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The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem, and More on the "My Good Friend" Meme

Coincidentally, Jerry Coyne (at Why Evolution Is True) and I were both thinking over the weekend about the debate this year between physicist Sean Carroll and our Discovery Institute colleague William Lane Craig. I posted about the "My Good Friend meme" — so named by thoughtful reader Ryan — employed in origins debates by materialist advocates. That means, guys like Dr. Carroll (and Prothero, Krauss, Ward, etc.) use superfluous references to distinguished buddies in the scientific community to imply to audiences that their opponents (like Dr. Craig) can be responsibly dismissed since they’re not in the popular crowd.

As I said, it’s straight out of junior high school. Yesterday, Coyne posted videos of Craig-Carroll as well as Craig-Krauss, neither of which, he says, he has actually watched.

Now Ryan writes in with a good correction to what I said earlier. In the encounter with Dr. Craig, Sean Carroll invoked his buddy physicist Alan Guth, a co-author of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem which seems to point the universe as having a beginning, an inference friendly to theism, to say the least. (See here for the clip.) That’s in contrast to the notion that the history of physical existence extends indefinitely into the past.

Carroll wrote in post-debate comments that Craig "used the celebrated (by theologians) Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem, which says that a universe with an average expansion rate greater than zero must be geodesically incomplete in the past." More:

The second premise of the Kalam argument is that the universe began to exist. Which may even be true! But we certainly don’t know, or even have strong reasons to think one way or the other. Craig thinks we do have a strong reason, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem. So I explained what every physicist who has thought about the issue understands: that the real world is governed by quantum mechanics, and the BGV theorem assumes a classical spacetime, so it says nothing definitive about what actually happens in the universe; it is only a guideline to when our classical description breaks down.

In the debate, Carroll cutely projected photos on a screen behind him showing Dr. Guth holding up a series of signs: "I don’t know whether the universe had a beginning." "I suspect the universe didn’t have a beginning." "It’s very likely eternal but nobody knows." I wrote:

He doesn’t have Guth himself but some pictures of Guth on the screen behind him. Guth holds a series of signs in his hands evidently supporting Carroll’s understanding of the theorem over Craig’s.

But Ryan corrects me, with reference to the words indicated in bold:

That isn’t quite accurate. If Guth had actually been supporting Carroll’s understanding of the BGV theorem over Craig’s, then, cuteness aside, Guth’s little signs would have at least had some relevance to the debate, in that they would have called into question Craig’s understanding and use of the theorem he had cited in support of his argument for a beginning of the universe. But Guth is not supporting some understanding of the BGV theorem put forth by Carroll over Craig’s. He’s actually not even directly commenting on the theorem at all. Guth is merely offering his own personal suspicions about ultimate reality and cosmic history ("I suspect the universe didn’t have a beginning"), regardless of what the BGV theorem actually implies about those things. If Guth is attempting to dispute anything, it is not Craig’s understanding of the BGV theorem, but rather that the theorem is ultimately a correct description of reality.

I think it’s the fact that Guth’s pictured comments are completely irrelevant to Craig’s portrayal of the theorem that places Carroll’s antics firmly in the realm of the "My Good Friend" meme. Carroll is trying to get mileage out of the fact that Guth was willing to pose for pictures and use them to give the audience the impression that Craig has misunderstood or misrepresented his source when he had done no such thing. What Carroll tries to represent as a rebuttal to Craig is really no more than an appeal to an "eternity-of-the-gaps" based on unsubstantiated "suspicions" about what we might learn in the future: "Sure, maybe the best evidence and models we have at the moment support a beginning to the universe, but maybe we’ll find evidence in the future that will make us throw all that stuff out. When? Nobody knows. Don’t be hasty."

I think the message is as clear as it is common in these debates: Until we possess all knowledge, it will always be too soon to infer God’s existence on the basis of the best evidence we have available to us. In the interim, there is always some fanciful, inscrutable — and usually untestable — materialistic hypothesis ready to be wheeled on to the stage, to be propped up by hook or by crook, even if that means ignoring the very knowledge that we praise the sciences for helping us to attain, allowing that, in the final analysis, it might all just be more ignorance in disguise, which, evidently, is a conclusion far more desirable than the existence of God.

Exactly. Point taken.

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David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.