The Existence of the Universe:
The Cosmological Argument
This argument (sometimes called the Kalam Cosmological Argument) is an ancient one that can be traced in some form, all the way back to Plato and Aristotle1. However, it still remains a hugely popular and, in my view, very powerful piece of evidence in favour of the existence of God. And the evidence cannot be more accessible; it is the simply the existence of the universe.
The argument is based on two premises:
- Premise 1: Everything that has a beginning has a cause
- Premise 2: The universe had a beginning
Premise 1: Everything that has a beginning has a cause
This premise is fairly uncontroversial and intuitive. Our experience informs us that if an object, state or process begins, it always begins for a reason. In fact, this assumption is the foundation of most experimental science, which looks to deduce the causes of observations.
We can also assess this premise by looking at its negation (or alternative). If the negation of a statement is false, it logically follows that the statement must be true. And of course, if the negation of a statement is true, the statement itself must be false.
The negation of Premise 1 would be “not everything that has a beginning has a cause”, or in other words “something can come from nothing”. However this is certainly not a logical thing to say. Nothing cannot create anything, because nothing cannot do anything. To suggest that something can come from nothing is, to put it bluntly, worse than magic. At least when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, we have the magician to posit as the cause (never mind the hat!).2
Therefore, on philosophical, scientific and experiential grounds, most critics conclude that Premise 1 is true: everything that has a beginning has a cause.
Premise 2: The universe had a beginning
Although my field is Human Biology, I find the physics of the start of the universe absolutely fascinating. Over recent years, a huge amount of evidence has come to the fore clearly indicating that the universe had a beginning, roughly 13.7 billion years ago. I shall briefly touch on some of this evidence, which has come from three very different scientific fields: cosmological physics, molecular chemistry and applied mathematics.
18th Century cosmology revolutionised the ancient debate of whether the universe had a beginning or not, with the discovery of the Doppler shift. This was the finding that the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation coming from distant galaxies and stars indicated that the universe is in a state of cosmic expansion. When extrapolated into the past, this resulted in the theory that the universe started with a single “explosion” from an infinitesimally small point. We of course now commonly call this the “Big Bang Theory”. The Big Bang Theory totally transformed cosmology, by switching the mainstream scientific view that the universe was eternal, to that of the universe having a beginning.
Evidence for a beginning of the universe also comes from a fundamental principle of chemistry: the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. The 2nd Law states that the magnitude of the entropy (a measure of “disorder”) of the universe is increasing. However, this Law requires there to have been a beginning to the universe a finite time ago, for if the universe has existed from eternity past, the universe would be totally disordered by now. This would produce a universe devoid of any fluctuations of enthalpy (measure of “heat energy”), which is certainly not what we observe today. As Prof. Stephen Hawking remarked:
“it [the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics] indicates that there must have been a beginning. Otherwise, the universe would be in a state of complete disorder by now, and everything would be at the same temperature.”3
In 2003, another weighty piece of evidence emerged from the field of applied mathematics. Leading scientists Arvind Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin mathematically proved that any universe that is in an average state of cosmic expansion cannot be infinite in the past, but must have had a beginning4. Vilenkin’s conclusion was blunt:
“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.”5
The volume and breadth of scientific evidence mean that scientists virtually unanimously agree that the universe had a beginning.
Once we have established that the two premises are true, we can then add a conclusion.
- Premise 1: Everything that has a beginning has a cause
- Premise 2: The universe had a beginning
- Conclusion: Therefore the universe had a cause
The universe having a cause may not seem like a significant statement given the premises, and it certainly does not prove God’s existence on its own. However, we can now look at what a cause of the universe would have been like. From what we know about the universe, we can deduce several characteristics of its cause6:
- The universe encompasses the entire “material world”. Therefore the cause of the universe must be immaterial.
- The universe includes within it all of the spatial dimensions. Therefore the cause of the universe has to be unbound by the spatial dimensions, so must be dimensionless or infinite.
- The universe also includes within it, all of the temporal dimensions. (Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity showed that space and time are actually two components of the same substance, unimaginatively called “spacetime”.) Therefore a cause of the universe has to be unbound by the temporal dimensions, so must be timeless, or
- Finally the cause of the universe must be immensely powerful, to have created all that we see around us in the universe.
So science leads us to look for a cause of the universe that is immaterial, dimensionless, infinite, eternal and incomprehensibly powerful. One does not need to be a theist to realise that this sounds like a comprehensive description of God!
Commonest Objections to the Cosmological Argument
#1 Who created God?
This is the most common objection or criticism to the Cosmological Argument in my experience. However, it seems to be very peculiar. Premise 1 does not say “everything has a cause”; rather it states “everything that has a beginning has a cause”. In the Christian worldview (and indeed in the majority of other theistic worldviews) God is eternal- He has always existed. Therefore as an eternal being, He does not need a cause because He has simply existed from eternity past. This principle does not just apply to God. For the vast majority of human history, mainstream science has believed that the universe has always existed. Because of this, scientists did not need to hypothesise a cause of the universe- its eternality meant they did not have to.
So if God is eternal, He does not come under the category “everything that has a beginning” and therefore does not need a cause.
#2 Could the cause of the universe be the multiverse?
The Multiverse Hypothesis is something that we will revisit in a little more detail in the next chapter. However, there are some points worth mentioning with respect to the Cosmological Argument.
The Multiverse Hypothesis states that there exists many universes in a kind of “universe ensemble”, of which our universe is a part. These universes may be being generated by some sort of “random universe generator”, which creates different universes with different properties.
There is very little, if any, empirical evidence from any field that indicates the existence of the multiverse. This has led some theistic apologists to accuse subscribers to the hypothesis of having “blind faith”.
However, an interesting result spawned from the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem4 which mathematically proved that the universe had a beginning. The theorem implies that even if our universe is one of many in a multiverse, the multiverse must also have had an absolute beginning and could not be past eternal. Therefore, postulating a multiverse does not get rid of the need for a cause; it simply puts the beginning further back in time.
#3 Could the universe have created itself?
This is the view held by Prof. Stephen Hawking, who, in his controversial book The Grand Design (in which he also declares that “philosophy is dead”) writes: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing”7
Putting aside the point that the law of gravity is clearly not “nothing”, Hawking’s view also contains a significant logical fallacy, which Prof. John Lennox wittily points out:
“the statement “the universe can and will create itself from nothing” is self-contradictory. If I say, “X creates Y,” this presupposes the existence of X in the first place in order to bring Y into existence. If I say “X creates X,” I presuppose the existence of X in order to account for the existence of X. To presuppose the existence of the universe to account for its existence is logically incoherent. What this shows is that nonsense remains nonsense even when talked by world-famous scientists. It also shows that a little bit of philosophy might have helped.”8
The idea that the universe created itself is simply logically incoherent.
#4 Could the laws of the universe have changed at some point in history, leading to the appearance of a beginning?
This is a fascinating conjecture, but one which throws up some uncomfortable issues for those who study physics.
The Big Bang Theory is what some call a theory of “the Science of History”. Other Science of History theories include biological evolution, radioactive carbon dating, etc. Science of History subjects are all based on one fundamental assumption: we can look into the past by looking at the physical processes of the present and extrapolating backwards. However, this requires the laws of the universe to have remained constant throughout the existence of the universe. If the laws of the universe changed at some point in history, our extrapolations could only be valid from after the point of change; i.e. we would not be able to deduce anything from before the change. So the idea that the laws of the universe could change is an awkward one, because it would throw into question the very foundations of the Big Bang Theory, as well as everything else we know about the past universe.
However, there is a more serious issue with this hypothesis. If the universe did change from some unknown state into the classical spacetime that we observe, we would have to conclude that the universe was in a state of quantum instability before the change. However, an unstable universe at the quantum level could not have existed from eternity past9. As physicists Anthony Aguirre and John Kehayias summarised in their 2013 paper:
“it is very difficult to devise a system – especially a quantum one – that does nothing “forever,” then evolves. A truly stationary or periodic quantum state, which would last forever, would never evolve, whereas one with any instability will not endure for an indefinite time.”10
Speculating a universal state change does not negate the need for a cause of the universe. It (like the multiverse hypothesis) simply puts the start date further back in time.
#5 Why would the law of cause and effect apply to something outside the universe, and therefore outside the laws of physics?
Objections #5 and #6 are interesting metaphysical objections to Premise 1: “Everything that has a beginning has a cause”. These require a little bit of in-depth unpacking, so feel free to skip over these two sections if metaphysics does not interest you.
Some opponents to the Cosmological Argument argue that Premise 1 is true of everything in the universe, but not of the universe11. This is because it is generally believed that the laws of physics only apply within the boundaries of the universe.
However, proponents of this view fail to understand the rationale behind Premise 1. I would argue that Premise 1 is true, not because it is empirically verifiable, but because it is logically verifiable. In other words, the evidence for Premise 1 comes not from experimentation and testable observations, but from logical necessity which stands independent of the laws of physics. An analogous example could be the statement: “There are no married bachelors in existence”. We know this statement is true, not because of testable evidence from repeatable experiments, but because it has to be true on logical grounds. This statement would thus still be true, even outside the universe where (we believe) the laws of physics do not apply. Or to put it another way: there cannot be any married bachelors, even outside the universe.
Similarly, I would argue that Premise 1 is true on logical grounds (i.e. something cannot ever come from nothing), not empirical grounds. Therefore it would still apply to events outside the universe and not bound by the laws of physics, such as the creation of the universe itself.
#6 Why would the law of cause and effect apply to something that is not bound by time (such as the time dimension itself)?
This is a paraphrase of an argument popularised by philosopher Prof. Adolf Grünbaum in 199012. Grünbaum argued that the law of cause and effect requires a pre-existing time dimension, because a cause must always precede its effect in time. Therefore, the postulation of a cause of the universe (containing the time dimension) is nonsensical, because this would require causation occurring independent of the existence of time.
However, many philosophers contest the premise that “a cause must always precede its effect”. This was famously illustrated by Immanuel Kant who described a heavy metal ball resting on a fluffed cushion13. The ball resting on the cushion caused an indentation in the cushion. However, the ball resting did not precede the indentation. Rather, this is a good example of simultaneous or atemporal causation (i.e. a cause and its effect happening at the same time).
We find a similar situation with the creation of the universe. I would argue that God’s creation of the universe happened simultaneously with the universe coming into existence. Therefore, the cause and the effect happened simultaneously, so there is no need for a pre-existing time dimension at the beginning of the universe.
#7 Surely the Cosmological Argument does not lead to Christianity alone. It could lead to the belief in the God of Islam, Mormonism and many others.
I totally agree with this point. The Cosmological Argument indicates God’s existence. However, it does not say enough about God’s character for us to find out if the true God is that of Christianity, Islam or some other religion. In order to deduce if one of these religions has an accurate depiction of God, we need to look at other evidence about God’s character (rather than simply for His existence). We will be coming to this in chapters 3-5.
- “Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God”, Macmillan Encyclopaedia of Philosophy(1967), Vol. 2, 232 ff.
- Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, On Guard (David C Cook, 2010), 75
- Stephen Hawkings, The Beginning of Time Lecture (1996)
- Arvind Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete, arXiv: gr-qc/0110012v2 (14th January 2003)
- Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 176
- Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, On Guard, 99
- Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2011), 180
- John Lennox, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target (Lion Hudson plc. 2011), 31-32
- As argued by William Lane Craig in, “God and Cosmology” debate with Sean Carroll (Greer Heard Forum, 2014)
- Anthony Aguirre and John Kehayias, “Quantum Instability of the Emergent Universe,” arXiv; 1306.3232v2 [hep-th] (19th November 2013)
- As summarised by William Lane Craig, On Guard, 77
- Adolf Grünbaum, The Pseudo-Problem of Creation in Physical Cosmology, in John Leslie (ed.) Physical Cosmology and Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Co., 1990)
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (New York: Macmillan Press., 1965)