The Quantum Thomist

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Wigner's Acquaintances

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 7: Laws, origins and miracles
Last modified on Sun Dec 20 21:46:42 2020


This is the seventh post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to review his third chapter, Cosmic Evidence.

This chapter discusses various issues concerning the origin of the universe. He talks about issues such as the second law of thermodynamics, the big bang, the Kalam cosmological argument, and the nature of the laws of physics.

This chapter obviously starts to move more towards my own area of research, and, indeed, Professor Stenger's home ground. (I should, however, point out that my specialism is in the standard model of particle physics rather than cosmology.) And it is certainly an interesting chapter, if a little more controversial than Professor Stenger makes it out to be in his writing. The first thing that I must point out is that the origin of the universe, and the other questions he addresses in this chapter, are among those areas of research where we have far more questions than definitive answers. It would require, at the very least, a theory of quantum gravity, which we don't have.

So I think that Professor Stenger is right in saying that those Christian apologists who rely on the universe having a beginning don't have a watertight scientific case. There are still too many unknowns there. Their case is, however, much stronger than it was before the work of Hubble, and that needs to be acknowledged. When the best theories stated that the universe was in a steady state, that posed a problem for the theist who believed in a moment of creation. Not an insurmountable problem, but definitely a problem. But now we know that the universe is not in a steady state, the pendulum hasn't completely swung round, as we shall see, but it is more in the theist's favour than it was.

Professor Stenger's arguments in this chapter do contain some good points. But, unfortunately, he mixes them in with a few statements that are irrelevant, and others which miss the point, and others which are just plain wrong.


Professor Stenger starts his chapter with a mention of miracles. I say mention, because he doesn't really discuss the subject in any detail. He gives a definition of a miracle that he claims is from Richard Swinburne -- that a miracle is a non-repeatable exception to a law of nature. This isn't a definition that I personally like to use, in part because it doesn't by itself clarify what is meant by a law of nature. What we don't want to do, as theists, is assume a mechanistic or empiricist understanding of the laws of nature. Not least because people have been discussing miracles long before mechanism or empiricism, in their modern forms, were fleshed out. I personally don't mention the laws of nature at all in my own definition of the miracle (An event which provides evidence that whatever explains the physical processes in the universe is not wholly impartial to mankind). The biblical terminology again makes no reference to the laws of nature: a miracle is a sign (that is, an event that points to God) or a wonder (that is an event that invokes amazement and awe).

Swinburne himself is, of course, a bit more careful than Professor Stenger's characterisation of him. In the work cited by Professor Stenger, he writes,

A historical event E may be an event of two very different kinds. It may be an event brought about by deterministic laws or allowed to occur by probabilistic laws, or it may be (in the sense yet to be clarified) really a 'violation' of natural laws.

Still, the (in these cases) undoubted fact that such world-changing, religious reforming, psychological-healing and converting events occur; and that (if there is a God) He has reason to bring these events about (whether via natural laws, or by setting them aside) provides a bit more evidence for the existence of God.

There are, however, certain events, the occurrence of which is normally disputed, which are such that if they occurred they would constitute a 'violation' (or 'quasi-violation') of laws of nature. On my preferred account of laws of nature, the substances-powers-and-liabilities account, 'laws of nature' are simply summaries of the powers and liabilities of substances that have the same powers and liabilities as other substances of the same kind. I now define a 'violation' of a law of nature as the occurrence of an event that is impossible, given the operation of the actual laws of nature; that is, it is something which could not happen if physical objects have the powers and liabilities that are summarised in laws of nature. (Swinburne, The existence of God, chapter 13.)

Later on, Swinburne defines a quasi-violation as applying for a probabilistic theory, i.e. if you have an event occurring which is sufficiently improbable given the laws of nature (and some other phenomena singling that event out).

In such a case, it is highly probable that E is an uncaused event of a non-repeatable kind, or that E is caused and its cause lies outside the system of natural laws, and so that E is what I shall cause a quasi-violation of natural laws.

I wouldn't claim myself to be in perfect agreement with Professor Swinburne, but it is clear that his definition of a miracle is more detailed than Professor Stenger suggests. We see that Professor Swinburne does hold a distinction between events that came about via laws of nature and those which are inconsistent with those laws. So far, he is in agreement with Professor Stenger. However, God is ultimately in control of both paths: God is perfectly capable of bringing out a desired effect by working through the laws of nature. Professor Stenger emphasised a miracle as being non-repeatable, and it is true that Professor Swinburne uses the phrase in his discussion (including in sections I haven't quoted). But being non-repeatable isn't essential to Professor Swinburne's definition. He lists two possibilities, either that it is uncaused and non-repeatable, or that it is caused by something outside the system of natural laws. Equally, Professor Swinburne's violation has a subtly different meaning to Professor Stenger's 'exception.' But, most importantly, Professor Stenger is an empiricist. As such, he will believe in a conjunction account of the laws of nature. Later on in this chapter, Professor Stenger states that the laws of nature are restrictions on the way that physicists may describe the behaviour of matter, not restrictions on how matter can behave. Professor Swinburne, on the other hand, believes that the laws are inherent in matter, and describe the normal powers and operations of that matter if it is left to itself. This distinction is crucial, because the sort of internal powers and tendencies that Professor Swinburne refers to only apply in the absence of activity from an external agent preventing their fulfilment. An apple has the tendency to fall to the ground, but it won't hit the ground if I catch it half way down. But my catching the apple does not negate its tendency. In a similar way, God's miraculous actions don't negate or lead to exceptions to the laws of nature, if those laws are thought of in terms of tendencies and powers. The tendencies and powers are still there, but they are just not realised because of God's actions.

This understanding of the laws of nature is crucial to understanding Professor Swinburne's account of miracles. If they are expressions of substantial powers, then there is nothing to stop God coming in and doing something different. To my mind, the different understandings of the nature of the laws of physics are crucial to the debate about the relationship between scientific law and miracles; whether they contradict each other or complement each other. Thus Professor Stenger makes the mistake of trying to take a respected theologian's definition of miracles, but then substituting into it his own definitions of key terms, which are contrary to those of the theologian. He unconsciously changes the meaning of the definition.

Professor Stenger only makes two further comments on miracles. Firstly, that scientists will make every effort to find a natural mechanism for any unusual event. There are various principles, such as the conservation of energy and momentum, which seem to be secure. Any violation of these laws might rightly be deemed a miracle. However, a little later he states that repeatable events will allow an natural description eventually. There seems to be a contradiction here within a few paragraphs. I agree with him that the conservation of energy and momentum are well established, being based on principles of symmetry and locality which are at the heart of our modern understanding of physics. So surely violations of these conservation laws would still count as miracles, even if they are repeated? Especially if they all point in the same direction, consistent with what God might have reasons to support? [As an aside, Professor Stenger in the context of this discussion also states that the laws of physics are basically unchanged since Newton's day. While I agree that special and general relativity can be thought of as refinements of Newtonian mechanics, that is not true for quantum physics. Quantum physics undermines the standard philosophical basis of Newtonian physics. It points us to an entirely different way of looking at the world. True, Newtonian physics emerges as a limit of the quantum theory. And equally true, it is still useful enough to be used in many circumstances. But the fundamental theory is not Newtonian, and that has profound implications on how we ought to think about the world.]

Professor Stenger's second comment concerning miracles is a mention of the work of David Hume. One paragraph.

Now, as philosopher David Hume pointed out centuries ago, many problems exist with the whole notion of miracles.

Of course, as many other philosophers have pointed out since that time, Hume's argument has even more problems associated with it, and ought not be taken seriously. Not that Professor Stenger will discuss that, or, I imagine, was even aware of those responses.

However, it is worth expounding on Hume's argument in a bit more detail. There is a sort of common sense objection to the miraculous, which goes like "I don't believe in miracles, because they are outside my usual experience. People making up fantasy stories is part of my experience. Thus if I hear a miracle story, it is far more likely to be a fantasy than an actual historical occurrence." What Hume did was to take this argument, and make it more rigorous.

Hume's main argument can be outlined as below

  1. A miracle is defined as a violation of the laws of nature by the divine.
  2. A law of nature is established by repeated observations of a similar sort of event. The more observations we have, the more probable it is that the law of nature applies.
  3. A miracle, being a violation of the law of nature, thus has the weight of evidence against it, and carries a large intrinsic improbability.
  4. A miracle should thus only be accepted if the evidence in its favour would be even more miraculous than the purported miracle.
  5. All evidence for miracles is based on human testimony, and no human testimony, even our own, is strong enough to meet that burden.
  6. Therefore we should not believe any accounts of miracles.
  7. Therefore there is no valid evidence that miracles occur.

My main criticism of this argument is over Hume's use of probability. Not that he uses the notion of probability; I don't believe it possible to formulate an argument of this sort without saying that things are probable or improbable. Everyone agrees that a miracle is a breakdown of the usual regularities. So you can't use the existence of those regularities to deductively disprove the possibility of the miracle. The person who believes the miracle will not disagree that E happens on occasions a, b, c, …. But that says nothing about the question in hand, which is whether or not something similar happened on occasion Z. And, of course, the proponent of the miraculous would be able to explain why something different happened at Z, namely that God had a reason to do things differently. So you cannot prove just based on what happens in all other circumstances that the miracle didn't occur. You cannot directly use one event alone, or even a sequence of events, to say what will or will not occur at another place and time. This is because the observations of the events themselves are isolated from each other, and have no connection to each other.

You can make predictions from a theoretical model. The model will both explain the existing data, and make predictions about other occasions which we haven't observed so carefully. We can judge whether or not models are correct from their agreement or disagreement with observed data. In this way, we can indirectly judge things about events we haven't observed or are questioning from those events we have observed. We use the events we have observed to establish a model, and we use that model to discuss the events we are questioning. The model is a crucial middle step, one which Hume neglects.

But you can never say with certainty (at least from experimental data alone) that one particular model is true. All you can do is say that it has a high probability to be true. So a deductive argument from observed events to rule out a miracle is impossible. But you can construct an argument from probability. So far, Hume is on the right track.

However, there is also a problem with arguments from probability. Any probability is conditional on the models used to calculate it. Probability is an expression of uncertainty, calculated from various premises. One of those premises is a model of some description. That model makes various predictions about what events occur in given circumstances. So, for example, if the model predicts that event E occurs on occasions a, b, c, …, then if we subsequently observe E to observer in those circumstances, then that provides evidence that the model is correct. On the other hand, if we observe not-E in those circumstances, then that provides strong evidence that the model is incorrect. There are, as always, complications. The models are unlikely to be perfectly precise in their predictions -- there is usually some theoretical uncertainty. And, of course, the experimental observations will also carry imprecision. So comparing theory with experiment is never a matter of drawing a line through a series of points, but of looking at the overlap between two different probability distributions. But this can still be done, and we can end up with a number describing how likely it is that we would observe that particular set of data if the model were correct. But we cannot turn that around to a statement of probability of what we are most interested in, whether the model is true given the data, without bringing in other assumptions. That's what we need if we are going to use the model to judge the evidence under question for the miracle. All we can do is use the data to compare between different models.

So we come to the problem that there are usually multiple models which can explain the data. If model 1 predicts that E occurs on occasions a, b, c, …, and model 2 also predicts that E occurs on those occasions (though they might make different predictions elsewhere), then clearly the data cannot distinguish between the two models.

Those who deny miracles construct a model of the workings of the universe which assumes that nature operates independently of God. Those who accept miracles construct a model of the workings of the universe which assumes that nature's operations are wholly dependent on God. Given God's rationality, in most circumstances the predictions of those two models will be the same. But the believer in miracles will still maintain that God is free to act differently in certain circumstances, if he is free to do so. In particular, the reason for God's seeming indifference to the fate of mankind is due to our sin and rebelling against God. We (as a species) don't want God to be constantly active working to protect people, because that would mean that we would also have to give up our transgressions of the moral law. All that pride and belief that we can make a better world by ourselves without God that we treasure so much. And, of course, there is the issue of divine justice. The pain we experience is a small sliver of what we deserve, as morally flawed agents. This state of affairs grieves God, but it remains the least bad option to let us get on with things until the inevitable disaster makes things so bad that God is compelled to intervene and put an end to it. And if this were all there was to the theists story, then the two models, the miracle-denier's and the miracle-accepter's, would be identical.

But the miracle-accepter will also say that God is not content to remain inactive in the face of evil. He will launch a rescue mission for humanity. Some people, in response to that rescue mission, will lay aside their prideful rebellion, for a moment, and submit to God's sovereignty. In these circumstances, it is to be expected that God will act in a way that seems to be exceptional (from the perspective of the miracle-denier's model), but which is fully in line with this deeper understanding of the miracle-accepter. God can, and might be expected to, do not-E in circumstance Z.

So the intrinsic probability we assign to the miracle will depend on our model of God's direction (or lack of direction) of the universe. If we assume that the laws of nature operate entirely independently of God, or there is no God, then we will say that, based on this model (which is backed-up by the other data and our religious assumption) then the probability of not-E occurring in circumstance Z is so small that no amount of testimony can justify us believing it, just as Hume argued. But if we take the other option, and say that God exists and actively directs the universe, then the probability of not-E occurring in circumstance Z might still be small, but not so small that it can overcome reliable, and independently attested, eye-witness testimony.

Hume's argument thus contains an additional, hidden assumption: that only those models which deny the possibility of the miraculous can be used to construct the intrinsic probability of the purported miracle. This assumption makes his argument circular and thus invalid.

Another problem with Hume's argument is that he gets things the wrong way round. Once we accept the model-dependence of his probabilities, it is clear that he is using theory to judge whether or not to accept evidence. If your evidence doesn't agree with your favourite theory, then throw away the evidence. A better approach is to let the evidence judge whether or not your theory is correct. So we should be using the evidence for the miraculous -- not the miracle itself, since any probability we give for the miracle having occurred will depend on the disputed question of which model is correct, but the recorded evidence of the miracle -- to judge between the two models. Suppose that the testimony clearly favours not-E, and the testimony is of good quality (for example, near-contemporary with the event, multiple independent testimony, and not-E explains not only the testimony itself, but the wider cultural situation and history in a way that E cannot). Suppose also that model 1 predicts E, and both model 1 and model 2 are equally consistent with all the background data (a, b, c, …), then that clearly means that the theistic model 2 should be preferred over the atheistic model 1. One doesn't need to establish that the miracle occurred for the existing evidence for the miracle to disfavour atheism.

I discuss this and other arguments against miracles in more detail here.

Cosmic origins

Until early in the twentieth century, there were strong indications that one or more miracles were required to create the universe. The universe currently contains a large amount of matter that is characterised by the physical quantity we define as mass. Before the twentieth century, it was believed that matter could neither be created nor destroyed, just changed from one type to another. So the very existence of matter seemed to be a miracle, a violation of the assumed law of conservation of mass that occurred just once -- at the creation.

Professor Stenger goes on to explain how this view changed with Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity, and the realisation that mass was another form of energy, and could thus be converted into other types of energy. I would personally add that it was not until people started to study relativistic quantum mechanics that this was observed in practice, but Professor Stenger is broadly correct here. Where he is incorrect is that before the twentieth century -- with the discovery of general relativity in 1915 and subsequently Hubble's observation of the expanding universe, it was generally believed that there was no scientific evidence for the creation of the universe. The only reason for opposing the steady state universe (aside from a few nagging doubts from the second law of thermodynamics) was from religious doctrine. So the atheists at the time wouldn't have asserted the need for a miracle at creation -- because they would have seen no need for a creation.

I also think that Professor Stenger was a bit unclear when he said that people believed that matter could be changed from one type to another. In the prevalent mechanical philosophy, this is only a half-truth. Compound substances were seen as being the sum of their parts. The differences between different substances was due to different arrangements of their parts, or different numbers. Rearrange the parts, maybe add some or take it away, and you can change from one compound substance to another. But the fundamental particles -- at that time thought to be electrons and nucleons -- were seen as indestructible.

It may, of course, also be thought that the realisation that mass can be converted to energy just moves the problem around a bit. We might no longer believe in the conservation of mass, but we still have the conservation of energy.

In principle, the creation hypothesis could be confirmed by the direct observation or theoretical requirement that the conservation of energy was violated 13.7 billion years ago at the start of the big bang.

Professor Stenger responds to this by observing that the negative gravitational potential energy exactly cancels out the positive energy of the matter. This is a standard claim, and I will offer the standard counter-argument. Firstly, gravitational potential energy is ill-defined in general relativity. In Newtonian gravity, gravity is a force, similar to electromagnetism, and potential energy as the work done to move a certain distance in that force (for a constant force along the direction of motion, work done is force times distance; more generally it is the integral of the force along the line of motion). But in general relativity, gravity is not caused by a force, but by a curvature of space time. To get a potential energy out of Einstein's field equation, you need to perform a low curvature approximation, which allows you to reconstruct Newton's theory. But the result you get is ambiguous. The second problem is that there are two definitions of energy used in contemporary physics - the stress energy tensor, used in both quantum theory and general relativity, and the eigenvalue of the Hamiltonian operator, which is just used in quantum theory. In classical physics (including general relativity), the energy defined by the stress energy tensor is conserved. However, in quantum physics it is not; only the energy defined via the Hamiltonian operator is conserved. To understand how gravity fits into that, we need a quantum theory of gravity, which, so far, we don't yet have.

So to claim that the gravitational energy precisely cancels out the energy of matter is rather bold; at best requiring a quantum theory of gravity to justify it, and at worst wrong.


Professor Stenger next discusses the second law of thermodynamics. At the centre of thermodynamics is the concept of entropy, which can be described as a measure of order or disorder in the system. The more technical definition is related to the number of ways you can arrange matter in the particular configuration you observe. For example, suppose we have a gas in a room. We divide up the room into a grid of small cubes. There are more gas molecules than cubes. Now suppose that we want to pile up all the gas molecules into one corner of the room. This would be a high order or low entropy state. There is only one way in which we can do that -- all the molecules have to go into the same small cube. On the other hand, if we spread the gas out over the entire room, there are a large number of possible configurations with a similar density per cube. This is a state of low order but high disorder.

The second law of thermodynamics states that in any physical interaction, entropy can never decrease (and increases when work is done). Entropy is also always positive. This means that if we extrapolate back from the observed state of medium entropy, we can expect a situation where the universe is as ordered as possible. That order, it seems, then has to be put into the universe. It cannot do so from a material cause, because physical interactions always increase entropy. So it has to be some supernatural cause?

Professor Stenger disagrees. He postulates (and I am not so sure why) that of the universe were created by God, it would be created in a highly ordered state (low entropy). If it arose from natural causes, then we can expect it to be in a state of high disorder (high entropy). However, the second law of thermodynamics seems to imply the opposite.

His answer to this is to use the expanding universe. In my example above with the gas and the room, I assumed that the room was a constant size. In the case of the universe, this analogy breaks down. The universe starts out as small as possible (which in this picture would correspond to a single cell), and then gradually grows. At the start, all the gas molecules will be stuck in a single cell, because there is nowhere else for them to go. Thus the universe is as disordered as it could be. Then, as the universe expands, more cells will become available. The gas will also expand into those cells, but not as fast as the cells become available. Thus, while entropy increases in its absolute value, the maximum possible entropy of the universe increases even faster. The fraction of the entropy to this maximum possible entropy decreases over time, so the universe has the appearance of becoming more ordered. Then when the universe expansion slows down, the disorder can again start to approach its maximum, creating the universe we see today.

It might not be immediately obvious what point Professor Stenger is trying to make. The second law of thermodynamics, when applied to theological arguments, such as the Kalam argument, is usually deployed to show that the universe has a beginning. Professor Stenger tries to evade its force by adopting a model where the universe has a beginning, or at least an initial singularity. He has proposed a start of the universe which is perfectly ordered (as well as being perfectly disordered). It seems to be exactly as the theist would have supposed.

Of course, there might be ways around this problem, if one asserts that the initial singularity is not the beginning. For example, if one has a bouncing universe, where the universe initially expands, and then collapses in on itself, only to expand again. Or we can suppose a situation where baby universes are continually being born and then expanding via inflation. Or Professor Stenger's preferred Hartle-Hawking model, where the universe arises from a transition from a universe with a Euclidean metric (or an imaginary time coordinate, and thus a timeless reality). I am not fully convinced that these postulates evade all forms of the second law (for example, it can be shown that all physical systems that satisfy locality and ergodicity will eventually tend to a state of statistical equilibrium, including models such as these). And, at the moment, all such ideas are only speculation.

But Professor Stenger's conclusion seems to be too strong,

In short, according to our best current cosmological understanding, our universe began with no structure or organisation, designed or otherwise. It was a state of chaos.

We are thus forced to conclude that the complex order we now observe could not have been the result of any initial design built into the universe at the so-called creation. The universe preserves no record of what went on before the big bang. The Creator, if he existed, left no imprint. Thus he might as well have been nonexistent.

There are several comments to make about this.

Firstly, the initial state that Professor Stenger proposes is equally as much as state of maximum possible order (it is both maximum possible order and maximum possible disorder). So it is difficult to see how you can draw conclusions one way or the other. It is true that there was no physical structure at the time. But there is the tendency to form structure. That's all the theist requires (while the atheist will be just as content with a universe which cannot form structure). The temperature in the early universe was sufficiently hot that nuclear and electromagnetic bonds could not form. You have a gas of (for all practical purposes) non-interacting quarks, gluons, photons and electrons. Then, as the universe expands a bit and things start to cool down, the quarks start to bind themselves together into protons and neutrons, and then electrons join in to form hydrogen atoms and subsequently hydrogen molecules, which then clump together into stars, and start to fuse together to form the heavier elements. So when Professor Stenger states that there is no structure in the universe at the start, he is correct.

But why is this an argument against a created universe?

Genesis 1:1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.

Without form means (in part) without any identifiable structure. The structure is then gradually put into the universe by God over the course of the chapter. So the Biblical picture is of a universe which began structureless, and then gradually saw the emergence of more and more complex structures. Equally, the ancient Greeks believed that the universe began in a primordial chaos, out of which the Titans emerged.

Professor Stenger's second mistake (although it is not original to him) is to conflict design with structure. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of purpose, or tendencies towards an end. What the theist claims is that God put into the universe the tendency towards the emergence of more and more complex structures, until eventually you obtain rational animals. That tendency is exhibited through secondary causes. Read further on in Genesis 1: the sun gives light; the earth brings forth vegetation, the vegetation produces seed according to its kind. There is a sense in which the material objects act, and continue to act, albeit at God's command, according to certain tendencies. It is in those tendencies -- written into the scientific laws that Professor Stenger relies on but does not understand theologically -- that the theist sees the imprint of God. Of course, Genesis 1 is not expressed in scientific language, but has a poetical construction which can be understood by both pre-scientific and post-scientific man. Its purposes include to teach us that God is the sole creator of all things, that the universe was not always existing and history is linear rather than circular, that all natural purposes proceed at God's command, and that the creation was initially good and very good (in preparation for the next chapters, where things start becoming bad). It also serves as an introduction to God. Obviously, if you are a young earth creationist, then the scientific case outlined by Professor Stenger might present a major challenge -- I will leave that to the young earth creationists to answer. But for those theists who are willing to read Genesis 1 appreciating its poetical and analogical structure, the Biblical picture is perfectly consistent with the history of the universe outlined by Professor Stenger.

The Kalam argument

Before the big bang theory was developed -- indeed, back to the time of Aristotle, the standard scientific picture of the universe was that it was (from a broad enough viewpoint) a steady state. This obviously is in contradiction to the Biblical text. It wasn't too big a problem for the theist, who could assert that God could create the universe in whatever state He pleased, including with the appearance of an infinite past age. The standard cosmological arguments (for example those of Aquinas) do not assume that the universe has a beginning, nor do they purport to demonstrate it. But, of course, there is one type of cosmological argument, what is now known as the Kalam argument, which does rely on the beginning of the universe.

But when it was scientifically shown that the steady state model was false, that there was, indeed, a beginning, it obviously caught the eye of the believers. Science had shifted, and the new picture was closer in line with Christian (and other theist) doctrine. The big bang model is not, by itself, proof of theism (unless the Kalam argument is successful). And, of course, science might shift back again towards favouring a steady state of a different sort. For that reason, the scientists should still continue to emphasise the Aristotelian arguments, which (in many respects) rely on fewer assumptions than the Kalam argument.

So now it is time for Professor Stenger to tackle the Kalam argument.

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

He presents arguments against both the first and second premises.

Against the first premise, he states that Craig takes the first premise to be self-evident, and equates this with the belief that it is self-evident that the world is flat. He then uses the example of spontaneous quantum events, such as an excited electron dropping down to a ground state and emitting a photon, or radioactive decay. He states that Craig's response to this to to say that there is probabilistic causality, where there isn't predetermination. Professor Stenger responds that this undermines the whole argument -- the cause of the universe could be accidental, non-predetermined and spontaneous. Professor Stenger then discusses quantum physics as a good treatment explaining these sort of causes, with only the widely rejected Bohm interpretation allowing the sort of deterministic cause that he thinks that the argument needs.

I think that in this Professor Stenger has misunderstood Professor Craig's response. Firstly, the idea of causality is a natural consequence of the idea that the universe is rational, i.e. that the present state of the universe depends on the past state of the universe. If you accept that premise, and I can't see how a scientists such as Professor Stenger can deny it, then some form of causality must be true.

First and foremost, the principle is rooted in the metaphysical intuition that something cannot come into being from nothing. For to come into existence without a cause of any sort is to come into being from nothing. To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quit following serious metaphysics and to resort to magic. Nobody sincerely believes that things, say, a horse or an Eskimo village, can just pop into being without a cause. If we make the universe an exception to [the principle of causality], we have got to think that the whole universe just appeared at some point in the past for no reason whatsoever. (Craig and Sinclair, the Kalam Cosmological argument, in the Blackwell companion to natural theology, edited by Craig and Moreland.)

In response to the idea of vacuum pair creation, Craig responds that a) the Bohm interpretation might be correct; 2) the quantum vacuum is not nothing, but "a sea of fluctuating energy endowed with a rich structure and subject to physical laws."

I haven't been able to find Professor Craig's specific response to the examples that Professor Stenger gives, or where he discusses non-predetermined causes (if anyone does have that reference, I would be delighted to see it so I can update this post). But the example Professor Craig does routinely provide -- that of vacuum pair creation, and his definition of the principle of causality in terms of the older principle that nothing comes from nothing do hint that his answer would be similar to mine (aside to the appeal to the possibility of Bohm's interpretation, and that I am uncertain that there is genuine vacuum pair creation, since in a Feynman diagram every particle anti-particle pair that affects the final amplitude arises from the decay of a photon, or gluon, or something else). It strikes me that Professor Stenger and Professor Craig mean different things when they use the word "cause". Professor Stenger seeks a determinate cause of event. Professor Craig, on the other hand, is thinking of the thing that something emerges from, pointing back to an existent thing of some sort. In the case of the vacuum pair creation, that thing is the quantum vacuum. In the case of the radioactive decay, that thing is the parent nucleus. In the case of the universe, that "thing" is God. And this sort of causality is precisely the sort that this and other forms of the cosmological argument need. Discussing things in these terms does not require finding deterministic causes of events.

I would add that the physical description shows that there is sometimes no natural cause of the quantum event. This does not prove that there is no cause; the cause could be a supernatural one (for example, a God who constantly sustains and guides the universe).

So Professor Stenger's objection to this part of the cosmological argument fails, because he incorrectly tries to apply his own understanding of causality to the argument, when Professor Craig means something else by the term.

Secondly, Professor Stenger challenges that the cause of the universe that terminates the Kalam argument might be natural. Of course, Professor Craig addresses that response. In the article referenced earlier, he constructs the properties such a cause must have. It must itself be uncaused. It must be without a beginning, and changeless absent the universe. Since it is changeless, it must be immaterial, since everything material exists within space and time, and is composed of incessantly changing atoms and molecules, and is thus subject to change. It must (at least in the absence of the universe) be timeless. It must be enormously powerful, since it brought about the universe. He goes further, for example by presenting arguments that the cause is personal, but this is sufficient to rebut the suggestion that the cause might be natural. I have recommended Augros' book, Who designed the designer? before, and I will do so again now, since it comprehensively answers this particular one of Professor Stenger's objections.

The origin of the universe

Professor Stenger's second response to the Kalam argument is that the argument that the universe has a beginning also fails. He discusses various ideas, such that our current universe appeared from a pre-existing one through a quantum fluctuation, the no-boundary model of Hartle and Hawking, and various other models which purport to explain how the universe could have emerged "from nothing" through natural processes. Of course, those papers don't demonstrate the universe coming from nothing. Any quantum transition is from an initial state to a final state, and if there is an initial state, there isn't nothing.

Professor Stenger admits that these possibilities are all speculative. But his point is that all that is required to cast doubt on the cosmological argument is that they be possibilities. The second premise of the Kalam argument will remain unproved, and consequently its conclusion is also unproved.

This doesn't, of course, completely undermine the Kalam argument. Professor Craig's argument is based on the best known physics -- the Hawking-Penrose theorem as applied to classical general relativity. The point is that while one can invent speculative theories to undermine the conclusion of this argument, you might still be able to argue that these responses are intrinsically unlikely. Surely what is known ought to be given more weight in our deliberations than what is unknown. Thus, while the conclusion of the Kalam argument might not be certain (because there might be these possible ways around it), you can still argue that it is highly probable.

In any case, Professor Craig responds to the various possibilities that Professor Stenger raises. For example, in response to the Hartle-Hawking model that Professor Stenger favours, after noting that Hawking proposed two contradictory explanations for his theory ("The universe would neither be created nor destroyed, it would just be;" and "The ground state is the probability for the universe to appear from nothing."), he replies

Recall that Gott and Li have criticised the creation ex nihilio approach on two grounds. (1) Transitions in QM are always between allowed classical states (Vilenkin and Hartle-Hawking's approach has a transition from a classically forbidden region to a classically allowed region). (2) The Vilenkin and Hartle-Hawking approaches should contain realistic energy fields (something closer to what we see in nature). If they did, then Heisenberg's uncertainty principle would require that the initial state of their models have a finite and nonzero energy. If that is the case, then semi-classical models actually start in a classically allowed meta-stable state, rather than nothing. (Craig and Sinclair, the Kalam Cosmological argument, in the Blackwell companion to natural theology, edited by Craig and Moreland.)

In this context, what Craig is actually referring to is the observation that the location and momentum operators don't commute rather than the uncertainty principle itself (although the observation is related to the uncertainty principle). The Hartle-Hawking model relies on scalar field, modelled by a Harmonic oscillator, whose energy is the sum of a term that depends on the momentum and a term that depends on the location of the field. Both of these energies can be zero, but they cannot be zero simultaneously, so the minimum energy of the field in total is going to be larger than zero.

So Craig states that there are three possible options which could be drawn from the Hartle-Hawking model. (i) The universe is created from nothing. (ii) The universe is neither created nor destroyed, but timelessly subsistent. (iii) The universe emerges from the decay of a meta-stable state. (i) implies a beginning of the universe (and the initial state is not nothing but something -- the laws of QM must exist in order to transform the state). (ii) relies on a notion of imaginary time, which is a useful mathematical trick (I have used it myself often enough), but doesn't make much sense in reality. (iii) relies on the decay of a meta-stable state, which, consequently, cannot extend infinitely into the past; again implying a moment of creation.

Do Professor Craig's responses hold up? It would have been nice to see Professor Stenger respond to them. I don't want to go into a long discussion myself here -- if nothing else, because I would have to remind myself of the details of the Hartle-Hawking model, which I haven't looked at for some time.

But Professor Stenger's response, just throwing these models out, is clearly inadequate. As Professor Craig argued, it is one thing constructing a model. It is quite another demonstrating that that model actually shows what you want it to, namely that the theorems demonstrating the beginning of the universe fail in the correct quantum theory of gravity.

Miracles in the cosmos

Professor Stenger next asks if we need to invoke God to explain astronomical events. He expects, since the theistic God is meant to intervene in the universe, and whatever imprint was put in at creation being wiped out by the chaos at the Planck time, that we should see signs of divine intervention either in observations or theory. He concludes that the universe is exactly as we would expect if there were no God. Of course, the universe is also exactly as we would expect if there was a theistic God whose activities are described by the laws of nature. Once again, Professor Stenger's problem is that he doesn't understand God's relationship to science in theism.

The laws of Physics

Professor Stenger's next topic is the laws of physics. His answer is "There is no reason why the laws of physics cannot come from within the universe itself."

Professor Stenger adopts an empiricist understanding of the laws of physics, where they are not restrictions on the behaviour of matter, but on the way physicists can describe that behaviour. This, however, strikes me as either being a false distinction or a meaningless one. The primary restriction on how physicists describe the behaviour of matter is experiment. Every theory we come up with needs to pass the experimental test before it can be accepted as anything beyond a wild and unsubstantiated guess. In other words, if the laws of physics constrain how physicists can describe the behaviour of matter, they must also describe how matter behaves.

In any case, Professor Stenger backs up his claim by appealing to the concept of symmetry. There is nothing wrong in that -- I do the same thing myself. Considering various symmetries, and ensuring that they apply to the action, is a fundamental part of how we construct theories in modern physics. But note that the symmetries apply to the action. This is a mathematical object, entirely abstract, which can be used to construct the Hamiltonian which guides the time evolution of quantum particles.

Professor Stenger's argument is that in order for any principle of physics to be objective and universal, it must be formulated in a way that it does not depend on the point of view of any observer. Thus no objective law can depend on a special moment in time, a location in space, or a particular inertial frame. For example, a formulation of physics where the earth is at the centre of the universe is not objective. These symmetries lead to conservation laws. The wider concept he calls point of view invariance. The mathematical formulation of any physical and objective models must reflect this point of view invariance (baring spontaneous symmetry breaking). This is quite restrictive on how those laws might be formulated.

So where did the laws of physics come from? They came from nothing! Most are statements composed by humans that follow from the symmetries of the void out of which the universe spontaneously arose. Rather than being handed down from above, like the Ten Commandments, they look exactly as they should look if they were not handed down from anywhere.

Thus we are justified in applying the conservation laws to the beginning of the big bang at the Planck time. At that time, as we saw earlier in this chapter, the universe had no structure. That meant that it had no distinguishable place, direction or time. In such a situation, the conservation laws apply.

Now, this is certainly not a commonly understood view. Normally we think of laws of physics as part of the structure of the universe. But here I am arguing that the three great conservation laws are not part of any structure. Rather they follow from the very lack of structure at the earliest moment.

So many errors in such a short passage.

  1. If the laws came from nothing, they could not have emerged from the universe itself, as Professor Stenger claimed at the start of his discussion.
  2. If there was a lack of structure at the earliest moment, then there must have been an earliest moment. This contradicts what Professor Stenger wrote in response to the Kalam argument concerning the universe not having an origin.
  3. At the Planck time, he claims that there is no preferred time. Since the lack of structure (from which he derives his symmetry laws) only applies at the one particular time, this is clearly contradictory. Note that Noether's theorem's derivation of the conservation of energy is derived from the assumption that the action is invariant under time translations.
  4. The symmetries apply to the action, not the void (whatever that is) or the structure (or lack of it) of substances in the universe. A lack of structure in the matter in the universe does not mean that there must be a lack of structure in the action.
  5. The objectivity of physics does not require that the action has these symmetries. It requires that results in different reference frames should be consistent with each other. It doesn't mean that you should have the laws of physics in different frames. It merely means that the laws of physics in each of those frames should be convertible to each other. For example, Newtonian physics is dependent on Galilean relativity. This has many of the symmetries of the standard model, but lacks the Lorentz symmetry between different inertial frames. There is nothing inconsistent in Galilean relativity. The universe could have been like that. It's not, but it could have been.

    Suppose, for example, that the action did not satisfy Lorentz symmetry. That would mean that you would have a different action in each inertial frame. If you perform the Lorentz transformation switching from one inertial frame to another, then the action would change. There would be different laws of physics in each frame. But there is nothing objectively wrong with that. In each frame, you would map all the events in space time to the appropriate coordinate system, and map out their progress using the laws of physics in that coordinate system. You would get some path f(x). In a different initial frame, you would have different coordinates, and a different law of physics. When written down in the new coordinates, the particles would seemingly follow a different mathematical trajectory, g(x'). But both systems would describe the same physical events. One can convert from one coordinate system to another, and discover that g(x') would be equivalent to f(x). Different laws, different coordinate systems, but the measurements would still be objective. And, no one inertial frame would be preferred over the others. They would all be equally good; just have different laws of nature.

    That the action should be invariant under the symmetries is a stronger condition than the premise that Professor Stenger adopts, namely that measurements should be objective. You can, for example, say that the action describes how something outside the space and time (which thus would have genuine point of view invariance) interacts with the universe. But this this implies theism, which Professor Stenger would reject. You could say that the laws of physics exist in some abstract realm, as a Platonic ideal. This view has other problems, and Professor Stenger explicitly rejects it. But Professor Stenger is trying to argue that the laws of nature arise from the universe itself -- and in this case demanding the invariance of the action goes too far. The only thing needed is the weaker restriction of consistency of the theoretical predictions.

    The issue that Professor Stenger faces is that the observed symmetries of the action are what you would expect if theism were true, but his empiricism cannot explain them. Even if you adopt an empiricist understanding of the laws of physics, you still need something beyond that to explain why the universe has these symmetries.

  6. Nor does Professor Stenger's approach explain why the universe obeys a least action (for classical physics) or path integral (for quantum physics) principle.
  7. It is a mistake to ask where the laws of physics come from. The language of coming from applies to objects in time, which can move around or be generated or corrupted in or out of existence. The laws of physics are a timeless abstraction. Of course, one can still seek to explain the laws of physics, and what they represent, but that explanation is going to be of a different sort than an answer to Where did that rabbit come from? This, admittedly, is just an objection to the language Professor Stenger uses more than what he is trying to say.
  8. It should also be clear that the laws of physics cannot emerge from the universe. Because they describe the universe. The question is "Why does matter behave in this way?" We want to answer by saying "Because the laws of physics tells it too." We then turn to asking what explains the laws of physics. If we explain that by saying, "They just emerge from the way that matter behaves," then we obviously haven't explained anything. If we adopt an empiricist understanding, where the laws of physics are instrumentalist and from our own conception or description of reality, then equally we haven't explained anything. The alternative is the more conventional view that the laws of physics are in some way external to matter.

Professor Stenger though, does correctly reject the ridiculous post-modern notion that the laws of physics are just cultural narratives, because they need to explain the data. However, he doesn't adequately explain why, on his understanding, this narrative should be rejected. He claims that the laws of physics are not, ultimately, a description of why that data is produced, but a reflection of our description of the data. There is the big question, which all empiricist understandings of the laws of nature face, of why matter should obey the laws if they are only restrictions on our modelling of the data. The post-modern notion is, I think, a quite reasonable response to Professor Stenger's ideas. And his appeal to the data to undermine it also undermines his understanding of what the laws of physics are.

Something rather than nothing?

Why is there something rather than nothing? Like most of his peers, Professor Stenger rather flails around for an answer to this. There are questions about what is meant by nothing, and the rather bizarre and nonsensical question of what nothing's properties are. He then throws out a variation of the "Who created God" argument in the form of "Why God rather than nothing?" The answer is, of course, that philosophers of religion have thought about the nature of that which exists timelessly outside the universe, as a "first" instance of something must satisfy, and concluded that it must resemble what we would all recognise as a theistic God. Why should nothing be the default position, he asks? First of all theists don't claim that nothing is the default position (since there is always God); but the main answer lies in the fact that all the material beings around us are contingent beings, i.e. dependent on something else for their existence.

Professor Stenger then proceeds to discuss how nature is self organising, and that complex structures can emerge from simple principles. Simple system of particles are often unstable and undergo spontaneous transitions to more complex substances of lower energy. But nothing is as simple as it gets, so nothing must be the most unstable thing of them all.

Obviously, this analogy is flawed. To say that something is simpler is to say that it is composed of fewer parts. So is nothing, being composed of no parts at all, the simplest thing? No, because nothing is not a thing. The simplest thing just has a single, unified, nature. The greatest simplicity is to be found in unity rather than in absence. Secondly, as Professor Stenger stated, the transitions are to states of lower energy. Nothing does not, indeed cannot by definition, carry any energy. Even if we posit that there is a background vacuum energy, nothing is not a quantum or other vacuum. If it carries energy, and capable of transferring that energy to another being, then it is something, not nothing. Nothingness, as traditionally understood, implies the absence of energy (which is even stronger than saying it has zero energy); you can't transition from an absence of energy to a lower energy state. Thirdly, all the examples of transitions he stated started with an initial state of something. There is a world of difference between this and starting with an initial state of nothingness. There is no transition in physics which goes from nothing to something.

He makes further remarks concerning the speculative no-boundary model of the universe, saying that there is a 60% chance of a transition from nothing to something. But, once again, he is not starting with nothing, and what does a 60% chance even mean in this context? It only makes sense if there are already rules in place acting on an initial state from which you can calculate that probability. But if there are rules and an initial state, then you don't have nothing.

So Professor Stenger, like many of his colleagues, doesn't seem to grasp the concept of nothingness. And that is not surprising. He is trying to use physics to analyse it, and, like Krauss, demand that it must be a physical concept. But physics is based on the mapping of existent objects or physical space time onto an abstract representation. Everything at one end of that mapping has to have something you can use as the basis of that representation. So physics, by its very construction, cannot study the concept of nothingness.


So, once again, Professor Stenger largely misses the mark. His objections to the Kalam argument have already been addressed by Professor Craig and his colleagues. Many of his proposals are based on speculative ideas. His brief discussion of miracles relies on Hume's argument, but fails to address the objections to it. He poses questions such as "Why God rather than nothing?" and ignores the various theological responses to that question. Those places where he does put together a reasonable argument, he doesn't show that it leads to his conclusions. And all this # is in his home territory of cosmology.

Next time: fine tuning arguments, and Professor Stenger's attempt to demonstrate that this universe is completely unfit for life.

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 8: Fine Tuning

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