Whether or not the universe was created is a question that plagues the layman as much as the philosopher from time to time. After all, most of the world’s religions, excluding a few minorities such as Buddhism, have a creation myth in one form or another. What does twenty-first century science therefore have to say in regards to this age ole’ question?
Before pursuing these endeavors, perhaps this would be a good time to clarify what it means for something to be created. Clouds, for example, are ‘created’ by tiny droplets of water conglomerating into nebulous fixtures in the sky. Yet creation is a poor choice of terms to describe the physical processes that underpin the development of clouds. Creation tends to mean intentionally producing something that once did not exist, such as molding a pot from a lump of clay. Therefore, by asking whether the universe was created, we are asking whether an intelligent agent intentionally brought the universe into being.
One difficulty in trying to decipher whether the universe was created is that we only have one cosmos to observe. A watch, for instance, is inferred to be created not by the mere fact that it is complex but by the fact that we have many examples of watches being artificially created by people and zero instances of watches coming about through natural processes. In contrast, we have zero examples of universes being created in a grand cosmic lab. Rather, we simply have the universe around us that seems to be governed by natural laws.
There are two lines of scientific evidence that tend to be referenced to support the claim that the universe was created. These include the big bang and the fine-tuning of the universe. In regards to the former, the big bang is used to support a premise in a philosophical deduction known as the Kalam cosmological argument which takes the following form: Whatever begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore, the universe has a cause. QED.
The Kalam cosmological argument is succinct in its premises and intuitively plausible upon first impression. Nevertheless, doubt is cast upon both premises upon further reflection. Stating that whatever begins to exist has a cause is a universal claim; yet quantum mechanics suggests that some events in the universe—such as the spontaneous creation of virtual particles—occur without cause.
Defenders of the Kalam cosmological argument are quick to note that the abyss from which virtual particles emerge is a rich, velvety vacuum governed by quantum fields and physical laws. Ergo, virtual particles do not pop into existence without cause. The problem with the purported reasoning is that it conflates necessary conditions with causality. Carbon, for instance, is a necessary condition for the existence of the double helix. Yet carbon does not actively cause the double helix to exist. Likewise, quantum fields may be a necessary condition for virtual particles to exist but that is different from quantum fields actively causing virtual particles to exist. The notion of causality is surprisingly difficult to incorporate into most interpretations of quantum mechanics.
The second premise of the Kalam cosmological argument—that the universe began to exist—has more scientific backing to its name. Evidence for the big bang, as preserved in the cosmic microwave background radiation, suggests that the universe came into existence a finite time ago. When the history of the universe is extrapolated backwards, space, time and matter converge to a point of infinite density known as a singularity where the laws of physics break down.
If the current laws of physics are complete, then the universe must have come into existence a finite time ago. The problem is that the current laws of physics are likely incomplete. Physicists strive to attain a Theory of Everything (TOE) that blends the physics of the very small (quantum mechanics) with the physics of the very large (general relativity). Singularities would ideally be absent in the equations that make up a quantum theory of gravity. These considerations are not enough to refute the Kalam cosmological argument but they are enough to substantially weaken its plausibility.
Another piece of evidence for the creation of the universe is the apparent fine-tuning of the constants of physics. According to some scientists, the constants of physics are calibrated in just the right way to allow the existence of intelligent life. A slight change in the strength of gravity or the speed of light would drastically alter the state of the universe. Rather than being a conglomeration of stars, planets and people, the universe would consist of a dilute dispersion of hydrogen. The probability that these constants would arrange themselves by chance is low. Therefore, the constants of physics must have been fine-tuned in advance by a cosmic intelligence.
Much ink has been spilled over the years in regards to the fine-tuning argument. Too much to do justice to within the space allowed. Nevertheless, a couple of points worth considering can be drawn from the conversation currently taking place. First, very few people have the scientific backbone capable of judging whether the constants of physics really are fine-tuned. Some physicists are impressed with the fine-tuning of the universe, others are not. Therefore, little scientific progress can be made in regards to the fine-tuning argument until some sort of scientific consensus is attained. Second, presumably there is more than one way a cosmic designer could create life. An omnipotent being could create any form of life in any universe he or she sees fit. Therefore, why is the fine-tuning of the universe best explained by a cosmic agent, provided such a being could create life in a universe where the constants of physics are drastically different? Like the Kalam cosmological argument, these considerations are not enough to refute the conclusion of the argument; still, it is a point that is solemnly addressed in fine-tuning writing.
These arguments have the undertone that God is the cosmic designer. However, the cosmic designer need not necessarily be God. Some physicists are sympathetic to the idea that the universe is a computer simulation created by a future civilization. Such considerations are peddled by what is known as “the simulation argument”, which takes the following form: Consciousness consists of simulations of the world physically embodied in the brain. Future civilizations will create simulations of the past in the same way we create simulations of the Sims. Simulated universes outnumber actual universes. Thus, we are more likely living in a computer simulation than an actual universe. QED.
Believe it or not, the simulation argument has had some scientific backing in the last few years. The theoretical physicist James Gates, for example, claims to have found computer code deeply embedded within the equations of string theory. The code isn’t just a random string of ones and zeroes but is equivalent to the code used on computer browsers.
Yet even if we live in a computer simulation, we are left pondering whether the universe the advanced civilization occupies was created as well. Perhaps the universe really was created by a cosmic agent over and beyond the physical. Rather than bearing the image of a white bearded man who sits in the sky, perhaps God bears the image of a grand cosmic computer hacker; and if we bear the image of God, perhaps the simulation argument is an argument worth taking seriously.
By Nathan Cranford