There are essentially two forms of the cosmological argument, one as a syllogism that I had written extensively on and then gotten bored with before my blogs were deleted, and an oversimplified question. The question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” which I will write briefly on soon, but I recommend you buy an eBook called Random Rationality which answers the question quite nicely. But for now I want to deal with the syllogism, which goes as follows:
Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: The universe began to exist
The conclusion follows from the premises, so are the premises true? I hope to show that they are, at the least, doubtful enough to be considered unreliable.
Everything that begins to exist has a cause
I’m going to throw in some Latin, right at the start. I’m not doing that to appear pompous or educated; I’m doing this just to be consistent with any further reading you choose to do on the issue. There are two types of “begin to exist”: ex materia and ex nihilo. One of these you and I know, and the other is a complete mystery.
You and I know of, and have observed (probably) creation ex materia. What this means is “creation from material” (as Word’s autocorrect won’t let me forget). This is the name of when you make something from something else. We can think of examples of this that we know need intent and intelligent intervention: making a chair from a tree; making a fork from steel that was made from iron that was made from iron ore; turning milk, eggs, flour and sugar into a cake; making a jigsaw picture out of the pieces. It basically means taking stuff that already existed and rearranging it.
But we can also think of examples that do not require an intelligent intervention: a tree growing from a seed; forming a volcano by tectonic processes; stalactites precipitating out of solution. These are all caused by a process, but the process is not guided by intelligence.
This is the creation you and I observe. And by itself it stands as a nice little argument in favour of the premise I am trying to rebut; we take all of our observations and intuitively extrapolate them beyond their application. Thus we conclude that when a thing begins to exist it has a cause. And if we never see the other type of creation, ex nihilo creation, what reasons have we to think we might be wrong?
You and I may not have observed creation ex nihilo, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Creation ex nihilo means created from nothing. And scientists have observed it. In fact, scientists have observed it enough for them to have figured out some basic laws on how it happens: high-energy particles that appear ex nihilo do not last for a long time and, inversely, low-energy particles that appear ex nihilo can last for a longer time; in virtual pairs each particle that appears ex nihilo appears alongside its antithesis (its opposite).
Observing these things, as I’m sure you are wondering, happens by proxy in phenomena like Hawking Radiation (how black holes dies), the Casimir effect and is even an underpinning principle in how light can vary in colour (by promoting electrons). All of these are evidence of ex nihilo creation, and they are all non-deterministic, statistical and random occurrences. Don’t worry if you are not comfortable with that, Einstein wasn’t either. If you want a simpler example of ex nihilo creation, consider your thoughts: they appear from nowhere, else they emerge from a neurological context which would make them determined by said context.
The first challenge to the premise
And so the concern is this: if the universe did come into creation ex nihilo all the things we know about that style of creation lead us to believe that it is uncaused. If the universe can into existence ex materia then there is no reason to belief that process required an intelligent intervention (although that’s a different argument).
The second challenge to the premise
Science and observation aside for one moment, read the premise again: “everything that begins to exist has a cause”. Does that sounds a little… contrived? If so, that’s because it is. Part of the power of this premise is the language game being played to hide a secondary premise: not everything that exists began to exist. And I simply do not see the need to accept that premise. It certainly flies in the face of everything we see: everything we observe to exist began to exist. So from our observation the hidden premise is simply false. Consider the premise our observation actually leads us to believe, and the implications that would have for a God: everything that exists began to exist.
This, interestingly, takes us into an infinite regress. If somehow you can conclude that a “god” made our universe you then have to concede that that “god” was made by a more powerful “god” and in turn the more powerful “god” was made by a yet more powerful “god”, and so on forever. Each “god” is not really God because each one has a more powerful creator. Nothing about asserting a Prime Mover solves this, because that simply begs the question (i.e. assumes a God) and hopes that reality conforms to preference.
The universe began to exist
As we’re playing language games, in for a penny in for a pound (in for a dime, in for a dollar; in for a cent in for a Euro. I don’t know how well that idiom translates): where the universe began to exist comes down to definitions. If, like me, you define the universe as a bubble of space and time then the evidence undoubtedly points to one thing: the universe began to exist (and its age has just been revised to be even older still*).
But what if you define the universe as “everything that exists”? Everything is a lot less clear then, because if you can think of one thing that exists independent of time then you have laid the groundwork for a universe to have always (word choice is based on the failure of language in this topic) existed. It you can think of a thing that exists independent of time then how can it be said to have ‘begun’ to exist? Things that might exist independent of time include “forces such as gravity” (according to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) or quantum fields and vacuums (according to Lawrence Krauss), and the “laws of logic” (according to presuppositional apologetics).
This doesn’t just question whether the universe ‘began’ to exist, but also challenges whether anything can begin to exist ex nihilo if something “always” exists.
The Universe has a cause
I may have gone full circle in this post and concluded the universe must either be eternal (if you define the universe as everything that exists) or to have come into creation ex materia (if the universe if the bubble of space and time and something could exist independent of that). As such the universe does not need a cause or its cause is a process from a ‘something’ that always existed, like a seed becoming a tree.
*that’s not strictly true. The age of the universe was given to be 13.74 billion years old, give or take 0.12 billion years. The Planck Telescope has given scientists observations to give a more exact number within that confidence interval: 13.82 billion years old