Theodore Schick Jr.
Abstract: Some believe that evidence for the big bang is evidence for the existence of god. Who else, they ask, could have caused such a thing? In this paper, I evaluate the big bang argument, compare it with the traditional first-cause argument, and consider the relative plausibility of various natural explanations of the big bang.
The evidence is in. There is now little doubt that our universe was brought into existence by a “big bang” that occurred some 15 billion years ago. The existence of such a creation event explains a number of phenomena including the expansion of the universe, the existence of the cosmic background radiation, and the relative proportions of various sorts of matter. As the theory has been refined, more specific predictions have been derived from it. A number of these predictions have recently been confirmed. Although this is a major scientific achievement, many believe that it has theological implications as well. Specifically, they believe that it provides scientific evidence for the existence of god. Astronomer George Smoot suggested as much when he exclaimed at a press conference reporting the findings of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at the face of god.” Why? Because something must have caused the big bang, and who else but god could have done such a thing? Astronomer Hugh Ross in his book, The Creator and the Cosmos, puts the argument this way: “If the universe arose out of a big bang, it must have had a beginning. If it had a beginning, it must have a beginner.” So beguiling is this argument that astronomer Geoffrey Burbridge has lamented that his fellow scientists are rushing off to join the “First Church of Christ of the Big Bang.” In what follows, I will attempt to determine whether such a conversion is the most rational response to the evidence.
The Traditional First-Cause Argument
The problems with the traditional first-cause or cosmological argument for the existence of god are legion. Before we examine the merits of the big bang argument, it will be helpful to have them before us.
The traditional first-cause argument rests on the assumption that everything has a cause. Since nothing can cause itself, and since the string of causes can’t be infinitely long, there must be a first cause, namely, god. This argument received its classic formulation at the bands of the great Roman Catholic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. He writes:
In the world of sensible things, we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known … in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go to infinity, because . . . the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause…. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate, cause . . . therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name god.
Saint Thomas’s argument is this:
1. Everything is caused by something other than itself
2. Therefore the universe was caused by something other than itself.
3. The string of causes cannot be infinitely long.
4. If the string of causes cannot be infinitely long, there must be a first cause.
5. Therefore, there must be a first cause, namely god.
The most telling criticism of this argument is that it is self-refuting. If everything has a cause other than itself, then god must have a cause other than himself. But if god has a cause other than himself, he cannot be the first cause. So if the first premise is true, the conclusion must be false.
To save the argument, the first premise could be amended to read:
1′. Everything except god has a cause other than itself.
But if we’re willing to admit the existence of uncaused things, why not just admit that the universe is uncaused and cut out the middleman? David Hume wondered the same thing:
But if we stop, and go no farther, why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? … By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be god; and the sooner we arrive at that Divine Being, so much the better. When you go one step beyond the mundane system, you only excite an inquisitive humor, which it is impossible ever to satisfy.
The simplest way to avoid an infinite regress is to stop it before it starts. If we assume that the universe has always existed, we don’t need to identify its cause.
Even if the universe is not eternal (as the big bang suggests), 1′ is still unacceptable because modern physics has shown that some things are uncaused. According to quantum mechanics, subatomic particles like electrons, photons, and positrons come into and go out of existence randomly (but in accord with the Heisenberg uncertainty principles). As Edward Tryon reports:
… quantum electrodynamics reveals that an electron, positron, and photon occasionally emerge spontaneously in a perfect vacuum. When this happens, the three particles exist for a brief time, and then annihilate each other, leaving no trace behind. (Energy conservation is violated, but only for a particle lifetime Dt permitted by the uncertainty DtDE~h where DE is the net energy of the particles and h is Planck’s constant.) The spontaneous, temporary emergence of particles from a vacuum is called a vacuum fluctuation, and is utterly commonplace in quantum field theory.
A particle produced by a vacuum fluctuation has no cause. Since vacuum fluctuations are commonplace, god cannot be the only thing that is uncaused.
Premise 1, in either its original or its amended version, is unacceptable. But even if it could be salvaged, the argument would still not go through because premise 3 is false. An infinitely long causal chain is not a logical impossibility. Most of us have no trouble conceiving of the universe existing infinitely into the future. Similarly we should have no trouble conceiving of it existing infinitely into the past. Aquinas’s view that there must be a first cause rests on the mistaken notion that an infinite series of causes is just a very long finite one.
Consider a single-column stack of children’s blocks resting on a table. Each block rests on the block below it except for the block that rests on the table. If the bottom block were taken away, the whole stack would fall down. In a finite stack of blocks, there must be a first block.
In an infinite causal chain, however, there is no first cause. Aquinas took this to mean that an infinite causal chain is missing something. But it is a mistake to think that anything Is missing from an infinite causal chain. Even though an infinite causal chain has no first cause, there is no event that doesn’t have a cause. Similarly, even though the set of real numbers has no first member, there is no number that doesn’t have a predecessor. Logic doesn’t demand a first cause anymore than it demands a first number.
Finally, even if this argument did succeed in proving the existence of a first cause, it wouldn’t succeed in proving the existence of god because there is no reason to believe that the cause of the universe has any of the properties traditionally associated with god. Aquinas took god to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. But from the existence of the universe, we cannot conclude that its creator had any of these properties.
An all-powerful being should be able to create an infinite number of different universes. But we arc acquainted with only one. Maybe our universe is the only one the creator had the power to create. In the absence of any knowledge of other universes, we are not justified in believing that the creator is all-powerful.
Similarly, an all-knowing being should know everything there is to know about every possible universe. But our universe gives us no reason to think that the creator has this kind of knowledge. Maybe our universe is the only universe he knew how to make. Without further information about the cognitive capacity of the creator, we can’t conclude that the creator is all-knowing.
Finally, a universe created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being should be perfect. But the universe as we know it seems flawed. It certainly doesn’t seem particularly hospitable to humans. Clarence Darrow explains:
Even a human being of very limited capacity could think of countless ways in which the earth could be improved as the home of man, and from the earliest time the race has been using all sorts of efforts and resources to make it more suitable for its abode. Admitting that the earth is a fit place for life, and certainly every place in the universe where life exists is fitted for life, then what sort of life was this planet designed to support? There are some millions of different species of animals on this earth, and one-half of these are insects. In numbers, and perhaps in other ways, man is in a great minority. If the land of the earth was made for life, it seems as if it was intended for insect life, which can exist almost anywhere. If no other available place can be found they can live by the million on man, and inside of him. They generally succeed in destroying his life, and, if they have a chance, wind up by eating his body.
Every place on Earth is subject to natural disasters, and there are many places where humans cannot live. Insects, on the other hand, seem to thrive most everywhere. When the great biologist G. B. S. Haldane was asked what his study of living things revealed about god, he is reported to have said, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” If the Earth was created for us (as many theists, including Ross, believe), it certainly leaves something to be desired.
Not only might the first cause be something less than perfect, it might be something less than human. David Hume provides the following example:
The Brahmins assert, that the world arose from an infinite spider, who spun this whole complicated mass from his bowels, and annihilates afterwards the whole or any part of it, by absorbing it again, and resolving it into his own essence.
This is a coherent account of the creation of the world. It is logically possible that everything in the universe came from the belly of an infinite spider. So even if there was a first cause, it need not have been god.
The Big Bang Argument
The big bang argument for the existence of god is supposed to succeed where the traditional first-cause argument fails. Let’s see if it does. Ross’s version of the argument goes like this:
6. Everything that had a beginning in time has a cause.
7. The universe had a beginning in time.
8. Therefore the universe had a cause.
9. The only thing that could have caused the universe is god.
10. Therefore, god exists.
Unlike the traditional first-cause argument, this argument is not self-refuting because it does not imply that god has a cause. If god had no beginning in time, he need not have a cause. Moreover, this argument doesn’t deny the possibility of an infinite causal chain. It simply denies that the actual chain of causes is infinite. While this represents an improvement over the traditional first-cause argument, the big bang argument runs into difficulties of its own.
Premise 6 conflicts with quantum mechanics because, as we have seen, quantum electrodynamics claims that subatomic particles can come into existence through a vacuum fluctuation. These particles have a beginning in time, but they have no cause because vacuum fluctuations are purely random events. Such particles, then, serve as a counterexample to premise 6.
Premise 7 conflicts with relativity theory because the general theory of relativity claims that there was no time before there was a universe. Time and the universe are coterminous-they came into existence together. This finding of Einstein’s was anticipated by Augustine who proclaimed, “The world and time had both one beginning. The world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time.” If there was no time before there was a universe, the universe can’t have a beginning in time.
Ross tries to avoid this conclusion by claiming that although the universe did not have a beginning in time as we know it, it had a beginning in another time dimension, He writes:
By definition, time is that dimension in which cause-and-effect phenomena take place. No time, no cause and effect. If time’s beginning is concurrent with the beginning of the universe, as the space-time theorem says, then the cause of the universe must be some entity operating in a time dimension completely independent of and preexistent to the time dimension of the cosmos. This conclusion is powerfully important to our understanding of who god is and who or what god isn’t. It tells us that the Creator is transcendent, operating beyond the dimensional limits of the universe.
Ross needs the premise that the universe has a beginning in time to arrive at the conclusion that the universe has a cause. But the general theory of relativity prohibits the universe from a having a beginning in its own time dimension. So he postulates a higher time dimension that is independent of and preexistent to the time dimension of the universe.
As confirming evidence for the existence of this higher time dimension, Ross cites the Bible:
Again, by definition, time is that realm or dimension in which cause-and effect phenomena take place. According to the space-time theorem of general relativity, such effects as matter, energy, length, width, height, and time were caused independent of the time dimension of the universe. According to the New Testament (2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2), such effects as grace and hope were caused independent of the time dimension of the universe. So both the Bible and general relativity speak of at least one additional time dimension for god.
Whether the Bible speaks of an additional time dimension for god, the general theory of relativity does not. It makes no mention of an agent that exists outside of the space-time continuum. God is not written into the general theory of relativity.
Ross’s argument here is a transcendental one, in both the logical and the theological senses of the word. It goes like this:
11. There can be no cause and effect unless there is time.
12. The universe has a cause.
13. Therefore the universe has a beginning in time.
14. The universe cannot have a beginning in its own time dimension.
15. Therefore the universe has a beginning in a time dimension independent of and preexistent to its own time dimension.
This argument arrives at the conclusion that the universe has a beginning in time by assuming that the universe has a cause. But the big bang argument uses the premise that the universe has a beginning in time to arrive at the conclusion that the universe has a cause. So Ross is arguing in a circle. He is assuming that the universe has a cause to prove that the universe has a cause. Because Ross begs the question about whether the universe has a cause, he does not succeed in proving the existence of a higher dimensional time, let alone the existence of a transcendental god.
Even if Ross’s argument were not circular, it would still be equivocal because it uses the words “time” and “cause” in two different senses. Ordinary time is one-dimensional because it flows in only one direction. Ross’s hypothetical time is two-dimensional because it flows in an infinite number of directions, just as the lines on a plane point in an infinite number of directions. Cause, as ordinarily understood, requires a one-dimensional time because a cause must always precede its effects. (An effect cannot precede its cause.) In a two-dimensional time, however, the notion of precession or succession (before or after) makes no sense. So from the fact that the universe has a beginning in a higher time dimension, it doesn’t follow that it has a cause (in the ordinary sense), and that is what must be shown in order for the argument to succeed.
Furthermore, Ross’s appeal to the Bible is unwarranted. Before we can accept the Bible as a source of data, we need some reason for believing it to be true. Traditionally, the truth of the Bible has been justified on the grounds that god wrote it. But this approach is not available to Ross because the existence of god is what he is trying to prove. He cannot assume the existence of God to prove the existence of God. So lie can’t appeal to the Bible for evidential support.
The claim that the universe has a cause is essential to the big bang argument. Premises 6 and 7 do not justify this claim, for neither of them is true. But the failure of these premises to justify that claim does not necessarily mean that it is false.
There are good reasons for believing that the universe does not have a cause, however. Edward Tryon and others have suggested that the universe is the result of a vacuum fluctuation. Ross considers this theory but rejects it on the grounds that a vacuum fluctuation the size of the universe could only exist for 10-103 seconds, “a moment a bit briefer than the age of the universe.” But this follows only if we consider mass-energy to be the only type of energy in the world. Tryon suggests, however, that there is “another form of energy which is important for cosmology, namely gravitational potential energy.” If the total amount of gravitational potential energy in the universe is equivalent to the total amount of mass-energy, then the universe may have a zero net value for all conserved quantities. But if it does, then a vacuum fluctuation the size of the universe could exist for a very long time. Tryon summarizes his reasoning as follows:
If it is true that our Universe has a zero net value for all conserved quantities, then it may simply be a fluctuation of a vacuum, the vacuum of some larger space in which our universe is imbedded. In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.
So not only can subatomic particles be uncaused, so can the universe.
Premise 9 is also suspect because even if the universe has a cause, it need not be god. Like the traditional first-cause argument, the big bang argument tells us nothing about the nature of the creator. Specifically, it doesn’t tell us whether he (she, it?) is all-powerful, all-knowing, or all-good. And the universe itself gives us no reason to believe that the creator has any of those qualities.
Ross’s argument, if successful, would give us reason to believe that the creator is transcendent, at least in the sense that he exists outside of the normal time dimension. On the basis of scripture, Ross makes the further claim that God is a person. But if God is transcendent in Ross’s sense, its hard to see how he can also be a person. Paul Davies explains:
The problem about postulating a god who transcends time is that, though it may bring him into the “here and now,” many of the qualities which most people attribute to god only make sense within the context of time. Surely god can plan, answer prayers, express pleasure or anxiety about the course of human progress, and sit in judgement afterwards? Is he not continually active in the world, doing work “oiling the cogs of the cosmic machine” and so on? All of these activities are meaningless except in a temporal context. How can god plan and act except in time? Why, if god transcends time and so knows the future, is he concerned about human progress or the fight against evil. The outcome is already perceived by god.
Ross’s god exists in a two-dimensional time — like a plane — in which be can travel an infinite number or directions.” Thus Ross’s god knows the future as well as the past. How such a being can plan, act, hope, or even think is a mystery. In the absence of an explanation of how such a being can be a person, Ross’s claim is incoherent.
Not only does the cause of the universe not have to be god, it does not have to be supernatural. It has long been known that if the amount of matter in the universe is great enough, then the universe will someday stop expanding and start contracting. Eventually, all the matter in the universe will be drawn back to a single point in what has come to be known as “the big crunch.” Since matter supposedly cannot be crushed out of existence, the contraction cannot go on indefinitely. At some point the compressed matter may rebound in another big bang. If so, the big bang would have been caused by a prior state of the universe rather than some external agency.
This bounce theory of the universe has fallen on hard times, however. In a paper entitled “The Impossibility of a Bouncing Universe,” Marc Sher and Alan Guth argued that the universe is not mechanically efficient enough to bounce.” In terms of mechanical efficiency, the universe appears to be more like a snowball than a superball. Moreover, recent estimates indicate that there is not enough mass in the universe to stop its expansion. So it is doubtful that the big bang was the result of a prior big crunch.
Although the universe as a whole may never contract, we know that certain parts of it do. When a star has used up its fuel, the force of gravity causes it to contract. If the star is massive enough, this contraction results in a black hole. The matter in a black hole is compressed toward a point of infinite density known as a “singularity.” Before it reaches the singularity, however, some physicists, most notably Lee Smolin, believe that it may start expanding again and give rise to another universe. In a sense, then, according to Smolin, our universe may reproduce itself by budding off. He writes:
A collapsing star forms a black hole, within which it is compressed to a very dense state. The universe began in a similarly very dense state from which it expands. Is it possible that these are one and the same dense state? That is, is it possible that what is beyond the horizon of a black hole is the beginning of another universe?
This could happen if the collapsing star exploded once it reached a very dense state, but after the black hole horizon had formed around it….
What we are doing is applying this bounce hypothesis, not to the universe as a whole, but to every black hole in it. If this is true, then we live not in a single universe, which is eternally passing through the same recurring cycle of collapse and rebirth. We live instead in a continually growing community of “universes,” each of which is born from an explosion following the collapse of a star to a black hole.
Smolin’s vision is an appealing one. It suggests that the universe is more like a living thing than an artifact and thus that its coming into being doesn’t require an external agent.
Smolin’s theory has the advantage of simplicity over Ross’s. Because it does not postulate the existence of any supernatural entities, it has less ontological baggage than Ross’s. It also has the advantage of conservatism over Ross’s theory. Because it doesn’t contradict any laws of science, such as the conservation laws (which must be rejected by anyone who believes in creation ex nihilo), it fits better with existing theory. Other things being equal, the simpler and more conservative a theory, the better. The fewer independent assumptions made by a theory and the less damage it does to existing theory, the more it systematizes and unifies our knowledge. And the more it systematizes and unifies our knowledge, the more understanding it produces. Since Smolin’s theory is simpler and more conservative than Ross’s, it is the better theory.
Smolin’s theory is also potentially more fruitful than Ross’s because it is possible to draw testable predictions from it. But what if these predictions are not born out? Does that mean that we must embrace the god hypothesis? No, because our inability to explain a phenomenon may simply be due to our ignorance of the operative laws. Augustine concurs. “A miracle,” he tells us, “is not contrary to nature but contrary to our knowledge of nature.
We would be justified in believing that an inexplicable event is the work of god only if we were justified in believing that a natural explanation of it would never be found. But we can never be justified in believing that, because we can’t predict what the future will bring. We can’t rule out the possibility that a natural explanation will be found, no matter how incredible the event. When faced with an inexplicable event, it is always more rational to look for a natural cause than to attribute it to something supernatural. Appealing to the supernatural does not increase our understanding. It simply masks the fact that we do not yet understand.
What’s more, any supposed miracle could be the result of a superadvanced technology rather than a supernatural being. Arthur C. Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So the seemingly inexplicable events that many attribute to god could simply be the work of advanced aliens. Erik von Däniken argues as much in his book Chariots of the Gods, where he claims that the wheel that Ezekiel saw in the sky was really a UFO. Explanations that appeal to advanced aliens are actually superior to explanations that appeal to supernatural beings because they are simpler and more conservative — they do not postulate any nonphysical substances and they do not presuppose the falsity of any natural laws. If astronomers feel the need to join a church, they would do better to join the First Church of Space Aliens than the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang.
* Theodore Schick is Professor of Philosophy at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This article was originally published in Philo, the Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers, and has been electronically republished here with the written permission of the Society of Humanist Philosophers.
 Stephen Strauss, “An Innocent’s Guide to the Big Bang Theory: Fingerprint in Space Left by the Universe as a Baby Still Has Doubters Hurling Stones,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 25, 1992, p. 1.