Big Bang Cosmology and Atheism: Why the Big Bang Is No Help to Theists

By Smith, Quentin | Free Inquiry, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Big Bang Cosmology and Atheism: Why the Big Bang Is No Help to Theists


Smith, Quentin, Free Inquiry


Since the mid-1960s, scientifically informed theists have been ecstatic because of Big Bang cosmology. Theists believe that the best scientific evidence that God exists is the evidence that the universe began to exist in an explosion about 15 billion years ago, an explosion called the Big Bang. Theists think it obvious that the universe could not have begun to exist uncaused. They argue that the most reasonable hypothesis is that the cause of the universe is God. This theory hinges on the assumption that it is obviously true that whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The most recent statement of this theist theory is in William Lane Craig's 1994 book Reasonable Faith.(1) In it Craig states his argument like this:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.(2)

In a very interesting quote from this book he discusses the first premise and mentions me as one of the perverse atheists who deny the obviousness of this assumption:

The first step is so intuitively obvious that I think scarcely anyone could sincerely believe it to be false. I therefore think it somewhat unwise to argue in favor of it, for any proof of the principle is likely to be less obvious than the principle itself. And as Aristotle remarked, one ought not to try to prove the obvious via the less obvious. The old axiom that "out of nothing, nothing comes" remains as obvious today as ever. When I first wrote The Kalam Cosmological Argument, I remarked that I found it an attractive feature of this argument that it allows the atheist a way of escape: he can always deny the first premise and assert the universe sprang into existence uncaused out of nothing. I figured that few would take this option, since I believed they would thereby expose themselves as persons interested only in academic refutation of the argument and not in really discovering the truth about the universe. To my surprise, however, atheists seem to be increasingly taking this route. For example, Quentin Smith, commenting that philosophers are too often adversely affected by Heidegger's dread of "the nothing," concludes that "the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing" - a nice ending to a sort of Gettysburg address of atheism, perhaps.(3)

A BASELESS ASSUMPTION

I'm going to criticize this argument from scientific cosmology, which is the most popular argument that scientifically informed theists and philosophers are now using to argue that God exists.

Let's consider the fast premise of the argument, that whatever has a beginning to its existence must have a cause. What reason is there to believe this causal principle is true? It's not self-evident; something is self-evident if and only if everyone who understands it automatically believes it. But many people, including leading theists such as Richard Swinburne, ruderstand this principle very well but think it is false. Many philosophers, scientists, and indeed the majority of graduate and undergraduate students I've had in my classes think this principle is false. This principle is not self-evident, nor can this principle be deduced from any self-evident proposition. Therefore, there's no reason to think it's true. It is either false or it has the status of a statement that we do not know is true or false. At the very least, it is dear that we do not know that it is true.

Now suppose the theist retreats to a weaker version of this principle and says, "Whatever has a beginning to its existence has a cause." Now, this does not say that whatever has a beginning to its existence must have a cause; it allows that it is possible that some things begin to exist without a cause. So we don't need to consider it as a selfevident, necessary truth. Rather, according to the theists, we can consider it to be an empirical generalization based on observation.

But there is a decisive problem with this line of thinking. …

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