Monday, July 12, 2010

Ramblings of an Incoherent and Unqualified Sailor, part #1: The Mystery of the Origins of the Universe

I don’t intend to get uber-philosophic here; nor do I intend to get swamped by scientific fact. I have even less of a claim to this latter knowledge, even considering the very little claim I have to the former. Perhaps not diving too deeply into either of these disciplines is problematic when discussing this topic, especially the absence of pertinent and contemporary scientific data; and perhaps this will prove to be the downfall of my overall idea or conclusion. Perhaps. You can be the judge of that. I simply intend to ramble in a slightly more than incoherent fashion. Using an analogous image, I sort of see the direction and pertinence of my ideas as a drunken sailor attempting to teach himself calculus, while barely having a footing in algebra one. Here it goes.

No matter how you figure it, the answer to the questions surrounding the origins of the universe is a bizarre one. There’s no way around it. If you categorize the different possibilities by placing them into groups, perhaps you could come up with three or four distinct classes of answers – perhaps more. (I will be attempting to categorize them in a few moments.) What I see as present in each of the possible answers is two things: 1) an encounter with something eternal or non-material, or at least different from the temporality of everything else we experience on a material and scientific level; and 2) an answer that is distinctly different, both in terms of logic and empirical conclusions, from any other subject or question we pose – especially in the scientific field.

The interesting part of this is the fact that one of them must be correct. The universe does in fact exist; I exist. (Yes, I’m telling you to take your Cartesian doubt and flush it down the toilet for a moment: there are things that exist, independently of whether or not we can prove them empirically.) The very existence of anything whatsoever has such bizarre consequences.

Allow me to attempt to break down the different classes of answers to the following question, “How is it that the universe, at least the material universe, exists?”

Answer One: God. Here I place all answers that deal with a deity or deities that can create ex nihilo, out of nothing. These answers are somewhat simple, at least to begin with. How is it things exist? Easy: there is a being or beings that can create matter, space, mass, etc. from nothing. Of course, this answer only brings up a separate, similar question: what sort of being is this? This post does not intend to answer this question, or even categorize the different types of answers to this question. Let me simply say that this being must be non-material, at least in a certain sense – for if the cause of all matter in the universe is material, then it wouldn’t be the cause of everything material in the universe; therefore, it is non-material. Besides the fact that we are now discussing something non-material, something not able to be discussed in scientific terms – science can only deal with things empirically, and non-material beings cannot be dealt with in this manner; science necessarily deals solely with the material – we are dealing with answering a question, an important question, in a bizarre sort of way. We are positing that the cause of everything that is physical is something non-physical. No matter what way you spin it, this is bizarre. (By the way, bizarre in the way I’m using it here is closely aligned with the terms awe-inspiring, mind-boggling, or beyond our intellectual reach.)

(There are two good responses to this: a) Well, this being could be material; and something else could have been the cause of it; etc. ad infinitem. This sort of infinite regress theory will be addressed later; b) Well, this being could be material; but it could have been the cause of itself. On the one hand, all we know about matter and material is that it can’t be the cause of itself. However, the theory of a self-created universe will also be discussed later.)

Two: The universe has always existed; therefore, we don’t need to find a cause for it, since there is none. This, of course, gets us into problems with the philosophic idea of “sufficient reason:” Does everything need a sufficient reason for being the way it is? Does everything need a sufficient cause for existing? I would throw the idea of infinite regresses into this category. For everything physical and material, there must be a cause for it. Instead of taking this line of reasoning and coming to the conclusion Aristotle and many others have, saying there must be a Unmoved Mover for we can’t keep finding a cause behind every effect, there must be a stopping place – instead of this, the proponent of infinite regresses says that there is always a reasonable explanation behind each physical effect, and it is simply the physical cause behind it, and this “tracing back” can go on infinitely. Although I disagree with the idea of infinite regresses existing physically (as opposed to mathematically or abstractly), I grant them their space here is this discussion.

But despite allowing them their place, this sort of answer is bizarre in its own way. Somehow the universe, and everything physical within it, is eternal. What caused the big bang? Well, what caused that? Ad infinitum. Even if we allow this sort of reasoning, the answer remains bizarre. Scientifically, we are always looking for causes and effect – but this answer simply says, there is no real cause of the universe as a whole. Science can deal with individual pieces of the universe, but never its entirety. (Side note: My favorite question relating to this sort of answer is this: Why, then, does the universe exist at all? Why is it that something exists, instead of nothing? This isn’t a philosophical rebuttal to this second theory. It simply shows the problems and complexity of this theory as to the universe’s origins – just like all of the theories have bizarre-like complexities.)

Three: The universe is self-causing. There was nothing – and out of this nothing, something came to exist. I find this argument the least intellectually grounded; but it is an argument nonetheless. I hope the bizarre ramifications of this sort of thinking are apparent. Everything has a cause, science argues; however, in this line of argument, essentially nothing has a cause. If everything came to be at once, everything has no cause.

At the moment, I can’t think of a fourth explanation or category. If I’m wrong, please correct my error.

Reasons one and three go beyond science, as we know it. They purport something being created from nothing, which is in direct contradiction to the basic tenants of science. Reason two is probably the most scientifically based, but it too steps beyond our basic grasp of science; it regards the world as essentially eternal or infinite – and it allows the chain of causes to find no beginning. For everything in the world as we know it, we can ask, What is the cause of this? and science can give us an answer – or at least potentially it can. This works on a micro-level – what is the cause of the leaf on this tree? – and a macro-level – what are potential causes of the big bang? But according to theory two, science cannot answer the question, What is the cause of the universe? Hence, in all three, we have the limits of science.

I recognize that the scientist arguing for theory two can attest, in relation to my most recent comments, that science does in fact answer everything in the universe. For every single, physical thing, there is a physical and scientific answer. Asking the larger question of what is the cause of the universe as a whole is an artificial or contrived question. Evening granting this scientific sidestep, the idea that we cannot answer the question of the ultimate origins of the universe is bizarre, especially since theory two attests there are no ultimate origins of the universe, for it is eternal. At the very least, we can say that the universe operates on a scale different than anything else we discuss, since the idea of cause-and-effect don’t apply to it.

So what is my ultimate conclusion of this line of thinking? I’m working out a few responses. For one, it reminds me of the ultimate mystery of the universe and existence. Even cold-hard scientists that despise the idea of mystery must purport a theory that rests ultimately on mystery – a theory that ultimately answers a question in terms that no other question can or has been answered. Second, it is often the theist that is criticized for his bizarreness, his faith in a superstitious being that is non-material and has the power to create things. But isn’t the belief that the universe created itself, or the idea that the universe has always existed and is eternal – and that the universe exists simple because, well, because it is exists – isn’t this just as bizarre as accepting the philosophical argument that infinite regresses cannot exist in physical matter, and therefore there must exist some sort of Unmoved Mover?

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