Was There a Beginning? A Beginners Guide
It is, without doubt, the most profound philosophical question that can ever be asked - why are we here? Yet, at the same time, it seems childlike to ask it. I suppose what the question is really asking is how did everything get going? Why is the universe here rather than nothing at all? And what makes it all the more interesting is us. The fact that we have come about as a by-product of evolution is baffling - thinking, living conscious beings, intelligent enough to question our own existence (the brain is actually the most complex structure in the entire universe). In addition to this, we have enigmatic values such as morality, mathematics, and beauty. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest it was all just chance. Science, religion, and philosophy have all attempted to solve the mystery. Have any actually succeeded?
"No question is more sublime than why there is a universe: why there is anything rather than nothing."
Derek Parfit (philosopher)
It all depends on how you interpret a successful answer. For example, millions of people are happy to believe that God is the reason for our existence and that’s that. Even though there is no direct proof as such, their faith is enough to warrant the matter as closed. Let’s suggest a God did create the world. The question then follows - who or what created God? It doesn’t seem entirely implausible that even God could contemplate his own existence. This has been debated for centuries in what’s known as the ‘cosmological argument’, which purports that God is the ultimate first cause. God is the reason for everything and doesn’t require an explanation because he is uncaused and eternal. For me, this is unsatisfying. If we are prepared to accept God as being the ultimate first cause, why not just look at the evidence we already have and stop at the universe itself being self-caused – it would be a lot simpler. It would also remove the seemingly bigger task of trying to explain why a religious God (one who is benevolent, intervenes with the world, etc) exists in the first place. Maybe we need to redefine our idea of God. Concepts such as pantheism (the universe is God) and deism (God is no longer here) seem far more plausible. However, it seems unlikely we will ever be able to confirm which, if any, is true. And even with these concepts, we would still have to accept the idea of God as necessary with no explanatory requirement. Does science fare any better at explaining creation?
The Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang theory, which has been accepted for almost a century, contributes a huge piece to the puzzle. The fact that we know the universe is expanding establishes that it must have had a beginning. If we reverse the process of its expansion, we actually end up with something smaller than the size of this full stop. Yes – hard to believe. How could the universe evolve from something so small? What was the driving force behind it all? Physicists can mathematically explain how inflation happened, but the va va voom behind it all is still a mystery.
A satellite image revealing proof
(in the form of radiation) of the Big Bang
The million dollar question is, naturally, what happened before the Big Bang? The answer would seemingly be the key to understanding the entirety of the universe and its existence. Unfortunately, not only are we stumped for an answer, but our whole understanding of science breaks down at the moment of the Big Bang (around 13.7 billion years ago) due to the temperature, density, and curvature of the universe all reaching infinity. It is what’s known in science as the singularity – a boundary in which there doesn’t seem to be any explanation. If there is a cause for the Big Bang, it transcends time and space, and science therefore cannot reach it. In fact, time and space itself began with the Big Bang, therefore it doesn’t make sense to consider anything happening before it. Perhaps it is simply beyond our understanding and we are not equipped to deal with such a profound monstrosity, much like a goldfish trying to comprehend language.
Some brave physicists are hypothesising how the Big Bang could have happened with some pretty good evidence. Cosmologist professor Lawrence Krauss in his book A Universe from Nothing (2012) thinks the Big Bang came from nothing, and by nothing I mean ‘empty space’. This empty space already makes up a large part of the universe and doesn’t consist of anything – zero matter, radiation, or gas. And it is in this domain that quantum mechanics has shown that virtual particles, on an extremely small scale, can very quickly appear in and out of existence. Krauss uses this amazing phenomenon to hypothesise how the universe could have been created from empty space, before the Big Bang. Hence, something could have arisen from nothing. His argument has been widely criticised, especially as his notion of ‘nothing’ wildly differs from the philosophical nothing (which entails no laws of physics, no empty space, an absolute sort of nothing). However, Krauss responds that cosmology and the universe tell us that empty space is nothing. There is no other ‘nothing’ than this nothing.
His idea is undoubtedly backed up by an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence, and he’s not the only one to believe that quantum fluctuations are responsible for the beginning of the universe. Alex Vilenkin is another prominent physicist who advocates that a small microscope wave of energy could have tunnelled itself into existence. Yet what confuses me is how anything could have happened at all before the Big Bang, as time and space itself began with it. As previously mentioned, our understanding of science breaks down at the point of the Big Bang. There are theologians (William Lane Craig in particular) who have actually used this argument to confirm a belief in God. William Lane Craig argues that only something which is timeless, immaterial, and eternal could have created the universe, and God fits the bill perfectly. In fact, when the discovery of the Big Bang came about, the pope advocated that Christianity had got it right – the universe was finite, it had a beginning, and therefore the Genesis account of creation in the Bible was correct. Yet this is anything but astonishing, given that the only other alternative is an eternal universe. I certainly think the beginning of the universe is where we get stuck. Even if we accept Krauss’ argument, we are still none the wiser. Where did the spontaneously appearing particles come from in the first place? When pressed for an answer, Krauss suggests “the laws may be eternal, or they too may have come into existence, again by some yet unknown but possible purely physical process”. Alas, we are back to square one, every explanation demands another. And if you really think about it, an adequate explanation will never be possible because it seems impossible for something to exist without something preceding it. There is one other solution.
We certainly cannot, with any accuracy, dismiss anything happening before the Big Bang. We are dealing with a metaphysical framework before our era, therefore regardless of our current understanding of time and space, I believe that Krauss and Vilenkin are definitely on to something. My qualm is rather with the notion that the something that existed, before the Big Bang, would still need explaining. Therefore I pose a question to the reader. Is it more plausible to suggest that there was nothing before the Big Bang and then suddenly inexplicable physics came into existence and created the universe? Or is it more plausible to say that there has always been a running continuum of events and our universe is simply where we are at. It seems the latter to me is at least more plausible. One of the most influential philosophers of the 18th century - David Hume - thought so too. He proposed that if the existence of anything can be explained by something prior ad infinitum, the riddle is potentially solved. This means there would be an infinite number of scientific explanations for everything that has ever happened. This does solve the problem, doesn't it?
Infinity is admittedly a difficult concept to grasp as an actuality. If we look to the future, this might help us become more content with the idea. We can imagine the future quite easily in our minds, even without us in it (surprisingly). Now evidence suggests that our universe will end, collapse and die out (theories include the big crunch, the big rip, and the big freeze). When this eventuality happens, are we willing to believe that everything, including physics, matter, space and time, will cease to exist forever? This seems nonsensical – everything just disappearing into nothingness. Just like Krauss’s virtual particles, surely there will be something brewing in the aftermath. If we can assume that there will always be something, even if our universe collapses, surely it makes sense to apply the same logic backwards.
What caused infinity?
The obvious response to this solution is that the chain of infinity itself still requires an explanation (a sort of grandeur meta-explanation for the existence of anything rather than nothing). Hume felt that we didn’t need one, as an infinite chain of events means that every actuality could always be explained by its predecessor, therefore we are falsely invoking a need for further explanation.
Those unsatisfied and still think infinity itself needs explaining are running out of options. This is, ironically, the end of the line. There is no answer that can satisfy the question – what caused infinity – because the answer would infinitely demand another question. One could argue this leaves the original question - what caused the universe - unintelligible. The French philosopher Henri Bergson thought so, after much pondering he began to wonder why one would even bother trying to solve a problem that is forever insoluble. It seems we have to accept the chain of events that have happened as brute fact. Some may wish to attribute a spiritual idea to this notion, rather than a complex bundle of physics. But I am worried whether our existence is really as significant as we might hope, especially with the hypothesis of other universes existing.
More to reality than we think?
With the concept of infinity as a forerunner, one must wonder what else exists or has ever existed. Perhaps there are other universes running simultaneously to ours. It sounds insane, but when you think about it, how do we really know what’s outside of our universe? Is it really implausible to think that a universe could be born elsewhere in another reality? Why would the Big Bang happen only once? The oscillating universe theory suggests that we are actually part of a never ending cycle of Big Bang’s, each universe ending with another being created. The multiverse theory suggests there are many universes already existing, perhaps even an infinite amount consisting of every possibility. It all sounds extraordinary, if not terrifying. And why should we doubt it? If we can come to accept the idea of an infinite regression backwards or forwards, why not expand it to the notion of infinite possibilities.
As for the very beginning of everything, I conclude with the idea that there wasn’t one, and that the idea of an infinite regression is perhaps more plausible. And as for why there is something rather than nothing, for me, there is nothing more simpler and more clarifying than the idea that something would always come out of something.