THE ORIGIN OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD

The existing views

Religious - the origin of the world in most religious texts is described in essentially teleological terms, which means that this subject is intertwined with the issue of meaning or purpose, and usually implies the involvement of an agency. Such views are possibly based on genuine spiritual insights, but they are interpreted within historically and culturally specific constructs. So, it is not surprising that religious explanations often appear to be in conflict with facts and reasoning. To bring just one example, in Genesis, it is claimed that the Sun was created after the planet Earth, contrary to the accepted fact that stars must have appeared before planets. Nor does the image of an anthropomorphosised creator and his actions seems to be helpful. Of course, these descriptions can be taken as merely metaphorical expressions, but it is not clear what these metaphors stand for, beyond acknowledging the necessity of an agency.

 

Philosophical - philosophy seems at a loss regarding the question of the beginning. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers believed that the universe is infinite and therefore does not have a beginning, it has existed and it will exist forever, but this standpoint has been heavily criticised from both rational and empirical perspectives[1]. Philosopher Kant called the question of origin an antinome because apparently both possibilities, that the universe has the beginning and that it does not, seem to contradict reason (this is true, however, only under certain assumptions, such as that time continues back for ever in each case).

 

Materialistic - science has avoided the incongruences present in religious interpretations, but some fundamental questions, such as how and why the universe came into existence and why it has certain properties, may not been within the reach of its method. Starting from an a priori assumption that the whole of reality can be reduced to its physical aspect (which is required in order to fit the materialistic framework) may lead to an impossible situation. It is comparable to a chick inside an egg that tries to find out how the egg was created, ignoring the possibility that anything outside the egg may exist. The commonly accepted interpretation in scientific circles at the moment, that everything came from nothing, in no time and for no reason, and yet in a very orderly and precise manner, seems as absurd as the claim that an all powerful anthropomorphic being created the universe in six equal time periods[2]. The Big Bang and quantum singularity (a single point of infinite compression from which the Big Bang started) do not dispose of the questions of how and why the universe was born - only of science as it is, because the laws of physics break down near a singularity. And, closing the case just because of methodological limitations cannot be justified. Some scientists try to get away with the answer that nothing could have existed before and caused the Big Bang because time itself started with it. Even if time, as presently conceptualised, had not existed (the idea first expressed by theologian St. Augustine) this ‘solution' is not satisfactory. Imagine that you dream two people discussing how the dream came to existence. One may claim that because the ‘dream-time' started with the dream, nothing could exist before the dream and therefore cause the dream. But this, of course, would be mistaken. The starting premise only implies that dream-time is different from awake time. By the same token, it can be postulated, for example, that the universe is contained in reality with a different time (e.g. non-entropic one) or more radically, that in reality without matter, movement may not be bound to the concept of time at all. In other words, movement may exist without time - recognised as such in relation to other events, rather than to an abstract notion of time. There is also another problem. It is probably true that if one starts from a mathematical description of the universe as it is and goes backwards, everything can lead to a point from which the process began. However, that the universe can be traced in such a manner does not necessarily mean that the events unravelled forward in the same way. For instance, a glass can be mathematically traced back to the chemical components of the material and the way they combine, without taking into account that, in order to produce a glass from these components, a glass maker is necessary.

 

Neither of the above viewpoints seem to offer a fully satisfactory interpretation. This is probably the case because they stick to ideological frameworks that are inherently limited. Before considering an alternative though, certain features of the physical world need to be examined first.

  • [1]. Not all these criticisms have been justified, though. For instance, philosopher Heinrich Olbers' objection that an infinite static universe would have so many stars that the sky should be bright at night as if it was daylight, does not hold water: the light of far stars would be in the invisible infra-red spectrum. This example is worth mentioning because it highlights the need for philosophy to pay attention to science.
  • [2]. The advocates of both views can claim that they seem absurd only to outsiders because they lack a full understanding. This would mean though, that one has to accept a certain framework first, to become a believer (in materialism or a monotheistic religion). But, why would anybody wish to do so, if these frameworks do not look credible in the first place?

Some characteristics of the physical world

The issue of the origin of the physical world is important, because it can cast the light on the question of whether it is purposeful. A purposefulness would imply that sentience is not only necessary to investigate reality, but is also its essential ingredient. On the other hand, if the universe is the result of random meaningless events, sentience may be only an accidental by-product. Examining some characteristics of the physical world can help in determining the likelihood of the above possibilities.

One striking feature of the universe relevant to this question is its orderliness, conformity to formula and rational laws perfectly suited for life. It is often (somewhat inaccurately) referred to as the Anthropic principle. The universe could have been chaotic, but it is not - it is very orderly. The Big Bang theory does not predict that all its properties have to be so finely tuned. There are infinite possibilities of bad balance that were far more likely to emerge if it was only down to chance. Any of them could have produced a universe that was incapable of generating stable stars, planets and life. Some examples will be highlighted to bring home how remarkable this is.

 

The Big Bang

To have a universe that will sustain galaxies, stars, planets and life, the conditions at the beginning must be right within very narrow ranges. The universe had to start with the right density, amount of inhomogeneity of radiation, and the initial rate of expansion.

Apparently, there was a slight excess of matter over antimatter (baryons over anti-baryons, electrons over positrons, etc.) at the initial stages of the universe. If this excess had been smaller, there would have not been enough matter for galaxies and stars to be formed. If it had been greater, there would have been too much radiation for planets to emerge.

The initial inhomogeneity (‘lumpiness') in the distribution of radiation was also necessary for the appearance of stars and galaxies. However, too much inhomogeneity would have led to black holes being created before stars.

If the original velocity of expansion had been one millionth greater, the heavier elements and stars would never have come into existence; if it had been one million millionth smaller, the universe would have collapsed before it was cool enough for the elements to form.

The present theories do not imply that this set of conditions had to exist. There are many other possible combinations that would not support stars, planets and life.

 

Subatomic particles

Each particle has a few defining properties which determine its behaviour. These properties are always and everywhere the same. For example, all electrons have a charge of -1 and a spin of ½; all positrons have identical properties to electrons, but a charge of +1; all protons have also the same charge and spin, but a much greater mass. There are a countless number of particles with these characteristics, but no known particles with intermediate features between the two kinds. Moreover, their features seem to be mutually tuned. For example, despite their huge difference in mass, for a reason unknown to science, the electrical charges of electrons and protons match precisely. If they did not, all material configurations would be unstable and the universe would consist of nothing more than radiation and a relatively uniform mixture of gases. This can hardly be just an accident. The celebrated scientist Hawking writes:

The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example, if the electric charge of the electron had been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded... One can take this either as evidence of a divine purpose in Creation and the choice of the laws of science or as support for the strong anthropic principle[3]. (1988, p.138-139)

 

Four forces

Present day science claims that the four forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear forces) govern all events in the physical universe. These too are, for inexplicable reasons, finely tuned. If any of them was slightly different, the universe (and, therefore, life) could not exist.

If gravity was just a little bit weaker, galaxies would fly apart and stars would burn out prematurely. There would not be enough gravity to pull the debris from dead stars into new interstellar dust clouds. The formation of new suns and planets would be impossible. On the other hand, if gravity had started out even a fraction stronger, then the rate of collisions between stars would have been so great that any typical solar system, such as this one, would not have survived long enough to produce stable planets and life.

If the exertion of electromagnetic force altered in any way, chemistry would not exist, which again means no stars and planets, and no physical life.

The same applies to the strong force that holds the core of atoms together. If it was slightly weaker, the particles would not be able to form the nucleus of an atom. If it was a little stronger, protons would coalesce without the necessity of neutrons being around. The single proton that forms the nucleus of hydrogen, would be unstable. So, hydrogen, one of the basic building blocks of the universe, would not exist. Moreover, in the first case the stars would not be able to shine, and in the second they would inflate and explode before there was any chance to form planets and life on them.

If the weak nuclear force (responsible for various forms of radioactive decay) had slightly different properties the stars could not burn and the elements necessary for life, such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, could not be formed inside them.

This is not all. If these four forces were not mutually aligned in the way they are, the universe also could not exist. Any change in the relationship between these forces would result in the complete impossibility of material reality.

 

Stellar objects

Supernovae, or stellar explosions, are important for life. All the necessary elements (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, etc.) are manufactured in the interior of the stars. If these elements are to accumulate in planets such as the Earth, they must be released from the stellar interiors and disperse throughout the cosmos. This is one of the results of supernova explosions (moreover, the shock waves that they generate are probably important in initiating the condensation of interstellar gas and dust into planetary systems). However, supernovae are also highly destructive. If they were too close to a planetary system, their radiation would obliterate any life. So, supernovae must occur at a very precise rate, and the average distance between them and between all stars must be within a relatively narrow range. The distance between stars in this galaxy is about 30 million miles. If this distance was smaller, planetary orbits would be destabilised. If it was greater, the debris thrown out by a supernova would be so diffusely distributed that planetary systems (like this one) would never be formed. Interestingly, as a great number of stellar objects have been created, the universe appears to be speeding up (the present science cannot explain why), which minimises the destructive effects of supernovae.

The same precision is also apparent with regard to the ratio of longevity between galaxies and stars. Galaxies last several times longer than the lifetime of an average star, which allows the atoms scattered by an earlier generation of supernovae within a galaxy to be gathered into second-generation solar systems.

 

Complex structures

Not only are the properties of the universe precisely ordered to allow the formation of stellar bodies, but they are also synchronised to allow the formation of complex structures, such as molecules (which, of course, must come later). If this was not the case, the creation of the chemical compounds instrumental for life and planetary systems capable of sustaining life would be impossible. Here are some examples:

Chemistry is the process of building up different molecular structures that need to be relatively stable to interact and to form new structures. This could not have happened if some nuclear constants such as the fine structure constant (α) and the electron-to-proton mass ratio (β) were slightly different. If these constants had a higher value, the long chains of molecules such as DNA, could not be formed; if they had a lower value, atoms would not be stable.

Other constants are also crucial: the fact that protons and neutrons have almost, but not quite the same mass, also turns out to be essential. If this value was much different, protons would decay before they could form stable nuclei. A neutron is heavier than a proton by 0.14%, but this small difference is important because it exceeds the total mass of an electron. If it had not, electrons would combine with protons to form neutrons, leaving no hydrogen. Moreover, if the neutron did not outweigh the proton in the nucleus, the active lifetime of the sun and similar stars would be reduced to a few hundred years, not enough for the formation of planets and life. Similarly, that electrons weigh so much less than protons or neutrons is crucial for the existence of chemicals essential for life. Otherwise, molecules like DNA could not maintain their precise and distinctive structures (the electron mass determines the overall size of atoms, and the spacing between the atoms in a molecule).

If the nuclear constant force increased by only 0.3%, it would bind two neutrons; an increase of 3.4% would bind two protons, in which case all the hydrogen would have burned to helium in the early stages of the Big Bang, and so no hydrogen compounds or stable stars could have been formed. On the other hand, a decrease of 9% would unbind protons and neutrons, which would prevent the formation of elements heavier than hydrogen. The consequence of either variation would be that larger elements, including carbon (the basis for organic life), could not exist. A small increase in electromagnetic force would have the same effect.

There is exactly the right amount of heavy subatomic particles (baryons) in the universe to allow the formation of planets. If this amount was marginally greater, the higher density of stars would substantially increase the probability of interstellar encounters that would affect the stability of planetary orbits and by doing so destroy any possible life.

The creation of complex atoms and molecules was also only possible because the properties of the basic elements were well synchronised, and there is no known reason why it should be so. The first nuclei to be formed were those of hydrogen and subsequently helium, but they are too inert to create more complex atomic structures. Carbon served as a catalyst enabling the formation of heavier elements. This required large amounts of carbon in the first place. If two helium nuclei react, they can produce a nucleus of beryllium, a highly unstable isotope that almost immediately disintegrates into helium. To produce carbon, beryllium needs to enter into reaction with helium, which is only possible because the combined energy of the beryllium and helium nuclei is slightly smaller than the energy of carbon - the product of that reaction. However, if so produced carbon reacted with helium, it would be reduced to oxygen. This does not happen because their combined energy is slightly higher then that of oxygen, so it is not a ‘resonance reaction'. Here again is a most improbable fine-tuning of energy levels for four entirely different elements, but without it, more complex structures (including planets, and life forms) could not emerge.

 

Symmetries

The very existence of consistent and rational physical laws (that follow certain mathematical rules) is not something that should be taken for granted and begs a question. But this is not all. Precision and regularity does not apply only to physical laws. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann discovered that when the properties of sub-atomic particles like protons and neutrons are plotted on graphs, they take the form of hexagons and triangles, with the known particles sitting at various points within them. Gell-Mann predicted other sub-atomic particles that science had yet to discover, on the basis of gaps in these patterns. He also predicted that particles in fact consist of ‘sub-sub-atomic' particles (now known as quarks). All his predictions proved correct. Similar patterns, generally know as ‘symmetries', have since turned up often in successive theories of physics.

  • [3]. The strong anthropic principle implies in this case the multiple universes hypothesis, which will be discussed later on.

Possible explanations for the 'anthropic principle'

The above examples show that the universe has some striking properties, discovered but not fully explained by science. At present, some scientists are hoping that GUT (Grand Unified Theory) may provide an answer to the above consistencies, but this is not likely. Even if found, the cosmological constant makes it doubtful that GUT will yield an explanation for the precision and elegance of all these laws and features. Moreover, as the systems theorist and writer Ervin Laszlo points out, ‘...the problem with GUTs is that they cannot satisfactorily explain the progressive structuration of matter in space and time' (1993, p.66).

There are several speculative attempts to account for at least some of these regularities, for example, various inflationary models (that propose rapid expansion of the universe in its initial stages). These models do not always fit well with some observable facts though, and also, as Hawking points out, ‘the inflationary model does not tell us why the initial configuration was not such as to produce something very different from what we observe' (1988, p.148). Hawking proposed his own theory that disposes of singularities and boundaries and involves imaginary time, so the universe ‘would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE' (ibid., p.151)[4]. He concludes: ‘So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?' (ibid., p.157). It is interesting that not only does such a universe in imaginary time make mathematical sense, but is also remarkably similar to descriptions of ‘the other world' found in various spiritual traditions from Buddhism to Christianity (stripped, of course, from their anthropomorphised embellishments). The problem is, however, that the universe familiar to human beings and that operates within real time, still exists. Hawking admits: ‘When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities...' (ibid. p.154). The question is then, what is the factor that brings about the transition from the ‘time-less' universe to the familiar one? In other words, why did the universe with singularities, the Big Bang, and the time that goes only in one direction come to existence? If the above view is correct, it seems that there still might be a place for a ‘creator'.

Another attempt to explain the above regularities is the ‘evolving universe' proposed by cosmologist Lee Smolin. It claims that new universes are created on the other side of black holes. Our universe has black holes and life, and therefore black holes are supposed to be able to produce new universes with the right properties. ‘Bad' universes will not be able to form a black hole and therefore not ‘reproduce' - similar to natural selection processes. However, this concept has some fatal flaws. There is not any indication that these universes exist. They may be in different dimensions, but there is no reason why they should be, if created by black holes in this universe. Secondly, it seems that the energy trapped in a black hole does not go anywhere, but in fact eventually gives birth to galaxies in this universe. And finally, the concept in fact does not provide an answer, only moves the question further down the line. The issue remains where the first ancestor universe came from to start this reproductive cycle.

There are, however, two other interpretations of the ‘anthropic principle' that are both rationally consistent, although one operates within the materialistic framework, while the other does not.

 

The multiple universes theory (advocated, for example, by David Deutsch) can account for the precision and regularity of physical phenomena, and is consistent with materialism. The idea is that universes are constantly formed independently from each other. It is possible that a practically infinite number of universes come into existence. Most of them instantly collapse, but a few survive. If there is an infinite number of universes in becoming, some of them are bound to have the right properties however unlikely they are. The additional advantage of this interpretation is that it can explain some seemingly illogical experimental data in quantum physics. Although a speculation (multiple universes can never be empirically proven), this interpretation is a valid rational candidate to explain why this universe has the features that it has[5].

 

The teleological interpretation - considering all the above mentioned regularities, the other possibility, that the physical universe is intentional, needs to be take into account. This is called the teleological (not to be confused with theological) interpretation which implies purposefulness. The universe is as it is in order to enable the development of phenomena such as life and consciousness. Materialism has not yet come up with a convincing argument about why chemistry emerged from physics, why biology emerged from chemistry, and why the brain and the mind emerged from biology. A teleological view is that a particular type of physics emerged in order to enable the development of chemistry, a particular type of chemistry emerged in order to enable the development of biology, a particular type of biology emerged in order to enable the development of the brain, a particular type of the brain emerged in order to enable the development of the mind. Teleological interpretation (although as speculative as the ‘multiple universe' one) is not irrational, so it should not be discarded outright. The materialistic perspective rejects this possibility for ideological reasons, not because it conflicts with reason or evidence. The statements below show that some contemporary theologians, philosophers and physicists have come to remarkably similar conclusions. The theologian Swinburne writes:

That there should be material bodies is strange enough; but that they should all have such similar powers which they inevitably exercise, seems passing strange. It is strange enough that physical objects should have powers at all - why should they not just be, without being able to make a difference to the world? But that they should all, throughout infinite time and space, have some general powers identical to those of all other objects (and they all be made of components of very few fundamental kinds, each component of a given kind being identical in all characteristics with each other such component) and yet there be no cause of this at all seems incredible.' (1991, p.145)

This statement comes from philosophers Polanyi and Prosch:

...our modern science cannot properly be understood to tell us that the world is meaningless and pointless, that it is absurd. The supposition that it is absurd is a modern myth, created imaginatively from the clues produced by a profound misunderstanding of what science and knowledge are and what they require, a misunderstanding spawned by positivistic leftovers in our thinking and by allegiance to the false ideal of objectivity from which we have been unable to shake ourselves quite free. These are the stoppages in our ears that we must pull out if we are ever once more to experience the full range of meanings possible to man. (1975, p.181)

The physicist Paul Davies makes a comparable point:

...certain crucial structures, such as solar-type stars, depend for their characteristic features on wildly improbable numerical accidents that combine together fundamental constants from distinct branches of physics. And when one goes on to study cosmology - the overall structure and evolution of the universe - incredulity mounts. Recent discoveries about the primeval cosmos oblige us to accept that the expanding universe has been set up in its motion with a cooperation of astonishing precision.' (1982, foreword)

  • [4]. Some theologicians seized upon this hypothesis to conclude that the creator is also the sustainer. If the beginning has no special status, the creator creates/sustains the universe at all times. But this is unnecessary. The creator would need to sustain the universe only up to the point when time separates from space and starts behaving ‘normally' (which is until the size of the universe reaches 10-33cm).
  • [5]. This is not to say that this hypothesis is without controversy. For its criticism see, for example, Davis, 1992, p.215-221, and more recently ibid., 2007, 295-304, where the author evaluate the above two and some other possibilities. Those that Davis himself favours are not included here because of their bizarre and paradox prone requirements (e.g. backwards causation or causal loops).