Cosmology and Atheistic "Fundamentalism" (1999)
by Bill Schultz
I am a regular participant in various informal debates between atheists and Christians using the medium of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Frequently in such debates, the Christian participant will cite the scientific evidence in favor of the so-called "Big Bang" as clear evidence of an "act of creation by God." The atheist response to such claims is to ridicule such assertions as "disproven by science" which has, according to the advocates of this position, "clearly proven that our universe is uncaused."
The atheists who attempt to persuade with this argument are taking advantage of a flawed (and fundamentally dishonest) confusion over the true definition of the word "universe." In this essay, I want to highlight this confusion and plead for "truth in debating" in the future by refusing to allow this confusion over the definition of the word "universe" to support totally unwarranted conclusions about the "God" of the theists.
The first of two definitions of the word "universe" is "the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated." In this sense, it is logically impossible for anything to exist which is not part of the "universe" of things and phenomena. Because this is the primary definition of the word "universe," many people are prone to conflate it with the second, and utterly distinct, definition, below.
The second definition of the word "universe" is "the entire celestial cosmos." The word "cosmos" is, unfortunately, recursively defined as "an orderly harmonious systematic universe." The use of the word "an" in this definition implies "one of many" obviously distinct universes. In this context, "the entire celestial cosmos" becomes "one of many" distinct universes which can exist according to the equations of theoretical physics and cosmology.
A typical atheist fundamentalist argues as follows:
- Modern science accepts the so-called "Big Bang" as the origin of our universe, all of the space within our universe, and even time itself.
- Since time itself is a consequence of the "Big Bang," there was not and can never be any time that in any way preceded the "Big Bang." This is a consequence of the truth that an effect may not precede its cause. Since time itself is an "effect" of the "Big Bang," then the "Big Bang" must have been the singularly unique event that started things off.
- Scientific questions over causality cannot be answered without reference to the so-called "arrow of time." In other words, time must be running in a single direction for the processes of "cause and effect" to be analyzed.
- Therefore, because causality requires the "arrow of time" as a condition precedent, and because the "arrow of time" began as an effect of the "Big Bang," it is logically impossible for the "Big Bang" to have had any cause.
- Because the theists argue that their God is the "cause" of the "Big Bang," and because any such cause is a logical impossibility, clearly that God does not and cannot exist. Accordingly, only strong atheism is justified by modern scientific truth.
The problem is contained in the first point, above. There, the word "universe" is used in the sense of the second definition, above, as "one of many." Scientists have proposed theories about how an infinite number of universes are generated by quantum mechanical processes and we just happen to live in the particular universe which is "right" for us. The process of generating random universes is clearly contemplated in terms of a causal relationship in spite of the fact it occurs "outside of time" in the sense meant when time is constrained to occur only within our particular universe.
Modern physics and cosmology describes the "Big Bang" by using a series of advanced mathematical equations. Those equations account for (or allow for) time as one of the dimensions of our local universe, but they by no means exclude the possibility of time existing anywhere else that is not part of our local universe. Sure, such a concept of time would not be part of what we experience as "time" within our local universe, but it would still be a mathematical dimension of "time" suitable for use with those same equations in some other local universe. Physicist Vic Stenger has even created a web page where you can create your own "Toy Universe" or allow the software to generate one at random for you. Each such "Toy Universe" has its own, distinct, dimension of time. Because the present equations of physics don’t generate any relationships between the different possible universes, we don’t see any causal relationships between them, nor can we relate any such universe (causally) back to the source of all such universes. But clearly, merely identifying "the source of all such universes" is sufficient to establish some sort of causal relationship. The existence of that source also argues for some all-encompassing dimension of time that would link together all of the dimensions of time that exist individually within all of the universes so generated.
If you try to argue this out with one of those fundamentalist atheists, what will generally come flying back at you is the first definition of the word "universe," above. The one where the "universe" is "the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated." Well, that’s fine, but then the "universe" contains this "source" of distinct space/time continuums, which would then be the source ("cause") of the particular space/time continuum that began with what we now call the "Big Bang."
The bottom line on this is that both sides in the debate draw unsupported conclusions from the meager facts science has produced about the origins of our universe. In most senses, science can never prove or disprove "God" since (in most belief systems) "God" has a supernatural existence and science can only investigate things that have a natural existence. Thus, nothing we discover about our natural world can ever disprove the existence of the supernatural. This includes discoveries about the very nature of our universe (or "cosmos").
Similarly, beliefs about the supernatural, when restricted to that domain, cannot be at odds with scientific facts or theories. The difficulty for theists arises when the dogma of some particular faith has imputed some act(s) or omission(s) of the supernatural deity to the cause(s) or effect(s) discovered by science. Thus, where the theological dogma holds that mankind was created by God a few thousand years ago, scientific facts about humans who existed hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago become anathema to religion. It is those instances where religion has overstepped its bounds and intruded into the scientific domain which generate all of the real tension between scientific investigation and religious dogma. If both sides would pledge to stick to their own domains (science to the natural; religion to the supernatural) we could never have any cause for argument between science and religion. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, neither side is capable of strict adherence to that restriction.
Because we seem destined to engage in this debate for the foreseeable future, let me offer a few words of agnostic philosophy to establish some ground rules for debate.
- Avoid "leaps of faith" when discussions of this sort break out. If you don’t know the truth, then don’t simply assert that which your particular god-belief (or lack thereof) finds to be a comfortable fact. Instead, reply "I don’t know" when that is the real truth. And always keep in mind the fundamental principle of agnosticism: "that it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty."
- Don’t be intimidated by bullies from either side. Demand adequate proof. In particular, demand proof of how science can possibly "know" anything of relevance to any "supernatural" fact given that the very definition of "supernatural" excludes it from scientific investigation. But where religion makes claims that are clearly at odds with the legitimate findings of science, spare no effort do debunk any and all such claims.
- Don’t conflate word definitions to make sentences assert as true something that is clearly untrue. In particular, avoid all-encompassing terms like "universe" and "cosmos" when discussing quantum mechanics and the "Big Bang" since the average person does not understand the implications of the various uses of the word "universe." Among true physicists, even the most ardent atheist believes that the matter and energy that now exists due to the "Big Bang" was in some way "caused" to come into existence by a quantum fluctuation or some other naturalistic process which occurred "before" and "outside of" "the entire celestial cosmos" that came into existence with the occurrence of the "Big Bang."
A mere century ago, Einstein had yet to formulate his Theory of Relativity. That theory would fundamentally alter the way mankind views the cosmos. Both science and religion are still recovering from the upheavals caused by the numerous attempts to verify various portions of Einstein’s theory. Religion is inherently slower to adapt than science itself since religion has no effective way to counter scientific facts. So, once some facts become accepted as true through scientific inquiry, religion will only then begin to adapt its theological message to include those scientific facts.
However, the fundamentalists on both sides of this debate, atheists and theists, use reprehensible tactics in order to preserve some perceived short-term gain(s). In the long run, these sorts of tactics can’t help but be counter-productive since their use only serves to highlight the weaknesses of the arguments favoring that side. Both sides ought to admit that science can never say anything meaningful about God. Neither side will ever prove God to exist, or to not exist, based upon pure scientific facts and logical chains of reasoning. Instead, mankind will always be left with that disquieting feeling that there is something out there we cannot adequately understand (or deal with), and we will seemingly forever desire to call that thing "God."
But the side each person takes in this debate is purely a matter of personal preference, and people do change sides (from theist to atheist, or vice versa) on a regular basis when their personal preferences change for one reason or another. Accordingly, we should not allow this debate to become as divisive as it has been for the past century-and-a-half, since the publication of Darwin’s "Origin of Species." Science ought to be allowed the unfettered right to investigate and accumulate all of the scientific facts it possibly can. Religion ought not to dictate which scientific facts are "acceptable" and which are not.
Ultimately, the vast majority of humanity seeks to know "the real truth." But we cannot know "the real truth" when we obscure logic through the use of objectively false rhetoric. Let us each pledge to avoid such uses in our own communications, and to sponsor the real discussions of truth so necessary to arrive at a true consensus as to what "the real truth" actually is.
 These assertions have become part of the mantra of modern Christian fundamentalism. For a decent summary of the related arguments, please refer to "The Caused Beginning of the Universe: A Response to Quentin Smith" by William Lane Craig. It may be found on the Internet at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/smith.html and in print in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (1993): 623-639. The foregoing essay was written in response to "Atheism, Theism and Big Bang Cosmology" (1991) by Quentin Smith, which should be read first in order to set the stage for the arguments advanced by Craig. The Smith essay may be found on the Internet at /library/modern/quentin_smith/cosmology.html and in print in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy in March 1991 (Volume 69, No. 1, pp. 48-66).
 For a discussion of this point (in roughly the middle of the article cited), please see "Cosmythology" by Victor J. Stenger. This essay may be found on the Internet at http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/cosmyth.txt and in other places. A relevant quote is: "One way to ‘explain’ the anthropic coincidences within the framework of existing knowledge of physics and cosmology is to view our universe as just one of a very large number of mini-universes in an infinite super-universe. [Citation.] … An infinity of random universes is suggested by the modern inflationary model of the early universe. A quantum fluctuation can produce a tiny, empty region of curved space that will exponentially expand, increasing its energy sufficiently in the process to produce energy equivalent to all the mass of the universe in a mere10^-42 second." In particular here, please note the distinction between "our universe" and "an infinite super-universe." The former is postulated as part of the latter.
 See note 2, above.
 The word "supernatural" is defined as "of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil." Science only collects "visible, observable" facts and attempts to postulate theories that explain those facts. Thus, by definition, science cannot say anything at all about the supernatural.
 To the best of my knowledge, as of this writing, no portion of Einstein’s theory has been disproven. Instead, all experiments have either verified some portion of the theory, have produced results that were indeterminate, or have been shown to be fundamentally flawed in some way. At this juncture, enough of the Theory of Relativity has been shown to be true that it is highly unlikely it will ever be displaced as a cornerstone of modern cosmology.
 Technically, this unknown is the "God of the gaps." That term implies that those things we cannot understand will automatically be attributed to the power (or force) that we cannot understand, and we have traditionally called all such powers (or forces) "God." This is, of course, just as true for polytheistic cultures, which tended to invent a unique "god" for each such power (or force).
The text of this essay is Copyright © 1999, by William A. Schultz. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the author.