Examining the origins debate, part 3

This is part 3 in a series exploring Gerald Rau's book Mapping the Origins Debate. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 45, 678.


The origin of the universe


A successful model of origins will credibly explain how the universe came into being. Because this point of beginning is now long past (and thus not directly observable), the scientific evidence related to it (largely from cosmology and astronomy) must be inferred and then interpreted through a process of inductive reasoning (see the first post in this series regarding this key issue). This inferential-inductive process is highly influenced by the interpreter's own philosophy-worldview, which, as we'll see, necessarily brings into the discussion (for theists and atheists alike) the issue of faith (belief).

The big bang

Though not without its detractors, the current consensus of scientists is that the universe began with a singular event typically referred to as "the big bang." This was followed by the expansion and development of the universe into what we now see (see a proposed process with timeline below). This development was dependent upon the presence of an amazingly fine-tuned balance of four physical forces: the strong force, the electromagnetic force, the weak force and the gravitational force. Even tiny variations in this precise balance would have prevented what occurred.

Of course, this stunning reality raises many questions (in science and philosophy/theology): How did these forces arise? What has kept them at their current, finely-tuned levels? What caused the universe to have the total mass that it now has? Why does the rate of the expansion of the universe out of an initial big bang appear to be accelerating rather than decelerating? What existed, if anything, before the big bang? Are the big bang beginning and the delicately fine-tuned forces holding together the universe the result of chance or is something supernatural involved?

 Click to enlarge (photo credit: http://ssscott.tripod.com/BigBang.html)

The faith factor

Because positing answers to these questions involves making inferences and using inductive reasoning concerning events that cannot be directly observed, one's belief system (personal philosophy-worldview) comes strongly into play. In particular, one must decide whether or not to allow or disallow the possibility of the involvement of supernatural forces in bringing the cosmos into being and participating in its development. This decision is, by its very nature, a matter of faith (again, call it "belief," if you prefer).
  • Those embracing the philosophy-worldview of naturalism (as is the case with proponents of the NE model) have "faith" that nothing supernatural brought the cosmos into being or participated in its development. 
  • Those embracing the philosophy of theism (as is the case with the other five models) have "faith" that supernatural forces were involved in bringing the cosmos into being and some of the models believe the supernatural continued to be involved in one way or another in its development.  
The key point here is that when it comes to the beginning of the universe (primarily) and the development of the universe (secondarily), both naturalism and theism rest to some extent on a foundation of faith (p77). This is the case because the empirical (scientific) evidence, gleaned from the natural world, can tell us only so much. How the remaining gaps in that evidence are filled, will necessarily be based on one's basic philosophical belief system (i.e. one's "faith").

Naturalism

Though many who embrace naturalism deny any reliance on faith, the fact remains that naturalism cannot adequately explain the emergence of the universe by pointing solely to natural processes. This reality is a significant problem for the NE model, though it should be noted that atheistic evolutionists continue seeking purely natural explanations to fill gaps in the empirical evidence. An explanation that is gaining popularity among those who embrace naturalism is the concept of a multiverse. According to this hypothesis, the energy that fueled the big bang originated in preexisting, multiple universes--perhaps an infinite number of them. The weakness of this argument is that there is no empirical evidence for a multiverse. Once again, faith emerges--in this case faith in a multiverse.

Theism

The other five models of origins are theistic in that they embrace, to one extent or another, the idea of the supernatural. However, they differ in how they explain the nature and timing of any supernatural interventions in bringing the universe into being and superintending its development. Three of the five theistic models harmonize supernaturalism with evolution thus positing a form of theistic evolution. The other two, old earth creation (OEC) and young earth creation (YEC), disallow some or all aspects of evolutionary theory.

A significant weakness of the YEC model is its insistence that the cosmos is no more than 10,000 years old, despite empirical evidence for the great antiquity of the universe (14 billion years old in the timeline above). YEC proponents have posited various explanations. In the past they embraced the idea that God created the universe looking old. But this "apparent-age" theory was dropped by most in the YEC camp in favor of the idea that our galaxy sits at the center of the universe and that the universe is expanding from that center out of a "white hole" that, because of gravitational force, causes time to run slower from our vantage-point than it does as one gets further from the center (p79).

These are some key issues that each model must address in dealing with the origin of the universe. Next time's we'll look at issues related to the origin of life.

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