Rebuttal to Justin Martyr (Part 1)

This post is part of a debate with Justin of The Faith Heuristic. The topic is: The Evidence Supports the Existence of a God. The debate is structured as follows:


  1. Justin – Opening Statement
  2. Leah – Rebuttal
    –part 1
    –part 2
  3. Justin – Rejoinder
    –part 1
    –part 2
  4. Leah – Opening Statement
  5. Justin – Rebuttal
  6. Leah – Rejoinder


One last note to the reader: although I’m delighted to get to mix it up in cosmological questions, some of the scientific references may be a little obscure. If you’ve got the time to pursue it, I heartily recommend two great books for laypeople: Simon Singh’s The Big Bang and Leonard Susskind’s The Black Hole War. For now, I’ve included a number of Wikipedia links below, but please speak up in the comments if you’d like me to edit and flesh out any section.

Justin begins by pointing out that Big Bang theory forced atheists to ask where the universe came from. He is absolutely right to point to the advent of the Big Bang theory as a major crisis point for scientists. The convoluted intricacies of Fred Hoyle’s arguments for a steady state model of continuous creation testify to the intuitive horror that this discovery provoked in many scientists.

I’m on board with Justin up through “The universe/multiverse has a beginning.” Having agreed upon that premise, he puts forward the Kalam Cosmological Argument: a logical modus ponens argument, which takes the form of:

  1. If P is true, Q must be true
  2. P is true
  3. Therefore Q must be true

As expressed by Justin, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause

It is obvious from the above that I affirm the second premise. Therefore, it falls to me to either falsify the first premise or dispute the definition of ‘cause’ to the point where it doesn’t imply the existence of a god.

Everything that begins to exist has a cause

The obvious counterexample to the above premise that first occurs to me is the existence of time. Time is calibrated to motion (the modern notion of the second has been the duration of periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom). The main idea is that time is intimately bound up in the idea of change. A purely static universe has no meaningful use for the concept of time.
I am not confident that time has any useful definition prior to the Big Bang and the creation of spacetime. If this is true, we may regard time as having had a beginning in the same way (and at the same moment) that the universe had a beginning. So, does Justin’s logical framework apply to time itself?

Consider:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. Time began to exist
  3. Time, therefore has a cause

What does it mean to say there is a cause of time before the existence of time? Causation is usually understood to be a relationship between two events such that Event A occurs before Event B and Event A logically requires that Event B occur. If we take the beginning of time to be Event B, how can we describe any Event A that occurs before the existence of time? There is no time for there to be a before in.

This is the answer to Justin’s question about the unique causal nature of the Big Bang and the reason why uncaused unicorns do not pop into existence in front of him or anyone else. Uncaused events take place outside of time, and, absent an being who can act outside of time, there is no reason to expect uncaused events after Time’s beginning.

This doesn’t offer much of an explanation for how time and space came into existence, but it does help to explain why our discussions of causality seem so poorly suited to this one event.

The above reasoning does not rule out the Big Bang being caused by an actor outside of time, but it does raise doubts about our ability to ascertain the truth value of any proposed cause for this event.

How would we distinguish between the universe as created by a deistic, timeless , and eternal First Cause and the universe as created by a decidedly more prosaic source (e.g. a simulation run by an alien scientist with a supercomputer in a universe operating under entirely different physical laws than our own)?

Given epistemological uncertainty about the metaphysical explanation for the Big Bang, a satisfactory explanatory theory cannot just explain this one data point. The kludged together cosmology of Fred Hoyle should make it clear to us exactly how easy it is to twist together any theory to fit a limited number of known datapoints. (Think about the infinite number of lines of the form y = mx + b that can be drawn through a single point, or the multitudes of curves that can be drawn through a collection of several points once we allow higher powers of x into our explanation).

For the uncertainty regarding the beginnings of the Big Bang to truly point to a deistic interpretation, the deistic theory would need to explain our questions better than any rival theory. This is not the case. If the deistic theory makes predictions that go beyond our current knowledge that are later verified, that is true evidence. This is how observations of Cosmic Background Radiation helped to clinch the case for the Big Bang. They showed that the Big Bang hypothesis was able to explain not only our current observations, but to go beyond them to predict and explain observations that had not yet been observed.

The ability of humans to make up any kind of explanation to fit what is currently known about the beginnings of the universe is impressive. It is not evidence.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04644525459910973391 Kevin

    Justin Martyr has asked for this kind of a response, by adopting a style of argument from the natural sciences and applying it to supernatural things.This approach has traditionally been avoided by Christians (it's almost unknown before the Enlightenment), not because they regard physical knowledge as illegitimate, but because of a basic understanding that to ask physical questions is to invite physical answers. The Kalâm argument, though it's been adopted by Christians in recent years, is not a mainstream Christian argument.St. Thomas, whose "five ways" of showing the existence of God have acquired an almost-canonical status, did not believe it was possible to demonstrate that the universe had a beginning. He believed it did, because Scripture told him so–but given the state of 13th century observational instruments, he was absolutely right to claim ignorance on this question.Obviously, the fact that the physical universe had a beginning should not make us less inclined to believe in a creator God. But the question of the Big Bang is totally irrelevant to traditional theological arguments about God's existence, since those arguments were developed in the absence of any such cosmological knowledge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05649500042998661597 aristarchus

    There's a much bigger problem with this whole argument, which is simply that real cosmology is insanely complicated, and you need several years of graduate study to be able to argue about it intelligently. What time is isn't entirely clear. It doesn't always progress linearly. It gets screwed up by things like black holes and singularities. To talk about the "order" of things around the big bang, of something "before" it, requires an understanding of space-time that few people if anyone have. Even just saying two things happen "at the same time" becomes a complete mess once you learn relativity.I didn't read every word of Justin's first thing, but I read enough to know that he doesn't have the slightest idea what he's talking about. For example, he says "virtual particles" are an obvious non-deterministic thing that seemingly don't have a cause, but says they're caused by quantum vacuum fluctuations. The obvious response is "What causes those fluctuations?" but the bigger problem is that "virtual particles" aren't really particles. They're mathematical abstractions that are a convenient way to think about some things that arise out of the math of the uncertainty principle. If mathematical abstractions count as things that "begin to exist", then I'd love him to explain what "caused" the idea of "one". Even if you buy premise #1, you're nowhere near a valid argument here. Assuming big bang theory is correct, the big bang is an event and you could (I guess) argue that it must have a cause. But the "universe" in question there isn't "all existing things". Physicists use "universe" to mean everything we can observe. Even if you believe the big bang had a cause, there are any number of non-God options. Your alien simulation one is a good one, but much less outlandish ones exist. There could be a machine/phenomenon outside of our observable universe that churns out new universes at regular intervals. More importantly, there are totally reasonable physical theories that would imply these sorts of larger causes. His list of 7 things that is supposedly exhaustive and just claims that "current science" says any universe/multiverse has a beginning is just wrong. I copied one of them to a friend who might actually understand the relevant science, and they couldn't stop laughing. It isn't even a decipherable statement. The scientific consensus he says exists just isn't there. I was at a talk two or three months ago given by a Nobel prize-winning physicist who was talking about possible discoveries at the LHC, and included is evidence for/against various theories that involve an infinite number universes created all the time in a larger universe. There is nothing to say the larger universe had some initial cause. He's right that the "First Cause" has to be eternal if it exists, but physical things can be eternal. Moreover, there's no reason there has to be a First Cause. There could be an infinite causal chain, in which the big bang is just one event.I don't know general relativity, let alone quantum mechanics and particle physics, well enough to really have this argument. But I'msmart enough to know that about myself and not claim to be authoritative. I'm also smart enough to know that Justin doesn't know it well enough to make those claims either (and apparently isn't smart enough to know that he isn't smart enough…).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @Kevin, I agree with you that this is a somewhat limiting way of looking at the question. I'm going to be moving away from the theoretical physics when I give my opening statement.@aristarchus, thanks so much for doing some fact checking. I'm only an lover of physics, not a physicist myself, so I tried to present the state of the science to the best of my understanding, with all the uncertainty that entails. Ultimately, the obscurity of some of the arguments put forward by Justin acts as counterevidence to me. I would find a god that only revealed xerself to high-level theoretical physicists to be somewhat improbable. (Or at least more in the realm of specialized tribal gods than any kind of monotheism). If there is a deity that not only exists, but expects some kind of fealty from non-physicists, I would expect evidence for its existence that was a little more accessible to laypeople like me.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Unequally Yoked. I've never heard of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, so forgive me if I'm missing something. You said the form of the argument is:If P is true, Q must be trueP is trueTherefore Q must be trueThe argument seems to be inherently flawed. Examples: If pigs are mammals, plants must be mammalspigs are mammalsTherefore plants must be mammalsIf monkeys are animals, animals must be monkeysMonkeys are animalsTherefore animals must be monkeys(Are all animals monkeys? No.)I want to research this Kalam Cosmological Argument. The structure seems to be poorly designed. I must be missing something.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Hi Anonymous,The structure being used in the Kalam argument is of a special form called modus ponens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modus_ponens).The way the first line works "If P is true, Q must be true" is to say:if statement P is true,it is impossible that statement Q is false.If the P and Q listed do not have this kind of relationship, you may not use If P then Q as part of your logical argument.Try checking out some of the examples in the Wikipedia page linked above and see if it makes more sense.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16072356181773206484 Justin

    Hi Kevin,For example, he says "virtual particles" are an obvious non-deterministic thing that seemingly don't have a cause, but says they're caused by quantum vacuum fluctuations. The obvious response is "What causes those fluctuations?" but the bigger problem is that "virtual particles" aren't really particles. They're mathematical abstractions that are a convenient way to think about some things that arise out of the math of the uncertainty principle. If mathematical abstractions count as things that "begin to exist", then I'd love him to explain what "caused" the idea of "one".I think you have it backwards. Atheists invoke virtual particles as a counterexample to premise 1 of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The fact that virtual particles are abstractions helps my case; it does not weaken it. But even if they had ontological significance, they do not begin to exist uncaused. Quantum vacuum fluctuations may be uncaused, but Kalam does not claim that everything has a cause. It only claims that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Thus uncaused quantum vacuum fluctuations are not a problem.

  • David

    Kalaam doesn’t require any advanced physics really. Its inspiration, Ak Ghazali, used philosophy to disprove the possibility of an actual, instantiated infinite, which precludes an infinite number of past events. William Lane Craig does the same thing with illustrations like Hilbert’s Hotel. Big Bang cosmology has just been seen as a confirmation of what philosophy already told us. But Big Bang cosmology has also been a powerful evidence in itself, as the history of recent cosmoligy has been one failed attempt after another to come up with a theory to avoid that beginning. But as Alexander Villenkin recently said at Steven Hawking’s 70th birthday gala, “all the evidence shows there was a beginning.” Not “some” or “most”, but “all”.

    William Lane Craig has answered the objection raised above and just about any others I’ve seen online. His work is well worth diving in to. There is a reason this argument remains the most engaged-with argument for God in modern philosophy … it is powerful stuff.

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