Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? -- Rebuttal

If you haven't done so yet, click here to read Ben's opening statement, which I respond to in this post.

Ben created three basic categories which all of his arguments fell into.

The first category of his arguments sought to prove that:
"1. A theistic worldview cannot account for many features of our universe that an atheistic worldview can account for."

His central argument on this point was that the universe was far too big and unreachable to have been made with humans in mind. Ben argues:
“The Christian claims the universe was created for the benefit of us, the creation. So why the excess? Why, if the universe is a gift to us, are we limited to just one of a hundred billion trillion planets? Why is most of the universe constructed of empty space that is deadly to us? Why are all of the planets within our reach also deadly to us, with their crushing gravity, sulfuric acid rain or freezing temperatures? Why is everything outside our solar system kept off-limits to us by overwhelmingly vast distances and the laws of physics?”

I could point out that this is really a side-point. If the universe requires a cause, and design requires a designer, then the question of the importance of human beings cannot overturn the positive case for a Creator. However, I am arguing as a Christian here, and it is also my goal to demonstrate that Christianity, not just theism, contains the answer for why something exists rather than nothing. Speaking as a Christian, I would ask Ben what he means by benefit. Certainly if there was a verse in the Bible which said that God made all of the planets specifically for us to dwell upon, this would contradict our experience, and Ben's argument would be a valid one. Of course, the Bible doesn't claim this, as Psalm 115:16 demonstrates:
"The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to mankind" (NIV).

Instead, the Psalmist claims that, "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 reveal knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2, NIV). In other words, one of the chief purposes that the universe serves for human beings is to point us to the beauty, majesty, and brilliance of its Creator, not to give us real estate to build a restaurant at the end of the universe.

All of that being said, one can't help but wonder if the problem with this argument is that it suffers from an inability to consider options outside of a non-atheistic framework. In truth, one could turn this objection upon itself. Instead of asking, "why is most of the universe constructed of empty space that is deadly to us?" one might just as easily ask, "why is it that earth is oddly habitable?"

For instance, Earth resides in the small habitable circumstellar “Goldilocks Zone” at just the right distance from our sun. The type and size of sun we have, the distance we are away from it, and numerous other characteristics of Earth, the sun, and our moon, all work together to make life possible on Earth. While Ben could ask why God would create a sun we can't build condominiums on, a more pressing question might be, "how is is that Earth's precise relationship to the sun is such that it allows for not just life (which seems tough enough), but highly complex thinking beings to exist?" Similarly, Earth's location in the Milky Way Galaxy, about half-way between the center and the edge, is also in a life-permitting “galactic habitable zone.”

Ben could retort by saying we are here by chance and that pointing out how bad the odds were for us getting here doesn't change the fact that we are, possibly without the aid of God. This is a fair criticism, but it's beside the point. My goal in responding to this particular claim is not necessarily to make a positive case for God, but to show that Ben's argument is not only a straw man, but a false dichotomy. There are other reasonable options which Ben has excluded because of his bias.

Ben also made a sidepoint in this section, but I think it's important to point it out. He said, "life is not the goal of the universe, just a quirk of it, like the storms on Jupiter or the methane lakes on Titan."

Ben's statement here asserts that human life is comparable to a methane lake on Saturn's moon Titan. As a necessary result of this, the universe did not intend to endow Ben with reason. If Ben is able to reason at all, this is an unintentional “quirk.” As such, it would obviously be highly unlikely that Ben's reason is trustworthy. Ben attempts to attack God using a tool that could only have reasonably originated from God. In other words, it is his atheist worldview which can't account for this very important feature in our universe. He can either admit that his reason is untrustworthy (thus rendering logical discourse pointless), or else he must assert by faith that it came about unintentionally.

Ben's second type of arguments fell into this category:
"2. There are natural explanations for why a universe would exist instead of nothing."

In justifying that we do indeed witness things coming into being out of nothing, Ben said, "we now know that the spontaneous creation of matter does actually happen; particles pop into existence for brief moments in time."

However, this is false. Particles don't come into being out of nothing but out of the quantum vacuum, which is, according to philosopher William Lane Craig, "a sea of fluctuating energy. [An] arena of violent activity, and it is governed by physical laws." According to Craig, on the Copenhagen model of quantum mechanics (which is the model Ben is probably appealing to), the energy in the vacuum fluctuates and spontaneously spins off particles which then dissolve back into the energy of the vacuum. This stands in marked contrast to a universe which comes out of nothing.

After this, Ben paraphrased a claim Hawking made in his new book:
“In his book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking explains how... certain naturally emergent properties such as gravity... inevitably create a universe.”

I will have to do my best as a non-physicist (or even amateur physics enthusiast) to explain Hawking's reasoning and point out some of its flaws, with the help of my own authorities. This may get a little technical. If I have made any flaws in my explanations, I welcome those in the know to point them out.

Ben is correct that Hawking and Mlodinow say this. On page 180, they claim that, "because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing... Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." Of course, this sentence taken plainly is nonsensical. When someone argues that X causes Y, they are presuming the pre-existence of X to bring about Y. But what of an argument where X causes X? How can X pre-exist itself to bring itself into existence? It obviously can't. Thus, the universe cannot create itself, and it certainly can't do so through gravity, which requires a pre-existent natural universe for its own existence.

What Hawking seems to actually be arguing here is that once space-time exists, it is filled with a quantum vacuum. This vacuum is not "nothing," but instead is filled with both positive and negative energy, which, when balanced out, fluctuates into a material form. Thus, Hawking presupposes space and time before he can account for matter. Unfortunately for Hawking, all of the scientific evidence points to the space-time universe beginning at a singular point in time, meaning that it began to exist, and would thus require an outside cause. His way of dealing with this is to use imaginary time to warp real time and round off the singularity point into a rounded off "south pole." One of the benefits of this warping for Hawking is that it seems to escape the "problem" of a beginning.

Hawking himself admits in his book A Brief History of Time that, "as far as everyday quantum mechanics is concerned, we may regard our use of imaginary time and Euclidean space-time as merely a mathematical device (or trick) to calculate answers about real space-time" (p 134-135).

Hawking laments, "only if we could picture the universe in terms of imaginary time would there be no singularities... When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities" (p. 138-139). In other words, when we use the real time of the universe we actually live in, the universe has a beginning point. Hawking's solution is to suggest that it might be the case that imaginary time is actually the real time, and "what we call real time is just a figment of our imaginations. In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time... But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic..." (p. 139).

To justify this strange premise, Hawking employs a subjective epistemological outlook which he would later refer to as model-dependent realism in The Grand Design-- he asserts that it is meaningless to ask which time is real or imaginary, but that "it's simply a matter of which is the more useful description" (p. 139). The philosopher Craig says it best:
"only if [Hawking] can prove that imaginary time is ontologically real and real time fictitious has he succeeded in obviating the need for a Creator" (Craig,

In other words, there are many good reasons to reject Hawking's dodge of the beginning.

After Ben paraphrased Hawking, he went on to outline six new points which he suggested explain how the universe could naturally take shape after it has already begun to exist. Of course I could grant these, but they would have no bearing on whether or not God caused the universe.

Next, Ben introduces his last category of arguments:
"3. There is no explanation for why a god would exist instead of nothing."

The heart of Ben's third point can be found in this sentence:
“If Mr. Cook cannot provide an explanation for why such a being [as God] should exist instead of nothing, then he cannot be considered the winner of this debate.”

In my opening statement I noted that since the universe began to exist, it must have been caused, and that this cause could only be a personal being which is spaceless, timeless, immaterial, and has a will, great intelligence, and awesome power (to see how I supported this claim, please revisit my opening statement). Since the universe could not exist unless this Being caused it, and the universe does in fact exist, this Being must also exist. The alternative is that we suspend the laws of logic to assert that the universe began to exist out of nothing because we fear, as others who have attempted to avoid the Big Bang have, that it, "smacks of divine intervention" (Hawking, p. 46).

Ben also expanded upon why he thought the existence of God seemed inconceivable:
"Mr. Cook is proposing that something exists outside of the universe. He is proposing that there is an intelligent being, capable of monitoring every movement of every particle at every point in time, capable of orchestrating the dance of 100 billion galaxies across empty space, capable of manipulating evolution in order to create one very specific species of primate, and capable of feeling human emotions like love and sadness. Such a being requires an explanation for its existence, just as the universe does (perhaps more so.)... If parts of the theistic worldview require inexplicable phenomenon, a theistic worldview cannot [have] greater explanatory power than an atheistic worldview."

This is a worthwhile point to bring up in this discussion. I think there are different ways to answer this challenge. First of all, it could be argued that a complicated hypothesis with far-reaching explanatory power is better than a simple hypothesis with little to no explanatory power. The hypothesis that, "in the beginning nothing blew up for no reason and here we are," is certainly simple, but it hardly explains everything that it's supposed to. In contrast, the God hypothesis can easily account for the appearance of design and order in the universe, the existence of complex life which can reason, irreducibly complex biological structures, moral facts, and even the existence of the universe itself. So even if God were more complex than His effect, the God hypothesis would still be preferable to the allegedly simple naturalistic atheistic hypothesis. However, I think Ben may be mistaken in assuming that God is complex, if I am correct that this is his contention. Unlike the universe, God does not consist of multiple, complex parts. In fact, as a non-physical mind, God would actually be quite simple, even though His thoughts and creation are complex. If God's mind is the standard for truth, reason, and goodness, this most certainly makes Him a remarkable Being, though not necessarily a complex one.

Click here to read Ben's rebuttal to my opening statement.


  1. At the end of the day, if I want you to believe in vampires, i need to demonstrate a vampire. I can show you all the empty coffins and bats and people with teeth marks in them, as these items could also be explained by other means. To speak of a god without demonstrating one is as useless as saying jhjususesyat45's exist, and behave in this way, and are responsible for "x" and "y".

    Until one can provide a demonstration of a God, there is no reason we can be expected to believe in one...
    Cody, or any theist, I present the challenge to you to demonstrate your God, if it is so obvious that he exists, you would have done it by now....
    Name a place and time, and demonstrate him...He is everywhere right? He is always there for us right? Until a God is demonstrated, you cannot expect us to say "I believe in God" without lying...
    If such a demonstration is performed, I would very likely believe in a God. This does not mean I would necessarily find him/her/it to be a pleasant character though. If the Bible is in fact a representation of God's character, then he/she/it has some explaining to do, if they want me in their camp.

    As for the "fine tuning" argument, this is a "self-defeated" argument.
    Theists want to believe that their God is capable of anything, and that our universe was fine-tuned for us. However , if God is omnipotent, he could make corn grow on Venus, or make life that can only exist in the Sun as well. The point is, Cody is selectively observing our life and as Ben said "looking at it backwards"... If there were life in the Sun that could not exist outside of it, would this be a "fine tuned" environment for that particular life form too?

    What would it take to make me believe in a god?
    A God, until then I will not lie to myself or anyone else and claim to believe in one...

    "I have never been to Australia, but I know what it would take for me to not believe in it...."

    As always, i enjoy these discussions and wish to thank you and Ben for providing this new outlet (or maybe a Doubtlett?)
    I posted this on Ben's blog as well....

  2. Good show, Cody. You saw a weakness in Ben's argument and exposed. Your first 3 paragraphs were a great tactical move there. Bringing the debate out of the realm logical argument and into the realm of biblical authority gives you the temporary advantage. Now Ben will be forced to address those points, which will cost him precious word-space in the next round.

    But (and this is a very big BUT), you made a grave error yourself. With the exception of using the term Habital Zone correctly, everything you wrote about physics is either misinterpreted or just plain wrong. (side note: don't use the term Goldilocks Zone. You don't need Ben accusing you of making references to fairy tales anymore than he probably will.) I have never seen so many wrong statement about physics, and I've graded freshman lab reports before! I fear that you will not be able to recover from dropping your guard like this. I predict that the debate will be won, quite anticlimactically, by Ben--which is disappointing. I was hoping that some people would walk away from this debate with the seeds of truth in their hearts.

    The only way I can see you recovering is to backtrack from this slippery slope. Admit your mistakes, and grant Ben all of his physical arguments and fight from there. You probably won't be able to argue Christ over any other religion, but it's a start.

    Now I have to regroup my thoughts and get ready for work. I figure that I'll have to address all of your and Ben's physics mistakes later.

  3. If I made any errors, I would certainly like to have them pointed out to me. As I said, physics is not my area of expertise, but I have heard both theists and atheists who have specializations in this field offer critiques of Hawking somewhat similar to what I attempted to lay out. I would not have felt the need to go here at all (after all, it is not an area of my expertise and I try not to talk about things that I know little about) if Ben had not made the claim that Hawking had demonstrated this to be true, which I understand that even in the field of theoretical physics is highly contentious. I wanted to make sure that people were aware of this fact.

  4. In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same "eternal" event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the "seeing" which differs.

    In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from my e-book on comparative mysticism]

  5. "Particles don't come into being out of nothing but out of the quantum vacuum, which is, according to philosopher William Lane Craig, "a sea of fluctuating energy. [An] arena of violent activity, and it is governed by physical laws."

    Where did you get the idea of asking a theologian a question you should be asking a physicist or a cosmologist? Craig has no credentials to make him an authority in physics.

    You dont have science on your side. You are going to lose this one dude.

  6. I promised to clear up some physics here, but I'm tired so I'm going to approach one point at a time and get to the rest tomorrow.

    On the Habitable Zone. First, so we're all clear, the habitable zone is the area where liquid water can exist in a solar system. It is dependent on a few things like atmospheric density, but mostly on the orbiting distance from the star. In the case of a sun-like star, the habitable zone is about 25,000 times the width of the Earth. For larger stars this zone is slightly larger, and for smaller stars the zone is slightly smaller. The position of the Earth in this zone is not what you should call precise. Mars is in the habitable zone, though its magnetic field is all but gone allowing the solar wind to carry away much of its atmosphere. Again, the position of the Earth is not an act of precision.

    Another thing is the galactic habitable zone (GHZ) for spiral galaxies. It's an old idea that's losing ground quickly. Back before the days infrared astronomy, very little was known about the galaxy in detail. That is, the dust obscured our view into the plane of the galaxy. We could see about 1kpc in any direction. It was at this time we thought the GHZ was the 2kpc strip surrounding our sun. In infrared astronomy, we were able to see farther into the dust and so the GHZ grew in size again. As we began to learn about the dynamics of the inner galaxy, we began to see that GHZ is likely only limited by the strong tidal environment of the bulge or from young massive star clusters. Open clusters, which are more numerous, are the types of environments that our sun was born in. Obviously the tidal forces here are not enough to break up sun-planet systems. The more evidence we can get, the better constraint we can put on the size of GHZ.

    Now this is the important part here. Every Star has a habitable zone. Stars less than about 5 solar masses will live long enough allow life (taking Earth as a reference). About 1/3 of stars are binaries, and the dynamics may not allow for planets to stay bound to the stars. We see a power law mass distribution of stars of about 2. This means that somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of all stars have habitable zones where planets can be found. This is an ENORMOUS number of stars. There's 100 billion stars in a galaxy, and 100 billion galaxies THAT WE KNOW ABOUT, and we know there's more that we cannot see even if we don't know how many more. This means that there are on the order of 10^22
    stars with habitable zones that can hold a planet. Let me write this out:


    Imagine if this were dollars. If you spent the US GDP everyday for a million years you still wouldn't reach this number.

    What, I think, Ben's point is that as large as the habitable zone for the universe is, it pales in comparison to the amount of space we cannot possible think of living. Let me take to the average place in the universe. Imagine a place where there the next atom is many light years away. The temperature is only couple degrees above absolute zero. You cannot feels this faint heat; you cannot see any light. If you had a telescope, you might catch the stray photon that came your way. If the Outer Darkness is any physical place, then this is it--the most common place in the universe, more common than any other by many, many orders of magnitude.

  7. Theoretical Mechanics--
    Thanks for taking the time to respond. When you've finished, I'd be happy to put in editorial notes making corrections, so long as they're genuine corrections and not just, "well, a lot of physicists disagree but I think Hawking is totally right on."

    Of course you are correct that the circumstellar habitable zone is an area based on distance from the sun where a planet can have liquid water (though I understand that it has been theorized that some planets outside of this zone may be able to have water below the surface). I should have made a clear distinction between this point and others that have been suggested to allow for complex life to exist outside of just the ability to have liquid water. Of course, this is really a sidepoint in my argument. I understand that this argument is a little too tentative and could be based on our ignorance of what preconditions need to exist for life. That's why I mainly dealt with Ben's argument by pointing out his strawman, and only briefly touched on the fact that there could be another option he hadn't considered.

  8. Hawking's books are not science textbooks. He is working on the very difficult problem of quantum gravity and his books are a way of explaining the relevant science to non-scientists. They include metaphors, philosophy, and his personal worldview along with pure science.

    IF "God" exists, IF "God" is a "being", and IF the Bible is authoritative, you present a very
    good case. However, your theistic viewpoint requires that you accept these as truths, which is not very imaginative when trying to answer difficult questions. The Bible portrays the very anthromorphic god who represents the beliefs of people who lived thousands of years ago, before they had much in the way of scientific inquiry. Maybe there is a cause/purpose for the universe, maybe some sort of intelligence exists, but defining this as your concept of "God" who is a "being" with a "mind" is very anthropomorphic, restrictive, and belittling.

  9. I thought your response was effective, David!

  10. I must say that I am quite disappointed with Cody's response. I would have liked a more convincing rebuttal than simply stating that (and I paraphrase), the universe exists because God wished it so, and that God's existence needs not be explained, as he/she/it transcends both time and space, and thus has always existed and will always exist. This is far from compelling.

    But more specifically, I am very confused about some of Cody's responses. Ben stated that the universe is much too vast and inhospitable to have been created for the benefit of man. Your response was both flippant and confusing. It is certainly unclear to me what the quotations of the Bible were supposed to argue. That God made the earth for us, and that the heavens are for him? Is heaven in the sky? I know this is what I was taught as a child, but as I have matured I have come to realise that the concept of heaven in the Bible occupies a realm that is beyond the natural world. Cody goes onto suggest that the purpose of the vastness of the universe is simply to make us marvel in the power and goodness of its creator. Is this sort of why the Sistine Chapel is so large and beautiful as well? This is far from compelling. Indeed it is incredibly anthropocentric to suggest this, as either directly or indirectly, the creation of the vastness of the universe would have had a function that involves us.

    It looks like Theoretical Mechanics has already pointed nicely the vastness of habitable zones in the universe, but also hammered home the considerably greater vastness of space which is completely uninhabitable and could be considered little more than a vacuum with temperatures hovering just above absolute zero. Thus Ben's point that the universe is mostly incompatible with life is true, but also that there is nevertheless vastness of space in the universe that is habitable, making life inevitable (again, not necessarily requiring the postulation of a supernatural creator).

    It is certainly intriguing that life on earth started a mere 500 million years after its birth, yet it took nearly 3.5 billion years for multicellular life to evolve. So clearly metazoan life may not be as easy as unicellular life to evolve (or alternatively, it took God a long time to figure multicellular life out!). Finally, it is only in the last couple of million years that some rudimentary level consciousness and "higher" intelligence have arisen. I write higher in quotes, as we must resist being (again) anthropocentric and thinking that we are really intelligent. In reality, we aren't. We know and understand almost nothing, of what there is to know. However, this does not mean that we should postulate a supernatural being to explain that which we do not understand. This seems to me a backward step from gaining a true mechanistic and deep understanding of the world around us.