God Does Not Exist - Or Does He? - A Dialogue with an Atheist

This article is based on a blog site dialogue with John R who is an atheist. It relates, and adds to, the above three-part article “Does God exist?”

IN HIS FIRST PIECE JOHN WROTE:

You could write volumes and volumes puzzling about what a god might or might not do in the world but the best answer, the one which is most consistent with observable reality, is that there simply is no god.

I RESPONDED TO JOHN:

Thank you for taking the trouble to write, John, I appreciate it. Have you seen my three papers on the main website on “Does God exist?”  They will explain why I think belief in God is reasonable and supported by the evidence. Feel free to respond to that material, I’d be interested to discuss it with you.  I’d also recommend you read “The Language of God” subtitled “a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (Simon & Schuster, London) by Francis Collins who is head of the Human Genome Project who produced the first draft of the human genome.  He was an atheist but came to Christian faith.  I also recommend “There is a God” subtitled “How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, by Antony Flew (Harper Collins, London).  You probably know that Flew was one of the world’s leading atheist philosophers but he has recently come to believe in God. 

I do not know your background, John, but I’m sure you would agree that one has to research a subject before one can reasonably reject it. I am very interested in philosophical debate and in the relationships between science and religion. But may people have found that a different approach to matters of faith has been helpful, even life-changing. I’d recommend you find a local group doing the Alpha Course. 8 million people have done this introduction to Christianity. It normally takes the form of DVDs (which I think are very good) and discussion and lasts for a number of weeks. It is relaxed and fun, and people without faith or who have difficulties over Christianity are most welcome.  We run an Alpha Course but I don’t know where you come from.  You could find a local course at Alpha.org

IN HIS SECOND PIECE JOHN WROTE:

Hi Tony. 

The one question which seems to come naturally to almost every child when they are first exposed to religion is:  “Well, if God made the universe, who made God?”.  In my view, this has always been a valid question and it is still one to which no theist has ever given a satisfactory answer. 

I think we have an innate sense that if we seek to account for the existence of the universe by invoking something more powerful, more amazing, more intelligent than the universe as its creator, then that creator must surely be even more in need of something to account for its existence than the universe itself.  And yet, the believer will say that there is no explanation - That it’s something our puny brains are incapable of understanding and therefore we shouldn’t ask, or that God has simply always existed (but that is just an assertion, not an explanation) or that God neither has nor needs an explanation.  None of these answers are intellectually satisfactory. 

So, it seems to me that this way can only lead to a dead-end:  Either a logical impossibility, such as an infinite regression of ever greater creators, or an answer that has no explanatory value - something which is surely even more in need of an explanation than the universe itself, but which remains forever unexplained. 
What, then, is the alternative?  Look at the history of our growing understanding of the universe, and you will see a common theme, a thread which runs through all the discoveries that science has made:  We seek to account for the complex in terms of the simple. 

For example, there are countless thousands of different chemical compounds in the world around us, but they are composed of just a few dozen elements which can be combined in an essentially infinite number of different ways to produce all that variety of different materials.  Each element in turn is composed of just three sub-atomic particles - neutrons, protons and electrons.  When you think about it, this is a fantastic result which we had no particular right to expect - that we can, in principle at least, understand all of normal matter in terms of just three particles and their properties. 

Similarly with physical forces and laws:  All of the infinite variety of actions and events we see occurring in the world can be reduced to simple laws which we can understand and represent in the language of mathematics.  The universe is not capricious (not at the macroscopic level, at least).  Apples do not fall upwards for no good reason.  Spacecraft are launched across the solar system in the confident expectation that they will arrive where and when they are supposed to, according to the laws of orbital mechanics. 

So, when we come to try to answer the most fundamental question we can ask about reality - how and why does the universe exist? - why should we think it justified to invoke something infinitely more complex, and infinitely harder to account for than the universe itself?  To me it makes far more sense to keep going down the same route we always have - towards the simple answer, the one which explains the most whilst being the least in need of an explanation itself… and what, by definition, stands in need of no explanation at all?  Complete randomness and acausality.  By definition, something that is genuinely random is not caused by anything else, and does not rely on anything else.  By definition, something that is uncaused is not caused by anything else, and does not rely on anything else.  If the underlying nature of reality is random and acausal then there is no further explanation to look for. 

Which makes more sense - the random, uncaused existence of the simplest possible particle of matter, or the unexplained existence of the most complex thing that it’s possible to imagine - an intelligent entity?  I think it has to be the former.  It’s interesting that quantum physics says exactly this - it says that particles come into existence (or decay into other particles) entirely at random and uncaused, and physicists have actually confirmed this in experiments. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the only thing that we all agree is genuinely intelligent - the human brain - is also the most complex thing in the known universe.  Intelligence requires complexity, and complexity requires an explanation.  It is the least probable thing that could exist uncaused, without anything to account for its existence.  That’s why the notion of an intelligent creator of the universe simply flies in the face of reason. 

I will try to respond to your “Does God Exist?” articles in future submissions. 

All the best,John. 

I RESPOND TO JOHN:

Thank you for your comment, John.  

Let me respond, firstly, to your view that if God existed there must be a cause for his existence or a series of ever greater creators before him.  

1.       Theists state that everything which BEGINS TO EXIST requires a cause. 

2.       The idea that EVERYTHING THAT EXISTS (INCLUDING GOD, if he exists) requires a present cause outside of itself is unreasonable.  

You refer to the argument used by atheists that an uncaused God cannot exist because everything that exists requires a present cause outside of itself. However this means that, in the absence of a God, these external causes would themselves require an external cause, and so on ad infinitum which seems unreasonable. The alternative is that beyond everything there can only be nothing, which means everything is caused by nothing. You seem to be arguing for the latter, which I think is illogical. From nothing, nothing comes. Your argument seems inconsistent in that you are prepared to believe in an uncaused “foundation particle” in the universe, yet you say the idea of an uncaused God is indefensible. I’ll return to this point below. 

3.       The idea that there could be an infinite series of “gods” creating each other is unnecessary and unreasonable. None of them would in fact be divine because being divine means being uncaused, eternal, changeless, timeless and immaterial.  
You state: “To me it makes far more sense to keep going down the same route we always have - towards the simple answer, the one which explains the most whilst being the least in need of an explanation itself… and what, by definition, stands in need of no explanation at all?  Complete randomness and acausality.  By definition, something that is genuinely random is not caused by anything else, and does not rely on anything else.  By definition, something that is uncaused is not caused by anything else, and does not rely on anything else.  If the underlying nature of reality is random and acausal then there is no further explanation to look for.” 

I think there are problems with this view: 

a.       I think your statement: “If the underlying nature of reality is random and acausal then there is no further explanation to look for” sounds remarkably like a statement of faith. If I were to make a similar statement, namely: “If the underlying nature of reality is divine causation then there is no further explanation to look for” I think I know how you would respond! 

b.       If something can come into being uncaused then why doesn’t everything come into being uncaused? It cannot be that only things of a particular nature come into being uncaused because, prior to their existence, they would have no nature which could influence their coming into being. Similarly, the laws of physics could not influence their coming into being because, prior to existence of these things, the laws of physics did not exist. Besides the laws of physics are descriptive and abstract and cannot cause anything. So why should only space-time come into being uncaused? If conditions for the emergence of space-time existed then it is not true that it was created without cause. 

c.       On the other hand, if everything were caused by an eternal impersonal cause, why would the effect not be eternal too, rather than coming into being at the Big Bang? 

You go on to say: “Which makes more sense - the random, uncaused existence of the simplest possible particle of matter, or the unexplained existence of the most complex thing that it’s possible to imagine - an intelligent entity?  I think it has to be the former.  It’s interesting that quantum physics says exactly this - it says that particles come into existence (or decay into other particles) entirely at random and uncaused, and physicists have actually confirmed this in experiments.” 

However, I believe you are mistaken about particle pair production in quantum physics. Actually it is not creation ex nihilo but rather conversion between pre-existing energy and matter. A quantum vacuum consists of continually forming and dissolving particles which take energy from the vacuum for their brief existence. 

Finally, Professor Richard Swinburne states that there are two types of causal explanation, scientific explanations: laws and initial conditions and personal explanations: agents and their volitional action. Since nothing existed before the Big Bang there cannot be any scientific explanation for it.  Therefore it requires a personal explanation.   

It seems to me that the existence of a non-eternal universe requires an uncaused, eternal, changeless, timeless and immaterial cause otherwise it would be capable of non-existence, which is self-contradictory. 
The universe began to exist and so does not have necessary existence, which would require it to be eternal. 

IN HIS THIRD PIECE JOHN WROTE

Hi Tony.  In your article you write: “It is surely a self-evident truth, supported by logic and experience, that something cannot come from absolutely nothing.  According to science, before the Big Bang happened some 13-15 billion years ago, there was absolutely nothing.” I don’t recall *any* cosmologist asserting that ‘before’ the big bang there was ‘absolutely nothing’.  In the second part of this article you quote Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist from the University of Adelaide.  Here’s what he has to say about the big bang: 

“The essence of the Hartle-Hawking idea is that the big bang was not the abrupt switching on of time at some singular first moment, but the emergence of time from space in an ultrarapid but nevertheless continuous manner. On a human time scale, the big bang was very much a sudden, explosive origin of space, time, and matter. But look very, very closely at that first tiny fraction of a second and you find that there was no precise and sudden beginning at all. So here we have a theory of the origin of the universe that seems to say two contradictory things: First, time did not always exist; and second, there was no first moment of time. Such are the oddities of quantum physics.” 
(http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/big-bang.html

Here’s another quote, this time from astronomer Phil Plait: “It’s been thought for some time that there may have been some previous Universe that existed “before” ours. This is a difficult idea, because in the Big Bang model, space and time were created in that initial moment. But if Bojowald’s solutions are correct, it leads the way to understanding this previous Universe. It was out there, everywhere, and it contracted. Eventually it became an ultradense, ultrahot little ball of space and time. At some point, it got so small and so dense that bizarre quantum laws took effect — things like the Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more you know about one characteristic of an object (say, its position) the less you know about another (its velocity). There are several such laws, and they make it hard — impossible, really — to know everything about the universe at that moment. 

What Bojowald’s work does, as I understand it (the paper as I write this is not out yet, so I am going by my limited knowledge of LQG and other theories like it) is simplify the math enough to be able to trace some properties of the Universe backwards, right down to T=0, which he calls the Big Bounce. The previous Universe collapsed down, and “bounced” outward again, forming our Universe. No doubt the physical aspects of this previous Universe were somewhat different; the quantum uncertainties at the moment of bounce would ensure that. It may have been much like ours, or it may have been quite alien. In his equations, it’s the volume of that previous Universe that cannot be determined. How big was it? It may literally be impossible to ever know. 
In a sense, this uncertainty wipes the slate clean after a Universe crunches back down.” 
(http://www.badastronomy.com/bablog/2007/07/01/what-happened-before-the-big-bang/

So this is another possibility - it certainly might be wrong, just as other ideas about branes and the multiverse and so on might be wrong.  You can find countless other articles on the net about this question, but the point is that, contrary to your statement above, science does not in fact say that “…before the Big Bang happened some 13-15 billion years ago, there was absolutely nothing”.  In fact, one of the things science says is that ‘absolutely nothing’ is a state that cannot actually exist in reality - it’s a human concept, part of the way our minds model the world, but not real, in the same way that ‘2′ is not a thing that can exist in itself, but a concept which exists only in our minds.  Here’s another quote - sorry for being so verbose but this is interesting stuff!  :-)   

“According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, one of the pillars of this paradoxical world, empty space can never be considered really empty; subatomic particles can flit in and out of existence on energy borrowed from energy fields. Crazy as it sounds, the effects of these quantum fluctuations have been observed in atoms, and similar fluctuations during the inflation are thought to have produced the seeds around which today’s galaxies were formed. 

Could the whole universe likewise be the result of a quantum fluctuation in some sort of primordial or eternal nothingness? Perhaps, as Dr. Turner put it, “Nothing is unstable.” “ 
(http://www.tomcoyner.com/before_the_big_bang_there_was__.htm

One final point:  If, as you say, “something cannot come from absolutely nothing” then how could a creator himself have accomplished this feat?  What would he have made the universe from?  Surely even a god cannot do something which you say is impossible? 

Next, you write: “However, for anything to exist, it must either be self-sufficient/self-existent i.e. have always existed, or it must be the product or effect of something else that has always existed.” 

Again, quantum physics stands in contradiction to this assertion.  Particles do indeed begin to exist at random and without cause, and don’t need to have always existed.  We can observe this happening in experiments. 
It’s interesting that you quote a professor of *philosophy*, not cosmology, saying that “…an atheist, must believe that … the universe came from nothing and by nothing”.  I think I’ve shown that this is not the case. 

Next, you say: “On the other hand, to say that there is an eternal, self-existent Divine Being who brought the universe into being is a perfectly coherent and meaningful concept.” 

I disagree, for the reason I wrote about in my previous post.  It is not rational to propose that the most complex thing we can possibly imagine - an intelligent entity - is the one thing that can exist uncaused, unexplained, from nothing, having no origin of any kind.  If there is anything at all that requires a cause or mechanism to account for its existence, then intelligence is surely it. 

“a.      Could the universe have always existed? “ 
I agree with you that the universe as we know it had a beginning in the big bang, so the idea that this universe is eternal seems to be ruled out. 

“b.      Could there not be an impersonal cause of the universe?” 
No-one seriously believes that a deity is constantly juggling with the universe to keep it going.  Even the theist accepts that only natural forces are needed to keep molecules bound together, or planets in orbit around their suns.  If everything *in* the universe can be accounted for with natural explanations, then on the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to reject the universe itself having a natural explanation as well.   

You say: “Such a cause would have to be self-existent and eternal.” 

I don’t think this assertion is justified.  Since we know that particles in this universe do indeed exist uncaused and for a finite time, why not the universe itself? 

“But if it were impersonal then the cause could never exist without the effect. This would be simply automatic: an impersonal adequate cause must immediately produce its effect. The only way for the cause to be timeless and the effect to begin in time is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions. Thus, we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator.” 

I’m a bit unclear on what you mean here - if we accept that something “…causes an effect without any prior determining conditions.” then this sounds very much like quantum physics - why does this have to be a ‘personal agent’?  Why not just a genuinely uncaused natural event?   

Incidentally, on the subject of “a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time” I have some views about free will that you might be interested to hear about at a later date  :-) 

Next you write: “Dr Stephen Meyer (a geophysicist with a Cambridge doctorate in origin-of-life biology): “If it’s true there’s a beginning to the universe, as modern cosmologists now agree, then this implies a cause that transcends the universe. … To get life going in the first place would have required biological information; the implications point beyond the material realm to a prior intelligent cause.” 

Wikipedia says: “Stephen C. Meyer is an American theologian. Meyer, along with Bruce Chapman and George Gilder, is a founder of the Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture, which advocates the controversial concept of intelligent design, and a leading proponent and lobbyist in the intelligent design movement.” 

I’m tempted to just respond with “‘Nuff said!”  :-)  Suffice it to say that what Mr. Meyers thinks biology points to is a complete non sequitur on his part.  I would be happy to discuss at a later date what we might mean by ‘biological information’ and its significance in this kind of discussion. 

Your final comment in Part 1 of this article is: “So, my first argument is that only an eternal, personal God could have brought the universe into being.” 

I think, and hope, that I have at least called this into question. 

All the best,John. 

I RESPOND TO JOHN:

Thank you for your detailed comments, John, which I welcome. For the benefit of some folks who may read our dialogue, I shall try to clarify technical terms and to give other useful information, which you will doubtless already be aware of.  I am not a scientist so I hope my probably over-simplified definitions won’t be too misleading.  However I include some brief detail of these very complex, even mind-boggling theories so that other readers are aware of just how “way out” they seem to us ordinary mortals! 

You write: “I don’t recall any cosmologist asserting that ‘before’ the big bang there was ‘absolutely nothing’.” Obviously, I am aware that since time began at the Big Bang it is not strictly logical to ask what happened before it. I think such a question really means does the Big Bang have a cause outside of itself. However, as I understand them, some cosmologists do say that there was nothing before the Big Bang and some of them seem to mean absolutely nothing. I am aware of those who refer to there being nothing before the Big Bang but they mean a “nothing” which can experience “quantum fluctuations.” It is debatable whether this can really be termed “nothing.” 

You write: “If, as you say, “something cannot come from absolutely nothing” then how could a creator himself have accomplished this feat?  What would he have made the universe from?  Surely even a god cannot do something which you say is impossible?”  I answered this in my response to your previous contribution to the blog site so I won’t repeat it here. 

You mention Hartle-Hawking, Bojowald and LQG, the Big Bounce, branes and the multiverse. I am aware of these and various current cosmological theories such as: 

1. That there has been a sequence of Big Bangs of which the one we all talk about (13.7 billion years ago) is the latest as far as we are concerned (Eternal & Chaotic Inflation, Andre Linde).  

2.  That there are many universes and that, in fact, all possible universes actually exist. We just happen to inhabit one that suits us. 

3. That the universe is composed of tiny strings vibrating in 10 or more dimensions and making up all matter, light, energy, everything. The Big Bang here is not a beginning but a transformation from one state to another. Similarly, as you mention, Martin Bojwald says his Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG) Theory means the Big Bang could be a transition or bounce, not the beginning of the universe. 

4. That our universe is a three-dimensional brane (cf membrane) floating in five-dimensional space, and there may be other branes (universes) floating nearby which can interact in terms of gravitation and when they collide produce huge energy, a Big Bang.  So there is an endless sequence of big ‘crunches’ and big bangs and the universe may be infinitely old. 

5.  That the universe has no boundary and so is self-contained with neither a beginning nor an end (Stephen Hawking) 
However, it is important to remember that these theories are controversial. They are also very speculative. I’m tempted to say it is easier to believe in a divine creator, but instead I’ll quote some scholars! 

According to Professor Paul Davies (theoretical physicist and professor of natural philosophy at the University of Adelaide), Andre Linde says of the Branes theory: “It’s a very bad idea popular only among journalists. It’s an extremely complicated theory and simply does not work.” Alan Guth (Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) says the proponents haven’t “come close to proving their case.”

John Barrett, a quantum-gravity theorist from Nottingham University, states that LQG is not widely-adopted among theorists. 

Antony Flew in his book “There is a God; How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind” (2007) is more critical. (For the benefit of other readers, Flew, a renowned philosopher, was for many years a perhaps the best-known militant atheist in the English-speaking world, who has recently come to believe in God).  When the Big Bang theory became widely accepted, Flew records: “I predicted that atheists were bound to see big-bang cosmology as requiring a physical explanation – an explanation that, admittedly, may be for ever inaccessible to human beings. But I admitted that believers could, equally reasonably, welcome the big-bang cosmology as tending to confirm their prior belief that ‘in the beginning’ the universe was created by God. Modern cosmologists seemed just as disturbed as atheists about the potential theological implications of their work. Consequently, they devised influential escape routes that sought to preserve the nontheist status quo. These routes included the idea of the multiverse, numerous universes generated by endless vacuum fluctuation events, and Stephen Hawking’s notion of a self-contained universe … I did not find the multiverse alternative helpful. The postulation of multiple universes, I maintained, is a truly desperate alternative. If the existence of one universe requires an explanation, multiple universe requires a much bigger explanation … it is physically impossible to discover what, if anything, caused the big bang.” 

Paul Davies rejects the idea of an eternal universe: “One evasive tactic is to claim that the universe didn’t have a beginning, that it has existed for all eternity. Unfortunately, there are many scientific reasons why this obvious idea is unsound. For starters, given an infinite amount of time, anything that can happen will already have happened, for if a physical process is likely to occur with a certain nonzero probability-however small-then given an infinite amount of time the process must occur, with probability one. By now, the universe should have reached some sort of final state in which all possible physical processes have run their course.

Furthermore, you don’t explain the existence of the universe by asserting that it has always existed. That is rather like saying that nobody wrote the Bible: it was just copied from earlier versions.”

By the way, this quotation from Paul Davies is relevant to my statement on the main website, with which you have some difficulty: “But if it were impersonal then the cause could never exist without the effect. This would be simply automatic: an impersonal adequate cause must immediately produce its effect. The only way for the cause to be timeless and the effect to begin in time is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions. Thus, we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator.” 

You write that: “If everything in the universe can be accounted for with natural explanations, then on the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to reject the universe itself having a natural explanation as well.” I think that is begging the question. 

Richard Swinburne criticises the idea that to claim that the events in an infinite series of events are individually explicable explains the existence of the whole series. This would apply to the above theories 1, 3 & 4. He writes: “The whole infinite series will have no explanation at all, for there will be no causes of members of the series lying outside the series. In that case, the existence of the universe over infinite time will be an inexplicable brute fact. There will be an explanation (in terms of laws) of why, once existent, it continues to exist. But what will be inexplicable is its existence at all throughout infinite time. The existence of a complex physical universe over finite or infinite time is something ‘too big’ for science to explain.” 

You disagree with my statement: “For anything to exist, it must either be self-sufficient/self-existent i.e. have always existed, or it must be the product or effect of something else that has always existed” and comment: “Again, quantum physics stands in contradiction to this assertion.  Particles do indeed begin to exist at random and without cause, and don’t need to have always existed.  We can observe this happening in experiments.” 

I commented on your idea of things coming into being uncaused in my response to your earlier contribution to blog site, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead I’ll quote Flew. 

Flew comments: “If there is to be a plausible law to explain the beginning of the universe, then it would have to be something like ‘empty space necessarily gives rise to matter-energy.’ Here ‘empty space’ is not nothing, but rather an ‘identifiable particular’, a something that is already there. This reliance on laws to get the universe started from ‘empty space’ also raises the question of why matter-energy was produced at time to [the time of the Big Bang – 13.7 billion years ago] rather than at some other time.”   

Flew goes on to mention the speculations by Hartle, Hawking and Vilenkin that the universe “quantum fluctuated into existence ‘from nothing.’” And then quotes John Leslie ( philosopher of science): “No matter how you describe the universe – as having existed for ever, or as having originated from a point outside space-time or else in space but not in time, or as starting off so quantum-fuzzily that there was no definite point at which it started, or as having a total energy that is zero – the people who see a problem in the sheer existence of Something Rather Than Nothing will be little inclined to agree that the problem has been solved.” 

Quite! 

PS. By the way, I didn’t know that Stephen C. Meyer is Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, in Seattle. However he does have a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University for a dissertation on the history of origin of life biology and the methodology of the historical sciences. Even if we don’t agree with the Intelligent Design movement, surely it is not good scholarship just to dismiss what they say, especially someone with Meyer’s qualification. We should surely listen and weigh up what is said. After all, I am not dismissing what you say because you are, apparently, an atheist, and you don’t seem to be dismissing what I say because I am a committed Christian theist. 

© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page