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Christian YouTuber and apologist Brandon McGuire recently shared a review of Piers Morgan's interview with Stephen C. Meyer, author of Return of the God Hypothesis, on his talk show Piers Morgan Uncensored. One particular segment of the interview caught my attention as it provided Meyer with the opportunity to succinctly present his argument for classical theism from the singularity of the Big Bang.

Below can be found the transcript of part of this exchange:

Morgan: Well, your bestselling book, uh, new book Return of the God Hypothesis, you argue there are three big scientific discoveries that point to the existence of God. I want to go through these. One, the Big Bang Theory. So why would that lend support to a theory of a God?

Meyer: Right, maybe, just a little framing, before I dive into the evidence. Professor Dawkins at Oxford has said that "the Universe has precisely the properties that we should expect if at bottom there is no purpose, no design, nothing but blind pitiless indifference", and though I'm on the opposite side of this science vs. God issue with the good professor, I think he does a marvelous job of framing key issues, and this is one of those great framing quotations, because what he's saying is that whether we think of it as a scientific question or a philosophical question or both, if we have a hypothesis about reality, the way we test that is by looking at the world around us and seeing if what we see comports with what we would expect to see if our hypothesis were true. And his hypothesis is that of "blind pitiless indifference" which is a shorthand way of saying that everything came about by strictly undirected material processes. And what the materialists expected coming into the early 20th century was evidence of an eternal self-existent Universe--one that had been here from an infinitely long time--and therefore did not need an external Creator. What in fact the astrophysicists, the cosmologists, the astronomers found was evidence of a universe that had a definite beginning, and therefore one that could not have created itself because before the matter of the universe came into existence there was no matter there to do the causing. And so the the picture of the universe that has emerged starting from the 1920s all the way to the present, both from observational astronomy and from theoretical physics, is a universe that had a definite beginning and therefore requires some sort of external Creator or cause.

...

Morgan: You know, my big question for all atheists, well, is okay you don't believe in God, but what was there before the Big Bang, before this all started? What in other words what was there before? Supposedly nothing. What is nothing? Nothing to me seems to be a totally incongruous word! What is nothingness? And if you can't explain it to me--and I believe in God--but to me it suggests there must be a a power bigger than the human mind. The start of all this that was able to comprehend what may have happened, because we can't.

Meyer: Right. Dawkins wants to portray theistic belief as if it's equivalent to belief in fairies, and he'll concede that, well, it's possible. But I think there's a stronger argument for the theistic case, and that is that when scientists philosophers reason from evidence, they typically use a method of reasoning that has a technical name. It's called inferring to the best explanation, where the best explanation is one where you're invoking a cause which has the kind of powers that would be required to explain the phenomenon of interest. And you correctly pointed out in your conversation with him, that when you get back to that what physicists all often call the singularity, the point where matter, space, time, and energy begin to exist, the materialist is really up against a huge conundrum. Because, prior to the origin of matter, there is no matter to do the causing. That's what we mean by the origin of matter. That's where it starts. And so if you want to invoke a cause which is sufficient to explain the origin of matter, you can't invoke matter! It's in principle ... materialistic explanations are in principle insufficient, so you need to invoke something which is external to the material universe, and is not bounded by time and space as well. And that starts to paint a picture of the kind of cause you would need that has the sort of attributes the traditional theist traditionally associated with God. God is timeless, God is outside of time and space, has causal powers, is an agent with volition, and therefore can initiate a change of state--from, in this case, nothing to something.

In short, Meyer argues that materialists lack sufficient resources to explain the origin of the Big Bang singularity. This is because there was no matter before the singularity to account for the emergence of matter itself at that point. Meyer suggests that, on the other hand, an entity embodying the attributes often associated with traditional theism provides a more satisfactory explanation.

Are there any fallacies or leaps in logic or misapplications of abductive reasoning or of principles of inference to the best explanation in Stephen C. Meyer's argument?


NOTE: I'm not really sure if the use of the tag abduction is entirely appropriate here, in light of papers such as How did Abduction Get Confused with Inference to the Best Explanation?

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    What difference does it make what materialists expected coming into the early 20th century, before they knew modern physics. It is not like theists expected GR and QM either, they both know better now. "A universe that had a definite beginning and therefore requires some sort of external Creator or cause" strikes me as a textbook example of non-sequitur. "Supposedly nothing" is not what cosmologists say. What they typically say is that GR breaks down at the singularity and until we have quantum gravity there is no point asking about then or before. Straw men and gods of the gaps come to mind
    – Conifold
    Commented May 8 at 6:25
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    Perhaps there is nothing to infer about this sort of question? The test case would be to take a human who had no concept of God, have them research the situation and see if that person came up with God as an explanation. But still, it might end up being about a mental tendency that humans have, to come up with the idea if God. There is no way out of this explanation. People predictably imagine or experience lots of things which are not actual. No matter how many times you say 'water!' I can still say 'mirage', until you splash me with it. I would love to get wet, but it appears to be a desert.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 10 at 0:29
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    "Humans can't (yet) explain X therefore God did it." I feel like I've heard that somewhere before. Oh right. Lightning. Zeus makes it.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 10 at 14:57

6 Answers 6

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There are several.

First, both Meyer and Morgan are attacking a strawman argument: no atheist or physicist worth their salt will affirm they know that there was nothing before the Big Bang. We don't have a scientific theory able to model the physics of the very early universe, therefore we have no idea how it was like right after the Big Bang, let alone before (or even, considering how time and space are related, if "before the Big Bang" even makes sense).

Of course there can be speculations and hypothesis, but nobody claims to know. If someone claims to know with a rigorous body of work to prove their point and they are not already on their way to receive their Nobel prize, they're probably lying or deluded. When Morgan says "supposedly nothing", it's actually his own supposition he is putting in the mouth of atheists. The fact that Meyer answers with "Right" does not speak in his favor. Sometimes "I don't know" is the most valid answer.

There is the all too common issue with philosophers who attempt to tackle cosmology that Meyer tries to apply common sense to the very extreme conditions of the early universe. I'm not sure what the proper name of this fallacy is. The problem is modern physics defies common sense: we are trained to use inference in our immediate environment, at our human scale and based on our fallible senses, but think about the paradoxes of general relativity, or in quantum physics the randomness of experimental results, the mysteries of entanglement, the quantum eraser experiment showing cause happening after the effect, etc. "My common sense allows me to make inferences about before the Big Bang" simply does not hold (if, as we've seen above, it even makes sense).

"materialistic explanations are in principle insufficient, so you need to invoke something which is external to the material universe" is a typical "God of the gaps" fallacy: in a nutshell, "we don't know, therefore God". The reality is we dont "need" to invoke anything, nothing rushes us to reach a conclusion. I don't deny that there is indeed a mystery, but the most honest position facing it is "we don't know", not "it must be my hypothesis".

Meyer invokes inference to the best explanation, which is indeed a tool used by scientists, but is not part of formal logic. It is to say that the conclusion reached by using it is not as certain as the premises. It's used for practical reasons, for example when a doctor tries to issue a diagnostic based on observed symptoms: the circumstances press them to do something and heal their patient. "I don't know" is not an acceptable answer when someone's life is in the balance, so they will produce the best possible explanation for the symptom and propose a treatment based on this uncertain reasoning because doing nothing would be far worse. Also, the best explanation will often be tested by further, more focused examination. This is an efficient tool for medicine or engineering, but in the case of cosmology no circumstances push us to rush to a conclusion. "We don't know" is an acceptable answer.

Meyer concludes "And that starts to paint a picture of the kind of cause you would need that has the sort of attributes the traditional theist traditionally associated with God", then proceeds to conclude it must be God. This is a non sequitur. Even if we concede the idea of a timeless causal entity before the Big Bang (as we saw, that's already a stretch), the fact that it shares a few attributes with our idea of a divinity does not imply necessarily that it's a God.

To conclude, Meyer's argument looks like a convoluted version of the Kalam cosmological argument:

  • 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  • 2: The universe began to exist.
  • 1 & 2 -> 3: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

And this cause must be outside of the universe, therefore of space and time, therefore it must be timeless and spaceless, and this really looks a lot like a God.

This is easily countered by denying the premises 1 and 2: although it seems to be common sense given our limited day to day experience of the Earth environment, we don't know that everything has a cause or if the universe started to exist.

Another notable shortcoming of this reasoning is that it tells us nothing about the divinity who supposedly caused the universe: what is its purpose for the creation, what are its moral values, why would it care about us or communicate with us via prophets, what does it have in reserve for us after death, if anything? Actually, its timeless and spaceless nature makes it rather counter-intuitive that it would communicate with us, time and space bounded individuals. At best Meyer has demonstrated the existence of a divinity whose existence or non-existence is, in the end, irrelevant to our lives.

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Argument from ignorance fallacy. Just because our current scientific understanding cannot fully explain the origin of the universe from the initial singularity, it does not necessarily follow that a divine creator must be the explanation. This could be an example of the argument from ignorance fallacy, where an inability to explain something is taken as evidence for a particular explanation (in this case, God).

God of the gaps reasoning. Related to the above, Meyer seems to be employing a "God of the gaps" type of reasoning, where gaps in scientific knowledge are filled by invoking God as an explanation. This has historically been a problematic line of reasoning, as many past "gaps" have been filled by new scientific discoveries without requiring a divine explanation.

Anthropic assumptions. Meyer appears to be making anthropic assumptions about the nature of the cause or entity responsible for the Big Bang. He attributes properties like "agency," "volition," and characteristics associated with classical theism without providing a strong justification for why such anthropic qualities must be present.

He also critiques the limitations of materialistic explanations, his own explanation (a divine creator) does not seem to offer much more explanatory power or testable predictions. Invoking an immensely powerful, transcendent entity just relocates the problem rather than provides an explanation.

Basically there nothing new here. All this was analysed in details decades ago.

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    This is not god of the gaps reasoning. As you described in your answer, a god of the gaps reasoning is along the lines of "Oh, we don't know how this works...it must be god!" That's not what is being done here. All observational science points toward causality. We know the universe had a beginning, which requires a cause (per our observations) that exists outside the universe. Meyer would call this cause god. You call it what you want. You may differ on what the cause is, but the logic is sound and is not god of the gaps.
    – tnknepp
    Commented May 8 at 17:06
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    @tnknepp We don't know that the universe had a beginning. Also, if you want to call some arbitrary cause "God", I can't stop you, but that claim would be fairly meaningless and somewhat tautological. Most people attribute a lot more properties to the claimed God than just some cause outside the universe (and that includes Meyer, in the very quote in the question). If you construct a formal syllogism it one way, it's "God of the gaps", if you structure it differently, then it's equivocating on the definition of "God", yet another construction may be a non-sequitur, but no phrasing seems sound.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 8 at 19:55
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    @tnknepp He literally says "if you want to invoke a cause which is sufficient to explain the origin of matter, you can't invoke matter ... that starts to paint a picture of the kind of cause you would need that has the sort of attributes the traditional theist traditionally associated with God." How much clearer an example of "god of the gaps" could there be than literally saying "we don't/can't know so it must be god"?
    – Graham
    Commented May 9 at 7:11
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    @tnknepp Just to pick one thing you say, differing on a cause is important. If a rock falls down a hill and hits you, that's a cause of you being injured, but it matters whether the rock naturally fell or whether I pushed it. Meyer automatically assumes "cause" means "some entity did it", and that's very unsound logic.
    – Graham
    Commented May 9 at 7:15
  • @Graham perhaps theists have a hidden motivation of wanting to blame someone?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 10 at 0:59
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Let me summarize what Meyer said more succinctly: there was nothing material before the Big Bang, therefore nothing material could have caused the universe, therefore it must have been God.

In fact it is not settled among physicists that there was nothing material before the Big Bang. In the colliding branes theory, for example, the Big Bang was not an absolute beginning of time, but just one particularly violent event.

But let's set that aside and suppose, for the sake of argument, that there was indeed nothing material prior to the Big Bang, including that there was no time. Time began at the Big Bang.

So then, because there was no time, the question of what caused the Big Bang is incoherent. Causation is only defined if there is a time variable. With no time variable, there is no causation - neither by anything material nor by God.

Causation is just a particular regularity within the mathematical structure of the universe. It is conceivable that the universe could lack this regularity entirely. It is conceivable that the universe could be any mathematical object at all. If the universe were, for example, "the set of positive integers," then there would be no causation and no need for it. So, supposing that the universe began with an event that had no cause, this is not a problem.

Any explanation of the universe is judged, not on whether it assigns a "cause" to everything (or to anything), but on how much complexity is in the explanation and on whether it matches our observations. Any explanation, including God, has some irreducible complexity that cannot be explained as anything more basic. This complexity - not any notion of causation or lack thereof - is the "pill we must swallow" to accept the explanation.

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  • It reminds me of the comic where Zippy the Pinhead says that his aspiration in life is: "To own such a large home entertainment center, I lose consciousness." If we have a big enough bad enough theory in Physics, people will give up the idea of God? We're just giving them more to double down on. We should build an AI to out-argue them. It would have endless patience. Or, you know, launch all the nuclear missiles.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 10 at 12:11
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Like another answer says, he's basically presenting he Kalam (the universe began to exist, therefore it requires a creator), and it has all the typical Kalam problems:

We don't know the universe had a "definite beginning"

Our laws of physics breaks down at the point of the Big Bang, so we'd merely be speculating about what happens "before" that (if there is even a before). Theists are pretty much the only ones asserting that there was a definite beginning. Cosmologists tend to disagree, yet theists keep asserting that actually they agree, or they assert that "observational astronomy" tells us this, despite the experts disagreeing, and even when theists have no relevant education or experience to back up that claim (I'll leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about what this implies about such theists).

Note that there is "the universe" and there is "the cosmos". "The universe" is the state of matter as we know it today, and as far as what we can observe, and one might say that "began" at the Big Bang, but the important question is really about the cosmos, which includes all matter. Unfortunately the water is muddied a bit by "the universe" frequently being used to refer to the cosmos.

Conversely, this isn't evidence against "an eternal self-existent Universe". There always having been something still seems like a reasonable position to me, even if the thing that there was is completely different to material reality as we observe it today. But I don't have much of a stake in this particular hypothesis being true. Whatever hypothesis is true, there doesn't seem to be any sort of conscious being showing concern for humanity, given a lack of evidence in the modern day - I don't need to philosophise about the origins of the universe to see that, and we don't use comparable arguments to reach conclusions about literally any other aspect of our lives.

His phrasing is somewhat trying to poison the well against materialists, because he's trying to act like they "expected" this thing, and that implied that God isn't needed / doesn't exist, and this has been proven wrong. He is incorrect on just about every level. Materialism is built on following empirical evidence wherever it leads. And it hasn't led to conclusions of things "outside" the material, whatever that means, and there's no good evidence indicating that there's an external conscious being, never mind one who cares about humanity. If anything, the evidence points in the other direction: that cosmic forces (or forces beyond that) couldn't care less about what happens on this tiny planet of ours (and they seemingly couldn't care at all, i.e. there's no indication that they're conscious).

He conflates 2 things here: (1) if materialism is true, this is what we should see, and (2) this is what materialists at a particular point in time ("the early 20th century") expected. We could debate the second point, but that's pointless, because we can trivially grant that any given person may indeed just have been wrong. That gets you no closer to the first point, which he's making dubious assertions about.

Does "everything that begins to exist" really require a cause?

Meyer says the universe "requires some sort of external Creator or cause" because it "had a definite beginning". I already covered the issue with the definite beginning part, but one might also question the implication that this requires an external cause.

The Kalam says "everything that begins to exist has a cause" to support the above, but this is a questionable generalisation here.

If we consider what we may conclude from observable reality, then "everything begins to exist has a cause" is actually "everything in our universe that begins to exist has a material cause", and even that's a bit suspect, because things tend not to really "begin to exist", as such. The "beginnings" we see tend to actually be transformations of existing matter and energy (see also: the conservation of energy and mass).

So the Kalam is taking the observation that everything in our universe that is a transformation of existing matter and energy, has a material cause, and from that we're concluding that the universe itself originating from nothing, must also have a cause, and that cause is immaterial. Those are some questionable inferences, because those things are nothing like one another.

The Kalam merely concludes that the universe had a cause

(If we ignore the flawed premises, that is.)

This is a long way from "an agent with volition" or the god of any particular religion (which may or may not have theological problems like the problems of evil, suffering, hell, hiddenness and scriptural inconsistencies and inaccuracies despite a supposedly all-knowing all-powerful god who wants us to know about him).

I could grant (purely for the sake of argument) that the universe had a cause. I could even grant that it was created by a conscious, timeless, all-powerful being. That's already granting a whole lot, but I don't expect the theist would be able to make much progress beyond that. Even if I grant all of that, I don't expect they'd be able to make a good case for any religion worth caring about. If someone wants to argue for some weak form of deism, which has already been granted for the sake of argument, the question would be why the existence of this seemingly-indifferent and seemingly/functionally-absent being should be in any way important to us.

If someone can make a good case for a particular noteworthy deity from what I granted above, they would arguably also be able to make that case without invoking philosophical arguments about the origins of the universe. So ultimately the Kalam is largely irrelevant, and that is just spinning one's wheels.

He proposes something that defies intuition, to explain something that defies intuition.

If we grant that matter had a definitive beginning (still a questionable claim), or even that it's eternal, one might say this defies intuition. Our intuition is based on our experiences within the material world, in the present state of the universe, and we are finite beings, so it's understandable that it might fall short if talking about the potential beginning of matter, or a different state of the universe, or physical infinites.

In any case, he proposes something outside of the material world to explain this defied intuition in the material world. But this is just kicking the can down the road.

One should then do something theists tend to shy away from doing: ask whether it defies intuition for a being to exist that is powerful, timeless, loving, conscious, and outside of time and space (and inspired some flawed book, and sent themselves, that's also not themselves, to die as a sacrifice to themselves to save us from consequence they themselves impose based on a rule they themselves created, for a set of circumstances they themselves set in motion, and the being causes nice feelings sometimes, and maybe does some other stuff in some hard-to-verify ways, but all of this depends on the theist's particular set of beliefs).

If the universe must have a cause, why does this same principle also not apply to this being, i.e. it must have a cause? There are ways to try to get around that, but I don't find those compelling, e.g. one might say things that "begin to exist" must have a cause, but this would very directly exclude the universe if it didn't begin to exist. Also, where's the evidence that the being didn't begin to exist? That's just adding another questionable assertion to explain away a problem with some other questionable assertion.

I would say all of this absolutely does defy intuition.

So no, God doesn't seem to be the best explanation to me.

Meyer's response to Dawkins

Dawkins says the properties of the universe is what we'd expect if there's "no purpose, no design, nothing but blind pitiless indifference".

I can't speak for Dawkins, but my interpretation of what he said, and my own position, is that there doesn't seem to be purpose or design or concern for humanity from any cosmic or supernatural being. There is an inconceivably-massive universe, and almost all of it is inhospitable to us, it took us ages to figure out just how to get off this rock, but we haven't yet figured out how to not die when we try to leave our immediate vicinity. Most of this rock is also fairly inhospitable to us. The billions of years that is the history of the Earth and universe is filled with chaos, and (on Earth, at least) suffering and death. Humanity's history is much more recent, and is similarly filled with chaos, suffering and death. We don't see the hand of any divine being guiding this or making any of this better.

Meanwhile, Meyer says that what Dawkins is saying is a "shorthand way of saying that everything came about by strictly undirected material processes", and shifts the discussion to the origins of the universe. This seems like a bit of a bait-and-switch or strawman, which doesn't address the reasons why it seems like there's no purpose, no design, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

I imagine 2 kids (in an orphanage, for example) who've never met their parents and who know nothing about them, and they've endured a lot of bad stuff. One (Dawkins) says it certainly doesn't seem like they have parents who are concerned about them or who has a plan for their lives. The other (Meyer) says they clearly must have parents, because everyone has parents - where else did they come from? This is a flawed analogy, because everyone does have biological parents, so it's granting a lot to the theist. But even in this analogy, it's clear that the theist isn't really addressing the problem: there can be a lack of concerned parents regardless of whether or not there are parents. The latter doesn't refute the former (even if it might be some small step towards making a case for there being concerned parents).

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  • This is a flawed analogy, because everyone does have biological parents - Doesn't this entail an infinite regress of biological parents?
    – Mark
    Commented May 8 at 13:21
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    @Mark It's not an infinite regress because of evolution (and abiogenesis). "Everyone" refers to people, not all organisms. And if you go back in time, humans become less and less human, until we'd classify them as some other ape, with every organism along that path having biological parents (even if there is no clear line between humans and our ancestral species). For all organisms, we'd say that started with abiogenesis, so there may be some initial organisms that could be said to not have had parents.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 8 at 13:29
  • At least there doesn't seem to be any suffering and death other than on earth, that's a blessing.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 10 at 0:54
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I'd like to emphasize the last point of armand's very good answer.

Even if we humor Meyer with his assertions that there was no "matter" before the Big Bang but some other reason for it outside of the space and time of our universe: That this reason would be something like the Christian God is a non sequitur.1 It is, in fact, so far out there that it reeks of desperation. Because this argument is what you could call "rearguard action": Religion as the fallback explanation of the inexplicable has been on the retreat ever since modernity started to explain things. Now it has retreated to literally the very last thing that nobody has a good explanation for, and Meyer is defending this position with the back to the precipice. The pattern is obvious and laughable.


1 Given how "computational" nature is on the quantum level, it is more likely that the entity responsible for booting our universe is a very very alien programmer or system administrator.

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  • At least we have a long time ahead to sort it out. Or are there Short-timer Creationists too?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 10 at 11:51
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My 0.2 cents.

Big Bang theory may simply be a wrong speculation to make. The "singularity" may simply point to a bad theory or a bad application of mathematics.

A satisfactory unified theory of quantum mechanics and gravity still lacking, and with many and diverse theories competing for such a role, it is at least premature to argue over what the "Big Bang" means and how it came to be. IMO

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  • And then people will give up on the idea of God? Doesn't follow.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented May 10 at 11:55
  • @ScottRowe let;s see if "Big Bang" is indeed a valid speculation to make at least..
    – Nikos M.
    Commented May 10 at 14:18

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