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Life, the Universe & Everything

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.

god-particle

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.

5 responses to “Life, the Universe & Everything”

  1. I’ve always thought that there’s something rather than nothing because (by definition) ‘nothing’ can’t exist. So there’s ‘something’ by default. This ‘something’ appears to be a multi-dimensional multiverse of which our universe seems to be just a small part. It doesn’t exist for our advantage; we have evolved by lucky chance in a universe that just happens to be conducive to life. Moreover, since (as we’re now told) our universe is infinite, it must contain infinite copies of our planet with infinite variations. Enough! This is mind-bending.

  2. Cliff Knoetz says:

    No sure why you even bother objecting to WLC’s conclusions, since his “logic”fails even before that.

    WLC:
    (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.

    Response:
    (1) This seems uncontroversial, if not tautological.
    (2) Assumption, unsupported.
    (3) WLC has not yet built the basis for making any other statement.

    Considered response:
    (1) Except for maybe this is false if virtual particles are real, in which case even stage one fails.
    (2,3) Forget about it.

    Instead, I propose Clifford F. Knoetz’s Cosmological Argument:
    (1) Some spectacularly small things might come into spontaneous existence if there’s nothing else around;
    (2) Some small things become much bigger over time;
    (3) This might include universes, but probably not gods.

  3. Roger says:

    Here’s my thinking about the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. It’s kind of long, so sorry about that. It’s the summary page from my website at :
    https://sites.google.com/site/whydoesanythingexist/

    Thanks

    A solution to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is proposed that also entails a proposed solution to the question “Why do things exist?”. In brief, I propose that “something” and “nothing” are just two different words, derived from two different ways of thinking, for describing the same underlying thing: what we’ve traditionally, and, as will be shown, incorrectly, thought of as the “absolute lack-of-all” or “non-existence”. I put these phrases in quotes because I try to show by my argument that when we’ve gotten rid of everything that is traditionally thought to exist, the supposed “absolute lack-of-all” or “non-existence” that’s left actually meets the definition proposed here of what it means to exist.

    How can this be? To answer that, I first discuss the question “Why do things exist?” and use the example of a pile of dirt. Why does a pile of dirt exist?. Three choices for places that might give existence to the pile of dirt are the stuff inside the pile (e.g., the molecules of dirt), the surface or edge of the pile which defines what is contained within the pile, and something outside the pile. I argue that it is the surface or edge which gives existence to the pile of dirt. More generally, what I mean by the surface/edge argument is that a thing exists because there is a grouping or relationship that defines what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing as a unit whole that’s a different existent entity than whatever is contained within. Some evidence against the first and third choices and for the second choice include:

    1.) Try to imagine a thing like a pile of dirt existing that does not have an outermost edge or surface. Even if you say I can remove the outer layer of the pile and still visualize the pile, then remove the outermost layer of what’s left, and remove the outermost layer of what’s left after that. Eventually, to avoid an infinite regress and to still have anything exist at all, there must be some smallest, most fundamental existent entity that has an outermost surface and nothing further inside.

    2.) A thing like a pile of dirt is not just a bunch of dirt molecules considered individually. It’s the grouping together of these molecules into a new unit whole called a pile. The pile is a different existent entity than the individual dirt molecules considered on their own, and it is the grouping/relationship/surface defining exactly is contained within that is responsible for the pile being a different existent entity than the dirt molecules considered individually.

    3.) The stuff-inside and stuff-outside arguments both succumb to infinite regress problems. For instance, with the stuff-inside argument, one might ask: what’s inside the molecules of dirt, what’s inside the atoms in the molecule of dirt, what’s inside the protons and electrons in the atoms in the molecule of dirt, etc. At some point, to avoid an infinite regress and to still have anything existing at all, there must be some smallest, most fundamental existent entity that exists that has nothing at all inside. An existent entity with absolutely nothing inside would seem to be just a surface. What else would it be?

    In sum, I propose that a thing exists if there is a grouping or relationship present defining what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing.

    Some examples of existent entities and their groupings defining what is contained within are as follows. First, consider a book. Try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch or see something without a surface? You can’t because it wouldn’t exist. Second, think about a set of all the positive integers. If it were unknown what numbers were contained in the set, would that set exist? No. Even for the null set, it’s known exactly what is contained within: the lack of all elements. The grouping defining what is contained within is essential for the set to exist. The grouping is shown by the curly braces, or surface/edge, around the elements of the set and is what gives existence to the set.

    I next apply this definition of an existent entity to the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. To start, “absolute nothing”, or “non-existence”, is first defined to mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this absolute lack-of-all. This absolute lack-of-all itself, and not our mind’s conception of the absolute lack-of-all, is the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. It is the entirety, or the all, of what is present (e.g. “absolute nothing”). An entirety/whole amount is a relationship defining what is contained within and is therefore a grouping, an edge, and an existent entity. In other words, because the “absolute lack-of-all” is the entirety of all that is present, it functions as its own grouping/edge, defining what is contained within. It defines itself and is, therefore, the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. The grouping/edge of the absolute lack-of-all is not some separate thing; it is just the absolute lack-of-all itself because this absolute lack-of-all itself is a grouping or relationship defining what is contained within in that it is the “entirety of all that is present” and “the all”. This reasoning for why the “absolute lack-of-all” is actually an existent entity is the counterpoint to argument 1, above, for why a thing exists. Both come to the same conclusion but from different directions: that there is a most fundamental existent entity that is a surface with “absolutely nothing” inside. What this reasoning means is that 1.) our traditional definition of the “absolute lack-of-all” as the lack of all existent entities is incorrect because even after we’ve gotten rid of all things thought to exist, the “absolute lack-of-all” itself can be seen to be an existent entity if thought of in this different way, 2.) our traditional view of “nothing” as the opposite of “something” is incorrect because “nothing” and “something” are really two words for the same thing, and 3.) “something” or “existence” is necessary, or non-contingent, because even what we’ve traditionally thought of as “nothing” is actually an existent entity, or “something”.

    What is all of this good for? Like all proposed solutions to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, I can never prove the above hypothesis because I can never actually directly see whether the “absolute lack-of-all” is an existent entity, but what I can do is to use the above thinking to develop a model of the universe and eventually make testable predictions. This assertion is based on the thinking that because the hypothesis proposed here is about the most fundamental of existent entities, because the universe exists and seems to be composed of existent entities, and because physics is the study of how the universe works, then the laws of physics and of the universe should be derivable from the properties of the fundamental existent entity proposed here. I refer to this type of thinking as a metaphysics-to-physics approach or philosophical engineering. I believe that using this type of thinking, physicists and philosophers would be able to make faster progress towards a deeper understanding of the universe than by using the more top-down approach they currently use.

    A more detailed explanation of the thinking behind all this along with its use in building a primitive but physically realistic model of the universe is at:

    https://sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite/

    (click on third link).

  4. RussellW says:

    Fascinating question, however the answer won’t be obtained by wishful thinking.