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August 24, 2006

God and the Big Bang

Here's legit scientist Francis Collins:

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

We've had a go at this argument (as phrased by agnostic Margaret Atwood). Here, from his review of Collins' The Language of God, is atheist (albeit with mystical leanings) Sam Harris on the subject:

It is worth pointing out the term "supernatural," which Collins uses freely throughout his book, is semantically indistinguishable from the term "magical." Reading his text with this substitution in mind is rather instructive. In any case, even if we accepted that our universe simply had to be created by an intelligent being, this would not suggest that this being is the God of the Bible, or even particularly magical. If intelligently designed, our universe could be running as a simulation on an alien supercomputer. As many critics of religion have pointed out, the notion of a Creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God? To insert an inscrutable God at the origin of the universe explains absolutely nothing. And to say that God, by definition, is uncreated, simply begs the question. (Why can't I say that the universe, by definition, is uncreated?) Any being capable of creating our world promises to be very complex himself. As the biologist Richard Dawkins has observed with untiring eloquence, the only natural process we know of that could produce a being capable of designing things is evolution.

Harris' final point on this subject is an important response to those, like Atwood, who accuse atheists of dogmatism:

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 24, 2006 5:24 PM


I think this is a very confused post
1) no one ever claimed that big bang etc is sufficient somehow to infer all God reveals of himself in the bible. God is clear in Ex 3:13-15 that there's no way to compare him, so the only get to know "who is this I AM WHO I AM?" (Ex 5:2) as he speaks and acts to reveal himself personally.

The inference is rather from spacetime itself beginning to a non-natural (ie not beginning, not spatial or temporal & not even contingent on nature) cause.

Furthermore, since this cause is non-natural, it need not be contingent & may be necessary. THIS makes belief in the God who the bible assumes (Gen 1:1) most plausible indeed, but tells you nothing what God's like.

If you're at all familiar with the physics, you'll realise how staggering the big bang conclusion is. Not like some explosion, where things begin in space and time - things beginning & unfolding in nature, but spacetime itself, nature itself begin.

hence the 2nd major confusion
2) Supernatural here means nothing like 'magical', which is a kind of unexplained gaps-in-the-process. Sadly even many christian theists have this kind of spooky view of God - and this is the only space people like Dawkins allow for God to live in, as if all he does is intervene in strange ways, rather than being the one who stands behind it all. Dawkins' God is very very small indeed. They are more like the pre-science gods of the ancients - "cant understand it =God did it", hence the sun god, the harvest god. This is NOTHING LIKE the claim in the bible that there is a mind behind all the mechanisms, one who purposed all the processes.

So, supernatural is the perfect term to describe any cause, since nature doesnt exist to cause nature's beginning. The problem comes down to Leibniz's age old question: why is there something rather than nothing.

If we grant that everything must have sufficient reason for its' existence, either within itself (necessary things) or from external grounds (contingent things). Science has shown us that nature does NOT enjoy necessary existence because it begun! Surely this completely undermines Bertrand Russell's objection (that you also raised) in "why i am not a christian" that it's a 50-50 whether we end the explanation chain at God or the universe. We now know this is completely unsatisfactory, right?

So far from our small knowledge leading to gods-in-the-gaps, big bang cosmology, our INCREASED knowledge that, as far as I can see rules out both atheism (that the universe is all there is, has been and evermore shall be) pantheism by the same token.

Well, I've said a lot, but I've been reading your blog recently and I doubt you'd want to be uncritical, so I really would love to hear any responses.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 25, 2006 6:38 AM

thanks for the comment, Chris,
I agree that "the Big Bang conclusion" (not that thinking on the subject is in any way concluded) is "staggering" in many ways. However, to use it to shake a belief that what we are investigating here are the workings of nature would rely on an inflexible definition of what is natural. Physicists, recently, have been exploring notions of multiple universes -- perhaps with their own Big Bangs, perhaps with their own physical laws (which would still qualify, by my definition, as "natural," not "supernatural," laws). I don't see how such explorations are furthered by imposition of any of various versions of God (anthropomorphic, inscrutable, angry, abstract, loving, etc.) propounded in the Hebrew or Christian Bibles. And I don't feel as if you've grappled with some of the logic in Harris' argument, or those mentioned elsewhere here.

Posted by: mitch at August 25, 2006 11:00 AM


You define anything outside of space/time (how you conceptualize this is way beyond me) as outside of nature. Why?

If we have no way of knowing what God is like, what is the point in discussing it? One cannot attribute anything at all to this unknowable concept.

Maybe God is so much that God is nothing.
How's that for theology?

If it is bigger than anything and indefinable let's just leave it at that and get on with our lives. They will end soon.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 25, 2006 12:14 PM

Wait! There is a perfect definition of God.

God is an excuse for any action humans can imagine.

I think that works quit well.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 25, 2006 12:18 PM

Any intellectually honest person must admit that he does not know why the universe exists. Secular scientists, of course, readily admit their ignorance on this point. Believers like Collins do not.


If we grant that everything must have sufficient reason for its' existence, either within itself (necessary things) or from external grounds (contingent things)

Why must the universe's existence require some reason? If there were nothing as opposed to something, could not Leibniz's question be put as "Why is there nothing as opposed to something?"

And what kind of reason do we need really? Some sort of ulterior purpose or simply laws of nature? I think the latter is quite possible and the possibility of former was convincingly refuted (in my humble opinion) by Thomas Nagel in his essay called "Absurd" from Mortal Questions. (Nagel is an NYU Philosophy Professor, so Prof. Stephens, you have a chance of running into him.)

Posted by: Cihan Baran at August 25, 2006 9:48 PM

wow it works! thanks for such thoughtful responses. Of course I skirted a lot of issues that demand a lot more explanation, but I maintain my points. I'll try to elaborate. Unfortunately I cant figure out how to format my post, so please excuse the huge mass of text (any tips appreciated)

1) good point. "Nature" could be used in many ways - we could use it as an almost redundant truism, namely referring to everything that "is", including God. In my post I simply referred to nature as synonymous with the universe, or more broadly, anything which is contingent on spacetime, namely everything in the universe...which seems fair enough, right?

2) Again, I think you've hit the nail on the head. even if the universe began, and we infer some cause, how on earth can we know anything more about that cause? 2 points in reply:

...1st, it's worse than it seems. Even if there was a necessary first cause, which was sufficient to produce the universe, then why did the universe begin & was not always existing by virtue of its necessary & sufficient causer? I would refer you to Swineburne's point that there is another kind of cause - agent/volition, whereby the agent makes a choice, such that the necessary causer (the agent) only became sufficient at the point of volition.

So In sum, to explain the universe, we CANNOT appeal to material or temporal causes, we CANNOT say the universe was self caused (its existence isnt a necessary existence), yet it seems that only a personal (agent with volition) non-natural (ie not contingent on the universe) creator will do. Intriuging. See why I said this conclusion is staggering? rules out atheism/materialism (the universe is all there has been, is, & evermore shall be) & also any pantheism, identifying god with the universe.

...so 2nd I think this sheds light on your question. How can I know anything about you as an agent, a person, unless you tell me? I cannot know your character, your likes, your abilities, unless in some way you take the initiative & communicate it to me. When John writes "in the beginning was the Word", he's saying God has spoken for himself. He refers to the beginning, Genesis 1, and explaining it he says the big point is that behind whatever processes we discover (evolution, big bang...whatever) is the one who said it should happen. the Word, the logos, the mind of God - 13.7 billion light years are here on purpose. But John goes further. He's saying God is neither silent nor distant. He's spoken his mind. John 1:14 would blow your socks off as a claim. "So the Word became human and lived here among us..." - it's all very well discussing the possibilities or necessities of an agent behind the universe, but if that agent shows up in human history, THAT's of staggering importance if that's true, right? so science tells us John 1:1 might be true (it CERTAINLY isnt inconsistent), and if John 1:1 might be true, then John 1:14 might be as well. That's the humdinger. Ok, it may not be true, but at least that's the right claim - you dont see that in any other religion - a God who's not hiding, playing guessing games, but speaks & reveals himself there. Not down to descartes' rationalism, but by speaking himself. Surely that unique claim demands we read John's account and ask, does this human back up his claim to be the Word?

I've said a lot. What do you reckon Jay?

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 26, 2006 8:02 AM

Mitch: "the Big Bang conclusion" (not that thinking on the subject is in any way concluded) is "staggering" in many ways.

first, to qualify, I dont say "conclusion" lightly. My background is in Physics & Philosophy, and my Masters Research was into the nature of Spacetime in Canonical Quantum Gravity (attempting to quantize the general theory of relativity).
What I mean by the "big bang conclusion" is that spacetime is time-bounded and had a beginning. Even Stephen Hawking who proposes an "imaginary time" still has to conclude that it is merely a reconceptualising of what is a real beginning in real time. This feature (the universe beginning) is NOT just a result of standard big bang cosmology, but all current programs in cosmology & quantum cosmology have this staggering feature. WL Craig makes this point thoroughly. Read

also, I would beware the effect of popular science here - the media & sci-fi have loved ideas such as the oscillating or fluctuating models of the universe you make passing reference to, but to quote Christopher Isham they were "jettisoned 20 years ago" and "nothing much" has been done with them since.

There are other models generally they end up being either metaphysically ad-hoc (biiiig problem having to postulate an infinity of necessarily unobservable universes to explain the one observable). Listen to quantum cosmologist Isham again, "perhaps the best argument in favour of the thesis that big bang supports theism is the obvious unease with which it is greeted by some atheist physicists. At times this has led to scientific ideas, such as continuous creation or an oscillating universe being advanced with such tenacity which so exceeds their intrinsic worth that one can only suspect the operation of psychological forces lying very much deeper than the usual academic desire of a theorist to support his/her theory"

besides, as I understand it, the main multiverse ideas (see Rodney Holder's God the Multiverse & Everything" for a brilliant analysis - I think it's Cambridge UP) mainly comes from quantum mechanics, not cosmology.

Cihan - That's a great question, I have to catch a train though please excuse me I will respond. In short my response is if you give up that premise, then the only basis for denying that conclusion is if you give up explanation altogether.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 26, 2006 8:04 AM

The statement, "In the beginning there was the word", was/is the ritualistic affirmation of the power language gave humans over competing animals. The "Word" was strategery and power and it was good and came from God who looks just like an old man.

You jump so easily into mythology as if it is history. John thought the earth was flat.

I restate; God is an excuse for any action humans can imagine including believing the Bible has anything to do with truth.

What I reckon is that the more said about things beyond our meager understanding the murkier the things we can understand get.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 26, 2006 4:44 PM

Jay, sorry, but I'm struggling to find the coherence in your post. It's also a little off track, for which I apologise for raising the John point in detail.

ritualistic power language...competing animals?
are you referring to John (1st century jew) writing historical narrative from a judeo-christian worldview? Sounds much more like 20th century feminist/marxist social deconstructionism to me.

"the Word was strategy and power"
I dont understand. Are you referring to the Greek meaning of "ho logos"? Is John somehow NOT referring to it's meaning used throughout the bible, especially in his harking back to "the beginning"?

"it was good and came from God who looks like an old man"
again, what? this is a perfect case study to emphasise the cultural assumption that God is some part greek part mediaeval miser with a big beard in some far flung galaxy laughing at our pathetic attempts to track him down. The very point John is making is that God's not distant & silent, but has come close into our reality to speaks for himself.

"john thought the earth was flat"
again, eh? ok maybe westerners pre 1492 may have thought that, but where do you get your ideas about the Jewish worldview? My point is the bible is making a claim that fits very well indeed with modern cosmology, by the same token that it sits well even with primitives who would believe in a flat earth - the reason being that the one who planned it all (whatever processes you ascribe) has spoken his mind. The word.

I assume you are referring to John's gospel in particular when you talk about "myth". What do you mean by myth? Are you familiar with 1st century literary genres? If you're referring to the bible in general, then I assume the bits in the bible you're referring to are what it reveals of God?

if anyone ever projected their own current cultural assumptions onto a big screen and decided history or author's intentions, I think you just did it.

you may well be right that "God is an excuse for any action humans can imagine", but only if God has been silent, and we're left to interpret silence. That was my point: certainly in the UK this is an uncritical assumption that implicitly puts man on a noble/primitive (depending on who you ask) quest for a God who's basically hiding...trying to interpret silence. If that's all we have to go on, then sure. But it's not. At least that's John's contention - not that he's got more ideas about God, but that God has shown up and spoken for himself. That was my point. That's where we need to engage. Probably elsewhere, but it is a historical claim. Dont blindly discount it.

Sorry for the polemic nature of this post, I would much rather engage with clearly developed & expressed responses. Instead I feel unfairly ridiculed, when you've not really engaged with what I wrote, but rather dismissed it with some blandly expressed platitudes.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 26, 2006 7:40 PM

"I would much rather engage with clearly developed & expressed responses."

We use words quite differently. I think you use way too many.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 26, 2006 10:24 PM

you're so right. Many apologies I have used too many words. But these are not simple matters. You used too few words and ended up scratching the surface of 100 issues without engaging with anything I'd said. I'll try to summarise my argument & you can refer to my previous comments to explain them if necessary.

1) whatever exists has a reason for its own existence - either in the necessity of its own nature or from an external ground/cause
2) whatever begins to exist is not necessary in its existence
3) IF the universe has an external ground THEN there exists a creating agent who (sans universe) is beginningless, changeless, necessary, uncaused & enormously powerful.
4) the universe began to exist
5) therefore the universe is not necessary in its existence (from 4&2)
6) therefore the universe has an external ground for its existence (1&5)
7) therefore there exists a creating agent who (sans universe) is beginningless, changeless, necessary & uncaused etc

if this argument is valid, 7 rules out atheism & pantheism.

NB1: Cihan is right. (1) is a crucial premise, but if the only way to avoid 7 is to deny (1) then we undermine the rationality on which all causation sits & we must herald the end of rational explanation.
NB2: showing (3) requires further argumentation, see my reference to Swineburne.
NB3: (4) takes a lot of demonstration but it does turn out that all viable cosmologies have this result.
NB4: this argument says nothing about what that agent is like, or his knowability.

Hope that's better. Please comment as I think this may be a very very powerful argument.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 27, 2006 10:28 AM

These are not only not simple matters, they are way beyond our abilities to understand and all the logical constructs you imagine do nothing to change that.

Your 1) Total assumption without any way to verify. Therefore no 2-7.

You can reason and reference and discuss all you want and you can never, ever say anything enlightening about God.

You obviously love to think and talk but your argument for the supernatural or whatever you choose to call it is no more powerful than any other, which is to say, in my mind, impotent.

You have studied much and considered much but the belief that those studies have lead you to a rational for God totally ignores the fact you cannot know what you cannot understand and have no idea what you are missing in your perceptions and conceptions.

1) There are either things beyond our understanding or not.

2) Assuming awareness greater than ours, we cannot know how much of everything lies beyond ours.

3) Speculating about states of awareness beyond ours is pointless. Metaphorically it is like a skin cell considering football (either kind).

4) Gosh, it is that simple after all. I guess the perceived complexity comes from the logic games that go from nowhere to nowhere.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 27, 2006 11:28 AM

fair comments, but as I expected, the only way to deny the argument is to deny 1, as Cihan says.

1) why do you seek explanation for things?
2) it seems that your rejection of God is more of an a priori despair that we simply cannot talk meaningfully about God. How do you know? You are saying that we cannot, but on what basis? You give the skin-cell-football analogy but what do you know about God & his relation to the world that means your analogy holds? Off the top of my head, I could just as easily give the analogy of the borg collective, say, where each individual element DOES know about something much greater than itself. But there's no reason why that should be analogous to God's possible relation to sentient humans. By despairing FROM THE START with your assumption, you are cutting off the branch on which you sit.

I maintain: if you maintain an honest agnosticism, you have to say it is perfectly possible that God is able to communicate himself. right?

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 28, 2006 6:30 AM

You can talk about God all you want, but you have not one iota of evidence to start from.

You can talk about unicorns if you like.

And any other imaginary braches you choose to sit on.

How is it you have me confused with an agnostic?
I have no questions about God.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 28, 2006 8:02 AM

I call you an agnostic because you say "we cannot know about God"

the branch you're sitting on is that you dogmatically assert that we cannot possibly know anything about God

"you can talk about unicorns if you like"
If by unicorns you mean some creature, then no.
However in one sense, you're right. As I said, the argument tells us nothing about what the creating agent is like, so if you use "unicorn" as a possible label for the uncaused, non-material, beginningless & changeless, yet personal & willing agent implied by modern cosmology, then fine, but I suspect you're not using it that way.

Once we deduce from the cosmology that there must be some such agent responsible for the initial singularity, the creation ex nihilo event which is unexplainable by any other means (if we require explanation for non necessary things, as we do in all other cases), theism is plausible, and we must remain agnostic as to that agent's character or qualities, or knowability UNLESS that agent claims to reveal himself. That's why we must take John 1:14 seriously, because John 1:1 is perfectly possible. You are blindly assuming it is impossible. Why?

Cosmology is not an itch that gets me to Jesus, Cosmology makes me open to Jesus' claims to be the agent of creation. That he claims to be the self-disclosure of that agent is what we must submit to scrutiny. He is the evdience. He is no myth.

The argument is strong, and unsettling, but you're refusing to engage with it. you clearly havent engaged with the argument above, and you still havent answered my question: if you reject 1, then causal explanation is over.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at August 31, 2006 8:52 AM

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