Life, the Universe & Everything
“WHY is there something rather than nothing?” Cribbed from Leibniz, this question is often posed by theologians – especially, in my experience, by the intellectual Catholic “order of preachers”, the Dominicans.
If you reply “Why not?”, they will insist that when something is not self-explanatory – that is, it exists but does not have to exist – it is natural to ask why, and there should be an answer. Probably so, you counter – within the system of continuous cause and effect in which we find ourselves, but not necessarily for the total universe.
After all, what the questioner is demanding is an explanation for the whole of existence – but explanation means finding causal relationships between one event and another, and by definition there is nothing known beside the universe to relate it to. Not known in the experiential sense, agrees the theologian, but known by inference:
Unless the incipient universe somehow came into existence from nothing, we are forced to assume the existence of an eternal necessary being – God – independent of the universe, and in a causal relationship with it.
It is the old cosmological argument – one of the five arguments for the existence of God put forward by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and still the main argument (though usually less philosophically expressed) underlying most god-belief.
Now, I agree that something could hardly have come out of nothing; I also agree with the theologians that it is reasonable to assume a “first cause” from which everything has sprung in this universe of ours – meaning this finite known universe, to which the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning”, obviously refer. That “beginning” is not, of course, necessarily the ultimate beginning of everything – if there ever was such a beginning.
The anonymous author of Genesis, some two-and-a-half millennia ago, would surely have been astounded to be told that this universe had so long a history as 13,700-million years, as has now been indisputably calculated from its expansion rate. Furthermore, if we peer backwards beyond this universe, to before the “Big Bang”, I favour the notion of eternity: in theological terms, an eternal uncaused cause, rather than an absolute beginning.
Modern physicists tell us it is meaningless to say “before the Big Bang”, since that is when time itself began. I remain unconvinced. If this universe is merely one phase of an oscillation, as seems likely, then before the Big Bang there would be the final collapse of the previous universe, and so ad infinitum, with a serial “first cause” of each universe, completely compressed after each dissolution. The latest beginning, we now know, set off with an explosion just under fourteen billion (formerly the American billion) years ago — conjecturally following an utmost implosion.
But by what reasoning do theists give this speculative compression of force a personal name, “God”? There is no logic in that. I reject, unequivocally, their unwarranted assumption that the uncaused cause would have consciousness, purpose, and will. A simpler and more credible supposition is surely that it was some sort of basic energy/matter – hardly a supernatural personage with a sudden grandiose creative urge.
In any case, the postulation of a creator fails to answer the original question of “the beginning”, since it leaves open the next obvious question: did this creator have a prior creator, and so on, ad infinitum? (Small children, on first hearing the creation story, often ask “Who made God?”)
To be fair, it seemed impossible in past centuries that the whole complex universe could have come about without the deliberate intervention of a supernatural magician, of even greater complexity. Today, however, physicists are in the process of discovering how, under certain physical conditions, this could have happened. Also, biologists are now on the cusp of fathoming the emergence of life by certain combinations of chemicals forming self-replicating matter. For present-day theologians to ignore these current discoveries and projections suggests an element of wishful thinking in their faith.
A leading exponent today of the cosmological argument for God is the American philosopher William Craig. His thesis begins logically enough:
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence; (2) the universe began to exist; (3) therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.
But I can perceive no logic behind his jumping to the corollary that this uncaused cause was a conscious person.
So I agree with his cosmological argument on every point bar one: the consciousness that he ascribes to the uncaused cause. The theistic scenario seems to be that such a being, after an eternity of non-creation, suddenly decided to actualise a universe, which would expand to enormous proportions – in order, supposedly, to provide one tiny inhabitable planet in a small solar system of a particular galaxy for the rise of a congenial Man Friday life form.
Coincidentally, I had just finished drafting this article when (on December 13) two teams of physicists working on the collision of sub-atomic particles in the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced that they are hovering on the verge of finally detecting “the God particle”. This is more technically called the Higgs boson – named after Peter Higgs who, in 1964, theorised its existence within a nano-second of the Big Bang, to explain why particles have mass and so create matter with gravitational force. But it would hardly be recognisable as creationists’ father-figure superman!
An arrogantly anthropocentric belief, shared by many millions of god-believers, is that the whole complexity of the universe, of space and time, was designed by this God of theirs with the sole motive of producing human beings on Earth, as “objects of his love”. I like Voltaire’s fairytale mockery of this idea, in which a house-fly, finding itself in the Palace of Versaille, looks around in amazement at the size and splendour of the structure and its decor, and thinks to itself:
Fancy, all this has been created just for me!
Anyway, what sort of love is it that the purposive creator is supposed to have for his creatures? It inevitably raises a philosophical problem from all the suffering endured by sentient earthling creatures, including ourselves – a problem, however, only for those who cling to the belief that the first cause was a conscious being and who choose to think that he(?) was a caring creator. On the evidence of all the suffering caused by parasites, predators, diseases and natural disasters, as well as human inhumanity, the dreamed-up creator, supposedly purposeful and omnipotent, lacks a sense of morality as we conceive it, and cannot possibly empathise with us.
We non-believers have no such philosophical problem, since we posit no wilful intention behind all the widespread suffering – which we see as merely random, not deliberate. For us, the only problem that arises from it is how to meliorate the suffering.
In my book for teenagers, Humanism (first edition 1973), I espoused the theory that the vast observable universe in which we find ourselves, comprising many billions of stars with their satellites, in each of many billions of galaxies, began with a colossal explosion (the “Big Bang”) – though, at the time of my writing, this hypothesis was still vying for scientific acceptance with that of the “steady state” cosmological model of the universe. Before long, the idea of the steady state was dropped, since calculated predictions based on it proved to be false while those based on the Big Bang model turned out right, and microwave radiation from it can still be detected when tuning a radio set.
To avoid the unlikely corollary of supposing “something out of nothing”, I also put forward in my book the speculative theory that our present universe might be in the expanding phase of an eternal “oscillation” – thus being destined after a few more billion years to collapse almost to nothing (when, say, the original force is exceeded by gravitational pull and black holes prevail, to an ultimate coalescence of infinite density) until the next Big Bang sets it all off again.
An even more mind-blowing notion has more recently arisen that this universe of ours might actually be just one of billions of simultaneous universes having variant physical laws (and therefore being undetectable by us), known collectively as the multiverse or meta-universe or megaverse — a speculative theory that is given credence in Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Great Design.
The best model of this speculative multiverse is a huge conglomeration of bubbles, each of which has its period of existence before bursting – our own universe being one such bubble. In that case, the “first cause” of our universe would be the surrounding multiverse.
If the physical laws of all the supposed simultaneous or sequential universes did indeed happen to differ, this would enhance the possibility of at least one of them containing at least one galaxy containing at least one solar system that has at least one planet (say, Earth) with the fine-tuned parameters necessary to bring about and maintain self-replicating matter – ie life – and most probably many.
With all this wonder around us, what need is there for jejune creationist fairy-tales? In his recent book for children, The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins concludes with the words:
“The truth is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle. Science has its own magic: the magic of reality.”
• This piece first appeared in the February 2012 edition of the Freethinker.