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Can Cosmology Prove or Disprove 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.

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.