A reasoned belief in the existence of God usually starts with cosmology. As we all know, following the Big Bang a tiny ‘singularity’, a point of infinite density, expanded and cooled to form life, the universe and everything, though not in that order.
Nothing arises out of nothing – that has been assumed since the Greek philosophers. Physicists such as Krauss and Hawking are often cited as stating that the universe came into existence from nothing, but they rely on concepts such as the ‘quantum vacuum’ which has properties, whereas ‘nothing’ has no properties.
So where did the singularity come from? There are several possible answers:
1. The singularity always existed: this would make it, as philosophers say, a ‘necessary’ entity – dependent on nothing else for its existence.
2. The singularity was the result of a chain of cause and effect: but that merely pushes the problem a stage further back. Wherever the chain stops there must be a ‘necessary’ something at its beginning, a cosmic first domino that nudged the rest.
3. The singularity was a result of an endless chain of cause and effect: we know the Big Bang was the start of the existence of our space-time universe, but on this view there is a bigger reality behind it, which has no beginning.
4. The singularity ultimately arose from random activity: by ‘random’ here is meant ‘not completely determined by cause and effect’. There might be regularities but you can’t depend on it. Everything is a matter of probability.
Answer 1 doesn’t work. If the singularity as a point was stable there would not have been a Big Bang without some outside stimulus. If it was not stable and had existed forever then it would have been expanding forever, not for a mere 14 billion years.
Answers 2 and 3 are problematical because we know that time only began at the Big Bang. Without time the idea of cause and effect is meaningless. Incidentally, lack of time also makes the traditional term ‘first cause’ inappropriate. ‘Necessary entity’ is cumbersome but probably better.
Answer 4 is the answer of choice for modern physics, proposing a necessary underlying reality which could give rise to the singularity and the Big Bang without the need for any intelligent intervention. The notion of ‘quantum foam’ started off this way of thinking in the 1950s, and was progressed by Edward Tryon’s vacuum fluctuation theory in 1973. This has been developed and popularised, particularly by Hawking.
In traditional discussion the necessary entity at the root of things was regarded as personal and equated with God. Today the necessary entity is regarded as impersonal, particularly by Hawking in his wish to promote atheism. Others like Alex Filippenko and Peter Higgs hold to similar views on physics but do not believe that God is automatically eliminated by them.
THE LAWS OF NATURE
The whole of our universe is governed by the laws of nature, which are primarily the laws of physics. These are deterministic – one thing determines another, always, everywhere. As we approach the sub-atomic, the uncertainty element of quantum mechanics becomes significant, but this is still not a lawless universe. So where do the laws of physics come from? Further, Hawking is emphatic that the laws of physics break down at the singularity, so even if the laws existed before the Big Bang how could they have any bearing after it?
Hawking gets round this difficulty through the quantum concept of imaginary time, which is conceived as an alternative time sequence running along an axis at right angles to real time – similar to the picture often drawn of imaginary numbers on an axis at right angles to the real numbers. Apparently the start of real time is not a singularity in imaginary time, so the laws of physics could be carried forward into real time unscathed.
This concept requires that imaginary time and therefore imaginary numbers really exist. I merely ask: where are they? We can understand that everyday real numbers could be simply inherent in the universe as it is; without that universe they would not exist. We can also understand that, even though imaginary numbers do not exist in the same way as real numbers, they perform a highly useful function in the manipulation of real numbers.
The eternal actual existence of imaginary numbers is a very different matter – they are the creation of thought, or mind if you like. Hawking’s view therefore leads us back to a personal cause or necessary entity. As Filippenko says, ‘the “divine spark” was whatever produced the laws of physics’. Although he professes agnosticism as to what the divine spark was, the point is well put. Indeed, it applies to all purely mathematical explanations of reality.
The main objection to my analysis is that even if mind existed it could not affect the material world; but this is adequately dealt with in philosophy through ‘neutral monism’, which sees mind and matter as different aspects of one reality. In fact, common sense is enough. Gravity affects material objects even though they are different types of thing. Likewise a magnetic field will pick up a paper clip. It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that a personal necessary entity could influence the impersonal universe. It is also reasonable to hold that a personal necessary entity is the best explanation of the all-pervading laws of physics.
My next line of argument concerns functionality. This is largely the same as the argument from design, but the word ‘design’ has unfortunate connotations. Functionality is very different from appearance or static structure. The six-sided patterns of snowflakes or many basalt rock formations look designed, but simply derive from the properties of the hexagon. However, they only involve appearance and static structure. Snowflakes and rocks do not function dynamically in the way that the elements of a cell, an organ or an organism do. Yet neo-Darwinists claim that evolution is driven by a simple process or ‘algorithm’ – variation plus selection plus heredity produces adaptation, resulting in ever-increasing functionality.
However, broader evolutionary thinking over the last sixty years has cast doubt on the sufficiency of the neo-Darwinist algorithm, revealing many additional factors: environmental change, symbiosis, lateral gene transfer, co-evolution, neutral variation, epigenetics, self-organisation, convergence, hybridisation, natural genetic engineering, plasticity and so on. The algorithm must be set in the context of many diverse influences, some of them random.
This broader approach emphasises that the great panorama of evolution was immensely improbable. Not to mention the improbability of the earth having necessary characteristics such as gravitational pull, abundance of water, tidal oceans, plate tectonics, magnetic field, surface temperature, atmosphere and climate range. This all involves levels of improbability – one chance in at least a trillion trillion – that we normally regard as impossible. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel puts it, ‘It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection.’
One escape route from this extreme improbability is to suppose that the initial conditions of the singularity were precisely set so as to produce galaxies, stars, chemical elements and the earth as necessary, together with the laws of nature needed to execute the whole process, including 4.5 billion years of evolution. This would not violate the laws of nature, but would require intelligence –to put it mildly. Alternatively, the process might not be completely determined from the start, but might be guided by intelligence as it progressed. This also would not violate the laws of nature if the guidance took effect through manipulation of probabilistic quantum events.
In order to avoid both of these ideas the hunt is on for extra-terrestrial life, but there is no scientific evidence for ET. We could be in a multiverse, but it is a version of ‘gambler’s fallacy’ to think that the probability of life developing in our universe is thereby increased.
Multiversers also have the problem that to be effective in removing Nagel’s ‘implausibility’ we really need nested multiverses. Enthusiasts like Max Tegmark happily propose this type of view, extending to an infinite number of universes. For Tegmark, any universe that could exist mathematically does exist. It is perhaps worth noting that with an infinite number of universes anything that can happen will happen, so at least one of them must be governed by an all-powerful being. But an all-powerful being would be able to exist in all universes. (For those who like that sort of thing, shades of Anselm!)
Possibly out of desperation some agree that the probability of the universe being as it is might be small, but in fact many types of universe would foster the development of life. Again, though, there are no grounds for this assumption, and the evidence from our own universe is against it. To put it another way, the complaint is that the requirements for advanced life are made over specific; but the complaint is not justified until the complainer can show such life existing in at least one environment substantially different from ours.
The physical universe follows natural laws. Within the range of physical objects, however, there is a subgroup – persons – that make decisions. A person acts in ways that we cannot fully predict, unlike, for example, the constituents of a chemical reaction. Could an impersonal necessary entity (which makes no decisions) cause decision-making persons to come into existence? It seems unlikely.
Further, we are able to understand the universe. Not completely, of course, but more so than chimpanzees, dolphins or crows. Science itself can only happen because we have this ability. If the necessary entity that accounts for the universe is impersonal, and therefore without understanding, could it really cause this facility to understand?
Connected to decision making is the subject of morality. Persons generally have a sense that there are objective moral values, that there are ways we should live that are not derived from anything else, they simply are. How could something impersonal give rise to such a morality?
These last three points combine into a ‘humanistic’ argument, which is basically that the impersonal cannot give rise to the personal. The usual counter argument is to claim that the person is simply a further evolutionary development. The word ‘emergence’ is popular here, together with the snowflakes and rock formations, despite the rather obvious fact that snowflakes and rocks do not have decision-making abilities, understanding or morality.
Perhaps not so obvious is the fact that possession of these personal characteristics would not have been of survival advantage when they first began to appear. Fight and flight are matters of instinct, speed and strength – not of cogitation or conscience.
The more subtle attack on my ‘humanistic argument’ is to diminish the significance of the person on the grounds that belief in the person is wholly subjective; but nothing that I have argued about the person requires subjective knowledge. We observe in other persons decision making, reasoned understanding and morality. These facts are as scientific as, say, the information gleaned from the Large Hadron Collider, and a lot cheaper to obtain.
More specific arguments that seek to diminish the difference between the personal and impersonal generally contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. For example, one common claim is that there is no such thing as free will and therefore no such thing as decision making – we are totally governed by the laws of nature. However, if all our thoughts and actions were simply the results of physical causes over which we have no control, then our belief in such determinism would itself be determined, just like everything else, so we could have no idea whether it was objectively true or not. Similarly, if we deny the reality of reason, then any conclusion we reach, including that denial, cannot be regarded as reasonable. These claims are self-contradictory.
Objective morality is often denied on the grounds that morality varies between cultures and changes over time. But there are striking areas of common ground, and the same comments could be made about science. That does not stop us from believing in an objective reality lying behind scientific discoveries.
IN CONCLUSION – A STAGING POST
The existence of the laws of physics, the functionality of life and the unique characteristics of the person require that the driving force behind reality as we know it is personal. That kind of force is what we normally understand by the term ‘God’.
Although I believe this is a true conclusion, in a sense it can only be a staging post. Why? Because belief in God raises further questions. Does this God reveal himself? Does he care about us? Why is there suffering in the world?
I want to look at such questions in future – they are the questions that keep people awake at night. We cannot approach them, though, without a proper understanding of why we should believe in God to begin with.