Fuzzing into existence

In the last couple of posts, I've discussed the Hartle-Hawking proposal and the math behind it.  Now let's discuss the theological implications.

In his Brief History of Time (written 1988; I'm just going to be engaging with this book and not with any of his more recent pronouncements), Hawking has the following famous saying about the Hartle-Hawking state:

The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe.  With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people [!] have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws.  However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started—it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork, and choose how to start it off.  So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator.  But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither a beginning nor end: it would simply be.  What place, then, for a creator?

The first question to ask here is who counts as "most people"?

The majority of people in the world believe in some type of God or gods capable of supernatural intervention.  Even in the Western world, the majority of people believe in God (as Hawking indicates), and the majority of those believe in a religion called Christianity which teaches that God does produce miracles from time to time.

If Hawking means the English or the Europeans, then admittedly there has been a marked decline in religious faith in Europe (much less so in the US) and many "Christians" there have a merely nominal or cultural affiliation.  But belief in miracles is still far from nonexistent.

In any case, I am obviously not the target demographic, since I believe that God has done some remarkable things since that moment, perhaps 13.8 billion years ago, when he set the ball rolling.  Or was there such a moment?

Hawking suggests that (if his model is correct) there was no such moment of creation.  Not, according to him, because the universe goes infinitely far back in time—he says that it doesn't.  Rather, because the geometry of spacetime is rounded off like a sphere, so that there is no special beginning point, but rather a whole region of points none of which would be any better or worse as a beginning.  As he says:

The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside of itself.  It would just BE.

Now this only works if you go to imaginary time to describe the universe.  With respect to real time, the Hartle-Hawking state does go back forever in time (with high probability).  So if real time is what is important, then what Hawking says about the absence of a beginning is still true, although for a different reason.

If the Hartle-Hawking proposal is right, this could itself be taken as good reason to endorse an "imaginary time" view of the universe, although I'm not sure that's a consistent thing to do given that we at any rate seem to live in real time.  But Hawking himself expresses a more ambivalent view:

So maybe what we call imaginary time is more basic, and what we call real is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like.  But, according to the approach I described in Chapter 1, a scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations: it exists only in our minds.  So it is meaningless to ask: which is real, "real" or "imaginary" time?  It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description.

Yet on this more positivistic view where the model is only aiming to be a "useful description", how could one use it to draw the metaphysical deductions Hawking wants to make, about there being no "place" for a Creator?  But let's leave that aside, and accept the "imaginary time" point of view for purposes of our theological excursion, since it doesn't much matter whether the universe lacks a beginning because it's closed off like a sphere, or because it goes back in time forever.

Now when Hawking asks rhetorically whether there is a "place" for a Creator, the context suggests that he's not so much asking whether there's good reason to believe in a Creator, but whether there even could be a Creator, given the absence of a clear first moment of time.  What would there be left for him to do?   Aside from deciding that there should be a universe, selecting the laws of physics for said universe, deciding that the Hartle-Hawking state is the prettiest state for it to be in, and then (according to Hawking) deciding not to intervene even if it turns out we could use some help.  Other than that, it seems like there is nothing left for God to do!

Really, Hawking is assuming (quite explicitly) that Science has already displaced God to such an extent that the only "place" that could be left for him is to push the button to make everything go, and then "sit back and watch".  (This view is often called Deism nowadays, although historically Deists actually had a much more robust view of divine providence, and merely rejected the miracles and special revelations of particular religions.)

This rather limited God is the type of bad theology which makes religious people throw around the phrase "God of the Gaps", although I still believe that this term is highly misleading and should be retired.  I tried to express a better set of points in that post:

1. Any time we ever believe in anything rationally, we do so because there is some kind of "gap" in our understanding of how the universe works, which is filled by postulating the existence of that thing.

2. All phenomena which occur in Nature do so because God sustains the world in being, thus (at least indirectly) causing everything.

Hawking allows no role for God as the Sustainer of all existence.  But God's role in "sustaining" the world is not really a different type of act from his act of "creating" it.  Hawking invites us to look at the world from a 4-dimensional perspective; in this perspective all points of spacetime exist because God gives them the power to exist, delineating the role that each one plays in the bigger scheme of things.  From that perspective, Creation is something which is happening NOW, not just something which happened (or didn't happen) 13.8 billion years ago.  Stated in a tenseless way, for all the things that exist, they exist because God chooses for them the conditions of their existence.  (One of those conditions being that they are causally related in particular ways to the events before, after, or around them.)

God's role in creation is not a "mechanical" one, providing the initial impetus or force to get the machine working, which can then run for a while on its own.  God is more like an Author writing a story.  An Author stands outside the time-stream of their own story.  As my Dad said in a Slashdot interview:

Once you see the universe from that point of view, many arguments fade into unimportance, such as Hawking's argument that the universe fuzzed into existence at the beginning, and therefore there was no creator. But it's also true that the Lord of the Rings fuzzed into existence, and that doesn't mean it doesn't have a creator. It just means that the creator doesn't create on the same schedule as the creature's.

If God is creating the universe sideways like an Author, then the proper place to look for the effects of that is not at the fuzzy edges, but at the heart of the story. And I am personally convinced that Jesus stands at the heart of the story. The evidence is there if you care to look, and if you don't get distracted by the claims of various people who have various agendas to lead you in every possible direction, and if you don't fall into the trap of looking for a formula rather than looking for God as a person.

To think that God creates the universe and then stands back to watch it, is like thinking that an Author only has to write the first sentence, and then they can read the rest.  Bad news for aspiring fiction writers: you have to write the whole thing.  Maybe once the plot gets into full swing, the characters will start having a "mind of their own", and fail to act in the way the Author originally intended.  But the Author is still in charge.

Nor does he have to "intervene" in order to get things to come out the way he wants them to: everything in the book is subject to the control of the Author, both the parts which follow naturally and inevitably from the previous scenes, and the parts where the Author does something totally unexpected.  In any case, the main "point" of the story is seldom found right at the beginning, but develops as the story progresses.

Traditionally, books have a fixed and determinate sequence of letters, but if the Author wants to start out with something which doesn't have a definite time order (say a map on the first page) then that doesn't impugn their authorship of the rest of the book.  And if the Author wants to make their book be infinitely long in both directions....well, that would probably be easier for God than for a human writer, wouldn't it!

So I think that belief in the creation of the universe does not really depend on there being a first moment of time.  Conversely, this might also make one suspicious of the kalam argument championed by St. William Lane Craig in the debate.  If the doctrine of Creation is not about there being a first moment of time, then there's something dubious about arguing for it as though it were.  This doesn't automatically imply that St. Craig's argument is unsound, but it does suggest that it might not be the best way of looking at things.

Of course, we should also keep in mind what I said in my original post, that the Hartle-Hawking proposal is a speculative idea.  It is a very beautiful idea, but it is difficult to make well-defined, and there is no direct evidence for it.  While there was originally some reason to think it might predict inflation, the current indications seem to be that it predicts the wrong type of universe.

I remember my surprise when, several years ago, I read an article by the atheist philosopher Quentin Smith, showcasing the Hartle-Hawking state as an argument for Atheism.  Never mind his actual argument, which makes no sense.  In a talk given to some atheist club, he stated that his argument "is the strongest scientific argument there is against theism. I think it's even stronger than Darwin's theory of evolution."

Oh my!  Neither Stephen Hawking nor Jim Hartle would make the claim that the Hartle-Hawking state is anywhere near as solidly supported as Darwinian evolution; in fact Jim told me just the other day that he isn't particularly committed to it being true.  (People often assume that if a scientist thinks of an interesting, publishable idea, they must believe in it, but they might only think it is worth considering!)  In fact, I think that only an outsider to the field of quantum gravity could take the "no boundary proposal" as anything other than a provisional, interesting idea worth exploring, which at best might be true.

I've discussed a lot of speculative physics in these last several posts, and I wouldn't want anyone walking away thinking that the physics is more clearly established than it is.  In our current state of knowledge, any statements about the beginning of the universe are necessarily speculative, and if we rest our theological beliefs (for or against Theism) on that shaky foundation, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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41 Responses to Fuzzing into existence

  1. David says:

    Out of interest then, do you agree with William Lane Craig's cosmological argument? I might be wrong, (though I'm about 75% sure I'm right) I believe George Ellis and William Steoger accept it, they at least accepts the arguments against infinities [and Craig quotes mentions Ellis as someone who agreed with his presentation on the finitude of the past in a podcast about Ellis].

    Craig is one of those people that even if you disagree with him, he's still makes a big and interesting contribution, I think the same with Quentin Smith [His new cosmological argument against theism is far more interesting] http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/smith-kalam-cosmological-arguments.pdf -- if you want to read it -- Although, maybe he can get away with more speculative remarks, being a philosopher, he does claim to have verified his understanding of the model with Alex Vilenkin, Jim Hartle, Don Page, Stephen Hawking, Andrei Linde and Christopher Isham (who has also referred some of Smiths work). That was in the 2003 debate he had with Craig.

    But anyway, great blog post, as always!

  2. Andy says:

    I think Quentin Smith's claim should be understood as saying the connection between atheism and the Hartle hawking model is stronger than the connection between atheism and evolution. Not that the Hartle hawking model is more confirmed than evolution. Elsewhere (in response to robin collins), he agrees these are speculative and in 'the wavefunction of a godless universe' he tries to prefer the Hartle hawking model based purely on philosophical criteria alone (Implying that he agrees there's no evidence).

    Though I don't see why he isn't part of the community who work in quantum gravity, he is only a philosopher, (then again so is Jeremy Butterfield) but he has won numerous awards for his work in quantum cosmology (and he did do a degree at Harvard with an interest in this).

  3. TY says:

    Good blog!

    In a comment on Dr. Aron's previous blog, “Did the Universe Begin? IX: More about Imaginary Time” I said (almost anticipatoing Aron's subsequent blog):

    “I am with those theists who believe that God is required regardless of whether there is a beginning. Since God is omnipotent what prevents Him from creating a universe with an infinite past? I don't think this generalisation does away with the Kalam argument favoured by St Craig and similar arguments (thermodynamic beginning). Conversely, in Bayesian langauge, they increase the prior probability of the role of a Creator.”

    And in Aron’s closing paragraph of this blog, “Fuzzing into existence”, he says:

    “I've discussed a lot of speculative physics in these last several posts, and I wouldn't want anyone walking away thinking that the physics is more clearly established than it is. In our current state of knowledge, any statements about the beginning of the universe are necessarily speculative, and if we rest our theological beliefs (for or against Theism) on that shaky foundation, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.”

    David, considering the fact the best theories that attempt to explain the universe before the “big bang” are speculative (no supporting evidence), it all comes down to what is reasonable and more probable given “our current state of knowledge”. I guess we may never know the answer, but there is a non-negligible probability, even if we have to wait another 2,000 years. One such model may emerge. And I thnk that is what St. Aron has in mind: science has a way of springing surprises.

    So, I like Aron’s analogy of God the author of a (live) book; hence, the distinction between creation and beginning (whether it’s in Chapter 1 or in the middle). Aron, by the way, is not alone in voicing this belief, and he’s in good company of other physicists like Stephen Barr and Don Page. Moreover, it’s a view with sound foundations, in the creation theology of St Thomas Aquinas. In this blog, Aron touches on it, e.g., God role as creator and sustainer. These are all antithetical to Hartle-Hawkins proposal.

  4. Aron Wall says:


    When you ask me if I "agree" with the Kalam Argument, I'm not sure how to respond because arguments shouldn't just be evaluated in a boolean, yes-no sort of a way. There is a certain amount of space in between "totally illogical and shouldn't change your thinking in any way" and "obviously sound: not only is the argument valid but no reasonable person could doubt the premises". An argument could work as a purely deductive argument (some of them enthymemes), or it could be a probabilistic argument, or it could have a flaw which is fixable, or be closely related to forms of reasoning which are sound. So it's not a yes-no question.

    I certainly don't accept the claim that philosophy can show that time was finite to the past, which is sometimes regarded as part of the kalam argument, although not according to St. Craig's presentation (who separates that out as a possible argument for one of the premises of what he calls the Kalam Argument). I do think that both premises of Craig's version are probably true, and that there are decent reasons why a nontheist might come to accept them, but I don't think that either premise can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor do I think that the transcendent cause of the kalam argument is obviously God in other senses---although it is! I think there is a more illuminating form of the Cosmological Argument, which doesn't make as much reference to time, which will be the subject of a future series of posts.)

    I read the Smith paper and wasn't terribly impressed, but I'm thinking of reviewing it in a top-level article so I'll hold off discussing it for now, other than to say that he seems to be inconsistent in his beliefs about whether real infinities can exist or not: when it's convenient for his argument to say that actul infinities can't exist (i.e. at the singularity) he says that, and when it's convenient for him to say they can (the sequence of times going back to the singularity) he says that. That struck me as rather biased. I also totally disagree that the Universe could be "self-caused" in a way that would explain literally everything.

    You say that an infinite past would not do away with the Kalam Argument, but the Kalam argument is by definition a very specific type of Cosmological Argument which assumes (or attempts to prove that) the universe was finite to the past. What you should say is that you accept some form of the Cosmological Argument which is not the Kalam Argument, which does not depend on the assumption that time is finite to the past.

    That's a possible interpretation of what Smith is saying, but I rejected it because I think from Smith's talk that he wrongly believes the Hartle-Hawking state is strongly supported by the data:

    Hawking's theory is confirmed by observational evidence. This theory predicts our universe has evenly-distributed matter on a large scale, which would be on scales of super-clusters of galaxies. It predicts that the expansion rate of our universe -- our universe has been expanding ever since -- would be almost exactly between the rate of the universe expanding forever and the rate where it expands and then collapses. It also predicts the very early area of rapid expansion near the beginning of the universe called inflation. Hawking's theory exactly predicted what the COBE satellite discovered about the irregularities of the background radiation in the universe. So a scientific theory that is confirmed by observational evidence tells us that the universe began without being caused. So if you want to be a rational person and accepts the results of rational inquiry into nature, then we must accept the fact that God did not cause the universe to exist. The universe exists because of this wave-function law.

    This would better be characterized as evidence for inflation, and even there some alternatives exist although they aren't as compelling.

    In any case, I don't think Smith would be right under your interpretation either. Darwinian Evolution is perfectly compatible with Theism, but it exploded a specific Design Argument for Theism which would otherwise be quite difficult to get around. Whereas I am unconvinced that the Hartle-Hawking proposal functions as a good argument for Atheism in the way he thinks it does, largely for the reasons I outlined in the article above, but also because his specific arguments make no sense to me. At best he is providing an alternative to accepting the conclusion of Kalam, but I don't think this is nearly as relevant as a (hypothetical) inability to explain biological adaptation would have been.

    Thanks for all your comments, everyone.

  5. TY says:

    Thank you for the correction on the Kalam Argument (popularised by St Craig), which is that, by definition, (actual) time is assumed to be finite to the past. As you know there are arguments (e.g., Hilbert's famous infinite hotel) against the notion of an actual infinity, and so I am curious to know what is your view as a person of faith who views the world through the undivided lens of physics and theology. What scientific evidence and philosophical arguments support the Aron view of infinity?. Maybe this can be the subject of a future blog.

    Thank you for also clarifying in a previous blog (Did the Universe Begin? VIII: The No Boundary Proposal) that the HH model is finite to the past, but with time being imaginary (mathematically speaking) at the beginning, but is infinite or eternal to the past (and to the future) with real-valued time. I hope I got the distinction right.

  6. Michael R says:


    I discovered your site through a link on Luke Barnes' website. I must say I think it is fantastic. I do have a question about quantum mechanics, namely your interpretation of quantum mechanics.

    I know that the Copenhagen Interpretation used to (and still might be) the majority position among physicists, but it seems today that many physicists are embracing de Broglie-Bohm or Many-Worlds. I was wondering what your thoughts were on these interpretations and if you had one that you subscribed to (I know there are many other interpretations than the ones I have listed, but these three get mentioned the most).

    Also, could you tell me your thoughts regarding the von Neumann/Wigner interpretation (consciousness causes collapse). It seems to me that if the von Neumann interpretation was correct, that would strongly point to a theistic position since there would still need to be a consciousness to collapse the wavefunction in the early universe. Again your thoughts would be appreciated.

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for the compliment.

    The interpretation of QM is really hard, and I don't think I accept any of the interpretations I've heard of (cop out, I know). I would prefer something like quantum Bayesianism, but I don't know how to reconcile that with the Kochen–Specker theorem

    Probably most people are confused, just like me. I think only a minority of physicists embrace the Bohmian interpretation. People are used to thinking in a Copenhagen-y way, but among the group of high energy physicists who care, I hear a lot more support for the many worlds interpretation than anything else. But it seems to me that MWI is totally crazy, and that it is quite false that e.g. the Born rule can be derived purely from the statement that "the wavefunction evolves by Schrodinger's equation". If anything, MWI seems to me to be equivalent to saying that all worlds exist with unit probability, which is not the same thing at all.

    The von Neumann/Wigner idea that consciousness "collapses the wavefunction" seems pretty wild. But if I had to bet, I'd bet that the true interpretation is something at least that weird. But probably it's something else wild we haven't even thought of yet. But let's presuppose von Neumann/Wigner for a moment and see what happens.

    I don't see how you get to the claim that "there would still need to be a consciousness to collapse the wavefunction in the early universe". Why couldn't the collapse of the wavefunction wait until the moment of time when conscious observers would appear, retroactively selecting only those histories compatible with whatever is observed? (I guess if there are never any conscious observations, one would collapse down to states involving "no observation"?)

    On Theism, I suppose God's consicousness might collapse the wavefunction, but this actually raises a problem, since traditional theology says God is omnisicent, which would mean he is conscious of everything, which would (on the von Neumann-Wigner view) result in collapsing the wavefunction all the time! That would seem to contradict our observations, and probably doesn't even make much sense mathematically. One could say that God only collapses the wavefunction occassionally when he wants there to be a determinate answer to certain questions. That's possible but it seems more ad hoc.

    On the other hand, the very existence of consciousness is somewhat difficult to account for on a Naturalistic worldview, so I think that might be the better argument for Theism. Philosophy of mind is controversial, and its intersection with philosophy of religion even more controversial, but at least you wouldn't also need to throw in interpretation of QM!

  8. Michael R says:


    Thanks for your quick and informative reply. I never heard of Quantum Bayesianism until you mentioned it, but if you're having trouble reconciling it with Kochen-Specker then that could be a problem. I'm mildly surprised that such a minority of physicists accept a Bohmian interpretation. I know Weinberg had issues with it, but from the (limited) amount of articles I read on the subject, it, MWI and Copenhagen are the three mentioned most.

    I agree with you that MWI seems totally crazy. Now, I can't comment on how it relates to the actual physics and what physicists see by observation, but to me, I would reject it unless there was a compelling reason to prefer it over other alternatives. If one interpretation requires a virtual infinity of worlds to explain the things we see with QM and another interpretation does not, then I would side with the interpretation that does not. You did say that you think MWI is quite false, if you could explain a little more why you think that is the case, I would appreciate it.

    Would I be correct in saying though that any correct interpretation of QM would reject realism (in the quantum sense not in the metaphysical sense)? It seems to me that since experiments support Bell's theorem and violates the Leggett inequalities, that realism is false (this is based on my reading, please correct me if I am mistaken). So where does that leave us, if I am not mistaken then Copenhagen at least would still be a proper interpretation (this wouldn't make Copenhagen true, just we can safely say it isn't not true).

    You make some good points regarding the von Neumann/Wigner interpretation. I had some fondness for it since I felt that it could be an example of us observing Divine Conservation (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/09/classical-theism.html) in action. Thanks again for your answering my question. I really do appreciate it and keep up the good work!

  9. Aron Wall says:


    All good interpretations of quantum mechanics (at least supposedly) lead to the same probability predictions (except for objective collapse theories, but these are only viable if the collapse occurs in situations where we can't currently measure quantum interference). So you can't distinguish between them by experiment; you have to do Philosophy.

    Regarding my objections to MWI, I already told another commenter that I'd write a post about it, since I think I'd rather do it as a top level post, sometime later when I have the time to devote to it. (It's not really in keeping with my current series covering the Carroll-Craig debate).

    I wouldn't say you have to reject realism. I would define realism as the belief that there exists an objective physical reality out there. Defined in this way, it doesn't say which particular structures and properties should be taken as being "real"; different interpretations might have different views about that. I'm not an expert in this area, but I think the various theorems only show that you can't view all possible "observables" in a Hilbert space as simultaneously "real", at least not in a "noncontextual" way which is independent of which choices we make as experimenters to measure them. But maybe some of them are "real" but not others. Or maybe the values they take on are contextual in some way. My point is, various interpretations might reject other things besides realism.

    Bohm is an example of a realist interpretation. Why do most physicists reject Bohmian mechanics? Well, Bohm involves tacking together an uncollapsed wavefunction with a classical trajectory, so it's more complicated than a lot of other views. Not only that, but it violates locality and also requires picking a particular "basis" (e.g. position vs. momentum) in the Hilbert space of states to be "real". That seems a bit arbitrary to many people. (For example, in QFT, a "field configuration space" basis is more natural than Bohm's original choice of the particle position space basis.) Apparently it also requires picking out a particular reference frame, breaking the principle of relativity. Since it violates several cherished physical principles, it's not surprising that most physicists don't like it much.

    One could argue that Copenhagen is not really a "proper interpretation", not because it contradicts experience, but because it isn't fully defined. It refers to the notion of a "classical measuring apparatus", without telling us what that actually means. Every material system is made out of quantum particles, and Copenhagen doesn't really tell us when (or why) the rules of classical logic take over for sufficiently large systems. At least the interpretation of Wigner and von Neumann makes some attempt to describe the reason for the transition to clasicality. (Perhaps I should say St. John von Neumann, since apparently he had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism!)

  10. Felipe says:

    Great post as always.
    Wall, you don't accept the philosophical arguments for the beggining of the universe because you believe in the B-Theory of time?
    Is this cosmological argument you mentioned the leibnizian? I like it but I find it very difficult to use in discussion :P

  11. kaveh says:

    Dear Aron . Unfortunately you misunderstood some points . let's talk about concept of creation in theology ( in particular christian or Islam theology ) , then I will show Hartle-Hawking no-boundary proposal is in absolute conflict with any notion of creation . some people such as William Craig and many others have discussed that there is an absolute moment of creation ( definite beginning of time and this means before that time there was simply nothing ) . but in christian theology as also you mentioned already there is another notion of creation namely ontological or continuus or permanent creation ( in contrast to original creation = craig's view ). what is difference between this two distinct notion of creation . in original creation god acts only at the most initial state ( beginning of time ) and lets universe evolves based on natural laws. in second type of creation god not only acts at initial moment but also in all moments and time , in other words time sustains universe in existence ( if god doesn't sustain the universe , it fades away and goes into nothingness = this issue also related to will of god ) . so creation can be understood in two category ( creation and sustaining ) . the question emerges is this : if universe be eternal ( eternity in this context means beginninglessness not timelessness ) can god still create this universe ? some theologians such as Aquinas thinks god can , but in what ground ? here notion of permanent or ontological creation helps to clarify the issue . even if universe be infinitely old is both past and future ( pre-big bang models,cyclic/bouncing models and ...) still god is creator of universe . in this case universe ontologically depends on god for its existence . there is a subtle point here that is hidden through words. the basic reason that takes god as an absolute creator ( whether or not universe be eternal ) of universe is that god is timeless and spaceless , so a timeless and spaceless thing ( god that is ontologically proceeds universe) can create a fundamentally temporal universe ( 1- universe has an absolute beginning point , 2 - universe is beginningless and hence no definite beginning point = note in either case universe is essentially a temporal thing ) . Now lets take a look at Hartle-Hawking proposal : as I described this proposal in my previous comment , in HH proposal it is meaningless to say altogether either 1- universe has an absolute beginning or 2- universe has no any absolute beginning and so is eternal .why ? because at the most basic level universe is explained by a quantum gravitational structure so-called 4D Euclidean space . what is the basic characteristics of this space ? this is a mathematical object in which all points are identical to each other completely , there is no any possible notion of causal past/causal future ( generally as Leibniz has indicatd long ago there is a hierarchy among come basic concepts : order gives causality , causality gives change , and change gives time . as Leibniz explained both space and time can be derived from ordering relation but space is order of coexisting things (points that have no any priority ,posteriority or simultaneously relations to each other so no points in Euclidean space cause another points , causation is wholly absent in this structure ) . also notion of time is absent, either internally ( some degrees of freedom serve as time in which other degrees of freedom evolve with regard to this internal , emergent time) or externally ( external ,background time,proper time) ,thus this structure is also timeless in most strict sense of timelessness . so due to absence of basic succession relations ( ordering ) all concepts of causality ,time, evolution,dynamics ,motion and change are meaningless in HH no-boundary proposal ( inside Euclidean space ) .when phase transition occurs and a distinguished time direction emerges from purely 4D spatial Euclidean space the true history and evolution of universe ( Lorentzian spacetime ) starts and we get all of our familiar notions that were eliminated in Euclidean space . In conclusion both creation concept that I mentioned above is utterly inconsistent with HH no-boundary proposal .

  12. Aron Wall says:


    I don't normally talk about A-theory versus B-theory since I think it leads to more confusion than insight. I've only been mentioning it due to people asking me about it, and due to the fact that I've been discussing St. William Lane Craig, who strongly endorses A-theory. I think probably both views are consistent with the universe having no beginning---if that is, the A-theory were consistent with itself, which I think it isn't.

    I've already written most of a series of posts explaining my views on the Cosmological Argument, so stay tuned.

  13. David says:

    Looking back on this, I really don't understand how an eternal universe is consistent with theism (I'm genuinely open to beginning or beginningless universe either way), but what exactly does God do? In what way is God responsible for the Universe? It sounds to me that God's existence would just be an accident (or a coincidence) something unnecessary. It just seems to contradict everything I know about the Bible, particularly the first verse.

    Don Page commented today on the Carroll-Craig debate, you might be intrigued to read:

  14. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comment, David.

    There are actually 2 separate questions here. First, would it be philosophically meaningful or logically consistent to assert that God created an eternal universe. Secondly, is it consistent with what God has revealed to us? Genesis 1:1 is relevant to the second question, but not the first.

    With respect to the first question, you ask "What exactly does God do?" as if God had to turn a crank or engage in some kind of mechanical manipulation to bring a universe into existence. In fact it is sufficient for him to just will for a universe to exist, and it exists. That's why Genesis 1 portrays God as creating through speaking his Word, not through exerting force or power. Why couldn't he simply (and timelessly) say to himself, "Let there be a universe which is eternal to the past". Even cosmologists and fantasy writers can concoct models with an infinite past in few seconds using just the power of our minds! (Although, we are at a disadvantage relative to the divine power, in that these cosmologies remain fictional, not real...)

    With respect to the Bible, it is quite plausible that Genesis 1:1 in fact asserts that the universe came into existence a finite time in the past. I myself believe this is likely what happened. But if we read the rest of Genesis chapter 1 as literal scientific truth, then there are many serious contradictions with proven scientific facts about the early history of the universe. It could well be that the first verse is meant to be taken literally even though the rest of the chapter conveys more symbolic truths, but it suggests we need to careful when extracting scientific statements from the Bible, which was not after all written for that purpose!

  15. Seth says:

    I have the exact opposite problem. I have a hard time imagining an eternal universe without theism.
    For a finite universe there is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I think the KCA is completely logically valid and inescapable if the two premises are true. But it is a supplemental argument. It doesn't actually argue for an intelligent agent. I find it hilarious when atheists reject the KCA but embrace the multiverse ensemble. They embrace the multiverse because they intuitively agree with the KCA. They reject the KCA because of the people who advocate it. But while I think classical theism arguments more plausible there's more wiggle room for a non theistic mechanism that created the universe.
    But with an eternal universe, possibly due to a lack of imagination on my part, I find atheism ludicrous. For starters the A theory of time would have to be completely rejected (which I do anyway) because it is solely a causal chain and without a definite beginning point you could never get to the present moment.
    So the B Theory is required. But that means that every moment in time exists eternally and is absolutely integral to the universe no matter how arbitrary. That coke you spilled at the movies last week? That moment is eternal, self-sufficient, and integral to the universe no different than the laws or constants. What happened, happened and couldn't have happened any other way or else it would be an entirely different universe. Free will would truly be illusory because there would be no God to impart a portion of His Freedom to us.
    This scenario is certainly possible but I find its natural conclusions to be silly without theism.

  16. Pingback: Did the Universe Have a Beginning? – Carroll vs Craig Review (Part 1) | Letters to Nature

  17. Mactoul says:

    "Let there be a universe which is eternal to the past"
    But what would this mean?
    "Even cosmologists and fantasy writers can concoct models with an infinite past in few seconds using just the power of our minds!"

    But cosmologists do not concern themselves with THINGS that actually comprise the universe. The problem , as I see it, comes from thinking not primarily of the things that are supposed to exist from infinite past.
    Can we conceive of spacetime existing without things in it?

  18. Mactoul says:

    "On Theism, I suppose God's consicousness might collapse the wavefunction,"

    Is it God's duty to fill in gaps in quantum mechanics?

  19. Aron Wall says:


    Can we conceive of spacetime existing without things in it?

    Cosmological models in which time is infinite to the past would have some set of "things" in them. At least, the various fields like the metric would take on various values.

    Is it God's duty to fill in gaps in quantum mechanics?

    Please. I don't see this as being a helpful comment. Especially since I explained in that very paragraph why I don't accept the thesis of divine wavefunction collapse. But even if I did, this would be a pretty lame objection. Duty and explanation are two completely separate things. I can be the explanation of why there is an empty glass sitting on the coffee table, without having had any "duty" to put the glass there.

  20. Mactoul says:

    You do deny the thesis but on the grounds that
    "since traditional theology says God is omnisicent, which would mean he is conscious of everything, which would (on the von Neumann-Wigner view) result in collapsing the wavefunction all the time! "

    However, the thesis needs to be rejected on the more basic grounds that God belongs to theology and not to physics. That "God did it" can not be an explanation in physics. It does not advance our understanding. What God does as His direct actions are miracles that are by definition outside the province of physics. It would be absurd to these such acts as explanation in physics.

  21. Aron Wall says:

    But physics is in a sense a branch of theology, because everything is a branch of theology (since everything exists in relation to God). Different fields of study can't always be kept apart in watertight compartments. That's sort of the point of this blog.

    It may well be absurd to imagine God continually performing direct actions every second to collapse the wavefunction, and I'm not at all saying it's true. If God did it on a regular, predictable basis then they would be a part of physics. But God would still be doing them nonetheless. I don't see the contradiction here. We could define a Miracle in sense A as a "direct action of God" and a miracle in sense B as a "rare action of God which is contrary to the usual process of Nature". Either definition is defensible, but I don't see why an A must necessarily also be a B.

  22. Mactoul says:

    "If God did it on a regular, predictable basis then they would be a part of physics. But God would still be doing them nonetheless. I don't see the contradiction here."

    So, all the physics can be replaced with "God did it"?
    Agreed, that God sustains the universe, but he does it by creating things that behave in a consistent manner, electrons for example. Physics is just the study of quantitative aspects of the consistent behavior of the created things. Thus, we do not bring in God into the picture. Indeed, it is never done in physics except for the wave function collapse and Big Bang (and wrongly in both places, in my opinion).

    We reserve the "God did it" to miracles--where things behave in an inexplicable manner. And miracles are outside the province of physics, being singular events.

    But wave function collapse CAN NOT be a miracle for the simple reason that wave function collapse is a theoretical concept in physics introduced to explain phenomena. It is NOT a phenomenon itself.
    Thus, it is a terrible confusion to invoke God to fill a gap in one's physics.

  23. Mactoul says:

    "Miracle in sense A as a "direct action of God" and a miracle in sense B as a "rare action of God which is contrary to the usual process of Nature"."

    How do you mean "direct action of God"? What is the sense of "direct" here? Could you provide examples?

    PS I define a miracle as an inexplicable happening.

  24. Aron Wall says:

    Well sometimes there are miracles, or claimed miracles, which come in a regular pattern.

    The Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem claims that, every year at Pascha (i.e. Easter), the candle representing the Resurrection is miraculously lighted without human intervention. I'm pretty sure this is faked, but for the sake of an example let's imagine it isn't. (A more biblical example would be the manna from heaven which behaved in a regular, predictable manner for 40 years in the desert.) It doesn't seem to be inherently impossible for there to be a routinely scheduled miracle. If so, would you want to say that it is a law of nature that this miracle happens, since it can be anticipated in advance? It would be a miracle in the sense that it doesn't follow from the usual powers of material objects (hence, requiring special divine action), but it would still happen in a predictable pattern.

    In the other direction, something might be inexplicable but maybe only because we are incapable of understanding the reasons, but they still exist. And miracles are not inexplicable if we allow "God did it as an explanation".

    Perhaps the right thing to say is that "God did it" is an explanation for everything, but most events also have, in addition, a more immediate epxlanation is terms of "secondary causation". (But God could also make a miracle which involved giving a natural object additional powers, so maybe even miracles can involve non-divine causation.)

    But I agree with you that routine miraculous wave function collapse is a pretty silly idea...

  25. Mactoul says:

    "would you want to say that it is a law of nature that this miracle happens, since it can be anticipated in advance?"

    Certainly not.
    For the idea of the law of nature is not merely we predict something but we know of what we predict.

    Also, the case here does not involve prediction, at least in the sense of physics, but it is more of an expectation.

    "most events also have, in addition, a more immediate epxlanation is terms of "secondary causation".

    I agree.

    "But God could also make a miracle which involved giving a natural object additional powers"

    "Power" of "natural object" necessarily implies a consistent action.

  26. Aron Wall says:


    "Power" of "natural object" necessarily implies a consistent action.

    I don't see why something couldn't be given a power it could only use once.

    Maybe this implication would be true on a Humean view of causation, where causation is nothing other than the constant conjunction of events. But I don't see why one should assume the Humean view, which is pretty hostile to traditional metaphysics, and is based on a skepticism that one can even conceptualize the notion of intrinsic powers.

  27. Mactoul says:

    I meant "power" in the sense of Thomistic metaphysics where, as I understand it, "power of a natural
    object" would denote consistent action. Indeed, the term "natural object" denotes a "nature" and thus consistent interaction. If by power you wish to imply unique actions, then of course the natural object is not behaving according to its nature i.e. we have a miracle.

  28. Aron Wall says:

    To my mind there is an important distinction between the following assertions:

    1. Objects have powers, and we know this to be true because they produce consistent actions, &
    2. Objects have powers, and by definition these are nothing other than their consistent actions.

    I thought the Scholastic claim was the former. If we say the latter, it would seem to lead to perverse consequences. For example, suppose on one (and only one) occassion, members of two specific animal species are cross-bred to form a new hybrid variety. It seems to be a meaningful question whether their offspring has the power to reproduce, even if that power is exercised only once, or perhaps never, due to it dying young.

  29. Belinda says:

    If we live a material life in real chronological time and God is our Author, does God is being in the imaginary time? Is imaginary time equal to The Dreaming/the energy spark spirit world/the inspirational dimension that influences us when we daydream/meditate?

  30. Scott Church says:

    Hello Belinda,

    The Hartle-Hawking state St. Aron discusses in this article is one solution to a set of boundary constraints that we expect an as-yet undiscovered quantum theory of gravity to approach in the lower energy limit of the universe we live in. Unfortunately, one of the things that makes quantum gravity so difficult is that our attempts to translate space-time from the language of general relativity into that of quantum mechanics make the equations "blow up" and become unsolvable. Hartle and Hawking showed that these equations can be solved, and in a particularly elegant way, by using a certain kind of mathematical transformation that "rotates" space-time in a manner that keeps this from happening and allows them to be solved. "Imaginary time" is a consequence of that transformation. This is often done in quantum field theories as well (and for the same reason), but in those cases the transformation is "backed out" once its work of preventing a blow-up is finished, leading to a final solution based on time in the usual sense. In this case however, Hartle and Hawking chose to leave the transformation in place because for the universe as a whole it preserves a "boundary free" solution that is very attractive for other, largely philosophical reasons. But it can be backed out here as well, and doing so leads to a universe that is past and future eternal in regular time.

    In other words, imaginary time is essentially a mathematical trick--a kludge if you will--that allows us to tame otherwise intractable equations into ones that yield meaningful solutions. Whether it has any actual physical significance beyond that remains to be seen, and the matter is debated by physicists. Either way, it has no relationship whatsoever to dreaming, imagination, or "energy spark spirit worlds."

    Hope this helps! :-)

  31. Mactoul says:

    You wrote on 24 July:
    "We could define a Miracle in sense A as a "direct action of God" and a miracle in sense B as a "rare action of God which is contrary to the usual process of Nature"."
    And on 29 July
    " And miracles are not inexplicable if we allow "God did it as an explanation"."

    1) "God did it" only arises as an explanation when the matters are otherwise inexplicable. How else would you know?
    2) The "direct action of God" is necessarily "contrary to the usual process of nature". Otherwise it is explicable are thus we have no need to invoke God.

    You also say:
    "something might be inexplicable but maybe only because we are incapable of understanding the reasons, but they still exist."
    We rate something inexplicable per our standards.
    "sometimes there are miracles, or claimed miracles, which come in a regular pattern. "
    But each miracle is inexplicable in itself. Manna falling from sky is inexplicable, even though it fell for 40 years.

    "But physics is in a sense a branch of theology, because everything is a branch of theology (since everything exists in relation to God)."
    It does not make sense. Physics has always been study of natural processes.

  32. Ovidiu says:

    Hello, Aron!
    I would like to share two observations about the HH proposal.
    First, let's consider Hawking argument at the end of the above quote, with some symbols for the propositions: "So long as the universe had a beginning [B], we could suppose it had a creator [C]. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge [S], it would have neither a beginning nor end [~B]: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator? [it's ambiguous whether it's C or ~C; I take it it's ~C]"
    Using the notation, Hawking argument is: 1. B -->C, 2. S -->~B, 3. S, therefore ~C. This is an invalid argument. The conclusion ~C would follow if we had C -->B, instead of 1.
    Second, a creator is compatible also with a creation which does not have a certain age or beginning. This observation dates at least from Basilius' "Hexaemeron": although we cannot specify a point of beginning or a point of end in a cyclic process (like in the orbits of planets), we can always ask who invented the process with all its properties and functions.

  33. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome Ovidiu,

    I agree with your overall point, but I doubt that Hawking would agree with your intepretation of his argument.

    I think it is more likely that Hawking's preimse is in fact C \to B, that the notion of a beginning is logically implicit in the notion of creation. (I don't see where he asserts B \to C, since he never says that a universe with a beginning would have to have a creator, only that we could suppose it in that case.) In that case his argument becomes valid. Of course, neither of us agrees with him about that premise.

    Also, I looked at the Hexaemeron, and I don't see where it asserts that there cannot be a beginning or end of a cyclic process. In paragraph 3 of Homily I, when St. Basil says

    Do not then imagine, O man! That the visible world is without a beginning; and because the celestial bodies move in a circular course, and it is difficult for our senses to define the point where the circle begins, do not believe that bodies impelled by a circular movement are, from their nature, without a beginning. Without doubt the circle (I mean the plane figure described by a single line) is beyond our perception, and it is impossible for us to find out where it begins or where it ends; but we ought not on this account to believe it to be without a beginning. Although we are not sensible of it, it really begins at some point where the draughtsman has begun to draw it at a certain radius from the centre. Thus seeing that figures which move in a circle always return upon themselves, without for a single instant interrupting the regularity of their course, do not vainly imagine to yourselves that the world has neither beginning nor end.

    it seems to me that he is saying that each cyclic process does have a beginning at some point (just as somebody who draws a circle always begins their pencil at a particular point). He is certainly arguing that the universe had a beginning.

    Now I agree with you that a beginningless cycle could still have had a creator, but I don't see where it says that in the Hexaemeron. But it is certainly in St. Thomas Aquinas, and probably in earlier theologians as well.

  34. Ovidiu says:

    Hello, Aron, and thank you for your reply!

    Regarding Hawking's text, I interpreted "So long as the universe had a beginning [B], we could suppose it had a creator [C]" as "B-->C" because I understood it to say something like this: "if the universe has a beginning, it has a creator". The next step in the argument would be: the universe doesn't have a beginning, therefore there isn't any place for the creator. I don't want to say that this is the true interpretation, of course. It just seems to me to be the most plausible, given Hawking's text. On the other hand, I think that your interpretation is also plausible and it is more charitable. :) In fact, that is one of the reasons for my second idea, that a cycle without a beginning is perfectly compatible with a creator.

    Regarding Basilius, the paragraph you are quoting is exactly the one I had in mind, on the basis of the following interpretation: the circle is without beginning in the sense that "it is impossible for us to find out where it begins or where it ends". Basislius idea is, of course, that this idea doesn't imply that it is "without a beginning". I think that "beginning" is here more akin to "has a principle for its being" (more akin to a metaphysical arche). My reason for this understanding is the 6th paragraph in the same homily, where Basilius writes:

    Perhaps these words "In the beginning God created" signify the rapid and imperceptible moment of creation. The beginning, in effect, is indivisible and instantaneous. The beginning of the road is not yet the road, and that of the house is not yet the house; so the beginning of time is not yet time and not even the least particle of it. If some objector tell us that the beginning is a time, he ought then, as he knows well, to submit it to the division of time— a beginning, a middle and an end. Now it is ridiculous to imagine a beginning of a beginning. Further, if we divide the beginning into two, we make two instead of one, or rather make several, we really make an infinity, for all that which is divided is divisible to the infinite. Thus then, if it is said, "In the beginning God created," it is to teach us that at the will of God the world arose in less than an instant, and it is to convey this meaning more clearly that other interpreters have said: "God made summarily" that is to say all at once and in a moment.

    And yes, I agree with you that this idea can be found in St. Thomas.

  35. Aron Wall says:

    To me, that sounds more like St. Basil is saying that the beginning took place instantaneously (at a single moment of time), rather than over a finite duration of time. Although, in the 5th paragraph, he seems to be suggesting the angelic world consists of immaterial created things which are timeless by their nature.

  36. David McKinnon says:

    Awesome blog post, thank you for your clarity.

  37. Andrew says:

    Dear Aron,

    I think Quentin Smith's argument made a lot of sense, it's impossible for an omnipotent beings will to fail (assuming He wills what is metaphysically possible). It is metaphysically possible to create a universe with conscious beings whom He can enter into a relationship with, and He wills it. Given the two statements, if God created the universe, the probability of it coming into existence ought to be 1.

    However, the Hartle-Hawking model (and I think other quantum cosmologies?) suggest that the probability is less than 1. So (a) God created the universe and (b) our universe is described by the Hartle-Hawking model, are incompatible. Now, obviously you're perfectly entitled to argue that (b) is just false and Q Smith gives and over the top defence of (b) but I wonder if the same argument can't just be transcribed to any quantum-origin explanation of the universe, so that Theism comes into conflict with virtually all of them.

  38. Aron Wall says:

    I do think that Smith gives an over the top defence of (b), but I think there are lots of other faulty assumptions in the argument as well:

    1) It assumes that the probability that the Hartle-Hawking state will produce life is less than 1, but we don't actually know how to compute this probability scientifically, and for all we know the answer might actually be 1 (e.g. if HH predicts eternal inflation and an infinitely large spacetime).

    2) It assumes that God necessarily wills to create conscious beings, but we don't actually know that he willed for this event to happen with probability 1. We only know is that, if human beings actually exist, then God willed to create them. (You could turn Smith's argument into a general but fallacious theological argument for determinism: for all X, if X happened, then God must have willed X to happen, but God's will never fails, so the probability of X happening is 1. This general argument seems bogus to me.)

    For example, suppose that the HH model predicts life with probability .96. Then for all we know, God willed only the following: "let life arise with 96% probability". If that were God's decree, it would be equally successful whether life obtained or not. (Traditional theology says that God was not morally obliged to create life at all; it is purely an act of grace. So if life happens never to arise, God would in no way have failed to be perfectly good.)

    3) Related, it assumes that the probabilistic outcomes in the Hartle-Hawking model happen independently of God's will, whereas it might just be a description of how likely God is to will various outcomes. So if X happens, it is because God willed X, but if not X happened, that is a again

    4) Supposing God did wish to guarantee the existence of life with 100% probability (as is very possible), there are many ways he could have done so while still creating a cosmology using an initial condition looking much like the Hartle-Hawking universe. For example:

    (A) God could have created the universe in the Hartle-Hawking state, and then if life fails to appear naturally, produce it by means of a miracle. (You could say that this makes the Hartle-Hawking state "not 100% true" but this only means that, like every human model, it fails to describe every single element of reality.)

    (B) God could have created the universe, not quite in the Hartle-Hawking state, but in the Hartle-Hawking state but with all branches of the wavefunction that do not produce life removed. Again you could argue that this would make the Hartle-Hawking state "not 100% true"; but from our perspective, this is experimentally indistinguishable from the usual Hartle-Hawking state, so we can have no empirical/scientific evidence against this scenario that is not also evidence against the normal Hartle-Hawking state.

    (C) he could have created the universe in the Hartle-Hawking state and then, if life fails to appear in that universe, created a second, additional universe (with the same or different laws of physics), and repeated this process until life eventually appeared.

    (D) Basically the same idea as (C) above: he could first create, with probability 1, an angelic universe full of conscious beings able to be in communion with him, and then Smith's condition would automatically be satisfied regardless of how the physical universe turned out.

    I am sure that Smith does not believe in miracles, nor in a hierarchy of angelic beings. However, Jews, Christians and Muslims all do believe in these things. So if he wants his argument to be successful, he shouldn't make an argument that is invalid when applied to the large majority of actual Theistic worldviews.

    So yeah, this argument doesn't prove anything except a lack of theological imagination.

    Really, the biggest problem here is taking a provisional scientific hypothesis about the universe, postulated in order to explain one aspect of the limited patch of reality that we see, and acting as if this were simply and unproblematically identical to God's deepest decrees about the universe. What the Bible actually says about this is quite different:

    "Then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it." Ecclesiastes 8:17

    "When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place---what is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him?" Psalm 8:3-4

    "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?" Job 38:4

  39. Andrew Wells says:

    These are some really great points, thanks Aron.

  40. Nikki says:

    Hello! So, well... while I'm not actually religious myself, I did agree that claims about the Hartle-Hawking state in particular do not serve as a good atheistic argument for the reasons given here. I have found a paper, though, that made me wonder about miracles and the laws of physics, which I think could be relevant here due to Dr. Aron's option 4A in his most recent comment on this post (there's also been quite a bit of discussion on miracles and science elsewhere).

    It isn't really about whether there's strong evidence for miracles in the real world or not (I have my views, but I won't discuss them at this moment). But if we assume an omnipotent God exists, who made the world to generally obey natural laws but does occasionally intervene in the form of miracles, then how could these interventions be modeled? It seems a natural way would be through treating them as a new set of initial conditions. For instance, if some water was miraculously turned into wine at time t, then God took the state produced through natural time evolution that contained the water, edited it so the water was replaced by wine, and then the regular laws of physics proceeded from this new state.

    However, an issue was noted in Counterfactuals in the initial value formulation of general relativity, by Jose Luis Jaramillo and Vincent Lam; that for general relativity, the initial data themselves are constrained by equations, and even small changes to allowed data can cause them to violate the constraints. The paper mentions that solutions to the system of equations may not always exist. Does this mean that it might not be possible to both have a miracle occur and the time evolution after the miracle respect Einstein's theory? I'm just an interested amateur, so I might be seriously misinterpreting this, but I'm not sure.

  41. Aron Wall says:

    It's a good question. I might write a blog post about this in the near future.

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