Evidence-based faith – and the problem with infinities
About 40 years ago, I worked with CMF to promote Christian belief among medical students. In those days, few students claimed to be atheists. The majority were agnostic and my approach was to challenge them about the person of Jesus.
I too had been agnostic, veering at times towards the atheistic end of that spectrum. In that frame of mind, I read the New Testament, thinking that every educated person really should read these historical documents at least once.
I was quite perplexed by what I read and concluded that if the central thrust was true, agnosticism falls. I was being challenged head on by the person of Christ. If what he taught was true, then God must exist. I was far from convinced that it was true and over the next two years I read it again carefully twice more, before concluding that the central thesis withstood all the questioning I could throw at it.
For instance, I was struck by his saying, “I am the Light of the world”. Whether or not he said it, it was anyway written about him in 1st Century, so it must have seemed credible then. But 2000 years later, what brighter light can we find? None, I submit. He truly is the Light of the World. And many atheists seem to acknowledge this. Philip Pullman, for instance, is so enthusiastic about Jesus, he calls himself a “Jesusite.”
Forty years on and a professional life later, I am still persuaded that I came to the right conclusion and that my response to the New Testament was entirely right.
However, today Atheism has become a very intoxicating creed and few people will allow the New Testament any breathing space at all. However, in those 40 yrs, scientific discoveries have opened up for us an entirely different approach to thinking about Christian theism.
When I was 20, about the time I became a Christian, Cosmic Microwave Background radiation was discovered. I remember the furore it created because it was held to provide proof that the universe was expanding, having originated in an almighty explosion, of which the background radiation remains as the sort of residual flash from that big bang. This confirmed the observations of the astronomer Hubble in the 1920s that the galaxies were moving apart.
The phrase 'the big bang' was originally used by Fred Hoyle to highlight the contrast to his preferred view that the universe existed in a steady state – and always had done so. Now we knew it had a beginning.
The Cosmological Argument
In the 1970s, a philosophy student, William Craig was researching his PhD at the University of Birmingham on the implications of the universe being finite in the past. He explored the idea of actual infinites and concluded that while infinity was a useful mathematical idea, mathematicians argue that actual infinites do not exist. Here was a compelling philosophical reason for believing that the universe could not have experienced an infinite number of past events but must have had a finite beginning.
And there was another major scientific argument that the universe is finite in the past, and that is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We know that the energy within a system runs down unless it is constantly topped up. Since the 19th century, it has been realised that the universe cannot last forever. Whether or not the universe was in a steady state, the sun will eventually burn up and its energy will be dissipated throughout the system and will no longer be usable. The heat death of the universe is inevitable in the future.
That implies logically that the universe cannot have existed eternally in the past. If it had, it would have burned out long ago – in fact, an infinite time ago! This highlights the absurdity of actual infinites. The universe would have originated an infinite time ago, and burned out an infinite time ago however long it actually existed for in finite time. On the basis of the universe having now survived 13.75 billion years, we could say that infinity minus infinity = at least 13.75 billion years!! That is, of course, absurd.
With this growing philosophical and scientific evidence for a finite universe, Craig developed a deductive argument for the existence of God. Today, his Cosmological Argument, founded on premises which are supported by science, is the most written about philosophical argument for the existence of God. It is very simple and it goes like this:
Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
It is a well established scientific principle, which goes back to the ancients, that 'out of nothing, nothing comes'. Indeed, it is so fundamental a scientific idea, that if it was not true, the whole of science would be called into question. We could not be confident about the cause of anything, nor would we bother to look, if things could just pop into being without a cause. So this first premise looks very secure.
Premise 2: The Universe began to exist
Evidence that this happened some 13.7 billion years ago is now very well established and is overwhelmingly the consensus scientific view.
Now the point about a deductive argument is that it flows inevitably from its premises. If the premises are true, the conclusion has to follow as a matter of simple logic. So if you don't like the conclusion, you have to kick out one of the premises, which is why the Cosmological Argument has had such a profound and lasting impact.
Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The Universe began to exist
Conclusion: The Universe has a cause.
Now how do atheists respond to this? Let us consider briefly some responses to the first premise put forward by well-known scientists, who are atheists. (Note, they seem to concede the second premise.)
Stephen Hawking has tried to argue the universe originated out of nothing. But this is sleight of hand. Hawking argues that there were physical laws such as gravity as well as 'quantum' fluctuations which enabled it to happen.[i] He tries to confuse us by supposing that a vacuum, which contains fluctuating energy governed by physical laws and having a physical structure, is the same as nothing.
Atheist Oxford Professor of Chemistry, Peter Atkins, is scathing. “Absolutely nothing lacks laws just as it lacks everything else. Nothing has no properties and thus does not undergo quantum fluctuations,” he writes.[ii] So what is his solution?
Peter Atkins puts forward the idea that the universe created itself literally out of nothing, and argues therefore that the universe is ultimately nothing![iii] The question, however, remains: what is it now – nothing or something? And, if it is something, how did it get here? What was there in nothing to react with nothing to bring about something?
Daniel Dennett argues that the universe created itself, which he calls “the ultimate boot-strapping trick.”[iv] But the universe would have to exist already for it to create anything. You can't pull yourself up by your boot laces. It is a silly idea.
Richard Dawkins mocks scathingly that, if the universe needs a creator, then who created God? That old chestnut is the central argument in his book, The God Delusion[v]. “Who designed the designer?”
There is a lovely story about an Asian guru, who taught that the world is upheld upon the back of an elephant. But someone asked, “What does the elephant stand on?” “Oh,” replied the guru confidently, “The elephant stands on the back of a giant turtle. The questioner paused, and then asked, 'But what does the turtle stand on,'
“Ah,” replied the Guru, 'another turtle'. 'But surely…,' asked the pupil - but the Guru interjected. 'From then on, it is turtles all the way down.'
Dawkins, it seems, fails to understand this point about infinities. You cannot have an infinite number of turtles or an infinite regress of causes, such that a cause has a cause has a cause, going back infinitely. Somewhere you have to arrive at an uncaused first cause, what philosophers call 'a necessary cause.' There is a straight choice here between an infinite regress of causes or a necessary first cause. The scientific evidence is that the universe is finite. The Cosmological Argument therefore assumes that whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Now the cause of the big bang is clearly not part of the space-time universe which can be studied by science, because it existed before the universe. The cause of the universe therefore cannot be physical and it must be timeless. It must be enormously powerful, and being outside the universe, transcends time and space. As we shall see in a minute, there are very good, scientific reasons to believe this cause is also highly intelligent.
But there is more to it than that. This cause appears to have acted intentionally to bring the universe into existence. And the only things we know of which act intentionally are persons.
Now if you find this explanation to be problematic, you need to note that we are not bound in science to be able to explain explanations, otherwise we would have to provide infinite regresses of explanations. No. It is sufficient to settle for the best explanation – which is what we do the whole time. If you have ever found your home to have been ransacked and your valuables stolen, the explanation of burglary is usually true and sufficient. You may never be able to explain who did it, or how they got in or why they did it; but the explanation of burglary is none the less the best explanation to account for all the known observable facts.
In science, we know that Gravity is central to everything we observe. But who can adequately explain gravity?
So the Cosmological Argument drives us right back to a non-physical, transcendent, timeless, extremely powerful, intelligent, personal being as the best explanation behind the creation of the space-time universe - which is really what Augustine concluded 1600 years ago.
Now there are other good scientific reasons to believe God exists.
The Fine-Tuning of the Universe has only come to light in the past 15-20 years. It is seen by many atheists as the argument that worries them most. Today scientists have identified some 20 numbers that seem to have been set up at the very beginning of time, which if they had been the tiniest bit different, intelligent life could not have existed. As Stephen Hawking put it in A Brief History of Time,
The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life… It seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life. Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at their beauty.[vi]
Physicist Paul Davies estimated that for electromagnetism a change of only one part in 10 to the power of 40 would have spelled disaster for stars, like our sun, thereby precluding the existence of planets.
The gravitational force must be what it is for planets to have stable orbits around the sun. Otherwise if they had a greater force they would fall into the sun and burn up or if weaker, they would escape from their orbit into a very cold outer darkness. It is estimated that a change in gravity by only one part in 10 to the power of 100 would have prevented a life permitting universe. These are extraordinary numbers.
If the electric charge on an electron were only slightly different, stars would be unable to burn hydrogen and helium and produce the chemical elements such as carbon and oxygen that make up our bodies. Similarly, the orbit of electrons in atoms would not be stable, so matter as we know it would not exist.
Stephen Hawking wrote, “If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have re-collapsed before it ever reached its present size.”[vii]
Not only must each of these quantities be exquisitely fine tuned but their ratios to each other must be finely tuned. As William Craig writes, “Improbability is added to improbability until our minds are reeling in incomprehensible numbers.”
This fine-tuning has to be due either to physical necessity, chance or intentional design. There is no reason to suppose any physical necessity in determining these numbers and these astonishing odds confound any possibility of their being due to chance. Logically, they must therefore be due to design.
Now the apostle Paul wrote that God has revealed himself in three distinct ways: through the created world around us[viii], through the moral conscience within us[ix] and through the person of Christ who has entered our world to show us what God is like and what he wants of us.[x]We have looked here at the evidence of the created world around us. I haven't left enough time to present the moral argument, but I can refer you to my little booklet “The Greatest Person?” for a brief summary as to why I believe the evidence about Christ is so deeply compelling. Thank you very much for listening.
[i] S.Hawking & L. Mlodinow, The Grand Design, Bantam Press 2010, pp 131 & 180
[ii] P.Atkins, On Being, OUP 2011, p12
[iii] ibid, p13. Also see his debate with W.L.Craig : http:
[iv] D.Dennett, Breaking the Spell, Penguin Books 2007, p244
[v] R.Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, 2006, p158
[vi] S.Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Press, 1988. p125
[vii] ibid, p121
[viii] Letter to the Romans 1:20
[ix] ibid 2:14,15
[x]Letter to the Colossians 1:15-20
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