Misquoting physicists

The epic discussion in the comments section for the post "Apologetics 101" has gone, as discussions like that are prone to do, into pretty esoteric territory. The discussion has gravitated toward the First Cause arguments and whether the universe actually requires a beginning, which is kind of disappointing because just once I'd like to see someone really try to defend the ontological argument in a discussion like that. Oh well.

Anyway, the topic of whether the universe has a beginning is a thorny one, but it's a concept that's absolutely pivotal to belief in a theistic or deistic Creator (pantheists are off the hook). As Stephen Hawking so eloquently put it in A Brief History of Time back in '88, "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"

There's definitely a possibility that modern cosmologies will one day make the notion of a creator irrelevant. For now, Christian apologists like to cling to the standard model of the Big Bang, which seems to indicate that the universe began at a finite point in the past – at the so-called "cosmological singularity", where space-time becomes infinitely curved. When one commenter brought to my attention an article about a theorem from Alexander Vilenkin, a few minutes on Google found lots of attention about Vilenkin from Christians, including the notorious creationist blog Evolution News and an essay by the popular apologist William Lane Craig in which he quotes Vilenkin in a way that implies that physicists have resolved the issue:

...three leading cosmologists, Arvin Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin, were able to prove that any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary.
But, as is usually the case when theologians opine on physics, this is disingenuous. The reality of the issue is much more nuanced, as Caltech physicist Sean Carroll points out:
The singularity at the Big Bang doesn't indicate a beginning to the universe, only an end to our theoretical comprehension.  It may be that this moment does indeed correspond to a beginning, and a complete theory of quantum gravity will eventually explain how the universe started at approximately this time.  But it is equally plausible that what we think of as the Big Bang is merely a phase in the history of the universe, which stretches long before that time – perhaps infinitely far in the past.  The present state of the art is simply insufficient to decide between these alternatives; to do so, we will need to formulate and test a working theory of quantum gravity. [1]
Theologians can't get around the fact that the idea of a "beginning" is semantically thorny. William Lane Craig continues, disingenuously:
These [quantum gravity] models feature an absolute beginning of the universe, even if the universe does not come into being at a singular point. Thus, Quantum Gravity models no more avoid the universe’s beginning than do purported Eternal Inflationary models.
Problem is, that's only valid if you amend "beginning" to apply only to the observable universe. Or, to put it another way, cosmic inflation has a beginning (as Vilenkin himself explicitly states in an interview) – but it's a far cry from the creation ex nihilo that theologians yearn for. I don't think a semantic victory is quite what theologians are hoping for, but it may well be what they have to settle for.

That's the kind of precarious position that a believer can't avoid. Physics do not require the universe to have a beginning; and even if it does, a beginning that can be described mathematically will do little to bolster the notion that God had to be there to bring it about. Sean Carroll again sums it up nicely:
The important point is that we can easily imagine self-contained descriptions of the universe that have an earliest moment of time.  There is no logical or metaphysical obstacle to completing the conventional temporal history of the universe by including an atemporal boundary condition at the beginning.  Together with the successful post-Big-Bang cosmological model already in our possession, that would constitute a consistent and self-contained description of the history of the universe.
Nothing in the fact that there is a first moment of time, in other words, necessitates that an external something is required to bring the universe about at that moment.


Further reading:
Sean Carroll: How Did the Universe Start?
3-part interview with Alexander Vilenkin 

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