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.

But can cosmology really tell us anything one way or another about whether the universe is created?

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.”

Big Bang cosmology 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 has been used by some 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.”

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. Here 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.

The relationship between the temporal finitude of the universe and the idea that it is created has been developed in the work of philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig and, more recently, that of 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 universe had to have a beginning. This type of argument about the impossibility of an eternal universe is an old one, found for instance in some Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages. Although still attractive in some quarters today, it presupposes questionable notions about the nature of the past and was for that reason rejected by other thinkers, like Thomas Aquinas.

The scientific argument concerns some contemporary cosmologists’ claims about the beginning of an expanding universe. Spitzer finds Alexander Vilenkin’s 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.

The Nature of Creation
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.

How can this be? 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.

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.

When speaking about the origin of the universe, understood as an act of creation out of nothing, Aquinas observes that there are two complementary ways to understand this idea: one philosophical, the other theological. The philosophical sense means that God, with no material cause, brings all things into existence as beings that are radically different from Himself and yet completely dependent upon Him in a causal way. This philosophical sense of creation has two essential elements, in turn. 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 an Aristotelian tradition of metaphysics, which famously includes a number of different ways of thinking about causation. He broadens Aristotle’s notion of causation further to include the idea that being itself has a cause. The reason, Aquinas thinks, is that the act of being requires an explanation.

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, 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. While 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 therefore conclude that it is the absolute beginning, indicating an original act of creation.

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.) “Nothing” in this scientific context means only that the theories don’t tell us anything about what came before; it is not the idea of an absolute nothing prior to creation. The crucial point here is that to offer a scientific account of the Big Bang — about the universe’s beginning — is not to say anything about whether or not the universe is created, whether it had an origin in the metaphysical sense.

The Limits of Cosmology
Contemporary cosmological theories that suggest an eternal universe — whether by employing a multiverse hypothesis or an infinite series of big bangs — do not challenge the doctrine of creation either.

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 the same thing as 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 a temporal beginning, then you would have to reject any scientific theory that implies 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 or 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 the fundamental origin of the universe. One should avoid drawing conclusions about creation from cosmological theories one way or another. Those who do fail to understand that the causal dependence of all things that exist on God is not a scientific hypothesis, but a metaphysical claim.

28 Responses

  1. The Eternal Creation…
    God created all things and the process of creation is not yet a done thing. The Creation of God is as eternal and ongoing as God himself.

  2. Brian Cox says:

    Simply outstanding. Thank you.

  3. willys36 says:

    Ok, here is the solution to everything. The problem with modern physics is we don’t know how to do infinite math. All we need to do is go past the boundary that quantum physics appears to erect and we can answer all questions of origins. Here is the situation; all sub atomic particles have mass and when observed are everywhere at once. That means mathematically they have infinite energy since E=ml/t where mass is known, but they travel an infinite distance being at all locations at the same time in 0.0 seconds. However they exhibit a very finite amount of energy in our frame of reference which means they must be spinning off an infinite energy in the form of an infinite number of universes every 0.0 seconds as they change position. This would explain the instantaneous appearance of our universe. We are the child of a single sub atomic particle. In spite of the vast number of universes being generated, conservation is honored since even though every sub atomic particle in it is generating infinite universes every 0.0 seconds, each resulting universe is controlled by entropy so had a beginning and will by definition have an end. So although infinite universes are being generated, infinite universes are disappearing at the same time.

    There, I deserve a Nobel prize for coming up with a ridiculous idea too. No matter how these guys construct these crazy ideas, they still can’t answer the seminal question; where did the first sub atomic particle come from and where did the laws governing everything come from? Amazing what lengths humans go to just to deny the existence of a Creator.

  4. Brian: Although what you say may be true (or false), you may be missing the point of the explanation if I have it correctly, that whether the universe has a beginning or is eternal, it would still not entail the existence of a creator nor his/her non-existence.

  5. Dave Smith says:

    Being a limited reader of your prior works, I see this as a particularly well-conceived summary of the ones of which I am familiar. The ‘spontaneous creation’ and ‘quantum tunneling’ explanations remain doomed and will not get off the floor. ‘Origin’ will always be a stumbling block to those looking for it in change processes.

    Thank you, Dr. Bill. And note that the first word of this comment is not intended as a play on words.

  6. The universe does not have a cause because quantum events don’t need a cause? The events may not need a cause, but the existence of quantum reality, the existence of randomness, and the existence of existence all need a cause. Scientists may or may not be pushing back where or when the cause occurred, but it’s not physics if it doesn’t have a cause. It’s faith.

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank you for your comment. Questions about whether quantum events need a cause tend to involve considerable confusion about different senses of “cause.” I agree with your point that there must be an underlying cause of existence of the great variety of phenomena that the natural sciences study — and that these sciences seek to find the causes of what occurs in nature. I would suggest that questions of causality are not limited to the natural sciences, but also include analyses in philosophy and theology.

  7. Wonderful article. I personally believe that the answer is unknowable. But it’s great to think about it.

  8. Thomas says:

    Thank you, Dr. Carroll. Are you familiar with Kant’s argument about the impossibility of demonstrating theoretically that the universe was created in time? Are Aquinas and Kant close here, maintaining a kind of agnosticism, as far as theoretical reason is concerned, about such cosmological questions?

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank you for your comment. At least on this point Thomas Aquinas and Kant reach the same conclusion although their metaphysical assumptions are very different. In particular, Kant thought that theoretical or speculative reason cannot know that God exists, whereas (as you know) Thomas thought that God’s existence can be demonstrated and that, indeed, reason can know that God is the Creator of all that is. Kant mistakenly thought that all arguments for the existence of God are versions of what was famously called the ontological argument — from the very idea of an absolutely perfect being we can conclude that such a being exists. Thomas also rejected this kind of argument for God’s existence, but he thought there were other arguments for God’s existence that were true.

  9. G. Cantor says:

    I’ve always found philosophical discussions of infinity to be a bit slippery. But if we introduce mathematical concepts to clarify matters, then it seems like we ought to accept the existence of an actual infinity, since there are various kinds of mathematics that countenance such, from real analysis to set theory. Doesn’t that given rational support to the idea that the universe could, in fact, be temporally infinite?

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think we need to be careful to distinguish between arguments about infinity in mathematics and arguments in what is traditionally called the philosophy or nature (or what Aristotle and Aquinas would call “physics’). Whether or not the universe can be eternal is a subject for the philosophy of nature, especially concerning questions about the actual infinity of the past. To use mathematical analyses of infinity in topics in natural philosophy requires that we have an adequate grasp of the relationship between mathematics and our understanding of nature. We need to avoid thinking that we can reduce physics to mathematical concepts, yet we need to recognize that our knowledge of quantifiable features of the world can be enhanced through the study of mathematics.

  10. Robert Perry says:

    Well said, pretty much my thoughts exactly.

  11. eduardo says:

    I don’t get a central point the author repeatedly stood for: He says that even if the universe was created, it need not have had any temporal beginning. It can be both eternal and created. That to me seems like an utter contradiction in terms. And I did not understand the author’s explanation of why it is not a contradiction. Or his explanation seemed hard to distinguish from a mere assertion.

    Is he saying that the act of creation cannot be a process, it cannot take place in time, because before creation, there is no time? And since there was no time, we cannot really talk of a moment when the universe was created. But we can conceive of a timeless “origin” by which the universe was created. In which case, we can think of the universe as both created and in some sense “eternal.” But then “eternal” does not seem to mean, in the case of the universe, that it has always existed.

    • eduardo says:

      Addendum: if creation is not in any sense a process, that perhaps contradicts the biblical account, which seems to attribute a temporality of some sort or other to the creator’s deeds, with the six days of creation (even if biblical exegetes in the past have generally favored allegorical interpretations of the word “day”).

      • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

        The opening of Genesis is a “creation story” meant, I think, to reveal in poetic form the fundamental truth of a Christian understanding of creation. The theological doctrine of creation, however, is not the same as the story of the so-called “six days of creation.” As Thomas Aquinas observed, the central truth revealed in Genesis is the “fact of creation,” not the manner or mode of formation of the world. For example, it is not evident in the opening of Genesis that creation is “ex nihilo,” yet this is a feature of the Christian doctrine of creation. Even references to the Trinitarian dimension of the creative act are part of a further theological reflection. As I noted above, there is a distinction between a philosophical analysis of what it means for God to create and a theological analysis, but, since the truth of reason cannot contradict the truth of faith (and vice versa), the theological understanding of creation employs both biblical revelation and metaphysical insights to set forth its claims. In fact, there is no theology without philosophy.

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank you for your comment. I can offer a fuller metaphysical argument for creation as the causing of existence — and why existence itself needs a cause. I suggest an outline of such an argument below, but, of course, a full account of the argument requires an elaborate metaphysical analysis. A key point to keep in mind is that there is a distinction between a philosophical approach and a theological approach to what creation means. And further, that the theological embraces the philosophical (and adds a great deal more — but not by contradicting what reason concludes).

      To create, in its fundamental sense, means to cause the complete existence of whatever is. A creature with no temporal beginning would still depend upon the Creator for its very existence. To be created means to be completely dependent upon a cause, it does not necessarily mean to begin to exist. At least we can recognize a distinction between complete dependence in the order of existence and having a beginning of one’s existence. The metaphysical argument that concludes that all things that exist require a cause of their very existence is not an argument that has anything to do with temporal beginning. Rather, it proceeds from the recognition that the act of being (actus essendi), precisely because it is an actuality, requires a cause that is the source of this actuality — since whatever exists does not cause itself to exist. This is a radical kind of causality, different from any created causality (with which, for example, the natural sciences are concerned). The important point here is that metaphysical dependence in the order of being does not necessarily imply that that which is created begin to be — in the sense that an eternal creature would be impossible. In the philosophical sense of what it means to be created, as Thomas Aquinas correctly saw, there is no contradiction in the idea of a universe created and eternal. This is so because metaphysical dependence has nothing to do with temporality. One confusion to be avoided is to think that “eternal” predicated (hypothetically) of the universe is the same as “eternal” predicated of God. The former refers to succession without beginning or end — for which the term sempiternal is sometimes used.

      To say that creation is not a change or a process is based, first of all, not on any issue about time but on what is necessary for any change or process: something that changes or undergoes a process. If God’s creative act were the producing of a change, God would be working with or on something that ultimately would not be dependent upon God — and thus God would not be the cause of all that is.

      If Christian faith reveals that the created order is temporally finite, as Thomas believes it to be the case, this does not contradict the philosophical conclusion that an eternal, created world is possible. For Thomas, the philosophical sense of creation leaves open the possibilities of both an eternal universe and one with an absolute temporal beginning. The philosophical sense does show us the fundamental feature of what it means to be created — a feature that is also fundamental to the theological sense — that the Creator is the complete cause of all that is.

  12. Tom Aaron says:

    “Contemporary cosmological theories that suggest an eternal universe — whether by employing a multiverse hypothesis or an infinite series of big bangs — do not challenge the doctrine of creation either.”

    So what? They don’t address a hundred issues. This doesnt make those issues more valid.

    A well written piece but the author has misinterpreted quatum probability… the essence of existence. Its not about beginning and causation.

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank your for your comment. The reason I referred to the relationship between cosmological theories and creation is precisely because many people (philosophers, scientists, theologians, et al.) do in fact use cosmological theories to support their views as to whether or not the universe is created. When I refer to arguments about the need for a cause based on claims from theories in quantum mechanics, I am referring to how these claims are used to deny the need for a cause of existence — and to argue that such claims are based on a very limited notion of cause.

  13. Brian Foster says:

    It may be that I’m just dense, but this smells of equivocating or hair-splitting in order to smuggle in the nonsensical notion of a self-creating or eternal universe, a creation/existence independent of a transcendent Causal Agent. While I admire Aquinas, anywhere he, or anyone else, diverges from God’s word, he is in error. That said, if to “create” does not mean to bring into existence from non-existence, what term would one use to convey such a meaning? In reliance on God’s word, I find nowhere in scripture where the translation rendered “created” means anything to the natural mind of the reader other than bringing into existence from non-existence, and at the same time conveying a perpetual dependence for continued existence. The notion that something can be eternal yet be created is, in my opinion, not only a contradiction in terms, but a failed attempt to cloak an infinite regress through liberal literary gymnastics and term redefinition in a desperate attempt to avoid the obvious: In the beginning God created…” Avoiding term redefinitions and gymnastics, only that which is without a cause is eternal, and is the anchor for all things that are otherwise. In order for the word “eternal” to have meaning, that which is eternal can’t be any more or less eternal than anything else that is eternal. If it could be, then one or the other is not eternal. What am I missing?

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank for your comment. When Aquinas argues for the intelligibility of an eternal, created universe he is not “diverging from God’s word” in the Bible. He does believe that the universe has a temporal beginning and that “out-of-nothing” in the phrase created “out-of-nothing” does mean after nothing, in some sense of a temporal after (at least in the imagination). But Aquinas does not think that the expression “out-of-nothing” necessarily means after nothing — even if the sense of “after nothing” also means that God does not use anything at all in creating all that is. He thinks that reason can show the fundamental sense of creation, which is the complete dependence of all that is on God. He thinks that “out-of-nothing” in its fundamental sense only means that God uses nothing at all in His creative act. Indeed, Thomas thinks that this is included in the biblical sense of creation, a sense that is ultimately expressed in theological discourse.

      There are many intelligible possibilities about nature and human nature that revelation rejects as not actually the case. Aquinas thinks that “to be created” has a philosophical sense and a theological sense. This is not an equivocation but rather a recognition that reason can probe the question of why there is something rather than nothing and can reach certain truths about the answer to such a question. Theology expands on this answer. In fact, theology, starting with revelation, always uses philosophical insights in its search for the truth.

      Aquinas was a great proponent of the importance of analogical thinking, that is, that many of the terms we use have different senses. For example, it is true to say that dogs know things, human beings know things, angels know things, and God knows things, but the verb “to know” is not predicated univocally in each case; rather the verb is used analogically. Every word we predicate of God is predicated analogically, since our knowledge and our language are that of creatures and the Creator is radically other from what it means to be a creature. When we say, for example, God is infinite, we are using a term from the world of creatures, a term that is contrasted with finite. But, when said of God, what we really mean is that God is beyond the categories of finite and infinite. In the created order, eternal means temporal succession without beginning or end. When we say God is eternal we are using the word eternal in a very special sense; it does not mean temporal succession without beginning or end because, among other things, God is not a temporal reality. Some people, confusing this distinction in the meaning of eternal, reject the possibility of an eternal creature because they think that such a creature would be equal to and independent of an eternal God. Many of the Church Fathers held this view.

      Thomas Aquinas, building on the reflections of Anselm and Muslim thinkers such as Avicenna, was able to see clearly that there is no contradiction in the notion of an eternal creature. He did not think that to be a creature required a temporal beginning. He was able to reach this understanding because he recognized that the fundamental sense of what it means to be created is to be dependent upon God as cause of existence. Such dependence is a constant relation, regardless of whether or not there is a beginning. In a famous example, we could think of an eternal man standing on an eternal beach producing an eternal footprint in the sand. The footprint, although eternal in this thought experiment, is caused by and hence dependent upon the eternal foot.

  14. brendarua says:

    This was an interesting read as an intellectual exercise. But the very nature of the subject means there is a whole lot of slack in the train of reasoning due to ambiguities. I seriously doubt that a person can be certain they know what concepts like eternity or causation (in such contexts) mean. How much worse is it to try and communicate those to others? Playing the skeptic here, I don’t know what you are talking about – and neither do you. This is not to say the effort shouldn’t be made. But any conclusions reached must be tenuous at best.

    I would like to make a few more specific observations:

    1) The whole thesis is entirely Abrahamic in structure. This seems very chauvinistic when talking about a universe that people of many different belief systems participate in. Granted, one can abstract the notion of god and creation out of that realm. But where does that leave apologists?

    2) You don’t address the problem of special pleading when you assert the universe can’t be infinite or eternal, but this god can. You only move the goal post.

    3) The Kalam and similar arguments suffer from the fallacy of composition. First, we don’t know absolutely that causation exists, and exists as we know it, everywhere in the universe. Second, we in fact do know that not everything that comes into being is caused. Third, even if 1 and 2 pan out, there is no reason to think that properties of components apply to the whole. Experience shows otherwise.

    4) I was glad to see you didn’t follow WLC in his ontological move to assign attributes to this thing you choose to call god. You do go there in your replies. But I take that as explication.

    Thank you for this article. You brought back fond memories. I learned some things and enjoyed your perspective on the issues.

    • William E. Carroll William E. Carroll says:

      Thank you for your comment. That we cannot have complete knowledge of complex philosophical notions when speaking of a transcendent cause does not mean that we do not have some knowledge. For someone who claims not to know what I am talking about you do make some specific claims about what I am saying. I would reject the argument that my thesis is “entirely Abrahamic in structure,” especially if that means some particular theological claim. One of the great benefits of speaking about creation philosophically, in the discipline of metaphysics, is that one is not wedded to any particular faith tradition. Metaphysics, like geometry (for example), is accessible to reason alone, regardless of whether one is a Jew, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, animist, agnostic, or atheist. One of my central points is to distinguish various so-called “creation stories” (in all traditions) from a theology of creation (whether that be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian), and to distinguish a theology of creation from a philosophical understanding of why there is something rather than nothing. I sought to point out the confusion in various arguments that use cosmology either to support or to deny the view that all that is, in whatever ways it is, is created “out-nothing” by a transcendent cause. Disentangling this confusion is a prerequisite for careful analysis of the underlying issues.

  15. Rudy F says:

    Stated simply: these questions about origins exist purely in the realms of theoretical science, philosophy, and spirituality. Hawking’s, or anyone else’s for that matter, statements on the matter are just another point of view, however well-reasoned and rooted in current scientific observations.

    They all lack the key component of empirical observation, the basis for a comprehensive scientific understanding of a subject. Until we have any evidence remotely approaching that, this will remain mostly a philosophical discussion, much to Hawking’s chagrin.

  16. Rocky Shoals says:

    Gödel said that every non-trivial formal system is either incomplete or inconsistent:

    [1] For a given (non-trivial) formal system, there will be statements that are true in that system, but which cannot be proved to be true inside the system.
    [2] If a system can be proved to be complete using its own logic, then there will be a theorem in the system that is contradictory.

    Thus the existence of God and of Creation, in the non-trivial system expounded by the author, cannot be proven to be true inside the logic system of mankinds knowledge. But it cannot also be disproven.

  17. Godel showed that for any rich system there would be some unprovable statements in that system. He did not say which ones would be unprovable.

    • Actually, he said that for any recursive number system (e.g., arithmetic) there are statements expressible within the system which cannot be proved. And as a corrolary, he added that if such statements could be proved, then the system would be inherently self-contradictory. I am not clear how that relates to the discussion at hand.

    • As the General Theory of Relativity has it, space-time came to be with the Big Bang. To speak of a “before” the Big Bang is meaningless as the term “before” presupposes time, and time did not then exist. Nor did space. There was no outside from which the Big Bang could be perceived since there was no space. Nor could there be an observer waiting to observe since there was no time.

      Now it is intellectually conceivable that there was (and is?) something that did not partake of time or space, but there is no way of knowing that within the parameters of space-time. A good way to understand this is to read Abbott’s Flatland.

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