The origin of life, the universe and our species is one of the big questions. In general, origin is hard to prove and difficult to comprehend. To comprehend a point in the past where matter, and indeed time itself, didn’t exist is taxing on a number of levels, and inevitably leads us to question the fragility of our own existence.
Certainly origin is one of the aspects which underlines the different approaches theists and atheists take on certain issues. Specifically, atheists will question and seek answers whilst theists are happy to accept the first answer given.
Just to be clear, the majority of religions (I can personally speak of Islam and Christianity) believe that their has always existed. To back this up, they raise the issue of cause. Cause triggers an effect, if there is an effect, there must be a cause. The effect is the universe, so what’s the cause?
Back to the Beginning
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
It seemed appropriate to start with Genesis as it gives us a launching pad and something to consider. “In the beginning” implies that this is the start, and as the topic of discussion is origin, we can presume that this is the start of the start, the beginning of the origin if you will. This opening statement sits well with scientific theory, in that before matter, time did not exist.
The start of everything was the creation of matter (assuming that time cannot exist unless there is matter on which we can observe its impact). Without wanting to dive into a discussion of semantics, the quote opens up the possibility that God could not have existed without his creation. The statement is not “God existed and then created…”, it is “In the beginning” – which suggests, as I stated earlier, before anything else. So while the argument is that God has always existed, it only really applies within the confines of science’s definition of time.
The result of this is that the bible does not necessarily claim that God existed before his creations. Applying logic to conclude that he must have existed in order to create something does not apply here. We could speculate that God only came into existence through the act of creating. We would, of course, dispute that “God created” due to a lack of evidence.
Returning to the issue of cause, God has been referred to as the cause without a cause, which seems like an odd definition. This is obviously an attempt to avoid calling God an “effect”.
When it comes to cause, theists rely on two principals to solidify their argument. Firstly, that every effect has a cause. Secondly, that if we follow the cause and effect chain back to the beginning, we must reach a point where the condition falls down (i.e. either we reach a point where there is no cause and hence no effect, or we reach an effect without a cause – both breaking the fundamental cause and effect rule). They say that God is the end of the chain, the original cause. And just to be clear here, we’re talking about an infinite regress.
As an argument in support of the existence of a creator God, infinite regression is simply a dressed up version of the “God of the Gaps” argument. Theists find a gap in science’s knowledge, latch on to it, and propose God as the answer. As scientific knowledge has improved, it has closed off many of the “God of the Gaps” arguments while opening up a number of new ones. It’s what happens in the course of scientific advancement, whilst some problems are solved, others are caused.
The obvious issue any logical person would have with claiming infinite regress, or effect without cause, as an argument for the existence of a God is that it is ultimately self-defeating. You cannot argue that God must not exist because ever effect must have a cause, whilst also arguing that God is the cause without a cause. It’s not only hypocritical but logically indefensible. Either you accept that the universe is bound by the rules, or not. You cannot pick and choose the rules you accept, and those you apply in your arguments. This isn’t about creating a level playing field when it comes to these discussions, it’s about ensuring there is a sound foundation on which to base our ideas. Selective acceptance of rules is not a sound foundation, quite the opposite. As Bertrand Russell so elegantly put it…
If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.
Even discounting the flawed logic, the infinite regression argument still fails the same tests that the “God of the Gaps” argument fails. For example, the absence of a scientific explanation for a phenomena, any phenomena, does not necessitate, nor prove, the existence of a God.
In steps Science…
Earlier I touched on the idea that science causes itself problems. In it’s pursuit of advancement and knowledge it breaks boundaries and unveils new worlds. We never had to consider sub-atomic physics until we knew the sub-atomic world existed, for example. The key difference between the scientific approach and the theistic approach can be clearly evidenced in any “God of the Gaps” argument. While theists are happy to suggest that any gap in knowledge is the work of a God, science works to close the gaps in our knowledge.
Unlike the theist camp, followers of science do not claim to have an answer to the origin question. There are numerous Theories of Everything, including String Theory, but they are unproven (and untested) theories. My assertions above are logically questioning the Christian take on creation, not scientifically disproving it – the distinction is important and I do not want to mislead anyone by claiming otherwise.
Scientifically, we are heading towards a situation where we can examine the conditions that resulted in the universe, it’s all a matter of being able to closely reproduce the environment the big bang occurred in. This requires an almost incomprehensible amount of power. Nevertheless, onward we go.
I’ll openly admit that origin, or creation, is an area I struggle with. On the one hand, I find theist’s versions of events irreconcilable with the real world, yet I also do not know enough about the subject to be confident in science’s explanation. This is an area vastly more complicated than evolutionary science, and demonstrating it isn’t as simple as demonstrating speciation or intermediate fossils.
As a response to the infinite regression argument, I wanted to offer an alternative, logically defensible, theory. As I touched on previously, I can logically discount the infinite regression argument, in much the same way I can logically discount the God of the Gaps argument, but it would be hypocritical of me to not offer an alternative.
The cause and effect argument for the existence of a God is based on two assumptions. Note that I’m using a closed definition of the word “universe” to illustrate my theory. Perhaps a holistic system would be a better description, but that’s too much typing.
- We know and understand all the physical rules by which our world is bound.
- The creation of this universe was bound by those same rules.
To address the first assumption, our knowledge of the universe is evolving all the time. To assume that we know all the rules by which our universe is constrained is arrogant and incorrect. Simply looking at the advancements in areas such as String Theory should give some indication that we are still learning. We are also unable to recreate certain environments and conditions, therefore preventing us from fully exploring posited hypotheses. In particular, the massive amounts of energy required to recreate the conditions around the time of the Big Bang means it is not currently possible to fully understand the events that took place.
The second assumption is also open to debate. Whilst we can, based on current knowledge, state that effect must have a cause, we can only state that as being true for our own universe. We do not know what exists, if anything, outside our universe, and whether it is bound by the same rules. To ground this in reality, we can look at a known example – the sub-atomic world. Whilst is is undoubtedly part of our universe, it is not universally bound by the same rules. We have witnessed behaviour in the sub-atomic world universe that contradicts our understanding of the world and the prior understood laws of physics. Logically extending this to encompass the possibility that our universe is in turn part of a larger universe, doesn’t seem a stretch too far.
Whilst considering this possibility, we might also care to wonder whether the universe which contains our universe is subject to the same physical laws and conditions as our own. To assume that it is would be a leap of faith. There is nothing upon which to base a logical assumption that because energy and matter cannot be created in isolation in our universe, it cannot in any universe.
You might also consider that if, in the “Extra Universe” (perhaps “Super Universe” would be more fitting) matter under certain conditions can produce energy, the origin of our universe was the result of such a reaction.
I don’t want to suggest that the theory above is the answer to the question of origin. Rather I hope it acts as a starting point for a discussion. The theory itself can be dismantled and discredited, which I welcome, so long as its purpose remains. The one thing I hope it has suggested is that it cannot be scientifically disproved, and that alone is evidence enough that our knowledge of the universe, and the environment our universe inhabits, is still limited.
What I do want to reiterate is that the logical argument for the existence of a God is always based on shaky foundations. Live by logic, die by logic.