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Like Nothing You’ve Seen Before: Big Bang Errors and God Errors

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Universe 1

NOTE: Today we share a guest post on cosmology from one of our top non-theistic commenters, Paul Rimmer. Tomorrow, we'll post a response from Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Research Director at Oxford University's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion.


First things First

Many articles about God and cosmology begin with ignorance, and this article will be no different. I'm not a cosmologist. My research involves much of the same mathematical formalism cosmologists use, and I have spent five years interacting with some of the worlds leading cosmologists, but I myself do not research cosmology. The purpose of this article is not to examine small technicalities or still controversial results in modern observational or theoretical cosmology, but rather to discuss a large misconception that many theists and non-theists have about the Big Bang.

The misunderstanding centers around Stephen Hawking's bold claim, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” If you think this sounds like Hawking is talking nonsense here, I encourage you to read further. I think what Hawking's saying not only makes sense, it could be correct!

This misunderstanding isn't just my opinion. It's a real and serious conceptual error about Big Bang cosmology and it has wide-reaching implications for the cosmological argument. But don't take my word for it. Don't take anyone's word for it. The Big Bang theory is part of science, and science has no authorities. My goals for this article are unambitious. I hope that by the end of this article, you will be encouraged to learn more about Big Bang cosmology before using it in theological arguments. More importantly, I hope this article gets you interested in learning about cosmology for its own sake.

Touching God's Robe

The error I'll reveal is not new. In fact, it was first identified by the scientist who came up with the Big Bang theory, the Catholic priest Fr. Georges Lemaitre. The more elegant name for his theory, “Theory of the Primordial Atom”, was inspired by his 1931 paper in Nature, which is in some sense the first paper on quantum cosmology. In this paper he gives an elegant description of the cosmological origin of the universe:

“The beginning of the world [may have] happened a little before the beginning of space and time. I think that such a beginning of the world is far enough from the present order of Nature to be not at all repugnant. It may be difficult to follow up the idea in detail as we are not yet able to count the quantum packets in every case. For example, it may be that an atomic nucleus must be counted as a unique quantum, the atomic number acting as a kind of quantum number. If the future development of quantum theory happens to turn in that direction, we could conceive the beginning of the universe in the form of a unique atom, the atomic weight of which is the total mass of the universe.” (Lemaitre, 1931, Nature, 127, 706)

In this paper, Lemaitre also says that space and time themselves are, in the quantum regime, “no more than statistical notions” and “if the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning”, foreshadowing some of the emergent theories in Big Bang cosmology that drive some theists crazy: what Krauss and Hawking refer to as the origin of the universe from “absolutely nothing”.

Sadly, the poetic name “Theory of the Primordial Atom” didn't survive. Thanks to Fred Hoyle, it got the name “Big Bang”. It was a term Hoyle made up during a BBC radio show in order to make fun of Lamaitre's theory, which he found repugnant. The name stuck around and the theory definitely stuck around, in large part because it predicts an afterglow from the first explosion. This afterglow was observed at the predicted frequency, confirming the Big Bang theory.

The Misunderstanding and the Warning

After the Big Bang theory started getting traction, Pope Pius XII referred to Lemaitre's result as a “scientific validation of the Catholic Faith”. You might think that Lemaitre, as a Catholic priest, would be pleased with this interpretation. On the contrary, Lemaitre wrote a gentle letter to the Pope, correcting him on his cosmology. Part of the letter reads:

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being...For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God...It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”(Selection of Lemaitre's letter to the Pope, as taken from Cosmic Horizons: Astronomy at the Cutting Edge, ed. Soter and deGrasse Tyson, 2002)

Why isn't the Big Bang “smoking gun” evidence for God? Because it is not the kind of beginning that theologians need. It's the limit of observability. It is the beginning of our current physics. But nothing about the Big Bang necessitates the sort of beginning that begs for a divine cause. That's why Lamaitre talks about the hidden God. If God did set off the Big Bang, evidence of his first creative act is forever shrouded from our instruments and theories.

New Theories and New Theologies

So where does this leave the cosmological argument?

If your pet argument for God's existence is the Kalam cosmological argument, I'm sorry to inform you that modern cosmology has rendered it pretty-much useless. If I'm able to write a future article for Strange Notions, I'll write about the Hartle-Hawking model, which gives the universe a definite beginning, but requires no outside efficient cause. Ignore the details for now, though. The implications can be clearly seen already from Lemaitre's Nature paper. If space and time themselves are just emergent properties from nature, nature itself can act as a cause outside space and time.

Now, here's some advice for the apologists and evangelists here who want to engage the scientific community: I think it in your best interest to avoid using the Kalam argument. Stick with arguments that don't rely on scientific misunderstandings. The Leibniz's cosmological argument is a good example.

Let me close this article with two thoughts. First, a Catholic priest came up with these revolutionary scientific theories, and did not find his faith challenged. This is strong evidence that the conflict between science and religion can be resolved, and that good scientists can be people of faith. Second, if you disagree with my conclusions here, remember that you are also disagreeing with a Catholic priest. This shows that not even Catholics need to be on the same side of this issue. The Catholic Church can be a place for considerable freedom of thought.
(Image credit: HD Wallpapers IA)

Paul Rimmer

Written by

Paul Rimmer is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. He investigates chemical tracers of lightning on exoplanets and what that chemistry might reveal about the origin of life on Earth. He received his BS in Physics from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and his PhD in Physics from The Ohio State University. He is interested in the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics on the existence and nature of God, and on improving the tone and quality of that dialogue on both sides. Paul is an ex-Catholic.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • I could not agree more heartily with the last two paragraphs of your essay. Philosophy depends on common personal experience, not on the instrumental measurements and mathematical relationships of science. In an essay at Catholicstand.com I have argued that the Kalam cosmological argument fails philosophically.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Here's the direct link to Bob Drury's essay:


    • Moussa Taouk

      Hi Bob. I just read half of your article (linked to by Kevin), and then I hit a place half way down where I could do with some clarification. You say in your article, "No one claims that the universe is now an entity in itself. No human has even sense knowledge of the universe as a thing. The universe, as the set of material things, is an abstract concept, not an entity of human experience and knowledge."

      Now that might be obvious to philosophers. I'm not sure. But to a poor lay man like myself, I don't get how the universe is not an entity. I don't get how it's "an abstract concept". If the universe is (let's say) the sum of all matter and energy, how is that abstract? I would have thought that's an entity. Like we might say the word "the earth" and by that we mean the total sum of magma, soil, air, mountains, rain, maybe even life forms.


      • That which I like most about philosophy is that it is based on personal experience. No one is at a disadvantage in philosophy due to limited experience. Let me rephrase the sentences you quote. “No one claims that the universe is now a single substance, as one might claim to be the case at the Big Bang. No human has sense knowledge of the universe as a whole. The universe, as the set of material things, is, as a set, a logical mathematical concept. The universe as a whole is not an object of human experience and knowledge as one knows the family dog, an entity in itself, or the set of coins in my hand, which is a set of artificial objects.” My original phrasing hopefully emphasized an entity as possessing existence as an individual and our personal experiential knowledge of individual beings.

        • Nicholas Hesed

          You have some good stuff Bob. Here is a good quote everyone should read:

          Bob: In ancient Greece, the context of the dilemma of reconciling the continuous with the discrete was the context of motion or change. Motion and change are continuous, but location and the object of change are discrete. Heraclitus claimed that change is reality, thereby relegating discrete things in place, as the objects of change, to the set of logical constructs. On the other hand, Zeno proved by discrete analysis that motion was impossible and therefore that motion was merely an illusion. Although we may dismiss these ancient Greeks as amateurs, we cannot deny that modern physicists, like the ancient Greeks, have not solved the dilemma. In ancient Greece and in modern physics the apparent dilemma of reconciling the continuous and the discrete was and is thought to be a problem within material reality. However, the problem is purely logical. It is not a problem of being. It is based on the logical distinction between two different conceptual perspectives.

          Me: The problem has nothing to do with material reality or logic. The dilemma is resolved by a perfect conception of light and gravity via the brain. You know in order for light and gravity to work we need that mediator which Newton was afraid to posit. Einstein's disciples think its spacetime but they are full of it. No one for hundreds of years has been able to solve the problem. At this point it doesn't even matter. The sci world is lusting after profit whether financial or social. Modern Physics has lost its contact with physical reality. They are moving concepts and making a killing doing it. It will be a sore wake up call for them when everything goes down.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Consider the Moonbob, which is the mereological sum of the Moon and Bob Drury. Would you consider the Moonbob to be a thing, and thus in need of an origin-story? Or would you consider the Moon and Bob to be two things in need of two origin-stories?

        The universe is like the Moonbob, only with more elements. Just as no one has experience with a thing called the Moonbob, no one has experience with a thing called the Universe.

        + + +
        BTW: if Hawking claimed “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing" then he claimed nonsense. He did not start with nothing. He started with a "law" like gravity. That is not nothing. It is a law, a ratio, a logos.

        • David Nickol

          Is the concept "next to" something? Are the rules of chess something? Were they something before the game of chess was invented? Is Godwin's Law something? Is Bernstein's Second Law something? (Theodore M. Bernstein is the author of The Careful Writer, and his second law is, "A dropped object always rolls to the most inaccessible spot.") Before any organism with vision evolved on earth, were colors something? Are colors something now?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Your objections to Hawking are well-taken. Can there be a law of gravity if there is no ponderable matter(and hence no universe? However if the law of gravity is not something, then it is nothing; and nothing can't do diddly-squat.

            That's why Hawking's foray into philosophy is so funny. When he said the law of gravity could cause a universe to create itself, he may as well have said that in the beginning was the word.

          • David Nickol

            Your objections to Hawking are well-taken.

            Those weren't rhetorical questions. Is the law of gravity real? It might be difficult to deny gravity itself is real, but gravity is not the law of gravity. Are the rules of chess real? Is the law of gravity "more real" than the rules of chess, since there was a time when there was no such game as chess and hence no rules of chess? And of course if all humans die, there will be no such thing as chess. Also, in what sense are colors real, since the perception of, say, red is ultimately dependent on the human eye and brain and not on the frequency of the light being perceived?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Actually, as I understand it, everything moves in a straight line, but space-time is bent by the presence of mass and this causes the illusion that a body is being "pulled" by the sun (or other nearby large body. From this pov indeed gravity is not real. Only the moving bodies are real.
            The law of gravity is real since the bodies will move in accordance with the laws regardless whether any human being has formulated them. The law of gravity did not suddenly spring into existence when Newton decided to write it down mathematically.
            Chess is an artifact, and thus does not exist without the artificer.
            Colors exist regardless whether one perceives them or not. If everyone were struck blind, the apple would remain red.
            It does not matter if someone else perceives the color differently. This applies only to the qualia, or experience of red, not to the red itself. But be careful. Physically, there is no red without a red thing.

            But much depends on what one means by "real."

  • Kevin Aldrich

    Thanks for this brilliant, OP!

    I still think the statement “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” is nonsense, because gravity is not nothing.

    Although I am neither a philosopher or scientist, I'll go out on a limb and assert that no argument for God can possibly be found in science itself. However, truths discovered in science can be used as evidence in philosophical arguments for (or even against) God.

    Thanks again, Paul.

    • But no one has said gravity is nothing or that gravity created the universe.

      • Kevin Aldrich

        That's what Hawking said!

        • Not quite. He said that because there is a law like gravity, the universe can create itself out of nothing, not that gravity created the universe. In Hawking's theories, the universe causes the universe.

          • David Nickol

            He said that because there is a law like gravity . . .

            Something I have not seen a good discussion on is exactly how we ought to think of "the laws of nature." Do they exist in some way other than our formulations of them? Does matter "obey" the law of gravity? Did the law of gravity have to preexist the big bang so that matter would "know what to do" when it came into existence? Or is the law of gravity simply a human description of what matter does rather than what is "obliged" to do because it must "obey" the law of gravity?

            It seems to me the "theistic" position often more or less assumes that something like the law of gravity was invented prior to matter, and when matter came on the scene, it found itself compelled to obey the law of gravity. And of course, if there is a law of gravity, there must be a "lawgiver," since laws don't write themselves.

            Ultimately, I guess the question is whether there is such a thing as the law of gravity, or whether the laws of physics or the laws of nature actually exist, or whether they are human concepts.

            So I am unsure if Kevin is correct to say that "gravity is not nothing," since I believe he meant not gravity itself, but the law of gravity. But taking it a little further, I wonder what it means (if anything) to say that gravity is "something."

          • The way I think about it is that the "law of gravity" is a concept, it exists, but in our thoughts only. The concept does not map onto anything existing specifically. It is generated in our minds through identifying a pattern in the cosmos. it is generated by an aggregate of observations. Just like we may identify a family. The "family" e.g. the "Adams Family" (no pun intended) is a concept we have that makes sense of the physical individuals as well as their actions and interactions. The concept exists, the individuals exist and their actions exists. These all generate the concept of the Adams Family, but take away the individuals no such entity exists even if we retain the concept.

          • Have you read the Grand Design, by Hawking and Mlodinow? At the beginning of the book, they give their answer about what laws are. Natural laws are not like human laws. Planets won't be punished if they disobey the law of gravity, for example. Rather, laws are a human description of the way things go. And the laws we have are not a unique set. Any set of laws that describes the behavior of physical objects is valid. Predictive laws are more useful, because they are more likely to be good descriptions tomorrow as well as today, and will need less adjusting along the way. Simple laws are better than complicated laws because they are easier to remember and work with.

            I'm not convinced about this. I wonder, how do all the electrons know what to do? How does one electron know how to follow the same rules as all the others? The way physical laws play out in the real world, the connection between our ideas and matter, is a very deep philosophical problem. I don't know what the solution to this problem is, and I'm not even convinced people are asking the right questions.

            Maybe @loreenlee:disqus will have more to say on this? She raised a similar point.

          • David Nickol

            Have you read the Grand Design, by Hawking and Mlodinow?

            I just retrieved it from the bottom of a stack of books about five feet high. I will give it a look.

            I thought your post convincingly made the points you set out to make. It will be interesting to see Fr. Pinsent's response, although exactly why an "official" response is needed I am not sure. Good job!

          • Thanks for the kind words. Please let me know what you think about the Grand Design (the book).

            I'm not sure it should be seen as an "official" response. It's just a dialogue between two perspectives (Catholic and non-Catholic).

          • Loreen Lee

            Gee Paul. Thanks. Came back to recheck on what I hinted about universals, just in case I went 'overboard'.
            But, although I didn't understand all the detail, whether the details of God or the devil, I have been thinking about the relationship between essence and existence. .I raised this with a philosopher Ph.D er a little while ago and he concurred that there 'has to be' a close if not always identical relationship between thought/idea and existence/matter. He seemed to suggest that not only did he believe that they implied one another, but that there was a 'necessary co-existence'. If I have an idea, that idea entails 'some kind' of being/Being. It wouldn't take much of a leap for me at least to jump to thinking of your 'original atom' as a kind of Platonic universal. Particularly if it's being/Being predates our facility to perceive/intuit (as per Kant) time and space.
            So with Kant his phenomenal world as the limit of our language does not exclude the possibility that his noumenal world is not but a restatement of Plato. Just thinking this over and found I think that Berkeley for instance is as much of an 'idealist' as Descartes. As is even Quine, (just reading him) with what I think is a presentation of a paradigm based on sense 'data' only. No we're not naive Aristotelean idealists any more. We can posit 'original atoms', that 'in themselves' pre-exist the parameters of space and time. We 'believe' in eternal Platonic ideas, whether these scientific ideas are materialist constructs or the essence of mind.
            I have, on laws, discovered that Kant basis of his categorical imperative on universality and necessity, for instance, is comparable to the Catholic criteria of natural law. Those are pretty big ideas/concepts. (Platonic universals?????) Did they pre-exist space and time. Or to rephrase the question, have space and time, (Kant's understanding) always existed. Did our ancestors of the Precambrian era, for instance, have perceptions of space and time? Could these abilities develop with the development of our sensory apparatus. Do those butterflies that fly south each winter do so with a perception of space and time? Or are they like -who is it - Sellars bat? Are the geese that fly overhead in tune with nature to such an extent that they are, within our perspective 'within space and time' and not capable of discerning/perceiving same. Indeed, from my 'mystical' experience, am I justified in thinking that because I am somehow 'outside' of space and time, and thus can intuit it, that it is that fact that makes me capable of freedom/necessity and immortality. The first two of Kant's 'ideas'. I repeat. Do ideas as essence exist?
            Do laws 'exist'?
            Your turn.....

          • Medequcb68

            Thank you Paul, this is a very good OP. Am also wondering how electrons know what to do...The term Big Bang suggests of so much randomness like an explosion yet why is it that there is order or law in the universe?

          • Andrej Tokarčík

            Hello, Paul, thanks for the very fine article!

            I wonder, how do all the electrons know what to do?

            An apparently increasingly popular solution lies in reviving the notion of final causality as immanent to the natural order. Electrons do what they do because they are intrinsically directed towards that kind of operation; not because some laws extrinsic to them make them do so. Also, without final causality we are left with high correlations at best, not causal relationships.

            Modern science does in fact appear to be better interpreted in neo-Aristotelian terms rather than in terms derived from modern post-Cartesian and post-Humean philosophy, which introduced the view of matter as something inherently passive, "obeying laws".

          • Thank you for the kind words.

            I don't know if the introduction of the final cause will help much with this admittedly metaphysical question (or presently metaphysical; maybe someday science will overtake philosophy here as well). If the electron is somehow lead to bend clockwise in a downward pointing magnetic field by a final cause, why that telos and not the telos for going the other way?

          • Andrej Tokarčík

            I think that final causality would still be a proper solution to Your previous question even if Your current question of "why that particular telos?" wasn't directly answered as part of that solution. (Just like it is reasonable to accept dark matter as an explanation of gravitational effects on visible matter even in spite of the fact that dark matter is not yet fully accounted for.) The idea of intrinsic final causes is only to explain why things tend to cause effects they already do, not how things have come to cause effects they do.

            By the way, as I understand it, it is not feasible to expect that "science would overtake philosophy" in the domain of discussing the nature of physical laws because such a discussion would lead to stepping out of the limits of the scientific method in its current form (i.e., put simply that its explanations must be testable/falsifiable by experiment). What could happen at most is a re-definition of science/matter/nature so that science would become encompassing nowadays exclusively philosophical/metaphysical endeavours. Which actually hints at the problem that Noam Chomsky has regarding the ambiguity of the mind-body problem:

            "There is no longer any definite conception of body. Rather, the
            material world is whatever we discover it to be, with whatever
            properties it must be assumed to have for the purposes of explanatory
            theory. Any intelligible theory that offers genuine explanations and
            that can be assimilated to the core notions of physics becomes part of
            the theory of the material world, part of our account of body. If we
            have such a theory in some domain, we seek to assimilate it to the core
            notions of physics, perhaps modifying these notions as we carry out this

            Similarly, science may get re-defined according to whatever we discover the material world to be. Hence, it is not that straightforward to claim that science overtook philosophy in any domain, since it's easy for science to overtake anything as long as there are no determinate commitments to what science is about and what is beyond its reach. (Now, I'm not criticising that science is not simply demarcable, I'm just saying that the superiority of science as demonstrated by its "overtaking successes" should be proclaimed within the context of the points raised above.)


          • Whether it technically answers my question or not, simply introducing fourth causes doesn't get me what I really want to know (although maybe it gets me closer). How do electrons know to turn right? Whether they are passively following laws or whether they are seeking after their ultimate goal, it doesn't really satisfy my curiosity. I wonder why is that their ultimate goal and how do they know it? Does that have to be their goal or could it have been different?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Think of the telos as the attractor basin.

          • I ask why balls roll into basins, and I'm told "becuase of their telos". I ask how to think about the telos and I'm told "think of it as a basin".

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            That's because you are thinking of final causes as if they were just another bunch of efficient causes. "Because of their telos" is not an explanation why balls roll into basins. They roll in because of gravity and because they naturally act to minimize their gravitational potential. The basin just is the telos of the ball. There cannot be efficient causes without final causes. (Which is why telos was called "the cause of causes.") That is, A could not cause B "always or for the most part" unless there were something in A that "points toward" B, rather than to C or D or no effect at all. It is this "towardness" that indicates final causation. On the broad scale, it is simply the existence of natural laws per se. To put it another way, Late Modern scientists simply take the existence of natural laws for granted.

            It was because he denied finality in nature that Hume was forced to give up causation and claim that science only could learn correlations. This would have damaged the scientific program beyond repair if working scientists had ever taken Hume more seriously than from the teeth on out.

          • Sure, final causes can be different from efficient causes, but why those final causes and not others? Why is it the final cause of a ball to roll into a basin? Why do things travel tend to go in straight lines? I still don't see how "it just is the telos" is at all satisfying. At least, that kind of answer doesn't satisfy me.

            I'm not denying finality in nature. Maybe it's there. Who knows? Maybe it needs to be there in order for things to move. But I don't see how that answers the question, or even helps much to answer the question, about why electrons turn right.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I still don't see how "it just is the telos" is at all satisfying.

            I would hope not! First of all, no Aristotelian would say "it's just the telos." They would say what the telos is. And it is only part of a total understanding of the thing. There are also the material cause, the formal cause, and the efficient cause.

            In the Modern revolution, science was subordinated to business and industry and refashioned toward the production of useful and profitable products. (See, e.g., F. Bacon, The Masculine Birth of Time, or The Great Instauration But also Descartes and others.) Hence, the emphasis shifted from the totality of all four "becauses" to metric and controllable efficient causes only.
            Further information here:
            and here:

          • Do they say why the telos is what it is?

            If it's because it's what God decided, then I want to think God's thoughts after him. I want to know why He decided to do it that way and not another way. That's the interesting question.

            Thank you for the links. I'm pretty ignorant (somewhat purposefully) about the history of science.

          • Steve Pålsson

            Joining the definition with the thesis we get "Because there is a human definition of the way things go, gravity-wise, the universe creates itself." How does the human definition cause the universe to create Itself? I think he must have intended a word other than "because," but I can't think what that word would be.

            Could the Universe have "caused Itself" had It done so without causing things to go the way they do, gravity-wise? and if so, what constrains It in that way?

          • It's whatever it is that we are trying to describe with the phrase "like gravity" that made it possible for the universe to start itself. The ontological commitment isn't to the human definition, but to that which the human definition points toward.

            I describe gravity as having a phi = -m/r attractive potential for a point-like massive object. But what if it is actually m/r^{1 + epsilon}? What if the force of gravity isn't inverse-square, but something slightly different? Does that mean I was referring to the wrong law all along? I don't think so. Even if my description has errors, the behavior I'm pointing to is something real.

            What Hawking is pointing toward is even more vague. It's not gravity. It's something that looks like gravity in the right lighting.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            How is this not a nonsense statement?

            The only sense I can see in it is that Hawking is saying something has always existed in some form even without time and space and that different conditions come and go.

          • I think it's more that Hawking doesn't think there needs to be an efficient cause for space-time. Neither do I. Space-time can be its own efficient cause. It can start itself. And for any time you name, any region of space-time you point out, a law like gravity will be active.

            Hawking thinks that, before inflation, time acted just like space. Asking what came before this is like asking where East ends. Asking for the efficient cause of this state is like asking what holds the Earth up. Nothing needs to.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Do you mean you believe that the already existing reality in which space-time arises has no effect on space-time arising?

          • When time's acting like space, there's no temporally prior existing reality, because there's no temporally prior. There's no moment before the first moment, and in fact, in this state, there's no way to take two times and say for sure which comes before the other.

            With that in mind, what do you mean by "already existing reality"?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            By already existing reality, I mean the ground from which space-time could begin, the "thing" from which the primordial atom popped.

          • Why must the primordial atom have popped from an already existing reality? How can their be an already existing reality when there's no "already"?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Let's go back to the beginning. How can something come from nothing?

            "Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."

            What is the connection between a law like gravity and the universe creating itself?

          • David Nickol

            It seems to me there is something "godlike" about the quantum void or whatever our universe (may have) sprung from, in that it is outside of time. The God of philosophy is claimed to be outside of time, and that allows theists to avoid answering all kinds of inconvenient questions. As science discovers more about the nature of time, it seems to me that while it looks like time in our universe may have had a beginning, it may well have sprung from something outside of time that did not have a beginning in much the same sense that theists say God did not have a beginning. Of the God of philosophy, it does not even make sense to say he "always was and always will be," because "was" and "will" do not apply to a being outside of time.

            So just as it does not make sense to a theist to ask what God did before he created the universe, it does not make sense to ask where or what was happening with the quantum void (or whatever) before the universe came into existence. To ask what happened before time started is to assume time started in time.

            Let's go back to the beginning. How can something come from nothing?

            As I understand it (which may be poorly or not at all!) it is not necessary to talk of something coming from nothing. The quantum void can be something, but from the viewpoint of the quantum void (being outside of time) the universe can come from it, but it does not make sense to ask what was happening in the quantum void before our universe came into existence any more than it makes sense to a theist to ask what God was doing before he created the universe. There was no before and after for God, and there is no before and after for the quantum void. So the quantum void didn't exist before our universe because for the quantum void, before and after have no meaning.

            It seems easier to me to imagine a quantum void existing outside of time than to imagine an intelligent being existing outside of time, because we can observe that at some level, things can run backwards as easily as forwards. We can get a glimpse of reality without an arrow of time. But it is very difficult to imagine an intelligent being outside of time, since that puts limitations (of a sort) on what such a being can do. He can't enjoy a movie, listen to music, solve a riddle, or have occasion to cry, "Eureka!" He can't forgive (or so it seems to me) because forgiving requires a before and after. It is so hard to deal with the concept of an intelligent being outside of time that outside of theology, the concept is ignored. But I see no significant problems with a quantum void being outside of time.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            If the quantum void is as you say it is, then my questions is what evidence do you have that such a thing exists? Aren't you positing a quantum-void-in-the-gaps?

          • David Nickol

            I am not a physicist, but I would say the phenomenon of virtual particles popping in and out existence in the quantum vacuum is well established experimentally. Here is a bit from a Scientific American article:

            Quantum physics explains that there are limits to how precisely one can know the properties of the most basic units of matter—for instance, one can never absolutely know a particle's position and momentum at the same time. One bizarre consequence of this uncertainty is that a vacuum is never completely empty, but instead buzzes with so-called “virtual particles” that constantly wink into and out of existence.

            These virtual particles often appear in pairs that near-instantaneously cancel themselves out. Still, before they vanish, they can have very real effects on their surroundings. For instance, photons—packets of light—can pop in and out of a vacuum. When two mirrors are placed facing each other in a vacuum, more virtual photons can exist around the outside of the mirrors than between them, generating a seemingly mysterious force that pushes the mirrors together. . . .

            This all follows quite naturally from quantum theory, and it was not pulled out of a hat in a desperate attempt to escape the consequences of the Kalām Cosmological Argument. Nor was the idea of the multiverse invented by atheists to find a godless way to explain the alleged fine tuning of our universe.

            The idea that contemporary scientists are skewing their results to hide the existence of God from the general public is really not credible.

          • Jakeithus

            If I may pick up where Kevin left off, and maybe I misunderstand him, I don't think his post is calling into question the existence of the quantum void, but is questioning whether there is any proof that such a thing could exist outside of observable space/time, or whether it can realistically account for the existence of space/time.

            It's not about skewing results to hide existence of God, it's more like just making assumptions that may not have any basis in reality, but is a preferable assumption to make if one wishes to not believe in a diety.

          • David Nickol

            It's not about skewing results to hide existence of God, it's more like just making assumptions that may not have any basis in reality, but is a preferable assumption to make if one wishes to not believe in a diety.

            It is the legitimate role of science to explain as much of the natural world as it possibly can. Whether atheist scientists don't want the big bang to be the moment of God's creation is, in my view, irrelevant. What every scientist, atheist as well as devout religious believer, should want is to explain the big bang in scientific terms if at all possible. If atheist scientists say to themselves, "We'd better come up with a scientific explanation of the big bang, otherwise theists will try to use it to argue that there is a God," and as a consequence work with all their might to find a scientific explanation for the big bang, their motives may be questionable, but they are doing what scientists are supposed to do—explain as much as they possibly can.

            The question is this: Do you believe science (and cosmology in particular) is being taken down a wrong path by atheists who refuse to see some evident truth? Or do you believe that the scientific process is reliable enough so that it can't be hijacked by atheists trying to suppress evidence for God? I believe the latter, not the former. I don't believe that scientists like Steven Hawking made it to the pinnacle of their profession by letting their scientific assumptions be dictated by religious beliefs or lack of them. But even if some of them did, there is no cabal of atheist cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers who control science and award prestige and success to atheists and try to make sure that theists fail.

            Scientific ideas (in the physical sciences, at least) succeed or fail, especially in the long run, on their scientific merits, not on how they affect arguments for or against an Uncaused Cause.

            I am not a physicist, but it seems quite clear to me that there is nothing in contemporary science that supports the idea that the big bang was creation ex nihilo. Furthermore, as I have argued previously, it doesn't seem to me that the creation account in Genesis describes creation from nothing. Of course, Genesis is not a science text, but Christians believe it is the word of God, and where does the idea of creation ex nihilo come from? It seems to me more philosophy than religion.

          • Jakeithus

            "I am not a physicist, but it seems quite clear to me that there is
            nothing in contemporary science that supports the idea that the big bang
            was creation ex nihilo." - Is there anything in contemporary science that supports the idea that it was not? That was the point I was raising in my first paragraph, whether there are good scientific reasons to believe in a timeless quantum void that could cause space/time itself to come into existence. (As an aside, ex nihilo is only one possible interpretation of looking at Genesis 1. Looking at other "creation" passages in the Bible provide further insight into God's relationship with creation, and better makes the case for ex nihilo being the biblical view).

            I don't think there is some atheistic, scientific conspiracy to suppress evidence for God. What I do think is that scientists often try to act like philosophers, Hawking and Lawrence Krauss are examples of this, when it can really be outside of their knowledge of science.

            Even to speak of a scientific explanation of the big bang is somewhat questionable. If science can only deal with events that occur within the universe, to speak to a scientific cause of the universe doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense to me.

            I guess I'm stuck on why it's more "scientifically" valid to say something like the universe caused itself (other than that scientists are making a metaphysical/philosophical assumption).

          • Kevin Aldrich

            "The phenomenon of virtual particles popping in and out existence in the quantum vacuum" is not an example of "the universe creat[ing] itself from nothing." The quantum vacuum is not nothing.

          • David Nickol

            The quantum vacuum is not nothing.

            I thought we had established quite some time ago that the "philosopher's nothing" and the "physicist's nothing" are two different conceptions of nothing. I think it would be misleading if physicists tried to say that the physicist's "from nothing" is the philosopher's "ex nihilo."

            However, I think there is also a problem with an argument that virtual particles are created from the quantum vacuum or a universe that comes into existence as a fluctuation in the quantum void come from "something." They are certainly not made out of a vacuum or a void. You can't take a chunk of quantum void and fashion it into a universe. Virtual particles are not made up of bits of quantum vacuum.

            And then there is the problem of time. As Paul Rimmer has pointed out, if a universe comes into existence, and time is a property of that universe, questions about where it came from imply that there was something that preexisted it, and that makes no sense, just as it makes no sense to say that God existed before the universe. If God is outside of time, and time is a property of the universe, it doesn't make sense to say God existed before the universe, just as it doesn't make sense to ask where God was before the he created the universe.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I think Aquinas would consider empty space as something. Nothing would have no space.

          • Andrej Tokarčík

            I thought we had established quite some time ago that the "philosopher's
            nothing" and the "physicist's nothing" are two different conceptions of

            I think that troubles arise when people start making philosophical conclusions based on the properties of the "physicist's nothing". Which is, however, precisely what Hawking or Krauss appear to be doing, committing the fallacy of equivocation from the philosophers' point of view.

          • Calling a gap a void is not a fallacy. Calling it a God with intentions is fallacious.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Sorry, Brian, I was trying to be funny.

          • materetmagistra

            An interesting observance based on D.N.'s: " So the quantum void didn't exist before our universe because for the quantum void, before and after have no meaning. "

            The age old question of meaning v. no meaning; God v. meaningless quantum void.

          • What do you mean by "come from" in this context? It would be a mistake to think that "create itself from nothing" means that, at time A there was nothing, then at time B there was something.

            Because space and time behave identically in this state, you can't find a t = 0, or instant when things started.

            The connection between the law like gravity and the universe creating itself has to do with this law making sense of the universe from the initial state to now and into the future. This law like gravity will somehow relate the matter and energy of the universe to the spatiotemporal shape of the universe. (I say "somehow" because no one quite knows what this law like gravity actually is.)

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Sorry to keep harping on this but in what sense is "something like the law of gravity" nothing?

            Seems to me you are talking about, at minimum, a state of potentiality and that is not nothing.

          • The law like gravity isn't nothing. Hawking and Mlodinow never claimed it was. Neither did I.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Then what is the meaning of the word "nothing" in “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Something?

          • He means that the universe started itself. Nothing happened before it started. And a law like gravity, a part of the universe, allowed the universe to start itself.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            So in other words, something existed but it was not doing anything. And then it started doing something because of something like gravity.

            Where did the universe get its being to be able to start doing something?

          • Michael Murray

            What part of a quantum field is "its being" and what does it mean for a quantum field to "start doing something" ?

          • Kevin Aldrich

            Dat's what I want to know.

          • Michael Murray

            I don't think it's possible. The languages are completely different. It's like trying to discuss how to land a 747 if all you know is how to sail a ship. "Come along side", "jib" "lower the mainsail" etc are just not useful concepts in the plane landing scenario.

          • The idea is that there's the universe. There's nothing before the start of the universe. Absolutely nothing. The Philosopher's Nothing. So extremely nothing that it doesn't make sense to talk about what there was or wasn't "before the universe".

            The universe started itself. Most things can't start themselves (I didn't start myself; my parents did that). What allowed the universe to start itself was a law like gravity. Some law that under extreme conditions allows time to act just like another dimension of space.

            (( I'm happy to help explain, as best as I can, but I feel like we are talking past each other. I present my understanding of the Hartle-Hawking cosmology, and then your questions and responses seem to be addressed to an very different theory than the one I present. I'm not sure how to resolve this problem in our communication here, so I don't know what else to say or whether it's worth continuing to answer your questions. I think the problem is mostly my fault, either a gap in my understanding or a failure to clearly communicate that understanding. I'll try one more time after this if the same sorts of questions arise, and then will take a break and try to think about a better way to explain myself. ))

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I understand the frustration.

            I'll try to express my thought one more time, too.

            If at some time the philosopher's nothing did obtain, then this "something like gravity" did not exist. It could not be the cause of its own existence. Since nothing else existed, nothing else could have caused it to exist either.

            I'm not a fan of the KCA but this seems to give it an opening.

          • Peter

            The nearer you approach a massive object like a neutron star or a black hole, the slower is the time you experience as normal compared to someone who is further away. So as gravity gets stronger, time begins to act like space in that as space between you and the massive object gets smaller, time becomes slower.

            In the singularity at the beginning of the universe, gravity was infinitely strong and so space would have been infinitely small and time infinitely slow. This is another way of saying that space and time had a value of zero. As the universe inflated from that point, both space and time acquired values greater than zero because the gravity was no longer infinitely strong but progressively less so.

            The point is that at the singularity at the beginning of the universe there was no time and no space. Therefore no only did no time exist for anything to act upon the singularity, no space existed neither for anything to act within it. All we can say is that the singularity acted upon itself.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I think I can conceive of no time or space in the singularity (although I think the word "infinite" is an exaggeration, no?).

            But there was the singularity ("before" time began to pass and space to expand).

            If this timeless, spaceless entity appeared, why?
            If this timeless, spaceless entity always was, why?

          • Peter

            The singularity is not a phenomenon which ever existed in the material sense, because to exist in the material sense you must be present in space and time. Clearly the singularity was not because it represented an absence of space and time.

            Because we understand gravity - that the stronger it is the more time acts like space - and because we observe the universe expanding, we work it back to a point where gravity was so strong that time behaved exactly like space, so that at the beginning of the universe where there was no space there was also no time.

            The singularity is just the beginning of time and space, when the universe started to inflate/expand. It has no independent properties in its own right because properties only exist within a framework of space and time. And since it has no properties it requires no explanation.

          • Jakeithus

            "All we can say is that the singularity acted upon itself." - But isn't this a nonsensical statement. If the singularity is not a "thing" in any sense of the word, it is not possible for the singularity to act upon itself.

          • Peter

            As you approach a massive object or dense region, the increasing force of gravity causes both space and time to reduce in their respective values - space gets smaller and time slower - so, in a sense, they act in the same way. This is called gravitational time dilation and it is a fact of life. Even satellites have to periodically adjust their clocks with respect to the surface of the earth where time is slower.

            At a point of infinite density such as the singularity at the beginning of the universe, both space and time are reduced in their respective values to zero. If strong gravity which is high curvature of space-time can cause time and space to reduce, then infinite gravity, infinite space-time curvature associated with a singularity, can reduce them infinitely which is to zero.

            At the beginning of creation there was no time. This is a shocking discovery when you consider that St. Augustine 1600 years ago made the same prediction. It's enough to make the most ardent atheist stop in his or her tracks and wonder how he knew all those centuries ago what we have discovered today.

            If you ask the question of how it's possible for a singularity to act upon itself, the honest answer is I don't know. All I know is that gravitational time dilation is a fact of life, and that it is perfectly rational for time and space to be zero at a point of infinite density associated with the beginning of the universe.

            For the rest of my understanding I have to rely on my faith or, more precisely, the doctrine of my faith, which says that
            "faith comes to confirm and enlighten reason in the correct understanding of this truth" (CCC286).

          • But there was no time when the philosopher's nothing existed because for the philosopher's nothing there's no time.

            For any time you can point to, a law like gravity is there.

          • Jakeithus

            But isn't a law like gravity dependent on their being a universe in the first place? And if gravity is dependent on space/time for its existence, then it doesn't make sense to talk about gravity being a property that allows for the universe to start itself, because gravity does not exist separate to the universe.

            Kevin has expressed my same concerns above. It seems like a serious case of special pleading to say "Everything that comes into being has a cause, except the universe", without clearly being able to show what is special about the universe that makes it ignore that statement. Only something that exists timelessly would lose the property of coming into existence, and I don't think it makes sense to talk about gravity existing timelessly.

            Maybe this explanation can help us from talking past one another.

          • Michael Murray
          • I speculate that the universe, pre-inflation, existed timelessly. Hawking's model has it that time acts just like a dimension of space, so in that region there is no passage of time.

          • Jakeithus

            Thanks Paul, that's certainly a better explanation.

            Given what I have read, I cannot say I am totally convinced that speculations from Hawking's model presents a realistic picture, but in any case I think I certainly understand the whole idea much better than I did before.

          • Excellent! I'm very pleased. I don't know if it's realistic, either. It is speculation. Any ideas about what happened before inflation are pretty speculative.

          • Moussa Taouk

            Thanks man, I enjoyed your article.

            Is there a state at which Time t=0? Or is t=0 like an assymptote that is never arrived at if you model the life of the universe (backwards)?

          • In this region, t = 0 is defined in a way similar to defining a particular point on a basketball as the "top of the basketball". All you need to do is rotate the basketball. The "top" is arbitrary.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Then there was still not nothing. There was a law.

            X cannot create X, whether from nothing or from something else. Creation is a bringing into existence. X cannot create X because something that does not [yet] exist can't do diddly squat.

          • Your argument seems to imply that there wasn't a universe, then the universe was created, then there was a universe.

            I think that there was no time when our universe didn't exist.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            There is no time without matter. Einstein regarded both time and space as metaphysical intrusions into empirical science. And this is oddly consonant with the Aristotelian notion that time is the measure of change in corruptible being. That is, unless something physical exists that changes there can be no time.

            Of course, if you were to ask "Why do you keep the hammer in the freezer?" you would not regard it as an explanation if I were to say "We have always kept the hammer in the freezer."

            However, there is a notion of "prior" that is not temporal, and that is logically prior. Suppose a beach has always existed and in the Eternal Sand is planted the Eternal Foot. Underneath the foot is the Eternal Footprint. All of these things have always existed. But the foot is logically prior to the footprint, even though there was no time when the footprint did not exist. In any case, there is no sense in which the footprint could have caused itself to exist. In order to do anything, it must already exist.

            It is this notion of "prior" that operates when one speaks of "creation." Remember that when Thomas Aquinas presented his famous "Five Ways," he assumed that the "universe" was eternal, because he knew of no philosophical proof that it had a beginning in time. So quite clearly the concept of creation is not dependent on a time sequence.

            Time and space come into existence with matter; so matter is logically prior to them. But the Big Bang precludes the notion that space-time has always existed. Hence, matter did not always exist.

            Except that if we are inside space-time (and we are) we cannot perceive anything outside it. So we cannot perceive anything "before" time and hence, the "universe" appears to us as something that has existed at all times. It is as if we were positive real numbers trying to find 0. Remember what Heisenberg said: "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." If our only tool is physics, all we can see will be the physical.

          • To depart a bit from the Hartle-Hawking model into a simpler model that has the same core philosophical issues: Why can't the cause of the matter come after the matter started and just move back in time?

            Also, why think that matter is logically prior to spacetime, or that the "logically prior" idea is meaningful? Why can't there be empty space-time? I don't get it.

            For me to believe that the Big Bang is like a cosmic footprint, I'll need to see the cosmic foot. If I can't ever see the foot, then I'll carry on with my happy agnosticism.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Why can't the cause of the matter come after the matter started and just move back in time?

            Are you thinking of Cramer's Transactional Theory of quantum mechanics? Or are you positing some sort of hyperactive telos?

            why think that matter is logically prior to spacetime

            Because according to Einstein, space and time have no objective existence. Regarding his theory of general relativity, he wrote:
            [T]here are no objections of principle against the introduction of this hypothesis, by which space and time are deprived of the last trace of objective reality.
            -- "Explanation of the Movement of Mercury's Perihelion on the Basis of the General Theory of Relativity," 1915
            and again:
            "Formerly, people thought that if matter disappeared from the universe, space and time would remain. Relativity declares that space and time would disappear with matter."

            Given that space and time are dependent on matter and not vice versa, matter is logically prior to space and time.

            Unless general relativity is wrong.

            Why can't there be empty space-time? I don't get it.

            Friedman and Lemaitre showed independently that the empty deSitter space was unstable. The universe must be expanding.

            For me to believe that the Big Bang is like a cosmic footprint, I'll need to see the cosmic foot.

            No one in the Late Modern Age seems to grasp analogies. At no point was the Big Bang said to be like a cosmic footprint. The allegory of Plato's Foot was intended to show that temporal priority was not required for logical priority. A can be a cause of B even if both have always existed. The Big Bang, whatever else might be said of it, has not always existed.

          • Are you thinking of Cramer's Transactional Theory of quantum mechanics?

            I don't know what that is. All I'm thinking about is an efficient cause moving backwards in time.

            Because according to Einstein, space and time have no objective existence.

            To my understanding, the properties of space-time in General Relativity depend on the distribution of matter. But its existence does not. A total lack of matter also determines properties of a space-time.

            Friedman and Lemaitre showed independently that the empty deSitter space was unstable. The universe must be expanding.

            This would seem to mean that empty space can exist. Also, what about the solution to the field equations when the energy-momentum tensor equals zero (there are also solutions in such regions with null boundary conditions)? Where's the mass, then?

            I'll agree with you that if you already have mass-energy, you'll get a dynamical space-time. Also, I think that space-time can't be empty. But, if anything, I'd think that the space-time is logically prior to the matter.

            The Big Bang, whatever else might be said of it, has not always existed.

            But I do think it could have been the cause of itself. Or, if "logically prior" has any meaning, the idea would be something like: The universe started as some primeval atom, A, that goes into some atom B, and B causes C and D. B is logically prior to both C and D. D goes off to make the rest of the universe. C goes back in time and causes A. It's temporally posterior but logically prior to A. It's a closed loop.

            Why can't things be causes of themselves in such a manner? What's so bad about closed loops?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I don't know what [Cramer's Transactional Theory of quantum mechanics] is.


            if anything, I'd think that the space-time is logically prior to the matter.

            That's the old Newtonian model: space and time form an empty stage within which forces cavort. Einstein put paid to that although, ironically, Einstein believed the world stood motionless and even jiggered his own equations to produce an unchanging world! There's a very nice book about the Big Bang by John Farrell titled "The Day Without Yesterday."

            It's easy to see how the extension of matter creates space and its motion [change] creates time. It is not so easy to see how it might work the other way round. I know that matter can be defined as a certain state of the Ricci tensors, so perhaps an argument can be made there. It's just that ol' Albert was convinced that matter was physical while space and time were metaphysical. (He was a materialist.)

            Why can't things be causes of themselves in such a manner? What's so bad about closed loops?

            Well, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs, and it would be well to determine whether A can cause B in the past effectively, and that B in turn could effectively cause A. It's a popular theme in science fiction, but so is faster-than-light travel. It is still not the case that A causes A. It is B that causes A, and if A lies in B's forward light cone, B is obviously not an instrumental cause, since that would require A being concurrent with B. Neither is it clear where the information came from. I found some discussion of the notion here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/12/dreaded-causa-sui.html but it's tied in with a very different context. There are some who say closed causal loops are philosophically possible, but I don't know the gist of their arguments

          • I think that the idea that space-time and matter are logically "simultaneous", or that neither is logically prior, is the most consistent view. But if one had to be logically prior (if that idea even means anything), then I think space has to be logically prior, in General Relativity (regardless of how Einstein would have wanted it). That's because I can conceive of space-time without matter in General Relativity (there are many vacuum solutions). I cannot conceive of matter without space-time. I prefer to think neither is prior, though.

            About the A and B, it is true that extraordinary claims would require extraordinary evidence, and I would be bound to present that evidence, except that I'm not making a claim that the universe caused itself. I'm just saying that, for what we know about general relativity and inflation, it's possible. And the Kalam argument puts my speculation about the self-starting universe on the exact same footing as the theist's speculation that God started it all.

            A small (not all that relevant) side-note: If the metric is Euclidean, there's no space-like separation.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            that the universe caused itself... it's possible

            1. In order for X to cause anything, X must first of all exist. Something that does not exist can't do anything. That is, "X caused X" assumes a priori the existence of X, making the proposition a case of circular reasoning.

            2. A "universe" is not a thing, but a collection of things, and exists iff at least one its elements exists. We don't ask what caused the Moonbob, let alone whether it caused itself, because we don't regard the Moonbob as a thing. (This is the flaw in the kalam argument.)
            3. It is easy to see how matter simultaneously creates space [and time] the way action simultaneously creates reaction. It's not so easy to understand how space creates matter. Not without a whole lot of magic poofing.
            4. It's much easier to imagine an empty box into which things poof than it is to justify it through the field equations. Not without a few epicycles.

          • I very much like the way you put (2). It's a good objection to the Kalam argument; and with your permission I'd like to use it.

            Personally, I think Moonbob might in fact exist. I find great kinship in Spinoza's philosophy. Spinoza thought that God was a self-caused single substance of which we are all part. There is only one substance and we're all a part of it.

            Maybe the Moonbob is really a thing. In fact, maybe it's the only thing. If you get what I mean.

            Most people who use Kalam probably don't believe in the Moonbob, so your objection is apt. Probably a more effective objection than the one in my article.

          • Thanks also for the link on Cramer's Transactional Theory! It is very close to what I was getting at, and mentions Wheeler's and Feynman's absorber theory (which is closely connected to the single-electron idea). I'll need to think about it more carefully, but it's definitely an interesting idea.

            Within this sort of picture, self-causation would look like http://www-star.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/self-causation.gif (a gif I made up), seen in pedagogical-time, since of course in "real-time" A always is temporally prior to B, A causes B and then B causes A. The A-B system would be self-caused. It could, I think, spontaneously pop into existence. There may be loops like this in nature or not, but I see no problem with this happening. Although there's a question of conservation of information, that question's only important for things outside the loop. Within the loop, information is conserved.

            If the universe started as a loop something like this, information can still be conserved. Between any two time-intervals, the information content of the universe will be identical.

  • Mike

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you for the wonderful OP! Although we share different religious beliefs, we are both men of science (at least I like to think that I am).

    I agree with so much of what you said, particularly the part about using science to prove God. I've never thought of God as a science question, but rather a metaphysical question.

    Hopefully you will write your OP on the Hartle-Hawking model, it would be fascinating to learn about.

  • Loreen Lee

    Wonderful to find that you have contributed to Strange Notions. Am in anticipation that this will be the first post of many to come.
    My difficulty with the article is how to make a distinction between matter and mind, especially as I conceive of another distinction that is a contrastt to Kant's 'intuition' and thus a correlate with tKant's intuitions of space and time. For a long time I have identified space with matter (of course!) and time with consciousness, particularly after one of my 'mystical moments' where I 'imagined' these, (an intellectual intuition) as being related in the first case to Kant's 'idea' of freedom, and in the second case, to his idea of 'immortality'. I did 'perceive' this relationship or my 'intuition' as itself being outside of the parameters of space and time, and thus a personal image-ination of what might constitute infinity and eternity. When I wondered what God was, paradoxically, I immediately found my consciousness in touch with the 'mundane' reality of the coffee shop. This, actually I find very amusing.
    But in conjunction with the speculative imaging, it makes me wonder about that 'atom' you talk about being outside of space and time. When I visualized the space/freedom dichotomy, I pictured space as an endless series of blocks, perfectly formed squares, and I thought the 'order' I found reminded me of Hegel's saying that freedom is the 're-cognition' of necessity. There was such 'order' involved. And with the time/consciousness dichotomy, I thought that because I visualized it as two ever reciprocal flashes of moving light, that it was time/consciousness that produced movement. I am thus consoled in my fantasies to find that Aristotle/Aquinas have a proof of God as the 'prime 'unmoved' mover'.
    Unmoved, I feel can be interpreted as unchanging, or something. Who 'knows'.

    But to at long last, get to the point, your atom seems to be a composition of matter exclusive of any concept of consciousness. On my part, because I have tended to identify God with consciousness, (eternal) I wonder, with respect to the atom, whether you might have thoughts on this distinction, with the possibility that, like your 'atom' consciousness/intelligence can thus be given credence as existing outside of the space/time continuum, and this I posit would be a definition of God that I could identify with the philosophical transcendence and the will and intelligence (and I would add judgment) associated with the immanence of God.

    Just wondering whether these 'personal' thoughts merit any response. Thank you Paul.

    • Both Leibniz and Spinoza have speculated that the actual substance, what truly exists, manifests itself as both mind and body. The electron is united to the idea of the electron. A less subtle version of this idea is advocated by Freeman Dyson. He thinks that all atoms have free will. That's how unstable atoms decide when to decay. They choose their own time.

      Your insights probably merit a more complete response. You raise difficult philosophical issues.

      • Loreen Lee

        Both Leibniz and Spinoza have speculated that the actual substance, what truly exists, manifests itself as both mind and body.

        Substance = essence? Essence IS existence: translated as mind, although not visible, 'exists', is 'real'. then? And both mind and matter 'exist' before 'movement'? i.e. before our perception/intuition of time/space. The unmoved mover is moved by 'nothing' outside itself? It is motion -in essence- like the atom, ???? Gee: I'm making a plug for the 'reality' of universals here.

        No need to take me 'seriously'. Thanks a lot Paul.

        • For Spinoza, God is identical to the universe and everything in the universe is completely logically determined. So for Spinoza, God's/the universe's essence and existence are identical. Leibniz on the other hand (as I understand him) thinks that everything is made up of particles, and these particles are made up of more particles (and so on, infinitely). He calls these particles "monads". These particles are the atoms of ideas as well as the atoms of things. For Leibniz, there are many possible ways these substances can manifest themselves and be arranged, many possible worlds. For Leibniz, then, different things have essential properties (identical for all possible worlds in which that thing exists) and accidental properties (different for the different possible worlds where the thing exists). "Paul is a mortal" and "Paul is Paul" are both essential properties, whereas "Paul is an ex-Catholic" is an accidental property. It isn't true in all possible worlds where Paul exists, and wasn't always true in this one.

          • Loreen Lee

            Thanks, so much for this.

  • Michael Murray

    Nice article Paul. I look forward to the next one.

  • Paul - Great article, thank you. I hope this inspires more atheists - including those regularly commenting here - to consider posting something. Also looking forward to reading your next piece.

    I think you're largely right here. Lamaitre's letter signified a healthy respect for science qua science, one which the Catholic Church has held to in its teachings.

    But wasn't it Hawking who wrote that many people don't like the big bang because it "smacks of divine intervention"? And didn't so many for so long hold to the idea that the universe was eternal? That "smacking" is arguably unavoidable, and not some foreign accretion so much as science's natural intimation of ultimate truth the more it advances.

    But you couldn't be more right that God is ultimately shrouded off from our scientific and rational instruments. Theology has its boundaries, as does science - this is wisdom. But to echo Ezra Pound, "let there be commerce between us" - or at least, communication and respect.

    PS - minor quibble: isn't it "primeval atom," not "primordial atom"? Your mind must be on the primordial soup!

    • David Nickol

      But wasn't it Hawking who wrote that many people don't like the big bang
      because it "smacks of divine intervention"? . . . . That "smacking" is
      arguably unavoidable, and not some foreign accretion so much as
      science's natural intimation of ultimate truth the more it advances.

      Wouldn't any scientist worthy of his or her salt prefer to be able to look back beyond the big bang than to have it be a dead end? It would be very strange, it seems to me, for scientists who believe in God as the creator to have their fingers crossed that science will get no further than the big bang so that they and their fellow theists can use it for the Kalām Cosmological Argument. Why would people who already believe in God need cosmology to work out in such a way as to bolster what would still be (it seems to me) inconclusive arguments for the existence of God.

      I don't know what Hawking wrote, but it seems to me that no true scientist would be happy with something that "smacks of divine intervention." Scientists as scientists are committed to digging as deep into the origins and working of the natural world as they can. Whether they believe in God or not, why should they be happy with a limitation on what they can discover?

      In any case, it doesn't matter who hopes what in terms of where cosmological research and theorizing will lead. If it's not possible to get beyond the big bang, then no amount of wishing and hoping will have any effect. And if it is possible, it will happen no matter what that does to the Kalām Cosmological Argument.

      • Mike

        Hi David,

        Thank you for being able to put so succinctly how I feel about my faith and science. I've argued here (mostly with Catholics) and outside of commenting on the internet that the ability to understand and explain the physical universe doesn't prohibit arguing for God's existence. In fact I hope humanity will reach such a state. I'm doubtful that this will happen in an absolute sense, as it would require complete knowledge of everything within the universe across all of space and time. For example maybe there is some data about cosmology that we can't observe because we can't perceive outside of the observable universe, but I hope for such a state none-the-less

        I'd also like to think that the Catholic Church (hierarchy) would support this endeavor.

    • I think that many people still don't like the Big Bang because of what they see as theological implications. I think that's a mistake borne (possibly) out of a lack of imagination.

      Imagine a particular tribe comes across Sears Tower for the first time. Maybe this is a post-apocalyptic time and there's no record of how the skyscraper was constructed. The tribe is too primitive to make the skyscraper and cannot explain how it could have been made. Some members of the tribe might think that the Sears Tower was made by their gods, and others in the tribe skeptical about these gods think the tower was always there. The skyscraper is rusty and one day the tribe witnesses when it falls down. Imagine other evidence is found that it probably wasn't always there (a very old drawing of the skyline). What they thought was forever actually wasn't. This may at first disturb the skeptics in the tribe, but hopefully, eventually, they will start to imagine other ways the tower could have come about, maybe that it was formed by the wind and rocks and metal with time and chance, or maybe that it was made in a past age by people just like them, just as worthy of worship and adoration as they.

      I sometimes wonder whether God must have sculpted the mountains with his hands or whether they have stood there in the horizon forever; it is hard for my primate brain to comprehend the beginning of something as big and old as mountains other than with miracles. Finding out that mountains had a beginning should not disturb the atheist. Mountains can have their origins explained physically, in space and time, even if our brains have trouble understanding the sizes involved. Likewise, a scientific explanation for the origin of mountains should not necessarily disturb the theist, I think. If God sculpted the mountains with plate tectonics and erosions over countless ages, is this less wonderful than if he had used his own hands? If God started the universe with a Hartle-Hawking state, is this less a miracle than if he lit off the match himself?

      I think God is just as necessary for explaining the Big Bang as he is for explaining the mountains. And both provide the same sort of evidence, if any, for his existence and activity.

    • And yes, it is primeval atom! Thanks for the correction; I'll pass it on to Brandon and maybe the article can be fixed.

      • No problem! Also I read in your bio that you identify as "ex-Catholic," which I didn't realize. I think many people here would be curious to know when and why you made the decision to go from Catholic to ex, if you're willing to share. Or maybe it's a topic for another article?

  • Jakeithus

    This is one of the better arguments on this topic that I have read. It, along with the other reading I have done after reading this, has certainly helped teach me something new, so thank you for that.

    If I understand it correctly, which may be a stretch, is there any reason to believe, like I gather Hawkings and you are implying, that time ceases to exist at the earliest stages of our universe and simply becomes another dimension like space? My understanding is that this is done by the use of turning time into an imaginary number in the mathematical equations, which may not have any basis in reality.

  • Peter

    If the universe did indeed create itself out nothing, as Hawking claims, then this is perfectly consistent with the claim of the Catechism which says that the world began when God's word drew it out of nothingness (CCC338).

    Instead of ridiculing Pope Pius XII for prematurely announcing the moment of creation, we should be congratulating him for his courage. He effectively proclaimed something for which at the time there was no scientific evidence, and for which he has since been vindicated, namely that the universe was drawn out or drew itself out of nothingness.

    The notion that the space-time of our universe doesn't have an efficient cause sits perfectly well with Catholic doctrine. An efficient cause implies a material explanation and Catholic doctrine denies any material explanation for the creation of the universe.

    • David Nickol

      Instead of ridiculing Pope Pius XII for prematurely announcing the
      moment of creation, we should be congratulating him for his courage.

      This is the only mention of Pius XII in the OP or in the comments (excluding your own):

      After the Big Bang theory started getting traction, Pope Pius XII
      referred to Lemaitre's result as a “scientific validation of the
      Catholic Faith”. You might think that Lemaitre, as a Catholic priest,
      would be pleased with this interpretation. On the contrary, Lemaitre
      wrote a gentle letter to the Pope, correcting him on his cosmology.

      The issue is not whether scientific theories of the origin of the universe conflict with Catholicism. It is whether they prove anything that Catholicism asserts. Lemaitre himself said that they didn't. It is the position of the Catholic Church that there can be no conflict between Catholicism and scientific truth. That does not mean, however, that science can prove the existence of God or his role as creator.

      • Peter

        If the universe doesn't require an efficient cause it cannot be derived from anything pre-existing . That, then, would be strong vindication of Catholic doctrine which states not only that God called the universe out of nothingness (CCC300) but that he needed no pre-existent thing to do so (CCC296). What science is doing in this case is proving Catholic doctrine to be correct. The question is: how come this was known for so long before science came along to confirm it?

        • Mike

          Hi Peter,

          Respectfully I don't think we should consider God to be a science question. If my understanding of God is correct, God would be within (but not limited to the universe). Science can't in principle study things that aren't contained within the universe. Say there are multiverses overlaid with ours, but they don't interact in any measurable way. They could be there, but we have no way to study them.

          Furthermore, Science gets corrected all the time. Perhaps in 5, 10, 50 years our understanding of the universe will change from some new evidence and contradict our notion of the universe and how it came to be. Some would then argue that science disproves God. And indeed it would because we had presented a false god "The God of the gaps".

          I think the most telling thing about the exchange between Lemaitre and Pius XII is that Pius XII heard him out and followed his advice. If its good enough for the Pope, it is probably good enough for me.

          • Peter

            On the contrary, Pius XII publicly proclaimed the big bang as the "Fiat Lux", the moment of creation, in his 1951 speech at the Pontifical Academy.

            Furthermore, CCC286 says that the existence of God the Creator can be known WITH CERTAINTY, THROUGH HIS WORKS, by the light of human reason (my capitals).

            The more we scientifically uncover the mysteries of the universe, the more we recognise of the existence of the Creator. It is a firm doctrine of the Church that God can be known through the study of created things.

          • Mike

            Hi Peter.

            I would think that one could extrapolate the god of the philosophers through his works. And I suppose we could learn something about God through his works. But I believe in a loving God who wants to have an intimate relationship with humanity (as individuals and collectively). I would think that type of God must reveal himself/herself to humanity. I would think that the incarnation and resurrection are most important to the God I worship, rather than nature alone.

          • Peter

            Session 3, chapter 2, paragraph 1 of the First Vatican Council 144 years ago said:

            "The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. [13] 2. It was, however, pleasing to his wisdom and goodness to reveal himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way."

            The Church is saying that God's natural creation alone is sufficient to know God, and that supernatural revelation is an additional means by which to know him. It is a matter of Church doctrine that God is knowable through nature.

          • David Nickol

            It is a matter of Church doctrine that God is knowable through nature.

            Yes, but that goes all the way back to St. Paul. He did not mean, nor does the Church mean today, that science will confirm that God created the universe from nothing, or that the big bang was the moment of creation. In fact, the idea of knowing God through his creation arguably has nothing at all to say about what science can say about God or his existence.

            For the Church to say that science and religion do not and cannot conflict (if both are rightly understood) does not say that science can be used to prove religious doctrine. The Church teaches about matters of faith and morals. Neither faith nor morals are matters of science.

          • Peter

            In Chapter 2 of his 1951 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pius XII says:

            "In fact, according to the measure of its progress, and contrary to affirmations advanced in the past, true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree-as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science. We would even say that from this progressive discovery of God, which is realized in the increase of knowledge, there flow benefits not only for the scientist himself when he reflects as a philosopher-and how can he escape such reflection?-but also for those who share in these new discoveries or make them the object of their own considerations. Genuine philosophers profit from these discoveries in a very special way, because when they take these scientific conquests as the basis for their rational speculations, their conclusions thereby acquire greater certainty, while they are provided with clearer illustrations in the midst of possible shadows and more convincing assistance in establishing an ever more satisfying response to difficulties and objections"

          • David Nickol

            1951 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pius XII says

            It is perfectly natural for those who believe in the Judeo-Christian God (or the God of philosophy) as the creator of the universe to view science as the investigation of God's handiwork. But for those who don't believe in God, or for those who are agnostic, all the discoveries in the history of science say nothing about the existence or nature of God.

            In the overall scheme of things, what Pius XII had to say on that particular occasion—or during his entire pontificate, for that matter—is of little importance to the issue of the compatibility or incompatibility of science and religion. His statements in Humani Generis were a prime example of religion involving itself in scientific matters where it does not belong. Scientists should be under no constraints in investigating human origins just because the best scientific theories are difficult to harmonize with a purely religious concept (Original Sin).

            Since then, of course, another scientific door has opened which is the hypothesis that the universe is created out of nothing.

            I don't think any scientist is claiming that the universe was created from "the nothing of philosophy." They are claiming it came from "the nothing of physics." Those are two very different things, although I do think that Lawrence Krauss was not wrong to imply that people like Aquinas might have believed nothing to "the void" (empty space). But nowadays we do not think of empty space as nothing.

            The emphasis here, from the "atheist" side, has not been on something coming from nothing, but on notions of causality, which have changed dramatically in both philosophy and science since the 13th century.

            Maybe it is just me unfairly "projecting," but I occasionally see what looks a lot like a kind of desperation to have science validate belief in God. This strikes me as odd, particular coming from Catholics, since the gap between accepting the proofs of the existence of God, on the one hand, and believing in the Trinitarian God and the Incarnation, on the other, seems to me enormous and unbridgeable. For believing Catholics, I am not sure why proofs of the existence of God are of any particular importance. They do not prove Jesus was God and rose from the dead. They do not prove transubstantiation. The proofs, even if successful (which they are not) seem to be about as distant from actual lived Catholicism as linking to a copy of the Bible on Amazon is to buying a copy and reading it all the way through again and again. A link may establish the Bible exists, but that is trivial.

            Why should a committed Catholic care about proofs for the existence of God or whether the big bang was the moment of creation? And as someone else has pointed out, if you pin too much on today's scientific findings, you may have the rug pulled out from under you tomorrow, since science is always subject to revision.

          • Mike

            Once again David you summarize my position very well. If this continues it might be uncomfortable given our different religious beliefs :) I feel like I shouldn't be on the side of the non-believers this often :)

          • Peter

            There is a strong divergence in this case between Christian and Protestant beliefs. While the Catholic is happy to accept the nothingness from which the universe was drawn as being consistent with doctrine, the Protestant is not.

            For a Catholic, it was the universe itself which did the physical acting of bringing itself into existence, simply called to do so by God's word, and this is wholly consistent with what Hawking is saying.

            The Protestant, however, no doubt strongly influenced by the sola scriptura of the Old Testament, is looking for evidence of a physical act from God himself to have brought the universe into existence.

            Consequently he or she will not accept the nothingness from which the universe is deemed to have spontaneously emerged, seeking instead some form of inexplicable or supernatural event which set it in motion and which most certainly is not defined as nothing.

          • Michael Murray

            There is a strong divergence in this case between Christian and Protestant beliefs.

            So Protestants aren't Christians ? What happened to your Ecumenical spirit ?

          • Peter

            Protestants are indeed Christians. I don't ever recall saying that they weren't.

          • Michael Murray

            Read what you said. I assumed it was a typo. But you said

            There is a strong divergence in this case between Christian and Protestant beliefs.

            If Protestants are Christians how can they diverge from themselves ?

          • Peter

            I also said "in this case".

          • Michael Murray

            It doesn't matter about "in this case". If Protestants are Christians they can't diverge from themselves. It makes no sense.

          • Peter

            In this case it makes perfect sense. Protestants are looking for a cause. Catholics are not.

          • Michael Murray

            Then surely you meant to say

            There is a strong divergence in this case between Catholic and Protestant beliefs.


            There is a strong divergence in this case between Christian and Protestant beliefs.

          • Peter

            Yes, corrected, thanks.

          • Mike

            So in your opinion can I make the following statement?

            God is not a science question.

            That is to say science cannot conclusively demonstrate or refute God's existence.

          • Peter

            I can only repeat what Pius XII said: "true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree-as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science"

            The Church affirms that God can be known with certain through his works by the light of reason. This means that God is knowable through science and philosophy, with discoveries in the former providing for greater clarity in the latter.

          • Mike

            Ok. I'm not going to disagree with the quote of Pope Pius XII you mentioned, but that doesn't really answer my question.

            I've asserted before, and will again now assert that God can't be fully known through empirical means alone. This means that I couldn't prove or disprove God using the scientific method.

            I would also add paragraph 159 of the Cathechism, which could paraphrased as saying that God is truth, and the search for truth is good, therefore the Catholic Church supports scientific investigation. However, I don't read it as saying that God could be ascertained empirically the same way I could study particle physics, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, etc.

            Would you agree with this line of thinking?

          • Peter

            The Church is not saying that God can be ascertained empirically, but that God can be ascertained through study and observation of his works by applying the light of human reason.

            Empirical study and observation on its own is not enough because its objective findings are subject to all manner of interpretation. That is why it has to be subjected to human reason in the form of philosophical enquiry particularly in the philosophical tradition of the Church.

            A perfect example is the scientific hypothesis that the universe began from nothing. Immediately atheists will say that there's no need for God, and some theists will retort that there's not such a thing as nothing.

            However, where Catholic philosophical thinking is concerned, this finding reinforces and complements that thinking and, in doing so, opens the way to an increased certainty of God's existence.

          • Mike

            Ok. How about this: Is God exclusively a scientific question? Yes or no?

            I just want to clarify because both believers and non-believers will try to claim that science proves their worldview and I'm trying to claim that science is neutral to this question (when considered by itself).

          • Peter

            No, but God is waiting to be discovered behind every door that science opens.

          • David Nickol

            This means that God is knowable through science and philosophy, with
            discoveries in the former providing for greater clarity in the latter.

            Can you give an example of a discovery of science that helps Catholics to know God better?

            The idea of knowing God through creation is at least as old as St. Paul. Here is a quote from Romans 1:

            19 For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened.

            You seem to be implying that, because of modern science, we can know God better than he was known, say, 400 years ago, or in the 1st-century when St. Paul wrote the above. I think you are overinterpreting Pius XII. I don't think he could possibly have meant that we, because of modern science, are in a better position to know the kinds of things St. Paul expected the Romans to know. I think he meant that since God created everything that exists, discoveries about, say, earthworms or barnacles or quarks are discoveries about God's creation, and therefore discoveries about God. But that kind of knowledge of God is utterly dependent on belief in God as the creator. If you aren't a Catholic, and you don't believe in God as the creator, then it is not the case that every scientific discovery is new piece of information about God's handiwork.

            I would point out that one speech by one pope carries little weight in Catholicism. You are quoting it as if it were a major encyclical or other official papal document, and it simply is not as authoritative as you make it out to be (if it is authoritative at all). For those who are not Catholics the statement has no authority at all, and for atheists it has no bearing on the real world at all.

            The claim by the Catholic Church that God can be known through reason alone is one of the most curious bits of dogma imaginable. As Catholic dogma, it is binding only on Catholics, who of course already believe in God. There is something very strange for a religion to declare, using its highest "spiritual" authority, that something can be known by reason alone. If something can be known by reason alone, then the "kosher" way to establish that is to demonstrate it by reason, not to require Catholics to believe it under pain of excommunication. It is puzzling why any religious authority should declare that a particular proposition it asserts as a fact must be believed, as a matter of faith, to be knowable by reason alone.

            In any case, it is certainly not a teaching of the Church that the big bang is the moment of creation.

          • Peter

            Science helps Catholics discover God's existence. The big bang confirms centuries-old Church teaching and leads to greater certitude that God exists.

            The doctrine that God can be known with certainty through his works in the light of reason does not come from a papal encyclical or speech, but from Vatican I and from the Catechism.

            No, the big bang is not doctrine, but what is doctrine is that the universe had a beginning and that it began from nothing. Insofar as the big bang is deemed to be the beginning of the universe and to have occurred from nothing, it would appear to vindicate Catholic teaching. This is particularly remarkable, if not miraculous, since such teaching is centuries-old and the scientific discoveries are only recent.

          • Mike

            Peter. Don't you see the inherent problem with such a claim. Scientific understanding changes quickly as a result of new data. If this is the claim you are making for God's existence, it's problematic, especially for a Catholic like myself. Say in 50, or 100, or 200 years are are able to have a better picture of the universe, one that reverses what we would today refer to as the Big Bang. In that case wouldn't science contradict faith? I think its a BIG mistake to read too much theology into what we understand about nature at any given time. Lemaitre was correct to warn against such statements, in my opinion.

            I say this not to chastize you, because I would make such a statement to someone reading too much theology into nature who was trying to disprove God. I think I would consider God to be a metaphysical problem than a physical problem, and involving science too much into theology (which is definitely a metaphysical discipline) is a problem.

          • Peter

            If you are a Catholic you must accept the doctrine that God is knowable with through his works by the light of human reason, which means that God is waiting behind every door science opens. It follows then that any future discovery about cosmology will take us even closer to God, not further away.

            There is nothing therefore to fear by proclaiming the big bang as the moment of creation, as the Pope did, because any background mechanism discovered in the future will simply add to our understanding of how God brought the universe into being.

          • Michael Murray

            So what about the scientific fact that light actually appeared 400,000,000 years after God asked for it ? Or the scientific fact that the human race does't descend from two human ancestors ?

          • Peter

            The appearance of light after 400 million years is only relevant if you are a literal interpreter of Genesis, as is the ancestry of the human race.

          • Mike

            Michael, can I ask for an outside perspective? We don't share the same beliefs about a deity, but does my position that this is a dangerous path make sense?

          • Michael Murray

            I agree with you. The problem for the Church is surely that science changes. The Big Bang could turn out to be the Big Bounce. Or a new Einstein could come along with a theory of quantum gravity that completely changes our view of physics. Like relativity and quantum theory did in the past.

          • Peter

            And if they do, that will point even more closely towards God.

            Remember, God simply called the universe into existence. It was the universe itself that did the physical act of bringing itself into being. Therefore any greater understanding of how that action took place must be welcomed as it gives us a greater insight into the mind of God.

          • Mike

            Peter, not only am I a Catholic, but I'm also a scientist. Can I ask what is your background?

            I'm not saying that the background mechanisms would be problematic, but what if the current notion of the big bang is wrong all together. I think if you leave your statement in general terms that understanding the truth of the universe and since God is truth we therefore understand God better it's fine. But you're making scientific statements as if they are absolute truth. Scientists never make such claims, just that they seem to fit the data best, and are always subject to revision based on either a better theory or additional data.

          • Peter

            Alas, I am only an amateur in philosophy, theology and science, seeking to bolster my lagging faith by looking for God in nature.

            The truth is not in the scientific statement per se but in the truth which lies behind it, which means that any advancement in scientific knowledge leads to an increasing discovery of God who waits behind every door that science opens.

            It is not the job of scientists to make claims about God, and that's why they don't make them. To do so is the job of philosophers, who armed with the findings of scientists, are able to move on to another level of understanding. As Pius XII said:

            "Genuine philosophers profit from these discoveries in a very special way, because when they take these scientific conquests as the basis for their rational speculations, their conclusions thereby acquire greater certainty".

          • Michael Murray

            It is not the job of scientists to make claims about God, and that's why they don't make them. To do so is the job of philosophers, who armed with the findings of scientists, are able to move on to another level of understanding.

            I think those days are past. To understand the detail of something like quantum field theory or the molecular chemistry inside a cell you need to be a scientist doing research in that speciality.

          • Michael Murray

            Remind me again where Genesis says

            ""God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light 400 million years after creation"

          • Nicholas Hesed

            lulz. Yeah what a convenient interpretation. I remember reading when those scientists who confirmed the CMBR discovery and the supposed 'prediction' actually cited Genesis 1:2-3 in the NYT to support their ideas. This verse even made it into physics/cosmology books in the early 80s. What a bunch of intellectual horrors. How could the poor ancient Hebrew have known about the Big-Bang?

          • Peter

            Supernatural revelation?

          • David Nickol

            Insofar as the big bang is deemed to be the beginning of the universe and to have occurred from nothing, it would appear to vindicate Catholic teaching.

            I think Catholic teaching is that God created the universe, not how or when God created the universe. If you use the big bang (or any other scientific theory or discovery) as something to "vindicate Catholic teaching," you are, first, making a claim about Catholic teaching that I don't see as true. A remark by a pope in an address does not rise to the level of a magisterial pronouncement. And, second, you are taking a real risk that the scientific viewpoint might change significantly enough so that people may be able to say, "Well, Catholics said the big bang was proof that God created the universe, but now the scientific viewpoint has changed, the big bang no longer looks like the beginning, and so Catholics (and Catholic teachings?) are wrong.

          • Peter

            I did not say the big bang was proof that God created the universe, but that our current knowledge of it vindicates the long-held Catholic teaching that the universe had a beginning and began from nothing.

            This teaching has existed for centuries and will not change regardless of scientific discoveries. Therefore in order to claim that Catholic teaching is wrong you have to make discoveries which directly contradict it, such as the universe, or the background from which it comes, being eternal and infinite.

          • David Nickol

            The problem I see is that you claim the big bang (which I will call Event Z) vindicates Catholic teaching that the universe had a beginning. Suppose (as I think is quite likely), cosmologists formulate a highly plausible theory that identifies and Event Y before the big bang that caused the big bang. You will then say, "Catholic teaching has been vindicated, because Event Y was the beginning of the universe. Then it turns out Event Y is explained by Event X, and that vindicates Catholic teaching, because Event X becomes the beginning of the universe.

            It will never be all that difficult to claim that science vindicates Catholic teaching. When it became evident that Genesis could not be literally true, it became figuratively true. When it became evident that God did not make the first man out of clay and the first woman out of the first man's rib, that was interpreted as symbolic. When evolution was so well established that it could not be denied, evolution became the marvelous way God had created man! The scientific findings which had been resisted by many religious people were cleverly interpreted as discoveries about how God had created the world and mankind.

            I do not want to give the impression that I am mocking Catholicism for finding ways of reinterpreting old doctrines to fit new facts. That is, in fact, one of the admirable aspects of Catholicism. Catholics are not fundamentalists. But it does mean that no matter what advances science makes, Catholics who claimed the old scientific findings were vindications of Catholic teaching can find new interpretations to claim that the new scientific findings vindicate Catholic teaching. And indeed since the Catholic position is that there can never be any conflict between science (properly understood) and Catholicism (properly understood), any apparent conflict that arises will be dealt with by either denying scientific findings until there is such strong evidence that denial is impossible, or reinterpreting Catholic doctrine to accommodate new scientific findings and calling the change "development of doctrine."

            If I were entirely committed to Catholicism and counted myself as a believing Catholic, I don't think this would bother me at all. I would consider Catholicism to have certain core truths that pretty much had to be reinterpreted for every new era and reexamined whenever new scientific breakthroughs made obsolete the language in which older doctrines were expressed. But the problem is that the exact same process could occur if Catholicism was not true.

            Therefore in order to claim that Catholic teaching is wrong you have to
            make discoveries which directly contradict it, such as the universe, or
            the background from which it comes, being eternal and infinite.

            Actually, as I understand it, Aquinas took into consideration that the universe had existed from all eternity, and that did not affect his proofs. God could still be the creator of the universe from nothing even if the universe existed from all eternity.

            One problem I see for the idea that every scientific discovery tells us something about God is that there are so many ghastly aspects to nature—polio, malaria, cancer, the female praying mantis biting the head off the male as they are copulating, the digger wasp paralyzing (but not killing) an insect in which it then lays its eggs, and when the eggs hatch, the young wasps feed on the still-living paralyzed insect.

            Recently a Danish zoo had a young giraffe that it needed to dispose of for fear it would interbreed with its close relatives in the zoo. So they euthanized it, chopped it up, and fed it to the lions. How many people are not made uncomfortable by this. But a pack of lions in the wild may very well kill and eat a giraffe. Why should feeding a giraffe to lions freak people out? After all, lions in zoos are fed meat from other slaughtered animals. Humans eat meat from slaughtered animals. There is a very "dark side" to nature, which we try our best to ignore, and which we generally do not regard as revealing what God is like.

            Cosmology may give one a "good opinion" of God, but predation, disease, and death are just as much a part of nature as the big bang. It will not do to attribute predation, disease, and death to "the Fall," since they all predate it by hundreds of millions of years.

          • Peter

            Catholic doctrine does not stipulate the nature of the event that marked the start of the universe, only that the universe began and began from nothing. There have been no discoveries in the past and nor will there be any in the future that contradict Catholic doctrine.

            Geocentrism for instance has never been a doctrine of the Church. Galileo was suspected of heresy - though never accused - because through his heliocentric views he was suspected of a tendency towards Epicurian materialism which was a heresy. Heliocentrism was never a heresy in its own right.

            Aquinas was right that God in principle being omnipotent can do anything including create an eternal universe. However, he never promoted it because it contradicts two elements of Catholic doctrine, namely that creation had a beginning and that God is infinitely greater than all his works. If God and the universe are equally eternal, God cannot be infinitely greater.

            Finally, the only way that evolution by natural selection works is if nature is red in tooth and claw. If all animals were vegetarians we simply wouldn't have evolved. If, as I believe, evolution is the secondary means of creation through which God physically created man, then a competitive predatory environment would have been indispensable.

          • Michael Murray

            Can you give an example of a discovery of science that helps Catholics to know God better?

            What about His inordinate fondness for beetles ?

          • Peter

            Oh yes, Haldane's stars and beetles fallacy. Hundreds of species of beetles and trillions of stars, which means that God evidently created the universe for them. I don't know about beetles, but I know that stars are not the end product of the universe.

            Each successive generation has greater metallicity than its predecessor which tells us that far from being an end product, stars are part of an integrated cosmic process to complexify matter over time, from the light elements to the heavy ones and then on to complex compounds forming the building blocks of life.

          • Peter

            At the beginning of the universe time was like space. Space started where there was nothing and therefore so too did time. And since time started where there was nothing, there was nothing before time to cause it to start. Frankly whichever kind of nothing it is, scientific or philosophical, is irrelevant.

            The point is that the universe spontaneously started itself, and this is an event which is perfectly consistent with the Catholic doctrine of the universe being called into existence out of nothingness.

            If tomorrow we discover a mechanism through which the universe started from nothing, that won't change anything. All it will do is simply place the process one step further back. The principle remains the same however far back you go.

            There is no desperation whatsoever about science. Catholicism is very comfortable about scientific discovery and urges all scientists to bring it on, totally confident that any new discovery will either not contradict doctrine or, as in this case, vindicate it.

            Finally, I disagree that science as a means of discovering God is irrelevant to atheists. Scientific discovery is an objective fact, and so too is long-held Catholic doctrine. When the two coincide, as in this case, it requires a rational response because it challenges the materialist beliefs of the atheist community.

          • Michael Murray

            At the beginning of the universe time was like space. Space started where there was nothing and therefore so too did time.

            Not quite. The structure of the space-time metric and the light-cone show you that time-like directions and space-like directions are different.

            When the two coincide, as in this case, it requires a rational response because it challenges the materialist beliefs of the atheist community.

            Lots of communities have a creation myth.

          • Peter

            Time and space are the same in that nothing preceded them. Are you suggesting something did?

          • Michael Murray

            No I'm pointing out that time and space are not the same although they are mixed up in space-time.

          • Peter

            However, for the purpose of the point I was making, they are the same.

          • Michael Murray

            However, for the purpose of the point I was making, they are the same.

            So blue and red are the same because they both share the property of being colours ?

          • Peter

            In the sense that time and space acted in the same way at the beginning of the universe, yes they are the same the same at that point.

          • Peter

            Long-held Catholic doctrine is hardly a creation myth. For centuries it maintained that the world (universe) had a beginning in the face of constant opposition from philosophers and scientists right up to the beginning of the 20th century, after which its teaching was plainly vindicated.

            The same is occurring now, with its centuries-old teaching that the world (universe) was drawn out of nothingness also being vindicated.

          • Nicholas Hesed

            at the beginning of the Universe time acted like space???Space started where there was nothing and therefore so too did time.

            So for you space and time are two objects that run around and perform actions??? Great. Einstein's religion has really done a number on everyone.

            Btw, I looked up the official teaching at Lateran and I dont see anywhere where it says that God created the concepts UNIVERSE, SPACE or TIME:

            God…creator of all visible and invisible things, of the spiritual and of the corporal; who by His own omnipotent power at once from the beginning of time created each creature from nothing, spiritual and corporal, namely, angelic and mundane, and finally the human, constituted as it were, alike of the spirit and the body (D.428).

            God creates things (objects, entities, creatures, etc. visible or invisible). God does NOT create concepts such as UNIVERSE, SPACE, TIME.

            Sweet Jesus.

          • Peter

            Para 295 of the Catechism says: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."

            Here "world" means universe. The universe is not a concept but a reality, as are the time and space which constitute it.

          • Mike

            Here's how I understand what you said above. Through reason alone and observation of the universe I could (in principle) abstract that a Creator God was necessary and caused the universe to exist. I would tend to agree with this in principle. At the same time I don't think one could truly rebut simply a Creator God (the God of the philosophers).

            However, I don't believe in a Creator God in that God created the universe and has no interest in it afterwards. I believe in a loving God that through the incarnation came and redeemed humanity. In doing so he made humanity holy again (the new Adam). I believe in a God that gives himself/herself unnecessarily to humanity because God wants to be in a relationship with each and every individual person. I don't see how one could abstract such beautiful theology from nature and observing the order of the world. Rather such a wonderful God would have to willing reveal himself/herself.

            In summary, yes we could postulate a God existed from nature, but knowing the details Catholicism claims to know about God necessitates divine revelation.

          • Peter

            It is impossible to arrive at the knowledge of God the Creator through reason without also acquiring the knowledge that God keeps the universe in existence at every moment. Therefore it is meaningless to suggest that God would have no interest in the universe after he created it.

            The same word of God which called the universe into being out of nothing also keeps it in existence at every moment or it would return to nothing. God's word is not a one-off call drawing the universe into existence and nothing more, but a constant call maintaining the universe in existence and preventing it from returning to nothing.

            Such a God therefore, is not the uncaring deistic God of 19th century thought, but a caring God who sustains his creation at every moment.

          • Michael Murray

            It is impossible to arrive at the knowledge of God the Creator through reason without also acquiring the knowledge that God keeps the universe in existence at every moment.

            Why not ? Are you suggesting that deists don't really exist ?

          • Peter

            They do but it's impossible to have a Catholic understanding of God and be a deist.

          • Michael Murray

            So it is not true to say

            It is impossible to arrive at the knowledge of God the Creator through reason without also acquiring the knowledge that God keeps the universe in existence at every moment.

            You mean perhaps

            It is impossible to arrive at a Catholic knowledge of God the Creator through reason without also acquiring the knowledge that God keeps the universe in existence at every moment.

          • Peter

            A Catholic understanding of God implies knowing God with certainty through his works by the light of reason. If the universe spontaneously sprang into existence out of nothing because of God's call, then it is reasonable to conclude that it will return to nothing if God's call is withdrawn.

          • David Nickol

            On the contrary, Pius XII publicly proclaimed the big bang as the "Fiat Lux", the moment of creation, in his 1951 speech at the Pontifical Academy.

            Unfortunately, the universe was dark for 400 million after the "fiat lux" moment.

          • Agni Ashwin

            Regarding Pius XII's "Fiat Lux" statement:

            Statements such as these contradicted Lemaître's own strict distinction between the tools for investigating matters of science and matters of theology. "He realized quite fully the tentative and hypothetical character of scientific theories and for this reason alone, if for no others, opposed the use of such theories to support philosophical, theological or faith statements."


          • Peter

            Lemaitre may have been a first rate scientist but the Pope was the Pope. More than half a century later we are reaching levels of scientific understanding which demonstrate that Lematire was wrong for being cautious and the Pope was right to be bold.

            Pius XII's proclamation that the big bang vindicated the doctrine that the universe had a beginning has been underscored by another development justifying Catholic doctrine, namely the recent discoveries that the universe may have begun from nothing.

            At the time Lematire felt justified in his caution because he believed the universe emerged from something - a primeval atom - so the big bang couldn't have been the beginning in the Catholic sense because it began from something. Catholic doctrine maintains that creation began from nothing.

            However, when he made his speech 60 years ago to the Academy, Pius XII had faith that the big bang hypothesis was more attuned to Catholic doctrine than was realised at the time, even by Lemaitre.

            It now turns out that the Pope's faith has been justified and his boldness vindicated. Not only has the big bang been corroborated by piles of evidence, but we are at the early stages of understanding that our universe could indeed have begun from nothing, in line with Catholic doctrine.

  • Joe Grimer

    Thank you for your interesting article. It made me think! I'm curious to what your thoughts might be on the following "rebuttal" of sorts:

  • Peter

    "But nothing about the Big Bang necessitates the sort of beginning that begs for a divine cause"

    On the contrary, a beginning without an efficient cause is precisely the sort of beginning which demands a divine cause as understood by Catholic doctrine.

    "If God did set off the Big Bang, evidence of his first creative act is forever shrouded from our instruments and theories"

    It is a mistake to assume that God's creative act was a physical act capable of measurement. God's act was simply calling the universe into existence. It was the universe that did the physical acting, as Hawking as indeed described.

  • Interesting stuff Paul. I hope you will get the opportunity to write on the Hartle-Hawking model as you said you might.

  • Al Moritz

    Good article, and also I like the last two paragraphs, but it makes one fundamental and often committed mistake. No universe can come from "nothing". The universe might indeed have come from a quantum vacuum, but that 'physical nothing' is not nothing. The difference between this 'nothing' and real nothing is very well explained by cosmologist Luke Barnes in his article "Of nothing":


    See also "More sweet nothings":


    So even if the quantum vacuum were an efficient cause for the universe, it in turn would require an efficient cause of its own.

    • Peter

      If time began with the universe, there was no time before that event, if "before" is an appropriate word to use. And if no time existed, nothing such as a quantum vacuum could exist within it. Therefore there was no pre-existing quantum vacuum. Instead a quantum vacuum may have been a necessary emanation from the instance of creation when the time and space of the universe spontaneously came into being, assuming again that "when" is an appropriate word to use.

      To St Augustine the word "before" had no meaning, There was no "before" when the universe was created. In fact, there was not even a "when" because at the instance of creation there was no ongoing time in which a "when" could occur.

      • Michael Murray

        And if no time existed, nothing such as a quantum vacuum could exist within it.

        Why does a quantum vacuum depend on time ?

        Maybe it's worth pointing out that we don't understand how to put gravity and quantum mechanics together to make a coherent theory of quantum gravity. So when we even say t = 0 we should really call it Extrapolated Time Zero. What really happens is that if you run models of the expansion of the universe backwards you might imagine that at t=0 the universe occupied zero volume. But in fact before you get there at around t = 10^{-43} seconds quantum effects start to dominate everything and people talk about space-time breaking down completely. Modelling further back in time is pretty difficult without that quantum theory of gravity.

        • Peter

          My point is that to dismiss a universe from nothing because of the alleged pre-existence of a quantum vacuum has no meaning.

          If you hypothesise the existence of a timeless and spaceless quantum vacuum existing below the planck scale and allege that the universe emerges from it, it's exactly the same as saying the universe emerges from nothing because, being timeless and spaceless, the quantum vacuum has the properties of being precisely nothing.

          • Michael Murray

            I'm not hypothesising anything. I'm saying we don't know.

  • Tim Dacey
    • Michael Murray

      Yes I think that one went on for awhile. I don't remember how it ended. Some more here


      • Tim Dacey

        My take on how it ended is that Krauss, much like many contemporary scientists, embarrassed himself. It's unfortunate that many popular science writers have a negative view of philosophy (not to mention, much of them are really bad at doing philosophy!)

  • James Russell

    Why does it have to be science versus the Bible? There is a
    lot to learn if we are willing to accept that science and Christianity can
    embrace one another. There is a new book
    I recently read called To Adam about Adam by Jim Frederick that makes a great argument
    as to how science and the Bible can embrace one another as a part of God's
    plan. The author works through Genesis
    step by step to show how science supports creation, that is both evolution and
    Adam/Eve occurred. The book builds a
    good case as to how the basis for sin (being self-centered) originated as a
    part of our evolutionary history centered on the fittest will survive. He then
    discusses in an informal way as how the Old Testament is a series of lessons as
    to what cannot defeat sin, whereas the New Testament describes the only
    solution. I believe this book can help
    those of us who have often wonder whether science and the Bible are opposing
    forces (or not). For me the debate is

  • Irenist

    Fantastic article!

    However, it seems to me that the well-known atemporality of the Big Bang singularity is an argument against a per accidens cause of the universe, but not really against the Catholic God, Who is the per se cause of the universe. (This goes to Ye Olde Statistician's point about logical priority instead of temporal priority).

    But as a counterargument to the Kalam Cosmological argument as deployed by, e.g., W.L. Craig, which I think does imply a per accidens cause of the universe, this article is very, very good.

  • inqwizit0r

    All Hail the Quantum Void!
    Yea, for from the void thou art arisen, and unto the void thou shalt return.

  • Steve Pålsson

    Does the kalam argument require that there be time "before" time came to be, that there be a moment "before" the first moment? If so, we can see that the Kalam argument has a serious problem without knowing anything about modern physics, and in fact the physics obscures the problem (insofar as some future refinement in the theory might lead us to reject the conclusion that the big bang started with a singularity where time was space-like). Am I right about that or am I missing something?

  • Patrick

    "If space and time themselves are just emergent properties from nature, nature itself can act as a cause outside space and time."

    I find this central statement of yours to add nothing to our understanding, or even to convey an idea to the mind. It doesn't mean anything to say that space and time are "just emergent properties". Similar statements have been made to explain consciousness as just an "epiphenomenon of matter", an equally meaningless statement. I might as well say that reality is ... we'll it just is. The object of thinking is meaning, and these assertions don't mean anything. Similarly, what can be understood by the statement that "nature itself can act". This does explain anything.

  • David Hine

    Calculate Hubble’s Constant simply, by inputting to an equation, the numerical value of Pi and the speed of light (C) from Maxwell’s equations, and the value of a parsec. NO space probe measurements (with their inevitable small measuring / interpretation errors) are now required. Hubble’s Constant is ‘fixed’ at 70.98047 PRECISELY. This maths method removes the errors / tolerances that is always a part of attempting to measuring something as ‘elusive’ as Hubble’s Constant. This has very deep implications for theoretical cosmology. 70.98047 is the rate Jesus 'Stretches out the Heavens' (space), Isiah 49.22. No way can you ever disprove the Torah with 'science'.
    The reciprocal of ‘fixed’ 70.98047 is 13.778 billion light years, BUT as this does not increase as time passes, it’s the Hubble distance ONLY. So no 'Big Bang'.
    The equation to perform this is 2 X a meg parsec X light speed (C). This total is then divided by Pi to the power of 21. This gives 70.98047 kilometres per sec per meg parsec.
    The equation to perform this can also be found in ‘The Principle of Astrogeometry’ on Amazon Kindle Books. This also explains how the Hubble 70.98047 ‘fixing’ equation was found. David.

  • David Hine

    Correction, Isiah 40.22