incredibly dense and incredibly hot singularity. How that "manifested" (ie. as an explosion or as something else) is pure conjecture at this point. All we know is that the tangible, observable evidence, comprising such things as the Doppler redshift (showing the receding movement of galaxies), cosmic microwave background radiation and the abundance of light elements in the universe, is presently most consistent with this model.

8. While I'm on the topic of "minds", many folks persist in the idea that thoughts have some sort of "unexplained" element to them; that they are not "physical" but in some senses "spiritual". Sorry to burst another bubble, but every single bit of evidence from neuroscience points to this fact: thoughts are electrochemical impulses in the brain – nothing more and nothing less. Without a brain, there is no thought.

And if you doubt this, please point to a "mind" that exists without a brain. Don't bother looking: you won't find one. What you will find is a whole lot of evidence which shows just how far we've come in understanding brain structure and chemistry. Damage this bit and your memory goes. Damage that bit and you lose certain senses or motor functions. Damage that bit and you start to see and hear things that don't exist. Damage that bit and you lose your capacity to be happy. Damage that bit and you lose your capacity to feel sad. Damage that bit and your personality changes. Damage enough and you become a vegetable. On what basis would we imagine that if you damage the whole thing so completely that you die, that your consciousness is somehow restored somewhere else? Is there a cosmic backup drive that kicks in only when your primary hard drive has failed?

9. Scott Clifton points out that assuming logical absolutes do "exist" in God's mind, they also still need to get "out" of his mind to affect the universe; purely conceptual things in God's mind can't affect the universe (unless the entire universe is contained in God's mind, which is a completely different kettle of fish!). Once they get "out" of God's mind to affect the universe, what do they become Mr Slick? They can't be physical and we know that they are no longer just "conceptual", so what are they Mr Slick? Give me a third option!

10. Richard Dawkins makes this point in this interview. Given that time expanded with space at the moment of the Big Bang, it is really meaningless (however counterintuitive to us) to speak of a "before" when it comes to that moment. To speak of something "before" the Big Bang is to accordingly misconceived.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic
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