Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

10/29/2008 (12:42 pm)

I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Does God Exist, Part I

In previous installments, I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here).

Today, I begin explaining the evidence that God exists.

There are three broad lines of thought about what God might be like: theism, pantheism, and atheism. Simply explained, theism says “God made all,” pantheism says “God is all,” and atheism says “There’s no God at all.” Personally, I see no logical difference between the last two: as was argued so eloquently in that excellent theological treatise, The Incredibles, if everybody is special, then nobody is. The position that says “God is everything, and everything is God,” in practice leaves us the same place as the position that there is no God. But when studying philosophy, claims about God generally fall into one of those three categories.

I submit that the universe in which we live provides enough evidence to conclude reasonably that there is a God, that the God that exists is theistic, and that we can therefore eliminate both pantheism and atheism as possibilities. I’m going to provide three lines of argument supporting that claim: the argument from the beginning of the universe (Cosmological argument,) the argument from design (Teleological argument,) and the argument from the existence of objective morality (Moral argument.) The first two arise from modern science, while the third arises from human self-evaluation. Both looking out into our universe, and looking within ourselves, we see evidence of God’s existence and clues to His nature, just as we might expect if there really is a God.

The Argument

Today’s post focuses on the Cosmological argument, which goes like this:

  1. Everything that has a beginning, has a cause.
  2. The universe has a beginning.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Until about 50 years ago, everybody accepted the first premise as indisputable. In fact, science as a discipline is not possible without causality. If a baseball flies through my living room window, I assume that somebody launched it, and so do all physicists; none of us imagine that the ball simply materialized in flight out of nothing, and proceeded to slam into my living room. If a dog is in my house tearing up my carpeting, I assume that somebody let the dog in, and so do all philosophers; none of us think it’s possible that a dog simply appeared out of nowhere and started clawing my carpets. This relationship between cause and effect is what science studies. If an event occurred, something must have caused it, and the scientist digs to find out what that was.

Until about 50 years ago, it was also accepted that there must have been something that existed forever, beyond all causes. The atheist’s version of it went like this:

  1. Everything that has a beginning, has a cause; but…
  2. Anything that has no beginning, requires no cause.
  3. The universe has no beginning.
  4. Therefore, the universe requires no cause.

Theists used the same argument, only substituting God for the universe:

  1. Everything that has a beginning, has a cause; but…
  2. Anything that has no beginning, requires no cause.
  3. God has no beginning.
  4. Therefore, God requires no cause.

In other words, everybody pretty much understood that something has been there forever; we just disagreed about what it was. And everybody pretty much understood that aside from the whatever-it-was that existed forever, everything since has obeyed the law of causality.

So what happened about 50 years ago to change that?

What happened is that scientists obtained convincing evidence that the universe had a beginning, evidence that we’ll cover in a moment.

Immediately, scientists grasped that if the universe had a beginning, that lent very, very strong support to the theists. If the minor premise “The universe has no beginning” was provably false, then the alternate proof had to be true; the thing that had no beginning was God. This was immediately acknowledged by agnostic scientists, some of whom were pretty irritated by the fact.

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream,” wrote Robert Jastrow, first director of the Goddard Space Flight Center. “He has scaled the mountains of ignorance. He is about to conquer the highest peak. As he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Albert Einstein admitted in a personal letter to a friend that he was so irritated by the evidence supporting the notion that the universe had a beginning that he invented a constant out of thin air to make it go away. “It was the worst mistake of my professional career,” he confessed. And more recently, measurements of the variations in background radiation confirming that the universe began in a hot, singular explosion had skeptical astronomer Geoffry Burbidge of UCSD complaining of his fellow astronomers rushing off to join “the First Church of Christ of the Big Bang.”

Atheist Reactions to the Argument

Atheists could not exist in this state for long, of course, so they’ve resorted to all sorts of fascinating speculation: multiple universes, universes creating themselves out of quantum events, universes creating themselves out of mathematical points, and a resort to a child’s innocent question: “Who made God?” I heard Christopher Hitchens, atheist extraordinaire, argue in a debate that this question was a “painfully obvious problem” for theists. The trouble is, it wasn’t painfully obvious 50 years ago; what was painfully obvious 50 years ago was that something had to have begun the chain of causation. The infantile question only became “painfully obvious” when it became painfully obvious that space, time, matter, energy, and even the laws of nature all began at a measurable point in time.

“Who made God?” is a category fallacy. A category fallacy occurs when you assign an attribute to a thing that is not really one of its attributes. “How much does love weigh?” is a category fallacy. “My car doesn’t want to start” is also a category fallacy, assigning intention to a hunk of metal, but it’s a fallacy we like because it’s whimsical; it makes the expensive machine made of metal and plastic parts seem like a crotchety aunt. “Who made God?” is a category fallacy because the definition of God includes “unbeginning” and “timeless;” God, by definition, has no cause.

I suppose I should mention at this point that causality requires time. The entire concept of causality implies a time sequence. First I threw the ball, then it traveled through my living room window. First I struck the cue ball with my cue, then it struck the 9 ball at the wrong angle, then the 9 ball hit the corner of the rail next to the pocket and bounced away (and then I cringed). These are time sequences. Causality breaks down if there’s no time. So, if time is not infinite, if in fact time was created along with the rest of the universe, then whatever existed before the beginning of time does not need a cause.

One of the consequences of Einstein’s general relativity is that time and space, matter and energy, are linked, and that time was created along with the universe. According to Einstein, the universe has a beginning, and time has the same beginning. This is another of Jastrow’s nightmares: that time itself is a created entity was first suggested formally by St. Augustine as a theological concept in the 4th century. Einstein helped us scale one of those peaks of knowledge, and there, at the peak, Augustine was already having lunch. And since there was no time before the beginning of the universe, whatever existed there did not need a cause.

Proof That the Universe Had a Beginning

For those who aren’t so familiar with the science underlying the beginning of the universe, allow me to review it for you, but let me begin by noting that practically no scientist today would dispute that the universe began in an explosion from a single point called a singularity, a point of near-infinite mass and density at which the laws of nature did not apply, and that this explosion occurred between 10 and 20 billion years ago. I’ll be using one of those cutesy acronyms to list some of the major discoveries that led to the conclusion that the universe had a beginning:

  • Second Law of Thermodynamics
  • Universe is expanding
  • Radiation afterglow
  • Galaxy seeds
  • Einstein’s general relativity

SURGE. As in, the universe SURGEd into being.

Newton articulated the second law of thermodynamics back in the 17th century, but it took a while for scientists to catch up with the fact that it proves the universe must have had a beginning. Simply put, the 2nd law says that the universe is running down, like a spring-driven clock. There’s only so much energy in the universe, and that energy is gradually being converted from a useable state to an unusable one. It’s a huge amount of energy, true; so huge it’s hard to imagine. But, it’s finite. And if the universe were infinitely old already, if there were no beginning to the universe, then the universe would have run down by now. There would be no motion. All matter in the universe would be motionless, and sitting at a temperature of absolute zero. So, the 2nd law of thermodynamics leads us to conclude that the universe cannot be infinitely old; it had to have a beginning.

Einstein (the E at the end of SURGE) noticed that his work on general relativity in the early part of the 20th century provided another, similar problem for the theory of an infinite universe; the law of gravity said that if the universe existed in a steady state, then all the bodies in the universe would be collapsing in toward a central point (the universe’s center of gravity), and if the universe were infinitely old, we’d all be at that central point by now. The only alternatives he could imagine were that the universe was expanding, or that there was some sort of constant force that counter-balanced the law of gravity. Einstein recognized that if the universe were expanding, it must have had a beginning, and he didn’t favor that explanation. So he produced what he called the Cosmological Constant, a force that counteracts gravity and keeps the universe from collapsing in on itself. The problem was that the math didn’t work for his Cosmological Constant, but he didn’t catch the error; another researcher caught it, and argued that the universe must be expanding.

Einstein admitted the error when he viewed the work of astronomer Edwin Hubble, who produced evidence that the universe is expanding. Hubble was studying the apparent red-shift in galaxies they could see from the Hooker telescope on Mt. Wilson.

We’ll step away from the story for a moment to explain red-shift. Red-shift is an instance of the Doppler effect in stars, the same effect that makes the sound of a train’s horn sound higher when it’s coming toward you and lower when it’s speeding away. What’s happening is that the sound waves get compressed as the train speeds toward you (making it sound higher to your ears), but they get stretched out as the train moves away from you (making it sound lower.) The same thing happens with light sources that are moving very, very quickly. The spectra of burning elements would get shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum if the object were moving toward us, but toward the red end of the spectrum if the object were moving away from us. Astronomers had noticed that the spectra from galaxies we can see through telescopes were always shifted toward the red end of the spectrum, so they must all be moving away from us.

Back to our story: Hubble studied the differences in those red shifts of galaxies, and noticed that the farther away the galaxy, the greater the red shift. This told him that the universe was expanding (which is the U in SURGE). Think about it: if you were to double the size of the room in which you’re sitting and move everything proportionately, objects near the center of the room would not move as much as objects at the far edges of the room. A coffee table 6 inches from the center of the room would only have to move 3 inches; a lamp in the corner, 10 feet from the center of the room, would have to move 5 feet. Hubble noted that the red-shift in galaxies conformed to this model, and he formulated it into Hubble’s Law in 1929. When he showed Einstein, Einstein agreed that he’d proved that the universe was indeed expanding, and abandoned his Cosmological Constant. (It happens that recently cosmologists have re-introduced the Cosmological Constant to explain why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, but it’s much smaller than Einstein’s original constant, and positive where Einstein’s constant was negative.)

Scientists recognized that an expanding universe might have begun from a single point and possibly from an explosion, and they noted that if that were true, there should be a background echo remaining from the original explosion. Nobody had observed such an echo, though, until Bell Labs built the Horn Antenna in the early 1960s, a microwave receiver that was more sensitive than any receiver had ever been. Scientists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were calibrating the new receiver when they discovered a very low-frequency vibration coming from every direction. At first they thought it was noise from the equipment, but they quickly ruled that out. Then they discovered pigeons nesting in the horn, so they had the pidgeons removed (each of the researchers says the other ordered the pigeons killed) and the equipment cleaned, but the vibration remained. They quickly realized that what they were hearing was the background radiation afterglow from the origin of the universe (the R in SURGE.) In fact, what they were hearing was very close to the frequency that other physicists had predicted would be found, corresponding to a background temperature around 3 degrees Kelvin (that’s just 3 degrees above absolute zero.)

This was taken as stunning confirmation of what was being called the Big Bang theory, but some problems remained. Specifically, critics asked why the universe was “lumpy.” The background radiation was evenly distributed throughout the universe, but matter was not; matter clumped into galaxies, stars, planets, and such. Why?

Theorists eventually answered that there must have been waves in the background radiation, like the waves radiating out from the place where you drop a rock into a pond, and those waves would form the seeds of galaxies. However, there was no way to measure the background radiation that accurately from earth; we had to wait until sensitive enough instruments were launched into space to determine whether such waves existed. The COBE satellite (COsmic Background Explorer) was launched in 1989 to measure data from the early universe. Over the next several years, COBE returned temperature data that conformed very closely to what scientists predicted they would be if the universe had begun in a hot, big bang, and contained variations in the range required for the creation of galaxies. These were the Galaxy Seeds (the “G” in SURGE). COBE’s results have been confirmed by a number of independent findings, so that very few scientists now doubt that the universe began in a singular explosion.

I Don’t Have That Much Faith

Consequently, we now know that the universe as we know it began in an explosion some 14 billion years ago, give or take a few billion. Not only matter and energy, but also time and space sprung into existence at that moment. Nature itself, the common behaviors of matter that we call laws of nature, sprang into existence at that moment. And because it began in an explosion exhibiting immense heat, there’s virtually no possibility that we can know what existed before the singularity, so we’re left drawing inferences from the universe itself.

The universe itself suggests the following:

  • Whatever existed before the Big Bang must have been immaterial, since matter came into existence at the Big Bang.
  • It must have been eternal, since time came into existence then.
  • It must have been immensely powerful, to set off such an explosion.
  • It must have been something like what we call conscious, since it chose to initiate the universe. It was not a machine.
  • It must have been what we would call supernatural, because it created nature.

This leaves modern atheists with a problem. Matter and energy, time and space, and nature sprang from nothing. They didn’t exist, and then they did. The only evidence that exists or ever can exist, suggests that they were initiated by a Something that was immaterial, timeless, immensely powerful, conscious, and supernatural. If you’re an objective observer, that pretty clearly spells “God.” If you’re an atheist, you have only two logical alternatives — that something sprang from nothing, or that it sprang from something for which there exists no evidence, nor can there exist any evidence. Nothing existed; nothing created; nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’ (that’s Billy Preston cosmology). And yet, something happened, and now matter, energy, time, space, and nature exist. If you’re an atheist, your only logical possibility is that it all came from nothing, with no initiator, no feedstock, and no choice. That, or you have to make up something out of the air.

Richard Dawkins, in what he calls the central argument of his book The God Delusion, argues that the appearance of design in the universe is overwhelming, that physics contains no explanation for it, but he has hope — hope — that physicists will one day come up with an explanation for how the universe could spring into being without God. He mentions some speculation, for which no evidence exists nor can exist, that we’re one of an infinite number of universes. In the meantime, he asks, who made God?

That’s a faith statement. He has faith that there’s no God. The blind kind of faith, without any evidence.

Christopher Hitchens, in his 300-page diatribe about how awful God is, spends only a few pages on the topic we’re discussing here. He acknowledges that the Big Bang is the accepted theory for the origin of the universe. He claims that the theory works without God, but never says how. And then he asks, who made God?

Is there a pattern? Obviously, there is.

These guys are expressing faith that something arose, ultimately, out of nothing, without intelligence, purpose, design, choice, or impetus of any sort. They’re entitled to their faith, but I don’t have enough faith to believe that. The universe had a beginning, and the beginner was God.

Astonomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.

Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 1978

Next time, the argument from design.

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December 1, 2008 @ 5:46 pm #

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