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Stephen Hawking, the Big Bang, and God

Posted by Tony Listi on March 8, 2008

By Henry F. Schaeffer III

The Big Bang

Cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole – its structure, origin, and development. The subjects cosmology addresses are profound, both scientifically and theologically. Perhaps the best way to define cosmology is in terms of the questions that it asks. Hugh Ross does an excellent job of stating these questions in his important book The Fingerprint of God (Second Edition, Whitaker House, 1989):

  1. Is the universe finite or infinite in size and content?
  2. Has the universe been here forever or did it have a beginning?
  3. Was the universe created?
  4. If the universe was not created, how did it get here?
  5. If the universe was created, how was this creation accomplished, and what can we learn about the agent and events of creation?
  6. Who or what governs the laws and constants of physics?
  7. Are such laws the products of chance or have they been designed?
  8. How do the laws and constants of physics relate to the support and development of life?
  9. Is there any knowable existence beyond the apparently observed dimensions of the universe?
  10. Do we expect the universe to expand forever, or is a period of contraction to be followed by a big crunch?

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe

Posted by Tony Listi on March 8, 2008

By William Lane Craig


“The first question which should rightly be asked,” wrote G.W.F. Leibniz, is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”[1] This question does seem to possess a profound existential force, which has been felt by some of mankind’s greatest thinkers. According to Aristotle, philosophy begins with a sense of wonder about the world, and the most profound question a man can ask concerns the origin of the universe.[2] In his biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman Malcolm reports that Wittgenstein said that he sometimes had a certain experience which could best be described by saying that “when I have it, I wonder at the existence of the world. I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘How extraordinary that anything should exist!'”[3] Similarly, one contemporary philosopher remarks, “. . . My mind often seems to reel under the immense significance this question has for me. That anything exists at all does seem to me a matter for the deepest awe.”[4]

Why does something exist instead of nothing? Leibniz answered this question by arguing that something exists rather than nothing because a necessary being exists which carries within itself its reason for existence and is the sufficient reason for the existence of all contingent being.[5]

Although Leibniz (followed by certain contemporary philosophers) regarded the non- existence of a necessary being as logically impossible, a more modest explication of necessity of existence in terms of what he calls “factual necessity” has been given by John Hick: a necessary being is an eternal, uncaused, indestructible, and incorruptible being.[6] Leibniz, of course, identified the necessary being as God. His critics, however, disputed this identification, contending that the material universe could itself be assigned the status of a necessary being. “Why,” queried David Hume, “may not the material universe be the necessary existent Being, according to this pretended explanation of necessity?”[7] Typically, this has been precisely the position of the atheist. Atheists have not felt compelled to embrace the view that the universe came into being out of nothing for no reason at all; rather they regard the universe itself as a sort of factually necessary being: the universe is eternal, uncaused, indestructible, and incorruptible. As Russell neatly put it, ” . . . The universe is just there, and that’s all.”[8]

Does Leibniz’s argument therefore leave us in a rational impasse, or might there not be some further resources available for untangling the riddle of the existence of the world? It seems to me that there are. It will be remembered that an essential property of a necessary being is eternality. If then it could be made plausible that the universe began to exist and is not therefore eternal, one would to that extent at least have shown the superiority of theism as a rational world view.

Now there is one form of the cosmological argument, much neglected today but of great historical importance, that aims precisely at the demonstration that the universe had a beginning in time.[9] Originating in the efforts of Christian theologians to refute the Greek doctrine of the eternity of matter, this argument was developed into sophisticated formulations by medieval Islamic and Jewish theologians, who in turn passed it back to the Latin West. The argument thus has a broad inter- sectarian appeal, having been defended by Muslims, Jews, and Christians both Catholic and Protestant.

This argument, which I have called the kalam cosmological argument, can be exhibited as follows:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
2.1 Argument based on the impossibility of an actual infinite.
2.11 An actual infinite cannot exist.
2.12 An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite.
2.13 Therefore, an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist.
2.2   Argument based on the impossibility of the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition.
2.21 A collection formed by successive addition cannot be actually infinite.
2.22 The temporal series of past events is a collection formed by successive addition.
2.23 Therefore, the temporal series of past events cannot be actually infinite.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

Let us examine this argument more closely.

Defense of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Second Premiss

Clearly, the crucial premiss in this argument is (2), and two independent arguments are offered in support of it. Let us therefore turn first to an examination of the supporting arguments.

First Supporting Argument

In order to understand (2.1), we need to understand the difference between a potential infinite and an actual infinite. Crudely put, a potential infinite is a collection which is increasing toward infinity as a limit, but never gets there. Such a collection is really indefinite, not infinite. The sign of this sort of infinity, which is used in calculus, is ¥. An actual infinite is a collection in which the number of members really is infinite. The collection is not growing toward infinity; it is infinite, it is “complete.” The sign of this sort of infinity, which is used in set theory to designate sets which have an infinite number of members, such as {1, 2, 3, . . .}, is À0. Now (2.11) maintains, not that a potentially infinite number of things cannot exist, but that an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. For if an actually infinite number of things could exist, this would spawn all sorts of absurdities.

Perhaps the best way to bring home the truth of (2.11) is by means of an illustration. Let me use one of my favorites, Hilbert’s Hotel, a product of the mind of the great German mathematician, David Hilbert. Let us imagine a hotel with a finite number of rooms. Suppose, furthermore, that all the rooms are full. When a new guest arrives asking for a room, the proprietor apologizes, “Sorry, all the rooms are full.” But now let us imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and suppose once more that all the rooms are full. There is not a single vacant room throughout the entire infinite hotel. Now suppose a new guest shows up, asking for a room. “But of course!” says the proprietor, and he immediately shifts the person in room #1 into room #2, the person in room #2 into room #3, the person in room #3 into room #4 and so on, out to infinity. As a result of these room changes, room #1 now becomes vacant and the new guest gratefully checks in. But remember, before he arrived, all the rooms were full! Equally curious, according to the mathematicians, there are now no more persons in the hotel than there were before: the number is just infinite. But how can this be? The proprietor just added the new guest’s name to the register and gave him his keys-how can there not be one more person in the hotel than before? But the situation becomes even stranger. For suppose an infinity of new guests show up the desk, asking for a room. “Of course, of course!” says the proprietor, and he proceeds to shift the person in room #1 into room #2, the person in room #2 into room #4, the person in room #3 into room #6, and so on out to infinity, always putting each former occupant into the room number twice his own. As a result, all the odd numbered rooms become vacant, and the infinity of new guests is easily accommodated. And yet, before they came, all the rooms were full! And again, strangely enough, the number of guests in the hotel is the same after the infinity of new guests check in as before, even though there were as many new guests as old guests. In fact, the proprietor could repeat this process infinitely many times and yet there would never be one single person more in the hotel than before.

But Hilbert’s Hotel is even stranger than the German mathematician gave it out to be. For suppose some of the guests start to check out. Suppose the guest in room #1 departs. Is there not now one less person in the hotel? Not according to the mathematicians-but just ask the woman who makes the beds! Suppose the guests in room numbers 1, 3, 5, . . . check out. In this case an infinite number of people have left the hotel, but according to the mathematicians there are no less people in the hotel-but don’t talk to that laundry woman! In fact, we could have every other guest check out of the hotel and repeat this process infinitely many times, and yet there would never be any less people in the hotel. But suppose instead the persons in room number 4, 5, 6, . . . checked out. At a single stroke the hotel would be virtually emptied, the guest register reduced to three names, and the infinite converted to finitude. And yet it would remain true that the same number of guests checked out this time as when the guests in room numbers 1, 3, 5, . . . checked out. Can anyone sincerely believe that such a hotel could exist in reality? These sorts of absurdities illustrate the impossibility of the existence of an actually infinite number of things.

That takes us to (2.12). The truth of this premiss seems fairly obvious. If the universe never began to exist, then prior to the present event there have existed an actually infinite number of previous events. Hence, a beginningless series of events in time entails the existence of an actually infinite number of things, namely, past events.

Given the truth of (2.11) and (2.12), the conclusion (2.13) logically follows. The series of past events must be finite and have a beginning. But since the universe is not distinct from the series of events, it follows that the universe began to exist.

At this point, we might find it profitable to consider several objections that might be raised against the argument. First let us consider objections to (2.11). Wallace Matson objects that the premiss must mean that an actually infinite number of things is logically impossible; but it is easy to show that such a collection is logically possible. For example, the series of negative numbers {. . . -3, -2, -1} is an actually infinite collection with no first member.[10] Matson’s error here lies in thinking that (2.11) means to assert the logical impossibility of an actually infinite number of things. What the premiss expresses is the real or factual impossibility of an actual infinite. To illustrate the difference between real and logical possibility: there is no logical impossibility in something’s coming to exist without a cause, but such a circumstance may well be really or metaphysically impossible. In the same way, (2.11) asserts that the absurdities entailed in the real existence of an actual infinite show that such an existence is metaphysically impossible. Hence, one could grant that in the conceptual realm of mathematics one can, given certain conventions and axioms, speak consistently about infinite sets of numbers, but this in no way implies that an actually infinite number of things is really possible. One might also note that the mathematical school of intuitionism denies that even the number series is actually infinite (they take it to be potentially infinite only), so that appeal to number series as examples of actual infinites is a moot procedure.

The late J.L. Mackie also objected to (2.11), claiming that the absurdities are resolved by noting that for infinite groups the axiom “the whole is greater than its part” does not hold, as it does for finite groups.[11] Similarly, Quentin Smith comments that once we understand that an infinite set has a proper subset which has the same number of members as the set itself, the purportedly absurd situations become “perfectly believable.”[12] But to my mind, it is precisely this feature of infinite set theory which, when translated into the realm of the real, yields results which are perfectly incredible, for example, Hilbert’s Hotel. Moreover, not all the absurdities stem from infinite set theory’s denial of Euclid’s axiom: the absurdities illustrated by guests checking out of the hotel stem from the self-contradictory results when the inverse operations of subtraction or division are performed using transfinite numbers. Here the case against an actually infinite collection of things becomes decisive.

Finally one might note the objection of Sorabji, who maintains that illustrations such as Hilbert’s Hotel involve no absurdity. In order to understand what is wrong with the kalam argument, he asks us to envision two parallel columns beginning at the same point and stretching away into the infinite distance, one the column of past years and the other the column of past days. The sense in which the column of past days is no larger than the column of past years, says Sorabji, is that the column of days will not “stick out” beyond the far end of the other column, since neither column has a far end. Now in the case of Hilbert’s Hotel there is the temptation to think that some unfortunate resident at the far end will drop off into space. But there is no far end: the line of residents will not stick out beyond the far end of the line of rooms. Once this is seen, the outcome is just an explicable- even if a surprising and exhilarating- truth about infinity.[13] Now Sorabji is certainly correct, as we have seen, that Hilbert’s Hotel illustrates an explicable truth about the nature of the actual infinite. If an actually infinite number of things could exist, a Hilbert’s Hotel would be possible. But Sorabji seems to fail to understand the heart of the paradox: I, for one, experience no temptation to think of people dropping off the far end of the hotel, for there is none, but I do have difficulty believing that a hotel in which all the rooms are occupied can accommodate more guests. Of course, the line of guests will not stick out beyond the line of rooms, but if all of those infinite rooms already have guests in them, then can moving those guests about really create empty rooms? Sorabji’s own illustration of the columns of past years and days I find not a little disquieting: if we divide the columns into foot-long segments and mark one column as the years and the other as the days, then one column is as long as the other and yet for every foot-length segment in the column of years, 365 segments of equal length are found in the column of days! These paradoxical results can be avoided only if such actually infinite collections can exist only in the imagination, not in reality. In any case, the Hilbert’s Hotel illustration is not exhausted by dealing only with the addition of new guests, for the subtraction of guests results in absurdities even more intractable. Sorabji’s analysis says nothing to resolve these. Hence, it seems to me that the objections to premiss (2.11) are less plausible than the premiss itself.

With regard to (2.12), the most frequent objection is that the past ought to be regarded as a potential infinite only, not an actual infinite. This was Aquinas’s position versus Bonaventure, and the contemporary philosopher Charles Hartshorne seems to side with Thomas on this issue.[14] Such a position is, however, untenable. The future is potentially infinite, since it does not exist; but the past is actual in a way the future is not, as evidenced by the fact that we have traces of the past in the present, but no traces of the future. Hence, if the series of past events never began to exist, there must have been an actually infinite number of past events.

The objections to either premiss therefore seem to be less compelling than the premisses themselves. Together they imply that the universe began to exist. Hence, I conclude that this argument furnishes good grounds for accepting the truth of premiss (2) that the universe began to exist.

Second Supporting Argument

The second argument (2.2) for the beginning of the universe is based on the impossibility of forming an actual infinite by successive addition. This argument is distinct from the first in that it does not deny the possibility of the existence of an actual infinite, but the possibility of its being formed by successive addition.

Premiss (2.21) is the crucial step in the argument. One cannot form an actually infinite collection of things by successively adding one member after another. Since one can always add one more before arriving at infinity, it is impossible to reach actual infinity. Sometimes this is called the impossibility of “counting to infinity” or “traversing the infinite.” It is important to understand that this impossibility has nothing to do with the amount of time available: it belongs to the nature of infinity that it cannot be so formed.

Now someone might say that while an infinite collection cannot be formed by beginning at a point and adding members, nevertheless an infinite collection could be formed by never beginning but ending at a point, that is to say, ending at a point after having added one member after another from eternity. But this method seems even more unbelievable than the first method. If one cannot count to infinity, how can one count down from infinity? If one cannot traverse the infinite by moving in one direction, how can one traverse it by simply moving in the opposite direction?

Indeed, the idea of a beginningness series ending in the present seems to be absurd. To give just one illustration: suppose we meet a man who claims to have been counting from eternity and is now finishing: . . ., -3, -2, -1, 0. We could ask, why did he not finish counting yesterday or the day before or the year before? By then an infinite time had already elapsed, so that he should already have finished by then. Thus, at no point in the infinite past could we ever find the man finishing his countdown, for by that point he should already be done! In fact, no matter how far back into the past we go, we can never find the man counting at all, for at any point we reach he will have already finished. But if at no point in the past do we find him counting, this contradicts the hypothesis that he has been counting from eternity. This illustrates the fact that the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition is equally impossible whether one proceeds to or from infinity.

Premiss (2.22) presupposes a dynamical view of time according to which events are actualized in serial fashion, one after another. The series of events is not a sort of timelessly subsisting world-line which appears successively in consciousness. Rather becoming is real and essential to temporal process. Now this view of time is not without its challengers, but to consider their objections in this article would take us too far afield.[15] In this piece, we must rest content with the fact that we are arguing on common ground with our ordinary intuitions of temporal becoming and in agreement with a good number of contemporary philosophers of time and space.

Given the truth of (2.21) and (2.22), the conclusion (2.23) logically follows. If the universe did not begin to exist a finite time ago, then the present moment could never arrive. But obviously, it has arrived. Therefore, we know that the universe is finite in the past and began to exist.

Again, it would be profitable to consider various objections that have been offered against this reasoning. Against (2.21), Mackie objects that the argument illicitly assumes an infinitely distant starting point in the past and then pronounces it impossible to travel from that point to today. But there would in an infinite past be no starting point, not even an infinitely distant one. Yet from any given point in the infinite past, there is only a finite distance to the present.[16] Now it seems to me that Mackie’s allegation that the argument presupposes an infinitely distant starting point is entirely groundless. The beginningless character of the series only serves to accentuate the difficulty of its being formed by successive addition. The fact that there is no beginning at all, not even an infinitely distant one, makes the problem more, not less, nettlesome. And the point that from any moment in the infinite past there is only a finite temporal distance to the present may be dismissed as irrelevant. The question is not how any finite portion of the temporal series can be formed, but how the whole infinite series can be formed. If Mackie thinks that because every segment of the series can be formed by successive addition therefore the whole series can be so formed, then he is simply committing the fallacy of composition.

Sorabji similarly objects that the reason it is impossible to count down from infinity is because counting involves by nature taking a starting number, which is lacking in this case. But completing an infinite lapse of years involves no starting year and is, hence, possible.[17] But this response is clearly inadequate, for, as we have seen, the years of an infinite past could be enumerated by the negative numbers, in which case a completed infinity of years would, indeed, entail a beginningless countdown from infinity. Sorabji anticipates this rebuttal, however, and claims that such a backwards countdown is possible in principle and therefore no logical barrier has been exhibited to the elapsing of an infinity of past years. Again, however, the question I am posing is not whether there is a logical contradiction in such a notion, but whether such a countdown is not metaphysically absurd. For we have seen that such a countdown should at any point already have been completed. But Sorabji is again ready with a response: to say the countdown should at any point already be over confuses counting an infinity of numbers with counting all the numbers. At any given point in the past, the eternal counter will have already counted an infinity of negative numbers, but that does not entail that he will have counted all the negative numbers. I do not think the argument makes this alleged equivocation, and this may be made clear by examining the reason why our eternal counter is supposedly able to complete a count of the negative numbers ending at zero. In order to justify the possibility of this intuitively impossible feat, the argument’s opponent appeals to the so- called Principle of Correspondence used in set theory to determine whether two sets are equivalent (that is, have the same number of members) by matching the members of one set with the members of the other set and vice versa. On the basis of this principle the objector argues that since the counter has lived, say, an infinite number of years and since the set of past years can be put into a one- to-one correspondence with the set of negative numbers, it follows that by counting one number a year an eternal counter would complete a countdown of the negative numbers by the present year. If we were to ask why the counter would not finish next year or in a hundred years, the objector would respond that prior to the present year an infinite number of years will have already elapsed, so that by the Principle of Correspondence, all the numbers should have been counted by now. But this reasoning backfires on the objector: for, as we have seen, on this account the counter should at any point in the past have already finished counting all the numbers, since a one-to-one correspondence exists between the years of the past and the negative numbers. Thus, there is no equivocation between counting an infinity of numbers and counting all the numbers. But at this point a deeper absurdity bursts in view: for suppose there were another counter who counted at a rate of one negative number per day. According to the Principle of Correspondence, which underlies infinite set theory and transfinite arithmetic, both of our eternal counters will finish their countdowns at the same moment, even though one is counting at a rate 365 times faster than the other! Can anyone believe that such scenarios can actually obtain in reality, but do not rather represent the outcome of an imaginary game being played in a purely conceptual realm according to adopted logical conventions and axioms?

As for premiss (2.22), many thinkers have objected that we need not regard the past as a beginningless infinite series with an end in the present. Popper, for example, admits that the set of all past events is actually infinite, but holds that the series of past events is potentially infinite. This may be seen by beginning in the present and numbering the events backwards, thus forming a potential infinite. Therefore, the problem of an actual infinite’s being formed by successive addition does not arise.[18] Similarly, Swinburne muses that it is dubious whether a completed infinite series with no beginning but an end makes sense, but he proposes to solve the problem by beginning in the present and regressing into the past, so that the series of past events would have no end and would therefore not be a completed infinite.[19] This objection, however, clearly confuses the mental regress of counting with the real progress of the temporal series of events itself. Numbering the series from the present backwards only shows that if there are an infinite number of past events, then we can denumerate an infinite number of past events. But the problem is, how can this infinite collection of events come to be formed by successive addition? How we mentally conceive the series does not in any way affect the ontological character of the series itself as a series with no beginning but an end, or in other words, as an actual infinite completed by successive addition.

Once again, then, the objections to (2.21) and (2.22) seem less plausible than the premisses themselves. Together they imply (2.23), or that the universe began to exist.

First Scientific Confirmation

These purely philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe have received remarkable confirmation from discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics during this century. These confirmations might be summarized under two heads: the confirmation from the expansion of the universe and the confirmation from thermodynamic properties of the universe.

With regard to the first, Hubble’s discovery in 1929 of the red-shift in the light from distant galaxies began a revolution in astronomy perhaps as significant as the Copernican revolution. Prior to this time the universe as a whole was conceived to be static; but the startling conclusion to which Hubble was led was that the red-shift is due to the fact that the universe is in fact expanding. The staggering implication of this fact is that as one traces the expansion back in time, the universe becomes denser and denser until one reaches a point of infinite density from which the universe began to expand. The upshot of Hubble’s discovery was that at some point in the finite past-probably around 15 billion years ago-the entire known universe was contracted down to a single mathematical point which marked the origin of the universe. That initial explosion has come to be known as the “Big Bang.” Four of the world’s most prominent astronomers described that event in these words:

The universe began from a state of infinite density. . . . Space and time were created in that event and so was all the matter in the universe. It is not meaningful to ask what happened before the Big Bang; it is like asking what is north of the North Pole. Similarly, it is not sensible to ask where the Big Bang took place. The point-universe was not an object isolated in space; it was the entire universe, and so the answer can only be that the Big Bang happened everywhere.[20]

This event that marked the beginning of the universe becomes all the more amazing when one reflects on the fact that a state of “infinite density” is synonymous to “nothing.” There can be no object that possesses infinite density, for if it had any size at all it could still be even more dense. Therefore, as Cambridge astronomer Fred Hoyle points out, the Big Bang Theory requires the creation of matter from nothing. This is because as one goes back in time, one reaches a point at which, in Hoyle’s words, the universe was “shrunk down to nothing at all.”[21] Thus, what the Big Bang model of the universe seems to require is that the universe began to exist and was created out of nothing.

Some theorists have attempted to avoid the absolute beginning of the universe implied by the Big Bang theory by speculating that the universe may undergo an infinite series of expansions and contractions. There are, however, good grounds for doubting the adequacy of such an oscillating model of the universe: (i) The oscillating model appears to be physically impossible. For all the talk about such models, the fact seems to be that they are only theoretically, but not physically possible. As the late Professor Tinsley of Yale explains, in oscillating models “even though the mathematics say that the universe oscillates, there is no known physics to reverse the collapse and bounce back to a new expansion. The physics seems to say that those models start from the Big Bang, expand, collapse, then end.”[22] In order for the oscillating model to be correct, it would seem that the known laws of physics would have to be revised. (ii) The oscillating model seems to be observationally untenable. Two facts of observational astronomy appear to run contrary to the oscillating model. First, the observed homogeneity of matter distribution throughout the universe seems unaccountable on an oscillating model. During the contraction phase of such a model, black holes begin to gobble up surrounding matter, resulting in an inhomogeneous distribution of matter. But there is no known mechanism to “iron out” these inhomogeneities during the ensuing expansion phase. Thus, the homogeneity of matter observed throughout the universe would remain unexplained. Second, the density of the universe appears to be insufficient for the re-contraction of the universe. For the oscillating model to be even possible, it is necessary that the universe be sufficiently dense such that gravity can overcome the force of the expansion and pull the universe back together again. However, according to the best estimates, if one takes into account both luminous matter and non-luminous matter (found in galactic halos) as well as any possible contribution of neutrino particles to total mass, the universe is still only about one-half that needed for re-contraction.[23] Moreover, recent work on calculating the speed and deceleration of the expansion confirms that the universe is expanding at, so to speak, “escape velocity” and will not therefore re-contract. According to Sandage and Tammann, “Hence, we are forced to decide that . . . it seems inevitable that the Universe will expand forever”; they conclude, therefore, that “the Universe has happened only once.”[24]

Second Scientific Confirmation

As if this were not enough, there is a second scientific confirmation of the beginning of the universe based on the thermodynamic properties of various cosmological models. According to the second law of thermodynamics, processes taking place in a closed system always tend toward a state of equilibrium. Now our interest is in what implications this has when the law is applied to the universe as a whole. For the universe is a gigantic closed system, since it is everything there is and no energy is being fed into it from without. The second law seems to imply that, given enough time, the universe will reach a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, known as the “heat death” of the universe. This death may be hot or cold, depending on whether the universe will expand forever or eventually re-contract. On the one hand, if the density of the universe is great enough to overcome the force of the expansion, then the universe will re-contract into a hot fireball. As the universe contracts, the stars burn more rapidly until they finally explode or evaporate. As the universe grows denser, the black holes begin to gobble up everything around them and begin themselves to coalesce until all the black holes finally coalesce into one gigantic black hole which is coextensive with the universe, from which it will never re-emerge. On the other hand, if the density of the universe is insufficient to halt the expansion, as seems more likely, then the galaxies will turn all their gas into stars and the stars will burn out. At 10[30 ]years the universe will consist of 90% dead stars, 9% supermassive black holes, and l% atomic matter. Elementary particle physics suggests that thereafter protons will decay into electrons and positrons, so that space will be filled with a rarefied gas so thin that the distance between an electron and a positron will be about the size of the present galaxy. At 10[100] years some scientists believe that the black holes themselves will dissipate into radiation and elementary particles. Eventually all the matter in the dark, cold, ever-expanding universe will be reduced to an ultra-thin gas of elementary particles and radiation. Equilibrium will prevail throughout, and the entire universe will be in its final state, from which no change will occur.

Now the question which needs to be asked is this: if, given sufficient time, the universe will reach heat death, then why is it not now in a state of heat death if it has existed for infinite time? If the universe did not begin to exist, then it should now be in a state of equilibrium. Some theorists have suggested that the universe escapes final heat death by oscillating from eternity past to eternity future. But we have already seen that such a model seems to be physically and observationally untenable. But even if we waive those considerations and suppose that the universe does oscillate, the fact is that the thermodynamic properties of this model imply the very beginning of the universe which its proponents seek to avoid. For the thermodynamic properties of an oscillating model are such that the universe expands farther and farther with each successive cycle. Therefore, as one traces the expansions back in time, they grow smaller and smaller. As one scientific team explains, “The effect of entropy production will be to enlarge the cosmic scale, from cycle to cycle. . . . Thus, looking back in time, each cycle generated less entropy, had a smaller cycle time, and had a smaller cycle expansion factor than the cycle that followed it.”[25] Novikov and Zeldovich of the Institute of Applied Mathematics of the USSR Academy of Sciences therefore conclude, “The multicycle model has an infinite future, but only a finite past.”[26] As another writer points out, the oscillating model of the universe thus still requires an origin of the universe prior to the smallest cycle.[27]

So whatever scenario one selects for the future of the universe, thermodynamics implies that the universe began to exist. According to physicist P.C.W. Davies, the universe must have been created a finite time ago and is in the process of winding down. Prior to the creation, the universe simply did not exist. Therefore, Davies concludes, even though we may not like it, we must conclude that the universe’s energy was somehow simply “put in” at the creation as an initial condition.[28]

We therefore have both philosophical argument and scientific confirmation for the beginning of the universe. On this basis I think that we are amply justified in concluding the truth of premiss (2) that the universe began to exist.

First Premiss

Premiss (1) strikes me as relatively non-controversial. It is based on the metaphysical intuition that something cannot come out of nothing. Hence, any argument for the principle is apt to be less obvious than the principle itself. Even the great skeptic David Hume admitted that he never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something might come into existence without a cause; he only denied that one could prove the obviously true causal principle.[29] With regard to the universe, if originally there were absolutely nothing-no God, no space, no time-, then how could the universe possibly come to exist? The truth of the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit is so obvious that I think we are justified in foregoing an elaborate defense of the argument’s first premiss.

Nevertheless, some thinkers, exercised to avoid the theism implicit in this premiss within the present context, have felt driven to deny its truth. In order to avoid its theistic implications, Davies presents a scenario which, he confesses, “should not be taken too seriously,” but which seems to have a powerful attraction for Davies.[30] He has reference to a quantum theory of gravity according to which spacetime itself could spring uncaused into being out of absolutely nothing. While admitting that there is “still no satisfactory theory of quantum gravity,” such a theory “would allow spacetime to be created and destroyed spontaneously and uncaused in the same way that particles are created and destroyed spontaneously and uncaused. The theory would entail a certain mathematically determined probability that, for instance, a blob of space would appear where none existed before. Thus, spacetime could pop out of nothingness as the result of a causeless quantum transition.”[31]

Now in fact particle pair production furnishes no analogy for this radical ex nihilo becoming, as Davies seems to imply. This quantum phenomenon, even if an exception to the principle that every event has a cause, provides no analogy to something’s coming into being out of nothing. Though physicists speak of this as particle pair creation and annihilation, such terms are philosophically misleading, for all that actually occurs is conversion of energy into matter or vice versa. As Davies admits, “The processes described here do not represent the creation of matter out of nothing, but the conversion of pre- existing energy into material form.”[32] Hence, Davies greatly misleads his reader when he claims that “Particles . . . can appear out of nowhere without specific causation” and again, “Yet the world of quantum physics routinely produces something for nothing.”[33] On the contrary, the world of quantum physics never produces something for nothing.

But to consider the case on its own merits: quantum gravity is so poorly understood that the period prior to 10[-43] sec, which this theory hopes to describe, has been compared by one wag to the regions on the maps of the ancient cartographers marked “Here there be dragons”: it can easily be filled with all sorts of fantasies. In fact, there seems to be no good reason to think that such a theory would involve the sort of spontaneous becoming ex nihilo which Davies suggests. A quantum theory of gravity has the goal of providing a theory of gravitation based on the exchange of particles (gravitons) rather than the geometry of space, which can then be brought into a Grand Unification Theory that unites all the forces of nature into a supersymmetrical state in which one fundamental force and a single kind of particle exist. But there seems to be nothing in this which suggests the possibility of spontaneous becoming ex nihilo.

Indeed, it is not at all clear that Davies’s account is even intelligible. What can be meant, for example, by the claim that there is a mathematical probability that nothingness should spawn a region of spacetime “where none existed before?” It cannot mean that given enough time a region of spacetime would pop into existence at a certain place, since neither place nor time exist apart from spacetime. The notion of some probability of something’s coming out of nothing thus seems incoherent.

I am reminded in this connection of some remarks made by A.N. Prior concerning an argument put forward by Jonathan Edwards against something’s coming into existence uncaused. This would be impossible, said Edwards, because it would then be inexplicable why just any and everything cannot or does not come to exist uncaused. One cannot respond that only things of a certain nature come into existence uncaused, since prior to their existence they have no nature which could control their coming to be. Prior made a cosmological application of Edwards’s reasoning by commenting on the steady state model’s postulating the continuous creation of hydrogen atoms ex nihilo:

It is no part of Hoyle’s theory that this process is causeless, but I want to be more definite about this, and to say that if it is causeless, then what is alleged to happen is fantastic and incredible. If it is possible for objects-objects, now, which really are objects, “substances endowed with capacities”-to start existing without a cause, then it is incredible that they should all turn out to be objects of the same sort, namely, hydrogen atoms. The peculiar nature of hydrogen atoms cannot possibly be what makes such starting-to-exist possible for them but not for objects of any other sort; for hydrogen atoms do not have this nature until they are there to have it, i.e. until their starting-to-exist has already occurred. That is Edwards’s argument, in fact; and here it does seem entirely cogent. . . .[34]

Now in the case at hand, if originally absolutely nothing existed, then why should it be spacetime that springs spontaneously out of the void, rather than, say, hydrogen atoms or even rabbits? How can one talk about the probability of any particular thing’s popping into being out of nothing?

Davies on one occasion seems to answer as if the laws of physics are the controlling factor which determines what may leap uncaused into being: “But what of the laws? They have to be ‘there’ to start with so that the universe can come into being. Quantum physics has to exist (in some sense) so that a quantum transition can generate the cosmos in the first place.”[35] Now this seems exceedingly peculiar. Davies seems to attribute to the laws of nature themselves a sort of ontological and causal status such that they constrain spontaneous becoming. But this seems clearly wrong-headed: the laws of physics do not themselves cause or constrain anything; they are simply propositional descriptions of a certain form and generality of what does happen in the universe. And the issue Edwards raises is why, if there were absolutely nothing, it would be true that any one thing rather than another should pop into being uncaused? It is futile to say it somehow belongs to the nature of spacetime to do so, for if there were absolutely nothing then there would have been no nature to determine that spacetime should spring into being.

Even more fundamentally, however, what Davies envisions is surely metaphysical nonsense. Though his scenario is cast as a scientific theory,. someone ought to be bold enough to say that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. Either the necessary and sufficient conditions for the appearance of spacetime existed or not; if so, then it is not true that nothing existed; if not, then it would seem ontologically impossible that being should arise out of absolute non-being. To call such spontaneous springing into being out of non-being a “quantum transition” or to attribute it to “quantum gravity” explains nothing; indeed, on this account, there is no explanation. It just happens.

It seems to me, therefore, that Davies has not provided any plausible basis for denying the truth of the cosmological argument’s first premiss. That whatever begins to exist has a cause would seem to be an ontologically necessary truth, one which is constantly confirmed in our experience.


Given the truth of premisses (1) and (2), it logically follows that (3) the universe has a cause of its existence. In fact, I think that it can be plausibly argued that the cause of the universe must be a personal Creator. For how else could a temporal effect arise from an eternal cause? If the cause were simply a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions existing from eternity, then why would not the effect also exist from eternity? For example, if the cause of water’s being frozen is the temperature’s being below zero degrees, then if the temperature were below zero degrees from eternity, then any water present would be frozen from eternity. The only way to have an eternal cause but a temporal effect would seem to be if the cause is a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time. For example, a man sitting from eternity may will to stand up; hence, a temporal effect may arise from an eternally existing agent. Indeed, the agent may will from eternity to create a temporal effect, so that no change in the agent need be conceived. Thus, we are brought not merely to the first cause of the universe, but to its personal Creator.

Summary and Conclusion

In conclusion, we have seen on the basis of both philosophical argument and scientific confirmation that it is plausible that the universe began to exist. Given the intuitively obvious principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence, we have been led to conclude that the universe has a cause of its existence. On the basis of our argument, this cause would have to be uncaused, eternal, changeless, timeless, and immaterial. Moreover, it would have to be a personal agent who freely elects to create an effect in time. Therefore, on the basis of the kalam cosmological argument, I conclude that it is rational to believe that God exists.


[1]G.W. Leibniz, “The Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason,” in Leibniz Selections, ed. Philip P. Wiener, The Modern Student’s Library (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), p. 527.

[2]Aristotle Metaphysica Lambda. l. 982b10-15.

[3]Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 70.

[4]J.J.C. Smart, “The Existence of God,” Church Quarterly Review 156 (1955): 194.

[5]G.W. Leibniz, Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil, trans. E.M. Huggard (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 127; cf. idem, “Principles,” p. 528.

[6]John Hick, “God as Necessary Being,” Journal of Philosophy 57 (1960): 733-4.

[7]David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, ed. with an Introduction by Norman Kemp Smith, Library of the Liberal Arts (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 1947), p. 190.

[8]Bertrand Russell and F.C. Copleston, “The Existence of God,” in The Existence of God, ed. with an Introduction by John Hick, Problems of Philosophy Series (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1964), p. 175.

[9]See William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, Library of Philosophy and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1980), pp. 48-58, 61-76, 98-104, 128-31.

[10]Wallace Matson, The Existence of God (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1965), pp. 58-60.

[11]J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 93.

[12]Quentin Smith, “Infinity and the Past,” Philosophy of Science 54 (1987): 69.

[13]Richard Sorabji, Time, Creation and the Continuum (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 213, 222-3.

[14]Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (Chicago: Willett, Clark, & Co., 1941), p. 37.

[15]G.J. Whitrow defends a form of this argument which does not presuppose a dynamical view of time, by asserting that an infinite past would still have to be “lived through” by any everlasting, conscious being, even if the series of physical events subsisted timelessly (G.J. Whitrow, The Natural Philosophy of Time, 2d ed. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980], pp. 28-32).

[16]Mackie, Theism, p. 93.

[17]Sorabji, Time, Creation, and the Continuum, pp. 219-22.

[18]K.R. Popper, “On the Possibility of an Infinite Past: a Reply to Whitrow,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 29 (1978): 47-8.

[19]R.G. Swinburne, “The Beginning of the Universe,” The Aristotelian Society 40 (1966): 131-2.

[20]Richard J. Gott,, “Will the Universe Expand Forever?” Scientific American (March 1976), p. 65.

[21]Fred Hoyle, From Stonehenge to Modern Cosmology (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1972), p. 36.

[22]Beatrice Tinsley, personal letter.

[23]David N. Schramm and Gary Steigman, “Relic Neutrinos and the Density of the Universe,” Astrophysical Journal 243 (1981): p. 1-7.

[24]Alan Sandage and G.A. Tammann, “Steps Toward the Hubble Constant. VII,” Astrophyscial Journal 210 (1976): 23, 7; see also idem, “Steps toward the Hubble Constant. VIII.” Astrophysical Journal 256 (1982): 339-45.

[25]Duane Dicus, “Effects of Proton Decay on the Cosmological Future.” Astrophysical Journal 252 (1982): l, 8.

[26]I.D. Novikov and Ya. B. Zeldovich, “Physical Processes Near Cosmological Singularities,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 11 (1973): 401-2.

[27]John Gribbin, “Oscillating Universe Bounces Back,” Nature 259 (1976): 16.

[28]P.C.W. Davies, The Physics of Time Asymmetry (London: Surrey University Press, 1974), p. 104.

[29]David Hume to John Stewart, February, 1754, in The Letters of David Hume, ed. J.Y.T. Greig (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 1:187.

[30]Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 214.

[31]Ibid., p. 215.

[32]Ibid., p. 31.

[33]Ibid., pp. 215, 216.

[34]A.N. Prior, “Limited Indeterminism,” in Papers on Time and Tense (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 65.

[35]Davies, God, p. 217.

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Proof of God: The Big Bang

Posted by Tony Listi on March 2, 2008

“The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole.”
-Arno Penzias, winner of the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the cosmic background radiation that corroborated the Big Bang

In recent decades, the most spectacular developments in physics and astronomy provide evidence of a supernatural guiding force. In a stunning confirmation of the Book of Genesis, modern science has discovered that the universe began in a primordial explosion of energy and light. Not only did the universe have a beginning in space, but the origin of the universe was also a beginning for space and time. Space and time did not exist prior to the universe. If you accept that everything that has a beginning has a cause, then the material universe had a nonmaterial or spiritual cause.

Scientists call the starting moment of the universe a “singularity,” an original point at which neither space nor time nor scientific laws are in effect. Nothing can be known scientifically about what came before such a point. Indeed the term “before” has no meaning since time itself did not exist “prior to” the singularity. Once upon a time there was no time. So it would seem that the universe was produced outside the laws of physics and thus its origin satisfies the definition of “miracle.”

“In the beginning,” the Book of Genesis says, “God created the heavens and earth.” The Bible is unique among the documents of history in positing an absolute beginning (contra Buddhism, Hinduism, Greeks, Romans, etc.). The Bible also asserts that time is finite (see Daniel 12:4, the “end of time”). It seems strange that the authors of the book would venture into this territory, but they did. Thus Jews and Christians have always thought God made the universe out of nothing. For nearly 2000 years this made no rational sense. We experience time and space in such a way that it is hard to imagine them having a beginning and an end. Nature and observation do not suggest this notion. And yet now modern science tells us that the Bible is right. The universe was indeed formed out of nothing and the process by which it was formed was beyond anything observable in nature (supernatural). To top it off, Christians and Jews have always thought God created time and space as well. Thus God was not sitting around for awhile before creating the universe because there was no time before the creation! Such thoughts are literal nonsense.

The Big Bang also resolves an apparent contradiction within the Bible (yes, science can help us interpret and understand the Bible sometimes). Genesis says that God created light before the sun. But, as critics have pointed out, all light on earth comes from the sun! Thus Christians have struggled to understand this passage for centuries without much success. The author(s) of Genesis seems to have made an obvious mistake. However, we know now that the universe was created in a burst of light, which itself gave birth to our sun. Thus science has confirmed what seemed like a hard biblical assertion to accept. Genesis is no vague parable or story of figurative language but somehow a very accurate account of events written 2500 years ago, long before telescopes, satellites, and all the modern marvels of astronomy and physics. And the authors of the Old Testament claimed God told them what He did. If they were right about this, could they be right about everything else?

Proof of God: Everything that begins has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore the universe has a cause. That cause we call God. Before the Big Bang, atheists could deny that the universe had a beginning. Now they are reduced to denying the first proposition: everything that has a beginning doesn’t necessarily have a cause. But even David Hume, the skeptic par excellence, thought this denial was ridiculous: “I have never asserted so absurd a proposition as that anything might arise without cause.” If every effect in nature has a cause, what is the cause of nature itself? Is it even remotely reasonable to suggest that nature made itself?

Science has discovered a reality that it had previously consigned to the realm of faith. But today there is no need for faith to recognize that the origin of the universe is metaphysical. The universe was caused or created, and so there must be a creator.

Using reason, what other conclusions about the creator can we draw? Well, if all matter was created by the Big Bang, then the cause of the Big Bang had to be something that was not matter or material. Thus the cause must have been something akin to a Spirit or a Mind. What other non-material existence is there? As the creator used no natural laws or forces to create the universe (which gave rise to such laws and forces), the creator must be supernatural. All creators transcend their creation. As the universe is the totality of nature (time and space), the creator is beyond nature (time and space). As the universe was created out of nothing, this creator must be incomprehensibly powerful, if not omnipotent.

Most of this post is drawn from Dinesh D’Souza’s book “What’s So Great About Christianity.”

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Reason is Supernatural

Posted by Tony Listi on February 29, 2008

Excerpts from Miracles by C. S. Lewis (I encourage you to read the entire book.)
“All possible knowledge, then, depends on the validity of reasoning…. Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. It follows that no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight…. Thus a strict materialism refutes itself for the reason given long ago by Professor Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the [random, uncontrolled] motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.’ (Possible Worlds, p.209) But Naturalism, even if it is not purely materialistic, seems to me to involve the same difficulty, though in a somewhat less obvious form. It discredits our processes of reasoning or at least reduces their credit to such a humble level that it can no longer support Naturalism itself…. Acts of thinking are no doubt events; but they are a very special sort of events. They are ‘about’ something other than themselves and can be true or false. Events in general are not ‘about’ anything and cannot be true or false. [They just happen by cause and effect.] Hence acts of inference can, and must, be considered in two different lights. On the one hand they are subjective events, items in somebody’s psychological history. On the other hand, they are insights into, or knowings of, something other than themselves…. And we cannot possibly reject the second point of view as a subjective illusion without discrediting all of human knowledge. For we can know nothing, beyond our sensations at the moment unless the act of inference is the real insight that it claims to be….”

“Reason is our starting point. There can be no question either of attacking or defending it. If by treating it as a mere phenomenon you put yourself outside it, there is then no way, except by begging the question, of getting inside again…. For him [the Christian], the human mind in the act of knowing is illuminated by the Divine reason. It is set free, in the measure required, from the huge nexus of non-rational causation; free from this to be determined by the truth known….”

“The knowledge of a thing is not one of the things’s parts. In this sense something beyond Nature operates whenever we reason…. We have seen that rational thought is not part of the system of Nature. Within each man there must be an area (however small) of activity which is outside or independent of her. In relation to Nature, rational thought goes on ‘of its own accord’ or exists ‘on its own.’ It does not follow that rational though exists absolutely on its own. It might be independent of Nature by being dependent on something else…. It is only when you are asked to believe in Reason coming from non-reason that you must cry Halt, for, if you don’t, all thought is discredited. It is therefore obvious that sooner or later you must admit a Reason which exists absolutely on its own…. Yet if any thought is valid, such a [eternal self-existent] Reason must exist and must be the source of my own imperfect and intermittent rationality. Human minds, then, are not the only supernatural entities that exist. They do not come from nowhere. Each has come into Nature from Supernature: each has its tap-root in an eternal, self-existent Rational being, whom we call God. Each is an offshoot, or spearhead, or incursion of that Supernatural reality into Nature….

“Reasoning doesn’t ‘happen to’ us: we do it…. The traditional doctrine that I am a creature to whom God has given reason but who is distinct from God seems to me much more philosophical than the theory that what appears to be my thinking is only God’s thinking through me…. It seems much more likely that human thought is not God’s but God-kindled….”

“We are interested in man only because his rationality is the little tell-tale rift in Nature which shows that there is something beyond or behind her….”

“Two views have been held about moral judgments. Some people think that when we make them we are not using our Reason, but are employing some different power. Other people think that we make them by our Reason. I myself hold this second view. That is, I believe that the primary moral principles on which all others depend are rationally perceived. We ‘just see’ that there is no reason why my neighbor’s happiness should be sacrificed to my own, as we ‘just see’ that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to one another. If we cannot prove either axiom, that is not because they are irrational but because they are self-evident and all proofs depend on them. Their intrinsic reasonableness shines by its own light. It is because all morality is based on such self-evident principles that we say to a man, when we would recall him to right conduct, ‘Be reasonable.’… If we are to continue to make moral judgments (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only as an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature. As the argument of the last chapter led us to acknowledge a supernatural source for rational thought, so the argument of this leads us to acknowledge a supernatural source for our ideas of good and evil…. If, like me, you hold that moral judgment is a kind of Reasoning, then you will say, ‘We now know more about the Divine Reason.’”

“Reason is something more than cerebral biochemistry…. The presence of human rationality in the world is therefore a Miracle….”

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Capitalism, Catholicism, Morality, & Poverty

Posted by Tony Listi on January 25, 2008

This is a video of an excellent lecture by Thomas E. Woods.

No Catholic (or Protestant for that matter) should be ashamed of whole-heartedly advocating free market capitalism and limited government. Conservatism and perhaps even libertarianism to some extent are eminently compatible with Christianity.

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The Flat Earth Myth: Medieval Scholars Knew the Earth Was Round

Posted by Tony Listi on January 22, 2008

“[F]ew medieval scholars ever doubted the earth’s sphericity…. How could a better story for the army of science ever be concocted?”
-Stephen Jay Gould
“Dinosaur in a Haystack”
Renowned anthropologist, who I don’t even agree with on everything

“The almost universal supposition that educated medieval people believed the earth to be flat puzzled me and struck me as dissonant when I was in elementary school, but I assumed that teachers knew best and shelved my doubts. By the time my children were in elementary school, they were learning the same mistake, and by that time I knew it was a falsehood. Most undergraduates I have taught at the University of California have received the same misinformation–from schoolbooks, storybooks, cinema, and television. The Flat Error is firmly fixed in our minds….
In the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era [only] five writers seem to have denied the globe, and a few others were ambiguous or uninterested in the question. But nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the fifteenth century all doubt had disappeared.”
-Jeffrey Burton Russell
Professor Emeritus
“Inventing the Flat Earth”

“[P]hysically considered the earth is a globe; all the authors of the Middle Ages are agreed on this… The implications of a spherical earth were fully grasped.”
-C.S. Lewis
Philosopher, Theologian, Writer, and Professor
“The Discarded Image”

The most famous of Christian writers and intellectuals believed the earth was round: St. Augustine, the Venerable Bede, St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Dante. The few nonentities who thought it was flat were not very influential.

“[N]one of the great eighteenth-century anticlerical rationalists–not Condillac, Condorcet, Diderot, Gibbon, Hume, or our own Ben Franklin–accused the scholastics of believing in a flat earth.”
-Gould again

Where did this myth arise then???
Washington Irving’s largely fictitious “History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus”

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An Atheist Fable: Reopening the Galileo Case

Posted by Tony Listi on December 19, 2007

The following is drawn from Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity.

As historian Thomas Kuhn notes, there were lots of people who proposed and advocated the heliocentric theory, but they were ridiculed and ignored. The scientific data at that time and common sense were against Galileo Galilei of Florence. Most educated people held the geocentric view of Ptolemy, not the heliocentric one of Copernicus (who was never in bad standing with the Church and actually dedicated his 1543 book, in which he advanced his heliocentric theory, to the pope ).

Moreover, it is necessary to keep in mind that Galileo’s contribution to the heliocentric theory was significant but not decisive. His new, more powerful telescope and thus his new observations about the moons of Jupiter, the phases of Venus, and the spots on the sun supported Copernican theory. The Jesuit astronomers agreed with the implications of his observations but did not think that they in themselves were enough to prove heliocentrism or shift the balance of evidence in its favor. (Yes, the Church funded and supported scientific research! In fact, there were several Church-sponsored observatories and universities.) Indeed, the greatest astronomer of the era, Tyco Brahe, agreed with the Jesuits that Galileo’s observations were insufficient. So great was Brahe’s reputation that it was only after his death that many astronomers converted to Copernicanism. Judging Galileo by the science of the time, he had theories but no substantial proof for them.

Would it surprise you to know that the pope and Cardinal Bellarmine, head of the Inquisition, were admirers of Galileo when he came to Rome in 1616? Galileo received much fanfare and a celebrity’s welcome with many receptions given by various cardinals and bishops.

Listen to what Cardinal Bellarmine had to say about Galileo’s heliocentric theory: “While experience tells us plainly that the earth is standing still, if there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe…and that the sun does not go around the earth but the earth around the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” Wow, that sounds reasonable and sensible! The God of the Bible and the God of Reason are one and the same and cannot contradict each other.

Given the inconclusive evidence and religious sensitivities surrounding the issue, Cardinal Bellarmine issued an injunction to Galileo that he should not teach or promote this theory. Galileo agreed to this and obeyed for several years while continuing his experiments. But when Pope Urban VIII assumed the Office of Peter, Galileo thought he could be more open in his advocacy of heliocentrism because the new pope was a scientific progressive who had fought to keep Copernicus’s work from being placed in the index of prohibited books. The new pope was a fan of Galileo’s and actually wrote a poem eulogizing him. But while Urban thought science was very useful for earthly measurements, he did not think it could give knowledge that only God could know (I mean, how could a person of that time know for certain which astronomical body went around the other without a “God’s-eye view,” so to speak?).

Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. He claimed to have demonstrated the truth of heliocentrism mainly by way of explanation of the tides. The rapid motion of the earth around the sun caused the tides. (Today, of course, we know his “proof” to be dead wrong! The tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon, not the rotations or revolutions of the Earth.) There were several problems with the work. First, his tidal theory was questionable even at that time (science is not on solid ground when it uses one mystery to try to solve another). Second, he assumed that the planets moved in concentric circles, even though by that time Kepler had demonstrated that they have elliptical orbits. Third, Galileo embarrassed and mocked the pope in the work. It featured two characters in a dialogue in which one character represented Galileo himself and the other represented the pope. The pope character was named Simplicio, which means “simpleton” in Italian. Fourth, Galileo did not confine his thoughts and observation to the scientific realm. He ventured into theology arguing that the Bible is largely allegorical and required constant reinterpretation to determine its true meaning (As an aside, there is no “true” meaning to any such thing at all if it is to be constantly reinterpreted, especially if such interpretations are contradictory or semi-contradictory.). The Jesuits warned him not to wander into such speculations, but he rejected these admonitions. Lastly, the Protestant Revolution was in full swing and Pope Urban VIII was eager to demonstrate the Vatican’s fidelity to Scripture, and geocentrism was the official position of both Catholics and Protestants. Had circumstances been different the whole Galileo affair might not have happened and the pope might not have allowed the trial to go forward.

Galileo returned to Rome in 1633 to be interrogated by the Inquisition. Church records were found of Cardinal Bellarmine’s injunction that was filed over a decade earlier and that Galileo had not told anyone. Now it seemed to Galileo’s judges that he had deceived the Church and failed to keep his word not to promote heliocentrism. They advised him to confess that he had broken his word with Cardinal Bellarmine and to show contrition. Incredibly though, Galileo asserted that he had not defended heliocentrism: “I have neither maintained or defended in that book the opinion that the earth moves and that the sun is stationary but have rather demonstrated the opposite of the Copernican opinion and shown that the arguments of Copernicus are weak and inconclusive.” Perhaps he made this statement out of frustration, weariness, and nerves. But the inquisitors had every reason to believe he was a liar now too. Such an incident would have destroyed any defendant in a modern court of law. They believed he did hold heliocentric views and demanded that he recant them. Galileo did and was sentenced to house arrest.

Galileo was never charged with heresy or tortured in any way. In fact, his was given over to the custody of the archbishop of Siena who housed him in his palace for months and was then permitted to return to his villa in Florence. He was allowed to continue his scientific work not relating to heliocentrism. The notion that he said, “And yet it does move!” on his deathbed is legend and fiction. There are no reports of this. He died of natural causes in 1642.

According to historian Gary Ferngren, “The traditional picture of Galileo as a martyr to intellectual freedom and a victim of the church’s opposition to science has been demonstrated to be little more than a caricature.
According to historian Thomas Lessl, the Galileo case was an “anomaly,” a “momentary break in the otherwise harmonious relationship between Christianity and science. Of course, considering the scientific opposition to Copernicanism at the time, it seems that the case was also more of a conflict within science than one between science and religion. Galileo’s impetuousness and impudence did not help either.

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Archaeological Evidence Supporting the Credibility and Accuracy of the Bible

Posted by Tony Listi on December 19, 2007

Old Testament

The Ketef Hinnom Amulets
In 1979, a team of Israeli archaeologists discovered two tiny silver scrolls/amulets, the oldest extant pieces of the Hebrew Bible. These amulets were dated to the 7th c. BC and had the Priestly Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. This discovery cast doubt on skeptical theories that the Torah was written much later by scribes who learned their monotheism from Zoroastrian priests in Babylon during the Babylonian Exile.

The Merneptah Stela
In 1896, a seven foot slab of black granite was discovered in a temple in Thebes, Egypt. It was erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Ramses the Great. The stela was dated to 1209/1208 BC and reads “Israel is laid waste; its seed is not.” This discovery definitely proves, contrary to some skeptics, that a people known as the Israelites existed and were known in Egypt.

The House of David Inscription
On July 21, 1933, a basalt stone, written in Old Aramaic that mentions explicitly the House of David was found at Tel Dan in Northern Israel, near the foot of Mt. Hermon. It was dated to the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 8th c. BC and also refers to events recorded in the Old Testament Book of 2 Kings. This discovery contradicts skeptics, such as Israel Finkelstein and Thomas L. Thompson at the University of Copenhagen, who claimed biblical figures such as King David and Solomon never really existed historically.

The Moabite Stone/Mesha Stela
In 1868, F. A. Klein discovered a stela written in Moabite around 930 BC. It reads, “I am Mesha, son of Kemoshmelek, the king of Moab, the Dibonite…. And [the god] Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo against Israel and I went by night and fought against it…. And I took from there the altar-hearths of Yahweh, and I dragged them before Chemosh. And the king of Israel built Jabaz and dwelt in it while he fought with me and Chemosh drove him out from before me.”

It thus mentions Israel and its God and closely mirrors the Bible, i.e. 2 Kings 3:4-5, “Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheepbreeder, and he regularly paid the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams. But it happened, when Ahab died, that the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. At Tel Dan in 1993, French scholar Andre Lemaire discovered that “House of David” appeared in line 31 on the stone.

Again, this discovery contradicts the claim that King David never existed and correlates with events testified to in the Bible

Pharaoh Shishak/Shoshenq’s Victory Lists
Archaeologists have long known about the Egyptian Pharaoh Shoshenq and his conquests from the carvings on the temple of Amun at Karnak. This Pharaoh and his exploits can also be found in 2 Chronicles 12 of the Bible, in which he ravages Jerusalem, Rehov, and Megiddo, and Hazor.

In 2003, scientists at Tel Rehov in Israel used carbon dating to confirm that Shoshenq’s lootings took place in the 10th c. BC and that the cities that the Bible mentions Shoshenq conquering actually existed when it said they did. This included the cities mentioned in the Book of Joshua: Beth-Horon (10:10), Gibeon (9:3), Megiddo (12:21), and Gaza (10:41).

Samaritan Ostraca
In 1910, archaeologist G. A. Reisner found 63 potsherds in Samaria with Old Hebrew script on them written in ink called ostraca. They are dated to around 784-783 BC, contain ancient commercial records, and 30 of them name the clan or district of 7 of the 10 sons of Manasseh as well as two daughters of Zelophehad, all of which are mentioned in Joshua 17:2-3.

The Seal of Baruch
In 1975, a bulla or clay seal was discovered in Israel. Written in Old Hebrew, it was dated to around 600 BC and authenticated by Israeli archaeologists. It reads, “Blessed of God, son of Neriah, the scribe.” This is very likely the seal of Baruch mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah: “In the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah…. Jeremiah called Baruch son of Neriah; and Baruch wrote down in the scroll, at Jeremiah’s dictation, all the words which the Lord had spoken to him” (Jer 36:1,4). The fourth year of Jehoiakim’s reign is estimated to be around 605 BC, corresponding with the time period of the seal.

In 1996, a second and similar seal was found but with a thumbprint as well.

These discoveries again provide further evidence that the people of the Bible are not fictional characters but actually lived as historical figures.

The Ebla Tablets
In 1964, Italian archaeologists from the University of Rome excavated a palace at Tell Mardikh in northern Syria. Inside they found a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets dating from around 2300 BC. Written in Sumerian and Akkadian, they reveal laws, customs, and events that are in harmony with the Book of Genesis. They also explicitly mention the five undiscovered cities mentioned in Gen 14:8, including Sodom and Gomorrah, that skeptics said never existed.

The Siloam Tunnel (or Hezekiah’s Tunnel)
In 1838, a 1750 foot long tunnel was found in Jerusalem. In 2003, Israeli and British scientists tested the organic material within the plaster lining of the tunnel to date the tunnel to around 700 BC. The researchers published their findings in the September 2003 issue of Nature.

According to 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30 (and perhaps verses 2-4), a great tunnel was built during the reign of Hezekiah (727-698 BC) to cut off Assyria’s water supply (who Israel was at war with) and secure their own supply. Again, Scripture seems to match up with science, archaeology, and history.

The Nuzi Tablets
In 1925 at Nuzi in Northern Iraq, 4000 cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian were found and dated to 2300 BC. They describe customs parallel to those written in the Book of Genesis, such as a barren wife giving a slave (such as Hagar in Gen 16) to her husband (Abram) to produce an heir OR a father choosing a bride (like Rebekah in Gen 24) for his son.

This proves skeptics wrong who have called certain practices in the Bible cultural anomalies.

Evidence for The Exodus

Amarna Letters
In the late 19th century, a series of cuneiform letters dictated by the Pharaohs Amenhotep III (c. 1391 BC) and Tutankhamen (1330 BC) were discovered. It tells of groups of foreigners that were brigands or “disenfranchised peoples on the outskirts of society.” To the clean-shaven Egyptians, the bearded Jews of the Bible probably would have counted as uncivilized riffraff.

The Hatshepsut Chapel
Historian Robert Stieglitz of Rutgers University argues that the carvings on a chapel of Egyptian Queen Maakare Hatshepsut refer to the expulsion of a group of “foreigners amongst them”-a reference that closely mirrors Numbers 11:4, which states that the Israelites fleeing Egypt included “a mixed multitude” and not just the Israelites.

The Habiru
In 1887, more cuneiform tablets were discovered in Egypt, written by Canaanite scribes in Akkadian. They are the correspondence between vassal kings in Canaan and the Egyptian pharaohs around 1330 BC. They mention a people known as the “habiru” attacking cities in Canaan and causing trouble in Egypt itself. The letters contain eerie similarities with the biblical accounts of the Jewish conquest of the region of Canaan. For instance, the vassal Abdu-Heba of Jerusalem writes to the Egyptian pharaoh that “the Habiru sack the territories of the king” and insists that “if there are archers [sent] this year, all the territories of king will remain (intact); but if there are no archers, the territories of the king, my Lord, will be lost!”

New Testament

The Pontius Pilate Inscription
In 1962, an Italian archaeologist found inscription at Caesarea Maritima on the coast of Israel south of Haifa, the center of Roman administration of the region at the time of Christ. It reads, “Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”

This discovery proved that Pontius Pilate actually existed, for no such hard evidence existed until then.

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Taking Science on Faith (NY Times)

Posted by Tony Listi on November 25, 2007

Here at least is an honest rationalist! Finally, somone from within the ranks of science will point out what is completely obvious to one who looks: science is not completely rational and devoid of faithful assumptions. But Davies is not perfect: he dismissively and unjustly underrates the power of “monotheistic religion” to explain the universe. He sees what epistemologists call the “infinite regress” associated with rationality and tries to stop it by creating a circle, a self-regulating universe, a universe which can explain the very laws that regulate itself. He strains to exclude “external agency” which is merely a euphemism for God. It is quite a sight: a stubborn scientist confronted with Design.   


Published: November 24, 2007

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion – all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” – imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth – and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are – they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality – the laws of physics – only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe – one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith – namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Paul Davies is the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of “Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life.”

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