Stenger on Zero Total Energy as Evidence for Atheism

I do not have a physics background, so I am posting this in case someone who does can clarify this for me. 

In his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis, physicist Victor Stenger argues that the fact that the universe began from a state of zero energy is evidence for God’s nonexistence. On page 116, he writes:
In principle, the creation hypothesis could be confirmed by the direct observation or theoretical requirement that conservation of energy was violated 13.7 billion years ago at the start of the big bang. However, neither observations nor theory indicates this to have been the case…. Remarkably, the total energy of the universe appears to be zero. … In short, the existence of matter and energy in the universe did not require the violation of energy conservation at the assumed creation. In fact, the data strongly support the hypothesis that no such miracle occurred. … Suppose our measurement of the mass density of the universe had not turned out to be exactly the value required for a universe to have begun from a state of zero energy. Then we would have had a legitimate, scientific reason to conclude that a miracle, namely, a violation of energy conservation, was needed to bring the universe into being.
I find this argument puzzling. In order to make it as strong as possible, let’s formulate it as a Bayesian argument.

I shall begin by defining some notation.

E: the total energy of the universe is zero
T: classical theism
N: metaphysical naturalism

Let us now formulate Stenger’s argument as follows:

(1) The total energy of the universe is zero, i.e., Pr(E) >! 0.5.
(2) Theism is not intrinsically much more probable than naturalism.
(3) Zero total energy is antecedently more probable on naturalism than on theism, i.e., Pr(E | N) > Pr (E | T).
(4) Other evidence held equal, theism is probably false, i.e., Pr(T) < 0.5.

I will assume the facts are as Stenger says they are and premise (1) is true. What reason is there to believe (3)?

The only reason I can think of is this. On the assumption God exists, God could have miraculously created the universe in a way that violates the conservation of energy requirement. Furthermore, had that happened, that would have been evidence favoring theism over naturalism. Since that didn’t happen, that is evidence favoring naturalism over theism.

I’m inclined to agree with that reason, so if that is what Stenger has in mind, I think he is correct. What I do not understand, however, is why Stenger thinks this evidence is “strong.” It seems to me that, if God exists, He could create the universe in numerous ways. On the assumption that God exists, why should we believe that “violation of energy conservation at the assumed creation” is more likely than any other possible creation scenario? If the answer is “I don’t know,” then E is not “strong” evidence for naturalism over theism, i.e., Pr(E | N) is not much greater than Pr(E | T).

So… for all of you with a physics background who are reading this,  why should we believe that “violation of energy conservation at the assumed creation” is more likely than any other possible creation scenario?

Index: Draper’s Evidential Argument from Pain and Pleasure
Jesus on Faith – Part 6
Philosophy as Astrology
Why be Skeptical? Reason #1 (Lying Cheating College Students – Part 2)
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • David Evans

    I have a reasonable physics background, and I can't see any reason to believe (3). If we are made in God's image, it's credible that God would value elegance and economy of design as we do. The most elegant and economical choice for the total energy of the universe is zero, therefore if it achieves his other ends, God would be likely to choose it.

    Of course that's not really a physics argument at all.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi David — Thanks for your comment!

    That may not be a physics argument that you provided, but it is exact the sort of argument that is relevant to figuring out what I call the antecedent probability of zero total energy on theism.

    Since you do have a physics background, could you say more about why "the most elegant and economical choice for the total energy of the universe is zero"?


  • Bradley C.

    Might it be something along the lines of this:

    God has an infinite number of choices on what the total energy of the universe is, so the chance that it is zero (or any other number for that matter) on theism is infinitesimal.

    On naturalism, there is only one "choice" for what the total energy of the universe is.

    That makes it infinitely more likely the total energy will be zero on naturalism than on theism, but comes with the baggage of a dubious assumption, namely that there is no reason to assume God would choose one amount of energy over another.

    It appears David is suggesting that this assumption does not hold.

    In any case, if zero is the only total energy that is possible given naturalism, that means Pr(E | N) is 1, so Pr(E | N) > Pr (E | T) for any value you set for the second term, except in the case where God is forced for some reason to choose 0 as well.

    It seems like an argument for the possibility of naturalism more than one against theism in my opinion.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Stupid physics question: on the assumption that naturalism is true, why is zero the only possible value for the amount of total energy in the universe?

    If zero truly is the only possible value give naturalism, then I agree with everything else you write. Indeed, it would then seem possible to defend such an argument for naturalism along the lines of my Bayesian argument from scale. I concluded that argument is successful, only in the weak sense that the scale of the universe is antecedently slightly more probable on naturalism than on theism. It would seem that description of the argument's strength would apply equally to Stenger's argument about the zero total energy of the universe, if zero truly is the only possible option.

  • Bradley C.

    My physics is limited to normal college classes for a science / engineering major, so I don’t understand all the intricacies of the big bang, however it might be along these lines from my understanding:

    P1: A closed system is one that receives no energy from outside itself.
    P2: On naturalism, the universe is a closed system. (Is this correct?)
    C1: Therefore, the universe receives no energy from outside itself.
    C2: Therefore, any energy within the universe must have come from within the universe.
    P3: By conservation of energy, energy cannot be generated spontaneously within a closed system.
    C3: Therefore, the total energy of the universe must be zero.

    I am reasonably sure on the physics here, but again it comes with some assumptions that I can’t be sure of, given my lack of knowledge of cutting edge cosmology. I don’t see that P2 has to be true, especially in some sort of multiverse scenario, or given that there might have been energy stored somehow at the moment of the big bang.

    I also am not positive that the laws of physics must hold outside our universe. The problem of induction makes me hesitant to assume something about the cause / beginning of the system that is all we have ever observed.

  • Vic Stenger

    I did not say this is evidence the non-existence of God. Read what I wrote! What I said was that the observation of non-zero energy would be evidence for a miraculous creation.

    I give examples like this to refute the claims, often made by atheist scientists as well a theists, that science has nothing to say about God. Science is perfectly capable of detecting God.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Vic — Thanks for your reply. I accept the correction.

    Theism entails that God created the physical universe. I'm curious, then, if you think there are ways that God could create the universe which would not be a miraculous creation?

  • Bradley C.

    Vic- Thank you for the reply. Would you agree with the statement that naturalism would predict that the universe would have zero total energy, and thus the fact that it does lends more credence to naturalism?

    As a side note, this book was an early one that began to crack my christian faith. Specifically the chapter on prayer studies, and generally the sheer amount of phenomenon that could be explained naturalistically. So thank you for that.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Posting on behalf of Vic Stenger:

    This is in reply to your post on what I said about zero energy in my book God: The Failed Hypothesis. If you read the quotation exactly as you posted it, you will see that I did not say that the fact that the energy of the universe is zero proves God does not exist. What I said was that if the energy of the universe was found not to be zero, then that would be evidence for a miraculous creation. It would be a demonstration of a violation of a basic laws of physics–conservation of energy, which would be a miracle.

    In God: The Failed Hypothesis and other books I make two arguments:

    1. The statements made by many atheist scientists, which includes practically every professional scientific organization (NAS, APS, NCSE, . . .) that science has nothing to say about the supernatural is wrong. I give examples of scientific observations that would prove beyond a reasonable doubt that some power outside the natural world exists. The above case was one such example. I also point out that reputable scientists do experiments bearing on the supernatural, such as the efficacy of prayer and studies on near-death experiences.

    2. I argue that absence of evidence can be taken as evidence of absence when the evidence that is absent should be there. Since such evidence does exist, at least for a God that plays the important role in the universe and in human lives such as the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God, we can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that this God does not exist.

  • Truth Seeker

    Hmmm, all the zero energy hypothesis says is that if the universe is completely flat then the negative energy from gravity cancels out the positive energy of matter mathematically speaking. On naturalism and theism the universe could have had either a negative or a positve net energy; none of these three options is any less surprising on theism or naturalism contary to what has been said. In fact, this zero energy hypothesis is just one model among several that aim to model the very early beginning state of the universe and not all of them assume the zero energy hypothesis. What Vic seems to be confusing is the PCP which describes the happenings within space time and all its contents which if superceded would be miraculous with the very origin of space time and all its contents itself. The PCP can remain intact even if the universe had a non-zero net energy; this wouldn't imply a miracle all on its own. Moreover, to even speak of the 'Creation Hypothesis' is a sign one is not thinking correctly. Arguments for the existence of God are metaphysical arguments, not scientific hypotheses (and so is naturalism) which can have scientific support for one or more of their premises. So, the really interesting question here is not what the net energy of the universe is but whether the universe had an absolute beginning in time which even on the zero energy hypothesis it did, and thus this would constitue very strong evidence in favor of the second premise of the kalam cosmological argument.
    I would also caution against using the WAP to loosely which I am assuming comes from the influence of Paul Draper in this circle of thinkers because aside from being a poor man's version of the likelihood principle, it is not helpful in getting us anywhere unless we are given good reason to assign antecedent 'weights' to the various possibilites that may or may not be feasible under the assumption of naturalism versus theism. So, saying that God had infinite possibilities (which is not true I would maintain to begin with) whereas on naturalism some feature of the world was required doesn't do much unless we can assign a 'weight' to these possibilites antecedently to a consideration of the likelihood of the actual evidence we have in favor of theism and naturalism.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    So, the really interesting question here is not what the net energy of the universe is but whether the universe had an absolute beginning in time which even on the zero energy hypothesis it did, and thus this would constitue very strong evidence in favor of the second premise of the kalam cosmological argument.

    The universe began with time, not in time, so it is far from obvious that that the universe's beginning to exist requires a cause.

    I would also caution against using the WAP to loosely which I am assuming comes from the influence of Paul Draper in this circle of thinkers because aside from being a poor man's version of the likelihood principle…

    I'm assuming from the context of the sentence, WAP refers to Draper's Weighted Average Principle and not the Weak Anthropic Principle. If so, I am not why you are bring it up in this context. WAP is used to measure the effect of an auxiliary hypothesis on a core hypothesis. Neither the original post nor any of the comments, as I understand them, have appealed to an auxiliary hypothesis.

    Also, why do you call WAP "the poor man's version of the likelihood principle?" WAP is just a fancy name for the theorem of total probability, which is agnostic to the socioeconomic class of the person using it. ;-)

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I think I've just answered my own question. Truthseeker refers to "the zero energy hypothesis." In the argument I posted, however, "zero total energy" is functioning as the evidence to be explained, not as an auxiliary hypothesis. So I think the point about WAP is misplaced.

  • Carneades Hume

    Jeffery, the Coyne-Lamberth the atelic/teleonomic argument notes that as science finds no divine intent, then God cannot operate in or behind the Cosmos and thus cannot be Himself and cannot thus exist, and thus cannot have referents such as Grand Miracle Monger, Creator and so forth and again cannot exist. As He has incoherent,contradictory attributes, yes, again, He cannot exist!
    This argument alone disposes of theism!Other naturalist argments dispose of each referent also.
    Theism is just reduced animism and just as superstitious as full animims and polytheism per Lamberth's reduced animism argument. Without that divine intent,it is just as superstitious to call on reduced animism as it is to call on full animism!
    For more such magnificent analysis, Google lamberth's naturalistic arguments about God and also skeptic griggsy.
    The Lamberth ignostic-Ockham also eviscerates all supernaturalistic arguments.

  • Carneades Hume

    Victor, n line with when no evidence appears and in line with Charles Moore's auto-epistimic rul, where mountains of evidence should exist and none does, here absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence and thus no argument from ignorance!
    Science finds no Muhammad splitting the Moon or ascending to Heaven on some Pegasus.
    God is no more that Primary Cause behind the Cosmos no more than gremlins and demons are primary within it! He signifies no more than a square circle or married bachelor!
    How then can one have a relationship with a square circle?
    , per Lamberth's argument from autonomy, we are free beings, owing putative God nothing! He'd face that oneway stree that Fr. Meslier's the problem of Heaven notes!

  • Carneades Hume
  • Carneades Hume
  • Truth Seeker

    Thanks for your reply Jeff. I am aware of Draper's distinction between the universe beginning within time and the universe beginning with time. However, this distinction is either a distinction without a difference or presupposes a singularity which on quantum models of the universe (which the zero energy hypothesis is usually attached to by the way), is 'cut out' and thus there is no boundary to space and time which further means that all moments of the universe's existence are in time. As far as being a distinction without a difference, this would be the case on an A-theory of time (and presentism) where each moment of time is a fresh beginning and qualitativley indistinguishable from a first moment of time, for when any moment is present, earlier moments of time have passed away and do not exist. Thus, if our universe could exist uncaused at a first moment of time, it could exist uncaused at any moment of time. There just does not seem to be any relevant difference (without an appeal to a singularity). So, I still think it makes good sense to say that the universe began in time if we are careful about what we mean.

    I also agree that the zero energ hypothesis as you discuss it in your post is part of your 'E' and not part of your 'B' but what I was suggesting is that in light of my comments it should move into your 'B.'

    Lastly, I greatly appreciate your civil tone and good humor about the socioeconmic class; not much humor in philosophy sometimes.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Truth Seeker — I strongly disagree that "the universe beginning with time" vs. "the universe beginning in time" is a distinction without a difference. Here's why. With the possible (?) exception of quantum events, it seems obvious that anything which begins to exist in time must have a cause. That is supported both by intuition and experience. Causation of things that begin with time (and causation of time itself) is in another league. We have no experience of things to beginning to exist with time. Furthermore, I suspect that if people are clear about the distinction between 'in time' and 'with time' and are being truly open-minded, many people will find that there is no support from our experience or intuitive support for the idea that things which begin to exist with time must have a cause. A conceptual analysis of causation raises a lot of questions–I would say problems–with the idea of time itself having a cause. The obvious example is this: when we say A causes B, we normally mean that A precedes B in time, i.e., A happens before B. So what it could possibly mean to say that time itself has a cause? (I'm aware of the simultaneous causation response, which I consider to be ad hoc and unconvincing.)

    I think the most intellectually honest response to these kinds of questions is to admit that all of the standard explanations for the existence of the universe (e.g., the universe has a cause, the universe is uncaused, the universe is self-caused) are equally counterintuitive and puzzling. From the perspective of epistemic humility, I also think we should be very cautious about placing too much weight on our metaphysical intuitions regarding such abstract concepts.

  • Truth Seeker

    Think about this way, on a B-theory of time, the first moment of the universe's existence is still there and is equally real with all the other moments of time. It is embedded within space-time along with all the rest of the events in time (excluding the singularity here of course). Are you really meaning to say that this first moment of time is 'with time' whereas all the others are 'in time?' What would be the difference other than that one is first and all the others are after the first moment; indeed on an A-theory of time every moment is like this first moment that you want to say begins 'with time.' I am trying to see what the difference is but there just doesn't seem to be any. With respect to epistemic humility and relying on intuitions, the first premise of the kalam has nothing but empirical support in favor of it, and we must not forget that its foremost defender (William Lane Craig) adamantly points out that it is a metaphysical principle, not a physical principle like the law of gravity that only applies to things 'in' the universe so even if there is a real distinction here, and even if our intuitions require epistemic humility, we can still that this first moment that began 'with' time requires a cause; to deny this would be to commit the taxi cab fallacy, and treat the first premise of the kalam like a physical principle.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Truthseeker — The point of the 'with time' vs 'in time' distinction is to call attention to the fact that, on BB cosmology, 'time' began at the 'moment' of the Big Bang. As I explained in my last comment, it makes no sense to say that time itself has a cause.

  • Truth Seeker

    To say that it makes no sense to say that time itself has a cause either begs the question against premise 1 of the kalam (it wasn't just time, but all of matter and energy that began at the moment of the Big Bang; Relativity requires all three to be together as well), or presupposes an objection that goes as following (which is what I think you are wanting to say): for A to cause B metaphysically requires temporality. This objection does not rebut or undercut premise 1 or premise 2 of the kalam, but rather, would be considered when we do a conceptual analysis of what it would mean for soemthing to be the cause of the universe. Since there is no 'before' time the cause cannot temporally precede the universe and so the cause of the universe must be causally prior to, but not temporally prior to the universe (akin to the singuarilty on the standard BB model). This isn't ad hoc but rather, is simply logical given the nature of the cause under consideration. Moreover, Craig offers a philosophical argument against the temporal regress of an infinite number of events which also gives us good reason to doubt the strong metaphysical claim that the cause of B MUST precede A. Lastly, while our inductive evidence supports the temporality of causation, it doesn't exclude simulataneous causation, and so can be considered an accidental generalization akin to: Human beings only live on one planet in the universe; or if we just can't accept these, points we can say that the cause of the universe existed in an undifferentiated time devoid of any intrinsic metric. All that needs to be done is undercut your objection here; although it seems easy to rebut.

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Truth Seeker —

    1. I find the 'causally prior' vs. 'temporally prior' distinction, in this context, to be contrived and ad hoc. It comes across as this. "I can't appeal to time to make sense of how time itself could have a cause, since that would be circular, so instead I'm going to invent a concept of 'causally prior' that will allow me to use the word 'prior' without having to appeal to time." I don't buy it.

    2. I'm familiar with Craig's a priori arguments against the possibility of the temporal regress of an infinite number of events. I don't find those arguments in the least bit convincing; I think Smith, Draper, Oppy, and others have refuted them.

    3. Regarding simultaneous causation, again, this strikes me as an ad hoc objection to the logical impossibility of a cause which does not precede its effect in time.

    Aside: frankly, other than a prior commitment to the a priori impossibility of an actual infinite, it's not obvious why theists would want to appeal to simultaneous causation. It's not like theism entails simultaneous causation or there is no way to make a temporal version of the cosmological argument without it. Maybe (?) the motivation is divine aseity, i.e., theists who affirm the doctrine of divine aseity feel that if God did not cause time itself, that would somehow threaten God's absolutely sovereignty. In any case, I see no reason accept the notion of simultaneous causation.

    This is well traveled ground by both sides; I suspect we are at an impasse. I've read most of the secondary literature on the kalam argument (and I'm sensing that you have also); each of us could probably write the other person's replies to our own arguments! ;-)


    Jeffery Jay Lowder

  • Truth Seeker

    Good show; I admire your passion and hunger for knowledge in this most important of issues.

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