How good is Alexander Vilenkin’s no-God explanation for the origin of the universe?

God's Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe
God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe

I’ve been spending some time going over J. Warner Wallace’s splendid book “God’s Crime Scene” with a friend of mine over Skype. Last week we did chapter 1 on the origin of the universe. We were both struck at Wallace’s statement about Alexander Vilenkin, a non-theist who thinks that the universe had a beginning out of nothing.

Wallace writes:

If you’re a bit confused by all the alternatives offered by those who deny the universe had a beginning, perhaps it’s time to call an expert witness. In this case, there’s no one better than Alexander Vilenkin, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, professor of physics, and director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University. Partnering with mathematician Arvind Borde, cosmologist Alan Guth, and graduate researcher Audrey Mithani, Vilenkin has written several papers demonstrating demonstrating any model of the universe in which expansion is occurring, regardless of the early conditions of the cosmos, must have a beginning.[8] Vilenkin’s work addresses all the models we’ve already described, plus any future proposals in which the expansion of the universe is acknowledged. [9]Vilenkin is a critical expert witness because he simplifies and makes sense of the diverse, sometimes-confusing scientific data.’

This week, my friend asked me why Vilenkin was still not ready to become a theist. Well, Dr. William Lane Craig got asked that same question in his question of the week, and his answer was interesting.

Vilenkin’s view affirms the nothing that precedes the universe:

Modern physics can describe the emergence of the universe as a physical process that does not require a cause. Nothing can be created from nothing, says Lucretius, if only because the conservation of energy makes it impossible to create nothing [sic; something?] from nothing. . . .

There is a loophole in this reasoning. The energy of the gravitational field is negative; it is conceivable that this negative energy could compensate for the positive energy of matter, making the total energy of the cosmos equal to zero. In fact, this is precisely what happens in a closed universe, in which the space closes on itself, like the surface of a sphere. It follows from the laws of general relativity that the total energy of such a universe is necessarily equal to zero. . . .

If all the conserved numbers of a closed universe are equal to zero, then there is nothing to prevent such a universe from being spontaneously created out of nothing. And according to quantum mechanics, any process which is not strictly forbidden by the conservation laws will happen with some probability. . . .

What causes the universe to pop out of nothing? No cause is needed.[1]

Dr. Craig replies at length, here is the part I liked best:

Finally, Vilenkin’s inference that because the positive and negative energy in the universe sum to zero, therefore no cause of the universe’s coming into being is needed is hard to take seriously. This is like saying that if your debts balance your assets, then your net worth is zero, and so there is no cause of your financial situation! (Vilenkin would, I hope, not agree with Peter Atkins that because the positive and negative energy of the universe sum to zero, therefore nothing exists now, and so “Nothing did indeed come from nothing.”[2] For as Descartes taught us, I, at least, undeniably exist, and so something exists.) Christopher Isham, Britain’s premier quantum cosmologist, rightly points out that there still needs to be “ontic seeding” to create the positive and negative energy in the first place, even if on balance its sum is naught.[3]

Vilenkin’s interaction with the kalam cosmological argument is, as I say, fascinating because we see here so clearly how philosophical faux pas, not scientific mistakes, invalidate the objections of an eminent scientist to the argument. This should be an object lesson to all those who, like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss, naïvely think that philosophy is a sterile and irrelevant discipline compared to science. Philosophy can help all of us, including scientists, to avoid the logical mistakes and conceptual confusions that are all too prevalent in discussions taking place on the borderland of physics, metaphysics, and theology.

That’s a very simple refutation of a famous scientist’s speculative cosmology that anyone can understand. Christians are on very good ground when it comes to the science of origins.

You would think that more Christians would be aware of this evidence and the difficulties that naturalists have in accounting for the origin of the universe in their worldview. But, for some reason, it’s not a real hot topic in most churches. Nor is the fine-tuning or the origin of life or the Cambrian explosion. It’s really strange! If you haven’t yet picked up Wallace’s book, I highly recommend it. It’s the best book for blue collar workers who like evidence. The book touches on virtually every piece of evidence relevant to the God question, including some I had never seen before.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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