Saturday, February 20, 2010

Is There a God? The Evidence of Cosmology

Psalm 19:1-4 reads: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

How do the heavens declare the glory of God? Astronomer Hugh Ross says that “Astronomers who do not draw theistic or deistic conclusions are becoming rare, and even the few dissenters hint that the tide is against them.” Why is this so?

In this and a following blogpost, I will examine scientific evidence for the existence of a divine Creator by looking at the origin and intricate design of the universe.

At the outset, however, we have to acknowledge that there is a difference between a rationally compelling mathematical proof, and the evidence, arguments, or proofs that we are going to be talking about. 2+2=4 is a rationally compelling mathematical proof. The law of non-contradiction is a rationally compelling logical requirement. The scientific arguments from cosmology (origins) and teleology (design) are not rationally compelling theological proofs for the existence of God. Someone who is determined not to embrace a divine Creator will not be persuaded by these arguments.

However, the arguments we’re going to look at are helpful to at least two groups of people.

(1) Those of us who are already Christians have our faith bolstered and strengthened through examining the scientific evidence which supports the existence of God. Oftentimes, skeptics and atheists insist that Christianity is an irrational faith. Seeing the strength of cosmological and teleological arguments for God show that there are solid reasons supporting our faith.

(2) Perhaps more importantly, arguments from the origins and design of the universe can be helpful and persuasive to those who are not yet Christian, but who are open or seeking. For someone who has acknowledged that there is something missing from their life, or who questions whether the secular worldview they’ve been raised in is sufficient, these scientific arguments can be extremely helpful in pointing them towards embracing God.

Because of the purpose and helpfulness of these arguments, combined with their appeal to seekers, I agree with Timothy Keller, who suggests that we call these clues rather than proofs or arguments. If we are willing to follow the evidence where it leads, these clues will be powerful and persuasive. However, if someone approaches these clues with their mind already made up, having ruled God out of their pool of live options, then of course they are not going to be convinced.
With that being said by way of introduction, let’s look at scientific clues to the existence of God – first, the origins of the universe, then the intricate design of the universe.

I. The Clue of Creation – the Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

The cosmological argument, or the clue from the origins of the universe, begins with two premises.

a) Everything that begins to exist has an external cause.
b) The universe began to exist.
If those two premises are true, then the inescapable conclusion is:
c) Therefore, the universe has an external cause.

A. Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has an external cause.

Until the late 1900s, the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument was not disputed. Everyone took it for granted. It seemed self-evident to philosophers, theologians, and scientists alike. Even the Scottish skeptic David Hume conceded the truth of the premise: “But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause.” We’ll return to this premise later on this evening.

B. Premise 2: The universe began to exist.

The second premise of the argument, however, was not only vigorously disputed in the Middle Ages, but was seriously questioned. Until the 1900s, this premise was, scientifically speaking, neither self-evident nor widely-accepted. The dominant philosophical and scientific belief was that the universe is eternal. This made eminent sense, at least in a non-Christian worldview. After all, the universe did not seem to change over time, other than the changing of the seasons and the regular movements of the heavenly hosts. The regularities which we observed could reasonably be extrapolated backwards into eternity. As difficult as it is to comprehend today, just 100 years ago the dominant scientific belief held that the universe was eternal. Belief in the eternality of the universe hearkens all the way back to the Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle. Scientists believed that the universe is all that was, all that is, and all that ever will be. For centuries, Christian theists had argued, using logic and mathematics, that the universe was not eternal, but had a definite beginning point. They were arguing, generally, against the scientific evidence of their day.

1) The Rise of Big Bang Cosmology

This state of affairs began to change early in the 20th century. As Albert Einstein began to develop his theory of general relativity, he realized that his equations pointed to a temporal origin to the universe - that a finite time ago the entire cosmos burst forth and is still expanding. Einstein was “irritated” by this, and did his utmost to avoid it. His resistance did not hold on for very long. In the 1920s, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered “red shift” in the light emitted from distant galaxies. This red shift showed that galaxies are moving apart from one another, indicating that the universe is expanding. Hubble’s discovery of red shift further showed that the universe is expanding at the same rate in all directions.

The logical conclusion from the discovery of red shift was that, “at some point in the past the entire known universe was contracted down to a single mathematical point, from which it has been expanding ever since.” In other words, at some point in the distant past (now believed to be about 13.7 billion years ago), the universe began to exist. At this beginning point, the universe is referred to as a singularity - “A point of infinite density and infinitesimal volume, at which space and time become infinitely distorted according to the theory of General Relativity.”

As the theory of the universe’s temporal origin began to gain prominence, it was derisively called “The Big Bang” by Sir Fred Hoyle, an atheistic astronomer. Hoyle was extremely reluctant to let go of his belief in the eternal, steady state of the universe. Even in 1978, he can only speak of the Big Bang as being “the prevalent belief”, but argues that “modern astronomy has not yet provided a final answer to the question of how the universe began.”

However, the scientific evidence for the Big Bang continued to accumulate. In 1965, astronomers stumbled across Cosmic Background Radiation - the leftover heat wave emanating from the Big Bang - which had been predicted to exist as early as 1948. The degree and uniformity of the radiation matched precisely the predictions from Einstein’s theory of relativity and models of Big Bang cosmology. Since then, several other astronomical discoveries have provided further confirmation of the Big Bang. Today, the Big Bang is not just the dominant scientific understanding of how the universe began - it is almost universally-held amongst astronomers. Interpretation of the Big Bang as a singularity differs; but there is almost no argument that our space-time continuum began at the Big Bang.

Thus, William Lane Craig concludes: “A hundred years ago … Christians had to maintain by faith in the Bible that despite all appearances to the contrary, the universe was not eternal but was created out of nothing a finite time ago. Now, the situation is exactly the opposite. It is the atheist who has to maintain by faith, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that the universe did not have a beginning a finite time ago but is in some inexplicable way eternal after all. So the shoe is on the other foot. The Christian can stand confidently within biblical truth, knowing it’s in line with mainstream astrophysics and cosmology. It’s the atheist who feels very uncomfortable and marginalized today.”

It is difficult to overemphasize the size of this paradigm shift. The scientific community has, in less than 100 years, done an abrupt about-face. What had been accepted for centuries as scientifically-established dogma (the eternality of the universe) has, in the space of a few generations, been entirely and totally debunked. It is now accepted as evidentially proven that our universe began about 13.7 billions years ago in a massive cosmic explosion, a Big Bang. Time and space as we know them are not eternal, but had their beginnings in that singularity.
Time and matter both had their origin in that singularity, and there was literally nothing in physical existence prior to the Big Bang. Scientific evidence accumulated consistently until the Big Bang became the accepted scientific understanding. Thus, premise 2 – “the universe began to exist” – is very well-established scientifically today.

Nonetheless, skeptics have sought to avoid a true origin to the universe, and propose three alternative models of the universe.

2) Oscillating Universe

The oscillating universe model holds that the universe is, indeed, eternal, and has gone through an infinite series of “bangs” and “crunches”. That is, the universe as we know it originated from the Big Bang, but the Big Bang was only one of many big bangs that have occurred. The universe is now expanding, but, this model holds, eventually this expansion will cease, and the universe will begin to contract again, eventually shrinking back to a singularity. At that point, the universe will again experience a Big Bang, and will expand forth from that singularity. The oscillating view of the universe, with infinite eternal bang-crunch cycles of creation, destruction, and creation, is deeply influenced by Eastern spirituality – Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism – with their eternal cyclical view of time and history. In this model, the cycle of bang-crunch, bang-crunch, will continue to occur forever. Eventually, one bang is certain to produce the physical and cosmological laws necessary for the emergence of life.

While this view is appealing to followers of Eastern mysticism, there are deep logical and rational problems with the oscillating universe model. First, it contravenes astronomical evidence, which points to an unending expansion of the universe. There is simply no reason to believe that the universe will ever stop expanding, and will begin contracting back upon itself. Second, there is no known mechanism or astrophysical law which would result in the “rebounding” of the universe when it contracted back to a singularity. Third, the oscillating model violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or the law of entropy. This law suggests that in an oscillating universe, each successive “bounce” would get smaller, and eventually, the universe would not rebound at all, but would simply “crunch” and cease to be. Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, the oscillating model only pushes back the problem of the origin of the universe. It still does not explain how the universe came to be. Given the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the inclusion of time within the four known dimensions of the universe (as well as the impossibility of an actual infinite number of prior bangs and crunches), the universe cannot have experienced an infinite series of bangs and crunches already. Thus, at best, the universe has experienced a finite number of oscillations. What, then, lay behind the first “big bang” of the universe? There is still need for a first cause.

3) Multiverse Theory

Multiverse theory, in various representations, has replaced the oscillating universe model as the most popular naturalistic alternative to big bang theory. The most prominent version has been put forward by Paul Davies and Andrei Linde.

“What we have all along been calling ‘the universe’ is, in this theory, just an infinitesimal part of a single ‘bubble’, or pocket universe, set amid an infinite assemblage of universes - a multiverse - itself embedded in inflating space that exists without end. … an inexhaustible universe-generating mechanism, of which our universe - our bubble - is but one product. Each pocket universe will be born in a burst of heat liberated in that bubble when inflation ceases, will go on to enjoy a life cycle of evolution, and will perhaps eventually suffer a death, but the bubble bath system as a whole is immortal.”

There is a magnetic attractiveness to the majesty and grandeur of multiverse theory. The imaginative concept of a reality far vaster than even the unfathomably vast reaches of our known universe is quite compelling. Davies’ multiverse theory pictures our universe as just a tiny product of a universe-generating machine, paralleled by countless (infinite) other universes that have been created similarly. Multiverse theory is attractive to naturalistic cosmologists because it not only explains the origin of our universe, but it also explains the very evident fine-tuning of our universe which makes it amenable to human life.
Unfortunately, the other universes in multiverse theory, as Davies confesses, are so far apart that they are impossible to observe. There is something very “Star Trek” about multiverse theory - it is more science fiction than science! Even proponents admit that “there are many scientists who dismiss the multiverse as a speculation too far.” The central scientific objection to multiverse theory is its inherent unobservability. It simply cannot be tested by direct observation and evidence.

Worse, multiverse theory exists in the absolute absence of corroborating evidence - it is spurred not by science, but by philosophy. As Davies admits, it represents a shift in the “philosophical foundations” of cosmology, not its scientific foundations. Multiverse theory is not in its essence a scientific theory, but rather a philosophical proposition.

The other problem with multiverse theory is that it does not explain its own origin! All it does is kick up the requirement for a first cause. Rather than needing to explain the supernatural origins of our individual universe, multiverse theory needs to explain the origins of the universe-generating mechanism - the superspace from which our bubble universe and other similar bubble universes have proceeded. As Francis Collins argues, multiverse theory “would not destroy the case for design. It would just kick the issue up another level. In fact, I believe it would point toward design.” The complexity of our universe itself is compelling reason to believe in its transcendent design and creation; to postulate the existence of an infinitely more complex and expansive fabric of reality that itself is the cause of our universe, demands an explanation of its own. It is highly ironic that Davies, who condemns the oscillating universe model on the basis that “we don’t explain something by saying that it has always been there” , proceeds to do just that with multiverse theory - arguing that the multiverse is a sufficient explanation for our own universe, and that the multiverse has just always been.

4) Hawking’s Imaginary Time / No Boundary Origin

The third counter-argument to a supernatural origin to our universe comes from renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Hawking begins with the fact that Einstein’s theory of general relativity breaks down at the Big Bang - the singularity where time and space are shrunk to an infinitesimal size and an immense density. Hawking proposes that as one goes back to the Big Bang, a linear understanding of time breaks down, and should be replaced by a concept of “imaginary time”. He draws the correlative to imaginary numbers (e.g. the square root of -1) which mathematicians use to pursue formulas and equations. With imaginary time:

“It is possible for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge. Space-time would be like the surface of the earth, only with two more dimensions. The surface of the earth is finite in extent but it doesn’t have a boundary or edge: if you sail off into the sunset, you don’t fall off the edge or run into a singularity. … The quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behavior at the boundary. There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down, and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. One could say: ‘The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.’ The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.”

Hawking thus neatly does away with the problem of a “beginning” to the universe. The universe does not have an origin - it has, in fact, always been. Hawking essentially is attempting to resurrect the old belief that the universe is eternal by invoking the concept of imaginary time. But there are two major, fatal, flaws to his theory.

The first is that it is untestable, something which Hawking himself admits as a serious problem. This makes it very questionable as a scientific theory. The second flaw is that it is, in essence, bad science. Hawking rightly points out that mathematicians use imaginary numbers in their equations all the time. However, when mathematicians do this, they eventually reconvert the imaginary numbers into real numbers in order to arrive at a practical, real solution. Hawking, however, refuses to reconvert the imaginary numbers into real numbers. Why? Because as soon as you do so, “Presto, the singularity reappears!” The singularity (i.e. the Big Bang) is actually there all along, and is ultimately unavoidable. Hawking merely manages to hide it for a period of time by invoking his imaginary numbers. This is why Hawking’s theory, even associated with his immense genius and almost cultic status amongst scientists and the general public, has not garnered support. Imaginary time is simply that - imaginary. It does not exist, and it does not help describe the original state of the universe.

So the oscillating universe, multiverse theory, and Hawking’s imaginary time have serious short-comings, and cannot counter the strength of Big Bang theory. Thus, counter-arguments to premise 2 of the kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence are exceedingly weak, and most scientists (and theologians) agree that the universe does, indeed, have a beginning in both time and space, about 13.7 billion years ago.

5) Unavoidable conclusion that the universe has a beginning

Ultimately, alternative explanations of the universe’s origins suffer from the same fundamental shortcoming. They are desperate naturalistic attempts to describe the universe without resorting to the supernatural or transcendent. Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking comes very close to admitting this as his intention.

“But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a Creator.”

“But if the universe is completely self-contained, with no singularities or boundaries, and completely described by a unified theory, that has profound implications for the role of God as Creator.”

In other words, if we can avoid a beginning to the universe, we can avoid the conclusion of a Creator God. Hawking, like other naturalists, will bend over backwards in order to avoid the conclusion to which all of the contemporary astronomical, cosmological, and physical evidence points - that the universe originated from a singularity which is naturally inexplicable and seems to be the work of a transcendent, supernatural agent. The fallacy of their arguments, and the weakness of their alternative theories, is evidenced by the fact that they do not accept, and argue virulently against, one another’s pet theories. Hawking dismisses multiverse theory as a fanciful philosophical treatise; Davies laughs at the preposterous notion of an oscillating universe. Atheistic scientists may all reject the truth that God created the universe ex nihilo, but they cannot agree on a different theory, because none of them hold water scientifically. If one has conceptually rejected the possibility of a supernatural being (i.e. God), then I can understand how it would be more palatable intellectually to introduce such crazy concepts as imaginary time and a universe-generating machine; however, if one is not already entirely closed to the possible existence of God, then the evidence points squarely and clearly in the direction of a divine Creator of our universe.

C. Premise 1 reconsidered: Everything that has a beginning has an external cause

As mentioned earlier, for centuries, no one, even the most strident skeptic, doubted the premise that everything that begins to exist has an external cause. Maggots do not spontaneously arise; they hatch from eggs laid in dead meat. Lightning does not arise out of nothingness; it is caused by electrical currents in the atmosphere. Houses do not create themselves; they are built out of wood, nails, shingles, etc. However, since the discovery of the Big Bang, and the accumulation of overwhelming scientific consensus that the universe did, in fact, begin to exist, some philosophers and scientists have begun to question premise 1 of the kalam cosmological argument. The primary source of their arguments is the wacky world of quantum physics.

Naturalists points to quantum physics experiments that have demonstrated the “creation” and “annihilation” of virtual particle/anti-particle pairs from a “quantum vacuum”. The argument is that, just as matter can arise spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, so too the universe could have spontaneously sprung into existence out of nothing. As atheist Quentin Smith puts it, the universe came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.

Unfortunately for proponents of such arguments, they fudge the meaning of what a quantum “vacuum” is. Laypeople generally understand a vacuum as being the absolute absence of all materials and structure - total and complete nothingness. A quantum vacuum is quite distinct from a classically understood vacuum. There is a rich mixture of energy within a quantum vacuum, governed by a specific structural set of mechanical laws. In other words, a quantum vacuum is not truly a vacuum at all, and it does not represent an accurate picture of what the Big Bang arose out of.

Quantum physics, then, does not hamper the integrity of the premise that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Quite the contrary - origins of particle/anti-particle pairs from a quantum vacuum show that, even with quantum physics, these virtual particles do not arise out of nothing, but are precipitated within a comprehensive structure of laws and energy. Thus, even in the wacky world of quantum physics, you can’t get something from nothing. Nothing gives rise to nothing. The first premise of the kalam cosmological argument remains true: everything that begins to exist has an external cause – even if that cause is a quantum vacuum!

D. Conclusion: The universe has an external cause.

Let’s revisit the original proposition of the kalam cosmological argument. Again, the two premises were: 1) Everything that begins to exist has an external cause. We have seen that this premise is established and supported by logic, philosophy, and science. 2) The universe began to exist. Again, we have seen that the scientific consensus holds, and logic dictates, that the universe began to exist. The conclusion which follows logically from those two premises is: 3) Therefore, the universe has an external cause. The scientific evidence supporting the Big Bang is unquestionable. The singularity from which the Big Bang erupted is inexplicable scientifically by any other means - all known scientific laws break down and cannot fathom or describe what happened and why. The only philosophically and scientifically consistent and satisfying answer is that the universe has, in fact, been caused by a supernatural, transcendent being which exists outside the space-time fabric of our universe. This, in fact, is the Biblical picture of divine Creation - “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing). This inescapable conclusion is being confessed by an increasing number of scientists, especially astronomers and cosmologists - those who study the universe and its origins are strongly inclined to admit its transcendent cause. Thus, the origin of our universe is a strong argument in favor of the existence of God - a transcendent, supernatural being who brought the universe into existence out of nothing from the singularity which we call the Big Bang.

Critics and skeptics may joyfully point out that the cosmological argument, or the clue provided by the origin of the universe, does not, on its own, demonstrate the existence of the Christian God. But the cosmological argument was never intended to do that! But it does provide a very compelling intellectual and rational demonstration that there has to be a Creator God.

Next, I will examine evidence of the fine-tuning of our universe, how it is exquisitely designed in order to support human life on earth, and how this design points to the existence of a divine Creator of the universe.