XFiles: Beginning vs. origin

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 4: “Why did the universe begin?”)

We’re in for a treat this week: the latter part of Chapter 4 is really quite good, and is an excellent overview of modern cosmology suitable for introducing Christian laymen to some of the subtleties of Big Bang theory. It’s not without its flaws and inaccuracies, and of course he’s writing with the intention of proving that God had to create the Big Bang. Fortunately, that conclusion doesn’t show up until the very end of the chapter, and a lot of the material in between is not bad at all, for a lay author.

Ironically, Dr. Craig seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that this effectively rules out the possibility of a divine Creator behind the Big Bang. Lucky for us, because there’s some good material here that we can share with creationists. And since it’s written by a leading Christian apologist, they can’t complain that it’s biased against God and the Bible. (Well, hell, they’re creationists, of course they can, but still.)

Once again, we’re dealing with scientific material that was addressed skydivephil’s video Debunking the Kalam Cosmological Argument, so I’ll just mention that up front to get it out of the way. It’s an excellent resource if you want to zero in on the ways that Dr. Craig’s argument may not be as airtight as he had hoped. I’m going to take a slightly different tack, though, and point out how well Dr. Craig’s argument refutes creationism. That way you can take your pick: either he’s wrong because science fails to support his claim that the universe had a beginning, or else he’s wrong because the Big Bang rules out divine creation. Tastes great, less filling.

Dr. Craig appeals to two scientific arguments to support his claim that the universe began: first, the evidence for an expanding universe, and second, thermodynamics. Don’t cringe at that second one though, because he successfully resists the temptation to use the classic creationist appeal to the Second Law.

His argument for an expanding universe is basically a review of the history of cosmology since Einstein. Starting with general relativity and the cosmological constant (which he unfortunately refers to as Einstein “fudging” his equations), he moves on to Friedman and Lemaître, and then to Edwin Hubble’s observations of red shift. From here, he goes into a pretty decent explanation of what “an expanding universe” really means, and how there is no “center” to the expansion. Using the classic example of buttons on a balloon, he emphasizes how the surface of the balloon has no center, and all the buttons are moving away from each other equally, as the balloon expands.

This is a great way to explain how the Big Bang is not like a bomb going off in the center of a large empty space, but is space itself that is growing. He didn’t come up with this explanation on his own, of course, but he does a really great job of delivering it, anticipating misunderstandings, and correcting them as he goes. If you’ve ever been involved in online debates with creationists, you probably know dozens of people who could benefit from learning to understand what Dr. Craig is saying here.

What’s rather ironic is that he carries this thoroughness and clarity all the way through explaining the beginning of time itself.

As you trace the expansion of the universe back in time, everything gets closer and closer together. If our balloon had no minimum size but could just keep shrinking and shrinking, eventually the distance between any two points on the balloon’s surface would shrink to zero… So at that point you’ve reached the boundary of space and time. Space and time can’t be extended any further back than that. It’s literally the beginning of space and time…

Notice that there’s simply nothing prior to the initial boundary of space-time. Let’s not be misled by words, however. When I say, “There is nothing prior to the initial boundary,” I do not mean that there is some state of affairs prior to it, and that is a state of nothingness. That would be to treat nothing as though it were something! Rather I mean that at the boundary point, it is false that “There is something prior to this point.”

And he’s exactly right. Whether “the beginning of time” is the Big Bang, or some prior beginning in some prior metaverse, if time does have a beginning, then it is meaningless to speak of anything existing before the first moment of time. No Creator God, no intelligent design, no Eternal Purpose and Predestination, nothing. It’s not that it’s a question of lack of power, such that a sufficiently puissant deity could overcome it by sheer omnipotence. It’s that there’s no such period as “before the beginning of time,” and therefore no opportunity for any deity to exist there, any plans to be made there, or any supernatural causes to operate there.

It might be helpful at this point to make a distinction between a “beginning” and an “origin”. We typically use the terms interchangeably, and I’ve been following Dr. Craig’s lead in doing so up to now, but we’re into the details now, and we need to be able to make fine distinctions. So for purposes of this discussion, let’s agree that when we say “X begins,” what we mean is that at some point in time, X does not exist or is not true, and then at some subsequent point in time something happens to cause X, and again at some subsequent point in time X does exist or is true. The beginning, in other words, marks a transition in time from a state of non-being to a state of being.

An origin, by contrast, is more mathematical, and refers simply to the minimum value to which a thing can be reduced. For example, a speed of zero is the “origin” for velocity: if you’re moving (speed > 0) then you can slow down, but if you’re stopped, then you can’t go any slower. You’ve reached the origin point. Or to use a different example, the equator is the origin of all other latitudes: you can’t get any closer to Latitude Zero than the equator, because as soon as you move past it, you’re into higher-numbered latitudes in the other hemisphere.

In this sense, then, there is no such thing as the beginning of space-time, but only the origin of space-time. Just as all the radii of a circle extend from the same origin at the center, all of space-time extends from the same origin at the Big Bang. You can work your way back through the history of space-time, and arrive at an origin from which all else extends, but this is not a beginning in the sense that there was some prior state of affairs in which space-time did not exist. The existence of space-time extends all the way back for all of time—not for an infinite time, but for the entirety of a finite amount of time.

Dr. Craig has done an excellent job of documenting the fact that neither God nor anyone else, nor anything else, has ever had any opportunity to create the universe. Though he seems completely oblivious to the implications of what he is saying, he has reduced the question “Did God create the universe?” down to the same level as the question “If God is all-powerful, can He create a weight so heavy He cannot lift it?”. To say that God creates space-time is to claim that God existed and intended and created before the beginning of time—that the miracle of Genesis took place in that “nothing,” prior to the beginning, that does not exist.

This is where the second prong of the Kalam argument breaks down. Dr. Craig is trying to prove that the universe has a beginning, so that it can have a cause, so that this cause can be God. When we’re talking about the beginning of space-time, however, our ordinary perceptions of “beginning” break down, and we need to make a careful distinction between a beginning and an origin. Kalam needs a beginning, but Dr. Craig proves that it only has an origin. This not only fails to support his case, it conclusively refutes it.

He blithely drives on regardless, considering the various alternative cosmologies that have been or are being considered. As a good old die-hard apologist, of course, he tries to make it all sound like scientists are writhing in anguish trying to find some loophole they can crawl through in order to escape from the inexorable progress of Big Bang creationism (and see the video above for a thorough rebuttal to that tidy bit of framing). But the broad facts are there, and I think it might improve the quality of the debate if more Christians become familiar with his arguments. Perhaps his oblivious confidence will encourage them to learn more about science. (Don’t laugh, that’s what creationism did for me!)

He also goes through some alternative cosmologies, including “many worlds,” oscillating universes and bubble universes, and here his objections seem a bit weaker, since he relies on vague and subjective assumptions about how big a “local” variation in entropy would have to be, etc. But again, skydivephil’s video does a much better job answering than I could, so I won’t attempt to go into any great detail here.

Dr. Craig’s conclusion is, of course, that the universe had a beginning, and therefore a cause. The cause he personally favors is God, and here’s where all that scientific objectivity and clarity of thought goes right out the window, kicked out by a blatantly animistic superstition.

The cause of the universe must therefore be a transcendent cause beyond the universe. This cause must be itself uncaused because we’ve seen that an infinite series of causes is impossible. It is therefore the Uncaused First Cause. It must transcend space and time, since it created space and time. Therefore it must be immaterial and nonphysical. It must be unimaginably powerful, since it created all matter and energy.

Finally, it must be a personal being. We’ve already seen one reason for this conclusion in the previous chapter. Only a Mind could fit the above description of the First Cause.

Actually, the above description of the First Cause is sheer nonsense, so it’s hard to see how a Mind—or anything else—could fit it. Think about it: the “beginning” of the existence of the universe is at T0, the origin of time, the earliest moment that anything could exist. Since space and time have existed for as long as any potential “creator” has, no creator has ever had any opportunity to create space and time, and therefore there is no need for them to “transcend” space and time. Which is fortunate, because we have no reason to believe that anything immaterial and nonphysical would possess any ability to create anything at all, let alone an entire universe. And what does any of that have to do with being a Mind, anyway?

Dr. Craig’s last argument is that the First Cause must be a mind because if the First Cause were just some kind of mindless universe-creating force, it would have created the universe a long time ago, since it would lack the ability to decide, at some certain point, that today was the right day to bring the universe into existence.

For example, water freezes when the temperature is below 0 degrees centigrade; the cause of the freezing is the temperature’s falling to 0 degrees. If the temperature has always been below 0 degrees, then any water around would be frozen from eternity. It would be impossible for the water to begin to freeze just a finite time ago. Now the cause of the universe is permanently there, since it is timeless. So why isn’t the universe permanently there as well? …

Ghazali maintained that the answer to this problem must be that the cause is a personal being with freedom of the will.

Pitiful, ain’t it? After all that clear, careful, explicit discussion about how “there is no prior state of affairs before the beginning of space-time,” he lapses back into a primitive, mythological worldview in which God exists in some eternal time before the creation of the universe, and then one day He finally says, “I think the time has come to create time. And space too, while I’m at it.”

No, Dr. Craig. You’ve missed your own point. The universe has existed for all of time. It’s a finite amount of time, but the universe has existed for all of it. And that’s what it means to be permanently there. You’re asking why it isn’t, despite the fact that you yourself have quite clearly explained that it is.

He closes Chapter 4 by telling how his doctoral advisor took his dissertation, in which this argument figures prominently, and showed it to a physicist on campus, and the physicist verified that the science was correct. And it is, apart from the tone he gives it. There’s room for future discoveries to invalidate some of the things he’s appealing to as scientific evidence, but by-and-large he’s got the science mostly correct.

It’s only when he tries to shoe-horn God into the picture that he screws up, abandons the evidence, reverts to primitive superstitious animism, and contradicts himself. His science is fine, it’s his faith that’s the problem.

There’s a good lesson there for all of us.

7 Responses to “XFiles: Beginning vs. origin”

  1. peter Says:

    “Dr. Craig’s last argument is that the First Cause must be a mind because if the First Cause were just some kind of mindless universe-creating force, it would have created the universe a long time ago, since it would lack the ability to decide, at some certain point, that today was the right day to bring the universe into existence.”

    which is actually arguing against the existence of god. If god had an existence outside the universe he created, and god is eternal, this god actually cannot make a decision when to create because “when” does not exist.
    The concept of god is simply superfluous.

    Just as a point of argument: if an eternal god by whatever twisted logic could have created the universe at a “when”, he no longer would be eternal – eternity is state without time, no arrow of time in any direction. What happens to a god that suddenly becomes aware of time? Poof??

  2. Iain Walker Says:

    In this sense, then, there is no such thing as the beginning of space-time, but only the origin of space-time.

    First time I came across Craig defending the KCA, he devoted quite a bit of space to making this distinction, between two different senses of “beginning to exist”:

    (A) X begins to exist at time t1 if and only if there is an earlier time t0 at which X does not exist (i.e., has a beginning in the normal sense)

    (B) X begins to exist at time t1 if and only if there is no earlier time t0 at which X exists (i.e., has an origin in the sense you outline above)

    He then proclaimed that since the universe begins to exist in sense B, his argument follows – completely ignoring the fact that we have grounds for accepting his first premise (that everything that begins to exist has a cause) only in sense A. We have no experience of things that begin to exist in sense B other than the universe itself, and so we we have no grounds for supposing that things that begin to exist in sense B actually have a cause. In other worlds, we have no grounds for accepting both his first premise and his second premise in the same sense of “begins to exist”.

    It was one of the most shameless pieces of equivocation I’ve ever seen by a professional philosopher.

  3. Iain Walker Says:

    Also, when Craig says of his Uncaused First Cause:

    It must be unimaginably powerful, since it created all matter and energy.

    How does he know this? How much “power” does it take to “create” a universe? Well, according to inflation theory, none – if the net energy of the universe is zero (which, allowing for experimental error, it appears to be).

    Craig may not get the science that he quotes wrong as such, but he does pick and choose which bits he thinks he can get some mileage out of, and ignores anything inconvenient.

  4. Andrew G. Says:

    Does he discuss inflationary cosmology at any point? Because as the currently accepted theory, inflation not only dispenses with singularities but also re-opens the question of the origin of time and the topology of the pre-big-bang universe.

    To quickly summarize the currently accepted model (as I understand it – I can just barely get the idea of what some of the mathematics means, so I’m relying mainly on popular summaries): the earliest state of the Universe we can reliably deduce is that it was small, cold, empty, and expanding at an accelerated rate (probably exponential). After expanding by a factor of at least 10^26, possibly more than 10^78, a process occurs which transfers the energy of the inflation field into the production of normal mass-energy, ending the inflation (but not the expansion) and leaving the universe full of hot high-pressure matter and photons (the big bang). This is followed by nucleosynthesis and all the usual stuff.

    Important points to note are:

    1. No singularities – quantities like temperature, energy density, pressure and so forth are all always finite. (The energy density during inflation is actually constant, rather than being higher in the past.)

    2. No reliable evidence of what happened before the inflationary phase (if there was a before – this is an open question). All we have evidence for is that every part of the big-bang phase which is causally connected to us now, was causally connected at some point during inflation.

    Some models have the inflationary period start by a process like quantum tunneling – the universe emerging from an unphysical state either alone or as one of a pair of opposite universes. Other models propose an infinite and eternal universe in which inflation either occurs continuously or is triggered by quantum fluctuation. There are many variations but all of them are at this stage pure speculation – we have as yet no evidence about anything prior to the inflationary epoch that would support any useful conclusions. (Inflation itself is strongly supported by high-precision measurement of the variations in the microwave background.)

    The bottom line here is that we now have reason to believe that we know enough about the early universe to have some idea about what we don’t know – and the kinds of things that theologians rely on for crude cosmological arguments like Craig’s are firmly in the “don’t know” category.

  5. Skeptic Griggsy Says:

    Richard Swinburne and he propose that personal explanation,because they see choice involved as to why this instead of that, whereas Leucippus points to necessity. They unwittingly affirm Lamberth’s reduced animism argument that as no divine intent exists, then to posit that intent is the same as positing spirits behind natural forces and thus just as superstitious: theism is reduced animism, and thus as superstitious as full animism and polytheism!

  6. Skeptic Griggsy Says:

    Deacon, you now could write a whole book against the Kalam and his other arguments. His case for the Resurrection fails, because he is accepting the uncorroborated testimony of uncorroborated writers who contradict each other. What incredulity!
    And in that book you could include some of our responses.
    What do you think about the Ehrman-Carrier dispute?

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