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The Incoherency of 'Divine Creation'

by Francois Tremblay



The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe? if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?

 —Stephen Hawking

Cosmological arguments in theology, such as the Kal?m Argument or First Cause Arguments, rely on what it purports are basic facts of reality (the finiteness of time, and the caused nature of the universe, respectively) and try to establish the existence of a god from that basis. Such arguments commit blatant fallacies because they commit category errors by comparing the universe with its parts.

From our standpoint, the universe is not a contingent object but rather a necessary set: we see no reason to reject the application of divine attributes to the universe. Indeed, this very fact is the basis for using Occam’s Razor as a strong-atheistic argument. Between the universe and the universe with a divine realm added, which both explain the same facts, the universe must be considered the most parsimonious explanation.

This article, however, is not about Occam’s Razor, but about the atheistic cosmological arguments. This class of arguments as discussed in atheology is at once more fundamental and more empirical, since it relies both on the contradiction of something (the universe) coming from nothing (prior state of creation), and on how this proposition clashes with Big Bang theory as well as more recent cosmological data.

To give an overview, we can first express the main Cosmological Argument in this abbreviated form:

  1. Divine creation implies an ex ante facto empty state of the universe.
  2. Empty states are atemporal and without potentiality.
  3. As an action, divine creation requires time and potentiality. (from 1)
  1. Divine creation is impossible. (from 2 and 3)

    What is “creation”? As pointed out in the argument, creation is a category of action. From the human perspective – the only perspective we can possibly have – creation and manufacture are recombinations of existing elements to form new structures.

    For instance, when we say “I created this book”, we mean that we recombined existing words and ideas (as well as new ideas formed from pre-existing ideas) in the form of a text. Likewise, the physical form of the book is made from the recombination of wood into wood pulp, and then paper.

    In the case of divine creation, however, it is the entire universe that is said to have been created. This means that no state of matter can have preceded such creation. If that was the case, we could call that state “universe” also. The universe is not an existent but the set of all natural existents: therefore no recombination of natural substrate can be used to create it. Ergo:

    1. Divine creation implies an ex ante facto empty state of the universe.

    One may argue that it is possible that a hypothetical god created the universe without any ex ante facto empty state. But this is the functional equivalent of saying that the universe and this god began existing at the exact same moment, otherwise there would have been a prior empty state when the god existed but not the universe. This position therefore entails that both came to being at the same time, and since actions take time, they must have both been created independently.

    At this point, it should be noted that the obvious objection from believers is that their god is atemporal, and therefore not subject to temporal limitations. I will not, however, address this objection immediately, since it applies to premise 3 as well. Instead, I will address it after my explanation of the argument.

    But what is time? While this complex topic is beyond the scope of this article, we need to establish some basic principles in order to show that time cannot exist in an empty state. We know that time is not a property of exterior reality because we know that time is a construct of our brains – more specifically, the basal ganglia and parietal lobe. Time can be defined as a measure of causality, of causal change. This is obvious in our use of clocks, which are based on the rotation of the Earth.

    If this is so, then how could an empty state contain time as a property? Since an empty state has no entities by definition, then it has nothing that is subject to causality. Without any change or possibility of change, it is necessarily atemporal and unchanging, and therefore absolutely fixed.. An approximation of atemporality observed by scientists is a state of near absolute zero, a state where atoms do exist but have almost no kinetic energy. Since atoms cannot exist without kinetic energy, we cannot observe what it is like for something atemporal to exist.

    We have to be careful here and not be confused by the term “state”. It does not imply that there is a universe, and that this universe is empty. The universe itself is not an existent, and cannot exist without existents. The notion of an empty state refers rather to an ontological null set, as opposed to a nonempty set. As we explained before, there must have been a state when nothing natural existed, if divine creation is true.

    An empty state is also without potentiality. If a potentiality was present, then it would not be an empty state by definition, since the existence of the potentiality would make it non-empty. Thus we obtain:

    2. Empty states are atemporal and without potentiality.

    But how do these criteria apply to the action of divine creation? As it turns out, they both contradict its coherency.

    An action requires time, since it demands that a causal change be effected in the nature of the actor in order for the actor to perform the punctual action, which is also a causal change by definition. In this case, it is even clearer because, as we discussed for premise 1, divine creation implies that we had an empty state which was transformed into a nonempty state by action. These two states must therefore exist at different points in time, otherwise they cannot be said to have existed at all. Therefore divine creation requires time.

    What about potentiality? As we discussed before, divine creation is contradictory because it demands that we accept a creation from nothing and based on nothing. Where did the matter used to create the universe, and the laws of this creation, come from?

    One may well answer “God created them”, but this begs the question of providing evidence for this new modus operandi problem. Furthermore, it does not dispel the contradiction. For a god to create the laws of creation itself, and to create matter that isn’t there, demands us to accept that something can come from nothing. Also, we know scientifically that the total sum of matter and energy in the universe is fixed – this is the law of conservation of matter and energy.

    Since existence is axiomatic, it is not difficult for the atheist to accept that the universe, in some form, is the First Cause. Indeed, from a rational semantic perspective, non-existence is a meaningless term, used as a logical abstraction (see my article ‘The Existence Dichotomy’), thus making the very notion of an empty state meaningless.

    One may attempt to dispel this potentiality problem by positing an ex ante facto universe-like structure without matter, which was then completed by a hypothetical god by creating all the entities inside it, or an ex ante facto universe with matter, which was structured by a hypothetical god. But both these constructions contradict the premise of divine creation. For if something natural existed ex ante facto, then this god did not create the universe, only a part of it.

    It may be more coherent to propose such a partial act of divine creation, but it is irrelevant to the issue at hand. And if the believer accepts it, then he has conceded the universe-as-first-cause position of the atheist anyway.

    We must therefore conclude that:

    3. As an action, divine creation requires time and potentiality. (from 1)

    Since an empty state implies the absence of time and potentiality, and divine creation requires them, the only logical conclusion from these propositions is:

    4. Divine creation is impossible. (from 2 and 3)

    At the beginning of this argument, I noted that the creative act is commonly understood as a recombination of existing elements. In the case of the hypothetical creation of the entire universe, there is nothing to recombine.

    I have already mentioned the standard objection that Christians give to this line of evidence – that God is atemporal and therefore not subject to causality or time. There is a sense in which this is intuitively reasonable, insofar as a god’s complete knowledge does make it transcend natural temporality in some sense.

    But as I also said, action requires change, and by consequence time. An action entails a punctual change in the agent’s nature so that the action may be effected. This may seem unclear, but we can use the example of typing on a keyboard to illustrate. The cause (my body) must be in a process of change, otherwise the effect would have already occurred (I would already be typing). When I type a letter on the keyboard, the position of my hand has to change. If it did not need to change, then I would already have been typing the letter, and the change in position would have occurred earlier. Whatever the time I type the letter, there must at some point be a change in the position of my hand. Likewise, this change in position of my hand is predicated upon change in the muscles of my arm and wrist, and so on.

    So it is incoherent to posit an active agent in atemporality. But there are other problems with the atemporal objection. One of them is that we cannot coherently say that a god caused the universe to exist if we cannot place the god’s action and the coming to being of the universe in a temporal succession. Divine creation cannot be shown as fulfilling the other criteria either: spatial contiguity (a god is supernatural and therefore cannot fulfill this criterion) and potentiality. But I will discuss the potentiality part later.

    The other problem is that a hypothetical god in a state of atemporality, when acting on the natural realm, must still act according to natural law. Non-natural processes cannot co-exist with a material realm. At best, we can say that a god can act in all the material ways possible.

    This assertion of mine can be seen to contradict by fiat the existence of miracles, which are usually defined as events that break natural law. However, to claim the existence of miracles is a logical impossibility, since the minimum of sufficient evidence to prove it would be complete knowledge of natural law and its consequences. Otherwise there is no way to evaluate whether a yet unknown natural law could fulfill the events that we describe as a miracle. I discuss this objection in my article ‘The Impossibility of Divine Intervention’.

    There is, however, a reply to this position, which I like to call the video game objection. According to this view, the hypothetical god is in the same position than a programmer or video game player. A programmer does not need to follow a video game’s laws in order to change it, or so goes the analogy. Why could not a supernatural god do the same?

    But this is a false analogy. The video game is not qualitatively different from the human being – both are part of the material realm and obey natural laws. By virtue of being parts, it makes sense to say that one modifies the other. But the universe is not an entity in itself, and neither is it a part. Most importantly, it is qualitatively different from the supernatural.

    Furthermore, the programmer is still bound to the laws of whatever interface he is using to program the game. The analogy reflects a naive view of causality: if the ultimate end product is not involved in the laws regulating its change, then it must be that the change is disconnected from the ultimate end product. But we see, in our programming example, that there is a chain of interfaces from the programmer to the programming environment, and from the programming environment to the ultimate end product.

    There are two other fatal problems with the notion of divine creation:

  2. It does not fit basic criteria of causality.

    David Hume proposed three necessary criteria for a causal link: temporal succession, spatial contiguity, and potentiality. Divine creation fulfills none of these criteria. Divine creation cannot be placed in temporal succession since its agent is atemporal. Divine creation cannot be spatially contiguous to its effect because its agent is non-material. Divine creation cannot be a potentiality of a god because there can be no condition by which an infinite being needs to create. For more information, see the Amoral God Paradox.

    1. The Hartle-Hawking wave function.

    According to the Hartle-Hawking wave function model of the universe, supported by empirical data, the non-conditional probability of our universe coming to exist is near-1. But if a god willed the universe to exist, the non-conditional probability of our universe coming to exist would be 1.

    A common objection to this argument is to posit that a god created a hypothetical entity with near-1 probability of becoming our universe, for instance, and let it run without foreknowledge. But if that is the case, our universe was created by this hypothetical entity, not the god in question. Furthermore, this objection is incompatible with Christian theology, which clearly states that God is omniscient, and specifically created this universe as part of his divine plan.

    Last updated: January 1, 2005