Sunday, April 01, 2007

Where Did the Universe Come From?

I am reading a new book called The Philosophy Gym. Stephen Law, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London, is the author. It introduces philosophy by exploring fundamental questions or problems in philosophy with brevity and clarity. The first question addressed is: Where did the universe come from? Law opines that there are four types of answers to this question:

(1) Identify a specific cause (e.g., God).
(2) Postulate that there must be a cause but that we cannot or do not yet know what it is.
(3) Claim that there is no cause and that the existence of the universe is simply a "brute fact."
(4) Deny that the question makes sense (It is like asking, "What is north of the North Pole?").

Yet, Law points out that there are difficulties with each answer. The problem with answer #1 is that it too requires a cause and that cause a cause leading to an infinite regress of causes. Answer #2 fares no better in that it still says there is cause, even if it is not yet known, and that there must, therefore, be an infinite regress of causes. Answer #3 simply seems unreasonable. And the fact that answer #4 is controversial among philosophers suggests that it is untenable.

My own current inclination is to go with answer #3, but I take a different tack than the one Law takes. Law says that answer #3 entails accepting as "brute fact" that the universe simply "popped into existence" without cause or reason. But I ask why the universe ever had to have come into existence. That is, why must we assume that there was ever a natural nothing? Why could we not assume that there was always a natural something that now comprises natural reality as we know it?

Here is how David Mills, in his outstanding book Atheist Universe, defends this idea:

But what about Mortimer Adler's question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"...From a scientific perspective, though, the question is: Why shouldn't there be something rather than nothing? What law of science claims that the universe is not supposed to exist or that nonexistence is the "natural" condition? There is no such law. On the contrary, the law of the conservation of mass-energy leads to a radically different conclusion: that the mass-energy which now constitutes our universe always existed, though this universe, as we observe it today, did indeed have a beginning at the Big Bang. (p. 94)

When I read this passage from Mills, it struck me with the force of an intellectual explosion. Unless I encounter good reason to think otherwise, I believe that this is a very reasonable way to look at the existence of the universe and a compelling objection to the argument that the universe had to have been created out of nothing by God.


Tom said...

Maybe the reason that uber-nothingness seems more likely is Occam's Razor. It is the easier, more-obvious explanation of how things ought to be [Though, of course, there would be no such thing as easeir, obvious, or explanation in a non-universe of uber-nothingness.]

Tom said...

though I should add ... since ours simply isn't a universe of uber-nothingness, David Mills' explanation that you endorse makes the most sense. But I would leave open a Fifth postulate that may come from post-string theory that excludes the idea of "cause," since that implies time, and utilizes the additional dimensions that string theory concludes "exist." [Of course, the idea of 'exist' in a discussion like this one is always a little dicey.] Who knows how freaky these other dimensions might be? [Consider the appearance of Sphere in Flatland.]

Nagarjuna said...

As you imply in your second comment, even if it would be simpler for there to be "uber-nothingness," the fact that there is something rather than nothing suggests that even if we use Occam's Razor (and it has been argued that Occam's Razor does not or need not always yield a true result), we would have to apply it to the something that is rather than to the nothing that is not.

It will be interesting to see how cosmology advances to explain the origins of the universe. I confess that I need to make more of an effort to study the daunting intricacies of such developments as string theory and competing theories. However, I wonder if science, no matter how far back it goes in the cause-effect chain (Or is it a web?) of existence, will not always reach the point of positing the existence of certain "dimensions" and physical phenomena giving rise to existence as we know it today but whose cause cannot be explained in their own right.

If this turns out to be the case, it falls in line with Mills' argument that the universe in some form has always existed and did not have a cause of any kind.

Tom said...

Occam's Razor comes up in response to your quote within a quote, relating to Adler's question. I do think that uber-nothingness has a better logical claim to how THE ALL should be or how things should have "begun."

But getting a start to something/anything has to mean there never was an uber-nothingness, because it is not uber-nothingness unless it is so absolutely nothing that there is no way it could ever change. Uber-nothingness cannot change -- unless Buddha or the Buddhist ancients are right in insisting that "change" is the one inviolate.

The "problem" that remains for me is that The Big Bang is the beginning of time as well as extention into space. It truly is hard to grasp what we can be talking about in terms of what came before it. And it is hard for me to comprehend how this "hot state" 'is.'

THEN, there is the whole consciousness deal. How does that begin, what is it, and how does it relate to physical stuff. A lot yet to be learned by our scientists, mystics and others!

ned said...

Steve, have you heard of a book entitled Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang by two physicists Paul Steinhardt (of Princeton) and Neil Turok (of Cambridge)? In it they present a very fascinating model of the universe which is one of the few models considered a worthy challenge to the traditional Big Bang model. They suggest that the universe has had no beginning or end, that it evolves in cosmic cycles, and that each evolutionary cycle has more "information" than the previous one, suggesting a sort of telos. I've seen Ervin Laszlo incorporating this model into his ideas, and it's a pretty fascinating one if your view of the universe is evolutionary.

An article on this model is available at Edge.

For me, these aren't questions that can be solved at the level of the physical mind. From that mental or intellectual perspective, existence can equally be described as "Nothingness" or "Presence", and both those mental descriptions are equally valid.

To quote my main man Sri Aurobindo:

What, you ask, was the beginning of it all?
And it is this Existence that multiplied itself.
For sheer delight of being
And plunged into numberless trillions of forms
So that it might