Could a universe create itself? August 16, 2011
I drafted the following piece at the request of the Christian Apologetics Alliance which is in the process of compiling a series of articles answering common objections to theism. Although there is overlap here with my review of Stephen Hawking’s co-authored book “The Grand Design” the present article is more suitable as a succinct and specific answer for any who argue against divine creation.
Objection: “It has now been shown that the universe caused itself rather than having been brought into being by something else.”
Reference key at end of article.
The objection is necessarily false since the most that science could ever say about the matter is that “the universe might have caused itself …”. Whether or not it did actually do so is not open to scientific enquiry. However, even this ‘might have’ claim remains wholly unsubstantiated and is logically incoherent, as I will try to demonstrate below. But first let us be clear about the facts.
Until the early 20th century most scientists believed that the universe had always existed. But this view was shattered by two discoveries, one theoretical and one experimental. The theoretical development was Einstein’s general theory of relativity which implied that only an expanding (or shrinking) universe could be stable. Einstein, in fact, inserted an arbitrary ‘fudge factor’ into his equations to allow for a static universe but later retracted it [WMG p.100]. The experimental discovery was that the universe was indeed expanding, evidenced by the red-shift in the spectra of distant galaxies [WMG pp. 101-102]. This in turn implied that the universe did have a beginning which can be represented as a singularity (a situation in which certain physical quantities become infinite — in this case temperature and density). This implied singularity became known as the “hot Big Bang” origin of the universe and is now generally accepted by cosmologists. More recent observations of the all-pervasive “cosmic microwave background radiation” provided confirmatory evidence of this model of cosmic origins (or cosmogenesis) [WMG pp. 102-103].
Since that time, certain scientists have advanced ingenious theories (strictly, hypotheses) in an attempt to avoid the theological implications of a big bang creation — most recently Victor Stenger in USA and Stephen Hawking in UK. Basically, they claim that scientific/mathematical ‘models’ can explain how the universe might have arisen spontaneously out of nothing (ex nihilo) by the operation of natural laws without the intervention of a supernatural creator [Stenger, Hawking]. However, their reasoning is seriously flawed in the following ways.
1. It is important to understand that science can explain nothing except in terms of the laws of nature. Science works by first discovering (by observation) laws that describe the workings of nature and then using this knowledge to seek out further explanations — beginning with hypotheses and then confirming these hypotheses by various tests, the chief of which must always be repeatable experimental verification. To offer a scientific explanation of anything one must always appeal to existing laws (or at very least plausible hypotheses). No laws, no science; it’s as simple as that.
2. To explain the origin of the universe scientifically, therefore, requires an appeal to laws of nature (established or hypothesized) that pre-existed the universe. But laws of nature are nothing more than descriptions of the way nature operates. No one has ever proposed a law of nature that does not involve existing natural entities, whether they be matter, energy, space-time or mathematical systems. (Note that mathematics are arguably philosophical rather than scientific in character and are only scientifically relevant when applied to natural realities — that is, the world as it exists).
3. This creates a dilemma; the laws of nature cannot exist without nature itself existing but the origin of nature cannot be explained scientifically without pre-existing laws. The logical conclusion is that science cannot, by its very nature, explain the origin of the universe.
4. The only alternative is that the laws of nature did pre-exist the universe but existed as a kind of blueprint in some non-material medium such as the “mind of God”.
5. Stephen Hawking falls into this dilemma by claiming that the universe was created as a result of quantum mechanical fluctuations (in a vacuum) which became stabilized by gravitational forces [Hawking pp. 131-135; Hawking review]. He thus requires the laws of quantum mechanics and of gravity to have pre-existed the universe. (He later seems to make the same claim for so-called ‘M-theory’). But what is the law of gravity but a description of the way material bodies interact — either with one another or with the space-time continuum? To claim that such a law existed in the absence of matter, energy, space or time stretches credulity and is incapable of demonstration. Only ‘mind of God’ and ‘non-material blueprint’ arguments remain and these are theological not scientific.
6. Victor Stenger seems to recognize this problem and attempts to overcome it by proposing that the laws of nature first created themselves out of nothing and then were available to create the cosmos. His actual words are; “So where did the laws of nature come from? They came from nothing! … [they] follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose’ [Stenger p.131]. However, ‘symmetries’ are properties attributed by scientists to the laws and/or phenomena of the natural order; they have no existence apart from the cosmos they describe. Any void which possesses symmetries, therefore, must by definition lie within the universe and cannot give rise to it. For example, it could be argued that space-time has symmetries, so that a vacuum within the cosmos would also exhibit symmetries. But any void that lay outside of space-time cannot possess symmetries or any other physical properties — it certainly cannot be known to do so.
7. Conclusion; attempts to explain away the origin of the universe as a spontaneous event occurring in some pre-existing ‘void’ fail the tests both of science and logic.
‘Stenger’; Victor J. Stenger, God, the failed hypothesis (New York, Prometheus Books, 2007)
‘Hawking’; Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The grand design; new answers to the ultimate questions of life (London, Bantam Press, 2010)
‘WMG’; Edgar Andrews, Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything (Darlington, 2009)
‘Hawking review’; Edgar Andrews, God, black holes and Stephen Hawking (review of The grand design on www.whomadegod.org)