While the question of how the physical universe came into existence flirts with the incomprehensible, the answer to this question could have enormous implications for you personally. For example, if the universe is the product of purely natural and random processes (the current belief of many sophisticated folks), then you and your life are, well, a cosmic fluke. If the universe is an accident, so, obviously, are you. On the other hand, if the physical universe came into existence as the result of a miracle performed by an arbitrary, capricious, and even cruel deity, you are essentially screwed. Of course, if the universe came into existence through the actions of a benevolent deity, as claimed by western religious tradition, or through the agency of an innate cosmic life activating force, as claimed by eastern religious tradition, especially Buddhism, well, that might be very good for you. Indeed, if this latter explanation is true, or at least closer to the truth than other explanations, this could be very, very good for you since it would imply that your life inherently possesses meaning and that you personally are connected with something truly wonderful and transcendent. To postulate such a thing in this era of anger and cynicism would, of course, evoke the scorn of many sophisticated people who eschew the childlike credulousness of any ideas containing obvious supernatural or spiritual implications. Nevertheless, permit me to make the counterintuitive suggestion that the best scientific data currently available to us does, in fact, offer strong support for this latter idea. If you will give me a few minutes of your time, if you will temporarily set aside preconceived biases, and, most important of all, if you will allow the best present scientific information from astronomy and astrophysics to “speak” directly to you, I predict that you will, at minimum, be forced, out of logical necessity, to contemplate the very real possibility that how the universe came into existence has some genuinely important implications for you personally.
Let’s begin with the rather remarkable fact that the “big bang” theory, as originally proposed, was intended to be a joke. The most validated scientific theory regarding the origin of the universe was a jest intended to make fun of people, particularly astronomers, who believed that the universe came into existence at some specific moment in the distant past. It was none other than the famous British astronomer from Cambridge University, Sir Fred Hoyle, who during a BBC interview coined the term “big bang.” Sir Fred’s derision of the idea that the universe came into existence at some specific time in the past was in response to the amazing findings of American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, showing that almost every galaxy in the universe was moving away from earth in every direction, as if propelled outward by an ancient “big bang.” Throughout history, we human beings have entertained a variety of different pictures of the universe and how it might work. In ancient Babylon, for example, people believed that the earth was flat and the universe, that is the heavens above us, was a giant upside-down bowl sitting on top of the land. By the time of Galileo, we had a far more sophisticated picture of the universe, in which the existence of planets, moons, comets, and stars, all in motion, was recognized. Notwithstanding the particular picture people possessed of the universe, throughout history it was commonly believed that the universe was fundamentally static or unchanging. This was known as the steady state universe based on the simple but intuitively plausible idea that no matter how the universe came into existence, it was firmly fixed or constant, remaining the same throughout time. Boy did this turn out to be wrong!
Hubble’s discovery that galaxies within the universe were all moving away from each other led to the obvious conclusion that the universe, rather than constant, was expanding. You might remember from your high school or physics class the picture of a balloon with different galaxies depicted on the balloon’s outside surface. As the balloon is blown up, each galaxy literally moves further away from all other galaxies as the surface expands. That the universe was expanding out in every direction led inevitably to the question of whether there might have been some starting point or beginning. For obvious reasons, Christian theologians had no problem with this idea, but most astronomers did. While most astronomers initially derided the idea that the universe had some specific beginning point in time, a funny thing happened on the way to the observatory: virtually every bit of scientific evidence gathered on the topic led inexorably to the conclusion that our dear, wonderful, incomprehensible physical universe did, in fact, come into existence as the result of a single, inconceivably powerful cosmic explosion about fifteen billion years ago. Welcome to the big bang!
The details of the story as to how scientific confirmation of the big bang came about is beyond scope of this essay. Two critically important aspects of the scientific process which validated the reality of the big bang are relevant for us, however. First, most astronomers loathe the big bang theory because it is inconsistent with fundamental physical or natural laws. . However, the unmatched beauty of the scientific method is that data, if objectively obtained and assessed, is capable of proving or disproving some theory such as the theory of the big bang. Thus, while many astronomers are offended by the big bang theory, in the face of decades of essentially indisputable evidence, the big bang theory is thoroughly if not grudgingly accepted. Second, the data in support of the big bang theory is itself remarkable. Suffice it to say for here that one of the first good things about the big bang theory is that it generated testable hypotheses. One of the most important implications of the big bang theory, for example, is that if this humungous cosmic explosion occurred, even fifteen billion years ago, should there not be left behind some residual heat or energy? Well, that turns out to be the case and any astronomy textbook you care to peruse will point out that literally everywhere in the universe, a low level of background radiation or heat is found. But hold on, here is the truly amazing part of this story: the omnipresence of this low-level background radiation was predicted by the theory years before the physical technology to test it, that is, years before we had the scientific instruments sensitive enough to make some measurements even existed. There are several other predictions generated by the big bang theory that have been confirmed, but this one underscores that no other theory regarding the origin of the universe even begins to enjoy the degree of scientific support achieved by the big bang theory.
So why precisely is it that so many scientists are uncomfortable with the big bang theory? The answer would be that it makes them uncomfortable because such a posited big bang is not physically possible. In sum, everything we know about physical reality and the physical universe indicates that it is impossible for the universe to have come into existence as the result of an ancient cosmic explosion.
Think back to you your basic high school or college physics class which clearly indicated that neither energy nor matter can be created or destroyed. While Einstein discovered that energy and matter are related, indeed, are just different forms of each other, neither can be destroyed nor created. A big bang, in which we get something from nothing, cannot happen.
I would suggest that the most useful way of thinking about this issue was provided to us by the American philosopher, Mortimer Adler. Adler defines two words, which you need to know to understand the concept of a big bang or cosmic explosion. The first word, with which you are familiar, is annihilation: destroying something utterly, that is going from something to nothing. The second word, probably less familiar to you is exnihalation: creating something out of nothing or going from nothing to something, the obvious opposite of annihilation. The big bang, by which the physical universe came into existence as the result of a cosmic explosion is a marvelous example of exnihalation and is, unfortunately for those of us who live in this current universe, physically impossible.
Adler suggests that when we think logically about the scientific data, the most obvious conclusion is that the physical universe could not have emerged out of known physical laws and that the origin of the universe must have included supernatural processes. Rather simply, Adler would have argued, if natural processes cannot account for the origin of the universe, logic compels us to the conclusion that supernatural forces must have been involved. I might propose the question here as to whether or not it is unreasonable to imagine that something as mind shattering as the existence of the physical universe may have involved forces, factors or processes that transcend, go beyond, the mere physical or material realm. Frankly, it does not seem unreasonable to me to suspect that something as obviously miraculous as the physical universe may have come into existence as the result of a miracle. Now I understand that in the current cultural context, many of us reduce the miraculous to the mundane, but is it not possible that the miraculous is in fact miraculous?
Adler does not leave his argument here, however, but rather goes on to what he believes is even stronger evidence for the involvement of supernatural processes. Adler reminds us that everything in the universe, except possibly for the universe itself, is born, matures and dies.
You may again recall from high school physics the law of entropy demonstrating that, over time, everything runs down, loses energy and dies. And in this regard, it was believed until recently that the universe itself was no different, assuming of course it came into existence as the result of a natural process. It now clearly appears that the universe is continuing to expand and that rather than some eventual “big crunch” as would be expected as gravity exerts its inexorable influence over the universe, instead the universe will continue to expand. Adler argued that while the scientific data clearly indicates that the universe came into existence as the result of a supernatural process, even more remarkable is that the universe, rather than contracting and dying as physical laws would demand, continues to grow, potentially into infinity.
Here I might say it is unfortunate that Adler was not alive during the past few years to see Nobel prizes in astronomy being awarded to scientists showing that the expansion of the universe is actually accelerating. It is not just that the universe is not slowing down or starting to contract; to the contrary, the most recent data in astronomy indicate that the further away galaxies are from us, the more rapidly they are receding. The expansion of the physical universe is accelerating, which it should not be doing, though since the universe should not exist to begin with, perhaps this should not be too surprising.
There are, of course, other mind-boggling discoveries in astronomy which have shaped our picture of the physical universe in which we live. The mystery of the missing matter, the possible giant black hole at the center of our galaxy along with the discovery of other earth-sized planets represent just a few of the most remarkable new findings though none of these discoveries contradict the most fundamental laws from physics as does the idea of the big bang and the even more outrageous finding that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.
Given the nature of the best existing scientific information regarding the origin of the universe, why does it appear that what we might think of as the intellectual, scientific, or academic elite display such a negative knee-jerk reaction to the most obvious logical implication of the big bang theory? I am reminded of survey research data from Northern California indicating that more people in Marin County believe in flying saucers than believe in God. While believing that the universe may have a supernatural origin does not necessitate a belief in God, some Buddhists believe for example that there is a supernatural life-activating force responsible for the origin of the physical universe. One has the sense that our cultural elites have adopted a kind of cynical materialism as their present religion. Ironically, many of my most sophisticated friends who scoff at religious beliefs, themselves express absolute certainty in the idea that the universe had to arise out of natural processes despite its inconsistency with scientific data. Often, the very same sophisticated individuals that lecture others on the supremacy of scientific data over naïve religious beliefs are themselves examples of persons who reject scientific data in favor of preconceived biases as to how the universe must have come into existence. Sometimes, it is simply not clear as to who is exhibiting the most inflexible belief system and who is willing to be persuaded by the best existing data.
As a final idea, consider what both astronomers and philosophers refer to as the “anthropic effect.” This refers to the fact that human, that is to say conscious, life could only have arisen in the universe if there were physical principles or forces which supported the existence of biological life. For example, why didn’t the big bang result in a universe composed of ice and gravel? Instead, it is absolutely clear from decades of scientific research that the physical universe is set up in such a way so that certain atoms and molecules are naturally attracted to each other. For example, without water, biological life would almost certainly be impossible, yet for no obvious reason, other than that is how it is, hydrogen and oxygen atoms join together whenever they can to produce water. The universe is literally set up such that certain atoms and molecules are attracted to each other which just happen to produce things like amino and nucleic acids. Similarly, certain amino and nucleic acids are attracted to each other which just happens to produce, respectively, proteins and DNA. Certain protein and DNA molecules just happen to be attracted to each other in a way that, guess what, produces, biological life and, ultimately, one suspects at the end of this cosmic process, you! While it is not impossible to imagine that the big bang might have resulted from some inconceivable cosmic accident, irrational as that would seem, the idea that as a result of a total accident, the universe just happens to be organized in such a fashion that water, amino acids, proteins and living things will accidentally and randomly appear, suggests that so-called materialists possess more blind faith than Christians or Buddhists. From a purely logical point of view, does it not seem simpler as well as more reasonable to imagine that the whole thing is an unfolding miracle rather than the idea that we are here as the product of one dumb accident after another? Now if you are a truly cynical type who truly does believe it is all absurd , all a bad existential joke, I can see your point, but you have to pretend that there are natural explanations for the emergence of the universe and the emergence of life which there simply are not. I acknowledge that believing the universe came into existence as the result of a supernatural process involves a certain amount of faith, but it is faith consistent with scientific data, while belief in the accidental universe is based on faith inconsistent with scientific data. Who is being irrational here?
In conclusion, I would suggest that if you think through the implications of our current scientific knowledge, there is clear reason to infer that this universe is not here as the product of an accident but is here for a reason or purpose. Now just what that reason or purpose might be is well beyond the scope of this essay and well beyond my pay grade. I would, however, humbly suggest that if this line of reasoning is correct, it seems self-evident that you also are here for a reason, for a purpose. It would not make much sense for a supernatural process, be it God or life-activating force, to bring the universe into existence including you, of course, without you being an important part of what is going on. If you accept my entirely reasonable analysis, supported as it is by the best scientific data around, and if you accept the idea that neither this universe nor you are the product of some cosmic fluke or accident, it might be time, assuming you have not already done so, for you to give some thought to just why you are here right now.
Dr. Shawn Adair Johnston received his Ph.D. in Experimental Social Psychology in 1977 from the University of California at Los Angeles. He specialized in forensic psychology and founded Midtown Treatment Associates, the largest client-pay outpatient sex offender treatment program in Northern California at that time. He also qualified as an expert in psychology in California Superior Courts, approximately 400 times testifying in criminal competence, insanity, and dangerousness assessment cases. While doing this, he taught courses at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Davis as well as California State University at Sacramento, and Portland State University. He has also made several presentations and authored many articles and papers primarily concerning psychological characteristics of sex offenders and deceptive statements made by criminal defendants. He invites you to google him to get an idea of the many different things he has done as a social and forensic psychologist. Now, having scaled back his practice to part-time, he has shifted his writing focus to science fiction and other eclectic genres.