Existence: God and anything

Clinton Chisholm

Sunday, August 05, 2018

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You don't have to be schooled in philosophy to appreciate that one fundamental question in life is: Why is there anything here as opposed to just nothing?

If one is patient, or perhaps pride-filled enough to attempt an answer one will discover that if you concede that there is anything at all here — be it the whole universe or any other thing — one can always ask legitimately who or what caused that to be?

Once you begin asking such questions of any real thing you keep going back and back, but the buck will stop at one entity beyond which it is silly to go or ask the same question. In other words, in the realm of real existing things, at least one will qualify as 'the first cause' and as such is an eternal uncaused entity.

You cannot go backwards forever (to infinity) once something real is conceded as being here. You could do that, though, with imaginary numbers/series in mathematics.

The controversy in philosophy turns not on whether there is an uncaused first cause, but what qualifies as that first cause — the universe or some other entity.

For years the universe was seen by prominent scientists and philosophers as the first cause, the eternal entity. As Carl Sagan memorably quipped, “The cosmos is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be.” Cosmos, a Greek-derived English word, simply means world or universe.

Since 1913, when Astronomer Vesto Slipher accidentally discovered that a dozen galaxies near Earth were moving away from the Earth at very high speeds, ranging up to two million miles per hour, views about the status of the universe changed in science.

Slipher's findings were confirmed by Edwin Hubble in the late 1920s as he examined the celestial bodies via the hundred-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California.

This discovery of galaxies rapidly moving away from the Earth led to the realisation that the universe was expanding, which also meant that the universe had a beginning. It was not eternal after all; it too was caused into being by some other entity.

The late NASA scientist Robert Jastrow, who professed to be an agnostic, said in his book, God and the Astronomers, “Five independent lines of evidence — the motion of the galaxies, the discovery of the primordial fireball, the law of thermodynamics, the abundance of helium in the universe, and the life story of the stars — point to one conclusion: All indicate that the universe had a beginning.” (1992 edition, p 103)

The reaction to the Slipher/Hubble discovery and the implications of that discovery for the origin of the universe provoked some very odd reactions from scientists.

Albert Einstein, in a letter to one of his colleagues, said: “This circumstance [of an expanding universe] irritates me.” Trained scientists should remember that Einstein's theory of relativity implied an expanding universe, even though Einstein did not at first realize this.

Arthur Eddington, in 1931, said, “...the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me...the expanding universe is leaves me cold.”

Since the 1913 discovery by Slipher, and its confirmation by Hubble in the 1920s, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, in 1992, provided additional confirming information on the nature of the origin of the universe. The satellite discovered background radiation from the universe's origin (= Jastrow's primordial fireball).

George Smoot, project leader for the COBE satellite and joint winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, declared: “What we have found is evidence for the birth of the universe...If you're religious it's like looking at God.”

Mention of God by Smoot may smack of the unscientific, the nonsensically religious, but listen to Allan Sandage (winner of the Crafoord prize — astronomy's equivalent of the Nobel): “I find it quite improbable that [the order in the universe] came out of chaos. There has to be some organising principle. God to me is a mystery, but is the explanation for the miracle of existence; why there is something rather than nothing.” (cited in John Lennox, Gunning for God, 2011, p 35)

Here is Jastrow again, “A sound explanation may exist for the explosive birth of our universe; but if it does, science cannot find out what the explanation is. The scientist's pursuit of the past ends in the moment of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” ( God and the Astronomers, 106-107). Consider now views along the same vein from other prominent non-theists.

There is a most revealing statement from the famous British mathematician and astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle who originated the steady-state theory of the formation of the universe. In the 1981 book Evolution from Space, which he co-authored with fellow mathematician and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe, they admitted that though they were life-long atheists they were agreed that the high degree of order and specificity in the universe demanded pre-existing intelligence even to the limit of God.

Both men had calculated that the odds of life appearing by random processes was one chance in 1,040,000, so they chide scientists who try to evade the God-pointing nature of first life by saying, “The tactic is to argue that, although the chance of arriving at the biochemical system of life is…utterly minuscule, there is in nature such an enormous number of other chemical systems which could also support life that any old planet like Earth would inevitably arrive sooner or later at one or another of them. This argument is the veriest nonsense, and if it is to be imbibed at all it must be swallowed with a jorum of strong ale.” (p 28)

These scientists are suggesting that God is the inference to the best explanation of existence. God is the causal entity that is pointed to by the very structure of nature itself.

Mind you, as recently as 2010 in the book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow one central argument is that a law of nature (gravity) explains the existence of the universe thus leaving no room for God as creator.

John Lennox, professor of mathematics at Oxford University and a philosopher of science, chides Hawking and Mlodinow thus, “[Their] notion that a law of nature (gravity) explains the existence of the universe is also self-contradictory, since a law of nature, by definition, surely depends for its own existence on the prior existence of the nature it purports to describe… What this all goes to show is that nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists.” ( Gunning for God and Stephen Hawking, 2011, p 31, 32)

Given the nature/structure of the universe, an argument has been advanced that the first cause must be personal, but the argument is quite involved philosophically and is not capable of simplification by me for a general readership. (A summary of the argument from my former philosophy lecturer Professor William Lane Craig is available here

An excerpt, though, from Roy Varghese's fascinating 2003 book The Wonder of the World: A Journey from Modern Science to the Mind of God may prove helpful. He writes: “…The intelligence we observe at all levels of the universe, inanimate and animate, human and non-human, leads us to recognise that there is an infinite intelligence that is the source of all intelligence in the universe. Concurrently we recognise that infinite intelligence is not and cannot be sub-personal since it's simply incoherent to think that the personality and selfhood we experience for ourselves can come to be from a mere force field.” (p 129)

If there is warrant to the belief that anything exists then the inference to the best explanation of the origin of all contingent or non-eternal entities is that a personal and eternal God exists. The level of proof of God's existence should not be unreasonably lifted higher than the level of proof on which we all operate in law and in life in general, ie proof beyond reasonable doubt, proof based on a preponderance of evidence, proof to a high degree of probability.

It is too often forgotten that absolute proof is available in only one area of life or academic discipline, that is, pure mathematics.

Rev Clinton Chisholm is academic dean at Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. Send comments to the Observer or

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