Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Case for an Ultimate Creator

Seth argues in the comments of my most recent post on Mormonism that:
It is important to keep in mind that Mormonism, unlike Nicene Christianity, does not experience a theological need for the sort of metaphysical unity described by homoousios. We don't posit God as a different species from the rest of us, because - lacking any need for ex nihilo creation - there is no real need to categorize him as a different species. This changes our entire outlook on the scriptures, and yields much different questions and solutions to be asked and solved.

In fact, I would say the real difference between Mormonism and traditional Christianity is our disagreement over the notion of creation ex nihilo.

All other distinctions between our faiths are either superficial, or a matter of degree.

But creation ex nihilo is pretty-much non-negotiable and fundamentally critical.
He and I disagree on whether this is the only non-superficial distinction between Mormonism and Catholicism, but he's absolutely right that this one's a biggie. In fact, it's even bigger than Seth mentions: if Catholics are right about creation ex nihilo, atheists and virtually all non-Abrahamic faiths have been disproven as well, for reasons I'll address below.

If you're not familiar with the term, creation ex nihilo refers to the idea that God created the universe from nothing. That is, He didn't simply reorganize the pieces: He made the pieces from scratch. It's "creation from nothing," plain and simple (the opposite term is "creation ex material," creating from existing materials). Anyways, here are some of the ways we can know that Creation ex nihilo is correct:
I. Time Requires a Beginning
This is one of the most confusing concepts, so I'll do my best to explain it. To say that time has no beginning sounds sensible: everything here was always here, right? But it's not workable. Saying time (or space, or matter) always existed is like saying that the clock started running at "infinity B.C.," if you will. So ask yourself this: how long would it take to get from infinity B.C. to 2010 A.D.? The answer seems like it would be "infinity years," which is itself nonsensical. But actually, the answer is that it simply can't be done. You cannot start from negative infinity and get to any point. But frankly, either way you think of it -- that you can't start from negative infinity, or moving from infinity B.C. to any other point in time takes an infinite number of years -- leads to the same conclusion.

It's possible for a thing to begin and not have an ending. It's not possible for a thing to not have a beginning. Other mental images may be helpful in understanding what's being said here. The image of a bottomless well serves the purpose here. If bottomless wells existed, you could fall down them. There's a clear beginning (the top of the well), simply without a middle or an end. You could even measure the distance you'd traveled -- 200 feet in, a million miles in, whatever. You'd be falling forever, but you had to start falling at some point. Now consider this: how long would it take you to climb out of the bottom of a bottomless well? You can't, obviously. You couldn't begin to climb from the bottom, because there is no bottom. But even if you somehow could climb up from the bottom (which, again, you can't), how long before you ever got out of the well? An infinite number of years: it could never be done. But the same holds true for any other point on the well: you couldn't get to a million miles from the top, either, or any other point.*

So you can't start from the bottom of a bottomless well and count forward. Time is like that well. The ex nihilo view of time is like falling down the bottomless well. There's a definite beginning to time (with the moment of Creation), and we can base our time off of that. Time might continue forever, just as you can fall down the well, but it has a definite starting place. Rejecting this -- rejecting a starting place for time -- and you run into the impossible problem of climbing up a bottomless well. If you understand this concept, it knocks out a lot of creation-theories. It knocks out the idea of matter always existing, a fallacy embraced by Mormonism, most atheists, and a variety of others.

* But, Wait...
Now, there's one semi-caveat. In trying to imagine this, you might imagine yourself simply waking up a set distance down the well and climbing (or falling) from there. If you woke up 20 feet into the bottomless well, clinging to the sides, you could climb up, obviously -- the same way you could theoretically climb out of a 20-foot well. You could imagine being in a tunnel with no beginning or end. But this is what's called an origin point. I don't want to get off-track, so just realize that this doesn't contradict anything I said above. It's still a set starting point -- for example, the way that 0 is the origin point for both positive and negative numbers. And that starting point is a beginning.

II. Motion Requires a Beginning ... Outside this Universe
This is simple enough, and I think easier to understand than the argument from time. First, all things in motion are set in motion, and not by themselves. Second, Newton's first law of motion is that "In the absence of a net external force, a body either is at rest or moves with constant velocity." Think of outer space. If you set a pencil in the middle of space, it'll stay there (provided there aren't other forces, like gravity, at work). If you toss the pencil, it'll keep going and going until something else acts on it (it bumps into something, you catch it, etc.). This is why when you go to paddle a boat, you row in the water. This applies to humans as well. If you were floating in a gravity-free environment, you wouldn't be able to change your center of mass without the help of external forces. You also can't pull yourself up by the bootstraps, or pull yourself out of a swamp by your ponytail, to use two examples from literature.

Think of falling dominoes: if you see a chain of falling dominoes, you realize that each domino is caused to fall by the one before it, and that this can't be an infinite chain. It can't be an infinite chain for the same reasons described in Part I -- to say there have been an infinite number of dominoes which have already fallen in the past is to declare this the infinite-plus-one domino, which is nonsensical, of course. Since the chain has a beginning, it also must have a cause that isn't itself just a falling domino (since each domino falls because of an outside influence): this is the First Cause. For the dominoes, it's usually a person flicking the first domino over; for the universe, it's God.

Given this, it's easy enough to see:
  1. The universe is in motion
  2. Everything in motion is set in motion by an external force.
  3. This requires a force outside the universe to have set the universe in motion.
This is, more or less, the first of Aquinas' five ways of proving a Creator, discussed yesterday. It proves both that the universe was set in motion, and that it was set in motion by something or Someone external to itself.
III. Laws Require a Lawgiver
This one's simple, so I'll keep it short. The universe is governed by laws, and logical ones at that. These laws are capable of leading to life, and are stable laws. If the laws were even slightly different than they are, there would be no life on the universe. And if the laws weren't stable, it would make knowledge and science completely impossible. The bedrock of science is having repeatable, testable hypothesizes. If the universe on Tuesday has totally different gravity, or maybe inertia took the day off, it would be impossible to ever learn anything concrete about the universe in which we live -- and that's assuming that we weren't just annihilated by the shifting physical laws. To an extent we don't even realize, our day to day operates upon the assumption that when we take our next breath, we'll still be breathing oxygen, and not some spontaneously created toxic element.

So we have laws, and they're good, stable laws. But good or bad, stable or varying, laws of any sort require a lawgiver. We recognize this implicitly: we name things, for example, Newton's First Law of Motion. But Newton only discovered a law Someone Else created.

Now, if God is the Lawgiver of the Universe, setting the physical laws, He clearly transcends them. That is, He wasn't bound by them before He passed them, so we know He need not be bound by them now. This is the first thing we need to understand to get Part IV, on why everything we've said here doesn't apply to God.
IV. Why Doesn't This Apply to God?
There are at least two obvious reasons that this is so:
  1. First, He exists outside of time. This is a biggie. We often think of God as having existed from "infinity B.C." But there was no such point. Rather, God created time itself. I get it: that notion is bizarre. But this is tied up with the idea of the transcendence of God.

    Imagine a sentient figure in a painting: one of the painted characters suddenly comes to life, and it's trying to imagine the identity of the painter. It determines that, as paint, it's a created being, but when it tries to imagine the painter, it imagines him as being infinitely to the left and the right of the visible canvas. In fact, the painter exists outside the canvas (although he's able to operate within it), and dimensions in the real world aren't like dimensions on canvas. Almost certainly, whatever that painted figure imagines the painter to be, it's laughably wrong. Likewise with our conceptions of God's transcendence of time.

    There's the tendency to want to say "before God created time..." But the Bible makes it clear that, whatever else may be true, this is just a nonsensical statement - there is no before time, even though there's an outside of time. Thus, Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 speak of "in the Beginning" as the starting point. This identification of the start of time with the start of space in Genesis 1:1 has been supported by modern physics, of course: Einstein showed the interconnection of time-space. That these Biblical writers managed to get metaphysics correct strengthens the case for the validity of Scripture.

  2. Second, He exists outside of the universe and the physics the universe operates upon. For the argument from motion, I already started this thought -- think of us (and the rest of the universe) as the dominoes, and Him as the Person that starts the domino chain. He must, by definition, not simply be another domino. Conversely, if He isn't another domino, it would be absurd to expect him to be bound by the same rules as a domino is. Just as finger can actively flick, while a domino can only act when pushed, God isn't bound by Newtonian physics, and can freely move without external forces.
So here's what we know, given everything we've covered so far:
  • Time couldn't have always existed - that's the bottomless well problem.
  • Matter couldn't have always existed, because you can't have matter without time. St. Augustine was the first to clearly argue the second half of this point, in Confessions, and modern science (namely, Einstein) concedes the point. Time is a function of change in matter.
  • Matter couldn't have always been in motion - that's the infinite domino problem.
  • Matter exists now, and is in motion (of course), so there must be some act by which matter came into being. This, we call Creation ex nihilo.
All of this also tells us much about Who the Creator is. First, we know He's a Person, because He created sensible Laws. That shows Wisdom, and an intellect far superior to our own. Chaos doesn't produce stable laws, nor do random forces. Second, we know He exists outside of time and space, because He created time and space. This also means He's eternal. Third, He's omnipotent, because He created everything which exists, meaning that everything's existence is at all times dependent upon Him. Fourth, He's omniscient, since He created all knowledge within the universe.

These logical conclusions find strong support in Scripture. God's clearly depicted as having a Personality, and a Consciousness. He's described as Wisdom, and the imparter of Wisdom. John 1 refers to Jesus as the Logos, or Logic, of God. I already mentioned Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1 for the idea that time begins with Creation, such that there's no pre-Creation time. Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 both show us a God not bound by time. So, incidentally, does Jesus' fascinating response in John 8:58. 1 Timothy 1:17 describes God as both eternal and immortal, drawing a subtle but important distinction between the two. Verses like Isaiah 46:10 make plain the notion that God is eternally omniscient, and verses like Matthew 19:26 show God as all-powerful, and no mere man. Besides all of this, Hebrews 11:3 and 2 Maccabees 7:27-29 both explicitly describe God creating everything from nothing (or at least, nothing visible).

Epilogue: The Big Bang & Eternal Progression
Given all of this, let's look at two specific special cases, one secular, one Mormon, which point towards this conclusion. The first is the Big Bang. Long story short, we know the universe is expanding: Hubble's observations of outer space show pretty plainly that things are moving further away from us, and from each other, at a steady rate. If the dotted line in this picture below is where we are now, what we're seeing is the arrows going outwards, which represent the universe expanding:

From this, the brilliant astronomer-physicist-priest Msgr. Georges Lemaître determined that you could use this same data to show where the universe came from. The logic is simple: if the universe is expanding at a constant rate, we can know (roughly) how much larger the universe will be tomorrow, but also, how much smaller the universe was yesterday. Building off of this, Lemaître got something like this:

It looks not dissimilar to a shotgun blast outwards from a starting point some 13.7 billion years ago. So if the Big Bang Theory is correct, it's an independent proof for a beginning. This was immediately apparent to some of Msgr. Lemaître's more astute colleagues. Fred Hoyle, a renowned cosmologist and astronomer in his own right, conceded that Lemaître's data was correct, but was troubled by its implications as an atheist: after all, if there's a beginning of the universe, it requires a Creator. This is what we showed in Part IV, but it's nice to know that from the beginning, some of the brightest scientific minds got this, even those (like Hoyle) who couldn't accept it.

The second example which supports the conclusions is the Mormon theory of eternal progression, as described in Joseph Smiths' King Folliet Discourse. To be clear, this isn't something all Mormons believe in. Murdock Wallis explained, in a comment on an earlier post:
The King Follett Discourse was not a revelation, has never been canonized and, thus, is not included in the Standard Works (the scriptures) of the Church. Consequently, Joseph’s teaching as to the origin of God is not a teaching of the Church. It is Joseph’s opinion. Latter-day Saints are free to arrive at their own opinions as to the King Follett Discourse’s explanation of the origin of God. I have never heard of a survey, but my impression is that the overwhelming majority do accept it.
So this is a popular theological opinion amongst Mormons, but not dogmatic teaching. Whether the doctrine is true or not turns out to be vitally important, though, in determining how many Gods there are, and what His/their nature is. In the speech, Joseph Smith declares, "God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret." The idea is this: God used to be a man, and now He's God. We're men now, but will later be gods. The whole thing creates a sort of chicken/egg problem. Each God was once a man with his own God, who in turn, was once a man, and so on. But if you step back, the problem unravels quite quickly. Another helpful chart:

Think about it. The number of Gods, according to this theory, is perpetually increasing -- there are new Gods being deified by the old Gods, and the old Gods never die. Now we just do something similar to Lemaître did: follow the trail backwards. If there have been five new gods this week, this means if we go backwards a week, there are five fewer gods. We simply trace the trail backwards through time until we get to the first God. And it's not an infinite regression, either. Here's how we can prove that:
  1. There are a finite number of gods -- we don't know how many, perhaps, but there are a finite number. And not simply a number: each one has his or her own personality. Each one could tell you who their God was.
  2. Since there a finite number, and no gods die, it's just a matter of figuring out which one's the oldest.
For our purposes, it's sufficient just to say that this first God couldn't have been a mere man, since He doesn't have a God of His own. Nor could He have lived in a pre-made world, since who would have made it? Rather, He would have to have all of the characteristics of the God described in Part IV, and in the Bible. So whether you believe in the FSD or not, you ultimately come back to the same basic problem: since we can't have an infinite string backwards, Someone somewhere put the Laws of nature in place, created (ex nihilio) matter, time and space, and set things in motion.


  1. On the Big Bang --

    At the end of this expansion there were two possibilities: the force of the movement is never overcome by gravity and expands forever and forever until everything is thinly spread atoms in vacum, the heat death; or gravity overcomes it and pulls it all back, the Big Crunch, which could then expand again.

    Recently, they found some evidence that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. In the articles on this, I learned for the first time (and I've read about these theories for decades) that they haven't found a tenth of the matter necessary for the Big Crunch.

    So why was it put forth as respectable? One can only suspect that it was the desire to eliminate the beginning.

  2. Hello Joe! My name is James, and I'm LDS. I don't have any special training in physics or mathematics, but I hope you don't mind if I leave some impressions and comments about your interesting blog post. I have a habit of organizing my thoughts by numbering them, so that is what you see below.

    (1) First of all, I appreciate the time you took to write this post. It is well thought out and it is done in a friendly manner. That is praiseworthy.

    (2) Your presentation, despite the appearance of multiple arguments against creation ex materia, really only provides one argument against it. The first point (that "Time Requires a Beginning") is a legitimate argument against creation ex materia. However, all of the succeeding points are merely implications and logical extensions of the first argument. They are only true if the first argument is true. More on that below.

    (3) The fancy name for your first argument is "infinite regress", and it has been leveled against Mormonism by top Christian scholars (ie William Lane Craig). At least one LDS scholar has addressed this issue. Blake Ostler is a LDS attorney and philosopher who tackled this point in a lengthy, and rather technical, paper. The summary is that infinite mathematics follow different rules than finite mathematics, and that mathematicians have worked out ways to overcome any perceived challenges of an "infinite regress". I don't pretend to be able to do his argument justice, so I'll just provide you with a link to a series of reviews that Ostler wrote on this topic generally. One of the papers at this site (kalaam infinity arguments) addresses your first argument specifically:

    More in next comment.

  3. Continued...

    (4) Your second argument, that motion requires a beginning, works from the assumption that there *is* a beginning. If there is no beginning, then motion has always existed and never had a beginning. It may be true that an external force is required to change the velocity of an object, but it doesn't follow that therefore there must have been a *first* external force. It may be hard for our brains (which are accustomed to thinking in terms of beginnings and endings) to imagine that there was never a beginning of motion, but it is a reality.

    (5) Plainly put, laws do not require a lawgiver. Sure, some laws do, but not all laws. Speed limit laws clearly were created, but there is little evidence that the law of gravity was created by anyone. From my perspective, the laws of physics are eternal. God did not create them but he operates within them omnisciently. He has mastered them and uses them perfectly to his advantage. He is, in this sense, the ultimate scientist.

    (6) From my perspective, God exists within time. It is a logical extension of believing in creation ex materia. It is also a logical extension of believing that God is a three dimensional corporeal being, limited in volume and surface area.

    Well, those are my thoughts for now. Thanks for your interesting post.

  4. James,

    Welcome to the discussion! Here are my preliminary responses:

    (1) You were also charitable and thoughtful in your comments, which I appreciate immensely.

    (2) This is a common mistake. Certainly, if Part I is true, the rest are also true -- II and III follow logically. But even if Part I were false, and time was infinitely old, that doesn't mean that matter is infinitely old; if matter WERE infinitely old, it wouldn't prove that it was perpetually in motion.

    In fact, Part II stands on its own merits. To say that the universe is infinitely old is a statement which seems sensible, even if it’s really not. But to say that the universe has been moving for an infinite number of years so far is to say something that should immediately strike us as absurd. It leaves two possibilities: either, the universe is retracing its steps, or everywhere the universe could be, it was/is. The reason’s simple: if there’s an x% chance of an event occurring, over a long enough period of time, it becomes a logical impossibility for it not to occur. Gell-Mann's Totalitarian Principle states: "Everything not forbidden is compulsory," and over a long enough timeline, this becomes true.

    Part III stands on its own merits as well. Perhaps it’s logically possible, contra everything presented in the first two parts, for time to be infinitely old, and for matter to be infinitely old, and for matter to eternally be in motion. Even if this were all (somehow) true, it wouldn’t negate the fact that matter doesn’t just move: it moves and changes according to set, stable, hospitable principles. The existence of these laws requires a mind, since chaos never produces unbreakable laws.

    (3) I’m still reading Ostler’s arguments, so I’ll get back to you on this. Was there any part in particular you found persuasive? From my skimming, it seems that Parts 2 and 3 respond to the arguments I raise in the Epilogue and Part I, respectively, while Part 1 deals with the Scriptural evidence. I’m actually quite confused by his argument about Hebrews 11:3, since he defends the idea that God formed the visible universe out of invisible material. Is that the Mormon view? That pre-God, there was only invisible material, yet He Divinely organized it into matter somehow? It sounds to my ears as if he’s arguing Hebrews 11:3 means something that neither of us believe, but this may be due to my ignorance.

    (4) I explained this in the second paragraph of (2), above. But there’s another related argument. As a sheer physical force, the universe contains within itself the potential to destroy itself, to do something unrecoverable. It can over-expand, leading to heat death (as Mary alludes to above), it could collapse in on itself permanently (the Big Crunch, the inverse of the Big Bang), and so on. Once these end states are achieved, it’s not possible for the universe to sort itself back out on its own. All of these universal-destructive possibilities are remote, but over the period of infinity years, the odds against them occurring would be one:infinity. Long story short, over the span of an infinite amount of time, left to its own devices, the universe will collapse in an unrecoverable manner. The fact that we haven’t seen it means that the universe hasn’t been in motion for an infinite amount of time (even if an infinite amount of time were possible).


  5. (5) In this argument, you’re (a) asserting that the law of gravity isn’t of Divine origin, and (b) arguing from this assertion that, therefore, not all laws are derived from a lawmaker. But if you’re wrong about the law of gravity, your argument falls apart.

    There are two logical fallacies here. First, you’re asserting the thing which needs to be proved, since what I’m saying is that all laws, including the law of gravity, do originate in a lawmaker. Second, you’re positing your assertion as the exception to an otherwise universal rule. You can point to plenty of examples, like speed limit signs, of things which we both know derive from a lawmaker. This is even true of God-made Law. Natural law and revealed law (like the Mosaic Law) are examples where you and I both agree that an earthly law can be traced to God as the Lawmaker. In fact, beyond the human and Divine examples, there are strong logical reasons: the very term “law” connotes a lawmaker’s creation, and chaos doesn’t beget order without external forces at play. But then you take the examples in question -- the law of gravity, etc. -- and say that, for some reason, these laws don’t require a Lawmaker, even though all other laws do. So here, it’s not just a mere assertion: it’s an assertion against the weight of your own evidence. It would be the equivalent to being pulled over without a license, and telling the police officer, “Not everyone is required to have a driver’s license. I can prove this because I don’t have one, and yet I’m still allowed to drive.”

    If the only examples you can cite are the ones already in controversy, and without a rational justification for why the rule doesn’t apply to these laws, this seems to be evidence in favor of the initial point.

    (6) I agree with you. If God isn’t the Creator of matter, He’s almost certainly not the Creator of time, and is left to play by someone else’s rules. He may be good at playing by their rules (as you argue in 5), but they’re not His rules, and He’s subordinate to them. But if God is within time, there must be someone else who began time, for the reasons discussed above.

    There must also be a “Creator of the Gods,” if you’ll pardon the term. This is most easily seen in the Epilogue, with the idea of finding the oldest God. Since gods don’t die, there’s no risk of this simply becoming a cycle. Instead, there needs to be (by definition) an oldest God, who created the other gods (or created the gods who created the other gods, etc.). In other words, what Adam is to mortal man, this “Creator of the Gods” must be to the gods. But just as Adam would be relatively easy to identify in a world without death, so too should this “Creator of the Gods” be relatively easy to identify.

    Now, here are my questions, given the above: how old is the “Creator of the Gods”? Is He older than time? Did He create time? Was He Himself created? If so, by who (obviously, if it’s by someone else, you chose the wrong oldest God) or what? Even if everything else you said were logically defensible using the KFD’s version of infinite regression, there’s still the ultimate question of Creator of the Gods and time-space. How do you work around the problems raised in the Epilogue?

    In Christ,