November 19, 2009

Stephen Hawking, the Big Bang, and the North Pole

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, November 19, 2009)

Stephen Hawking, the Big Bang, and the North Pole
For many thoughtful people, it seems that if the big bang occurred, that is, if the physical universe—all matter/energy, space, and time—exploded into being out of nothing physical, then this would strongly suggest that there is a powerful cause of the universe. Because this powerful cause would transcend the physical universe, it could provide evidence (as a part of a cumulative case argument) for the existence of God.

According to some critics, however, talk of a cause of the universe's beginning should be dismissed as nonsense. Why? Because to ask what caused the big bang assumes that the universe's cause came "before" time, but time itself came into being at the big bang, and so to think that something comes “before” time as the cause of time is to think that there is time before time, which is silly.

In other words, as Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking has famously pointed out, asking what caused the big bang is like asking "What is north of the North Pole?" It's logically absurd. So thinking that the big bang has a cause is logically absurd too.

The above criticism sounds good, and persuades many, but is it sound? That is to ask, is it reasonable to accept? We should think not.

The objection gains philosophical traction only if causality is essentially a temporal notion. That is, the objection works only under the assumption that all causes must precede their effects in time. But it turns out that causality is not an essentially temporal notion. It turns out that some causes occur with their effects simultaneously.

Significantly, this latter understanding of causality is all that is needed for the notion of the universe’s cause to remain within the realm of reason.

Think of a bicycle chain that moves the rear wheel sprocket. Or just consider the rear wheel sprocket moving the axle that moves the rear wheel. In these everyday cases there is simultaneous cause and effect. (Imagine too that the molecules of the sprocket and axle are “welded” together, so there is no time lag in the motion transfer.)

Or think of a ball sitting on a pillow for an eternity, causing an indentation on the pillow for all eternity.

In these instances of simultaneous cause and effect we see that some causes are (to use philosophical talk) ontologically prior to the effect, but not temporally prior. That is, they come first in terms of being, but not time. Although most causes do precede their effects in time (and no causes occur after their effects), and although we perceive simultaneous causation within time (we exist in time after all), it is nevertheless clear that causation is not essentially a temporal notion. Time is not a necessary condition of causality per se.

It's not unreasonable, then, to think that time's creation could occur simultaneously with its cause. Therefore, to talk of a cause of time is not logically absurd.

Contrary to what Hawking and company think, then, we are not asking something like "What is north of the North Pole?" Rather, we are asking something like "What is above the North Pole?" Because the answer to the latter question is not logically absurd, neither is the idea that the big bang—the beginning of all matter/energy, space, and time—has a cause.

Such a cause would seem to be not only very powerful and universe transcendent, but also timeless. Such characteristics strongly and reasonably suggest God.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

P.S. The photo above is of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) as viewed from the International Space Station Expedition 6.

1 comment:

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

For William Lane Craig's October 2011 lecture on Stephen Hawking's book The Grand Design see "Origins of the Universe: Has Stephen Hawking Eliminated God?"