Why is there something rather than nothing?
“Astronomers now find they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation to which you can trace the seeds of every star, every planet, every living thing in this cosmos and on the earth. And they have found that all this happened as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover…. That there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact.”
–Astronomer, physicist and founder of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies Robert Jastrow.
The question posed by the title of this essay is by its very nature so nagging that it has no doubt crossed the mind of virtually every thinking person who ever lived. Forget about complex life forms for a moment: More fundamentally, how could any universe, even one devoid of life—but replete with matter and energy—exist at all?
Why isn’t there just nothingness?
Two basic answers to this question have been proposed. First there is the view—prominent throughout history and existent in most cultures—that the universe is the creation of an infinite intelligence (read: God).
The other proposed answer (endorsed by atheists) is that the natural world itself is eternal…without beginning, and therefore needs no further explanation. Something without a beginning (eternal) does not require a cause or an explanation because it has always been. This is sometimes referred to as the “static universe” theory.
But insights from physics which have emerged in the past few decades have put to rest any notions of a “static universe.” The nail-in-the-coffin of the static universe came with the emergence of the “Big Bang theory,” which now has virtually universal acceptance amongst physicists largely because it has been confirmed by increasing amounts of observational data. According to Big Bang cosmology, which appeared in the 1960’s, the universe (including space, time, energy, and matter) did have a definite beginning.
One can derive enormous entertainment value from observing the contorted mental gymnastics to which atheistic physicists have had to resort in order to avoid the obvious theistic implications of Big Bang cosmology (in addition to its clear similarities to the biblical account of creation).
One can derive enormous entertainment value from observing the contorted mental gymnastics to which atheistic physicists have had to resort in order to avoid the obvious theistic implications of Big Bang cosmology (in addition to its clear similarities to the biblical account of creation). Imperial College of London astrophysicist Christopher Isham, who is Britain’s leading quantum cosmologist, comments on the desperation displayed by atheist physicists trying to wriggle free of these theistic implications:
“Perhaps the best argument in favor of the thesis that the Big Bang supports theism is the obvious unease with which it is greeted by some atheist physicists. At times this has led to scientific ideas, such as continuous creation or an oscillating universe, being advanced with a tenacity which so exceeds their intrinsic worth that one can only suspect the operation of psychological forces lying very much deeper than the usual desire of a theorist to support his or her theory.”
And it was to some extent the result of observing these attempts to wriggle free of the inescapable theistic implications of the Big Bang that persuaded Antony Flew—who was arguably the world’s most prominent atheist—to accept the existence of God.
Antony Flew is a prominent philosopher (and former Oxford University Professor of Philosophy) who could –earlier in his career– be accurately characterized as the “frontman” for atheism as a philosophical cause. His paper entitled Theology and Falsification became the most widely reprinted philosophical tract of the last half century and constituted much of the intellectual foundation for modern atheism. His acceptance of the existence of God on rational grounds in 2004 was truly scandalous for atheists.
…And it was to some extent the result of observing these [atheist] attempts to wriggle free of the inescapable theistic implications of the Big Bang that persuaded Antony Flew—who was arguably the world’s most prominent atheist—to accept the existence of God.
In his book There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, Flew describes just how unpersuasive atheistic explanations for the Big Bang are. One such explanation, prominent among atheist physicists, is the idea of that the existence of multiple universes can be used to explain away the creation event. This stance states that the sudden emergence of our universe need not be interpreted as a creation event because ours is only one among many universes that have emerged spontaneously. It is not unreasonable to expect that a theory such as this, which is a modification to the Big Bang, might one day become widely accepted by scientists. However, the philosophical implications that atheists have attached to such a theory are highly suspect. To this point, Flew notes:
“The postulation of multiple universes…is a truly desperate alternative. If the existence of one universe requires an explanation, multiple universes require a much bigger explanation: the problem is increased by the factor of whatever the total number of universes is. It seems a little like the case of the schoolboy whose teacher doesn’t believe his dog ate his homework, so he replaces the first version with the story that a pack of dogs—too many to count—ate his homework.”
Flew was also persuaded by another philosopher, David Conway, that the philosophical underpinnings for citing multiple universe or oscillating universe theories, etc. as an explanation for the emergence of our universe are unsound. Conway achieved this end by critiquing the 18th century philosophy of David Hume. Flew cites Conway’s reasoning:
“Hume held that there is no cause of the existence of any series of physical beings beyond the sum of each member of the series. If there is a beginningless series of nonnecessary existent beings, then this is a sufficient cause for the universe as a whole. Conway rejected this objection on the grounds that ‘the causal explanations of the parts of any such whole in terms of other parts cannot add up to a causal explanation of the whole, if the items mentioned as causes are items whose own existence stands in need of causal explanation.’ So, for example, consider a software virus capable of replicating itself on computers connected by a network. The fact that a million computers have been infected by the virus does not in itself explain the existence of the self-replicating virus.”
But one does not need an Oxford University philosopher to explain why theories such as that of multiple universes or an oscillating universe do nothing to explain away the existence of our universe, which is finely tuned for the emergence of life.* Roy Abraham Varghese presents the issue in a very straight forward and accessible manner in his book Wonder of the World, A Journey From Modern Science to the Mind of God:
“Scientists have proposed elaborate probability models to explain why under some scenarios, improbable but nevertheless possible, the conditions for life would be possible in at least one universe. But that is not the point at issue here. Our question concerns the very laws that would make any universe possible.”
“…We are asking how these laws came to be. Has anyone devised an experiment where a law of nature springs into existence from anarchy? A transition from chaos to intelligence is in principle impossible.”
Varghese’s above point illustrates how, even if proven to be true, theories such as those of the multiverse or oscillating universe do nothing to explain away the existence of a universe finely tuned to support life. Rather, such theories just kick the can down the road to avoid a question which is inconvenient to the atheist worldview. Furthermore, any such multiverse or oscillating universe is subject to the same fine tuning that atheist physicists are trying to explain away. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, what is this universe generating mechanism that produces a vast array of different universes that each have a unique set of physical laws? Instead of God, should we assume that it is a Universe-O-Matic universe making machine?
It should be mentioned that the misuse of science to support cherished ideological stances such as atheism is a phenomenon of which the field of psychology is well aware. In the words of psychologist Charles Tart,
“Used incorrectly and inappropriately, science can be one of the best and most prestigious neurotic defense mechanisms available. As [the great psychologist] Abraham Maslow beautifully put it [in The Psychology of Science]: ’Science, then, can be a defense. It can be primarily a safety philosophy, a security system, a complicated way of avoiding anxiety and upsetting problems. In the extreme instance it can be a way of avoiding life, a kind of self-cloistering. It can become in the hands of some people, at least, a social institution with primarily defensive, conserving functions, ordering and stabilizing rather than discovering and renewing.’”
And the clear implication of a creation which is intrinsic to the widely accepted theory of the Big Bang poses an “upsetting problem” to atheists in the scientific community. Their use of atheistic interpretations of theories such as that of “multiple universes” illustrate how they are using science as a “social institution with primarily defensive, conserving functions.”
*For a discussion of the finely tuned nature of our universe, please read the essay entitled, Is There A God? (What is the chance that our world is the result of chance) at this website.
Read the following post to see what mathameticians and cosmologists say about the likelihood that the universe is eternal (thus doing away with the need for a creator).
The following is an excerpt from the Wikipedia post for philosopher Mortimer J. Adler relevant to this subject matter:
…..we come to the conclusion that the cosmos, radically contingent in existence, would not exist at all were its existence not caused. A merely possible cosmos cannot be an uncaused cosmos. A cosmos that is radically contingent in existence, and needs a cause of that existence, needs a supernatural cause, one that exists and acts to exnihilate this merely possible cosmos, thus preventing the realization of what is always possible for merely a possible cosmos, namely, its absolute non-existence or reduction to nothingness.
Adler finishes by pointing out that the conclusion reached conforms to Ockham’s rule (the rule which states that we are justified in positing or asserting the real existence of unobserved or unobservable entities if-and only-if their real existence is indispensable for the explanation of observable phenomena) because we have found it necessary to posit the existence of God, the Supreme Being, in order to explain what needs to be explained-the actual existence here and now of a merely possible cosmos. The argument also appeals to the principle of sufficient reason.
Adler stressed that even with this conclusion, God‘s existence cannot be proven or demonstrated, but only established as true beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in a recent re-review of the argument, John Cramer concluded that recent developments in cosmology appear to converge with and support Adler’s argument, and that in light of such theories as the multiverse, the argument is no worse for the wear and may, indeed, now be judged somewhat more probable than it was originally.