It Never Stops: Another Silly Creationist Argument

Feb 12 2009 Published by under Debunking Creationism

As I've mentioned before, I get lots of email from all sorts of people. Lots of it is interesting, and lots of it is stupid. This morning, when I was checking my mail, I found an email from a creationist in my mailbox, which puts forth an "proof" against atheism that I hadn't seen before. It's about as idiotic as most creationist arguments are,
but it's one that I've never seen before, and it's interesting to shred it from the viewpoint of mathematical logic.

Here's his argument:

Now to the main point, and somewhat more interesting stuff. I recently ran across a proof (perhaps not in the mathematical sense; I don't know) against atheism. Atheism, both in the forms I've encountered and in logical necessity, requires that matter/energy is eternal, since the atheist would by necessity argue against any point at which matter/energy came into existence. Nothing does not create something. For anything to be eternal and be in the present, it must by necessity have come from eternity past. However, between eternity past and the present, there is an infinite amount of time. Therefore, traveling forward from eternity past, one could never reach the present day. Therefore, atheism cannot be true, and a definite point at which matter/energy came into existence is necessary.

What's wrong with this? Where to begin?

First - this isn't an argument against atheism. This applies just as much to
THeism as it does to atheism. After all - to a theist, God has always existed. According to his argument, why would God's infinite existence not be an issue?

Second - it doesn't make any sense. This is the kind of argument that mathematicians hate, because it's a word game. This argument pretends to play with mathematical arguments - distance, infinity - but you can't express it
meaningfully in mathematics. It's got pretty much the same problem as
the good old "Zeno's paradox".

As a quick refresher, Zeno's paradox is based on division. There's tons of
statements of it. My own favorite is: You cannot be killed by an arrow fired from a bow. Why? Well, because to get from the bow to you, the arrow first has to cover half the distance from the bow to you. Then when it's done that, it needs to cover half the remaining distance. Then it needs to cover half of that remaining
distance. And so on - an infinite number of times. There's an infinite number of steps that it needs to cross to get from the bow to you. You can't take an infinite number of steps in a finite time - therefore, the arrow will never get to you.

It's not quite the same thing as this argument, but it's got the same basic flaw. It's playing games with the idea of infinity.

Third - it's got false premises: "Atheism, both in the forms I've encountered and in logical necessity, requires that matter/energy is eternal, since the atheist would by necessity argue against any point at which matter/energy came into existence." Do atheists really argue that the universe has to be infinitely old? Does it really argue that matter and energy are, by necessity eternal?

Of course not! The scientific theory about the creation of the universe - which is accepted by every atheist I've ever met (and also by most theists, including myself) is the big bang. To be a tad more precise, the big bang isn't really a single theory - it's a family of overlapping theories. According to all variants that I'm aware of, talking about "matter" and "energy" doesn't make any sense outside of our universe. Our universe wasn't made out of "matter" and "energy"; matter and energy are part of our universe. And according to most variants, time is part of our universe - talking about a time before the big bang is meaningless.

The reason for bringing the big bang into this is because in every version of
the big bang theory, matter and energy were created in the big bang. That is, they are not infinitely old - they do have a starting point - the starting point of time.

So we're basically looking at a straw-man argument, which creates a
false premise, asserts that all atheists "by logical necessity" must
accept that false premise, and then uses that false premise to put together
an argument that doesn't make any sense - and which applies as much to
his own theistic view of the universe as it does to any atheist's.

The underlying problem here is that the basic statement of the argument
is mathematically meaningless. As I said above, this is the kind of thing
mathematicians hate; it's not really an argument at all - it's built on
something entirely meaningless.

When you assert an infinite past - that is, that time extends infinitely
backwards from this point - what you're asserting is that there is no starting point. When you ask a question like "How did we get to this point, when
there's an infinite past behind us?", your question contains the implicit assumption
that there is a starting point, from which you can measure the distance between then and now. The argument is, actually, contradicting itself - both asserting that there can't be a starting point, and that there is a starting point. The contradiction between those two statements is then pulled
forward, and presented as a conclusion - as if it's a derived
contradiction, as in a proof by contradiction - when in fact, it's just
built into the faulty structure of the argument.

Reduced to simple logic, you can turn this into something like:

  • A: ¬∃t0 : ∀ t: t0 < t
  • B: ∃ t0: tnow - t0 = ∞
  • C: ∀ i,j : ti - tj = ∞ ⇒ ¬∃ti
  • B & C ⇒ ¬∃tnow.
  • B and C do logically imply that you can't possibly have a time
    "now" if there's an infinite past. That's the conclusion of his anti-atheism
    "proof". But you can't formulate that argument without having a time t0 at which the distance between "now" and t0 is infinite - and for the distance between tnow and t0 to be infinite, you need a t0 which is forbidden by statement A. The problem isn't the conclusion - the problem is in the formation of statement B.

    This isn't a valid proof. Given contradictory premises, you can draw a line
    of logical inference to any conclusion. But it's a meaningless exercise. The same flawed inferences can "prove" that God can't exist; or that God must exist; or that time can't exist at all; or that 1 = 2.

No responses yet

  • Bayesian Bouffant says:

    The same fallacious argument has been used by Kirk Durston and William Lane Craig.

  • I've actually seen this argument before in videos made by creationists on YouTube. Of course, finding responses to it can be difficult since YouTube creationists are notorious for censoring comments and ignoring video responses.

  • Uncephalized says:

    Huh. I never knew you were a theist, Mark. For some reason I always assumed when you described yourself as Jewish you were speaking in the cultural sense or something (I have a couple of atheist friends who still consider themselves Jewish).
    The More You Know...

  • Uncle Al says:

    in logical necessity, requires that matter/energy is eternal
    Casimir effect. Just because there is nothing on the average doesn't mean there isn't something measureable about it. Lamb shift, Rabi vacuum oscillations, Purcell effect, electron anomalous g-factor. Ride the vacuum fluctuation.

  • Of course, finding responses to it can be difficult since YouTube creationists are notorious for censoring comments and ignoring video responses.

    There are many ways to censor, and not just by creationists. Some sites require registration, some atheist youtube videos just bury comments with name calling from "angry atheists," some just sneer.
    One thing I noted is that Dawkin's arguments against "infinite regress" could also be turned against his own beliefs--but, of course, he doesn't do it.
    Trying to prove or disprove Eternity, God, creation, big bang, existence, etc.,--is mental masturbation for brains still in their adolescence.

  • DSimon says:

    Trying to prove or disprove Eternity, God, creation, big bang, existence, etc.,--is mental masturbation for brains still in their adolescence.

    Unlike, say, posting insulting and vacuous comments on blogs, which is the very height of maturity.
    Anyways, to digress from feeding the troll:
    Here's how Zeno's Paradox was described to me: There is a race between a tortoise and a rabbit, where the tortoise gets a head start, but the rabbit is faster. Although the rabbit is moving faster, it can never catch up to the tortoise, because by the time the rabbit catches up to where the tortoise was when the rabbit started, the tortoise will by then have moved a little farther ahead. You then repeat the situation: the tortoise has a head start, the rabbit is faster, and the gap keeps getting smaller with each step, but never goes away.
    Is this the same as the arrow example you gave above? It has a similar problem with dividing up infinity in a way that doesn't make real sense, but there's also a little bit of playing around with the idea of simultaneity.

    Given contradictory premises, you can draw a line of logical inference to any conclusion.

    Any conclusion at all? Like, given '1 = 2' as a premise, how could I conclude '1 = -42' using internally consistent logic?

  • Paul Gowder says:

    For anything to be eternal and be in the present, it must by necessity have come from eternity past.
    What the fuck? I mean, what the fucking fuck? Eternity past? What does that even mean? I stopped reading right there: there's no way anything that follows that sentence can be intelligent or even literate.

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Re #6:
    Yes, an inconsistent premise makes anything provable.
    Using your example,
    If 1=2, then because you can subtract one from both sides, you can conclude that
    0=1.
    By the same process, you can conclude that -1=0.
    If -1=0, and 0=1, then -1=1.
    Just keep going, another 41 times, and you've got 1=-42.

  • Jud says:

    So typical of creationists/IDers - if they can't conceive of a beginning for matter and energy, evidence of such a thing can't possibly exist, let alone have been observed. After all, the Microwave Anisotropy Probe results have only been among the most-cited physics papers for several years running.

  • Atheism, both in the forms I've encountered and in logical necessity, requires that matter/energy is eternal, since the atheist would by necessity argue against any point at which matter/energy came into existence.
    That is the point at which to stop reading. It only takes one premise being utterly ludicrous for the rest of the argument to be meaningless, even if the rest is logically sound.

  • It seems unfair to Zeno to compare this to Zeno's paradox. Zeno's paradox arose because of an attempt to use intuitions before rigorous methods for using infinity existed. Even today, Zeno's paradoxes are excellent teaching tools for getting people to think precisely about infinity. This argument isn't like that at all.

  • Btw, it is annoying that the way Typepad is set up on your blog even when people leave a URL one's name still links over just to the typepad page. Any chance getting that changed?

  • Mu says:

    Terry Pratchett solved Zeno's paradox the easy way - a bunch of turtles with arrows in them.
    On the "beginning of time" argument so, does it make sense to argue beyond a singularity event? I don't think we could distinguish between a never ending chain of bubble universes expanding and collapsing or a true "beginning of time". So, looking at the information loss dispute with black holes, maybe there is information preserved even in this event.

  • Paul Murray says:

    Reply with Zeno's paradox, and a note saying "when you can explain how the arrow hits the target, then get back to me."

  • Michael Maguire says:

    The so called proof is asinine as you point out as are any arguments that try to apply worldly / human techniques to prove or disprove issues of faith. Faith and science are not mutually exclusive. Arguing these points makes folks from either position sound idiotic to all but those who agree with them.

  • Peter Hollo says:

    This is basically one of Thomas Aquinas' Five Fallacies (sorry, Five Ways *heh*) - sometimes known as the argument of causation, which says that everything has a cause, but that implies an infinite regress, which is nonsensical. So there must be a first cause, and that first cause is God.
    HEY PRESTO!
    I guess what this guy adds is the strange insistence that an atheist must believe in infinite regression, for some unsupported reason.
    And then we have the wonderful idea that if time stretches infinitely backwards, we could never reach the present day. There's some mathematical weirdness there, but he may have a point. It's not a point against atheism or theism though!

  • One thing that can be sure: since a creationist is unable to tell you what the logical conclusions of his beliefs are, he's sure as shootin' not going to be able to tell you what the logical conclusion of your beliefs are. In this particular case, as an atheist, I must assure him that I do not believe that energy or matter are eternal (although this is misleading perhaps, because I also believe that time itself isn't eternal in any meaningful way). The fact that he can't reason about infinity in any kind of a meaningful way is also evident.

  • Regarding #6, I want to clear something up. The comment about mental masturbation wasn't directed at MarkCC, but rather to those on both sides of the atheism/theism dispute, such as Dawkins and Christian apologists, that act as though applying reason to the question will be productive.
    Regarding #8, you're right. Also, even with consistent premises, it is often possible to prove anything you want. "The conclusion follows from the premise." This is a big part of the atheism/theism dispute.
    Ditto to #12

  • Joe Shelby says:

    I agree with a comment above about Zeno's. Yes, it's true that both (the idiot and Zeno) are abuses trying to express an infinite concept, in Zeno's case, infinite sums, in English rather than pure mathematics.
    But they are different. As you point out, the idiot is saying "there's never any starting point because it is infinitely long ago, therefore it took an infinite time to get here from that starting point" (that he just said doesn't exist...). He wasn't describing a paradox but a blunt contradiction.
    Zeno, on the other hand, is describing how an infinite series can be created for any finite sum, though the counter to that is, well, calculus itself. As noted, it was brilliant in being the first solid description of an infinite series, before algebraic notation gave a means to express it and calculus a means to solve it, but it's a non-issue today except to philosophers who refuse to acknowledge anything but words as having any truth.
    Maybe this might call for a "basics" entry on infinity, infinite sums, and infinitely-small time (the dt of dx/dt), to explain in English again how calculus was able to make an infinite number of Kepler's wine-barrel rectangles. Heck, I might make a first stab at it this weekend; I could use the mental refresher.

  • Bee says:

    amazing. neglecting the faulty notions of infinity and eternity, at which point in human history was 'God' replaced with 'conservation of energy'?

  • Listen very carefully to the Darwinist's clever excuses when this is proposed: "Have a prime-time national TV debate of the true scientific evidences for a couple of hours from the one the evolutionists choose, and the one the Creationists choose (not the evolutionists choosing for them, as has happened in the past). Then, let the public, including the 'most educated,' decide for themselves." Now, again, listen to the evolutionist's contortions in response to this. It ought to speak volumes concerning their TRUE agenda.

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Re #21:
    There's no need for excuses.
    Facts aren't something that people "decide for themselves". You can't decide for yourself whether or not gravitational acceleration is approximately 9.8m/s2 on the earth's surface. You don't get to decide for yourself whether or not a carbon atom has 6 protons. You can't decide for yourself whether the earth orbits the sun. These are statements of facts - and you don't get to decide for yourself whether or not they're true. You can't just decide that gravity isn't real, and go floating away. It's not your choice. similarly, you don't get to decide for yourself whether bacteria will evolve resistance to antibiotics.
    Debates are sometimes useful for discussing subjective phenomena. They can be useful in cases where evidence in uncertain. Particularly when both sides are debating in good faith as part of an effort to understand something where the evidence is incomplete or ambiguous, debates can be useful and valuable.
    But debates can also be theatre. Go back and watch some political debates. What often wins a debate isn't the quality of the argument, but the theatre. Put a brilliant but boring scientist on stage with a schizophrenic street preacher, and the street preacher can win most debates - he knows how to engage the audience. That's the problem with debates - they're subjective. Go back and look at the Gore vs. Bush debates in 2000. Bush frequently resorted to canned comebacks, and was borderline incoherent in places. But Gore came off as condescending. Most people think that Bush won those debates. Look at this past election. Obama is an incredibly charismatic speaker, and came through the debates looking intelligent, confident, and in control; McCain came off as petty and angry. Who won the debates? Obama - not because his answers to the questions were really any better that McCain's, but because his presentation was better.
    The thing is, no amount of debate changes facts. If you're really looking at a question of objective fact, then the evidence speaks for itself, and debate is meaningless. It doesn't matter if, say, Duane Gish can beat Richard Dawkins in a staged debate. That doesn't change facts.
    If you go and look at the non-theatrical debates, the ones that go on in the scientific community all the time, you find that the creationists lose all the time. Just look at all of the arguments that I've looked at on this blog - ranging from the
    sloppy probability arguments, to the silly physics arguments, to the bad logic argument, to the "information theory" arguments that get the information theory wrong.
    And I'm a theist. I'm a religious Jew. I do believe in God. But I'm not a creationist. Looking honestly at the evidence, there's no way around the truth. When I look at the arguments that people put forth to support their religious beliefs, I'm ashamed to be in any way associated with them. It's an amazing pile of garbage, ranging from ridiculous ignorance, to sloppy argument, to out and out lies.

  • Jud says:

    William Wallace wrote: The comment...wasn't directed at MarkCC, but rather to those on both sides of the atheism/theism dispute, such as Dawkins and Christian apologists, that act as though applying reason to the question will be productive.
    Applying reason to the question won't be productive? Really? Depends on your definition of "productive," I suppose. Applying reason may not cause people to switch from one side of the discussion to the other (though it well might - do you think scientists tend to be atheists, at least of the self-reported variety, at greater rates than the general population because of pre-existing atheism among those who become scientists, or because a habit of applying reason tends over time to engender atheism?), but at least one can hope, if reason is truly being applied, to make people think.
    Myself, I think extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As a witticism I read once pithily said, "All those who believe in telekinesis, raise my hand."

  • Stu says:

    For the uninitiated, and to save time, William Wallace is plonked at Pharyngula:
    William Wallace
    Insipidity, stupidity
    Automatically Junked
    Extremely tiresome whiner. Insisted on telling me over and over again about the actual events that transpired at the screening of Expelled, never mind that I was there and he was not. Also banned at the Panda's Thumb.
    Oh, and Steve, what is the TRUE agenda? I'm dying to know.

  • G.D. says:

    A nitpick: An argument with inconsistent premises is always valid in classical logic (by any reasonable definition of "validity"). It is, however, not sound.

  • William Wallace says:

    Actually, I was banned from Phartngula for asking PZ to produce his invitation to the private screening of Expelled, the one he crashed, before he crashed the conference call.
    And also for finding Glen Davidson's comments on PZ's blog before the private screening showing that at least one of his commenters were encouraging PZ to game the system.
    PZ just got mad for exposing his lies.

  • Dean says:

    "PZ just got mad for exposing his lies"
    WW, you have a typo.
    "Pz just got made at me because I continued to lie."
    Fixed it for you.

  • Mark,
    It's been a while! How've you been?
    I was quite surprised to see that you haven't seen this argument before. It's an infamous one that is without merit. For me, it's always seemed to be an argument from ignorance - "How could we have come from an infinitely long past? You don't know, therefore Goddidit!" I really like your points against it, though. However, such fallacious luminaries as Dr. William Lane Craig and others have used a form of this argument to produce their version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument:
    P1) That which begins to exist must have a cause.
    P2) The universe began to exist.
    Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a cause.
    They then go on (and on and on) to argue that that cause had to be rational, intentional, infinitely good, and blah blah blah.
    What makes me very angry is that anyone not well-versed in philosophy or logic has troubles seeing that this argument is shoddy.

  • LaryB says:

    A minor nitpick. The Big Bang theory is not a theory about the creation of the universe. It is about the how the universe behaved after it came into existence. I don’t think this effect’s your argument but it is better to accurate about these kinds of things.

  • trrll says:

    Actually, I was banned from Phartngula for asking PZ to produce his invitation to the private screening of Expelled, the one he crashed, before he crashed the conference call.

    How about you producing evidence that written invitations were required for the screening? According to many other accounts, this is false.
    At least PZ isn't pretending that he is banning you for crashing his "private" blog.

  • desertratmatt says:

    I'm a creationist, and believe in the big bang (i.e. that both time and matter have a beginning, and are not eternal). What is the atheist's explanation for the cause of this?

  • Returning Tarzan says:

    Re #31: The article is about a particular argument against an eternal past. I've heard it used many times before and it's a bad one. The thing is that with an eternal past there doesn't necessarily have to be a beginning of time, unless you consider time intrinsic to the current universe, in which case "beginning of time" means no more than "beginning of the observable universe". This still leaves the possibility that the Big Bang was caused in a way similar to how effects have causes within the resulting universe.
    An example is the cyclic universe scenario. It's not a very likely scenario for various reasons (specifically the accelerating expansion we observe), but it illustrates the point: gravity is constantly pulling everything towards everything else, so eventually this universe might end with all matter condensed into one point, the same state that it was in prior to the Big Bang. Now because of some as-of-yet-undiscovered principle of physics, this unique situation is unstable and eventually causes a massive explosion and the formation of another universe, and these cycles continue forever. Also, there was a cycle before this one, and one before that, and so on forever.
    Like I said, not a likely scenario, but the thing is it's consistent and presents a cosmology without a beginning. In their eagerness to point out that nothing comes from nothing supernaturalists all implicitly assume that there couldn't always have been some sort of physical universe. When it dawns on them that "oh, maybe the physical universe is eternal in the past", you get bullshit arguments like the one described in the article.
    Also, if you do maintain a finite universe with a beginning and a creator, if this creator isn't finite by the same logic that makes the universe finite, then you're engaged in special pleading. Which is a convoluted way of saying "then what created God?"
    I guess more to the point though, what does it all have to do with talking snakes?

  • Mark C. Chu-Carroll says:

    Re #31:
    First, you're asking the wrong person. I'm not an atheist. I'm a religious reconstructionist Jew.
    But I find the whole "cause" argument about the big bang to be silly. There are some theories about the universe that do include a cause for the big bang, but by doing that, they place our universe within an even larger cosmos - and so the question just steps back a level, and becomes "What's the cause of that meta-cosmos's beginning (if it had one)?"
    Looking at it as a theist doesn't help. Sure, we get the answer to "What caused the big bang that created our universe?". But God places the universe into a larger context, and we get the same meta-regress problem: What's the cause of God's beginning? If God doesn't have a beginning, then there's no answer to that - but that's no more satisfying than just saying that the universe had no beginning. It doesn't really answer anything.

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