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Ask an Atheist: Resolving the beginning of the universe


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By Jim Downard

How do you resolve the beginning of the universe that was outside of time?

Hey Jim, I’m a 17-year-old senior in high school and recently became an atheist, but I’m still trying to sort out exactly what my opinions are.

As you know, there’s an argument that although we can explain how we got complex life from simple life, and have a decent idea of how we got life from no life through chemical evolution, something couldn’t have arose from nothing, and therefore, our universe was necessarily brought into existence by a higher power. I see two major holes in this argument.

The first hole is that conceding this point would only mean there’s a creator and would thus only establish deism, and the leap from deism to any particular religion is massive (I know this isn’t a hole as it isn’t a problem with the argument itself, but given that most people use this argument to prove a particular religion, it is often used fallaciously).

The second hole is that by this logic, god needs an origin. Assuming the logic to be true, we get an infinite chain of higher powers stretching backwards without ever reaching a highest power, and so we can never satisfy the need for the first ever creator.

A friend of mine asked a teacher of ours the question of who created god and the teacher answered that since god would have created time and would therefore be outside of time, questions concerning god’s beginning are irrelevant, since beginnings only come about within time. I couldn’t seem to find anything wrong with this point because it seemed to make sense logically, but it seemed to be the ultimate cop out. Although I couldn’t counter the argument itself with logic, the fact that someone was trying to prove a supposedly fundamental truth to me with a kind of argument that is notoriously fallacious set off my mental bullshit meter. But through the incredulity, I told myself two things: that even if the argument were true, it still wouldn’t prove any particular religion, but more importantly, I told myself that I had to be intellectually honest with myself, and that if I found no faults in this point in the argument, I would have to concede its veracity (I understand that the whole argument involves the assumption that something can’t come from nothing, and I understand that there are theories as to how that could happen, so admitting this would just concede this one point in the argument).

Just earlier today, I found a similar question posed online, and saw an answer proposed. The answer is basically that on the basis of the logic that we can’t comprehend things that are outside of time, we can’t comprehend what caused the universe to begin, and so we can’t make claims or arguments that the universe must have had a beginning, because that beginning would’ve happened outside of time, and thus, our brains go haywire trying to comprehend a beginning that was outside of time. The answer goes furthermore, saying that since time only began with the universe, our universe is eternal, because it’s been around for all of time. This logic is basically the same as the logic my teacher told me, and it presents the very same problems. This seems like the ultimate cop out argument, and I don’t think I can ever be satisfied knowing that I answered a life question of this magnitude with such a blatant cop out.

How would you resolve this?


Ask a long question, run the risk of getting a long answer.

You’ve bumped into the staple of religious and antievolutionist apologetics, which in my #TIP work (www.tortucan.wordpress.com) I dub “Origins or Bust” for short.  It’s a cousin to the First Cause KALAM (William Lane Craig for example) style of god apologetics: in a nutshell, you can avoid all the evolving stuff or problems with the particular god argument by jumping back to a How Did It All Start? thing.

Implicit in this are a flock of assumptions.

1) That the Universe (or Multiverse, or Metaverse, add as many turtles as you like) cannot itself be an Uncaused Cause (cue Aristotle if you need to explore his contribution to the argument).  Unless you assume it can’t, though, you can’t even justify getting to the next assumption:

2) That the Uncaused Cause must be a supernatural entity, AKA god(s).  You’ll notice we’re up at the generalized entity level here, NOT any specific god, let alone what most people think they mean when they bandy about “God”.  So the “God”-apologist must add to this assumption yet a third one:

3) That the supernatural entity acting as the Uncaused Cause can only be the one and only god(s) that they believe to be true.  Since all religious faiths are minority ones (even the current top dog of Christianity) this plainly is privileging one version of deity as the one (and only) that is allowed to play on the Uncaused Cause playing field.  So no Vishnu, let alone retired deities like Marduk or Tlaloc.

Now all of this philosophical fun and games, playing up on the rarified turf of arbitrary assumption, bypasses all the fiddly bits that render each of those later assumptions less automatically viable.  It looks like the Universe ending up with stars with planets and some life on at least one of them operates because of the initial existence of the Big Bang, matter/energy as one glop that cools, hyperexpands making time/space itself, automatically, even inevitably (cue physicist Lawrence Krauss expounding on that if you like).  As Laplace was said to have snarked to Napoleon on why there was no mention of God in the new gravitational explanation of the solar system, “We have no need of that hypothesis.”

Now the origin of life is an obvious subset of this popular attempt to jujitsu “God” onto the field unopposed.  Evolution cannot happen because we don’t know how life originated.  Sorry, we don’t need to know how life originated to observe its natural evolution.  Take the reptile-mammal transition (which I’ve written a whole book on, “Evolution Slam Dunk”).  We can see the gradual transformation of a reptile-ish form 300-odd million years ago, step by transitional step, branching lineage on branching lineage, until by around 200 million years ago you’ve got the first certainly mammals.  And even then you’ve got more millions of years as the more familiar mammal forms of placentals finally emerge from the mix.

None of that information goes away poof because of how life originated.  The basal synapsids from which mammals evolved already were amniotic replicating vertebrates, with busy Hox genes and functional cell replication.  Trying to make that dataset go away based on how the first replicating organisms got on the scene over 3 billion years earlier (and gosh that’s a long time before) doesn’t explain away anything.  The earliest life was not lions and tigers and bears, oh my, it was basic bacteria, and the processes that enabled them to become more multicellular had kicked in long before those synapsids, a done deal by then, but tracking a lot of additional natural evolution (such as the endosymbiotic fusions underlying why we metazoans have mitochrondial organelles inside us, holding onto their own independent DNA even after billions of years).

So even if the original life forms were as designed as all get-out, pure miracle, it wouldn’t get rid of all the evidence of the natural evolution of life afterwards, like the reptile-mammal transition.

But “Origins or Bust” goes bust at another level, at the God argument side of things.

Is there any good reason to think any particular god, currently worshiped or not, explains the data stream at all, let alone better than a naturalistic framework?  Since we live in a culture in which variations on the God of Abraham constitute a slim majority (if you lump Islam in with Christianity, and sorry Judaism, but Jews

represent but an asterisk in the 4.2 billion there) we can ask whether the biblical or quranic accounts of creation or geohistory or human history fit much of the facts.

Genesis Day 4 in the Bible explicitly has the sun, moon and stars being made after the earth and plants.  Sorry, megawrong, and the mistake wasn’t even a Bible original.  It’s pretty clear from the historical scholarship that the Jews were exposed to (and incorporated lots of) the Mesopotamian mythology during the traumatic experience of the Babylonian Captivity, including the Enuma Elish Babylonian creation story where the celestial bodies were indeed “made” in that screwball sequence, and the global Flood tale, which we all know was put into Scripture in order to give Russell Crowe a chance to emote dramatically in IMAX (Providence at work!).

Most religions that have been around for awhile have lots of baggage just like that, and it just won’t do to try leaving it on the pier as apologists try “to slip God through Customs without declaring Him,” as the late Christopher Hitchens put it when skewering the sanctimonious Dinesh D’Souza when he tried to pull a version of the cosmological fine tuning argument.

As if the scientific and historical data weren’t bad enough, the Bible story snags on the moral front (demolishing another of William Lane Craig’s favorites, the argument that moral frameworks require God, (his Christian version of course).  That rests on exactly the same props of arbitrary assumptions as “Origins or Bust”, namely:

1) An Absolute Morality exists (which Plato showed way back when didn’t necessarily require a divine commander to decree it).  So the religious apologists must slip in another set of assumptions:

2) That there’s a divine commander anyway, pencil in god(s) of your preference, followed by:

3) That the god(s) of preference preferentially chose and/or embody all the Good and True and Moral, letting the deity cuddle up close to the Absolute Morality that can (and presumably would) be true independent of the god’s embrace of it.

There are some snags in defending that proposition 3 when it comes to the biblical God.  My perennial “favorite” are the rules on how Hebrews are supposed to treat their enslaved Hebrews per Exodus 21 (enslaved gentiles are not specified, your moral mileage may vary here).  Anyone who can read their way through that chapter without feeling the moral speed bumps knocking out the ethics shocks is pulling off a rationalization trick I’ve never been able to muster (just think of how not punished you are if you beat your slave to death but are off the hook if the slave took several days to kick the bucket, this I contend is both loony and vile).

So the upshot is that the “Origins or Bust” argument is the “Get Out of Playing Attention to Everything That Happened After That Free” card of theological Monopoly.  And it is rather a monopoly thing, isn’t it, as the card player only lets their side use it?  Skipping that “Do Not Pass Go, Go Directly To Theodicy Jail” option.

You ask a long question, you get a long answer.

Jim Downard

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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