We left off last month with number three on the list of aspects of the cosmological argument “the limit of temporal regress.”
4. Why not an infinite temporal regress?
Why do we need to complicate the picture by insisting that the universe has had a beginning? Why not assume that the universe (or previous universes that collapsed and were “recycled”) has always been? Besides, if we do assume a specific beginning, and then invoke a non-material agent such as God as the causal agent, that leaves us trying to account for God, which seems much harder than just accounting for a physical universe. Maybe we’re better off assuming that time/space and matter/energy have always existed in some form. If so, this would mean that the chess game we used to demonstrate the idea of temporal regression had no first move, no starting point. Every position on the board could be explained in terms of the previous position, and such moves have occurred eternally. In terms of the universe, each state of affairs is explained by a previous state, and this has gone on eternally and infinitely, without a beginning.
Can you see why this arrangement can’t work? An infinite regress of finite events is impossible, and even if it were theoretically accepted, it would still lead to no explanation. Denying the possibility and/or efficacy of an infinite temporal regress is indeed a critical step in many cosmological arguments. I will briefly suggest three reasons for rejecting an infinite temporal regress to explain our universe.1
Infinity can’t be counted
Before we set out these reasons, we might want to remind ourselves that infinity is not just a big number, and eternity is not just a long time. When we call something “infinitely large” or “infinitely old” we’re not just saying that it’s too big or too old to measure. The stars represent infinity to the human mind (Gen. 15:6), but they are, in fact, finite, because they are countable. Infinite means “without limit.”An infinite number of stars, such as in an infinitely large universe, doesn’t just mean more stars than we can count or detect, it means that they have no end whatsoever; no matter how many we find, we haven’t even begun to come close to counting them, because there is no end, ever.
An extremely large number of something, such as the estimated 100 billion known galaxies, each with an average of 100 billion stars in the observable universe,2 is nowhere near infinity — it is, in fact, infinitely small compared to infinity. If stars are real and countable, then there must be a finite number of stars. An infinite number of stars would mean a universe of infinite size to accommodate them. The universe may have some sort of topography analogous to a sphere, wherein you can set off in one direction and end up again where you started. This configuration, however, makes a “closed” system, not an infinitely large one, and it would still have a finite number of stars and galaxies.
It’s a mistake to do mathematical operations with infinity. Adding to infinity is meaningless, like dividing by zero. Infinity plus one is still infinity, infinity times itself is no bigger — it’s still the same infinity. You can’t subtract from infinity, because you still have an infinite amount left. If you subtracted the visible universe from an infinite universe, it would be no smaller. The idea is therefore absurd. It is impossible to have an infinite number of actual items. We can count abstract numbers to infinity, but if we attach those numbers to real objects, we have quite a different proposition.
Three reasons to reject infinite regression
Now, back to the three reasons for rejecting an infinite regress of cosmological events accounting for the universe:
- An infinite regress has no first member. An infinite regress into the past can have, by definition, no first member. Imagine an infinite series of dominoes that fall upon each other, each one knocking down the next in line. This infinite series cannot have an origin, that is, the finger that flicks the first one to start the series. You can work back toward the beginning from the end, but you never get to the beginning, that is, the finger-flick that starts the series. If you do add the finger-flick, then you have a finite series, with an originating event of a different class than the falling dominoes. Sequenced motion is necessarily finite. An infinite series of falling dominoes is an absurdity.
- An original force is still necessary. What if we say that the universe is infinitely old, and therefore does not need an origin or creation? A regression that just keeps adding more events or members of the same class is analogous to adding more cars to a train. The caboose is pulled by the car in front of it, but even an infinity of cars won’t go anywhere without an engine. Even if our universe came from the remnants of a previous universe, we are no closer to an explanation of where it came from. Regressing our universe to a point even before its beginning, but still using physical matter, is just like adding more cars to a train, for we still lack an explanation of an original cause. Consider again the train example. The cars in a train represent what are known as contingent entities. That means that they have no cause (efficient cause) of motion in themselves. Their movement is dependent, or contingent, on the movement of the previous car. If we say that a train is infinitely long, in an attempt to represent an infinite universe, we only accrue contingent entities. What we need to get any train moving, whether it has a finite number or an infinite number of cars, is an engine. But if we have an infinite number of cars, then we never get to the engine, counting back from the caboose (which represents the last, or current state of the universe.)
- An infinitely old universe is a dead universe. If the universe were of infinite age, it would long ago have achieved maximum entropy, that is, a state of even distribution of matter and energy so that no further motion is possible. Actually, it’s absurd to say “long ago” with respect to an infinitely old universe, for the heat death would have occurred infinitely long ago. Hypothesizing cycles of universes doesn’t help either, for two reasons. One, we stated above: we still don’t have any explanation of the origin of matter/energy/space/time. Two, we still have to deal with known physical concepts that do govern the universe: the inevitable movement toward maximum entropy. The cycles would have to come to an end, and it would have happened an infinitely long time ago. The other main proposal is the idea of the phoenix universe—that the present state of expansion proceeds from a previous state of contraction . . . with the present era being one of an infinite number of cycles of expansion and contraction of the universe. This is a tempting idea, but as yet no firmly accepted physical mechanism for such an evolution is at hand, and it may be ruled out by entropy-density considerations.3 (italics mine)
A universe of infinite age is one of maximum entropy, and therefore contains no condensed energy source, such as a star.4 We do not have this state of affairs; we have many stars. Therefore, our universe tells us plainly that it originated at a finite time. The notion of an infinitely old, large, or recycled universe goes nowhere.
5. Something From Nothing and Other Options
To be a true atheist, you must believe that somehow the universe arose by means entirely contrary to any known mechanism, common sense, or experience. You have to believe that you can get something from nothing. But let’s look at what nothing really is — or isn’t.
Imagine a complete lack of anything whatsoever. Not a vacuum like outer space, which is full of sub-atomic particles, radiation, dark matter, and other “stuff,” but a complete absence of anything. In this vacuum there is an absolute void of any form, however exotic or tiny, of matter or energy. Moreover, not only is there nothing, there isn’t even a “place” for this nothing:
One is tempted to say, “Before then [the Big Bang] there was nothing,” but this nothing is quite inaccurate: as time has a beginning at that point, the very notion of events “before” the beginning of the universe is undefined: there was no before! Also, “nothing” tends to conjure up in one’s mind a picture of empty space, with nothing in it — but space is very much “something,” for space has dimension and extension. The nothing physicists have in mind here has none of these features — it is a much more complete nothing than empty space, for it is no space (or time) at all!5
Given this understanding of nothing, how in the world could any universe possibly arise? How in the universe could any world arise? If we have nothing, we will always have nothing, but we can’t really say “always,” because if we have nothing, we don’t have time, either. Any Big Bang or cycle of universes theory already presupposes the existence of space/time and energy/matter. To get from the nothing described above to any universe requires a non-material explanation.
6. Options to Describe the Origin of the Universe
We have four options from which we can select a plausible explanation of the universe, given nothingness as the starting point (recognizing the unique position that this “start” has at the beginning of time).
- A universe will not arise from nothing.
- Energy and matter are eternal; there is no possible complete absence of anything.
- Energy and matter do, in fact, spontaneously arise out of nothing.
- A universe will not arise unless some entity outside of the physical universe acts to create a universe out of nothing.
Number one is certainly consistent with what we know about the nature of matter and energy. We can’t get something when there is nothing at all to contribute to either the material or efficient cause of the universe. There would be no forces to create any change, and no matter on which any force could act. We are without both the basic intrinsic (material) causal property and also the basic extrinsic (efficient) causal property. However, option one is contrary to experience, as the universe does indeed exist. Therefore we reject the first option.
Likewise we reject number three: it is absurd and contrary to all theory and experience. We have stated several times the impossibility of something from truly nothing. If it were the nature of matter and energy to just appear out of nowhere, without any material or efficient cause whatsoever, we would certainly live in a universe far stranger than the well-behaved one we inhabit. The sun could disappear at any moment, for if it is the nature of matter to just appear, then it would be the nature of matter to just disappear, also.
How about number two? Is it possible that matter is just there, always has been, always will be? Is the universe just a given? We have already snuffed out this idea with the observation that if the universe were of infinite age, it would have infinitely long ago suffered the heat death, that is, a completely uniform distribution of matter and energy that admits no further change or movement. We cannot have, at least by any rational or experiential assessment, an infinitely old universe, one without a beginning.
I should distinguish here between two positions: one says that the universe is infinitely old, the other says that the universe just is, and has no and needs no explanation. The latter is really a case of the former without using the phrase of “infinite age.” It is implied, however, for if the universe is not of infinite age, that means it did have a beginning, and if it came into existence, then it had a cause for its coming into existence, and therefore, an explanation. So we can’t take the dodge “there is no explanation, it just is” seriously at all. To accept it as true means rejecting everything we know about the behavior of nature. Number three is a very poor choice indeed.
That leaves us with a finite universe, one that does have a beginning, and therefore a cause, and therefore an explanation. For reasons other than the impossibility of a universe of infinite age, it is the virtual unanimous agreement among all parties, religious and secular, that our universe had a definite beginning at a measurable time in the past. The universe must have an explanation for its existence.
But what could be the cause of the universe if contained within the universe is all time, space, energy, and matter? It must be a cause that extends beyond all physical parameters; therefore, an “outside” cause is nominated. The universe cannot be self-originating, for then it would exist before it existed; it must have a cause that is independent of space/time and energy/matter. This cause is therefore eternal, immaterial, and unbounded in power.6
7. Mechanical and Personal Causation
As a first step in identifying the cause of the universe, let us distinguish between mechanical and personal causation.7In the former, when the forces (efficient cause) and matter (material cause) necessary to achieve an effect are present, the effect will happen by nature, immediately. For instance, as soon as enough energy is applied to a stationary object as to overcome inertial mass and friction, motion results instantaneously and necessarily. There is no “choice” whether or not the mass will move. However, the application of the force to the mass could be a voluntary process, at the desire of a personal agent, one with a final cause in mind.
A personal causal agent brings volition into the equation. If we have a universe with a specific point of origin, we must ask: Did this arise by mechanical cause or personal cause? If mechanical, we are back to the point where we ask, “Where did the force and materials come from that made the universe arise?” If, at the beginning, we had the true “nothing” described earlier, there could be no such forces or materials to achieve a result.
There is more in this argument. If the cause were eternal but only mechanical, such as the vague “cosmic force” that some scientists rely upon when they come to the end of their materialist rope, then the effect (a formed universe) would also be of infinite age, for the universe would occur simultaneously with the causal force; the universe would be of infinite age, which we have already demonstrated as impossible. Only a personal, atemporal (eternal) causal agent can create a universe where time begins. Because the universe is of finite age, and God is eternal, therefore, God chose at a certain “time” to create it, that is, it was a volitional, not a mechanical necessity that created the universe. This is not to say that God did not use physical means; it is to say that He created those physical means ex nihilo and by His volition alone.
The first state of the universe cannot have a scientific [mechanical] explanation, since there is nothing before it, and therefore it can be accounted for only in terms of personal explanation . . .The personhood of the cause of the universe is implied by its timelessness and immateriality, since the only known entities we know of which can possess such properties are either minds or abstract objects, and abstract objects do not stand in causal relation. Therefore, the transcendent cause of the origin of the universe must be on the order of mind…
If the cause of the origin of the universe were an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, it would be impossible for the cause to exist without its effect. The only way for the cause to be timeless and changeless but for its effect to originate anew a finite time ago is for the cause to be a personal agent who freely chooses to bring about an effect without antecedent determining conditions.
Therefore, an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
Thus, we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator. He is, as Leibniz maintained, the Sufficient Reason why anything exists rather than nothing.8
Only if a personal God exists can we account for three fundamental facts of the universe: (1) it contains matter/energy and space/time; (2) prior to its existence, no matter/energy or space/time existed, and (3) it began at a specific point in space/time.
Finally, when we have a personal cause, we can ask, “Why?” This is the question of final cause, the purpose for which God created the universe. As noted in the previous article, we may have several valid responses, but it’s a question that can’t even be asked under the regime of purely mechanical causation.
8. Is God Explainable?
So we come to a dilemma stated at the beginning of this article: either we propose that the universe is just there and somehow the cause of itself, which is against all reason and science, or accept the inevitable, but even harder to comprehend alternative, that God created the universe. If we can’t come up with a rational explanation of the physical universe, how can we formulate an explanation of a transcendent God?
We can’t, but that’s the good news. If God were explainable, then God wouldn’t be God at all. God must lie beyond our apprehension and explanation, but yet be manifested in the physical world of creation. Further, not only must God exist, but God must also be of infinite power, goodness, intelligence, and every possible capacity, for if such were not the case, we would have to explain that deficit. A personal God of all perfections is the only possible God. This is the only being that can truly be said to be uncaused, and necessarily unexplainable. Yes, God is unexplainable, and that’s exactly what we want. An unexplainable transcendent being is far easier to accept than an unexplainable material universe. To know that the evidence of the physical universe leads us to the necessary conclusion of an unexplainable God is indeed a comforting thought, though it might challenge our thinking.
The cosmological argument is indeed sort of a “back door”approach to theism, an argument by default. We can easily show that the universe cannot create itself, and requires an agent external to it for its causation, but this does not specifically require that we accept traditional theism. The candidates, however, for such a position, seem to be limited to one entity, the God whom we worship as our Father in heaven.
It is, after all, that simple. Something exists; therefore God exists.
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made (Rom.1:20).
David Levin, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1. Two book chapters by William Lane Craig give thorough evaluations of certain aspects of infinite temporal regression. Either of these will be helpful: “The Cosmological Argument” in The Rationality of Theism, Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 292 p., and “The Kalam Cosmological Argument” in William Lane Craig, ed., The Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002), 634 p.
2. The observable universe is the distance described by the speed of light times the assumed age of the universe. Light from stars beyond that distance (1027km) hasn’t had the time to reach us yet.
3. Nancy Murphey and George Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p.47.
4. Lawrence M. Kraus and Glenn D. Starkmann, “The Fate of Life in the Universe.” Scientific American Special Report, 2000. This article, a hubristic fabulation of science fiction, proposes a time line for the life span for the universe, and the absurd hope that somehow intelligent life will evolve sufficiently to manufacture immortality before the universe reaches the heat death.
5. Murphey and Ellis, p.46-47.
6. The following correlation is possibly not coincidental: the first five words of the Bible are beginning (time), God (cause), created (force), heavens (space), and earth (matter).
7. This idea is advanced by Richard Swinburne in The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1991), p.126.
8. Craig, The Rationality of Theism, p. 129.
Next: The Pensées of Blaise Pascal.