Rowan Williams: God’s not only not an answer, but He/She/It’s not even a thing!

April 10, 2016 • 12:00 pm

Well, well. Here we have an article in the Guardian by Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, arguing that atheists are constantly “arguing against propositions that no serious Christian writer would endorse.” I would have thought that the propositions we were arguing against were those of God’s existence, the divinity of Jesus, salvation, and so on—things that seem pretty much in the Christian mainstream—but Williams, a Sopisticated Theologian™, says “nope.”

In fact, Williams is exaggerating here: the argument he says atheists make, but that no Christian believes, is our refutation of the First Cause argument, also known as the Cosmological Argument. The argument goes, of course, like this: everything must have a cause, including the Universe, but the chain of causation cannot run on forever: there must be a First Cause. And that cause must have been God. God therefore exists, QED.

One response to this argument is this: “But who caused God?” That’s a perfectly sensible question: what brought God into existence? What was he doing before he created anything? In response, theists finesse the argument with a definitional ploy: God is the ONE AND ONLY THING that doesn’t need a “cause.” So their argument is basically tautological and semantic.

I’ll add here that the so-called “law of causality” implied in this argument doesn’t really hold in modern physics. As Sean Carroll pointed out to me, it’s more sensible just to use the “laws of physics” instead of “causality.” That is, there is no “cause” why the Earth orbits the Sun: it’s just obeying the laws of physics. In the same way, there is no “cause” for an atom to decay, even though an ensemble of atoms decays in a predictable way. (I suppose theists would respond, “Well, tell us where the laws of physics came from, then? Must have been God!”)

Williams’ essay is inspired by Rupert Shortt’s new book, God is No Thing: Coherent Christianitycoming out July 1. I haven’t read it since it’s not available, so I’m just discussing Shortt’s argument that Williams finds so persuasive. And it turns out to be the same old cosmological argument, gussied up in fancy language:

Whatever can be said of God, God cannot by definition be another item in any series, another “thing” (hence the book’s title). The claim made by religious philosophers of a certain kind is not that God can be invoked to plug a gap, but that there must be some fundamental agency or energy which cannot be thought of as conditioned by anything outside itself, if we are to make sense of a universe of interactive patterns of energy being exchanged. Without such a fundamental concept, we are left with energy somehow bootstrapping itself into being.

As for Krauss’s Universe from Nothing, Williams is scornful (and of course he has a point: what is “nothing”, anyway?):

And Shortt is rightly merciless towards those who wriggle out of difficulties by slipping disguised constants into the “nothingness” out of which the universe comes – primitive electrical charges, quantum fields, timeless laws or whatever. He quotes the British scholar Denys Turner to good effect on the fact that “nothing” ought to mean what it says – “no process … no random fluctuations … no explanatory law of emergence”. The problem of origins cannot be defined out of existence, and the highly complex notion of creation by an act that (unlike finite agency) is not triggered or conditioned needs to be argued with in its own terms, not reduced to the mythical picture of a Very Large Person doing something a bit like what we normally do, only bigger.

But in the end Shortt’s (and Williams’s) “solution” is again a semantic and tautological one, with the dubious premise that nothing can go on forever and that there is a “Law of Causation.” Yes, maybe there is some conception of “nothing” beyond a quantum vacuum, but it doesn’t follow that such a theological form of “nothing” ever existed, that “causation” is always meaningful at the physical level, or that the cosmos in some form (e.g., a multiverse) could not have existed indefinitely. The argument remains what it always has been: “because something exists, there must have been a god.” Atheists do understand that, and we do see its problems. It’s the theologians, in their willingness to take anything as evidence for god, who don’t look too hard at the philosophical and empirical difficulties of the Cosmological Argument.

Williams gives Shortt’s book a big endorsement, calling it “a powerful indirect commendation of Christian faith, insofar as it lays out some of what it looks like to think in a Christian mode, how the system works – in such a way that it is possible to see that Christian thinking is not automatically stupid or incapable of being used as a resource in handling complex current issues.”

Well, let’s avoid using the word “stupid.” Can we say “blinkered”, for Christian thinking is automatically tendentious and laden with confirmation bias. Before you can start invoking God, you have to give evidence for God: evidence that goes beyond the puerile Cosmological argument.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 10.53.28 AM


If you want to hear Sean Carroll go after the cosmological argument in a debate against William Lane Craig, go here. The debate is nearly 3 hours long, but Caroll’s post has some discussion of the argument at issue. For a shorter take by Carroll go here.

h/t: Barry, Matthew Cobb

78 thoughts on “Rowan Williams: God’s not only not an answer, but He/She/It’s not even a thing!

  1. Awww. I momentarily thought this was the “Mr. Bean” Rowan — Atkinson — and was all set up for a good laugh. It’s just an Archbishop of Canterbury, and remember, you can’t spell Canterbury without cant.

  2. Richard Carrier has a great rejoinder to the critique that Krause’s nothing really isn’t nothing. He says that a true, absolute nothing doesn’t help the religious side anyway: if there was truly nothing, there wouldn’t even be the law that something cannot come from nothing.

    1. As I recall, Krauss carefully defined what he meant by “nothing.” I can’t remember exactly what, as I don’t have the book handy and it has been quite a while since I read it. Maybe someone who is more literate in physics can explain.

      I am responding to my cousin’s post, or is there more than one prinzler out there?

  3. propositions that no serious Christian writer would endorse

    … but which the large majority of “practicing” Xtians accept.
    What was that question again, that was at the heart of the Protestant-Catholic schism? The one about – is church dogma what the Authorities say, or what the church members actually believe?
    Just trying to fan the flames. Get those god-squaddies fighting amongst themselves so they haven’t got time or energy to interact with the real world.

  4. As I think I’ve commented here before, I find the question of how to get something from nothing (in the non-Kraussian sense) incoherent, since “nothing” is an absence of “something” – so you can’t have “nothing” without reference to “something”.

    1. “Nothing is impossible.” On one hand, a self-affirming, warm, fuzzy (but untrue) statement, and on the other, a succinct summary of physical reality (which pure mathematicians need not concern themselves over).

  5. Well, I have the same qualms as always with this…

    JC: The argument goes, of course, like this: everything must have a cause, including the Universe, but the chain of causation cannot run on forever: there must be a First Cause. And that cause must have been God. God therefore exists, QED.

    “First Cause” means in this argument an “Uncaused Cause.” That’s the point that is supposed to be established by the argument (since causation can’t run forever, it must be terminated somewhere in an Uncaused Cause/First Cause).

    So following up with this doesn’t make sense:

    JC: One response to this argument is this: “But who caused God?” That’s a perfectly sensible question: what brought God into existence?

    I disagree: it’s not a sensible response to the First Cause argument(s) even as you just presented the First Cause argument. It simply ignores the actual argument. IF the argument is sound, THEN God can not be caused, hence the question “who caused God” is entirely moot, a non-sequitur. To undermine the argument, you have to actually address it’s premises – e.g. that a causal chain can’t be infinite and whatever defences the theist raises for their premises – and show how the argument is unsound.

    JC: “In response, theists finesse the argument with a definitional ploy: God is the ONE AND ONLY THING that doesn’t need a “cause.” So their argument is basically tautological and semantic.”

    It’s not a definitional ploy (at least not the classical arguments, defended by smart theologians/Christian philosophers) if there are arguments for the conclusions, which there are. They just point to the argument itself as ESTABLISHING WHY God is the only uncaused cause. The arguments don’t work, but it’s not because they are tautological in the way you are depicting, IMO.

    This “But who caused God?” response to the First Cause arguments continues to unnecessarily perpetuate the impression that atheist aren’t really understanding the arguments. I don’t see why we should hand theists this easy “give.”

    1. I think the Cosmological arguments often reduce to Ontological arguments. If they can’t defend mind/body dualism on the natural level they can’t just assume it metaphysically. It needs support which goes beyond intuition and convenience.

      1. Sastra,

        I agree at least partially. I’m not sure that the Kalaam reduces the way you suggest, insofar as it simply arrives at a First Cause. It’s only when they theist tries to make the additional leap, requiring additional arguments, for why it “must” be a Personal Cause, that this implicit mind/body dualism slips in. For instance, as you would know, to get around the problem of an eternal cause implying an eternal effect (and hence an eternal cause would say the universe would be here eternally, which contracts the second premise they want to hold to), they invoke a “free willed agent” who can “choose” to not be causing/then start causing the universe, bringing it into being temporally. But simply calling this mysterious power to act outside time and space “free will” only makes “free will” some sort of ad hoc magical power, and they get this whole “free will magical power” from an already unevidenced appeal to humans having this magic…which comes from..of course God…so it’s a big circular argument.

        I’m not so sure the argument from contingency
        necessarily employs mind body dualism, as it purports to derive “necessary” attributes of the first cause, which naturally just happen to end up being agential, intelligent (and even loving) attributes. I always have to delve back into those arguments again to make sure though.

        1. The Kalaam without God isn’t the kalaam, though. And an argument which rests on the critical point that only something purely mental isn’t ‘contingent’ seems to me like explicit mind/body dualism.

          A classic apologetic might certainly be vulnerable before it gets to God, but even if the beginning is granted the apologetic falls apart when it introduces dualism (which it must.) It can only appeal to ontology at that point — based on intuitions which in fact turned out to be wrong.

          That’s often when classic apologetic morphs into good old empirical pseudoscience (Near Death Experiences, ESP, and ghosts!)

        2. That the universe itself has necessary existence would seem to me to be the obvious conclusion to make.

    2. God is the ONE AND ONLY THING that doesn’t need a “cause.” So their argument is basically tautological and semantic.

      The first premise is that everything must have a cause. The argument is not tautological. If there is one thing that doesn’t have a cause the first premise is false and the argument collapses. By the way, the postulated uuncaused god is not the only thing that doesn’t have a cause. What is the cause of spontaneous nuclear decay? So the first premise is indefensible. Their concluding statement, pronounced with a resounding flourish, invalidates their own first premise.

      Jerry is just pointing out that they failed to specify in their initial premise that everything except god must have a cause. Had they included the exception as part of the first premise the logical question would be, “why is god excepted?” By asking what caused god he is simply applying the first premise to their conclusion. Either way, (either by accepting the conclusion and pointing out the invalidity of the first premise, or by accepting the first premise and insisting therefore that it must also apply to god) the argument collapses.

      1. Jamie,

        “The first premise is that everything must have a cause.”

        If you mean as Jerry presented it, yes, but that is a misrepresentation of both forms of the Cosmological argument. If the arguments starts with the premise “EVERYTHING must have a cause” then of course positing an uncaused cause will be special pleading. But they DON’T start with that premise. The Kalaam Cosmological Argument (the most popular, defended by people like William L. Craig) is this:

        !. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
        2. The Universe began to exist.
        3.Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

        And the other cosmological argument, the classical “argument from contingency” attempts to find the cause of the universe by
        arguing the universe seems to be comprised of contingent entities, and then provides arguments as to why that only a NECESSARY entity could be the cause of a contingent universe.

        In both cases, asking “what caused God” is to entirely ignore the arguments that purport to show why that question doesn’t make sense. The arguments, if sound, establish the answer to that question. So it’s like being presented an evolutionary argument for how whales evolved, and then the skeptic thinks he has undermined the evolutionary case by asking: “Yeah, but WHO designed whales?” Of course that just misses the whole point of the arguments establishing whales arose via evolution, not by some “who” deliberately creating them.

        To undermine these arguments it’s necessary to give reasons why we would reject one or more of the premises, as defended.

        1. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause.
          We don’t know that. We haven’t seen all possible examples, and we certainly don’t know if such is true outside of our universe.

          The universe began to exist.
          We don’t know that to be true. The universe could be fluctuating between various states, not “beginning”. We know little to nothing about before our universe, or if such a statement even makes sense.

          That God always existed as an un-caused infinity.
          We don’t know that.

        2. +1

          The SEP, for example, shows the Kalam first premise as “Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence”. Theists (and some non-theists) get quite exercised by the “everything must have a cause” version (see, for example, Of course, there are fairly obvious ways around the correctly formulated argument for the naturalist anyway, imho.

          I think that theists should acknowledge that occasionally theists *themselves* present the argument as “everything must have a cause” (I’ve certainly heard it during informal conversations with them), so it’s only fair to laugh at that if that is how it’s presented. Some philosophers get it wrong too, including Nigel Warburton and Bertrand Russell, so it’s a tempting paraphrase. But it renders it a *much* worse argument than the original, which, as I said, I find pretty unpersuasive in its stronger form anyway!

        3. “Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
          The Universe began to exist.
          Therefore, the Universe had a cause.”

          As I see it a flaw resides in the first premise; the only thing that has ever begun to exist is the universe itself. All the energy/matter in our universe came into existence at the Big Bang. The cosmological history of the universe is simply a recounting of how that initial energy/matter has rearranged itself over time. In our universe energy/mass cannot be created or destroyed; it simply changes form. All we can say about the first premise is that the universe began to exist; in the subsequent history of the universe there is nothing analogous to the initial coming into existence of all energy and matter at the Big Bang. Without any analogous “beginning to exist” the argument falls apart.

          1. Note that the big bang is the origin of *this* universe, or better, this hubble volume. It says nothing about what happened “before” (which is not the way to put it, since the hubble volumes are temporally “self contained).

            For all we know, “baby’s first hubble volume” is a thing, so this is nothing special to the theist.

            After all, the conservation laws are not dated and hence eternal …

        4. Coincidentally WLC has just addressed a Question of the Week on the CA (PSR version), in which he denies a restricted version of the PSR, for anyone interested (!):

          The discussion of ‘objects’ suggests that he doesn’t consider God an ‘object’, so he perhaps agrees with the former Archbishop that God is ‘no thing’. Even if one accepts that dubious conclusion, it’s still a very long way before one gets to the Christian trinity.

    3. “The arguments don’t work, but it’s not because they are tautological in the way you are depicting, IMO.”

      Why don’t they work?

    4. I admit you and I have gone over this before, but I still find it hard to see what merit the argument has that would warrant such a defence.

      For an argument to be sound, its premises must be true (i.e. no lies, distortions, or mistaken assumptions) and its sequence of premises and conclusions must fit a valid logical structure. The Uncaused Cause argument fails on both counts.

      Every premise it raises is merely asserted without a shred of support except, apparently, the goodwill of all involved. It runs on unstated premises that, without being in turn justified, make it non-sequitur; at no point does it justify completely ignoring infinite chains of causality, and in any case it assumes causality is of the “absolute dominoes” kind regardless of modern physics (imagine if they took the same approach arguing for the First Human).

      We’ve hit problems with the truthfulness of the statements and the validity of their sequence already, and this is the least implausible, mathematical-logical part of the whole argument. The second half of the argument, which tries to turn this Uncaused Cause into anything you can get vaguely religious about, is more of the same.

      The argument is one long case of special pleading, esoteric to the vast majority of religious experience. The closest I can get to seeing your respect for it is in a mathematical-logical understanding of the phrase “Uncaused Cause”, but this is like giving credit to a young-earth creationist for acknowledging the existence of human history. They don’t get a gold star for that.

    5. I have always thought the argument weak because it assumes (without any proof) that ALL causes end up at a SINGULAR first cause. Why not multiple independent first causes? If you follow any branch in a tree back to its origin you’ll eventually reach the tree’s trunk – but it’s a massive non-sequitur to deduce from that that all the branches in a forest belong to the same tree.

  6. The cosmological / first cause argument is a deistic one anyway. Even if we could establish that the universe came into being via some deliberate force, there’s no way to prove (and no good reason to think) that this force cares about us, that it impregnated a Jewish virgin, that it has a get-out-of-death card on offer, etc.

    As Christopher Hitchens would say, the theist has all his work still ahead of him.

    1. No they don’t. Christians still have work to do, but the theist has won. If a ‘deliberate force’ intentionally caused the universe, then atheism is wrong.

      That might not be a big deal to atheists who really only care about Christianity and/or politics, but those who ground their conclusion in science and reason would never say Deism isn’t a huge freakin’ deal.

        1. Deism introduces a skyhook into a network of cranes. Saying that this is ‘no big deal’ to a philosophical and/or scientific thinker is like telling a chemist that it’s no important matter if homeopathy works as long as it’s only used for minor health complaints by a few people.

          1. I think you’re giving deists too much credit. To my mind they’ve already conceded the crucial argument, which is that we come from Nature, not God. The deist is merely pontificating about where Nature comes from, which I think is a largely superfluous question anyway (if it’s even a coherent question at all, which I’m not sure it is).

            The deist does think there’s a wizard behind the curtain–but the wizard never comes out. And while I happen to disagree with him about the existence of the wizard, it doesn’t ultimately matter, because the curtain remains closed. Theists are the ones who think it opens sometimes (usually for epileptics in the desert or professional athletes). They’re the ones worth arguing with.

          2. With that said, I realize that religious people regularly blur the line between deism and theism, and that “I believe in a Higher Power” deists usually harbor theistic beliefs. But I still think the distinction between deism and theism is important, much more so than between deism and atheism (since deism is already atheistic).

          3. The entire point of positing a Higher Mind behind the universe is so that the universe is turned into a narrative and human beings are still special. The distinction between deism and theism is a matter of interpretation, a faith-driven personal choice regarding where the lines are drawn. The method is still problematic.

            Some Deists might consider themselves atheists, but too many of them enthusiastically distance themselves from atheism for moral or intellectual reasons. If atheism is such a bad ‘choice,’ then I don’t think Deism can be said to make no difference. As for the Deistic God, it’s rare to find any version of that which doesn’t matter or make any difference in how we live or understand the world.

          4. I don’t think deism is a useful skyhook.

            1. It is unlikely.

            Either unlikely as a variant of religion, or as a constraint of nature. In both cases, the idea of a leprechaun in the garden becomes even more ridiculous.

            2. Nature doesn’t work that way.

            According to Noether’s theorems, fundamental laws are the results of symmetries/symmetry breaking.

            Symmetries would appear randomly in volumes without limit in an infinitely large and old universe without laws.

            Either laws are the results of a dynamic process (multiverses), or a random outcome of random events, or possibly a constrained unique outcome (TOE). In all cases, magic has no way of affecting the outcome.

      1. Unless of course you mean “hubble volume”, in which case we just *don’t know* what can initiate hubble expansions. See above about “baby”. If however, one takes “universe” etymologically, the mereological sum of all such hubble volumes, then this is eternal and hence has no origin (did not “begin to exist”).

        (There’s also a sense in which “begin to exist” does not apply to hubble volumes either, but …)

  7. God is a cobb salad, not a pulled pork sandwich. God is a 1992 GEO Metro, not a bowl of vanilla ice cream. God is a piece of lint, not Former Oaklnad Raider and Superbowl MVP Fred Biletnikoff. This game is fun!!!

  8. … there must be some fundamental agency or energy which cannot be thought of as conditioned by anything outside itself … not reduced to the mythical picture of a Very Large Person doing something a bit like what we normally do, only bigger.

    Okay, first of all let’s drop the nonsense about “agency OR energy.” It’s “agency.” A mindless form of energy wouldn’t be considered “God” no matter how fundamental or unconditioned it was. Gods are always versions of pure mentality, whether they are conscious persons or just some form of free-floating emotion, virtue, or emotion-and-virtue-centered balance.

    Which means that yes, theists are indeed proposing something very much like a Very Large Mind as the ultimate structure of reality. We can quibble over whether it’s personal or not, but that’s quibbling. Only theists who remove everything we associate with human mentality from God are untouched by atheist arguments.

    And they can’t do that.

  9. In the end this idea of God they peddle always come down to a metaphor for mother nature or the universe itself. But we already have the terms “mother nature” and “universe” and no one ever fought a war over mother nature or the universe. That is because people don’t pretend to know what mother nature wants. God is a word that is only needed if you think you know attributes about it like what it wants for example. That is why the word “God” is synonymous with bullshit.

    1. I think they’re peddling God as another name for “existence” or “reality” — and then slipping in attributes. Nature and the universe can still be thought of as existing contingently inside of a larger condition or cause. Not so for existence or reality.

      That’s why some apologists complain that it’s wrong to ask “does God exist?” or think of God as a real thing. If we substitute the question “does existence exist?” or say “reality is a thing in reality” we notice the problem.

      The word “God” then is synonymous with “sneaky little move don’t worry nothing to see here.”

    2. I’ll go out on a limb here and argue that for many (but not all) Christians the existence of god isn’t that important. The *shared belief* in god is important for providing ‘rallying symbols’ for the Christian tribe.

      Which is why atheist arguments against the existence of god rarely have any traction.

  10. To me it still comes down as an excuse for something unknown. g*d must be the answer. When we didn’t understand the sea it must be Poseidon or Zeus for the sky. As we discovered things in science the g*ds went away. Just one more to go, or is it a thousand.

  11. Pizza, having simultaneously the qualities of complexity and simplicity, cannot have a cause. However pizza cannot create the universe. Therefore, by process of elimination, pizza created god since it had to create something but cannot create the universe. QED.

    1. Without such a fundamental concept, we are left with energy somehow bootstrapping itself into being.

      Haha I just noticed Rowan has his own little process of elimination going on in there too lol. Good job Rowan. Ergo Jesus can fly on a pony of course, QED.

  12. The interesting part of the book will be when they move to those awkward doctrines of Christianity regarding sin, Jesus’ divinity, and the sacrifice on the cross. Then will such a definition of God hold up?

  13. The word Amen at the end of a Bible reading ,prayer or sermon should be a despondent, frustrated, disapproving sigh; ” Ahhhhh Men”, which Urban dictionary defines as: The emotion you feel when you are stuck somewhere, and extremely bored, and have no way of getting anywhere. You can’t think of a way to describe it besides saying “ahhhhh”
    A comment on the daft fantasies that men & women have made up and called scripture.

  14. In my experience the theists I talk to assume atheism means the universe comes from nothing, and the Big Bang theory states or assumes this. Neither is true. The big bang theory says nothing about where the energy/matter/singularity came from. We say “we don’t know”, not that the universe came from nothing.

    Atheism only means that we don’t accept the assertion that there is or are gods.

    How do they know the universe came from nothing? It makes just as much sense that matter/energy has always existed. Certainly as much sense if not more that suddenly everything was magicked out of nothing.

  15. (I suppose theists would respond, “Well, tell us where the laws of physics came from, then? Must have been God!”)

    You are quite right to mock the standard Christian response to this issue. Few Christians acknowledge the distinction between prescriptive laws (the ten commandments) and descriptive laws (all science, pretty much).

  16. Quantum Mechanics killed the argument from first cause decades ago. PCC is right in that atomic decay and vacuum energy have no cause and are entirely probabilistic.

    The shift of energy inherent to space-time into the matter we interact with needs no cause but is also probabilistic.

    Holy crap (I’m writing this while listening to the debate) Craig is using 2nd law of thermodynamics as an argument for god. I thought he was supposed to be smart. He doesn’t understand physics at all.

    Now Craig is drifting into fine tuning as evidence for god. It would be greater evidence for god if we existed in in a non-fine-tuned universe. The fact of life existing in a universe that allows for life is a obvious.

    Harris is the only person in the debate that knows what they are talking about, science wise.

    I’m being reminded of when I had to take quantum mechanics courses to get my physics degree. It’s causing a head-ache, but in the end all I conclude is that Craig is an idiot.


    1. Craig addresses quantum mechanics somewhere in a couple of his articles somewhere but bleh I don’t feel like tracking them down haha.

  17. If you want to hear Sean Carroll go after the cosmological argument in a debate against William Lane Craig, go here.

    No thanks, I’ve watched it a couple times before. Don’t think I can handle Craig’s melding of shallow philosophical erudition and cornpone hucksterism again. WLC goes into every debate with the same strategy: lay down some master-debater’s point-scoring gambit and, if his opponent engages, rush to declare an unwarranted, premature victory.

    I’ve pretty much had it with him.

    1. As well you should – WLC has been told to stop misrepresenting the physics (see above) for *years*. He doesn’t, so IMO, he’s just a charlatan. (Or the functional equivalent.)

  18. In engineering, if you’re not sure why something happens then you declare that it is probably resonance.

    In theology, you similarly declare that it is god.

      1. When I was a kid working at a gas station, when the garage mechanic couldn’t figure out what the problem was with an engine, he’d tell the customer it was the (non-existent) “Johnson rod.” Same principle, I think.

  19. I think that the best way to make theists stumble and fall on their faces, is by asking them a simple question: “What is this God that you’re talking about”.
    The fundamentalist religious people starts spluttering in rage at such a question as they think it’s obvious to everyone that they’re talking about the almighty Jehovah/Allah etc. Of course, then you continue by pretending you have no idea who this Jehovah guy is, and watch them stumble around as they try to define it.

    When directing the question against theologians, you can sit back with a cold drink and enjoy the hilarious deepak chopra insanity that follows. Usually their answer involves logical impossibilities like all-seeing, all-loving and all-powerful. They also start talking about uncaused causes, mind over matter and energy outside of the universe. I usually have no clue what they’re talking about (I don’t have a sophisticated bone in my body), but I find their answers amusing nonetheless.

    When it comes to the problem of “nothing”, I find the concept utterly meaningless. It doesn’t help the religious people anyway as God would be unable to exist in nothing (unless they actually want to define God as being non existent as well, in which case, I’m on the same page).

  20. Perhaps the universe has several causes, like fire. Fire needs oxygen, heat and fuel. If any one of those three things are missing, you won’t get a fire started. Maybe polytheism is the answer! 😛

  21. Williams et al are probably unaware that there are models being proposed in which the universe does not have a beginning:

    This should be one of the first things atheists mention whenever theists start prattling on about first causes. Who knows if this is the correct model, but the point is that talking about “the beginning of the universe” is already making a huge assumption which may not be warranted.

    1. There are lots of ways in which that is the case, actually, and have been known for some time. In fact, as much as I appreciate cosmologists here, they’ve shot themselves in the foot on this one. Hubble’s discovery should have been described from the get go as the local expansion. Nothing else.

  22. Wetness is an emergent property of water. Individual water molecules are not wet.

    Entropy is an emergent property of our observed universe (Hubble bubble). The cosmos is (very likely) more than our observable universe.


  23. Existence is innate, surely? If something is, it exists; if it doesn’t exist, it isn’t. (Kind of Epicurean, no?)

    « what do you mean by the cosmos is more than our observable universe? »

    Exactly what I say.

    Carl Sagan : “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”


    1. Note that all the nonsense about the meanings of “is” could have been avoided if we’d been speaking a non-Indo-European language. I shudder to think how Plato is rendered in sinographs.

    1. I have long admired A. N. Wilson as a novelist but much less as a thinker. The five-volume ‘Lampitt Chronicles,’ in particular, get my highest praise–that is, each of the novels invites re-reading.

      But when it comes to his Christianity, Wilson is a sort of contemporary C. S. Lewis, whose back-and-forth (and eventually back-for-good) Anglicanism Wilson has emulated. In ‘Against Religion: why we should live without it’ (1991) and ‘Jesus: a Life’ (1992) he set forth his case for atheism; in 1999 he ‘reconverted’ to Christianity and began polemicizing against atheists.

      And now, plainly, he has joined the Sophisticated Theologians. Oh, well. . . .

  24. “What was, was was. What is, is is.”
    –Sparky Anderson
    “Something is 60% more likely than nothing.”
    –Victor Stenger

  25. What are you taking about, William?

    How could existence possibly invalidate the cosmological principle, viz. “viewed on a sufficiently large scale, the properties of the universe are the same for all observers.” It’s essential! The universe and the observers have to exist!!


  26. Ah …

    « Since this post concerns the cosmological principle »

    No. It concerns the cosmological argument, which is a very different thing.

    « Natural processes preclude “saving a step”. »

    Assertion without evidence. Natural processes include unknown physics prior to the Big Bang. There’s no need to assert an eternal intelligent agent (“God”) when you might have a timeless fundamental fabric of reality from which universes can form.


  27. “Without such a fundamental concept, we are left with energy somehow bootstrapping itself into being. … “nothing” ought to mean what it says – “no process … no random fluctuations … no explanatory law of emergence”. The problem of origins cannot be defined out of existence”.

    Williams has still to show that his idea of ‘nothing’ makes sense – according to current physics (as Sean touches on, I think). It doesn’t – and why such a non-continuity would happen when we have at least 14 billion years history of everything. Possibly infinitely more, if eternal inflation is correct.

    To return the Sophisticated Theology™ on its own meaningless level, the problem of ‘nothing’ and the very possible absence of emergence cannot be defined out of existence.

    1. Oops. “Williams has still to show that his idea of ‘nothing’ makes sense – according to current physics (as Sean touches on, I think) it doesn’t – and why such a non-continuity would happen when we have at least 14 billion years history of everything.”

  28. (1) The energy requirement for what? A new universe requires zero energy — the net energy of our universe is zero.

    (2) The cosmos is what is; our universe is just one part of it. No need to observe a universe arising from scratch. We can look for interference between universes. See Gurzadyan and Penrose.


  29. (1) « Obviously, there was a lot of energy involved in the expansion of the “singularity” at the Big Bang. »

    Well, yes, a lot of positive energy was involved and a lot of negative (gravitational) energy. Net zero. It doesn’t take *any* energy to “create” a universe. In fact, that’s one way of determining scientifically if there was a “creator” — there would have to be net positive energy representing work done. If it’s precisely zero, the universe started spontaneously. (Torbjörn might correct me here.)

    (2) I’m not suggesting you can create a new cosmos. In fact, that would be absurd. The question – cosmological /argument/ – is to do with the origin of the universe. My point is that you don’t have to “create” a new universe to establish the fact that there are multiple universes arising naturally out of the same fundamental fabric.


  30. I didn’t claim that it was established fact, only that the putative explanation was not beyond scientific investigation.

    You seem to be conflating multiverse and many worlds theories.

    (1) All science is observational science, back to the Back Bang (and further).

    (2) For which natural processes? Some processes have necessarily had different rates in the history of the observable universe. Physics is mightily consistent with observations all the way back to the Big Bang.

    (3) Experimental evidence does not have to be contemporaneous with an event for us to establish that that event took place. There are any number of mundane examples that illustrate that point. (Did you observe your own conception?)

    (4) The cosmological argument can be refuted regardless.


  31. (1) See previous (3). (2) I said consistent, not complete. (3) You miss the point. Disingenuously, I think. (4) I wasn’t trying to.

    Bye-ee! I hop you find contentment in your little bubble of confirmation bias.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *