One of the fundamental issues which faces everyone, and is one of the fundamental topics in the field of philosophy (namely in metaphysics – the study of ultimate reality) is the question of ultimate origins. The term “prime reality” is used to describe “the thing from which everything else comes.”
For our purposes, we will be addressing the issue of the origin of the universe. There are many other questions which are pertinent to the question of origins, but since this question is one that can be addressed both by science and metaphysics, we can have different fields of study converge on a conclusion instead of, let’s say, just one. Thus, we can cover some ground in setting up this question.
WHAT DOES SCIENCE HAVE TO SAY?
Before we see how each world-view answers the question (in the next post), we are going to look at what science has to say about this issue, and then we’ll look at what metaphysics, or philosophy, has to say. Then we can compare our world-view’s answers to see how well they match. This post is basically some background information concerning the question of the origin of the universe.
It’s not my goal to totally and comprehensively describe the scientific or metaphysical findings in this area (and every subsequent area in this series of posts), since that would take a book to do so. But I’ll offer a very quick summary of the findings, and if anyone has any further questions or comments then they can comment on the relevant post, and I’ll be able to then address a more in-depth analysis with those who wish to do so.
In the early to mid 1900’s there were some pretty incredible findings that turned cosmology and astrophysics upside-down. Of those findings, we have Hubble’s direct observations that distant galaxies were moving farther away from each other (indicating that space itself is being spread apart or expanding); his findings on red shift which indicate the same thing, Einsteins findings indicated that the universe is expanding (the edges of the universe are expanding too, which means it’s getting larger over time), and the second law of thermodynamics is also a contributer to the implications of these findings.
The interesting thing about these findings is that, since the universe is expanding into the future, if we go back in time, or “roll the universe in rewind”, we find that all space, time, matter, and energy come to a single point know as a singularity. In other words, a beginning point.
This was so huge of a finding because most scientists at that point in time thought that the universe was infinite in past time.
For instance, Sir Arthur Eddington said, concerning this finding, “I feel almost an indignation that anyone should believe it – except myself.” (The Expanding Universe)
Now, these findings were responsible for what is known as the Big Bang theory. Currently, this theory is accepted as the best fit for the evidence we have. There have been many other speculative theories which postulate a “pre-big bang” period, such as the multi-verse theory which states that our universe is just one of many many other universes (kinda like a bath tub full of suds and each bubble is a universe).
But here’s a question: can we disqualify all these other theories and demonstrate that space-time either must have had a beginning point or could be infinite in time? Yes we can!
There is a scientific theorem called the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Theorum. Basically stated, it says that any cosmological model with an average expansion rate over 0 must be finite in it’s past – all of space-time must have a beginning point before which there was no space, time, matter, or energy. This theorem applies to all possible models for which have been offered.
So, by a very quick look at the evidence in science, all space-time cannot be infinite and had a beginning point in which space-time began to exist.
Alexander Vilenkin says concerning the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth theorem, “…a cosmological model which is inﬂating – or just expanding suﬃciently fast – must be incomplete in null and timelike past directions.” (http://arxiv.org/pdf/gr-qc/0110012) In other words, no infinite past.
WHAT DOES PHILOSOPHY HAVE TO SAY?
We will now look at this issue from the metaphysical side. Metaphysics, once again, is simply the study of ultimate reality.
In talking about the origin of the universe, there are really only four general options that are available.
A) Something outside the universe created it.
B) The universe has existed for an infinite amount of time.
C) The universe came into existence from and by nothing.
D) The universe created itself.
Let’s do a quick overview of these possible options available to us:
A) It is logically possible that something outside the universe, or all space-time, caused it to come into existence. There is nothing logically contradictory in this notion thus it is possible.
B) What we will address here is simply the concept of infinity. More specifically, an infinite past. Is it possible for the past to be infinite?
Infinity itself is a term which, by definition, cannot be reached. We may think of infinity as a sort of number or object, but it’s really just a concept. The term infinity, properly understood, is something that in reality cannot be obtained or reached. For instance, if you said “Here’s infinity.”, I can simply say “Here’s infinity plus 1!” Now that doesn’t seem to make sense, right? You can’t add anything to infinity because infinity cannot even be obtained in the first place! It is by definition an unreachable and limitless quantity.
The great mathematician David Hilbert said, “The infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought… The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea.” (“On the Infinite”, in Philosophy of Mathematics)
So when one postulates that the universe is infinite in age, that is, it never began to exist – it’s always been around – then what they are saying is that the past is infinite in time. But, if this were true, then how is it that we have arrive at this particular moment in time? In other words, if the past was infinite – and an infinite series of events cannot ever be reached by definition of what infinity is – then we would logically never be able to reach the moment “now”. But we have!
Here’s a deductive argument which applies:
1: An actually infinite number of things cannot exist.
2: A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things.
3: Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot exist.
So it’s logically incoherent to say that the universe could be infinite in it’s past time.
C) To say that the universe came into existence by nothing is, quite frankly, a complete incoherent idea. In other words, does it make sense to say that literal nothing can cause something? Well, the term nothing is something that is non-existent. To say that nothing can cause something is a complete contradiction because a prerequisite to being able to cause something is to first be something!
Now I think it’s worth noting that many scientists and some philosophers do claim that our space-time came into existence from nothing. But the truth is, if you look closely at what they actually mean by nothing, they actually mean something – like a vacuum state or a fluctuating field of energy; which are all still something.
So this option is not logically viable.
D) Could the universe create itself? Well, in order to do that the universe would both need to exist and not exist at the same moment. Let’s say that again – the universe would need to exist in order to cause something (because something that doesn’t exist cannot do anything!), but then at the same time it would need to not exist (because we are trying to bring it into existence). These are two contradictory states or propositions. Something either exists or it doesn’t – it cannot both exist and not exist at the same moment.
So we see that this option isn’t viable either. It’s like saying “I gave birth to myself!”
Our look at science gave us the conclusion that the evidence we do have points to the idea that all space-time as we know it couldn’t have been infinite in the past, and that implies it must have a proper beginning. The Borde-Vilenkin-Guth theorem gives us the icing on the cake in that regard.
In terms of whether or not the four available options are logically possible, only one of them emerges as being possible. An infinite past, something being caused by nothing, and something causing itself to come into being are all logically incoherent and contradictory in some sense. Thus, the only available option we have is that something which is outside the universe must have caused it (it could not be inside the universe because we fall into the same problem as option D).
With this background information in hand, we can approach and test the three world-views – Atheism; Monism; and Theism – on this matter to see how they are empirically adequate, logically coherent, and experientially relevant.
Till next time!