Are theoretical physics the god of atheists?

I mentioned a couple of posts back that I deleted and banned a commenter because he spent two paragraphs tossing out insults after one short paragraph in which he believed to have completely decimated my argument against the Kalam (well, one of them anyway). But I'm actually going to respond to the substantive part of what he wrote, because it's something I hear often.

In that post, I mentioned M-theory. Without fully reading the post, the commenter essentially said that if I can't accept causality existing outside the universe, it's hypocritical to accept gravity existing outside the universe. That's a pretty gross misunderstanding of both my argument and M-theory, but this is how he phrased it, using my own words but substituting "gravity" for "causality":
Our very concept of gravity is derived from the observable universe. Gravity, as we know it, is observable, obeys the laws of the universe, and requires space-time. If there were no universe, gravity would cease to become a coherent or meaningful concept.
Checkmate, atheists!

This got me thinking about turtles. Specifically, the old myth that the world rested on the back of a turtle. The turtle was the sort of ultimate, immovable thing that's "at bottom" or just is. Arizona physicist Paul Davies did a lecture at Beyond Belief 2006 in which he compared some modern views to the old myth of the immovable turtle. Quoted from Atheist Ethicist:

(a) The universe comes from God, where God is the giant levitating superturtle that depends on nothing else for its existence. God made the universe friendly to human life because it fulfilled His desires to do so.
(b) The universe itself is the giant levitating turtle that depends on nothing else for its existence. It is just by chance that the universe is friendly to human life.
(c) The universe is a part of a multiverse. Each universe in the multiverse has its own natural laws. Of course, we would come into existence in a universe suitable for life and, of all the universes that exist, it is not surprising that at least one has laws suitable for life. However, on this model, the multiverse is the levitating superturtle.

Stephen Hawking's No Boundary Proposal, which he mentions offhandedly in The Grand Design but discussed at length in A Brief History of Time, proposes (b). M-theory proposes (c). So, are these propositions equally valid? Are they all just assertions?

There are a few things to say firstly about M-theory. Contrary to the irate (and now banned) commenter, I don't "accept" M-theory. In fact, in the post in question, I explicitly stated otherwise:
...until M-theory is confirmed by accurate, falsifiable predictions, neither Craig nor anyone else needs to accept that it is true.
M-theory is a possible solution to the problem of quantum gravity. It may or may not be true. A multiverse may exist, but it may not. M-theory allows for the possibility of a multiverse, but it could be – since M-theory is very much an incomplete theory – that there is some other mechanism at play. But if a multiverse does exist, the fundamental forces and laws of physics still apply. The multiverse is not some supernatural ethereal void, but a physical space. Further, in order to confirm the existence of the multiverse, M-theory would have to demonstrate that the physical properties of the multiverse – p-branes and the like – have a demonstrable effect on our universe through falsifiable experimental data.

Like any scientific theory, M-theory will live or die based on its ability to make falsifiable predictions. In her book Warped Passages, Harvard physicist Lisa Randall discusses how the Large Hadron Collider may be able to detect the presence of branes and curled-up spatial dimensions that are components of M-theory. M-theory suggests that the universe we inhabit is part of a vastly larger physical whole. The Kalam's creation ex nihilo, in contrast, would require causality to exist a priori to the universe in some indeterminate supernatural state, which is by definition an unfalsifiable assertion.

What Bill Craig did in the Q&A essay I criticized was to commit the fallacy of shifting the burden of proof. It is indeed possible, as I stated in my response, that causality in some way exists a priori, or that simultaneous cause and effect might exist. But it is not the burden of the skeptic to disprove the possibility of a claim, because, much like Hawking's No Boundary proposal or M-theory, the fact that something is possible doesn't mean it's true. Craig is the one making the claim that a priori causality exists, and the burden of proof is solely on him. Otherwise he's just making a bald assertion that is by definition unfalsifiable and, in assuming the consequent (a priori causality being necessary for the Kalam to be valid when a priori causality is in part what the Kalam is trying to prove), has constructed a circular argument.

Personally, the only "ultimate" conclusion I have drawn from my readings of theoretical cosmology is that, to the best of our knowledge, the laws of physics do not require a Creator for the universe. The universe may be finite and self-contained (b), or it may be part of a larger multiverse. We don't know. And the nice thing about being an atheist is that I don't have to pretend to know.


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