Wednesday, 25 July 2007

does there have to be a reason for everything?

When I was a boy with a deep interest in astronomy, there were three alternative scientific theories to explain the origin of the universe and why it is expanding. Two of them (Steady State and Pulsating universe) were based on the idea that the universe has always existed, and one of them that it began a definite time ago.

In the years since then, the latter theory, the Big Bang, has become almost universally accepted by scientists, who believe the evidence indicates that the universe, matter, energy, 3-dimensional space and time all began around 15 billion years ago.

This conclusion is based on the fact that the universe is expanding, with the more distant galaxies moving faster, so we can extrapolate backwards to the time when it existed as a single point, or singularity. The big bang also explains a number of other cosmological discoveries, regarding temperature and background radiation, for example.

The big bang was not an explosion in empty space. Rather, the big bang created space - at the moment of the big bang, 3-dimensional space and the entire universe were infinitesimally small, but began to expand rapidly. And we don't know if there was anything before the big bang, because time was also created at the big bang.

Artist's impression of the very early universe (NASA).

If the universe has always existed (as was once believed), we wouldn't need to ponder the cause, because if it didn't have a start, it presumably didn't have a cause. But the big bang almost demands an explanation. Most scientists consider it unlikely that we can ever discover scientifically what caused the big bang, but of course philosophers, theologians, scientists (and nearly everyone else) still wonder.

Did something cause the big bang, and if so, what was it?

There are only a few options ......

  1. There was no cause.
  2. There was a "natural" cause.
  3. There was a non-natural ("supernatural") cause.

The arguments (summarised) go something like this ....

  1. The idea there was no cause, or that the universe caused itself, goes against everything we know about things - everything in the universe has a cause outside itself. But we don't have much experience of big bangs (this is the only one we know about) so perhaps it is different to everything else we know and doesn't need a cause.
  2. A natural cause is something measurable by science. But if the universe had a natural cause (say another universe that caused our universe to form), we have just pushed the question back another stage, as we then ask what caused that universe or cause. Philosophers and scientists are quite sure that an infinite series of causes cannot occur and doesn't make sense, so this explanation must at some stage end up in either option 1 or option 3.
  3. A supernatural cause, such as a god, does not suffer from this difficulty if one believes that god has always existed - like a universe that has always existed, a god that has always existed does not require a cause. Of course if one accepts this explanation, it does not demonstrate which particular god might have created the universe, although many of the gods believed by people would not be capable of such a thing. (For example, the gods of Norse mythology were part of the universe, not creators of it.)

So it it appears to come back to two options - either the universe did not have a cause, it just happened, or it had an eternal, supernatural cause, which might be defined as "god".

Even with all the understanding of modern cosmology, it seems we still come back to the same age-old questions and answers.


  1. I strongly feel that there was a cause as well. i enjoy your presentation of all sides, but i do struggle with the idea of the creation of space and time- that is, the notion that there once was no space (or time) but yet there was always the potential for space (and time)...!

  2. Yes, cosmology really s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s the mind!

    But, hard as it is to think of time beginning, I find it even harder to think of it never having started but going back to an infinite past. If one believes that God was the cause (as I do), then how can God live without time?? (But it is even more difficult to think that God would be confined by time.)

    And the creation of 3-D space, and its expansion from a point to the present size of the universe is also mind-boggling. It wasn't just matter that expanded, but space, the whole thing - but what was "outside" it? (The answer is that there wasn't any outside, but that doesn't help me much!)

    Sometimes we think we're pretty clever, but at times like this I think we know nearly nothing!

    Best wishes.

  3. i'd have to agree. i appreciate the new perspectives, i had never quite gone that far with the creation of space and time...although i wouldn't say i really got anywhere with it;)

    austere's blog (which has a link on my page) gives the follwing link which i thought you might find interesting:

  4. OK I don't think the whole link fit. I'm going to try again:

    (hope that makes sense - it's all one link)

  5. me again. i gave you an award. this is not to obligate you to do a meme as i see that's not really your thing, but you should check out my post from today to see it:)

  6. Off topic- Portia recommended you. Will return to read, seems interesting, quite a range.

    Congrats on the award.

  7. Portia:

    Thanks for the link, it certainly was food for thought. I can't help feeling that achieving a state of wellbeing, satisfaction, happiness & peace is a good aim. But it would be nice to be able to go beyond that to enter into relationships with people who are feeling negative due to circumstances and not allow that to eat away at our peace, but rather allow our peace to melt some of their negativity. I think that requires one to be secure in who one is, and this seems to be the ability of Jesus, Gandhi, Mandela, etc.

    Thanks for the award, it is humbling to be appreciated. I'm interested you say "this is not to obligate you to do a meme as i see that's not really your thing", as I do find the idea interesting but a little diifcult, and will need to think about my response. So you are prescient, and I'm interested to know how you discerned that.


    Thanks, and welcome.

  8. absolutely, i feel you were deserving for sure!

    i like what you said about NOT letting other's negativity eat away at our peace. when i was reading that, i couldn't help but think of my own situation. my mother is chronically negative, and i feel like it affects me a great deal as we work together. likewise, when my husband is down, i often follow suit. but my husband is rarely down, and usually able to combat all of MY negative energy (this is something i really struggle with) and remain happy, upbeat, and therefore is a huge help keeping or getting me to a similar point. that is my goal, to not rely on but be able to uplift others with positive energy.

  9. I am, or maybe was, by nature a slightly negative or critical person, but I too try to be more positive. I think we can achieve a certain amount by willpower, but I also think we need some sense of security and significance in who we are, and some sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves.


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