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?