Where Did We Come From?
Do you remember the first time you had that moment where the immensity, size, range, ratio and infinite nature of the universe suddenly struck you, and it was so overwhelmingly massive, your mind could not create a container large enough to hold it? And you wondered where it came from, why it was here, and what meaning could exist outside of its physical attributes.
Maybe this happened to you one night while lying in bed, bored out of your mind, staring at the dark ceiling because you couldn’t sleep.
Or maybe it was when you were out on a camping trip with your family and after the adults had gone to bed you were left with the dying embers of the campfire and the massive inky black sky above.
Or maybe it was a night during a summer church camp and you were told to go find a quiet place and have some one on one time with God, but rather than in your prayers or your Bible you found God in an entirely unexpected place, wrapped up in the mystery of existence.
And most unsatisfying, the more you thought about it, the further away from an answer you traveled. You would think of one answer and discover it created two more questions, like the heads of the Hydra. Your answers created contradiction, paradox, a logical dilemma, and finally you let it go because there was no answer.
Yes, you’ve had this moment, because we’ve all had this moment, since the beginning of recorded history and likely before that. There is a mystery to the existence of the universe in which we inhabit.
You are not alone.
The Cosmological Problem
We are told many things about the universe. Three of those things are that:
- the universe had a beginning roughly 13.8 billion years ago.
- as far as we know, there was nothing before the beginning of the universe.
- as far as we know, after this starting point, the universe has and will continue onward in time, perhaps infinitely.
There a number of things about the laws of nature that govern our universe. Two of them are:
- something cannot come from nothing; that everything that exists came from or is made from something else.
- that no physical action or event can occur without a cause.
If we are to take each one of these claims to be true, we encounter a number of contradictions. These contradictions together constitute the Cosmological Problem. Philosophy, science, and theology have been wrestling with this problem for centuries. It mostly boils down to the following two unanswerable questions.
- If the universe had a beginning, what caused that beginning?
- If the universe is made of physical matter, where did the matter come from?
Something must have caused the beginning of things and something must have created the things from which all things are created.
A Very Brief Overview of Arguments
Though Plato and other pre-socratic philosophers addressed these questions, it is Aristotle (384-322 BC) who is best known for positing the most cohesive argument. He agreed that all things must have a cause and that all things are made from something, but what was that first something? He conceived of an eternal being which could neither be created nor destroyed. As all things in existence are contingent, this being is a necessary being; its existence is contingent on nothing else – it just is. He called this being the Unmoved-Mover, or the Prime-Mover. It is the thing that created it all and put it into motion.
Next in the history of Cosmological thought comes from the medieval Islamic world. Attributed to no one in particular, the Kalam (word of God) Cosmological Argument, goes as such:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause
- The universe began to exist
- Therefore, the universe has a cause, and that cause is God.
The Kalam Argument is well known due to its simplicity. What else needs to be said? Premise one and two are almost universally taken to be true. The first part of the conclusion is also almost universally considered true; attributing the cause to God, however, is questionable. Let us move to the philosophical giant of Medieval Europe, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Most famously, in his philosophical opus Summa Theologica, Aquinas proposed five proofs of God’s existence, of which the first three are cosmological; argument one is from motion, argument two from causation, and argument three from contingency.
Aquinas is well known for attempting to harmonize Greek rationalism with Medieval faith, but his five ways are well known for how effectively they handle the subject in such a short space. Philosophers are notorious for being long-winded; Aquinas covers his deductive five proofs in the span of two pages.
Way one, that of motion, is essentially an Unmoved-Mover argument. It goes as such:
- In the world, things are in motion.
- Whatever is in motion is put into motion by something else.
- This chain of motion cannot be infinitely long.
- There must be something that causes motion without itself having been put into motion, and everyone understands this thing to be God.
Ways two and three are essentially structured in the same manner substituting causation and contingency for motion.
Others after Aquinas have made Cosmological arguments, but for the sake of brevity, we will stop here. While Aristotle, Kalam, and Aquinas make good use of deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion, the conclusion leave some unsatisfied (see David Hume and Immanuel Kant).
The Kalam and Aquinas arguments result in calling the originator of all things, God. This is not some unknowable or mysterious god, but they very much mean to imply the capital “G” theistic god of Abraham and Issac.
Critics have pointed out that what Kalam and Aquinas call God could literally be anything. There is no indication that the god which Kalam and Aquinas identify possess the divine attributes associated with a theistic god, such as omnibenevolence (all good) or omniscience (all knowing), though an argument could be made that Kalam and Aquinas’ god would have omnipotence (all power) from the argument that something was made out of nothing.
It does not indicate a god who is involved in the affairs of humans, such as freeing the Israelites from Egypt and performing miracles that circumvent the laws of nature. Nor does it indicate anything about the complex Christian conception of Jesus, plan of salvation, the Trinity and every other associated doctrine. The god Kalam and Aquinas identify is more like a creator or designer god, similar to Aristotle’s Unmoved-Mover.
Another criticism, and perhaps more important, is the conflict that comes from what we know of experience. For instance, the Law of Causation. All things, all motion, all objects, result from some previous action. It is one of the most fundamental axioms of existence. You came from your parents who came from their parents who came from their parents and on and on. Why does it stop with God or an Unmoved-Mover?
What reason would there be that God is excluded from the laws of nature which we observe governing the universe? Why is God the Uncreated? If the laws of nature are true and something cannot come from nothing, why is God exempt from this? And if God is not exempt, we are left with the perplexing question, who created God?
And if we take this particular path we are left with the issue of infinite regress, that all things, all motion, all substance just goes on back forever and forever into eternity. That does not jive with our understanding of the universe, because we are told that the universe had a beginning 13.8 billion years ago, so there must have been some ultimate beginning. If we don’t call that beginning God, what do we call it or what was it?
Where does this leave us?
So you see the circular issue with the Cosmological Argument, and as frustrating as it is to go in these circles, it’s also just as intellectually unsatisfying to just shrug our shoulders at one of the greatest and most profound questions of existence: How did all this get here?
Confronting contradiction and making our peace with it is one of the great challenges of being human. Simply put, life is contradiction. We can choose to courageously embrace it or we can run from it. One is more honest than the other, but both come with their own consequences.
Another choice is to appreciate the complexity of the problem itself. Sometimes the wrestling with the question is more important than the answer, or that the wrestling in some way is the answer; that by wrestling we come as close to the answer as we can. We are told Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, one night wrestled with God. It does not tell us how satisfied he was after the encounter; he did, however, end up with a limp.
And so here we are left, still staring up at the inky black sky, wondering how it is that we are here, and maybe more importantly, for what purpose. There is something to be said for the notion of wonder. What exactly is wonder? Is it useful for understanding the human condition? But these questions will have to wait for another blog.