3 Options for the Origin of the Universe
When you see a photo like this, with a car stuck in a tree, you ask the obvious question, “How the hell did that get there?” It demands some form of an explanation. I think the universe is like that.
The very fact that we and everything else is here rather than not, demands some form of explanation. I’m not talking purpose (although that may be related). I’m talking origins. When you look at the world, when you stare up at the stars, when you look at your own hand, you can not ignore the obvious question, “How the hell did all this get here?”
Now I am absolutely no expert in science or quantum mechanics, but it seems to me that there can only really be three options for the origins of the universe. Each option is in it’s own way whacky and unbelievable. Each one involves an idea that is bigger and weirder than anything we can see or experience or test scientifically, but all scientists still fall into one of three camps in how the explain the ultimate question of origins.
These are the 3 options:
Option 1. Magic Gun Theory – The material reality had a beginning that was from nothing and caused by nothing.
Option 2. String Theory – The material reality is eternal and had no beginning.
Option 3. Creator Theory – The material reality had a beginning that was caused by an eternal, non-material reality (God).
Now, I’ll explain what I mean by these three option in a moment, but as I see it, every theory imaginable must fall into one of these three. Consequently, every person must chose to side with one of these three options if they are to answer the “How did it get here?” question. You could, of course, go with Option 4. which is “I have no idea” (this by the way is my answer to the car in the tree) but if it really is the case that there are only 3 mutually exclusive options for the origin of the universe, then you still would have to conclude that one of these three options must be the answer, even if you feel there is no definitive way of discovering which one is true.
The terrifying thing about the idea that we can never know the answer is that the implications that stem from each option are vastly different. If there is a non-material (or spiritual) reality and if that is in the form of a personal deity then a mountain of questions arise and the relevance of theology and philosophy about the nature of God and spiritual reality becomes incredibly important. If on the other hand, there is no spiritual reality and that the material reality is all the is, then that has great implications for the irrelevance for all religion and raises many questions about the origins of morality and the claims of those who have experience of the spiritual. This is of course only skimming the surface of the implications that arise on both sides, but hopefully the point is clear that trying to work out which of the three options is true is a vitally important and practically relevant pursuit.
Let me now try to simply describe each of the three options:
Option 1. Magic Gun Theory
This is the theory that claims that the material reality (including all matter and energy that exists) came into existence as some point in history, exploding on to the scene with the Big Bang. This is supported by what we observe about the universe – that it is expanding – giving the impression that it had an origin at some point. The reason why I call this the “Magic Gun Theory” is because it states that this event somehow created matter and energy out of nothing and nothing at all (non-material or otherwise) caused the bang to happen in the first place. It all just magically happened and appeared for no reason. This theory seems like an easy way of combining what we observe about the universe with an atheistic view of the world. The problem with this view is that it is completely unscientific. No modern scientist would claim that matter and energy can all of a sudden just appear from absolutely nothing, with nothing causing that to happen. It is simply a theory that defies all we know about science, for the sake of marrying evidence (that there seems to be a beginning) with prejudice (that they want to believe in nothing spiritual).
Option 2. String Theory
The material reality is eternal and had no beginning.
Option 3. Creator Theory – The material reality had a beginning that was caused by an eternal, non-material reality (God).
Now in the end, although this theory seems quite ridiculous, I guess I have to admit that each theory has it’s element of wackiness. In this case, you either believe in a magic universe that can defy scientific logic or you believe in a magic deity that defies scientific logic. I personally think that
The Origin and Fate of the Universe – Steven Hawkins
According to this theory [strong anthropic principle], there are either many different universes or many different regions of a single universe, each with its own initial configuration and, perhaps, with its own set of laws of science. In most of these universes the conditions would not be right for the development of complicated organisms; only in the few universes that are like ours would intelligent beings develop and ask the question: “Why is the universe the way we see it?” The answer is then simple: If it had been different, we would not be here!
There are something like ten million million million million million million million million million million million million million million (1 with eighty zeroes after it) particles in the region of the universe that we can observe. Where did they all come from? The answer is that, in quantum theory, particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle parts. But that just raises the question of where the energy came from. The answer is that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero. The matter in the universe is made out of positive energy. However, the matter is all attracting itself by gravity. Two pieces of matter that are close to each other have less energy than the same two pieces a long way apart, because you have to expend energy to separate them against the gravitational force that is pulling them together. Thus in a sense, the gravitational field has negative energy. In the case of a universe that is approximately uniform in space, one can show that this negative gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero.
Now twice zero is also zero. Thus the universe can double the amount of positive matter energy and also double the negative gravitational energy without violation of the conservation of energy. It is said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But the universe is the ultimate free lunch.
One could say: “The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.” The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.
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 clockwood 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 boundaries or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
I seems like you’re giving Option 3 a free-pass to the logical questions you have about the other two. As you say: “You either believe in a magical beginning, a magical eternity or a magical God.” Now God either had a beginning…which I would call a ‘magical beginning’ or God has always and will always exist, a ‘magical eternity’ if you will. If we’re not satisfied with answers to the question of “where did existence come from” then we should be equally unsatisfied with the question of “where did God come from”.
I think the key mistake you (and many others on every side of these types of questions) make is to presuppose that we are any more capable of describing or understanding the universe, existence, space and time, etc. as we are describing or understanding God (or gods, or any ‘spiritual’ framework for this kind of thing). It seems that often it seems okay to think that God has actual thoughts like us, just ‘more’…it’s a way for us to comprehend, or convince ourselves that we comprehend. Now I don’t believe in God, but if I did I would think he would be infinitely more incomprehensible to me than the notion of infinity is to me (which is a separate discussion but I think about infinity a lot and I think it is beyond actual visceral understanding for humans).
It’s not quite right to say that “this event somehow created matter and energy out of nothing and nothing at all (non-material or otherwise) caused the bang to happen in the first place”…’nothing’ is simple linguistic way to say something akin to: ‘something that we have neither the mental capacity to understand nor the vocabulary -linguistic or mathematical or otherwise- to describe or even think about’. If you drop that into your original sentence:
‘this event somehow created matter and energy out of something that we have neither the mental capacity to understand nor the vocabulary -linguistic or mathematical or otherwise- to describe or even think about and something that we have neither the mental capacity to understand nor the vocabulary -linguistic or mathematical or otherwise- to describe or even think about caused the bang to happen in the first place’
It’s a bit of a mouth-full I grant you…but given my understanding of the enormity (and my incomprehension of the power) of God, that modified statement seems to me a perfectly valid way to discuss creation as described in Genesis.
Our scientific understanding and ability to describe the world around us, existence itself, is always increasing, and I think very few would argue that we’ve just about got it all sorted out. Just because we can’t describe it now doesn’t mean it can’t be described. But by the same token there’s absolutely no good reason to assume we as humans will ever be able to describe it, it may fundamentally be beyond our grasp. As Hawking alludes to in his quote above, perhaps we’re in one permutation of the universe were we can question the universe, but not in one where we can find an answer.
Great comment and I agree that bringing God into the equation does raise the question about “Where did God come from?”
Basically we can see that no matter what we believe about the origin of the universe, the first premise has to be something that has no cause. Either you have a God that has no cause, a Big Bang that has no cause or an eternal universe that has no cause. You are always forces to go back to something where cause and effect does not occur. My point is that that is a real problem for things within the material universe where cause and effect always applies, but it is not so much of a problem when it comes to the spiritual realm or to a God that is outside of time and indeed created time itself. It may be hard to imagine such a being or how such a being might exist and interact with a universe that is within time and the limits of science, but it is not illogical for such a being to exist. I prepose that it is more illogical that such a being does not exist.
It does not point us to what this being or entity is like, but it does point us to something outside of scientific material reality that is bound by cause and effect.
As for your second point, that my definition of “everything” was too narrow, I do like your longer more complex way of adapting my original sentence:
â€˜this event somehow created matter and energy out of something that we have neither the mental capacity to understand nor the vocabulary -linguistic or mathematical or otherwise- to describe or even think about and something that we have neither the mental capacity to understand nor the vocabulary -linguistic or mathematical or otherwise- to describe or even think about caused the bang to happen in the first placeâ€™
I would just say that that thing which is beyond our understanding or even ability to measure or describe… is God. As you have pointed out, when trying to explain the origin of the universe, there is clearly a need to go beyond science and the material world (and by that I mean everything that could ever be in the material world). I think that points to the existence of God. Something beyond reason and science and cause and effect. If you are saying that you are referring to the possibility of something within the material reality that does not in any way follow any of the rules of the material reality, why not just define that as the spiritual reality?
Doesn’t the scientific principle of Occam’s Razor (the simplest explanation is best), compel us, not to invent unscientific theories that are based on no evidence, but to go with the theory that mankind has been drawn to for millennia, namely, that there is a Divine Architect?
Sure, I guess if there was no evidence for God and no evidence for these other theories and you just had to chose which one you preferred, some people might pick the one without God, but I also think there is lots of other evidence that God exists.
But not to be distracted, my main point was that the theory that God exists is just as valid and logical (or illogical) a starting point as all other theories of origin. It deserves to be taken as seriously and evaluated with as much respect.
The point where I differ with your logic is: “where cause and effect always applies”. When the discussion turns to the singularity of the big bang, or anything near or at the speed of light, our notion of linear time breaks down…and we can have evidence of the warping of time as it relates to situations involving motion. In an infinitely-dense singularity the math we use to understand and describe existence does not apply, though I would argue that just because we can’t understand it doesn’t mean it is not possible. Remember, we’ve only been working with Relativity for a shade over a century, quantum mechanics for less than that…there’s still a lot more learning we have to do.
In general, I think you put too much stock in our current ability to scientifically ‘know’ these things…the history of human understanding of nature is continually advancing the boundary of knowledge and understanding while reducing the domain of the ‘spiritual explanation’. The Greeks knew the Earth was round, but assigned the reason for the motion of the sun to a god racing his fiery chariot across the sky. There’s also nothing to say that our current descriptions are accurate, we might have mis-characterized something, but there’s nothing wrong with saying ‘my bad’ and moving on to a new ‘better fit’ theory. For many years Europeans operated under the assumption that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and in an effort to describe the motion of everything they devised an incredibly accurate mathematical model that involved many different circles and multiple orbits for individual bodies (it was very complicated, especially without calculators, but it was the only way to describe some of the idiosyncrasies of celestial motion). Later on they started using elliptical orbits with the Sun at the center and it all got a lot easier and more reflective of what they actually observed (Occam’s Razor). Then they started evaluating it all from Newton’s theory of gravity and our ability to describe and predict things really took off.
It ultimately all comes down to definition. If ‘God’ is to be used as the term for this event that somehow created matter, energy, space and time out of something that we have neither the mental capacity to understand nor the vocabulary -linguistic or mathematical or otherwise- to describe or even think about, then that’s certainly as valid as calling it the ‘Big Bang’. However, the jump from that notion to the notion of a knowable entity that looks like us (as I seem to recall from scripture that man is made in his image…correct me there if need be) is -in my view- too far a jump and raises way more questions than just ‘what started all this’.
Mankind has indeed been drawn to the concept of a ‘Divine Architect’ for virtually all of our species history…however I suspect you (as I, though for different reasons) would disagree with the manifestations of virtually all of those concepts. Man has also been drawn to a great many theories over the years, most of which no one would believe any more.
To stay on topic I won’t expand on it here, but sufficed to say I’m not in the ‘there is lots of other evidence that God exists’ camp…thus my view that ‘spiritual reality’ is an unnecessary layer that can’t be explained.
That’s a great story about the celestial model as an example of Occam’s Razor. I hadn’t heard that before.
Also, I agree with your point that to come to the conclusion that there must (or at least could) be a spiritual reality beyond the material, does not point us to a personal, omnipotent, omniscient Being called God. All it does is suggest that there is something “other”.
From this concept of “other” every culture on the planet has invented a version of what God, or the gods, or the spiritual realm is like. That’s what I believe most religions basically are. Us having some instinct or awareness or suspicion that the spiritual exists, and then coming up with different ideas of what that might be. So one culture makes up many gods while another culture invents a giant rainbow serpent.
The truth is that if God exists, then we really have no hope of knowing what he is like unless he reveals that to us. If he remains silent, then every idea is as good or valid as the next and in the end they all could be wrong. But if God does reveal himself, then he gets to set the definition and it can ultimately be said if someone is right or wrong.
For me, I do believe that God has revealed himself and not remained silent. That is what the prophets of the Old Testament were (spokespeople for God) and as a Christian, I believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the Son, who is at the Fatherâ€™s side, has made him known.” And when Jesus was asked by his disciples to show them God the Father, he said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
In any case, my point is that there are two types of revelation from God. “General Revelation” that can be deduced from nature and science, pointing people to the conclusion that God probably exists. This is accessible to all people of all cultures (see Romans 1:20) and gives us only a sense of God’s existence and maybe a bit of what he is like. But the second type is called “Special Revelation”, which is God’s decisive, clear expression of revealing who he is and clearly what he is like, what he is on about etc. This the natural world does not give us and so God has revealed in this specific and “special” way, through the Scriptures and through the man, Jesus.
ON MAN BEING MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE
Just a brief note on this topic. To say that we are made in God’s image doesn’t mean that we look like God or God looks like us. It’s referring to the idea that our identity and purpose as human beings is found in displaying and “showing” God to the rest of creation. We are meant to be “image-bearers” of God in this universe. Like the image an ancient king on a coin, the coin does not look like the king, but the image tells the world, “wherever these coins are, the king rules”. The coin is made in the image of the king, and every human is made in the image of the King of Kings.
There is so much more to be said on this topic, but I have a blog in the wings waiting for me to have the time to to write on what it means to be made in God’s image..
Simon, I enjoyed this blog but I want to comment on some assumptions I think you’ve made – which we can see more easily if we look into your starting metaphor. I don’t think you’re saying that the universe’s creation is just like the car up the tree scenario but I think that the ways they are different are illuminating so I’ll bring them forth.
When we ask how did this car get here we already have a picture of the cars normal or atleast alternative states. When we answer the question of the car we are essentially describing a process of change that would explain the difference between two pictures. The first is a car on the ground, the second the one in the tree.
When we talk about the universes origins we are asking a very different question – at least firstly. We are asking what the original picture might have looked like. I’m not saying you don’t address that at all but I don’t think you address it completely. I think by not recognising this primary question you come up with three alternatives and preclude so many more.
So here are my possibilities of what the universe might have looked like previous to itself;
1. Nothing (no matter, energy, consciousness, time etc)
2. Essentially the same (matter, energy, consciousness, time) operating according to the same physical laws
3. Roughly the same. So like a parent to a child perhaps. Scope for difference and similarity.
4. Radically different. But not conscious.So Energy without matter? Something else? Some strange plane that spews forth hyper-gunk – the stuff of universes.
5. Matter but without consciousness. Just dumb bits banging into each other.
6. Consciousness without matter, energy or time. As you put it the spiritual.
As I list these I realise that we don’t even agree on a picture of the universe now! Some would say we live in 5,(most Materialists) some say we live in 6 (some Hindus). That alone makes this question impossible!
But if we just concede for the moment number 1. is our universe then we still have a great number of bridging events that can get us from any of the above to the universe we have now.
There’s incarnation, procreation, and transformation just to name three. Maybe our universe (which would include us) is the child of two other universes? Maybe there is an underlying reality like a pool of lava and we are a bubble on it.
You see the problem is that if our universe has a beginning it will also be the beginning of time, matter, energy and so on. While the second law of thermodynamics might hold for us it may not apply to what birthed us. That alone wouldn’t qualify our mother as a spiritual reality because spiritual means consciousness without matter. It could be an unconscious “mother reality” but not bound by that law.
Also its possible that the earlier image is no longer or that it is simulataneous with us. Or we might be a portion of the other image. To use the idea of God, maybe we are created (God still exists but is undiminished by us), a partial incarnation (A portion of God is the world but a portion isn’t) or a full incarnation (A spiritual reality becomes the universe – basically adopts material laws). Even if our earlier image is consciousness and our latter one a material world then “creation” is not the only path between.
But we have neither a picture of the world before or an agreed upon picture of the world now. I think this makes this question enourmously different to the car up the tree. That’s said I think its a great post for biting off a big topic and I agree we all have no flipping idea for sure on the matter.
Just on ‘God’s image’…I know plenty of people (mostly from Texas) that take the view that ‘in God’s image’ can only mean ‘we look like him’ (as depicted by God creating Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling), but thanks for clarifying your position.
You note that: “From this concept of â€œotherâ€ every culture on the planet has invented a version of what God, or the gods, or the spiritual realm is like.” I don’t think this approach is indicative of instinct, I think rather they are simply constructions to help humans understand and make sense of the world around them. Many of the earliest (or in this context, primitive) creation/genesis stories are all based on the natural world: the Earth, sky or sun as the catalyst for the beginning of time; or else various animals. What I find most interesting is that invariably in these stories there is usually an element of personification involved, perhaps it was the sky that was sad at being alone and so its tears create the ocean and then the land shows up and off we go.
As I believe that we are just the next little link on our particular evolutionary chain…I feel that this approach is artificially (and for me, unnecessarily) projecting human thought and emotion out into the universe/reality.