The gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They tell about the life of Jesus. Well, kind of. I think this is one of the times that both extreme sides of the debate are wrong. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Yet not exactly in the middle.
On the one side you have apologists and some clergy, along with many Christians. They believe the gospels are a reliable source of knowledge about Jesus. That Jesus said the things the gospels claim he said. Since he said he is God, he must have been the Lord, a liar pretending to be God, or some lunatic who thought he was God.
The other side is a small and vocal number of atheists and a tiny handful of scholars who say there was no Jesus at all. They claim the entire story was just made up.
In the middle of those two extremes sit the consensus of religious scholars. This includes most atheist and Christian scholars, along with many others. They say there was a man named Yeshua who came from Nazareth. That he was baptized by John the Baptist, probably had a temple-tantrum, and was executed for creating a religious disturbance. They even think he said some things in the Bible. In English his name is translated to Jesus.
There are many reasons to think that the gospels were based on a real person. I’m only going to talk about gospel authors explaining away awkward facts about Yeshua. The idea is simple: Yeshua did certain things that should not have happened if he was the messiah. In some cases they had to own up to it (like his execution) and in other they changed details.
Scholars believe Christians knew that Yeshua came from Nazareth. According to prophecy the messiah should have been born in Bethlehem. That is why Luke included a story about how a fake census forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. Matthew just didn’t explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem at all. The fact is there was no such census. If the gospel writers made up Jesus, they wouldn’t have had to include a fake census that could be disproven. It was only included because the Jesus character is based on a real person.
Scholars believe early Christians knew John the Baptist baptized Yeshua. From the Christian perspective it was uncomfortable that John would have baptized the messiah. How could a human have the authority baptist Yeshua, and what would that mean to washaway Jesus’ sins? The author of Mark shows Jesus is baptized. But in the gospels written later the authors show they are uncomfortable with it, and John avoids it all together. As early Christian became more aware of this problem, the later gospels downplayed the event. But the authors couldn’t pretend the meeting didn’t happen at all.
Scholars believe Jesus died by crucifixion. This form of execution was only used to humiliate the victim. No one believed that the messiah would be executed, much less crucified. It’s not embarrassing to Christians today. But to Roman Christians it would have been embarrassing. Christians must have known this part of the story, and if it wasn’t included people wouldn’t have believed the gospels. Early Christians had to include this embarrassing fact when they claimed that Yeshua was the messiah.
The consensus of religious scholars is the legendary Jesus approach. First, we don’t know who the authors of the gospels are. Second, the writers used the legends told about a real person named Yeshua. And their writings included embellishment or made their own embellishments. Perhaps both.
And the same reasons we believe there was a real Yeshua are the reasons we believe the gospels are not reliable. The gospel writers changed the story over time to iron out the problems. The parts that weren’t changed contain events that did not happen. (Like the tear in the veil of the temple, the sun stopping in the sky, or the dead saints coming out of their graves and invading the city.)
For more details, look up the criterion of embarrassment/dissimilarity.
I notice that regressive Christians often time make arguments rest of irrelevant factors. They call the irrelevant factor ‘evidence.’ In the abortion debate they point out that a fetus has human cells and is alive. In the cosmological debate they say the universe has a beginning. These are things both sides agree with. In both arguments it’s the next step we need to be talking about.
Cardus released the results of a survey about how millennials feel about marriage. One question they asked was if marriage is an outdated institution. I guess I think it’s both normal for some couples to marry, but that it also needs some updating.
What do you think?
(Cardus is a regressive Canadian Christian thinktank. They defined Millennials as being born between 1980-2000.)
It started with an OP-ED column in the New York Times by Reformed Rabbi Mark Sameth. Is God Transgender? Sameth makes a passionate, personal defence of transgender issues from a liberal theological position. I’ve found that most liberal theologies are by smart people, but rely on brilliant but wrong arguments and no evidence. (Like the least smart creationist who rely on poorly formed arguments, not evidence.) I actually agree with the theological portions of the Cardus response written by Rebecca Walberg.
Sameth basis his argument on word play. Like the idea that the Jesus myth grew out of sun worship. Say something true, like how sun and son sound the same. (At least, in English.) Then conclude that the founders of Christianity were just stealing sun worship ideas. Then they changed the sun to the Son. (Even though they didn’t speak English.) It can sound convincing, but is a made up argument.
The regressive position of Cardus comes out when they move on to argue about sexuality. Cardus is a regressive Christian Canadian think tank. They say Christianity repressed the pagan culture of sexual freedom. This made all advancement possible. They then get sad about how the sexual revolution of the 21st Century doomed our society:
In reality, it was not Judaism, but ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures that embraced alternative views of gender and sex. Commentator Dennis Prager has demonstrated that the Jewish—later Christian—sexual revolution that made western progress possible lay in replacing pagan views (which included incest, orgies and sacred prostitution) with the “forcing of the sexual genie into the marital bottle.” Constraining male sexuality meant women and children gained security and society gained stability that benefitted all its members, individually and collectively.
The past half century in which we have witnessed another sexual revolution removing sexual restraint shows degrees of suffering resulting from this genie’s escape. Single parenthood rates grow, which are correlated with higher levels of poverty. Divorce is correlated with lower graduation rates, higher rates of drug use and higher rates of early sexual initiation for children. These things are the result of the removal of restrictions on sexuality, a gift the Hebrew Bible gave to the world. There is something truly perverse about a clergyman invoking the norms of the pagan world to defend the destruction of the Judeo-Christian norms upon which millennia of progress were built.
“Commentator” Dennis Prager’s position is that paganism was entirely sexually liberal. I don’t know enough to comment. Yet I don’t think that pagan cultures had families broken by their sexual permissiveness. Perhaps this “commentator” is just as full of nonsense as the commentator in the original New York Times OP-ED column.
As a feminist I immediately noted the demonization of male sexuality. Men are animals! Animals I tell you! We must contain them for the safety and security of women and children. Women are pure creatures and men are sexual deviants. It’s something out of a Victorian novel.
But I also noticed some other absurd claims. She bases all these claims on correlation studies. She is correlating them on divorce. But I noticed that the pattern is different if you think about them as before or after the sexual revolution.
“Early sexual initiation for children.” Most children shared sleeping arrangements with their parents. Think hunter gatherers. Think people living in huts. Most houses for peasants and farmers didn’t have many rooms. Children were often exposed to sex from an early age. Also, child abuse is not new. You find it wherever you find adults with unchecked authority over children.
“Higher rates of drug use.” My understanding is that early childhood stress is the best predictor of drug use. Maybe the environment of the home is an awful one. Maybe drug use happens for the same reason the family gets a divorce. Forcing the family to stay together won’t magically solve the problems of the household.
“Lower graduation rates.” Graduations rates are among the highest they have ever been in our history. If we are going to use correlation, we’d have to say that the sexual revolution correlates with higher graduation rates.
And that’s the trouble with correlation studies. They don’t prove causation. But there are great ways to test for that. I think the issues raised are important. I just think there are better ways to deal with them.
As for ‘western progress,’ it is nonsense to say this is because of Christianity. The world has continued to progress. When it was pagan or Christian. It seems to me that sometimes progress is inevitable. Though backsliding happens on occasion.
Thank you for coming to this installment of my debate with Tony. He started with his opening statement, where he made many assertions without evidence. I then posted my opening statement, which said we should respects the limits of what we know to be true. He posted his rebuttal, which included what he called evidence to confirm his position. And now I will respond in kind. This is my rebuttal where I will point out that he is jumping to conclusion. He looks at the facts and the runs a little too far with them. After this we will post our closing statements. I hope to continue to correspond with Tony. Maybe going back and forth on our blogs in discussion, so we can better understand each other. Rather than a debate.
Phew! That was a massive undertaking. There was a lot to unpack in your rebuttal. I’ve had so much fun over the last few days writing this rebuttal. Thank you for the opportunity. When I talk about your position here I mean both your opening statement, and the evidence part of your rebuttal. Together those seem to define your position.
From time to time I will also take some time to inform our lovely readers of some things you may already know. Because I have done this I have made this post a little longer. It’s for readers not as well versed in the subjects as you or I. If it helps you understand me, so much the better.
The first thing I want to explain to our readers is paradoxes. Paradoxes are things that don’t make sense. One example is the ‘Back to the Future’ paradox. Let’s say I use a time machine to go back in time to when my parents first met. While in the past I prevent my parents from meeting. This is a paradox because it makes no sense:
If I stopped my parents from meeting I would not be born. This means I would not be able to go back in time to stop them from meeting.
If I could not go back in time to stop them from meeting, that means they would meet. So I would be born.
If I do exist, I could go back in time to stop them from meeting. Round and round it goes back to #1.
Wow! That makes no sense. I both could and could not go back in time to stop them from meeting. That’s so strange. Why? Because it’s a paradox. There are many examples of paradoxes. Some are just silly things. Like jumbo shrimp: shrimp are small, so they cannot be jumbo. Others are more complex: “I am a compulsive liar.” Would you believe me if I said I was a compulsive liar? That’s a paradox.
Some optical illusions are also paradoxes. Consider the impossible trident, above. The blue end looks like the trident has square prongs. Yet the green end has circle prongs. It’s a paradox that couldn’t exist. Or consider the Escher’s never ending Waterfall, below. It looks like a normal water flow. It’s flowing back away from our vantage point. But it turns out the end of the water flow that should be far back is actually directly on top of where it started! If falls back down to the beginning. It’s impossible. It could never exist.
This is the impossible Penrose Triangle. Like the impossible Waterfall, it’s something that couldn’t exist in the real world. Because every part of it lies in front of every other part. Look at the black side. It goes along the bottom, and then as it goes up from the left it leans forward, toward you. Now notice the top of the white part. It is in front of the black side. As it comes down it comes forward even more. But at the bottom it’s behind the black side we started with, even though it should be in front of it.
I am trying to help the readers understand our disagreement better. We are talking about the paradox of existence. You base your position on the belief that existence must make sense. You believe that a paradox cannot exist.
You start from the fact that we exist now, in universe. You run the tape backward to the start of the universe. Well, why was that there? It couldn’t have just existed like that. So you claim that something must have existed before it.
You said that nothing can have an infinitely long history, as that would be a paradox. This applies to both the universe and God.
You claim that nothing that has a beginning can be eternal. But if everything that does not go back infinitely has a beginning, then even God must have a beginning. You believe God is eternal. I believe that by your definition the universe is eternal, and if God existed he may also be eternal.
You say that God is eternal in a way the universe is not: God is changeless, while the universe changes. But both do change. It’s true that the universe changes. Yet, to create the universe, God would also have to change. You believe in a personal first cause, which is a changing God/first cause. God created the universe. God sent his son. God will sit in Judgement. These are changes.
Your God and the universe seem suspiciously similar to me. The difference between God and the universe is that we know the universe exists. We don’t know if God exists. Both have the paradox of existence. It doesn’t make sense that God just existed. Just like it doesn’t make sense the universe just exists.
Here’s what your position boils down to. You are saying that nothingness is normal. You think the fact that something exists requires an explanation. But if that’s true, God existing needs an explanation.
You say he does not, because he is eternal and changeless and timeless. But he is exactly as old as the universe, he changes like the universe. I see no reason to believe he is different. That’s what I will explain in this rebuttal.
Let’s get started!
The Paradox of Existence
Why is there something rather than nothing? This question is the basis of debates like this. People assume that nothingness and non-existence is natural. I know you don’t presuppose God’s existence. But you look at the universe and think God is necessary. That God must exist if the universe exists. (Put another way, Since the universe exists, God must exist.)
But if God did exist, this raises a question. Why did God exist, rather than nothing?
If nothingness is the natural state of existence, then we need a reason for God to exist. If non-existence is ‘normal’ than anything existing at all requires an explanation. So where did your God come from, Tony?
But if something existing is normal or expected, then we don’t need to explain the existence of the first thing. Is it God? Is it the universe? It doesn’t matter.
I know what you will say. You will say that God is different. That the way the universe is means it couldn’t just exist. But I say that the universe and God are the same in all the ways you say it’s you think are important.
Because you cannot have an infinite history, the universe had to begin sometime in the past. Except, if God exists, he also had to begin some time in the past.
The Problem with Infinitely Long
In your opening statement you said that things cannot go back infinitely. I understand why you say that. Infinite means never ending. We cannot pass through an infinite number of actions to get to now. We also cannot pass through an infinite amount of time to get to now. So, many theologians have said that there must be an ultimate first cause. A first cause would stop this never ending paradox.
Beginning Option 1: But where did this first cause, like God, come from? If it came from nothingness, then something can come from nothing. If it just existed, then things can just exist. Perhaps the universe came from nothing. Perhaps quantum fluctuations just exist. Perhaps tunnelling occurs in nothing. But you don’t think something can come from nothing. So you have ruled out this option.
Beginning Option 2: Or, does the existence of the first cause stretch back infinitely? It would seem that the first cause cannot stretch back infinitely. That would be the paradox you pointed out. You posit a first cause to stop infinite regression into the past because you think it’s not possible. So obviously you don’t think the first cause could stretch infinitely in the past. You say it’s a paradox and we cannot have paradoxes. So you have ruled out this option.
It seems to me that you have ruled out both ‘it is infinite’ and ‘it is not infinite.’ There is no other option. I know what you will say, ‘but it’s eternal.’ The problem with saying the first cause is eternal is that eternal is not a third option.
The Problem with Eternal
You claim that God is eternal and timeless. Something is eternal if it has always existed. But how long is ‘always?’ That’s a question people often forget to ask. It doesn’t even seem like a question. You have a specific belief in God, and the universe. If God and the universe are the way you believe, I’d agree that God would be eternal. But here’s the thing: our current understanding is the universe is eternal and almost 15 billion years ago.
Eternal Option 1: We have already established that you cannot have an unending amount of time. There are two ways to be eternal. The first option is something can be eternal as in stretching back infinitely. But that is a paradox. (This is just Beginning Option 2 above.) You have ruled this out already.
Eternal Option 2: Something can be eternal as in having always existed, even if always is only 15 billion years. God could be 15 billion years old and eternal at the same time. This is because you believe that God created time within the last 15 billion years. But by this reckoning, the universe is also eternal. Both in your world view, and to the current scientific understanding. (This is just another way of Beginning Option 1 above.)
Take this thought experiment. What do you believe God did before he created the universe? If he did nothing beforehand, and instantly created the universe as he existed, then God is no older than the universe. And yet, is still eternal. He began and is eternal. Also, if God instantly created the universe then the universe also has always existed. The universe is also eternal. But it still had a beginning. And I will repeat, God also had a beginning.
Something that is eternal must have a beginning. Or else it is the impossible paradox of having an infinite amount of history. I know what you will say. The infinite history paradox doesn’t apply to God because he is timeless.
The Problem with Timeless
Go back to the thought experiment. If your God created the universe even a sliver of an instant later, then God is not timeless. Also, you claim the first cause is personal. But something that is personal must exist in time. And the God of the Bible clearly existed before, during and after creating the world. He gave commands after the fall of Adam and Eve. He sent is son. Now, maybe it’s just a paradox. (Or a ‘mystery’ as some theologians call it.) But if we accept paradoxes, we must re-evaluate your first cause argument, and find it false.
So the first cause cannot be timeless. Your God is not timeless. (Though if your God exists, he may be eternal.) The problem is that the universe also seems to be eternal. At least, by your reasoning.
Something can begin and still be eternal. If God exists he must have begun to exist. And we know the universe began to exist. Related to being timeless is being changeless.
The Problem with Changeless
Tony, you put a lot of emphasis on there being a beginning. You seem to believe that this poses some big problem. I think it’s related to the fact that the universe changes over time. You think that you escape this problem with a first cause. You seem to base it on the fact that the universe has changed continuously over time since the big bang. Perhaps you think that it couldn’t have simply arose in the same eternal fashion as God since it has changed. This is because you think that God does not change.
The fact seems to be that the universe started with what you call its maximum amount of energy. (Also called minimum entropy.) It has developed from then until now according to the second law of thermodynamics. You imply that if it changes it’s not eternal.
Okay. If that’s what you want to say, I can go with that. I can agree that the universe is not eternal by that definition. But then neither is God. The God you believe in existed. He did not exist with the paradox of an infinite past. But then he created the world. Perhaps you believe he nurtured the world. Perhaps you believe he will bring the world to it’s end in Judgement Day. Those are changes in his being. He is creating. He is sustaining. And then he is judging. Different states.
But that is your God developing and changing over time. Doing things. He is not developing like a universe. He is acting like a God. So he is not changeless. Scientists think the first cause of the universe may have been a quantum fluctuation. You think it was God. But God must have had a first action. Maybe his first action was to create the universe. Before this first action, or motion, or cause, there was no God.
(Or, there was no ‘before’ the first action. Similar to how scientists think there may have been no ‘before’ the quantum process that gave rise to the universe.)
I consider that eternal, but not changeless. You might say it’s not eternal. But I think we should agree that it’s not changeless.
There is nothing your God can do that the universe cannot. And all the same limitations seem to apply.
Something Just Existed
I know you think you have found a third alternative. So let me be clear: if God is eternal and yet somehow beginningless and just was, you are claiming that existence is natural. That something existing is normal and nothingness is not normal. In that case it may be the universe that just existed.
If God exists, God has a beginning. An original state. A before condition. According to your own reasoning. There is no third option. God either suffers from the paradox of being infinitely old, or the paradox of coming into existence some time ago.
But if we accept paradoxes, then let’s stick to what we know. That universe exists, and came to be around 15 billions years ago. It has no cause because existence is normal. If God did exist, I would say that these apply to him. Yet, if we accept paradoxes we don’t need God. If we distrust paradoxes, they rule God out.
In either case, it seems that reality exists. This reality allowed for a first cause. What was this first cause?
Thomas Aquinas believed that this first cause was God.
Lawrence M. Krauss advocates that we live in A Universe From Nothing, which is the name of his book on the subject. He says that it was quantum fluctuations in empty space.
Many other ideas not covered here.
All these options are based on the idea that existence existed. A reality was here already. ‘Before the universe, God existed.’ ‘Before the universe, quantum tunneling existed.’ ‘Before the universe, empty space existed.’ It all amounts to the same paradox. I say let’s stop at the Big Bang. We can wait here and watch the experts argue over this or that. When they agree we can incorporate that into our debate.
Anything else is jumping to conclusions based on your feelings. Based on what makes sense to you.
How can we say that something existed before the existence we say needs explaining? God doesn’t answer anything. In fact, you are saying that we need God to explain existence. But God existing is still existence. That doesn’t make any sense.
Existence is a Paradox
The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected. If God created the world, where was he before creation? …
How could God have made the world without any raw material? If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression. If you declare that the raw material arose naturally you fall into another fallacy, for the whole universe might thus have been its own creator…
Thus the doctrine that the world was created by God makes no sense at all.
Mahāpurāṇa by Jinasena. English text from Primal Myths by Barbara Sproul.
From our perspective as humans, the fact that the universe exists makes no sense. So we try to explain it. But an uncaused first cause or a God doesn’t solve the problem. You are just saying it existed before anything existed. That doesn’t make sense either. Saying it was God, or some other first cause, just sweeps it under the rug.
Anyone who attempts to understand the origin of the universe should be prepared to address its logical paradoxes. In this regard, the theorem that I proved with my colleagues does not give much of an advantage to the theologian over the scientist. As evidenced by Jinasena’s remarks earlier in this chapter, religion is not immune to the paradoxes of Creation.
Many Worlds in One by Alexander Vilenkin
If we assume God exists, the argument still has paradoxes. How can an immaterial thing make material things? But just by assuming God exists we assume that existing is the natural state. If existing is the natural state, we don’t need God to explain our existence. It’s unnecessary. “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
If you can explain a god without a creator you can explain a universe without a creator.
That is what brings us back to the original quote that caused this debate. Any problems you have with the universe existing being natural applies to God. Any reason you think God can exist applies to the universe.
You might say that it doesn’t make any sense that the universe simply began existing 15 billion years ago and developed since then. But it also doesn’t make sense that anything else simply existed 15 billion years ago, which then created the universe and time. With our understanding, it’s paradoxes everywhere we look. Including your position.
You have failed to resolve this. You point out that a universe from nothing doesn’t make sense. But it’s where the evidence currently leads. It’s what the experts suspect. You say this must mean something else existed. But that something else has all the same problems of the universe. There is nothing that makes God have different qualities than the universe. Until we have more conclusive evidence about the nature of the first cause, we cannot say it was God. And currently no evidence points that way.
If paradoxes are something a reasonable person should reject, then I must reject that God could just exist. If paradoxes are something a reasonable person can accept, then I can accept that the universe just existed as scientists suspect.
You think the universe is not timeless and eternal. What you mean is the universe changes. It started before the expansion (the Big Bang) and continues until now. But God changes as well. You think he has personal relationships with people. You think he created the world. Perhaps you think he sent his only begotten son. So God changes as well. God changed from thinking about creating the universe to having created it. In the same way the universe has gone from a high state of energy at the Big Bang to now.
That takes care of things from a high level perspective. But there are a few specific details I wanted to make clear.
Some Things Have No Cause
To quote your position:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause…
This is a philosophical fact. There is no evidence that anything that has ever come into existence without a cause.
I’m afraid I’m forced to repeat that this does happen. In fact, this happens all the time. Some believe that uncaused particles caught in inflation was the source of the energy of the universe.
Once our minds accept the mutability of matter and the new idea of the vacuum, we can speculate on the origin of the biggest thing we know—the universe. Maybe the universe itself sprang into existence out of nothingness—a gigantic vacuum fluctuation which we know today as the big bang. Remarkably, the laws of modern physics allow for this possibility.
The Cosmic Code, page 247, by Heinz Pagels.Heinz Pagels
Let me make this very clear:
The Levels of Reality
I think you don’t know that the rules of physics appear to change from the small to the large. That there are different levels to the universe. At each level things work differently. Rules that apply to one level don’t apply to another.
The Subatomic Level
The Everyday Level
The Astronomic level
The Universe As-A-Whole
These levels operate with different rules from one another. The Earth is an astronomical body (level 3). Life clings to its surface (level 2). As far as we know there is no action on the astronomic level: planets, solar systems and galaxy don’t do anything. They are just large masses.
At the everyday level we have plants and animals made up of molecules. Those molecules act as tiny machinery. They do everything that makes life possible. Digestion. Reproduction. Carrying signals from your eyes to your brain. We also have made mechanical machines to build cars and to have blog-to-blog debates about God. You see that each of these levels are different. And the rules of one do not carry over to the rules of another.
1: The Subatomic Level
At the subatomic level things pop in and out of existence without cause. You are wrong to say that there is no evidence that things come into existence without a cause. We see this all the time:
In the everyday world, energy is always unalterably fixed; the law of energy conservation is a cornerstone of classical physics. But in the quantum microworld, energy can appear and disappear out of nowhere in a spontaneous and unpredictable fashion.
God and the New Physics, page 162, by Paul Davies.
2: The Everyday Level
The everyday level is the world we live and breathe. From single celled organism to massive factories. At this level we see biological machines like the human arm and technological machines like the Canadarm2 in space.
At this level nothing ever pops in or out of existence. Not by random chance. Not at all. Everything that exists on this level is just taking subatomic particles and rearranging them to make other everyday things. The rules of level 1 do not apply:
Example: Daniel was a precocious child and had a liking for logic. He reasoned that atoms are invisible, and that he was made of atoms and therefore invisible too. Unfortunately, despite his thinky skills, he lost the game of hide and go seek.
In level 1 we see that things come into existence without cause. But at level 2 that is not the case. In level 2 we have machines that do work. But at level 3 that is not the case. Level three is everything we see in the universe. Stars and planets and galaxies. They don’t do anything. They just move according to gravity. (Nuclear fusion in the sun happens at the subatomic level.
4: The Universe As-A-Whole
If level 3 is everything we see in the universe, what is level 4? Level 4 is the universe itself. When you try to make claims about the universe as a whole, you are wrongly applying the rules of levels 1, 2 and 3. We don’t know about level 4. We have no evidence that it works one way or another. It might work like level 3. Or maybe levels 2 or 1. Or, it might work very differently than any of them.
Consider the cells of the humans body. They operate a certain way. But the rules of the cells of our body don’t apply to our body overall. Our cells need to be soaked in fluids to work. But if we are soaked in fluids we suffocate. The machinery of our cells could work without our body. But our body couldn’t digest without the machinery in our cells.
All the observations of the universe we have are from levels 1-3. So no, we don’t have any evidence of level 4. We cannot brashly assert ‘the universe is like this!’ Because we don’t know. It’s arrogant and a mistake to think otherwise.
Like the boy who thinks he is invisible because he is made up of atoms, we don’t know what the universe is like based on level 3.
The Universe Began
Did the universe begin to exist? I think so. But more importantly, it’s currently the best understanding from the experts. Now, they could be wrong. But to be wise we have to listen to the experts. And here’s the problem: you cannot just choose when to start and stop listening to them. Otherwise your views aren’t based on the evidence.
Let’s turn to a scientist you quoted previously. Remember, this is in reference to the research you used in your rebuttal:
[I]f someone asks me whether or not the theorem I proved with Borde and Guth implies that the universe had a beginning, I would say that the short answer is “yes”. If you are willing to get into subtleties, then the answer is “No, but…” So, there are ways to get around having a beginning, but then you are forced to have something nearly as special as a beginning.
He is saying that every suggestion as to the origin of existence has a paradox at its heart. Claiming that God existed at all is a paradox. Just as claiming the universe arose from a quantum process is a paradox.
If your God exists, or any first cause existed to start the universe, it must have begun to exist. The only alternative is an infinite regression back into time.
If God can exist, then the quantum vacuum can exist. It’s a paradox we don’t understand. If existence requires a cause, then neither the universe or God could have arose in the first place. Finally, empty space existing seems a lot more reasonable than the complicated type of first cause you believe in. Which, I should point out, the experts don’t.
The Nature of the First Cause
You said that good theories will predict things that had not been observed yet. Such as the expanding universe, or the cosmic background radiation. I’m not sure why you or the apologists you admire seem to go on about the universe beginning. No expert questions this that I see.
But we still don’t know the ultimate cause of the universe. Experts are divided on this. To say that there was a multiverse, God or that we live in the black hole of another universe is to just unconfirmed nonsense to what we know. One of those things may be true. But right now it’s jumping to conclusion to claim they are true. That’s what we shouldn’t do.
A little later on you jumped to another conclusion. You said that the space, time, energy and matter started at the Big Bang. Sure. I’ve always thought so. This is the working model of the universe. But then you said something we don’t know is true. You said having a starting point means that the first cause is immaterial and eternal.
As well as prove my second premise, this also shows that if the Universe had a cause (which I think we’ve proved that it did) this cause would have to be spaceless and timeless. In other words, the First Cause would necessarily be immaterial and eternal.
You have not shown your work.
The universe seems to have begun in the Big Bang. It would take a lot of evidence to believe otherwise. But what this proves is that the universe seems to have begun in the Big Bang. This doesn’t prove anything about what came before. We don’t know enough to say anything about the first cause.
You don’t know either. You just repeat what you believe over, and over again. But you haven’t shown why. There is no reason to believe that the first cause must be immaterial or ethereal or changeless. There is a beginning. That’s all we know. You just keep repeating claims of an eternal first cause. You repeated that in your debate with Sean McGuire. You are repeating it to me twice so far. And you will repeat it again. But you haven’t given any reason to believe beginning means immaterial cause. That the beginning means eternal cause.
Experts are unsure about what caused the effect we call the Big Bang. So it’s wrong to say we know it was a first cause that is immaterial and timeless. In fact, that doesn’t even make sense. If your first cause is immaterial, where did all this material come from? God created it from nothingness? You have been pretty clear you don’t think that is possible. Scientists have a different view. Here is just one:
Where did all the matter and radiation in the universe come from in the first place? Recent intriguing theoretical research by physicists such as Steven Weinberg of Harvard and Ya B. Zel’dovich in Moscow suggest that the universe began as a perfect vacuum and that all the particles of the material world were created from the expansion of space…
Think about the universe immediately after the Big Bang. Space is violently expanding with explosive vigor. Yet, as we have seen, all space is seething with virtual pairs of particles and antiparticles. Normally, a particle and anti-particle have no trouble getting back together in a time interval … short enough so that the conservation of mass is satisfied under the uncertainty principle. During the Big Bang, however, space was expanding so fast that particles were rapidly pulled away from their corresponding antiparticles. Deprived of the opportunity to recombine, these virtual particles had to become real particles in the real world. Where did the energy come from to achieve this materialization?
Recall that the Big Bang was like the center of a black hole. A vast supply of gravitational energy was therefore associated with the intense gravity of this cosmic singularity. This resource provided ample energy to completely fill the universe with all conceivable kinds of particles and antiparticles. Thus, immediately after the Planck time, the universe was flooded with particles and antiparticles created by the violent expansion of space.
Universe, pages 529-532, by William J Kaufmann.
You disagree with the experts. We know something comes from nothing. We know the universe is expanding. It seems the universe had maximum energy at the Big Bang.
But it’s important to stress what we don’t know. We don’t know if the universe itself is the expansion that generated the energy. And there is no evidence to conclude that multiverses, higher levels of reality or God exist. Are they possible? I guess. Should we believe them?
What is likely to be true? A wise person would look at what experts say. They would note where they agree: this is the closest we have to know what is true. A wise person would look at where experts disagree and say ‘we don’t know.’ A wise person would explore these options with interest. The experts tell us what happened after the Big Bang. But not what happened at the Big Bang. (At the Cosmic Time of exactly 0.) And certainly not what happened before.
So I stand by what I said in my opening statement. A wise person admits what they do not know. What no one knows. If we assume that what gave rise to the universe is the ultimate first cause, then that cause is divisive among the experts. Some say it was subatomic fluctuations. Other say it was tunneling events. Most theologians think it was God. There are other things that experts are not divided on. Like how the universe has behaved since the Big Bang.
You keep saying that we should follow the evidence. But then you jump to conclusions. Let’s not do that. What does the evidence say? The evidence says the universe began about 15 billion years ago. And that’s it.
You can tell. Experts agree on that part. But they don’t agree on the on what happened before that. Not only do experts not agree, but theologian disagree as well. Why? Because there is not enough evidence.
Some see the paradox and jump to an unsupported but possible answer. There are many such answer.
That a deity did it. For example, you believe it was God.
That it was an expression of the multiverse.
That it was an effect of quantum tunneling in nothing.
That it was an effect of quantum fluctuations and expansion in nothing.
String theory, quantum loop gravity and more!
All these have one thing in common. They assume that something existed that gave rise to the universe. Is it a paradox that it existed at all? It seems so. The wise thing to do is follow the evidence, and stop where the evidence stops. When we reach the limits of our knowledge we end up at a fork in the road. Which path leads to truth? I say we reverse judgement. We be humble. That we should say we don’t go past this point. Let the experts work on ruling out possibilities first.
It’s important to know what we can justify, and what we cannot justify. You say the universe has a beginning, therefore it needs a transcendent, timeless, immaterial first cause. But you don’t do the work to show this is true. With one exception: you say that something cannot come from nothing. But we know that something comes from nothing all the time. (See ‘The Levels of Reality’ above.)
This is why I firmly state you have not confirmed your case. I say a reasonable person should not accept what you say is likely to be true. Actually, I’ll say something stronger than that. I’d say a reasonable person should reject your argument. Because it’s based on arguments we don’t know are true. The link between having a beginning and what you say the first cause is like.
Minor spelling/typo changes, some minor rewording for clarity. Also: ‘curring scientific understanding’ was changed to ‘current.’ (Aug 18)
Changed “You imply that if it’s changeless it’s not eternal.” to “You imply that if it changes it’s not eternal.” (Aug 18)
Added a note below about some sources used as research.
Since I’m debating a Christian I have used the title God throughout for Yahweh. These arguments work for any deity at all. Not only the gods and goddesses from ancient mythology, but any future concepts.
To write as clearly as possible, I’ve chosen to also use the pronoun he when discussing Yahweh. This is to reduce the cognitive load on people not used to thinking about other deities.
When reading through Tony’s rebuttal I found some basic miscommunications. I choose not to respond to them here. I took extensive notes which you can read. These notes are not edited and not well thought out. But for those interested in more responses to Tony’s rebuttal may find them interesting.
While working on this reply I thought of a quote from the Cat Who Walks Through Walls: “A paradox can be paradoctored.” While it still amuses me, I’m pretty sure it’s false.
It may be that paradoxes are inevitable. And that some are actually possible. The other alternative is we simply don’t know enough. That we should be satisfied with what we do know. That we should wait until more information comes before assuming certain conclusion to be true.
If it’s not clear, let me make it clear: relevant experts in the field come to consensus. We can call the consensus scientific knowledge. But this is tentative. We may be missing relevant information that would change how we look at things. But as time goes on paradigm shifting discoveries tend to shift smaller and smaller paradigms. But they could reveal a lot of new information. I think this is because we are homing in on the truth.
About being eternal and changeless. It’s possible God could be changeless and timeless and still interact with us in a way that seems like it’s in real time. But I also think time itself could be an illusions. This means an infinite regression is possible, because nothing actually comes ‘before’ anything else. The future and past exist at once. This is probably false. But it might be possible. In the same way God’s changing nature could be an illusion. That God exists in the future and the past and only appears to us to be performing actions. (Like a 3 dimension being interacting with Flat Land.) But if we accept this we might as well just accept the paradox of an infinite past. Or any other paradox. The fact that God has not evidence for his existence remains.
Tony is fond of Vilenkin because William Lane Craig uses him often. I linked to one source about the misuse of his quote. But there are two others: Common Sense Atheism and Debunking WLC that helped shape the overall form of this rebuttal.
I would like to thank Tony for suggesting this debate. He and I met in the comments section of the debate he had with Sean McGuire. I know he is a good person, is a family man, and likes to think about big ideas. It’s that last one that gives me reason to want to engage in a battle of ideas with him. In that debate he said that God is a necessary being. Months later, I posted a quote on Facebook that said any reason you have for why God can be necessary is a reason the universe can be necessary:
If you can explain a god without a creator you can explain a universe without a creator.
You can read Tony’s position at his blog. To summarise, he thinks only God can be a necessary being. In other words, God is the only thing that doesn’t have cause. Therefore, God must exist.
Tony is trying to convince us that God exists using a reasonable sounding argument. He will say God must exist if the universe exists. Every good argument starts with making assumptions called premises. If the assumptions are true, a good argument will be correct. If the assumptions are false, even the best argument can be wrong. I will show that Tony wants things to be true that we don’t know are true. That we should not accept his argument because for it to be true we need to know facts we don’t currently know.
For Tony to win this debate he must show that his assumptions and guesses are true. But, the best knowledge we have do not support his assumptions. Often times his assumptions are really just guesses. We don’t know they are true.
Contingent vs Necessary
The idea is simple. There are things we know exist, like chairs. A chair is what philosophers call a contingent being. In the philosophical sense, a ‘being’ is a thing that exists. ‘Contingent’ means that it needs something else to exist. To cause it or sustain it. Without a universe full of atoms, chairs could not exist.
We know that chairs are contingent, but what about the universe? Many Christians believe that the universe itself is contingent. What is the opposite of something being contingent? That is something being necessary. In this sense, necessary means that it is self-sustaining and also not caused by something else. That it simply exists in and of itself. Believers like Tony claim that God is necessary, not contingent.
Why We Cannot Say Much About Deities and Universes
Here are three sets of facts. They show why we do not know that the universe is contingent or that God is necessary. Tony, these are why I believe your assumptions are not sound assumptions.
We know the universe exists by direct observation, but we only know about the observable universe. Many cosmologists believe the universe might extend past what we can see. We cannot be sure about the extent of what is in the universe. So, it seems premature to be certain about the universe as-a-whole. We cannot be sure we can see the entire universe, only what astronomers call the ‘observable universe.’
People try to convince others with arguments about what the universe is like as-a-whole. Or what it’s properties are as-a-whole. But these arguments are based on guesses or misinformation. We might not be able to observe the whole universe. Everything we know is about the observable universe only. And, it is mostly about things inside the universe.
Let me be specific: we don’t know if the universe is contingent or necessary. We don’t know if it is all of reality or only part. We don’t know if there are other universes. We literally don’t know anything about how universes come to be, or if our universe always existed. That is the limit of our knowledge.
We don’t actually know anything about the properties of any gods or goddesses. Any argument about the Christian God being contingent or necessary is not supported by observation. (It’s also not biblical, but that doesn’t matter to atheists.)
This means that any claims about God being a certain way are just guesses. We have no reason to believe those claims are true. Most arguments for the properties of what God is like are based on unfounded assumptions. Over the years theologians have argued that certain views of God make more sense. But these are not observed properties of God, and are not based on evidence. (They aren’t even biblical.)
Any good argument for why God is necessary would also work for the universe. Likewise, any good argument for why the universe is contingent would also work for God. All contain assumptions we cannot be confident are correct. Assuming they are correct is like building a house on sand.
For these reasons, I believe it is wrong to boldly say that the universe is contingent or that God is not contingent. (I also believe it’s wrong to say the universe is necessary or that God is not necessary.) The fact is we don’t know.
Tony, your position is that God is the only necessary being. For you to defend this position you would need something other than assumptions that ‘make sense.’ To do this you would have to have access to evidence that indicates your assumptions are true. Until then there is no good reason to believe that the universe is contingent, that God is necessary, or that the Christian deity is required rather than some other god or goddess.
The Nature of the Universe
You believe that the universe is contingent. That is a very specific claim. I cannot accept that claim because we don’t know what the universe is like. We know what our part of the universe is like. But we don’t know how the universe acts ‘outside’ of the universe, if such a place even exists. We cannot see the entire universe from the inside. We can only see to the cosmic light horizon. The universe could be either contingent or necessary.
We can trace the universe back billions of years to near the Big Bang. But scientists tell us that we don’t actually know what happened at the start. There are several models. At most one can be right. And they may all be wrong. But the observations we have, also called evidence, points to history having been a certain way.
Some people like to ask, ‘what happened before the Big Bang.’ This is a big question. And its answers are hard to understand. There are basically three possible categories of answers.
The first possible answer is that the question doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking what is north of the north pole. Cosmologists believe that time could have come into existence with space during what people call the Big Bang. So there was no time before the Big Bang. Maybe. This is most likely true if the universe is necessary. In this case, there was nothing before the Big Bang and the universe. Just as you believe there was nothing before God. The universe only has the appearance of beginning at the big bang. (So it’s not right when you say scientists agree the universe began. That is not their position. It’s considered a possibility.)
The second possible answer is that perhaps time here works differently than time in an ultimate reality. I know that reality exists. I know that the universe exists. I tend to assume they are both the same thing. But maybe the universe is one part of reality. Maybe there is a multiverse. Maybe we live in a singularity of another universe. This would also be the case if God created the universe in a greater reality, or ultimate reality. There are many possible ways this could be true. Most making for interesting science fiction rather than good scientific models. But some are tentative models that cosmologists think are possible.
The third is that the universe extends back before the Big Bang. Perhaps the Big Bang itself was simply some catastrophic event in the history of the universe. The truth is that no scientist knows. And neither does anyone else.
Cosmologists and physicists don’t know which of these are right. And maybe there is a fourth option we haven’t thought of yet. That’s because we don’t know much about the nature of the universe. We really don’t know what a universe is. We don’t know if there is more than one. We don’t know how a universe can come to be (if it does). Any claim that universes have certain properties as-a-whole is something we don’t know.
You said that everything that begins to exist must have had a cause. But we don’t know if the logic of things inside the universe applies to the universe itself. You said the universe had a beginning. It appears that the observable universe may have had a beginning. But scientists aren’t settled on this point.
Tony, I know you are a smart man. You are well read. You are thoughtful. That’s on top of everything else I know about you. You have a family. You enjoy a good sci-fi action movie. (Did you finally get to see Independence Day 2? Was it any good?) But you and I have to be more than just smart. We have to endeavour to being wise.
“The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
There are two mistakes people make when they talk about the universe. The first is to assume that the universe as-a-whole is the same as the stuff that is inside the universe. A chair is contingent. Everything else in the universe is contingent as far as I know. But the universe is not inside the universe. We don’t know if it operates on the same rules. We should be wise enough to know that we don’t know how a universe acts or what properties it has as-a-whole.
We also like to choose from the options we can think of, but forget we may not have thought of all the options. We are limited people who can make mistakes. We are not perfect. We should be humble. We should realize that we don’t have all the answers. In these debates, people will say ‘here are two or three options, and all but the one I like are false.’ They will then assume the one they like is right, since that choice is the only one left. But this ignores that maybe there is a something we don’t know that shows all the ideas we have are wrong. We must keep our minds open to alternative possibilities we haven’t thought of yet.
The greatest challenge to finding truth is when something sounds like it makes sense. I’m sure many Christians could read your opening statement and say ‘that makes sense.’ But just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true. Our great grandparents believed things that made sense to them, but no longer makes sense to us now. People commonly reject a new idea because it ‘doesn’t make sense.’ Or people accept new ideas because it sounds sensible to them. But our intuitions can be misleading if they are based on questionable assumptions that we don’t even realize we have made. Living on Earth makes us assume things that might be wrong about the universe.
The Special Case
In this debate, you started by saying God is a special case. You believe everything that exists must be contingent, with only one exception. You believe this exception is God. (That is, your conceptualization of the Christian god.)
I would argue that the God you believe in would also be contingent if he existed. In your opening statement you said that God must be living and intelligent. But consider what that means. That means that God both exists and is a person. But for that to be true there must exist a world, or reality, in which the rules of logic apply. Let me explain:
Just look at the everyday world. I am a person. A rock is not a person. There is a difference between a person and a non-person. Something cannot be both a person and a non-person at the same time. This is the rule of non-contradiction and the rule of identity in action.
What if there was no rule of non-contradiction or identity? What if that’s not how reality worked? Then saying that God exists becomes meaningless. This is because in that bizarre reality God existing is not different than God not existing. Thus, God could not exist to create an ordered reality, because at the same time he exists he also doesn’t exist.
Imagine a reality in which there was no logical cause-and-effect relationship. Then God could not create the universe or the Earth. If there was no cause-and-effect, the Earth could be created without a creator. Or, God could go to create the Earth and nothing would happen! This doesn’t make any sense. In order for God to exist, be a person, have the will to create the world, and create the world, he needs reality to exist as it is. He needs order to already be there.
You imply that God is required for the universe to exist as an ordered, logical place when you argue he is needed to bring about the universe. But you assume God didn’t need those things. If he existed I would think he does. How can God sidestep this problem of needing reality to exist? And if he can sidestep it, then it makes as much sense to say that the universe is everything, and that God is not required. Or any other deity.
Next, I’d like to briefly touch on you claims about life. You said that God must be alive and he must be intelligent. I’m not sure how this could be true. Maybe it is true, if he exists at all. But living things exist inside the universe and are made up of biology. Does God have a biology? If not, what does it mean to say he is living?
Is God intelligent? Intelligence is the property of a mind. This implies God has a mind. But we know that minds are what brains do. A functioning brain generates the phenomenon that we call mind. Much like an MP3 player using digital information to vibrate the air. But what we hear is the phenomenon of music.
I don’t think you can say something is a living being, a person or intelligent if they don’t have a body. Especially if it is immaterial and don’t exist inside the universe. As far as we know you need a body inside the universe to have those things. Perhaps one day we will make a computer with a mind. But it still needs to have a mind generating machine to act in place of a biological brain. Now it maybe possible to have a body outside the universe. It may be possible to have a mind without a body. But until we know, it’s just a guess you’ve made. And it’s a guess you are resting your argument on.
So I’m not with you when you say that God is living. Even if God exists, I don’t know that he is living. (He also wouldn’t be a he, technically.) And so by your logic he couldn’t have created living beings if he isn’t living.
But even there, I must disagree. You are stating that life cannot come from non-life. The evidence doesn’t indicate that. Many scientists think that it is possible. Especially with the research in to self organizing systems. But to be extremely accurate, we don’t know either way. But we have some good leads that all point to it being possible. Your guess that it isn’t possible is not backed up by facts. You are just using an guess to then say God must have done it. I’m not impressed by that argument.
What is the truth?
The truth is, we don’t know. I believe we should be humble in our approach. This means trying to know the limits of our knowledge. You say that the universe is contingent on God. You say God must exist, or else the universe wouldn’t exist. But we don’t know God exists.
I know that makes sense to you, Tony. I get that this flatters your belief in God. But I think we should always be suspicious of things that agree with us. We are humans. We have to work hard to be rational. We have to work hard to not make mistakes. We should be humble enough not just to doubt others we agree with, but also to doubt ourselves. Instead of being proud and declare answers we cannot know, we should be humble. We should accept the limits of what we know.
“Trust those who seek the truth but doubt those who say they have found it.” ― André Gide
In this case, we don’t know if the universe is contingent. If it is, we don’t know what it’s contingent on. And we also don’t know God is necessary. Or that God exists at all. Your haven’t provided any evidence for your beliefs. You have just made “what if” arguments based on assumptions and guesses you think are true. Until we know they are true I think it’s reasonable to remain unconvinced that gods or goddesses are necessary. Do you have any evidence for your beliefs?
To all the readers, thank you for staying with me to the end of this 3 000 word post. I hope to see you here next time.
To Tony, I look forward to your rebuttal. I’m sure you will have interesting things to say. More, I am sure I will find it a challenge to respond to them. I appreciate the opportunity to activate my neurons and do some hard thinking with you on this topic.
Since I’m debating a Christian I have used the title God throughout for Yahweh. These arguments work for any deity at all. Not only the gods and goddesses from ancient mythology, but any future concepts.
In order to write as clearly as possible, I’ve chosen to also use the pronoun he when discussing Yahweh. This is to reduce the cognitive load on people not used to thinking about other deities. This topic is hard enough as it is.
I think I have made it clear that on the topics we have discussed here the correct answer is we don’t know. In some places I have put forward possible explanations, models or examples. Do not take this as me saying that I believe they are true. My point was that they are possibly true given the knowledge we have accumulated as a species.
Being means anything that exists. Some people argue concepts are example of non-contingent things. But concepts are not things or beings. They are mental abstraction that require a mind to sustain them. If there were no minds, there would be no concepts. Concepts are how minds model aspects of reality.
2016-07-27: The original post used the word prove 3 times. I thought this would confuse the technical term for proof with the common usage of the word for a few readers. These instances were changed to clearly mean have evidence or reasonable indication that the claim is true.
At a national cancer summit Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden threatened to cut funds to medical research institutions that don’t report their clinical trial results in a timely manner.
“Under the law, it says you must report. If you don’t report, the law says you shouldn’t get funding,” Biden said, citing a STAT investigation that found widespread reporting lapses.
“I’m going to find out if it’s true” that the research centers aren’t reporting the results, Biden said — “and if it’s true, I’m going to cut funding. That’s a promise.”
I really support this move. In fact, I support campaigns to ensure that all trials and studies are published. This is because we cannot make informed decisions without all the information. Especially when talking about health.
Brian is trying to be reasonable, save money and probably put it to better use. But what he is talking about is the problem. If one or two poorly designed studies find that a new drug does something good they get published as preliminary results. If people do follow up studies that find the drugs don’t work they often time cannot get published, or the authors choose not to publish them. This means that the results are biased toward proving any medication works, not the truth.
If we only see a biased selection of the evidence we can conclude something that is wrong when trying to be reasonable and looking at the evidence. Fellow Canadian Humanist Ian Bushfieldpointed this out: