(information about the author is at the end of the piece)
In recent years Christian apologists have blatantly misled the public in claiming that no conflict exists between science and religion and that modern science actually has dramatically confirmed biblical teachings. For example, in his recent book, What’s So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza says:
In a stunning conformation of the book of Genesis, modern scientists have discovered that the universe was created in a primordial explosion of energy and light. Not only did the universe have a beginning in space and time, but the origin of the universe was also the beginning for space and time. If you accept that everything that has a beginning has a cause, then the material universe has a nonmaterial or spiritual cause. (1)
Every culture has its creation myths and the Bible has no monopoly on those stories. Furthermore, the story in Genesis bears no resemblance to that of modern cosmology. It has the Earth created before the Sun, Moon, and stars. Actually, Earth formed eight billion years after the first stars. The Bible can hardly be credited with predicting the expanding universe described by the Big Bang when it depicts the universe as a firmament with Earth fixed and immobile at its center.
D’Souza’s main claim, however, is that the Big Bang showed that the universe, including space and time, began as a singularity of infinitesimal size and infinite density. For 30 years Christian apologist William Lane Craig has argued that everything that begins must have a cause and, since the universe had a beginning, it must have had an external cause. (2) Craig identifies that cause with the first cause or prime mover of Aristotle and Aquinas that they called God.
Craig bases his conclusions on the mathematical proof made by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose in 1970 that the universe began as a singularity. (3) Hawking and Penrose’s conclusion followed from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. What D’Souza, Craig, and other theists ignore is that more than 20 years ago Hawking and Penrose withdrew their claim and agreed that no singularity occurs when you take into account quantum mechanics. D’Souza refers to page 53 of Hawking’s 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time, where Hawking is supposed to say: “There must have been a Big Bang singularity.” (4) I have not been able to find this statement on that or any other page in Hawking’s book. In fact, a few pages earlier Hawking says just the opposite:
So in the end our [Hawking and Penrose] work became generally accepted and nowadays nearly everyone assumed that the universe started with a Big Bang singularity. It is perhaps ironic that, having changed my mind, I am now trying to convince other physicists that there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe – as we shall see later, it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account. (5)
When I debated with William Lane Craig in Hawaii in 2003, I carefully explained the fact that Penrose and Hawking had withdrawn their proposal. Nevertheless, when I heard him talk a few months later on the University of Colorado campus, he was still using the singularity argument to provide evidence for a creator. As of this writing, his website has not corrected his 1991 paper that once again says that the universe began with infinite density. (6)
There simply was no singularity at the start of the Big Bang, and there is no basis to the claim that the universe, much less space and time, began at that point by the act of a creator or outside force. Indeed, modern cosmology points to a limitless universe that has no beginning or end in space and time, with the Big Bang an episode within the larger universe that led to that subuniverse we call home.
But even if we grant that the universe had a beginning, this does not imply that it had a cause. D’Souza refers to me: “Physicist Victor Stenger says the universe may be ‘uncaused’ and may have ‘emerged from nothing.’” He scoffs: “Even David Hume, one of the most skeptical of all philosophers, regarded this position as ridiculous…Hume wrote in 1754, ‘I have never asserted so absurd a proposition as that anything might rise without cause.’” (7)
Hume can be excused for not knowing quantum physics in 1754, but D’Souza and Craig cannot today, more than a century since its discovery. They are wrong in their assertion that everything that begins must have a cause. According to conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics, nothing “causes” the atomic transitions that produce light or the nuclear decays that produce nuclear radiation. These happen spontaneously and only their probabilities are determined.
In 1983 Hawking and James Hartle produced a model for the natural origin of our universe that today remains fully consistent with all we know from physics and cosmology. (8) This is just one of a number of natural scenarios that have been published by reputable scientists in reputable scientific journals. (9) In one variation of the Hartle-Hawking model, following the review by David Atkatz, (10) our universe appeared by a process of quantum tunneling from an earlier universe that extended back into our past without limit. That tunneling passes through a region of total chaos. I have worked out this model in full mathematical detail and published it in both a book and an article in a philosophical journal. (11)
All the published scenarios for a natural origin of our universe are consistent with existing knowledge. However, none has been proven unique. So, while we cannot say this is exactly how our universe came to be, the fact that we have several completely worked out scenarios refutes any claim that a supernatural cause was required to produce the universe.
Cosmological models such as that of Hartle and Hawking and more general considerations indicate that our universe at the earliest moment was a black hole of maximum entropy – this is, total chaos and minimal or no coherent information. This means that they early universe contained no information from any prior state. If a creator existed, our universe has no memory of him.
Now, although the initial entropy of the universe was maximal, that maximum was still very low because the universe at the time was very small. As the volume of the universe increases, the maximum entropy increases. This leaves room for order to form without violation the second law of thermodynamics.
No input of special information was needed for the Big Bang and no laws of physics were violated when it appeared 13.7 billion years ago. Recent measurements of the average energy density of the universe give exactly the value it should have if the total energy at the beginning of the Big Bang were zero. That is, no outside energy was required to make our universe. The total energy of the universe is zero, with the positive energy of motion exactly canceled by the negative potential energy of gravity.
Theologians such as Alvin Plantinga have tried to make much of these kinds of close balance, claiming that they were “fine-tuned” by God to make humanity possible. Any slight energy imbalance in the early universe, as small as one part in ten to the sixtieth, and either the universe would have collapsed too fast for life to form, or it would have expanded so quickly that stars would not have had a chance to form. (12)
This is another example, in this case a highly ironic one, where theologians’ ignorance of physics leads them to mislead themselves and others. Indeed, the balance between positive and negative energy is highly precise because the universe was not created but came into being naturally from nothing with zero energy. Far from helping to prove that God exists, this example provides just one more reason to believe he does not.
Let us look further at the claim that the constants of physics are so finely tuned that, without that tuning, life as we know it would not exist. This argument is often called the anthropic principle. (13) The weak version of this principle is trivial. Of course we live in a universe in which the constants of nature are suited for us. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here.
In the stronger version of the anthropic principle, the constants somehow were chosen to produce us. Theists say it was God’s doing. Scientists have proposed an alternative in which there are multiple universes with different constants and so, by the weak anthropic principle, we are in the universe suited for us.
Many theists have ridiculed the idea of multiple universes, saying it is unscientific since we cannot observe the other universes. They also claim that the multi-universe hypothesis violates Occam’s razor by “multiplying entities beyond necessity.” However, science often deals with the directly unobservable, and multiple universes are suggested by modern cosmological theories that agree with all existing data.
Furthermore, Occam’s razor deals with hypotheses, not objects. The atomic model multiplied the number of objects we had to deal with by a trillion trillion, yet it was more parsimonious than the models that preceded it. Similarly, since we need to introduce an additional hypothesis to limit ourselves to a single universe, it is the single universe model that violates Occam’s razor.
But even in a single universe, the fine-tuning argument fails. It says nothing about life as we don’t know it. We have no way of estimating how many different forms of life might be possible with different constants and laws of physics.
What is more, our universe does not look at all finely tuned for human life. We can only exist on this tiny planet. The universe visible from Earth contains a hundred billion galaxies, each with a hundred billion stars. The distance between stars is so vast by human standards that we will never make a bodily appearance outside our own solar system. Furthermore, more universe – of at least 50 orders of magnitude – lies beyond our horizon. The universe we see with our most powerful telescopes, out to some 40 billion light years, is but a grain of sand in the Sahara. Yet we are supposed to think that a supreme being exists who follows the path of every particle, while listening to every human thought, guiding his favorite football teams to victory, and assuring that the specially chosen survive plane crashes.
Besides, why would a perfect, omnipotent God have to twiddle any knobs to fine-tune the universe for humanity? He’s God. He should have got it right in the first place. He could have made it possible for us to live anyplace, even in outer space.
Finally, let me address probably the most common question theists ask atheists, one they smugly think is the final clincher on the case for God: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is called the primordial existential question. The eminent philosopher Adolf Grunbaum has shown that the question is ill-conceived because it assumes that the natural state of affairs is “nothing” and that some cause was necessary to bring “something” into existence. (14)
That argument can be supplemented with a physics argument that something is more natural than nothing. Material systems in nature tend to change spontaneously from simpler and symmetric states to more complicated and asymmetric states. For example, in the absence of external energy (heat), water vapor will condense into liquid water, which will then freeze into ice. Since nothing is simpler than something, we expect it to change spontaneously into something. As the Nobel prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek said when he was asked why there is something rather than nothing: “Nothing is unstable.” (15)
We can also show that the laws of physics are just what they should be if the universe came from nothing. (16) The stars, planets, mountains, and your and I are simply frozen nothing.
1. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Washington, DC: Regenery Publishing, Inc., 2007), p. 116
2. William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Library of Philosophy and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1979).
3. Stephen W. Hawking and Roger Penrose, “The Singularities of Gravitational Collapse and Cosmology,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, series A, 314, (1970): 529-48.
4. D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, pp. 121-2.
5. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 50.
6. William Lane Craig, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe,” Truth: A Journal of Modern Thought 3 (1991): 85-96; available online at www.leaderu.com/truth/3thruth11.html (accessed July 31, 2008).
7. D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? P. 125, citing Victor J. Stenger, “Has Science Found God?” Free Inquiry 19/1 (Winter 1998/1999): 56-8, and J.Y.T. Greid, ed., The Letters of David Hume (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), p. 187.
8. James B. Hartle and Stephen W. Hawking, “Wave Function of the Universe,” Physical Review D28 (1983): 2960-75.
9. Alexander Vilenkin, “boundary Conditions and Quantum Cosmology,” Physical Review D33 (1986): 3560-9.
10. David Atkatz, “Quantum Cosmology for Pedestrians,” American Journal of Physics 62 (1994): 619-27.
11. Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), pp. 312-19. “A Scenario for a Natural Origin of Our Universe,” Philo 9/2 (2006): 93-102; available online at www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Godless/Origin.pdf (accessed August 8, 2008).
12. Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion: Naturalism ad absurdum,” Books and Culture 13/2 (March/April 2007): 21; available online at www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/002/1.21.html (accessed August 8, 2008).
13. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).
14. Adolf Grunbaum, “The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 55 (2004): 561-614, axh401.
15. Frank Wilczek, “The Cosmic Asymmetry between Matter and Antimatter,” Scientific American 243/6 (1980): 82-90.
16. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos.
About the Author
Victor J. Stenger received a bachelor's of science degree in electrical engineering from Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology) in 1956. He then received a master's of science degree in physics from UCLA in 1959 and a PhD in physics in 1963. He then took a position on the faculty of the University of Hawaii, retiring to Colorado in 2000. He currently is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. Dr. Stenger is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a research fellow of the Center for Inquiry. Dr. Stenger has also held visiting positions on the faculties of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, Oxford in England (twice), and has been a visiting researcher at Rutherford Laboratory in England, the National Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Frascati, Italy, and the University of Florence in Italy.
His research career spanned the period of great progress in elementary particle physics that ultimately led to the current standard model. He participated in experiments that helped establish the properties of strange particles, quarks, gluons, and neutrinos. He also helped pioneer the emerging fields of very high-energy gamma-ray and neutrino astronomy. In his last project before retiring, Dr. Stenger collaborated on the underground experiment in Japan that in 1998 showed for the first time that the neutrino has mass. The Japanese leader of this experiment shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for this work.
Victor Stenger has had a parallel career as an author of critically well-received popular-level books that interface between physics and cosmology and philosophy, religion, and pseudoscience. These include: Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe (1988); Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World beyond the Senses (1990); The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (1995); Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes (2000); Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (2003); The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (2006); God: The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (2007); Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (2009); The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009). God: The Failed Hypothesis made the New York Times Best Seller List in March 2007.
Dr. Stenger maintains a popular Web site (a thousand hits per month), where much of his writing can be found, at http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger.