#10 Post of 2013 – How Do We Know the Universe Hasn’t Existed Eternally?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

For those of you who look to science to answer every question, cosmologists are pretty unanimous in agreeing that our universe is not eternal, and in fact begun about 14 billion years ago. You may not like this answer, and so go running toward alternative cosmologies to escape the standard big bang model of the universe. Unfortunately, there is no salvation there either.

As summarized nicely on the Wintery Knight blog, “The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin [theorem] shows that every universe that expands must have a space-time boundary in the past. That means that no expanding universe, no matter what the model, can be eternal into the past. Even speculative alternative cosmologies do not escape the need for a beginning.”

So it would appear that science is no help to those who want to desperately cling to an eternal universe. What about philosophy?

The dominant ancient metaphysical traditions have also demonstrated why the physical universe cannot be eternal. Here we quote from Edward Feser in an article he wrote for First Things:

In general, classical philosophical theology argues for the existence of a first cause of the world—a cause that does not merely happen not to have a cause of its own but that (unlike everything else that exists) in principle does not require one. Nothing else can provide an ultimate explanation of the world.

For Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, for example, things in the world can change only if there is something that changes or actualizes everything else without the need (or indeed even the possibility) of its being actualized itself, precisely because it is already “pure actuality.” Change requires an unchangeable changer or unmovable mover.

Feser goes on to consider other great thinkers of the past:

For Neoplatonists, everything made up of parts can be explained only by reference to something that combines the parts. Accordingly, the ultimate explanation of things must be utterly simple and therefore without the need or even the possibility of being assembled into being by something else. Plotinus called this “the One.” For Leibniz, the existence of anything that is in any way contingent can be explained only by its origin in an absolutely necessary being.

But why can’t the first cause, the necessary being, “the One,” be the universe itself instead of God? What is the difference between an eternal Creator and an eternal universe?

The difference, as the reader of Aristotle or Aquinas knows, is that the universe changes while the unmoved mover does not, or, as the Neoplatonist can tell you, that the universe is made up of parts while its source is absolutely one; or, as Leibniz could tell you, that the universe is contingent and God absolutely necessary. There is thus a principled reason for regarding God rather than the universe as the terminus of explanation.

So, positing the universe as an eternally existing thing that is the cause of everything else both collides with modern science and with classical metaphysics. I happen to think the metaphysical arguments are stronger, but maybe you prefer the science. Either way, it don’t look good for an eternal universe.

  • ““The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin [theorem] shows that every universe that expands must have a space-time boundary in the past. That means that no expanding universe, no matter what the model, can be eternal into the past. Even speculative alternative cosmologies do not escape the need for a beginning.” – See more at: http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/#sthash.cWyr6k3j.dpuf

    Great, but what shows us that this theorem will not be refuted in 6000 years?

    To my mind it is wrong to use recent theories to argue either for theism or for atheism.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • That’s why I like the metaphysical arguments better.

  • Oh Yeah, I agree and I have recently developed an argument about the self-consistency of materialism. Until now I haven’t received any criticism and would be glad to learn your thoughts on that


    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • sean

    Even if this were so, that doesn’t really matter all that much. The current scientifically accepted models conform to this, with the big bang. However, since our models of reality kinda break down here, we consider this the wall. A barrier we cannot cross, for now at least. But it’s a bit of a misnomer to suggest that nothing could happened before that. Science simply doesn’t know.

    Also, we’re muddling the waters here. As you yourself have stated, there’s a big difference between proximate causes and ultimate causes. So, “everything made up of parts can be explained only by reference to something that combines the parts.” really doesn’t matter in that context. He’s drawing conclusions about ultimate causes from the properties of proximate causes. Yet, proximate causes are not causes in the same sense. They cause alterations in matter and energy. They don’t cause matter and energy in the first place. It’s quite different, and not necessarily comparable. You were the one who explained this to me. Don’t conflate them now.

  • What am I conflating exactly? I don’t understand what you mean.

  • sean

    When cosmologists talk about the beginning of the universe they are talking about what you’d consider to be a proximate cause. You seem to be under the impression that they’re pointing to an ultimate cause. If we go back far enough we can see there was a beginning. Fine, but we see it the same way we see going backwards along the life of a person. At some point there is no person. That is not however meaning to say that the only explanation for that person’s existence was the meeting of egg and sperm. There could be other causes still that explain said person. In the same way, cosmologists are not making the positive that this boundary of the beginning of the universe is it, and the final explanation. But it is a part of the picture for sure. For now it’s all we can say about the picture. If you meet a person, you know that at one point they started from the egg and sperm, but you don’t know any more about their beginnings and what caused that sperm and egg to meet without additional information. In the same way this is what we know about the beginning of the universe.

    When I pointed out examples of complex things coming from simple things, you explained that this was different. It was merely describing a transitional form. It wasn’t an ultimate answer. Fine, but cosmologists are not saying the big bang is the ultimate answer. Those are two different things.

    You’re suggesting that cosmologists are citing what you define as an ultimate cause, a show stopper before which nothing happens. I don’t know of any person taken seriously in the field of cosmology or physics that makes the claim that the big bang is necessarily the beginning of the universe and that there was no other state of reality before that. What you call ultimate cause isn’t what experts are claiming about the beginning of this universe. It is possible that we may never know about before the big bang, but that doesn’t mean the only state before the universe is the same as the one that immediately preceded its conception.

    The idea of this universe being eternal is patently absurd, but that doesn’t mean there were not states of existence in reality before this universe and the eternity of this isn’t what the informed experts believe.


  • The only point this post was making is that those people who want to say that the physical universe is eternal are wrong both for scientific and for philosophical reasons. It seems that you agree.

    But when you say that there may have been “states of existence” before the Big Bang, I would say, “Yes. God.” Science doesn’t tell us directly that God existed before the universe. But philosophy does tell us that there must exist a being who has always existed and whose very nature is to exist. Since we know that physical matter is ruled out as a candidate, then it seems clear that an immaterial agent is a better candidate.

  • sean

    That’s just it. We don’t know that there cannot have been physical material before this universe. (scientifically)

    That said, you’re quite right in that I do agree with the original point.

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  • DonJindra

    This is a straw man. It’s not the universe that’s eternal. It’s the “stuff” of the universe. That “stuff” may be no more than what we call natural laws, like gravity. But there’s no reason to think the beginning of the universe was the beginning of all. Those fundamental natural laws — what ever they are — need no “first cause.” IOW, God as that “first cause” is superfluous — besides being a sleight of hand tactic.

  • You are positing the eternal existence of the laws of nature? Why should we believe that the laws of nature are eternal, necessary, and self-existent? What are the laws of nature made of and how do they cause the existence of the universe? If you can’t provide an explanation of how these laws meet the requirements of a First Cause, then you haven’t solved the problem at all.

  • Even if there was physical stuff before our universe, we’ve only moved the problem back a step. Physical stuff cannot be the ultimate first cause.

  • sean

    It cannot under the ministrations of the current laws of nature we observe within this universe, I’ll grant you that. Our current universe started 13.8 billion years ago. It has a finite space-time boundary. That much is understood by the big bang. But here we are talking about our local universe, or any theoretical local universe that operates as ours does (or similarly) and could have theoretically preceded ours.

    But I’m sure we can both admit that some of the science in physics is above both our heads, so my main point is as follows; if this theorem is really true, why is it that this isn’t accepted as universally by physicists, the people who really understand this subject (far more than you, or I, or any theologian who uses this argument) as the existence of the quark, or for a lower bar, the big bang? Moreover, why is it that this, which is less scientifically grounded than evolution, is good enough for you, but evolution is something you don’t necessarily accept?

    It seems to me that if you want to use what the scientific method has given us in the way of knowledge, you are cherry-picking.