The Cosmological Argument for Agnosticism


If the general picture however of a Big Bang followed by an expanding universe is correct, what happened before that? Was the universe devoid of all matter and then the matter suddenly somehow created? How did that happen? In many cultures the customary answer is that a god or gods created the universe out of nothing. But if we wish to pursue this question courageously, we must of course ask the next question: Where did god come from? If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step and conclude that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question?

~Carl Sagan

e can only probe into the genesis of mass-energy at the point when it popped into three dimensions of space in the first moment of time. If the Big Bang was caused (which is uncertain) it was caused by something outside of the universe itself, an uncaused cause or an infinite regression of caused causes, operating outside of our laws of physics, and so unknowable to us. The very concept of “cause” breaks down because it is a human concept drawn from our time-centric experience, and is therefore meaningless in the timeless pre-universe.

Of course, it’s possible that the Big Bang theory will be supplanted by or subsumed into a different scientific theory, which will push back the start of time. Suppose we say that the Big Bag was spawned by a multi-verse. Does this answer the cosmological question? No, it just pushes it back. What caused the multi-verse? Why is there a multi-verse instead of nothing?

Or suppose we say the singularity that Banged so Bigly was formed from quantum fluctuations in the pre-cosmic vacuum. Fine, but what caused the quantum fluctuations? Why are there quantum fluctuations instead of nothing?

Physicists have an answer for that. The quantum fluctuations are an inevitable product of the laws of physics. Okay, but what caused the laws of physics? Why are there laws of physics instead of nothing?

Science might broaden our understanding of time and space to include new dimensions, and expand our concept of the universe to encompass previous universes or a multiverse, and deepen our understanding of the laws of physics to include laws we don’t experience directly to account for the ones we do, but when we finally arrive at our best understanding of space-time and mass-energy – whether we still call the sum of all things the universe, or something else (the ultraverse?) – science will still be unable to answer the cosmological question.

The argument from first cause is not convincing that there must be a god worth worshipping, but it does expose the fact that existence is rooted in something unknowable, something wonderfully fuzzy. Theists want to dress this fuzziness up in a robe, hand it a scepter, flip a crown on its head, and call it Yahweh or Allah. Others dismiss the whole topic as not warranting thought or discussion. The scientific approach is to allow the fuzziness to be fuzzy for as long as the data is incomplete, which in this case is likely forever.

The cosmological argument for theism is flawed, but with considerable tweaking it might be reshaped it into a cosmological argument for agnosticism that is, hopefully, more solid:

  1. We exist in a universe consisting of space-time and mass-energy, governed by laws of physics.
  2. The only means we have for understanding the universe are dependent upon the physical nature of the universe.
  3. By #2, we have no means for understanding what came “before” the start of time, or what is “beyond” the material universe, where neither space nor time nor the laws of physics exist as we know them.
  4. Therefore, we have no means for understanding the ultimate cause of our existence even if there is one. The most we can do is acknowledge the inscrutable mystery.

Huxley was agnostic in relation to what he called “the problem of existence.” What did he mean? He wasn’t referring to the existence of God. (He seems to have been an implicit atheist, like most agnostics.) He meant the existence of anything. Why is there anything here at all? I am led to agree with Huxley – firstly that this is the pertinent problem, and secondly that I have not solved it, and that I’m pretty sure it is insoluble.

Why is there something instead of nothing?

It is a legitimate question. And the correct answer is, in its own way, beautiful and profound. And here is that answer:

Nobody knows.

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 Posted by on February 19, 2012
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