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Has the universe always existed?

Published: 2 March 2013 (GMT+10)
NASA/Hubble

Ted G. from the UK wrote in response to Don Batten’s article Who created God? as follows:

The ‘Universe’ is the set of all sets. This means it contains EVERYTHING (and therefore every person) that exists. It follows immediately that there is NOTHING outside the set we call the universe. Therefore there cannot be any kind of thing outside the universe. Therefore the universe wasn’t created by anything because every thing is inside the universe. Simple logic! If you define the universe in a different way then you need another word that means ‘The set of all sets’. I don’t know of such a word, so I prefer the definition given already for the word ‘Universe’. We know the universe exists and cannot have come from something else because the ‘something else’ would already be inside the universe! Therefore, the universe has always existed! Simple logic!

Carl Wieland responds:

Interesting; I would have defined the universe as ‘all the matter and energy that exists’—and materialists (which the majority of scientists are today, sadly) would have agreed with me, since they don’t acknowledge the existence of anything other than mass/energy. I.e. there is no non-material, supernatural realm.

Let me put it another way. In set theory, (which is presumably the framework from which you derive the meaning of the word ‘set’) a set consists of objects.

The definition of a set is laid out by German mathematician Georg Cantor, who founded set theory, in his Beiträge zur Begründung der transfiniten Mengenlehre (Contributions to the Founding of the Theory of Transfinite Numbers) as follows (bold emphasis added): “Eine Menge, ist die Zusammenfassung bestimmter, wohlunterschiedener Objekte unserer Anschauung und unseres Denkens—welche Elemente der Menge genannt werden—zu einem Ganzen.” (“A set is a gathering together into a whole of definite, distinct objects of our perception and of our thought—which are called elements of the set.”)

Assume a materialist were to discuss set theory with a Christian. In that situation, it is more than likely that there would be an automatic presupposition by both parties that they were referring to objects which were either

  1. Composed at least hypothetically of mass/energy, or
  2. Numbers, which are utilized as abstract representations of objects in the material world.

If that were not presupposed, there would be no common ground for discussion, since the materialist does not concede the existence of anything outside the material (mass/energy) realm. (Thought itself, in that philosophy/worldview, is regarded as ultimately material in origin. In one of his notebooks, Darwin addresses himself as, “O, you materialist!” and says, “Why is thought, being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity as a property of matter?”—see Darwin’s real message: have you missed it?)

Thus, someone defining the universe as the ‘set of all sets’ would normally have my agreement, as it would just be an alternative way of saying ‘all the mass-energy entities in existence’, i.e the same as the one I gave above. This is certainly how science’s founding fathers regarded the universe; the total amount of material stuff which God created, but not God Himself, who is non-material. What you are doing here in a ‘too-clever’ philosophical word-game, essentially, is to try to slip something past the goalkeeper, hoping no one will notice. I.e., you have tried to make use of a definition of set which normally assumes we are talking about the material (we would say created) world only, but then at the same time, you have assumed the existence of God as a discrete entity within set theory—all for the purpose of strengthening the materialist maxim of ‘no God’—which if true, would make your assumption invalid in the first place.

Of course, you might argue that you are simply saying ‘for the sake of the argument’, that ‘if God exists’ He must be part of the set of all sets. In that case, however, I would then respond that if you are presupposing God as an object within the realm of set theory, then your definition of the universe as the ‘set of all sets’ is clearly inappropriate. Because if you presuppose God at all, then since by definition, God is not a part of the universe He created, you can’t have it both ways. It’s like saying ‘I’ve disproved the existence of a transcendent God by assuming He is not transcendent’. In short, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Your definition in the way you seek to use it turns out to be totally circular, committing the logical fallacy known as begging the question, i.e. assuming that which you claim to prove. So we revert to the definition of the universe as follows (recognizing today that matter and energy are interchangeable):

All the matter/energy that exists.

Notice a couple of things in closing:

First, it matters not whether all of this is observable or not. In the same way, in classical thermodynamics, a system plus its surroundings is the universe—seen or unseen, bounded or unbounded.

Second, it can’t be said that this is a self-serving definition designed by Christians for Christians, since it is one that can be (and has been) agreed upon by materialists and non-materialists alike. The materialists have no problem with it, because in their view, there is nothing outside of matter/energy. They therefore would not perceive a difference between this and your definition; the two definitions would, in their perception, be synonymous. And as pointed out, I would normally have no problem with either definition, because it would be assumed by all sides that one is talking about the material world of objects. It’s only when you try to be tricky and slip God into being a part of the material world (the God you don’t believe in, and who by definition is not a part of that material world anyway) that it becomes logically invalid. But the problem is in the premises, not the logic, as we have seen.

Just to reiterate: the universe (all matter/energy) cannot have always existed (been eternal) because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The universe must have had a beginning and such a beginning needs a sufficient cause that is non-material (in order to be self-existing/eternal).

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