October 7, 2009
Fundamental Errors and the Cosmological Argument
In the comments section of this post, I get in to a bit of an exchange with Makarios over the common Christian apologetic, the Cosmological Argument.
As I draw out in the comments, this argument always begins with a fundamental factual error, wherein the Christian asserts that Big Bang cosmology tells us that “everything came from nothing.” From there, the apologist argues that (1) that’s impossible, and (2) therefore, Jesus.
I’ll leave aside (for now) the fact that the conclusion doesn’t flow from the premises; you can’t replace one ‘impossible’ with another. But — and this was the point of my reply to Makarios — the first premise is simply factually incorrect. Big Bang cosmology does not tell us that everything came from “nothing.” Big Bang cosmology tells us that everything came from a singularity, and that, prior to that we just don’t know.
Here’s how I put it in Summary Argument #3; you can click through for the embedded links that evidence the statements below:
Creationists also frequently ask what “caused the Big Bang.” The best, most honest answer to this question — as is the case with virtually all cutting-edge theoretical physics — is “I don’t know.” However, people like physicist Victor Stenger hypothesize on possible naturalistic origins, showing that in the realm of quantum mechanics, “nothing” is less stable than “something,” making a Big Bang inevitable. Stenger thus concludes that “the universe can have formed from nothing, in complete chaos (maximum entropy), and have order form spontaneously, without violating any known principles of physics.” Stenger’s “quantum tunnelling” model is a single-universe model, and thus does not posit the controversial “multiverse” hypothesis — which is nevertheless popular among some quantum physicists.
Moreover, most physicists believe that the nature of the universe itself is fundamentally unknowable even in principle prior to what they call the “Planck time,” 1.61 x 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, via an application of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. If that turns out to be correct, then the question “what caused the Big Bang?” may be inherently unanswerable.
Now, it’s certainly fair game to say that “I don’t know” is an emotionally unsatisfying answer. On one level, I might even agree with you (with the caveat that “that’s just the way God made it” is even more unsatisfying). On the other hand, I don’t know is also a liberating answer. When my son asked me, “Where did the Big Bang come from?”, I answered him, “Well, we don’t know, but scientists are trying to figure it out. Maybe someday you’ll be the one who does!” He liked that answer — and so do I.
But regardless of the degree of emotional satisfaction you derive from the origins of the universe, I think as a Christian apologist you owe it to yourself to at least get the argument right. Atheists do not believe that the universe came “from nothing.” We believe that we don’t (yet) know. That’s all.