The Fundamental Mistake Plaguing Both Sides of the Cosmological Argument

In what has become a famous address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in November 1951, Pope Pius XII claimed that “true science discovers God in an ever-increasing degree—as though God were waiting behind every door opened by science.” Even though philosophical arguments for the existence of God draw their probative force from the power of human reason, they depend, the pope noted, on the “concrete realities established by the senses and by science.” The pope observed that the experience of the ancients provided human reason with sufficient arguments to demonstrate the existence of God, yet now with the great expansion of our knowledge of nature “the vestiges of the Eternal One are discernible in the visible world in an ever more striking and clearer light.”

Offering a tour d’horizon of the natural sciences, as they existed in the post-Second World War world, Pius emphasized two topics: 1) the mutability of things, including their origin and their end; and 2) the teleological order “which stands out in every corner of the cosmos.” As the pope noted, these topics concern the first and fifth of Thomas Aquinas’s famous five proofs for the existence of God.

The pope pointed out that modern physics has discovered levels of mutability in the universe not dreamt of before—both on the level of the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Thus physics has provided a multiplicity of empirical facts which are of tremendous assistance to philosophical reasoning. We say “assistance,” because the very direction of these same transformations, precisely in view of the certainty afforded by physics, seems to us to surpass the value of a mere confirmation and acquires almost the structure and dignity of a physical argument which is in great part new, and more acceptable, persuasive, and welcome to many minds.

The pope argued that science has broadened and deepened the empirical foundation on which such arguments rest: from the mutability of the world to “the existence of an Ens a se [Being in itself], immutable by His very nature.” These arguments, first of all in the philosophy of nature, reiterate the traditional Catholic position that human reason can know with certainty that God exists. Already in 1870 the First Vatican Council had formally reaffirmed this teaching.

What has attracted attention, however, is the pope’s reference to cosmology and the question of the origin and development of the universe. He explicitly cited the discoveries of Edwin Hubble that point to an expanding universe of finite age. At the time, there was considerable scientific debate about what the Belgian priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaître called a “primeval atom,” from which the universe expanded, and about claims of a “steady-state” universe, without a beginning, supported by cosmologists such as Fred Hoyle. Indeed, it was Hoyle who provided, somewhat derisively, the term “big bang” for the cosmology the pope was citing. Although Lemaître was careful to distinguish between his understanding of a beginning to the universe and the doctrine of creation, the pope drew a conclusion concerning the new theory and the Christian doctrine of creation:

It would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial “Fiat lux” uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation . . . Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, it has confirmed the contingency of the universe and the well-founded deductions as to the epoch when the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence creation took place in time. Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!

The pope did qualify his enthusiasm for the philosophical and theological implications of a universe expanding from a primordial state:

It is quite true that the facts established up to the present time are not an absolute proof of creation in time, as are the proofs drawn from metaphysics and Revelation in what concerns simple creation or those founded in Revelation if there be question of creation in time. The pertinent facts of the natural sciences, to which We have referred, are awaiting still further research and confirmation, and the theories founded on them are in need of further development and proof before they can provide a sure foundation for arguments, which of themselves, are outside the proper sphere of the natural sciences.

These words ought to remind us that the pope did not claim that the new cosmology in fact provided a scientific proof for the absolute beginning of the universe—and hence a cosmological confirmation of creation. Nevertheless, the pope was suggesting some kind of correlation between Big Bang cosmology and creation. The pope’s affirmation of such a correlation continues to be widely accepted among those who think that Big Bang cosmology points to the conclusion that the universe is created. Indeed, many cosmologists in the 1950s and early 1960s were reluctant to accept the Big Bang theory because if the universe were thought to have such a beginning then the initial conditions would have to be in some sense accidental, that is, not included within the framework of the natural sciences. The initial conditions, thus, would have to have a source beyond the explanatory domain of the natural sciences: a source that some thought must mean God. Cosmologists in the Soviet Union, well into the 1960s, were forbidden to teach Big Bang Cosmology, since authorities deemed it to be “theistic science.”  

There continues to be considerable confusion in the arguments both of those who use cosmology to affirm that the universe is created and of those who claim that cosmology shows us that the world is not created. Cosmological apologetics sometimes leads to an affirmation of a Creator and at other times to a denial of a Creator.

A simple syllogism summarizes the correlation frequently affirmed between contemporary cosmology and creation. Whatever begins has a cause. Big Bang cosmology tells us that the universe has a beginning. Therefore, the universe as a whole has a cause; that is, it is created. The syllogism seems simple enough, and it is attractive to many who think that cosmology offers a powerful argument for the universe’s being created. Yet, other cosmological theories speak of our universe as emerging from a primal vacuum without a cause, or of an eternal series of big bangs, or of our universe’s being only one in a vast multiverse. This leads to an opposite conclusion: there is no need for a Creator.

On the one hand, it seems obvious to many that if the universe has a beginning, then it must be created; on the other hand, a universe without a beginning is not created—it simply is. Thus, reflecting about the philosophical and theological implications of contemporary cosmology sometimes leads to an affirmation of a Creator and at other times to a denial of a Creator.

The Error of Beginnings

Despite their disagreement, those who think modern cosmology shows us that there is a Creator and those who believe it renders such a belief superfluous share similar views about the nature of creation and the origin of the universe. Both link “being created” with “having a beginning.” If creation necessarily means that the universe has a beginning, then an eternal universe (one without a temporal beginning) of course could not have been created. In such a scenario, whether we accept or reject the existence of a Creator comes down to whether modern cosmology tells us that the universe has a beginning—as in the original Big Bang theory—or not. Both sides assume that cosmology can tell us something about whether or not the universe is created.

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow tell us: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God . . . to set the Universe going.” The fundamental point is that there is no need for a Creator since science offers a more compelling account of the origin of the universe than does any appeal to a Creator. Using insights from quantum mechanics, Hawking and Mlodinow think that space and energy—the primary components of the universe—were, as they put it, “spontaneously created out of nothing.” Neil Turok and Paul Steinhardt developed a cosmological model in which the birth of the present universe is the result of a collision of enormous three-dimensional membranes.

The universe they describe is an endless cycle of universes in collision with other universes. Turok notes that this model is philosophically very appealing, “Time is infinite, space is infinite, and they have always been here . . . It is exactly what the steady-state-universe people wanted. Our model realizes their goal.” Writing in The Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang, Turok and Steinhardt claim that “the big bang is not the beginning of space and time, but, rather, an event that is, in principle, fully describable using physical laws. Nor does the big bang happen only once. Instead the universe undergoes cycles of evolution.” In a similar vein, Roger Penrose, the Oxford mathematician and physicist who won the 2020 Nobel Prize, has proposed what he calls Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, according to which “the universe consists of a (perhaps infinite) succession of aeons, where each aeon originates with its own big bang.”

Traditional Big Bang cosmology, without the variations suggested above, affirms a singularity, or starting point for our universe: a point beyond the categories of space and time, and beyond the explanatory realm of physics. This theory may appear to provide a kind of scientific confirmation for the traditional doctrine of creation. If there were a Big Bang, so this argument contends, then the universe began to be, and thus there must be a Creator who caused the universe to begin to be. For Christians, the traditional reading of the Book of Genesis—reiterated in the Catholic tradition by the solemn pronouncement of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215)—is that the opening words of the Bible, “In the beginning,” mean that the universe is temporally finite. In other words, the world and time began to be as the result of God’s creative word.

By contrast, Hawking and Mlodinow argue that just as the universe has no edge, so there is no boundary, no beginning to time. Therefore, to ask what happened before the beginning—or even at the beginning—would be meaningless:

In the early universe—when the universe was small enough to be governed by both general relativity and quantum theory—there were effectively four dimensions of space and none of time. That means that when we speak of the “beginning” of the universe, we are skirting the subtle issue that as we look backward toward the very early universe, time as we know it does not exist! We must accept that our usual ideas of space and time do not apply to the very early universe.

Another cosmologist, Alexander Vilenkin thinks that the universe has a beginning, but he denies that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. Quantum mechanics offers an explanation of a beginning without any need for a cause. Vilenkin, famous for contributing to the development of an inflationary model of an expanding universe, claims that “modern physics can describe the emergence of the universe as a physical process that does not require a cause.” He claims that,

What causes the universe to pop out of nothing? No cause is needed. If you have a radioactive atom, it will decay, and quantum mechanics gives the decay probability in a given interval of time, say, a minute. There is no reason why the atom decayed at this particular moment and not another. The process is completely random. No cause is needed for the quantum creation of the universe.

In keeping with such challenges to the notion that the universe itself must have a cause, the physicist Sean Carroll says that “‘Causation,’ is . . . a derived notion rather than a fundamental one, [and] is best thought of as acting within individual theories that rely on the concept.” As he puts it in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, the notion of cause is not “the right vocabulary to use when thinking about how the universe works at a deep level.” Furthermore, causal sequences can only apply to events within the universe and not with respect to the universe as a whole. As Ed Feser and others have pointed out, Carroll confuses one kind of causality with a much richer and broader notion of cause.

The first type of causality posits a special relationship between temporally separated events (event A caused event B). The second type of causality is that something depends for its very existence, as it exists—or is “caused by”—something else. The latter need not involve any temporal sequence. In rejecting the application of temporal causality to the question of the cause of the universe, he mistakenly thinks that he has shown the falsity of traditional arguments for a cause of existence as such—that is, for an Uncaused Cause of the entire universe and everything in it.

The relationship between the temporal finitude of the universe and the idea that it is created has been developed by Protestant philosopher William Lane Craig and, more recently, the Jesuit theologian and cosmologist, Robert J. Spitzer. In New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Spitzer makes the following argument: Modern physics shows that the past history of the universe is finite; since the universe’s past is finite, it must have a beginning; therefore the universe must have been created. In fact, there are two related arguments here, one philosophical, the other scientific.

The philosophical argument claims that were the universe to have no beginning, it would follow that the number of days and events in the universe’s past is infinite. But, as this argument goes, the actual existence of such an infinity is impossible. Therefore, the past must be temporally finite and the universe had to have a beginning. Variations of this objection to an eternal universe point out that if one were to select a day infinitely distant in the past it would not be possible to arrive at the present day since it is not possible to traverse an infinite distance (either of spatial or temporal dimension).

Arguments about the impossibility of an eternal universe are not new; they are found, for instance, most notably in some Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages. Although still attractive in some quarters today, they presuppose questionable notions about the nature of the past and were for that reason rejected by other thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, it is instructive that Aristotle argued for the impossibility of an actual infinity and also thought that the universe is eternal.

The scientific argument concerns some contemporary cosmologists’ claims about the beginning of an expanding universe, described, for example, in traditional Big Bang cosmology. Spitzer finds Alexander Vilenkin’s more recent arguments for why the universe must have a beginning compelling, but he rejects Vilenkin’s claim that the beginning of the universe does not need a cause.

If we leave aside broad philosophical questions about the nature of causality and infinity, we can see that an important feature of this debate is about whether or not cosmology discloses a beginning of the universe. Stephen Hawking denies the intelligibility of such a notion, while others make various arguments for an eternal universe. William Lane Craig and Robert Spitzer claim that cosmology does indeed point to a beginning. Framed in such terms, the debate leads either to the rejection or to the affirmation of the idea of creation. So, despite important disagreements, including over what contemporary cosmology tells us, all these views tend to identify the idea of creation with the idea that the universe has a temporal beginning. This emphasis on beginnings points to an underlying confusion about the nature of creation. I would call this the “error of beginnings,” which leads to all sorts of other philosophical and theological errors.

Understanding Creation: Philosophy and Theology  

The use of cosmology either to deny or to affirm creation is often the result of confusions about what creation is and about the explanatory power of the natural sciences. Creation, as a metaphysical and theological notion, affirms that all that exists, in whatever way it does, depends upon God as a cause. The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things, from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes.

Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they are still processes. Creation, on the other hand, is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is not a process or a change. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “over and above the mode of becoming by which something comes to be through change or motion, there must be a mode of becoming or origin of things without any mutation or motion, through the influx of being.” And, as he says, “creation is not a change, but the very dependency of the created act of being upon the principle from which it is produced.”

To be the complete cause of something’s existence is not to produce a change in that thing; it is not to work on or with some preexisting material. When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating the universe. So, there is no change from a prior state (“nothingness”) to existence (“something”), since, prior to creation, there is nothing to undergo change.

Cosmology, like all the other natural sciences, offers accounts of change, but it does not address the metaphysical and theological questions of creation. The natural sciences do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing. So, it is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to deny creation—this is precisely the mistake that Stephen Hawking and others make—just as it is a mistake to appeal to cosmology as a confirmation of creation. Reason can lead to knowledge of the Creator, but the path to such knowledge is metaphysics, not the natural sciences.

One might think that controversies about the origin of the universe are new, stemming from modern cosmology. But, in fact, one of the great intellectual debates in the Middle Ages—in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—involved the examination of arguments inherited from ancient philosophy about whether or not the world is eternal, that is, whether the world had or did not have a beginning. It seemed clear to many medieval thinkers that an affirmation of an eternal universe contradicted their belief that God created the world. Their reasoning was that for the world to be created it could not be eternal. Both Albert the Great and Bonaventure, for example, thought that to be created out-of-nothing had to mean after nothing in the sense that there had to be a temporal beginning for any created effect, including the universe as a whole.

Yet, from his earliest to his last writings on the subject, Thomas Aquinas maintained that it is possible for there to be an eternal, created universe. Aquinas, adhering to traditional Christian doctrine, believed that the universe is not eternal. But he thought that God could have created a universe that is eternal. Although reason affirms the intelligibility of an eternal, created universe, Aquinas thought that reason alone leaves the question of whether or not the universe is eternal unresolved. Aquinas saw more clearly than his teacher, Albert, or his colleague at the University of Paris, Bonaventure, that the kind of causality involved in creation did not require a change in terms of a temporal sense of before and after.

When speaking about the origin of the universe, understood as an act of creation out of nothing, Aquinas observes that there are two complementary of what creation (i.e., God’s creative act) means: one philosophical, the other theological. The philosophical sense means that God brings all things into existence through his causal agency. This philosophical sense of creation has two essential elements. First, there is no material cause in creation—no “stuff” whatsoever out of which God makes the world. Second, the creature is completely dependent, throughout its entire duration, upon the constant causality of the Creator.

This philosophical understanding of creation is the sense in which creation out of nothing is a subject of metaphysics, since it concerns the complete dependence of all that exists on a transcendent cause. In particular, in speaking of the need for a fundamental cause of existence, Aquinas is working within a rich Aristotelian tradition of causal analysis. He broadens Aristotle’s notion of causation to include the idea that being or existence itself has a cause. Rather than thinking of existence as a “brute fact,” Aquinas has a more profound understanding of the act of being (actus essendi), an actuality that requires a cause.

Understood in this way, creation is not some distant event; rather, it is the ongoing complete cause of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns first of all the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning. This distinction between origin and beginning is crucial. It may very well be that the universe had a temporal beginning, but there is nothing contradictory about the notion of an eternal, created universe. Were the universe to have no beginning, it would still have an origin, in Aquinas’s metaphysical sense—it would still be created.

It is the distinction between creation understood philosophically, in the discipline of metaphysics, and creation understood theologically, as taught by the Church, that allowed him to defend the intelligibility of the idea of an eternal but created universe, even if he rejected it as a matter of faith. Put differently, the philosophical understanding of creation tells us nothing about the temporality of the universe. For Aquinas, the theological sense of creation incorporates all that the philosophical sense affirms and adds much more, especially its Trinitarian dimension and including the revelation that there is an absolute temporal beginning to the universe.

Aquinas also thought that neither science nor philosophy could know whether the universe had a beginning. Although he did think that metaphysics could show us that the universe is created—that it has an origin—he would have warned against those today who use Big Bang cosmology, for example, to conclude that the universe has a beginning and therefore must be created. The “singularity” in traditional Big Bang cosmology may represent the beginning of the universe we can observe, but we should not conclude that therefore it is the absolute beginning, indicating an original act of creation. Indeed, what happened “before the Big Bang” is a lively topic in contemporary cosmology.

Some cosmologists have used insights from quantum mechanics to offer accounts of the Big Bang itself. They speak of the Big Bang in terms of “quantum tunneling from nothing,” analogous to the way in which very small particles seem to emerge spontaneously from vacuums in laboratory experiments. Thus, they think that to explain the Big Bang in this way—as a kind of fluctuation in a primal vacuum—eliminates the need for a Creator. But even if it is explained in this way, the Big Bang is still a change, and, as we have seen, creation properly understood is not a change at all.

Similarly, the “nothing” at issue when cosmologists speak of “quantum tunneling from nothing” is not what is at issue in the traditional sense of creation out of nothing. The same is true for recent theories that suggest that space, time, and the laws of physics all emerge from nothing. Alexander Vilenkin offers the following thought experiment: Imagine spacetime as the surface of a sphere and then suppose that the sphere is shrinking, like a balloon losing its air. As the radius grows smaller, it eventually goes to zero. The surface of the sphere disappears and with it spacetime itself:

We have arrived at nothingness. We have also arrived at a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius. This is the most complete and utter nothingness that scientific concepts can capture. It is mathematically devoid not only of stuff but also of location and duration.

But “nothing” in this scientific context means only that about which the theories do not tell us anything; it is not the absolute nothing referred to in creation out-of-nothing. The crucial point here is that to offer a scientific account of the Big Bang—about our universe’s beginning—is not to say anything about whether or not the universe is created, i.e., whether it had an origin in the metaphysical sense.

The Limits of Cosmology

Another influential cosmologist, Lee Smolin, in Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, calls into question the meaningfulness of asking questions about an ultimate origin of the universe. His claim is that the universe “cannot have been made by anything that exists outside of it, for by definition the universe is all there is, and there can be nothing outside it.” Accordingly, “the first principle of cosmology must be ‘There is nothing outside the universe.’ . . . The first principle means that we take the universe to be, by definition, a closed system. It means that the explanation for anything in the universe can involve only other things that also exist in the universe.”

We need to recognize, however, that there are different senses of “first principles”—some are first with respect to a restricted area of investigation (e.g., the natural sciences), others would be “first” in a kind of absolute sense, referring to all categories of explanation. Creation concerns the latter sense of first.

Contemporary cosmological theories that posit an eternal universe—whether by employing a multiverse hypothesis or an infinite series of big bangs—do not challenge the doctrine of creation, at least in the fundamental metaphysical sense. An eternal universe would be no less dependent upon God as a complete cause than a universe with a beginning of time. Being created out of nothing is not identical with being temporally finite. The “error of beginnings” is to think that to be created necessarily means having a beginning. If you believe that the universe has an absolute temporal beginning, then you would have to reject any scientific theory that necessarily requires an eternal universe. But a believer should be able to distinguish between the question about what kind of universe God creates—for instance, one with or without a temporal beginning—and the fact that, whatever kind of universe there is, God is its Creator.

No explanation of cosmological processes or natural change—regardless of how radically random or contingent such an explanation claims to be—can challenge the metaphysical account of creation. Creation is not a change; nor is it fundamentally a temporal beginning. Nor do any cosmological arguments prove that because the universe began to be, it is thus created, because the kind of beginning cosmology addresses is not really about the ultimate origin of the universe. One should avoid drawing conclusions about creation from cosmological theories one way or another. Those who engage in cosmological apologetics often fail to understand that the causal dependence of all things that exist on God is not a scientific hypothesis, but a metaphysical claim.