As we find ourselves already two months into the year, it’s as good a time as any to contemplate the bigger questions.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.” Professor Stephen Hawking, scientist

You may have chosen to ignite your bones with a glass of glögi and complete the tradition by eating ginger bread during the past Christmas season. You perhaps also caught a glimpse of a nativity scene: that familiar depiction of the birth of Jesus as described in the Bible. For the majority of Christians the nativity scene has an especially high credit, because it is a reminder that Mary miraculously received Jesus by way of the Holy Spirit. The so called Christmas Star revealed the birth of Jesus to the “Three Wise Men”, who followed it to Bethlehem to visit the son of God in his manger as depicted in that world famous Christmas carol. Many Christians believe that the same God created the universe and also laid down the laws of nature and continues to let them run like clockwork. For non-believers, by contrast, the nativity scene is part of a larger fabrication of events, a welter of fraud, to sustain the illusion of monotheism that God created the universe and all life within it. As this inquirer explains below, when asked the question “Can the universe exist without God?” we should not rush to fill gaps in our knowledge with God, by default, but rather be grateful that scientists are so curious.

Where does the buck stop?

The cosmological argument is a broad church of claims that all attempt to prove that the universe needed a supernatural, or divine, first cause to come into existence. This is rooted in the idea that something cannot come from nothing. It follows that anything that comes into being, like, say the “Big Bang” – the cosmic explosion that marked the origin of the universe approximately 13.75 billion years ago – must have had a cause. Philosophers from Aristotle to William Lane Craig have suggested that God – a transcendent, immaterial being of unimaginable power beyond space and time – was the first cause and creator of our universe. This is part of a longer tradition nested within organised religion. As St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings on theological matters are still regarded with interest by the Catholic Church, explained this back in the 13th century in his Summa Theologica: Everything in the world around us has a cause; but the chain of causation cannot extend back into infinity; therefore, there must be a first cause, and this is God.

Add to this list the work of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or the so-called kalam cosmological argument canonised by the Christian Apologist William Lane Craig, who holds that:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Using this framework, which is drawn from Islamic theology, many believers have found plenty of truck in the idea that if the universe had a beginning then it must have had a creator in God. Many Finnish Lutherans told me something along the lines of, “this must have been so astonishing and we cannot accept it as a brute fact.” They also accept that they may never know why and how such creation took place. This is consistent with what it says in the Bible. “It’s the glory of God”, said Solomon, “to conceal a thing.” “No man”, said the Preacher, “can find out the work of God.”

This, however, is to cantilever our question into territory where it is more difficult to test, but it doesn’t avoid the major difficulty in making clear how a being outside of space and time, as God is conceived to be here, could stand in an intelligible relation to our universe, whether as its creator or as the author of events within it. Working in the tradition of Aristotle, Kant and Wittgenstein, the philosopher Bede Rundle contends that a personal agent (God) cannot be the first cause because intentional agency needs a body and actions occur within space-time. Rundle argues that to claim God as creator is even more problematic than the universe which he is called upon to explain.

The cosmological argument, and Craig’s version of it in particular, has been attacked vehemently and rejected utterly by the modern scientific perspective. In his best-selling book, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, the American particle physicist Victor Stenger shows that, by accepting that quantum events – probabilistic causes – are caused in a non-predetermined manner, Craig destroys his own case for a predetermined creation. Other scientists have gone further and argued that there was no first cause, or singularity, at all. In A Brief History of Time, a popular science book, Stephen Hawking uses quantum mechanics, the theory of atomic process that was developed in the years following Einstein’s theories of relativity, with great precision to conclude that, “there was in fact no singularity at the beginning of the universe.” In sum, the science suggests that, our universe had no beginning – it existed for all previous time.

Everything in its rightful place

Francis Collins, the geneticist of Human Genome Project fame and former atheist, recounts how one crisp Autumn afternoon, whilst hiking in the Cascade Mountains, he was struck by how finely tuned everything looked. While taking in the symphony of the surrounding landscape he came upon a beautiful frozen waterfall with three prongs that he believed was intended to represent the Holy Trinity. He describes the experience in his 2006 book The Language of God:

“...the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

Collins’s experience (or attack of piety?) relates to the second set of arguments used to support the notion that the universe cannot, and therefore does not, exist without God: intelligent design or creationism. This claims that the complex ways in which everything comes together in equilibrium proves the wisdom and omnipotence of God by His works. Here we are to believe that the firmament is in some mysterious way ordered for our benefit.

The watchmaker analogy: The blind leading the blind?

It was the English Christian Apologist and philosopher William Paley who famously summarised the design arguments using the “watchmaker analogy.” Here we encounter the person who stumbles across a ticking watch. They may not know what it is, but they know that it is not a rock or vegetable, and that it has been manufactured, and even manufactured for some purpose. In 1802, Paley equated the complexity of the watch with the complexity of the universe and argued that the latter must also necessitate a designer. Until he returned from his legendary voyage on the Beagle, the great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin thought that Paley’s analogy made sense. This was mainly because living beings showed complexity and were exquisitely fitted to their places in a world where everything seemed to be in its rightful place.

In 1859, however, it was soon clear that Darwin had changed his mind. His On the Origin of Species essentially laid the foundations of evolutionary biology. Darwin convinced many people that evolution by natural selection was the key to the existence of complex adaptions. From his worldly travels he had gathered a vast wealth of evidence, from an impressive range of scientific disciplines, which clearly showed that humans, like all living things is the result of evolution, and was descended from some apelike ancestor, and certainly not the product of intelligent design.

Paley’s complacency and wrongheadedness are also well caught by Richard Dawkins, another biologist and contemporary of Darwin. In The Blind Watchmaker he explains how the watchmaker analogy is a self-refuting argument: if complex things must have been intelligently designed by something more complex than themselves, then anything posited as this complex designer, say God must also have been designed by something yet more complex. As Dawkins puts it: “Those people who leap from personal bafflement at a natural phenomenon straight to a hasty invocation of the supernatural are no better than the fools who see a conjuror bending a spoon and leap to the conclusion that it is ‘paranormal.’” The journalist, polemicist and author of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens is just as sceptical: “...creationism, or “intelligent design” (its only cleverness being found in this underhanded rebranding of itself) is not even a theory. In all its well-financed propaganda, it has never even attempted to show how one single piece of the natural world is explained better by ‘design’ than by evolutionary competition.”

A God filled or Godless universe?

Modern science tells is that our universe is not irreducibly complex. In other words, everything can be explained, or at least it will come to be, without having to resort to cosmological arguments or the illusion of some intelligent design by God. Granted that our universe and all life within it did not come about by chance, but this should not be taken to mean that purported improbability is evidence of design: all good scientific explanations to those who wait. In the words of a certain Indian man, who writes under the pen name “Ibn Warraq”: “Indeed, to explain everything in terms of God is precisely not to explain anything – it is to cut all inquiry dead, to stifle any intellectual curiosity, to kill any scientific progress.”

So, if after the copious amounts of glögi consumed towards the end of last year made you plan to follow the Christmas Star, or contemplate about the inner workings of your wrist watch, take the advice of Stephen Hawking: “Be curious.”

Dr. Gareth Rice