07 February 2013

Paradoxes of creation – or, How William Lane Craig misrepresents Alexander Vilenkin: part 3

Part 1 
Part 2

I confess that it's taken me much longer than I anticipated (a new relationship has a tendency to rearrange my priorities!), but I'm nearly done with Alexander Vilenkin's book "Many Worlds in One". He has a lot to say about whether the universe had a beginning, whether you need God to bring it into existence (his answer is that you do not), and the idea you may have heard from Lawrence Krauss and/or Stephen Hawking about a "universe from nothing", and what it all means.
I was introduced to Vilenkin, ironically, by the Christian apologist William Lane Craig, who frequently cites a paper Vilenkin did with fellow physicists Alan Guth and Arvind Borde as evidence that the universe had a beginning -- thus (according to Craig) it needed some external cause. (See the Kalam Cosmological Argument).

It would be the understatement of the century to say that Craig is liberally cherry-picking Vilenkin's work to favor his theistic presuppositions, and one ought to take his references to Vilenkin's work with a massive grain of salt. Frankly, upon reading Vilenkin's book for myself, I'm quite surprised that Craig references it all. Not only does it utterly fail to support his theology, but much of what Vilenkin discusses works utterly against it.



Paradoxes of Creation


Vilenkin begins his discussion of cosmic beginnings with the paradoxical nature of the "cosmic egg", as illustrated by a Jain poem:
The doctrine that the world was created is ill-advised, and should be rejected. If God created the world, where was he before creation? … How could God have made the world without any raw material? If you say he made this first, and then the world, you are faced with an endless regression … Thus the doctrine that the world was created by God makes no sense at all.
This echoes comments made by Stephen Hawking in a Discovery Channel special (I can't find the original quote, so I'll have to paraphrase): that it's nonsensical to talk about God creating the universe, because if the universe didn't exist, there was no time in which God could have created the universe.

Craig attempted a response to this in an old Q&A on his website (emphasis mine):
The claim seems to be that since the initial cosmological singularity is a boundary point to spacetime rather than a point of spacetime, therefore there was no time at which God could have created the singularity.
But this conclusion follows only if we equate time with physical measures of time.

In other words, Craig is suggesting that we can avoid this pesky paradox as long as we assume the existence of some sort of supernatural time. He continues,
A sequence of mental events alone is sufficient to generate relations of earlier and later, wholly in the absence of any physical events. So if God were counting down to creation, “. . . , 3, 2, 1, Let there be light!” God would exist in time even if He were not in physical time (that is, the physical measure that stands for time in the General Theory of Relativity).
Craig's fatuous analogy with cognitive abstractions – which require the physical brain and therefor must occur in time – is bad enough. But in case the problem here isn't obvious, allow me to spell it out: the only reason we have to speculate about the existence of "non-physical time" (whatever the hell that's supposed to be) is to support the argument that God created the universe. It's the fine theological tradition of making shit up. If the circularity in Craig's reasoning isn't embarrassingly obvious at this point, dear reader, it may be time for you to do something else.

Craig, in his review of Many Worlds in One, portrays Vilenkin as someone who is trying to "explain away" the fine-tuning of the universe and avoid the theistic implications of a "beginning" by resorting to mathematical trickery.  Clearly, he thinks theists have the upper hand:
Vilenkin seems to assume that the theist is stupefied in the face of such questions. But that is hardly the case. Jinasena's first question concerns the efficient cause of the universe and his second the material cause. The first question is not difficult to answer: "Nowhere," since space and time come into being at creation, so that there is no "before" and "where" prior to the beginning. The second question is more baffling; but if Vilenkin's theory of quantum tunneling provides an account of how the universe can arise without a material cause, then the theist may freely avail himself of it also. The advantage of theism over naturalistic accounts is that theism provides an efficient cause of the universe, whereas naturalism cannot.
Craig's speculations don't actually resolve any of the paradoxes; he just conjures up speculative phenomena, like non-physical time, to avoid them. One might be tempted to argue that physicists are also prone to speculation, but there is a key difference. When Vilenkin speculates about the multiverse, inflationary theory, or quantum tunneling (the "universe from nothing" idea"), the purpose is to account for specific features of our universe – to explain, mathematically, why our universe is the way it is. Craig, on the other hand, is simply looking for any opportunity to insert a God-of-the-Gaps.

The last statement above is particularly face-palm worthy. The reference to "efficient" and "material" causes is a reference to the philosopher Aristotle and his Four Causes, none of which are particularly relevant to modern science. A "material cause" is simply the material out of which something is composed – Aristotle believed that physical objects possessed some sort of potentiality; an "efficient cause" is an actor or object which affects the material cause. I'm not sure, then, why Craig thinks it's advantageous to for a theist to retain an efficient cause; not only is the concept entirely antiquated and unscientific, but it's like saying, "People who believe in God have an advantage, because they can say that God had some role in quantum tunneling". I have no idea if Vilenkin's theory of quantum tunneling is correct, but if it is then any role of God is utterly superfluous.

Is Vilenkin using mathematical trickery to avoid invoking God? I'll have more to say on that in the next post.

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