God is not a magician

Carina-Nebula-from-ESOs-V-011

A recent pop news article claimed physicists have proved God didn’t create the universe. In response, I explained why you can’t trust the pop media to report on science accurately. In a follow-up post, I discussed why the universe isn’t “nothing,” as the article implied. In this, the third part, we’ll talk about what the Bible says about the creation of the universe and compare this with the current state of scientific thinking.

Let’s first summarize the problem as presented in the pop news article:

The supposed biblical claim: God created the universe from absolute nothing (creatio ex nihilo). Only God could create something from absolute nothing.

The atheist counterclaim: Physicists have discovered a way to create a universe from nothing using only the laws of physics. Therefore, God is irrelevant.

I’ve already explained why the atheist claim is bogus. But is creatio ex nihilo what the Bible says? It’s unclear, because there is nothing in scripture that explicitly says this. Those who believe creatio ex nihilo infer it from Genesis 1:1: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. It’s not an unreasonable inference—the Hebrew word for “create” means to bring something into existence that did not exist before—and it is probably for this reason that the great biblical commentator Nahmanides believed the universe was brought forth by God “from total and absolute nothing.” From my reading of Nahmanides (and my non-expertise in theology), the total and absolute nothing refers to something corporeal. More on this in a moment.

When dealing with argumentative atheists who want to debate science and God, what matters most is not whether science lines up with their particular ideas about God, but whether science is consistent with what we know from scripture. You have to be persistent about this, because atheists almost always present their arguments against a God that resembles nothing like the God of the Bible:

Asked if the remarkable findings and the convincing if complex solution removed the need for a God figure to kick start the universe Dr Mir said: “If by God you mean a supernatural super man who breaks his own laws then yes he’s done for, you just don’t need him.”

I doubt this is the exact question posed to Dr. Mir; and I believe the atheist we’re dealing with is not the physicist, but the reporter and/or his editor. Nevertheless, my interpretation of Mir’s response is, now that we have a plausible physical model for how the universe could arise from nothing but physical laws, we do not need the sort of God who waves his arms and magically conjures up a universe from nothing. In other words, the theory knocks down a strawman God. But it also supports the biblical God who operates in a way that we can relate to on at least a rudimentary level.

Have you ever watched a skilled magician performing tricks? Most people find it enjoyable to watch someone perform something that seems impossible. But it’s only fun, because everyone except for really little kids understands that the tricks are just illusions and the magician isn’t really defying the laws of nature. If we genuinely believed he was defying the laws of nature, the magic show would be more horrifying than entertaining*.

And yet, for reasons I don’t quite understand, a lot of people—including believers—regard God as the ultimate magician who really is defying the laws of nature. Personally, I find this notion of God repellant, because it contradicts what the Bible tells us about his character—he is knowable through nature, he is consistent, and he is reliable. But we needn’t worry, because the biblical account of the creation of the universe doesn’t describe something magical, it describes something miraculous.

It is tempting to think of magical and miraculous as synonymous, but there’s an important distinction between the two. For the purpose of this argument, magical refers to something that lacks a knowable mechanism, something that defies the laws of nature or does the impossible. Contrary to popular misconception, miraculous means none of those things. Rather, a miracle is something that is accomplished through divinely supernatural means; in other words, something that is accomplished by God through means that exist beyond the universe. As Israeli physicist and theologian, Gerald Schroeder, points out, this is exactly what modern science implies for the creation of the universe.

Prof. Mir – who also works on the Large Hardron (sic) Collider at CERN in Switzerland – further explained that by “nothing” he only meant absence of energy, and not the absence of laws of physics.

Schroeder says this is what Genesis has been telling us all along. In his book, The Science of God, he provides what he considers to be the most faithful translation of Genesis 1:1, which is known as the Jerusalem translation: With wisdom as the first cause, God created the universe. In other words, Genesis implies the laws of physics predate the universe, just as physicists claim. It is the supernaturally existing laws of physics—wisdom, the first cause—God uses to create the universe.

Let’s summarize what we’ve discussed:

  • The Bible implies the universe was created from nothing except the laws of physics. Science agrees.
  • The Bible says the laws of physics predate the universe. Science agrees.
  • The Bible says God used the pre-existing laws of physics to create the universe. This is consistent with science.

Logically, we know the universe can’t create itself; it requires something above and beyond. This is what the Bible has been saying all along, and science is finally catching up.

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* If you don’t believe me, watch a movie called The Prestige. Even though the ultimate trick in the movie isn’t strictly magic—in the sense that it breaks no laws of nature—the magician goes well beyond simple illusion, and it’s pretty disturbing.

Image credit: ESO.

6 thoughts on “God is not a magician

  1. Not exactly, John. Wisdom includes the laws of physics, but that’s not all it is. As Gerald Schroeder explains, there is a sound basis in physics to say that the entire substructure of the universe is included in that wisdom:

    It took humanity millennia before an Einstein discovered that, as bizarre as it may seem, matter is actually condensed energy. It may take a while longer for us to discover that there is some non-thing even more fundamental than energy that forms the basis of energy. In the words of John Archibald Wheeler, the renowned former president of the American Physical Society, recipient of the Einstein Award and Princeton professor of physics, underlying all existence is an idea, the “bit” of information that gives rise to the “it” of matter.

    The substructure of all existence, we suddenly realize, is totally ethereal, an idea, wisdom. Or in Hebrew – emet – an all encompassing reality. Emet is the ultimate building block from which all we see and feel is constructed. Just as the secondary substructure of all matter is something as ethereal as energy, as per Einstein’s fantastic insight, so, the primary substructure of energy is still more elusive. Existence is the expression of an idea, an eternal consciousness made tangible. We are the idea of God.

  2. This article seems like an Ad Hoc explanation. It feels like you are back tracking from your previous posts on this subject and that you almost find merit in the data after all. The professor is telling us that we don’t need God because the laws of physics have existed before the universe and it seems that you agree with him but before in this post https://sixdayscience.com/2015/10/20/dont-trust-the-pop-media-on-science/, we get the impression you think the data is not right. Which is it?

    Also, in this post https://sixdayscience.com/2015/06/26/fire-back-where-the-readers-respond-4/, you tell us that virtual particles need a huge amount of energy to create the universe. The Professor seems to agree with you based on these quotes:

    “This uncertainty which occurs due to quantum mechanics can lead to the creation of small amount of energy from nothing as long as it exists only for a very small amount of time. Such particle created out of nothing are called virtual particles. The consequences of the existence of such virtual particles has been tested experimentally.”

    “The problem with this explanation is that such virtual particles can only have a small amount of energy for a very small amount of time.”

    What you failed to mention is that inflation theory makes up for that lack of energy. You have stated that you agree with inflation theory.

    It seems to me that the quantum vacuum existed before the universe and created these virtual particles uncaused. These particles then expand due to inflation creating not only our universe but others as well. The vaccuum is “eternal” since it can’t be created or destroyed and it is the absence of all matter and energy making it “nothing”. At least that’s how I understand it.

  3. It feels like you are back tracking from your previous posts on this subject and that you almost find merit in the data after all.

    What data? It’s a theoretical model, not observation or experiment.

    Don’t confuse my criticism of the way reporters, and sometimes even scientists, interpret scientific findings with criticism of the scientific findings themselves.

    I did not criticize the model — in fact, I think it’s kind of interesting — I disagreed with the ludicrous interpretation that it “disproves” God created the universe. At best, you could say that it brings into question God’s relevance, but even that you couldn’t state with confidence. After all, what created the meta-verse and the laws of nature that govern it? You can get around that by saying they’re eternal, but the problem is, how do you know? Unless you can answer that convincingly, you can’t say your idea is a compelling argument against God’s existence.

    What you failed to mention is that inflation theory makes up for that lack of energy. You have stated that you agree with inflation theory.

    I think some version of inflation will likely turn out to be correct. It could make up for the lack of energy. Whether it in fact happened this way, we have no idea. There is no definitive evidence to support it that I’m aware of.

    It seems to me that the quantum vacuum existed before the universe and created these virtual particles uncaused. These particles then expand due to inflation creating not only our universe but others as well. The vaccuum is “eternal” since it can’t be created or destroyed and it is the absence of all matter and energy making it “nothing”. At least that’s how I understand it.

    This is how it’s presented, yes. It’s an interesting model and doesn’t suffer terribly from things like a lack of internal consistency. However, it has one major problem as well as one insurmountable problem. The major problem is that there is no evidence to support it, or at the very least to convincingly distinguish this particular version of inflation from other versions. The insurmountable problem is, how would we ever obtain observational evidence of a quantum vacuum that exists in a hypothetical eternal meta-verse? It’s impossible, which is why models like this will never rise above mathematical speculation.

    You must always distinguish between that which could be and that which is. This is the root of the problem with pop media. We get reporters grabbing onto a scientific finding like this latest one, and making a fallacious philosophical leap from a largely untestable hypothetical scenario to reality.

    Also, virtual particles do not pop into existence uncaused in this universe, so why would they do so in a hypothetical meta-verse?

  4. Is the Bible the only book that states the universe came from nothing?

    The Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — and their offshoots seem to be the only religious traditions that imply creatio ex nihilo.

    And when had science said that the universe did just that?

    The first time? I don’t know. It must have been relatively recently, because scientists had no reason to even wonder about it until the 1920s when Friedmann and Lemaitre developed their dynamic cosmological models. I haven’t looked into it, but the earliest anyone probably seriously thought about it must’ve been after the 1960s, when the eternal steady state universe model went out the window.

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