Questions for Atheists: What Caused the Universe?

This post is one in a series responding to Michael Egnor’s challenge to New Atheists to explain what they believe.

Short answer: I don’t know.

Long answer:

First, to be honest, I don’t know whether I can apply my usual understanding of the word ’caused’ to this problem at all.  I think of cause as something that connects events A and B when A occurred before B and B’s occurrence was dependent on A happening.

The trouble is, before the Universe, it’s far from clear that there’s any clear way to talk about before.  I can only think about time as a property of spacetime, which came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang, as far as we know.  Without spacetime, I don’t believe the concepts of distance or duration (necessary to think about time) can exist.

It’s entirely possible that my understanding or Time or the Big Bang is flawed, but, without an alternate, plausible conception of either, I can’t make much headway on this question.

The Big Bang itself seems fairly plausible to me (with my limited understanding of the physics involved.  I owe much of my understanding to Simon Singh’s Big Bang.  It’s a fascinating read, and the kind of evidence it presents (even dumbed down for laypeople) helps to make it clear how science really works.  The Big Bang theory didn’t match the prevailing observations about the world, it exceeded them.  It didn’t surpass them by offering a more compelling mechanism causing the cosmological events that had been observed to date (since a sufficiently creative person could make up an interesting story to explain almost any set of facts), but by making predictions about observations that had never been made, predictions that conflicted with the predictions of the Steady State model.

I mention all this, because this standard of evidence is similar to the one I subject Christianity to, and I’ve found it wanting.  The primary proof I’ve been offered for Christianity is that it offers a fuller explanation for morality than I’ve come been able to come up with myself.  However, as long as Christianity only explains pre-observed phenomena, it’s explanatory power is not persuasive evidence alone.  Either there must be evidence for the mechanism by which it works, or it should be able to make predictions whose truth values are not yet known, but turn out to be true upon testing.

Otherwise, I see no reason to give up truthful uncertainty for the sake of having an explanation, if the explanation doesn’t go beyond what I already know.

And You Shall Know the Free Thinkers By Their Cussing?
Philosophy Class Should Be Perilous
No Room for Atheists at the Conservative Inn
The Uncharity of Ideological Containment
About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Lukas

    Would it be fair to summarize this by saying that you think a theory must be falsifiable on order for it to be worthy of belief?

  • Charles

    While I can find no good reason to challenge you based on the ground rules you have laid out I can ask a simple question: Is there a scenario (or situation, or question, etc) where you can accept, or even imagine that science will fail to provide an acceptable answer? In other words in your worldview is it possible there are aspects to 'knowing' that can not or do not fall under the scientific method?

  • Crowhill

    Does it strike anyone else as a case of hubris for humans to think that they know anything at all about causes at this sort of level? It's one thing to say that a bullet caused the hole in the side of a car. That's kinda at our level of expertise. But to talk about the origin of everything? C'mon.