By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the cosmological argument. Please see Part 1 if you have not read it yet.

To read along with audio for this article, click here Cosmo-Part2

2. The universe had a beginning


When I was growing up, one of my favourite books was Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman.  It is the story of a boy who has a blanket made for him by his grandfather.  When the blanket gets tattered, instead of throwing the blanket out, the grandfather makes a jacket out of the blanket.  Later, the same wear and tear on the jacket results in the grandfather making a vest from the jacket, and later a tie, until finally, all that is left of what was once a blanket is a little button, which is subsequently lost.  After the loss of the button, even the very resourceful grandfather cannot make something come from nothing.  Though I was only a child when this was being read to me, I was not surprised when the grandfather confessed that he could not make something from nothing, even though he could do quite a bit with something.  Above we explored the proposition that everything that had a beginning had a cause, which seems to make enough sense according to our everyday experience, but if that is the case, an inquisitive mind might try to see how far back the beginnings go.  After all, starting with, say, the vest in the story, it is certainly true that the vest came from the jacket.  However, I could probe further and ask where the jacket came from, or even back to the blanket.  Even though this point is not part of the story, it is assumed that the blanket was made from some sort of fabric, which in turn was constructed of some kind of natural material, and so on.  If you cannot make something from nothing and if we acknowledge that there is something, it is a valid thought to think there must have always been something.  The question of what that something might be is related to this Second Premise, so I intend to present both philosophical and scientific arguments to show the truth of this premise.

Philosophical argument

Philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe were around long before there was sufficient scientific evidence to support this.  Before I had ever heard any of these arguments, I think I still had the basic idea.  The key question is one of infinity and reality.  Even as children, my friends and I used the word “infinity” all the time.  Usually it would be invoked to settle a dispute; something like, “My dad can lift 200 pounds!” “Oh yeah?  Well, my dad can lift infinity pounds!”  Or the classic argument about who started the fight: “He did!” “Did not!” “Did too!” “Did not!” “Did too times infinity!  Ha!”  Looking back, such arguments were certainly childish, but we did show at least partial understanding of the concept of infinity: it could be invoked as an ultimate that no one else could beat.  It’s funny how little has changed for some adults, because infinity is still invoked sometimes as an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing.  A skeptic might accept the concept of causality, but then say that the universe did not have a beginning, so even though the First Premise is true and the conclusion follows naturally from the premises, they would cast doubt on the Second Premise in order to doubt the validity of the argument.  The universe, then, would have to be eternal, and that is the way many atheists would like it to be.  This is revealing, because it betrays a sense that there must be something that is ultimate.  The question then becomes one of determining how good the universe is as a candidate for this ultimate.  Well, when we are talking about whether the universe is infinite, we are talking about eternal matter, because if the universe has always existed, so has the matter that makes it up.  To this I ask, “Can there be an infinite amount of things?”  As a kid I used to think of counting to infinity, when it quickly dawned on me that I would never be able to, because I could always be counting, but never reach infinity.  I suppose I was one of the few kids who liked math, so I knew that, no matter how big the numbers were to get, I could keep going and going.  The thing about infinity is that it can mess with your math when it is taken out of the abstract and applied to concrete situations.

William Lane Craig offers some helpful examples, because it can be hard to think of the implication of there actually being an infinite number of things.  One of these examples comes from

David Hilbert

German mathematician David Hilbert and is called Hilbert’s Hotel.  First of all, if there was a hotel with a finite number of rooms and a new guest arrived at a time when all the rooms were occupied, the man at the welcome desk would have to say that there was no room available and the guest would have to find accommodation elsewhere.  However, if we imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, again all occupied, such a guest need not be turned away.  The proprietor could simply move the guest from room #1 to room #2, the guest from room #2 to room #3, and so on to infinity.  As a result, room #1 would be available and the new guest could check in, without anyone having to check out.  If you missed why that is significant, imagine if an infinity of new guests show up and the same procedure is applied to accommodate them.  This infinite number of guests could be accommodated in a hotel where the infinite number of rooms is still occupied!  When it comes time for some guests to check out, let us say that half of the infinite number of guests check out, coming from all the odd numbered rooms, #1, #3, #5, and so on.  The proprietor does not like having empty rooms, so he does the same room shifting, but in reverse.  He puts the guest from room #2 in room #1 and does the same to fill all the empty rooms.  How many guests would now be in the hotel?  You guessed it…infinity (Reasonable Faith, p.118-119).  The absurdity of this example shows the absurdity of having an actually infinite number of things.  I find this example makes the point sufficiently, but I think this next example from Imam al-Ghazali to be even stronger.

Suppose there were 2 coordinated series of events without beginning by imagining that our solar system existed from eternity past.  Suppose also that for every orbit Saturn completes Jupiter completes 2.5 orbits.  Now, if they have been orbiting from eternity, which planet has completed the most orbits?  The mathematical answer is that they have completed the exact same amount of orbits.  Even though it would seem that the longer the planets revolve there would be a greater disparity between them, the fact that they have both completed an infinite amount of orbits obscures this.  Al-Ghazali goes further in asking whether the number of orbits will be odd or even.  Either answer seems absurd, but mathematically, both answers are correct: both odd and even (Reasonable Faith, p.123-124).   In other words, the universe is a poor candidate for something that is infinite and ultimate.  Everything we can observe in our universe may be dependent on something else, but then I find it incoherent to say that the universe need not be dependent on anything, but can be explained by an infinite regress of causes.  As F.R. Copleston stated, “So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a necessary being.  An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being.” (Quoted by Charles Taliaferro, Philosophy of Religion, p.63).  Even as a kid, I could set up dominoes and marvel at how each one fell over because the one before hit it and knocked it into the next domino.  However, you would not get away with telling me that nothing hit the first domino or that having an infinite number of dominoes would answer the question as to why the last one fell.  So it seems to me that the plausibility of an eternal universe is already on thin ice from the philosophical arguments, but in my opinion, the fatal blow is still to come.

Scientific argument

Prior to the 20th century, atheists could feel secure in saying that the universe was eternal and did not need a cause.  However, from about the time of Albert Einstein, this foundation began to be seriously shaken, to the dismay of some scientists, including Einstein himself.  As I mentioned briefly in the introduction, it is significant how the evidence for the beginning of the universe came to be discovered, because the philosophical bias of some of those responsible for putting forth the idea that the universe had a beginning was disinclined toward this conclusion.  Before the work of Einstein and friends, finding scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe might be compared to trying to start a fire in a hurricane, but over the last hundred years, it was as if the wind and rain suddenly stopped and were replaced by buckets of gasoline.  What was the big change?  In short, the Big Bang.  The Big Bang is the term used by scientists to describe the beginning of the universe and it is supported by several lines of evidence.  Geisler and Turek have presented these in the easy to remember acronym, SURGE: the Second law of thermodynamics, the Universe is expanding, Radiation from the Big Bang, Great galaxy seeds, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.76-84).

S-The Second Law of Thermodynamics

If you are unfamiliar with the term “thermodynamics”, it is the study of matter and energy.  According to the second law of thermodynamics, the universe is running out of usable energy.  In conjunction with the first law, stating that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant, it can be seen that the universe has only been around using energy for a finite amount of time.  To give an analogy, if your car is running and using up all available fuel (the second law), and no new fuel is put into the fuel tank (the first law), it would be safe to say that your car has not been running for an infinite amount of time.  According to the first and second laws of thermodynamics, if the universe has already been around eternally, it would have already run out of usable energy.  This is a lot like the philosophical arguments for the universe being finite, exposing the impossibility of running a universe for an infinite amount of time on a finite amount of energy.  The second law was strongly affirmed by cosmologist Arthur Eddington, but before I quote his comments about it, it is worth pointing out how he felt about the universe having a beginning.  “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of nature is repugnant to me…I should like to find a genuine loophole.”(Quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.73).  That being said, here is his affirmation of the second law of thermodynamics:

“The Law that entropy increases-the Second Law of Thermodynamics-holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature…if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” (Quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.78)

U-The Universe is Expanding

Though it was a well-known man who made the final confirmation that the universe is in fact expanding, there were other lesser-well-known scientists who were looking into the possibility prior to this.  Astronomer Vesto Melvin Slipher was investigating this expansion as early as 1913.  In the early 1920s, Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre worked on Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity to predict an expanding universe (More will be explained about Einstein’s contribution below).  Around the same time, Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter found that General Relativity required the universe to be expanding.  The proverbial nail in the coffin, though, came from that well-known man I alluded to just a moment ago.  His name was Edwin Hubble and you probably know his name from the Hubble Space Telescope.  In the late 1920s, he actually observed the expansion of the universe through a telescope, noticing a “red-shift” in the light from every observable galaxy.  The light from distant galaxies was redder, meaning that the galaxies were moving away from the earth.  Light moving in waves away from its source, stars in this case, is less intense if the stars are moving away from the observer than if the stars are moving toward the observer.  From a star moving away from the observer, each subsequent wave travels a little further and the waves are thus further apart, but from a star moving toward the observer, each subsequent wave travels a little less and the waves are thus closer together.  This follows the principle known as the Doppler Effect and it confirmed the earlier mentioned mathematical equations that predicted an expanding universe.  The fact that the universe is expanding brings us again to something that echoes the philosophical arguments.  If the universe is expanding, it was obviously more compressed in the past.  However, if the universe were eternal, we would expect it to be static and unchanging.  We would not expect it to be stretching out, because the fact that it is stretching out implies that it has only been doing so for the amount of time it would take something of maximum density to expand to the present size of the universe.  If you ran the history of the universe in reverse, you would see the universe contracting instead of expanding, but something cannot contract forever.  Sooner or later, all the matter in the universe would be compacted into the smallest possible point, and thus, it would be the beginning of the universe.  The evidence of the expansion of the universe does not support the notion that the universe is eternal, but it is not as if it was widely expected that this would be the state of the universe among the scientific community.  As John Wheeler exclaims,

“Of all the great predictions that science has ever made over the centuries, was there ever one greater than this, to predict, and predict correctly, and predict against all expectation a phenomenon so fantastic as the expansion of the universe?” (Quoted in Reasonable Faith, p.126)

R-Radiation from the Big Bang

Not only was this discovery made by two scientists who were not looking for it, they also held a view of the universe that conflicted with what this evidence indicated.  Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson believed in the Steady State Theory (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.85), but subsequently changed their views in response to the mounting evidence.  The Steady State Theory acknowledges that the universe is expanding, but postulates that new matter is drawn into being created out of nothing to fill the voids as the galaxies recede or drift apart (Reasonable Faith, p.128).  This theory was never verified experimentally, and it was what Penzias and Wilson discovered by accident that became a major refutation of the Steady State Theory and earned them Nobel Prizes.  When Penzias and Wilson detected strange radiation on their antenna, no matter where they turned it, they initially thought it might be the result of pigeon droppings.  However, after removing the bird droppings, the radiation was still there, coming from all directions.  What they eventually discovered is that this radiation was the afterglow from the Big Bang fireball explosion.   The light of this cosmic background radiation can no longer be seen, because its wavelength has been stretched by the expanding universe, but the heat can still be detected.  It was predicted in the 1940s that this heat would be out there if the Big Bang occurred, but no one attempted to detect it until it was discovered by accident in 1965.  With this, the Steady State Theory, which also arose in the 1940s, could not stand the test of time.

“I philosophically liked the Steady State.  And clearly I’ve had to give that up.” (Robert Wilson, quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.85)

“The Steady State theory turned out to be so ugly that people dismissed it.  The easiest way to fit the observations with the least number of parameters was one in which the universe was created out of nothing, in an instant, and continues to expand.” (Arno Penzias, quoted in I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.85)

G-Great Galaxy Seeds

In addition to the predictions of the expansion of the universe and cosmic background radiation, scientists made another prediction of what might be true if the Big Bang had happened.  Scientists predicted that there would be slight temperature variations in the cosmic background radiation, which would allow matter to come together through gravitational attraction into galaxies.  In 1989, NASA launched a satellite called COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) which would be able to see if these temperature variations existed and how precise they were if they did.  The results of COBE’s findings led astronomer and project leader, George Smoot, to announce, “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”  COBE not only found the temperature variations predicted, but showed that they were so precise, in relation to the explosion and expansion of the universe, as to allow just enough matter for galaxy formation, but not enough to cause the universe to collapse back on itself.  COBE took infrared pictures of these precise temperature variations, which are actually pictures of the past, because it takes a long time for light to reach us from distant objects.  These pictures then represent the existence of matter from the very early universe that would eventually form into galaxies, so Smoot called this matter “seeds” of the galaxies as they exist today.  These “seeds” are the largest structures ever detected, with the biggest stretching over 1/3 of the known universe!  Extremely large, but also extremely exact in allowing galaxies to form, Smoot referred to them as the “fingerprints of the maker.”

E-Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The theory of General Relativity demands an absolute beginning for time, space, and matter, showing that all three are interdependent.  Time began when there was some matter that could move in space, and while this is consistent with Big Bang cosmology, it was strangely inconsistent with what Albert Einstein wanted to believe about the universe.

He wanted the universe to be static and eternal, but in 1916 he did not like where his calculations were taking him, because they pointed to a definite beginning to all time, matter, and space.  In fact, Einstein disliked the implications of General Relativity so much that he introduced a cosmological constant (which has been subsequently called a “fudge factor”) into his equations to avoid an absolute beginning.  However, he would not get away with it for long, because Arthur Eddington, whom we quoted above as loathing the prospect of a beginning to the universe, conducted an experiment in 1919 during a solar eclipse that confirmed the truth of General Relativity (I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, p.73).  In addition, as mentioned above, Friedmann, Lemaitre, de Sitter, and Hubble confirmed the predictions of General Relativity in the 1920s.  Now the theory has been verified to five decimal places.  In 1929, Einstein himself went to look through Hubble’s telescope at Mount Wilson and what he saw was irrefutable evidence that the universe was indeed expanding, as his theory had predicted.  He subsequently described the cosmological constant as “the greatest mistake of my life” (Quoted by Francis Collins, Language of God, p.63).

Further scientific evidence could be cited as well, as if the great SURGE was not strong enough.  There are certain radioactive chemical elements that steadily decay and transform into different elements, which geologists use to determine the age of rocks.  As Francis Collins explains, “…radioactive chemical elements steadily decay and transform into different, stable elements: uranium slowly becomes lead, potassium slowly becomes argon…” (Language of God, p.89).  This is a very long process, but assuming that the universe is eternal and time is not an issue, we might expect that all the former elements would have already totally decayed into the latter elements.  Since this has not yet happened, we are working with a limited amount of time.  Though I discussed objections to the First Premise above, I will not discuss the objections to the Second Premise.  The point has been sufficiently made that the evidence for the universe having had a beginning is quite well established, in spite of some initial resistance, even from some of those responsible for its eventual acceptance.  I find the objections and opposing theories to be highly theoretical, while not very empirical, thus resulting in not being widely embraced.

Alexander Vilenkin

Suffice it to say that Big Bang cosmology, in my opinion, presents the best explanation of the available evidence, and should certainly not be rejected on the basis of philosophical discomfort.  I think the words of Alexander Vilenkin, who has himself proposed different theories for the beginning of the universe, say it best:

“It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man.  With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe.  There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes, p.176)

Click here to see part 3 of the article

  1. Mohammad Abusteit says:

    This may be a little bit too late. But I had a question. For the Radiation line of evidence as well as the second law of thermodynamics line of evidence. What would you say to atheists who respond by saying that these only became applicable 14 billion years ago. Thus having a past-eternal universe but having these two apply only for a finite time. How would you respond?

    • Hello, Mohammad. It is certainly not too late to ask a question.

      One problem with such an explanation is that it is not just that these 2 features of the universe became applicable 14 billion years ago, but that time, energy, space, and matter (the things that make up the universe) came into existence at the same historical point, according to these lines of evidence. Prior to this historical point (often called the singularity), it would be pointless to talk about the 2nd law of thermodynamics or radiation, because there would be no energy or time (not to mention matter or space). It is not as if the universe could have been going along nicely in the eternal past, and then, at the 14 billion year mark before now, the 2nd law of thermodynamics and Big Bang radiation suddenly kicked in for some reason. Atheists would still need an explanation for such a change in state, but regardless of that, we still cannot talk meaningfully about the universe without matter, energy, time, and space. Those features make up our universe, and yet, according to multiple lines of evidence, they are connected to a finite point in the past, which leads logically to the universe beginning at a finite point in the past.

      I hope that answers your question, but let me know if you need further clarification.


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