Creation and Conservation

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Many religions view the universe as the creation of a divine being or beings. The value of such a view is manifold. Among other things, it implies that the world is at least partly a product of divine planning and governance. To the extent that this is so, the world can be expected to be an orderly place, made for a purpose and ruled by providence. Thus, humans can anticipate that what befalls them in earthly life will not have occurred by accident, that their fortunes and destiny are, at least in some measure, divinely ordained. The idea of divine governance of the world also offers a possible basis for grounding principles of moral conduct; finally, if human destiny is in the hands of a higher power, there is at least hope of a life beyond the grave.

The doctrine of creation characteristic of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is a very strong one, for at least three reasons. First, these religions understand the universe to be entirely the product of one God. Second, creation is understood to be ex nihilo that is, the universe is not fashioned out of any preexisting thing. Third, the world is not just created by God "in the beginning," but is also sustained in being by him for its entire existence; thus, the fact that the world is able to persist beyond the present moment is as much owing to the creative action of God as is the fact that it exists at all. Taken together, these claims indicate that divine governance of the world is unified, close, and thorough, with implications about both the nature of the world and God's relation to it. These implications are related in turn to a number of problems in philosophical theology and to certain aspects of contemporary scientific cosmology.

The Cosmological Argument

No single account of creation could ever portray the richness of the Western philosophical tradition on the matter. There are, however, a number of common themes. Typically, treatments of God as creator begin with an argument for the existence of Godusually some version of either the teleological argument, which is based on premises about order or purpose in the universe, or the so-called cosmological argument, which invokes God as an uncaused first cause of all things. The latter argument shall be examined first.

The cosmological argument is traditionally presented as a deductive argument. Put very roughly, it asserts the following:

(1) The universe of our experience need not have existedthat is, that its existence is contingent.

(2) The existence of contingent things must have an explanation.

(3) The only or best explanation for the existence of the universe is the creative activity of a necessarily existing "first cause."

(4) Therefore, there is such an entity or being.

Further, it is held, this being is in fact the personal God of traditional Western monotheism.

Of the premises of this argument, the first seems plausible. The second is a version of the principle of sufficient reason. It is needed if the argument is to be deductively valid, but in the end it is probably damaging to the argument. The principle of sufficient reason is not a necessary truth, and so cannot be known a priori; any effort to establish its truth a posteriori is apt to be inconclusive, in part because the truth of the principle depends precisely on whether it holds with regard to cases such as the existence of the universe, which is precisely the point at issue.

Suppose, then, that premise number two is dropped. What remains is best interpreted as a kind of inductive argument, an inference to the best explanation, according to which the existence of the universe is a result of the causal activity of a necessary being. In such an argument, it is best to separate two claims that are implicit in the third premise above:

(3a) The creative activity of a necessarily existing first cause is sufficient to explain the existence of the universe.

(3b) No alternative hypothesis is sufficient to do the job.

With this clarification, and premise number two now out of the way, an appropriate conclusion might now be something like:

(5) Relative to the evidence of experience, we have better reason for thinking there is a necessarily existing first cause of the universe than for thinking otherwise.

Because this is an inductive argument, the conclusion no longer follows necessarily from the premises. In this, however, it is no different from any inductive argument, including many that we find quite persuasivefor example, arguments for the existence of subatomic particles or even for exotic and unexpected phenomena such as quantum entanglement. No doubt, a skeptic may treat this feature as a reason for denying the conclusion, but that is not a point of interest. A skeptic can find a reason to deny any conclusion. A second important point is that the God postulated in the argument is described as a necessary beingthat is, a being whose existence is necessary or a being that exists by its very nature. Some philosophers have questioned whether such a being is possible, and that is an issue worthy of consideration. It would, however, be logically misguided to greet this argument with the question, "What caused God?" By definition, a necessary being is existentially self-sufficient: It neither has nor requires a cause. Admittedly, it is not obvious that a necessarily existing first cause of the universe ought to be identified with the personal God of traditional belief. Proponents of cosmological arguments have, however, been well aware of this point; medieval demonstrations of a creatorthat of Thomas Aquinas, for examplewere often followed by lengthy consideration of what characteristics might appropriately be attributed to such a being.

Perhaps the most interesting issues about the cosmological argument concern premises 3a and 3b. Whether, as 3a asserts, the activity of a creator God explains the existence of the word will depend on how we understand that activity. Presumably, it does not consist in a sequence wherein God first commands that the universe exist, and the command then causes its existence. For if, as is usually supposed, causal relations are themselves contingent, then God would first have to create the causal mechanism by which his commands gain efficacy. This would require another command, and a vicious regress would ensue. How, then, should the activity of creation be understood? One attractive possibility is an analogy with human creation: for example, a writer envisioning a drama, a composer inventing a melody, or a scientist coming up with a hypothesis. On this kind of view, the first cause would indeed have to be conceived as personal, since the world would owe its existence to a knowing will, of which it would be the content as well as the product. That is to say, unlike the products of human creation, the universe would have its existence in God both as a concrete reality and as something known.

Premise 3b must itself be established inductively: That is, we must canvas the known alternatives to the hypothesis of a creator and show that they do not work. Of course, even if we succeed, it may be that some as yet undiscovered explanation for the existence of the world will be found superior to any invoking a creator God. Still, the cosmological argument is greatly strengthened if alternative hypotheses can be eliminated. Historically, the most favored alternative by far has been the hypothesis that the world had no temporal beginning but rather is infinite in duration, its existence at each moment being a causal consequence of the immediate past, from which it is generated in accordance with scientific law. In fact, however, this alternative is all but indefensible. Scientific laws, classically at least, are not diachronic: That is, they do not speak of causes that occur at one moment and effects at another. Action and reaction are simultaneous in Newton's scheme. The application of net force produces acceleration at the instant of application; if at t an object is not acted upon by a net force, then it is at rest or in uniform rectilinear motion at t.

We can, of course, deduce the state of a closed system at a later time if we know its state at t, but only if we assume as a premise that the mass/energy of which it is constituted will continue to exist. Nor will it do at this point to invoke conservation principles. For, again, the law that mass/energy is conserved holds only of closed systemsthat is, systems in which, ex hypothesi, mass/energy is neither gained nor lost. Conservation laws are not, however, mere tautologies. They tell us something very important: that physics is not about things just being, but about how they change; and that although we may learn a great deal from science about the development of the universe over time, and the ways in which the items of our experience combine and separate and change, physics has next to nothing to tell us about the existence of things.

A second difficulty with the alternative hypothesis is that we have no idea what it would be like for the universe to be able to bootstrap itself into the future by sustaining its own existence. No one has ever described a mechanism by which this could occur; and if one should deny the need to do soinvoking, say, a principle of "existential inertia" by which, once in existence, things "naturally" tend to continue existingthe explanation becomes empirically vacuous, a mere redescription of the phenomenon to be explained. Finally, even if one temporal stage of the universe could give rise to a succeeding one, the question that drives the cosmological argument would go unanswered.

For the problem is not why the universe exists at this moment, but why it exists at all. If I ask you why the bordelaise sauce in the upper container of a double boiler is hot, you may fairly explain that it is heated by the boiling water in the lower container. If I ask you why the water is boiling, you could in principle reply that this is in fact a triple boiler: that the water is heated by still further water, boiling merrily another level below. But if I ask you how heat gets into the system at all, it will not do to postulate an infinity boiler, for water is never anything but contingently hot. You have to come to something essentially hotfire, perhapsto answer my question. Similarly, if the problem is to explain the existence of contingent things, an infinite sequence of them is of no avail. Only if we postulate a necessary being will an explanation be possible.


If these points are correct, then the traditional cosmological argument is in a considerably stronger position than is often supposed. Its plausibility is the same, moreover, whether the past duration of the universe is finite or infinite. If there is never a natural accounting for the existence of contingent things, then at any moment of their existence, only the activity of a necessary being can explain them. This is the essence of the religious doctrine of conservation, according to which God is as much responsible for the persistence of the universe as for its being there at all. Many have thought, however, that the doctrine of conservation leads to a serious difficulty. If God is, at each moment, the cause of all that exists, what place can there be for natural causes? It is unreasonable to think God is causally responsible for the present existence of my chair unless he is also responsible for its properties. Indeed, the seventeenth-century philosopher Nicolas Malebranche argued that nothing else is possible, that it is self-contradictory to suppose God could create a chair that is neither at rest nor in motion, and has no color or mass or any other property characteristic of a chair. But if God is creatively responsible for all the properties of the chair at each moment of existence, are not natural causes simply redundant? God's will as creator must, after all, be presumed completely efficacious. But if it is, what efficacy is left to natural causes?

Malebranche's answer was blunt: none. He held a doctrine known as occasionalism, according to which the events we ordinarily take to be causes (for example, my pushing on the chair) are only occasions for God to exercise his own causal power (to create the chair in motion), the only causal power that is legitimately efficacious. But occasionalism has uncomfortable consequences. Perhaps the worst is that if it is true, we do not perceive the world in the way we think we dothat is, by the action of the things in it on our senses. Rather, our sensations are caused in us by God so as to match what is going on in the world. And then we are only a step away from the idealism of George Berkeley: that is, from moving to the conclusion that the so-called physical universe must be superfluous to God's plan, then denying its existence and attempting to reduce its contents to nothing but sets of ideas.

It is possible, however, to avoid occasionalism if the suggestion of the previous section is correct: that natural causation is not a matter of conferring existence to begin with. Much more plausible accounts are possible. In the realm of physical action in particular, causal interaction may be viewed as a matter of energy transfer, wherein quantities presumed to be conservedmotion, momentum, charge, and the likeare transmitted from one entity to another. As such, what we normally take to be causal processes (one billiard ball imparting motion to another, to cite the classic example) count as genuine exercises of causal power yet do not carry the suggestion of one event conferring existence on another. The case of perception, where what is caused is something mental, is notoriously more difficult. But if a similar solution can be found there, we have every reason to think both natural and divine causation can be accepted without setting up a false competition between them.

Creation and Scientific Cosmology

Philosophical arguments for the existence of God are widely understood to be reinforced by two recent developments in scientific cosmology. The first is the so-called big bang theory, according to which the universe of our observation constitutes a kind of continuous explosion that commenced some 15 billion years ago from an initial singularity in which the entirety of space-time was compressed to a state so dense as to be indescribable by any known principles of physics. This theory is now well confirmed, and it implies that the universe did indeed have a temporal beginningso radical a beginning, in fact, that it would be scientifically meaningless to speak of a time prior to the big bang.

That the universe had a temporal beginning is in line with many religious creation narratives. Theists have therefore tended to treat the big bang theory as confirmation of their views, holding that it is far more plausible to postulate a creator to explain the world's beginning than to claim it "just happened." Opponents have found the appeal to such a cause unscientific. Some have argued that, in fact, a divine act of creation is not possible, because even a divine cause must precede its effect, and the big bang allows for no time prior to itself. Others have posed mathematical models for the universe's origin that would avoid the claim of an initial singularity and the attendant implication of a temporal beginning.

The suggestion that a proper science ought not to be postulating a creator has much to be said for it; science is fairly taken to be solely concerned with natural phenomena and natural explanations of them. Theists who take comfort from big bang theories need not, however, be deterred by such a delimitation of scientific purview, given that they seek an explanation for the existence of the entire natural ordersomething a science thus delimited cannot in principle provide. As for the claim that even a divine cause must precede its effect, that seems mistaken. On the contrary: if, as is argued above, the laws that govern natural processes are synchronic rather than diachronic, then even natural causation must be understood in a way that makes cause and effect simultaneousin which case any support for the claim that a divine cause must precede its effect vanishes. Humans may eventually come to understand the genesis of the cosmos according to some model other than the standard big bang. But the alternatives presently available face problems of internal coherence and of testability, and so have yet to offer strong competition.

The second development in cosmology that is often taken to support claims of a creator is the realization that living beings of the sort with which we are familiar owe their existence to a wondrously exacting fine-tuning of various physical parameters. For example, if the ratio of the universe's rate of expansion to its total mass were increased or decreased by only one part in a million, there would be no stars and planets to support life. If the strong nuclear force were increased by just 1 percent, it would have been impossible for carbon to form; an increase of 2 percent would have ruled out the formation of protons from quarks. On the opposite side, a decrease of 4 percent would have allowed no atoms other than hydrogen to form.

Examples like this can be multiplied at considerable length, and the likelihood that all the requirements for life that they embody should be satisfied in one universe is exceedingly remote. The fact that our universe does exactly that has therefore been held to justify a teleological argument for the existence of God. That is, it is argued that the only way to explain the fine-tuning of our universe for life is to postulate an intelligent creator who designed it to be so. Opponents have countered that the universe visible to us may be only one of a great many worlds, perhaps even an infinite number, in which many or even all possible combinations of basic parameters are displayed. If so, then the fine-tuning of our world might be "explained," at least in the weak sense that the appearance of such a universe would be made more likely, or even certain. In addition to being plainly ad hoc in character, these speculations too present problems of testabilitynot to mention the difficulty of truly explaining the existence of such an ensemble of worlds by specifying a mechanism that could cause it to appear, and guarantee its exhaustiveness. Like the big bang, however, the issue of fine-tuning is a subject of intense interest, and there is doubtless a good deal more to be said about both.

See also Berkeley, George; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Cosmology; Laws, Scientific; Malebranche, Nicolas; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God; Thomas Aquinas, St.


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Hugh J. McCann (2005)

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Creation and Conservation

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