But who caused the Big Bang?

March 31, 2010

The supernaturalist believes that a supernatural god created our universe. Why would the universe need something to create it?

The question itself is neither irrational nor irresponsible. Science is based on curiosity, and the drive to explain origins. Cosmologists are busily trying to explain how a universe could start from a hot explosion of energy, and trying to explain where that energy could come from.

Rationality itself is behind good explanation. Expressed simplistically, scientific reasoning prefers rules such as "an event must have a prior cause" and "the origin of a thing is due to something else" and "something that didn’t have to exist must be the responsibility of something else." These are various ways of saying that something can't come from absolutely nothing. Science is intelligently designed to find the connections between things.

The universe appears to be an event, with an origin in the Big Bang. There has been much talk about the universe "coming from nothing" but we should be more precise with our words. Since it turns out that any quantum vacuum nothingness is actually a seething chaos of potential somethingnesses, cosmology won't be saying that the big bang came from absolutely nothing. But who could say what the cosmological story about the big bang will look like a generation from now, or a hundred years from now? I doubt cosmology will settle for "well, it did come from absolutely nothing." Instead, cosmology offers theories about prior conditions -- like an "eternal inflation" of quantum flux -- that suggest how universes can form and evolve. Our universe doesn't violate the ultimate rule that energy can't come for free -- that is why our universe may have a total net energy of zero. However, saying that our universe adds up to a nothing is quite different from saying that our universe just suddenly came from nothing. Quite the opposite.

Unimpressed by cosmology's perpetual efforts to describe prior conditions before big bang explosions, religion offers its god hypothesis. Hypothesizing a god beyond our universe is one thing, but proving that the only possible explanation is a god must be quite another thing. Naturalists can avoid having to admit that the god hypothesis must be right because it is the only available hypothesis. What could naturalism offer to hold off god?

There is one sort of entity that gets around the positive rules of explanation: anything that is not an event, has no origin, and had to exist is a thing can obtain an explanatory exemption, in principle. Theologians know this interesting principle very well: they often claim that their god meets these criteria, perfectly, so the universe needs explaining, while god does not. That halts the "who made god?" line of questioning. Of course, a god may not be the only thing that could meet these criteria for exemption. What if it is just endless eternal nature that sets the prior conditions for universes? The quantum vacuum is still nature; weird, but natural. Or our universe may have exploded off from earlier universes. It could be "supernature" all the way down, and eternally back in time. You can't assume that a supernatural god is the only candidate for ultimately explaining origins.

To prove that a god caused the big bang, the supernaturalist must first rule out supernature. How could the supernaturalist disprove the supernature hypothesis? We hear theologians say, "Obviously natural things can't be everlasting." True enough, the natural things we see around are busily coming into existence, falling apart, and getting transformed into other things. However, "supernature" might be different. Although individual things within exist in time, have origins, and are not self-sufficient, nature as a whole may not have the same properties. Wholes can have properties that none of their parts possess, so an inference that the whole of nature must be as contingent or dependent commits a logical fallacy.

Supernaturalists try to argue that nothing real can exist for an infinite amount of time, by claiming that it is impossible to conceive how an infinite amount of time has passed before the present time. However, the very definition of infinity requires that conceiving its completion is impossible (if conceiving such a completion were possible, it wouldn’t be a genuine infinity), so this argument misuses the concept of infinity. Either way, supernature may be all that there is, because it may be either ultimately timeless or eternal, and hence entirely self-sufficient. Once again we see how the supernaturalist cannot disprove the possibility that there is only more nature to be explored. Naturally, the supernaturalist prefers that god enjoy the properties of timelessness or eternality, but there is no need for a god hypothesis if supernature could have those properties.

After all this reasoning, we reach a skeptical standoff. No proof for a god lies behind the big bang. But no one is trying to prove the "supernature" hypothesis, either. Science isn't proving that hypothesis; we are operating on a philosophical level here. Naturalists cannot argue that "supernature" is the right answer, therefore no god exists. That's precisely the skeptical standoff, which cannot be avoided. If we must all confess our ignorance of what really was going on before the big bang, then let's stay agnostic and skeptical towards all hypotheses as we await more evidence. That is why our evidence about the big bang cannot justify a god.


#1 jerrys on Wednesday March 31, 2010 at 5:03pm

I agree with everything in this post except the last paragraph.  Our current understanding of the initial state of the universe is incomplete.  It only goes back to a small fraction of a second after the “creation”.  I “believe” (yes, I mean I think it’s true although I can’t defend it with any sound arguments) that science will eventually penetrate that fraction of a second and explain what happened. I also believe (in the same sense) that what went on then can’t reasonably be described as “a god did it”.  But for the sake of argument I’m willing to assume I’m wrong and that it will make sense to say that some “god” created the big bang. But that god will not be a supernatural entity because it would have interacted with the world and it is that interaction that we will have learned about.

There is no “skeptical standoff”. The difference between the scientist and the theologians is that the scientists will always be looking for ways to test their hypothesis and the theologians will be satisfied with untestable hypostesis. The idea of supernatural entities that interact with the world is incoherent.

#2 uzza (Guest) on Wednesday March 31, 2010 at 9:42pm

Something existed before the big bang. Your first four paragraphs do a good job of establishing that whatchamacallit exists. Theologians give it the name “god”, and you give it the name “supernature”.  There doesn’t seem to be any conflict there beyond a trivial matter of terminology.  You both say it has certain attributes: eternal, has to exist, is not an event.  You both are in agreement there as well.  “Supernature” and “god” seem to be just alternative names for the same thing. 
Then, without ever establishing that these are two different things, you make an unwarranted forty league leap to “cannot justify a god”. 

For this to make sense requires a hidden assumption, one that assigns other attributes that the theologian would reject. If you’re just assuming the cartoon version of “god”, (eg. a six-armed elephant, born of a virgin, drives a fiery chariot) your post is hardly worth making. However if your assumptions are more sensible (conscious, an entity, benevolent, etc) then it could be very interesting train of thought.

#3 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday April 01, 2010 at 6:56am

As ususal, with dogmatic atheism, you create a series of ideas you attribute to “religion” or “theologians” or any other entities you will use your attributions to dismiss and then, unsurprisingly, you dismiss them on the basis of your own attributions.  How about coming up with some actual quotes from actual theologians and attempting to debunk those.  Full quotes, not the conveniently excerpted tidbits that are usually used. 

Of course, that would be inexpedient to your purpose, which is to tidily dispose of all “religion” in one fell swoop before you go off to write something else.  To do this you depend on the satisfaction of your intended audience with the superficial and non-specific stands you allege cover all “theologians”.  That is the stock and trade of dogmatism, it’s exactly what the more superficial- and generally the more popular - biblical fundamentalists do.  Thinking is hard, thinking about reality is harder, addressing the small parts of real reality, instead of on the artificial abstractions of this kind of discourse is hardest of all.

—- Expressed simplistically, scientific reasoning prefers rules such as “an event must have a prior cause” and “the origin of a thing is due to something else” and “something that didn’t have to exist must be the responsibility of something else.” These are various ways of saying that something can’t come from absolutely nothing.  John Shook

——First, as others have pointed out, if he is right, the design hypothesis essentially must be wrong and the alternative naturalistic hypothesis essentially must be right. But since when is a scientific hypothesis confirmed by philosophical gymnastics, not data? Second, the fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?  H. Allen Orr

#4 Albert Rogers (Guest) on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 6:56am

No, No, No, No!
You CANNOT have “before the Big Bang”.

The reason it was given such an undignified name (by Fred Hoyle, who was appalled by the idea of such a singularity) is that it marks not just the beginning of space, but the beginning of space and TIME. You cannot have a temperature below zero Kelvin, and you cannot have a time-like Divine intent before the Big Bang.

If God interacts with the Universe in a time-like manner, God is either coeval with it, or so very different from us that the idea of praying or worshiping God is preposterous.

#5 jerrys on Saturday April 17, 2010 at 1:25pm

@albert rogers

At extremely high temperature and density current physical theories break down.  In particular there is no theory consistent with both general relativity (gravity) and quantum mechanics.

I’m not a physicist although I’ve read a lot of popular physics, so the idea you’re putting forward that space-time has a particular shape at “the singularity” may be possible, but there are lots of other alternative ideas that have been proposed.  You can start looking at\  some of these ideas at the “big bang” entry on wikipedia

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