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Has the universe always existed?

Published: 2 March 2013 (GMT+10)

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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Readers’ comments

Doug I.
Thanks for the embedded lessons in logic as well. If (for the sake of argument) it was agreed that God be included in "universe" set, could it be reasonably said that the first divisions of that set are 1. God - eternal, non material, creator & 2. The rest - created?
Simon S.
According to Ted G.'s reaction, God exists ... He's replacing God by universe ... He needs to renew his intelligence
Melki H.
Thank you Dr. Carl for this article. It has helped me clear my misunderstanding. Begging the question is a logical fallacy, however when comes to dealing with Everything, could we treat God and Universe using common rule of logic?

Begging the question is a logical fallacy when applied to regular issues.
Question: Can Rhinos kill human beings?
Begging the question: I assume Rhinos are one of many animals that could kill human beings, therefore Rhinos can kill human beings.

However when comes to God and the Universe we are talking about assumptions over assumptions. Both parties consider each other still needs to prove their faith. So if we use the term "begging the question" ain't everything about this conversation would be begging the question?
Can't we have some kind of preagreed assumption of the definition of God and Universe by both theists and atheists?

So If I may, I'll try to deal with his side of faith. If he thinks that the universe is existance, then how could "before existence is God" be logical?
The response is what makes existence is God. You should define God as the one who's without, existence would not be.
And so we'll unite our definition of God.
Kenny H.
Both the Bible and science tell us that we live in an expanding universe. The Bible states that God not only stretched out the heavens when He created them, but that He is still stretching them out. The singularity theorems produced by Steven Hawking and Roger Penrose and expanded upon by Arvind Borde, Alan H. Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin, show that an expanding universe (or multiverse) must have a beginning of matter, energy, space and time. Based on these theorems it is clear that a transcendent cause must exist, which brought the universe into existence. A transcendent cause fits the description of God.

Dr. Wieland mentioned that the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics points to a beginning for the universe and he is correct. Hawking made this point in a 1996 lecture:
"But if your theory disagrees with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it is in bad trouble. In fact, the theory that the universe has existed forever is in serious difficulty with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law, states that disorder always increases with time. Like the argument about human progress, it indicates that there must have been a beginning. Otherwise, the universe would be in a state of complete disorder by now, and everything would be at the same temperature."
William M.
Had Jack M., United Kingdom, 2 March 2013, left it at the following, he would have capture my thought on the matter quite nicely:

"Ted G's initial argument is a trivial semantic one. If someone says that God created the universe, then it is fairly clear that they are using the term universe in a sense that does not contain God. Whether that is a good use of the word is arguable, but it is a debate about words, not ontology."
murk P.
universe - uni - one verse - to turn (Greek)

to turn as one

if it was not so - it entails that there is no connection between any two or more things

hence the internal thoughts of the brain and the external world could not correspond

in fact no two facts would be related - which would necessarily destroy all knowledge.

or put another way if no two facts are related we could not know that no two facts are related - nor write this sentence:)

or the sentences that Mr. Ted G wrote claiming the ultimacy of the physical. He must first hold that the nature of reality is ordered, uniform and that immaterial, invariant, universal laws of logic are required to know this - exposing that an attempt at ascribing ultimacy to the physical requires denying ultimacy of the physical.

(and it is even worse because to make a knowledge claim man must also hold to an overlying scheme of the nature of reality within which his knowledge claim can make sense -
this can only be if there was order / purpose / direction - which only God could guarantee

thanks for your well thought out response Mr. Wieland.
Tom O.
Ted G. needs to give C. S. Lewis' "Miracles" a read. [URL deleted as per feedback rules]
Francis M. R.
I would like to pose a few questions to Ted G.

If the universe is the set of all sets, does that mean TIME is a sub-set? If so, how would we know its boundaries? How did that sub-set of the universe acquire time? Who or what started it?

If on the other hand TIME is equivalent in dimension to the universe, then logic dictates that the universe cannot be eternal.
Curtis C.
Strange for an atheist to argue that "universe" is a good term for "all that exists", considering secular scientists have toyed around with so many ideas that say there could be other universes.

I would define the universe as a single collection of matter, and its associated energy, within a particular "timespace" zone, with linear time and three-dimensional space.

If there are literally other places that we cannot reach by any normal means (in "other timespaces"), then they are not "unified" with us. Therefore I'd think even most atheists who are open to the idea of multiple dimensions, timelines, and the like, would agree that there could be existence beyond this "universe."

Not that I think those alternate universes necessarily exist. I think God is aware of all alternate possibilities but has only created one literally existing universe that has the best design when all factors are considered.

I guess Ted must hold to a rare version of atheism that agrees with this but takes God out of the picture, or an even odder version that applies the label of "universe" to all possible universes or existence beyond that which we could eventually reach by normal means (a spaceship on a really long voyage, etc.). But if he means the latter, then "unity" is an odd idea to apply.

As for a "different word", his own fellow atheists often use terms like "multiverse", while defining "universe" as just part of the larger whole (a unified part). I would simply say "all existence", including the infinite, beyond-time God, and the linear-time, finite creation or "universe."

Ultimately, all he's doing is a circular word game. You cannot define something -- or Someone -- out of existence.
David C.
Romans 1:18-22 might explain as to why this gentleman seems to be so confused.
Kyle L.
"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!"

So the universe is eternal? Wait a minute, so matter that clearly breaks down is eternal, but he refuses to believe in something or Someone that is stated to be eternal and cannot BE broken down?

And he says that it is logical?! I know the Bible says "not judge lest ye be judged" but...it's like there's no thinking involved there. It sounds mean, I know. But it's like he's trying to find a loophole to fix his own loophole.
Joseph Allen K.
Many Scientists today have dogmatically imposed a "Religion of Materialism" on the SCIENTIFIC METHOD.

For example, today many Scientists automatically assume that mysteries such as LIFE and INTELLIGENCE and INFORMATION and MEANING, are Physical realities, even though these mysteries have NO Physical properties (mass, polarity, etc). These Scientists go on to bizarrely theorize that (1) Life arose from Life-less matter and (2) Intelligence arose from matter having zero-Intelligence and (3) Meaning arose from matter having zero-Meaning.

Normal, healthy people engage in an intense search for MEANING. This intense search is what causes us to formulate Philosophies and Religions. A person's RELIGION (be it Theistic or Atheistic) is the set of core values/beliefs by which that person gives the MEANING to his/her life and world.
Jeannette P.
Thank you Dr Wieland. This response was put so clearly that even a non-logician like myself could understand!

I especially like the way you have identified and countered the correspondant's sneaky tactics which - even though knowing he was wrong - I would have been unable to do. This sentence in particular is a gem:

"It’s like saying ‘I’ve disproved the existence of a transcendent God by assuming He is not transcendent’."
Jack M.
What a bizarre debate!

Ted G's initial argument is a trivial semantic one. If someone says that God created the universe, then it is fairly clear that they are using the term universe in a sense that does not contain God. Whether that is a good use of the word is arguable, but it is a debate about words, not ontology.

However, Carl Wieland's response unnecessarily attempts to reinvent mathematics by saying that sets contain only things that are either composed, at least hypothetically of mass or energy, or which are numbers.

But we can describe plenty of sets that contain other things. The set of all human emotions, the set of classical music styles.

And there are plenty of sets that contain God: the set of things that have walked in the Garden of Eden; the set of things that have spoken to Moses.

Ted G's argument may have been trivial, but Carl Weiland's shows a profound misunderstanding of mathematics.
Carl Wieland
I agree the debate is somewhat bizarre, but it is probably important to seek to answer folk on their own terms, and it appears to have rung bells for many others from these comments. I don't want to be kneejerk defensive, and I freely admit to not being a mathematician, but perhaps the depth of your comment re misunderstanding may be a little over the top itself. Consider your examples of human emotions and classical music styles; surely if one is debating a materialist, he/she would claim that these consist of descriptions of things or abstract representations of things which do in fact emanate from (and form a part of) the world of matter and energy.
Jonathan G.
A quick follow-up on my just-made feedback. I realize now that I was a bit grumpy over my morning coffee when I wrote that note. I apologize for my testiness.

The definition of "all the matter and energy that is" is unsatisfying though. It leaves unanswered the obvious question of God's own energy. I would go to my neighbor and give your definition. He would counter by asking about God's energy. I would have no response, and would need to slink away with my tail between my legs.

It occurs to me that scripture gives a possible answer in the form of "all things that were made", emphasizing the words "were made". I will make some time this afternoon to reread that passage.

It is desirable to have a robust definition of the term upon which to build discussion.
Carl Wieland
No problem, I published my response before I read your followup. :-)
Jonathan G.
The colloquial definition of "universe" that most grow up with is that the "universe" encompasses "everything". Even the term itself hints at that. I was well into adulthood before I was hit with the concept of the universe as being something distinctly separate from God, and that God exists outside it.

This article though, it isn't really satisfying. Reading it feels like I'm watching a chess game. The response isn't likely to satisfy the average person. Does the "universe" contain "all the matter and energy that exist"? What about God's energy? If God exists outside the universe, then so does his energy, right? Meh. That sort of chess-playing is hardly helpful.

I accept that God exists outside of what we perceive as our universe. I accept that God created a universe, or a bubble, or whatever you call it, and all (most?) that we perceive exists within. "Universe" is the term we use. A good definition is desirable. But that definition has got to be a definition that helps when speaking to my neighbor, not when playing chess games with reader-feedback.
Carl Wieland
Understood, though the Word does say 'answer a fool according to his folly' :-) Seriously, the thought behind publishing was that it might contain useful teaching points, as perceived by some in this whole thread. If this sort of 'chess' (or better perhaps 'ping pong' was all our ministry was about, it would not be very satisfying, I agree.
A. R.
"The ‘Universe’ is the set of all sets. This means it contains EVERYTHING (and therefore every person) that exists."

Ted starts by committing the logical fallacy of begging the question. He states, without any justification or evidence that the Universe contains all that there is - in other words, he defines his box, and then assumes that the contents of the box is all that exists. Therefore, there can't be anything outside the box, so nothing outside the box capable of creating the box or its contents can exist. Therefore, the universe can't have been created. Why? Because there's nothing outside the universe... Back to the beginning of the circle, Ted. Simple logic ;o)
Hans G.
As we are time dependent I'll say it so: Once there was God and nothing else. Then He decided to create, so he did. That's all there is to say........
Richard L.
The correspondent’s particular thinking is a variation of a trend of thinking from Hobbes and Spinoza, down to the present. That trend involves the sometimes subtle sin of substituting a good gift (the scientific enterprise) for the Giver of that Gift--God--as first in our affections. It goes somewhat like this:

-I sure get a buzz about scientific discovery.
-That buzz would be maximized if every event / phenomenon within space-time-history nature was within natural law, allowing scientists to investigate it.
-I'm going to maximize my buzz, so I decree that every event in nature is indeed within natural law--supernatural miracles are forbidden!
-I therefore reject Biblical special revelation.
-For natural laws to be supreme, there must never be when they were not supreme.
-Therefore, natural laws are **eternal**.
-The universe housing them therefore has also to be eternal and the "set of all sets".

The earlier philosophers made room for some sort of ’’god’ within this set of sets, though Schleiermacher--the theologian!--actively hating the notion of an external personal God who was conscious and wilful ("On Religion").

Starting around the mid-1800s, the reality of thermodynamics and entropy started to bite into this dream, as you note. The observable trend within natural processes of increasing entropy generates a "time's arrow" that points also back to a finite-in-time starting point to the universe. Many cosmologists stayed in denial of this fact until the 1960s, when the Steady State Model finally bit the dust.

If the correspondent wants to insist on the universe being defined as an all-comprehensive "set of sets", how can that set of sets be all-comprehensive if there ever was when it was not? A thermodynamic impossibility. The dream shatters.
Colin M.
Ted G is trying to prove his case logically but his materialist worldview cannot account for laws of logic (universal, invariant, abstract entities). Merely "showing up" for the debate he loses!
Ralph T.
You certainly covered the problems there. I would have simply said "nonsense is still nonsense , whether you say it about God or anything else!" When you're dealing with nonsensical rhetoric, a short dismissal is sometimes more effective.........
Patrick C.
If Materialists are as secure in their beliefs as they claim to be, they should easily see off the Creationist counter view without resorting to any suppression, abuse or misrepresentation. And surely the fact that a large body of scientists now question materialistic theory is in itself an interesting fact, which I would have thought any inquisitive mind, ought to be informed about. Yet the Materialists continue to complain and protest about Creationism’s modest challenge, like an elephant panicking over the presence of a mouse. I wonder why.

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