Thursday, 7 August 2014

Where did the universe come from?

"So where did the universe come from? Did it come from nothing? Or has it existed eternally into the past?". I often hear this rhetoric given by religious apologists and laymen who sport a surface level understanding of modern science and philosophy. I wanted to clarify some salient issues:

Much ado about Nothing

When religious apologists talk about the universe "popping into existence", they seem to be basing this idea on a faulty way of looking at what the Big Bang was. To say "the universe came into being from nothingness" is to evoke the image of there first being nothingness, and then, suddenly, the universe appeared! This is a terrible terrible way of looking at the phenomenon. Apologists talk about 'nothingness' as if it were a real state of affairs. They think of the Big Bang as though reality changed from a state of nothingness to a state of existence, and the idea of that happening for no reason makes no sense to them, because such a change could not occur without a cause.

But they don't seem to understand that there is no such thing as a state of nothingness. "Nothingness" was never a state reality was ever in. The universe did not "pop into reality" because there was no reality for it to pop into. A better way of thinking about the Big Bang is as a temporal boundary, rather than as a change from nothingness to somethingness. I.e. if you were to go backwards in time, the Big Bang is simply as far as you could go. So when apologists talk about the universe "popping into existence from nothingness", they are making the mistake of thinking of nothingness as a prior event or as a prior state of affairs which cannot be changed without some cause. Bur reality did not change from a state of nothingness to a state of somethingness because there was never any state of "nothingness" to begin with.

Cause and Effect:

The Kalam Cosmological argument asserts that something which is temporally finite in the past is contingent. In other words, its existence is dependent upon something else. But the fact that a temporal boundary exists does not denote the contingency of the universe. It does not prove the universe needs a cause.

To say something needs a cause is really only to say that its occurrence must be consistent with prior events To say that a bicycle can't "pop into existence" is to say that its occurrence cannot be incongruous with events prior to it. A bicycle whose existence comes after a process of manufacturing and assembly is a bicycle whose existence is congruous with prior events. If a process of assembly did not occur in the events prior to a bicycle's existence, then the appearance of the bicycle would be inconsistent with prior events, and that is not something we ever see happen. As far as we can tell, such an occurrence is impossible. However, the universe is different, because as far as we can tell, there were no prior events. If there were no prior events, then you can't make the objection that its inception is inconsistent with any prior events. How can the universe have a cause when there was no time (as far as we can tell) before the universe at which this act of creation could have occurred?

When faced with this dilemma, some apologists typically appeal to 'simultaneous causation', alleging that causation is not necessarily a temporal concept and that causes can be simultaneous with their effects. Apart from the fact that simultaneous causation has never been observed, if causes can be simultaneous with their effects (if it can be causally prior but not temporally prior) then the question of whether the universe began to exist becomes entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it had a cause.

The first premise of the Kalam argument says that "everything which begins to exist has a cause", but if something can have a cause that is causally prior without being temporally prior, then even if the universe did not exist, it could still have a cause.The universe wouldn't need to have a beginning to have a cause if the cause would be simultaneous with the universe. The only way the notion that the universe had a beginning could be seen as evidence that it had a cause, is if things which begin to exist are for some reason, more likely to have these simultaneous causes than things which are eternal. But why would this be the case? Things which 'begin to exist' are obviously more likely to have temporally prior causes, but why would things which begin to exist be any more likely to have these simultaneous causes?

If simultaneous causation were real, then a universe which has a beginning is no more likely than a universe which has always existed to have such a simultaneous cause. If the fact that the universe has a beginning makes it no more likely to have a cause, then asserting that the universe had a beginning cannot be used in favour of the existence of that cause.

Theism, Naturalism and Modern Cosmology

“Then where did the universe come from?”

This question becomes meaningless if you are a metaphysical naturalist.

This of course depends on what one means by ‘universe’, either:
(1) A specific space-time region
(2) The totality of space-time, matter/energy (the natural world)

When talking about the space-time region that expanded 13.7 billion years ago in the big bang, then for a naturalist; if that space-time region had in fact an origin; but it would merely be part of a larger set of natural entities and arose by natural processes that can be investigated by science. But that’s not what theists typically are asking for. When they say “universe”, they are referring to the totality of space-time, matter/energy. But asking a naturalist about the origin of the natural world is a loaded question; akin to asking a theist where their God came from. But if the natural world is the totality of existence, then by definition there can be is no state it could have originated from in the first place.

Theists typically respond with a false dichotomy:

(1) The universe came from nothing (the natural world arose from absolute non-existence).
(2) The universe has existed infinitely into the past.

But these claims are FALSE because there are other options such as the whole of existence being timeless (B-theory of time) or existence having a beginning but no origin (a primary state). The supposed evidences for a beginning of the universe (such as the impossibility of an actual infinite, intraversability of an actual infinite past, big bang cosmology and entropy) only do just that. They would merely demonstrate the universe had a first state of being. But to have a first state of being and to have come into existence are two different concepts that are fallaciously equated. 

If the natural world indeed came into existence, then it can only be the case that it was caused to exist by a state of affairs in which no natural entities existed. But the problem is that the existence of such a state is what the theist claims (which they need to provide evidence for) and none of the supposed evidence for the finitude of the past can demonstrate this; even in principle.There is nothing incoherent or implausible about the natural world existing at all state of affairs of the actual world, regardless of whether this exists timelessly as a static collection of locations given the B-theory of time or can be traced back to a first state given an A-theory of time (beginning without origin). Both are coherent views and in neither view does the natural world have an origin, nor requires an origin.

I have attempted to give a fresh account of the naturalism vs theism debate in the context of modern cosmology. In doing so, I hope I clarified the following: The universe might not actually need a cause, especially if the B-theory of time is true. All causes in the universe are (1) temporal and (2) material, showing the our common-sense every day notions of cause and effect don't necessarily apply to the origin of the universe, if it is the beginning of space and time.

Naturalists who accept the Big Bang model do not believe that the universe just popped into existence out of nothing, rather they believe that there was no time at which the universe did not exist and there is no place the universe came from. On naturalism, the universe just is…and that’s all. There is no reason to believe the universe has a cause. The only kernel of truth in the theist claim is that “everything which begins to exist in space and time has a cause". Naturalists are willing to accept that. However, the creation of the universe is not an event in space and time . Rather, at least if the conventional Big Bang model is true, the origin of the universe is the very origin of space and time itself. And there is no reason to think that has a cause.

And what’s the theistic alternative? That somebody could make a universe out of absolutely nothing? That a being that exists outside of time can magically cause time itself to exist; the theistic explanation is no better than the naturalist explanation and may even be worse. We still don't know. These are tough questions indeed.


  1. Do you believe God created the universe?

  2. Do you believe God created the universe?