Note: This is an essay I wrote when I was in college and still a baby philosopher. I wrote this essay back in 2016 for my Philosophy of Cosmology course.
This essay is about the theories that have been postulated trying to figure out the mysterious question of: why does the world exist? When asking the question “why” I got to the conclusion that there isn’t a why as in purpose. It could be the case that a “why’’ comes attached to the “how’’ explanation, but it is also not necessarily the case. The book used as reference is called ‘‘why does the world exist?’’ by American philosopher Jim Holt. In this book you can find theories from famous philosophers, physics experts, theologians, scientific cosmologists, and many more academics. Jim Holt, like many of us, is amazed by the theories that have been put forward in philosophy, science, theology, etcetera, and he sets out to find answers. He takes inspiration from readings of Sartre, Heidegger, Nozick, Leibniz, Descartes, and even from the novelist Martin Amis who was once asked in an interview by Bill Moyers how he thought the world came into existence.
Most people have had this metaphysical curiosity, and religious upbringing plays a big role on how you answer this question. God created the world, that is why the world exists, that is why you and I exist, a very common answer given in a religious upbringing. This story, the story of creation in Genesis, is a story still believed by a majority of not only Americans but by people around the world. If you think about it more profoundly you would reach to the conclusion that then someone or something must have created God as well.
The answer you usually get is that God is causa sui, a Latin phrase meaning that he caused himself or is self-causing. He could have created himself. For these believers, there is no such mystery in this question, God created the world and that is that. “When an explanation is successful, we feel the key turn in the lock’’ American philosopher C.S. Pierce said, and the God explanation does not quite turn the lock for everybody. Are we then doomed between God and the deep brute absurd? One may just shrug their shoulders while denying the existence of a deity and say “well, the world just is.” Maybe the world just popped into existence with no cause at all, its existence is a “brute fact.’’ But maybe, there is a non-theistic explanation for the existence of the world. One that is discoverable by human reason and science. Although such an explanation would not require the existence of a deity, it doesn’t rule the possibility of one either.
Let us examine theories, which have tried answering the great mystery of existence of the world. I will start off with Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde, a Russian-American theoretical physicist that postulated the “the inflation theory.’’ Linde’s implications in this theory say that it is not that all difficult for someone in another universe to have created ours. ‘‘We can’t rule out the possibility that our own universe was created by someone in another universe who just felt like doing it’’ Linde, says in an interview with Holt. The world, according to this theory was perhaps created not by a deity but by a physics hacker! Someone who had in hand hundred-thousandth of a gram a matter to create a small chunk of vacuum that would blow up into the billions of galaxies around us, all the matter in the universe would be created from the negative energy of gravitational field. Bet you had never thought about a theory such as this one, and this theory, such as many others, has its gaps. For instance, we could also ask the question to Linde’s scenario by saying: ‘‘who created that physicist hacker?’’ and then we get an infinite regress as well such as with the question ‘‘who created God?’’
Not all scientists believe that science is the way to go to answer the question of why the world exists. “Science cannot answer the deepest questions. As soon as you ask why there is something instead of nothing, you have gone beyond science.’’ Allan Sandage, the father of modern astronomy said. We see claims stating that science is impotent to address this question; Julian Huxley, English evolutionary biologist, was one of those who held this point of view. “This mystery should be left to be addressed by metaphysics, or to theology, or to poetic wonder, or to silence’’ Huxley thought.
As long as the universe was thought to be static and eternal, such as it was thought in the beginning of the 20th century, this didn’t even greatly preoccupy scientists anyway. Since the late 1920’s everything we know about how our universe works dramatically changed. Astronomer Edwin Hubble from the Mount Wilson observatory discovered that galaxies aren’t stuck in one place, in fact not only are they moving but they are flying away from earth at incredible speeds. This was the first real evidence we had of the Big Bang, and with the discovery of the Big Bang, our thinking about how the universe works changed.
We are evidently living in the continuously expanding remnant of a great cosmic explosion that occurred some 14 billion years ago. I shall explain this “expanding universe’’ theory with the help of Isaac Asimov’s essay ‘‘the beginning and the end.’’ Asimov claims that if we go backwards in time far enough, all the matter of the universe can be imagined as having contracted to the point of being collected into a single vast called “the cosmic egg.’’ Asimov then asks us to “imagine the point in time where the cosmic eggs exists and where it undergoes a huge cataclysmic explosion.’’ In other words, let us imagine the cosmic egg undergoing the Big Bang. It is the Big Bang which would have started the universe on its career of expansions, an expansion, as I’ve already mentioned, that still continues to happen today.
When considering the Big Bang theory, we can go even further and ask, “well, but who or what caused the big bang?’’ If there is no answer, does that mean that we are left with an unknowability of the ultimate origin of the universe? Not necessarily. All it means is that we need a different way of looking at it, and that different way could be through the field of quantum cosmology. Professor S.W. Hawking describes quantum cosmology, as a field in theoretical physics, studying the effect of quantum mechanics on the formation of the universe, or its early evolution, especially just after the Big Bang. What is most interesting about quantum cosmology is not what it forbids but what it permits. It permits particles to pop into existence spontaneously, that is, out of a vacuum. This consequently led cosmologists to a new possibility that the world, through the laws of quantum mechanics, arose out of nothing.
A philosopher or a linguist might argue with the definition of “nothing.’’ Does nothing refer to an ascribed property or is it a state in which something happens to be in? For a physicist though, nothingness is best described as a state of affairs where there are no particles at all and the mathematical fields have a value of zero. We can also consider nothingness as an empty space, but a space is not ‘nothing’. Physicist Alan Guth argued that “a proposal that the universe was created from empty space seems no more fundamental than a proposal that the universe was spawned by a piece of rubber. It might be true, but one would still want to ask where the piece of rubber came from.’’ To answer Guth’s preoccupation I will now turn to Alex Vilenkin.
Alex Vilenkin is a Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University. He is well known for working in the field of cosmology for the past 25 years. Vilenkin has introduced ideas such as eternal inflation, quantum creation of the universe, and he is also famous for his work in cosmic strings. Vilenkin argues that nothing is not something, nothing is not an empty space or a piece of rubber, nothing is literally nothing. In an interview with Holt, Vilenkin defines what nothingness is from his perspective. He tells us to imagine that space-time is the surface of a sphere, and that such a space-time is called “closed’’ because it curves back on itself, it is finite, even though it doesn’t have any boundaries. He then asks us to imagine this sphere shrinking, like a balloon when it is losing its air. The radius of this sphere grows smaller and smaller and eventually the radius goes down to zero. It goes down to nothing.
Vilenkin’s precise definition of nothingness would be something like this: “a closed space-time of zero radius.’’ With this definition and with Vilenkin’s calculations using the principles of quantum theory, he showed that, out of nothingness, a tiny bit of energy-filled vacuum could spontaneously tunnel into existence. A two-stage process can best explain this theory of transition from nothing to something. In the first stage, as Vilenkin states during the interview, a tiny bit of vacuum appears out of nothing at all. In the second stage, this bit of vacuum blows up into a matter filled precursor of the universe that we know today. Vilenkin’s theory also has its flaws. Maybe this is the best science can do, explain how the laws of physics work in order to create a world but it still doesn’t give us a why.
When John Leslie, former Professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, and fellow of the Royal Society, was asked by Holt why he thought the world existed, he stated that there is an ethical need for there to be a universe, a good universe, one full of happiness and beauty. Sounds as if this is getting us closer to the why part of the question and not so much the how but how did Leslie get to this conclusion? He calls this solution to the mystery “extreme axiarchism.’’ It holds that reality is ruled by abstract value; in Greek, axia means “value’’ and achein “to rule.’’ He uses Plato to explain this and talks about his famous realm of existing possibilities. What this says is that even if there were nothing at all, there would still be all sorts of logical possibilities.
The question is: how do these logical possibilities create existence? Leslie argues “suppose you had an empty universe, it would be a fact that this empty universe was a lot better than a universe full of people who were in immense misery. This would mean that there was an ethical need for the emptiness, the nothingness to continue rather than being replaced by a universe of infinite suffering. But there might be also another ethical need in the opposite direction, a need for this emptiness to be replaced with a good universe. And Plato thought that the ethical requirement that a good universe exist was itself enough to create the universe.’’
The universe exploded into being out of an abstract need for goodness, and Leslie argues that this form of thinking about the existence of the world has persuaded people since the ages of Plato. For some people this “abstract goodness’’ is God’s own existence, he exists because of the ethical need of a perfect being. But we know that the world is not good; we know that there is evil in the world, so if the world came into existence because of a need for a good universe, how can all the suffering and catastrophes in the world be explained?
The problem of evil is an objection to Leslie’s theory but he has an analogy to refute this. He invites us to think about the Louvre museum in Paris. He then compares an infinite mind that contains many universes, such as the Louvre contains many artworks. One of the artworks inside the museum is the best; he uses the Mona Lisa painting as an example of the best. If the Louvre had nothing but replicas of the Mona Lisa, it wouldn’t be as interesting a museum as it is with the variety of artworks it currently has, with its vast number of ‘’inferior’’ artworks. The best museum then is one which contains the best and the worst of all artworks, as long as they are not positively bad. He then compares this by saying that the best infinite mind is the one that the very best possible world is one which contemplates all cosmic patterns, whose net value is positive going from the best world to worlds of indifferent quality where the good barely outweighs the bad in it.
Such a variety of worlds each of which is, in a bigger picture, better by some positive margin than sheer nothingness, is the most valuable reality overall, the one that might leap into existence out of a Platonic ethical requirement for goodness. We know that our world is definitely not the Mona Lisa, there is suffering, there is evil, and sometimes there is more bad than good, but it stills manage to contribute some positive value. This may not sound like a convincing refutation, and this is not the only problem Leslie’s theory has. Then again, answering this question is not an easy task.
There are two different questions we can ask about the world: why it is, and how it is. Many thinkers believe the why should come first and that once we have the “why’’ we will have a better notion and understanding of the how. Other thinkers such as John Leslie believe that there is an ethical reason for the existence world; it exists because it ought to. On the other hand, we also have thinkers who have a different perspective that goes from the how to the why instead of the other way around.
One of these thinkers is Derek Parfit, English philosopher whose approach goes from how to why. He postulates his theory about the universe in an essay called “Why anything? Why this?’’ He suggests how reality’s deepest features might be partly explained. He talks about cosmic possibilities, which these possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that reality might be. Reality might be a certain way because it held a certain feature. There is a full range of possibilities and each possibility represents a different way in which reality could have turned out.
So let’s say if any conceivable world exists it is because of the ‘’all worlds’’ possibility. If it turned out that nothing ever existed, the reason might have been because it was the simplest way for reality to be. If reality is good it is because it is the best possible world or the “axiarchic’’ possibility. He names the features of each cosmic possibility “selectors.’’ Parfit explains that you first need a selector in order to explain why reality is the way it is. Then you need a meta-selector to account for why that specific selector was the chosen one. And then that meta-selector needs another meta-selector to explain why that one was chosen. And son on, and so on, and so on. Doesn’t this also end up as an infinite regress?
For the scientifically inclined people, the great hope for solving this mystery falls back on quantum physics, the field in which you encounter theories explaining how virtual particles keep popping out of the vacuum and disappearing. Not all people are scientifically inclined and for some these theories are very hard to grasp or even accept. We are rational about some things and can be irrational about others, we accept propositions about the early universe that leave us amazed and boggle the mind more than any biblical miracle but does that mean that we have to take them at face value?
“To believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space, into a tiny point, is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying that I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.’’ John Updike, American novelist, and poet states to Jim Holt. Apparently, he does not take these theories at face value. Even the theory of cosmic inflation, which has been confirmed by the Hubble space telescope, seems something that Updike just can’t accept. He argues that it’s not because a lack of evidence but because for him it seems impossible to imagine that even the Earth was once compressed to the size of a pea.
It is also important to notice that science has been wrong about many things throughout history. What we thought to be true in a certain time in history has changed. The scholastics in the middle Ages for instance, had a lot of intellectual contributions, and theoretical consistency but in the end some of their theories collapsed. Paradigm shifts occur, as Thomas Kuhn explains in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’’, that there are changes in our most basic assumptions, or paradigms, within the ruling theory of science.
Perhaps this question, as Huxley said, should be left for theology, poetic wonder, or even silence. Perhaps we should rely and hope that the principles and laws of physics someday figure this out. Perhaps we are five Einstein’s away from resolving the mystery of existence. Perhaps we never will. It is one of the biggest questions, and it seems that the more we learn, the deeper the mystery becomes. The experience of awe that this question gives to those who think about it is immense. It is a question that reminds us that although we may never find an answer, at least we are each time at closer approximations of the truth. It is a difficult, very difficult question, but one endlessly worth asking. So, why does the world exist? What banged? Why did it bang? How did it bang? Our answer inevitably should be “we still don’t know.’’
Holt, Jim. Why Does the World Exist?: One Man’s Quest for the Big Answer. London: Profile, 2013. Print.