Where did the universe come from?

 
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The cosmic home that we live in is astonishingly beautiful and vast. Just think of the pictures of exquisite planets, galaxies and nebulae that NASA has beamed home for us. Pause for another moment to reflect on the fact that the observable universe is 93 billion light years across. The reality, though, is that there is a vast realm of cosmic space and time beyond the observable universe which we will never be able to peer into, even with the most powerful telescopes that we could ever build.

A brief history of cosmology

For thousands of years, some of the greatest minds in the world believed that the universe has always been here. This included the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but goes back even further to Babylonian and Hindu myths. If the universe has always been here, it seems fairly easy and straightforward to conclude that the universe did not need to have a cause. Problem solved. But is it really that easy? Doesn’t your curiosity invite you to dig deeper?

In 1714, it was this curiosity that led German mathematician Gottfried Liebniz to mull over the fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Surely it is possible that, at some point, the universe did not exist. But if that is the case, then where did it come from and why is it here?

Let’s wind the clock forward 110 years to 1824, when French engineer Nicolas Carnot was learning how heat engines work. He discovered one of the most fundamental properties of nature, the second law of thermodynamics. This law tells us that things in nature, when they are left alone, slowly wind down to an equilibrium where all of the energy has been spread out evenly. So, if there are things that still have more highly concentrated, useable energy, like the sun, we have not yet reached a state of equilibrium. This provides powerful scientific support for the reality that the universe has not always been here.

A century later in 1917, German-born cosmologist Albert Einstein was working on his general theory of relativity. He was unnerved and then irritated to find that his theory pointed to a universe that could change its size and shape over time. Within a decade, two fellow scientists, Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaitre, had used Einstein’s work to show that the universe has indeed changed over time and, in fact, had a beginning. This became known as the Big Bang theory. In spite of persistent unresolved problems with the Big Bang theory, which means that it may ultimately be discarded, cosmologists have consistently been confronted with the reality that the universe is gradually expanding and, therefore, had a beginning, no matter what other models of the universe they explore.

The scientific confirmation that the universe had a beginning really brings to the forefront the question of its origin. We can no longer ignore this question simply by assuming that it has always been here. So, where did the universe come from?

A universe from nothing?

There are scientists who believe that the universe did, indeed, come from nothing. This idea is quite mind-boggling; could an entire universe—quarks, quasars and quokkas—come into existence from literally nothing? No matter how implausible this may seem, there are some very high-profile scientists who claim that this is what actually happened. For example, Lawrence Krauss wrote a book which had the title, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. The famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking made the remark in his book The Grand Design, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

The proposal that the universe came from nothing defies not only logic, but also physics. If things like universes can just appear out of nothing, why don’t we see less grandiose things like Volvos, gorillas and jumbo jets just appearing out of nothing before our eyes? While it may sound rather exciting if these sorts of things could suddenly just appear, we just don’t experience that happening. It would also be rather confusing, inconvenient and even dangerous if they did. It is much better to recognise the metaphysical truth that things do not appear out of literally nothing.

If you read Krauss and Hawking’s books really carefully, what you will suddenly realise is that they are not really talking about the universe coming from literally nothing. Their “nothing” is actually something, what physicists call a quantum vacuum. Even though we ordinarily think of a vacuum as empty space, a quantum vacuum is filled with a fluctuating sea of energy. This means that a quantum vacuum is, as physicists need to remind us, “by no means a simple empty space”. So Krauss and Hawking haven’t really answered the question of how the universe could come from literally nothing—they have simply dodged the fundamental question by making a quantum vacuum sound as if it is nothing.

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Bubble universes

One of the things that can happen in a quantum vacuum is that particles, like small bubbles, suddenly appear and then disappear. If particles can pop into existence like this, what about little bubble universes that keep growing and expanding? This idea opened up a whole new vista of possibilities for cosmologists. Perhaps there is a much bigger universe that has been here for all eternity, within which our universe is just a quantum bubble that just popped into existence billions of years ago.

The problem with this idea is that these bubble universes could pop into existence anywhere, and just like the bubbles your kids blow, these bubble universes would start to bump into each other and maybe merge together in larger and larger clumps. If the bigger universe was infinitely old, then all of these bubble universes would have merged together by now, and we should be observing an infinitely old universe. But, again, that is not what we observe. Even if our universe did suddenly appear as a bubble in a quantum vacuum—which is actually very speculative since we have never observed universes beginning as bubbles—the fact is that the proposed quantum vacuum itself would have had a beginning. Then the follow-up question has to be, Where did the quantum vacuum come from?

String theory

In order to try to pull all of reality together into one single Theory of Everything, scientists have proposed that, at its most fundamental level, our world is made up of tiny vibrating strings. String theory suggests that particles are more like tiny little balls of thread. Scientists are using the concept of strings to try to unify all of the fundamental physical forces of matter, gravity and electromagnetism.

String theory has been used to explain two aspects of the universe. First, scientists believe that string theory could explain why the universe is very finely tuned so that stable structures such as stars, galaxies and even intelligent life can exist. The other way string theory has been used to describe our universe is to suggest that our universe exists within an even higher dimensional space. Our universe can then bump into other “things” in the higher-dimensional space. These interactions may be the cause of contractions and expansions in our own universe, one of which was the proposed Big Bang itself.

While these ideas coming from string theory may sound rather exciting, especially the possibility of arriving at a grand Theory of Everything, the reality is that such a theory still would not solve the fundamental question. At a cosmology conference at the University of California, Davis, Stephen Hawking admitted as much: “Even when we understand the ultimate theory, it won’t tell us much about how the universe began.” Also, where did the strings come from, if they even exist at all, and why do they have the qualities that they apparently have?

The supernatural reason

There is another reason for the existence of the universe, and that is that God created it. This is the conclusion reached by Gottfried Liebniz, who originally voiced the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? If an all powerful, all-knowledgeable Creator exists, then He has the capacity and the knowledge to create the universe that we live in. His creative power would explain why there is something rather than nothing. His knowledge and intentionality would also explain why our universe has been so finely tuned so that we could live in it. Since it would not be possible to have infinite chain of causes that depend on other causes, God must be the ultimate Uncaused Cause, which means that He exists necessarily, outside of space and time, and without beginning or end. Finally, the facts that the universe had a beginning at a particular point in time and also has very carefully selected physical parameters means that the ultimate Uncaused Cause has intelligence and the power of choice. In other words, God is a Person.

After all of the exertions of cosmologists to try to understand and describe the universe, God remains the best and only explanation. The American astronomer Robert Jastrow puts it well: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

If God is not only all-powerful and all-knowledgeable but also loves us with an everlasting, self-sacrificing love, as the Bible vividly portrays, then the story will not end like a bad dream. The story will end the way the Bible describes—with a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more pain or crying or death, and where we get to live with this amazing God forever.

 

Dr Sven Östring is the director of Church Planting at the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s North New South Wales Conference. He has university degrees in engineering and philosophy, and often writes and speaks publicly on science and faith.