The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode 9: “Why Is There Something Instead Of Nothing?”

The Cosmic Microwave Background —  in Big Bang cosmology, is electromagnetic radiation which is a remnant from an early stage of the universe, also known as “relic radiation”. The CMB is faint cosmic background radiation filling all space.  Is this the face of God?

Beneath even “Why are we here?” is the question “why is there even a ‘here’ here?”  We know what happens after “In the beginning…”, it’s what happened before that — what happened before either the Big Bang banged or God pulled the trigger on “being”? Was there just “nothingness”? And if there was, how was the weather in it?

If, it turns out, God created everything, then how did he get there?  How long did he wait before creating everything?  Why then — the moment he created everything — and not the moment before or after?  And how exactly does one create something out of nothingness?

It’s the ultimate brain teaser: why do you have a brain to tease in the first place?

The Faitheism Project Podcast, Episode 9: “Why Is There Something Instead Of Nothing?”

Notes & Sources

Alan’s Notes:

Aristotle believed the cosmos to be eternal — with no beginning or end in time.  So did Galileo, Newton & Einstein.  Plato believed that the universe was brought into existence not by a personal god but “by an abstract principle of goodness” (Holt, p 102).

German philosopher of science Adolph Grunbaum: “Even though the universe is finite in age, it has always existed”.

Models of The Universe & How It Began

1) The Big Bang

2) Steady-State Universe

In the late 1940’s, Thomas Gold, Hermann Bondi & Fred Hoyle proposed a theoretical model called the 2) “Steady-State Universe”.  The Steady State Universe always looks the same — much as our universe does — even though, like ours, it is constantly expanding.  The Steady-State universe model has no beginning & no end.

3) Oscillating Universe

First proposed by Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman.  The Oscillating Universe theory says “our universe emerged from the collapse of an earlier universe.  And, like that earlier universe, ours too will eventually stop expanding and collapse back on itself.  But when it does, the result will not be an all-annihilating Big Crunch. Instead, a new universe will rebound out of the fiery implosion, in what might be called the Big Bounce. And so on and so on ad infinitum.  In this model, time becomes an endless cycle of destruction and rebirth, rather like the dance of the god Shiva in Hindu cosmology.” 


The current theory that best explains The Big Bang: (from Holt, p 84): “In the inflationary scenari0, our universe – the one that suddenly popped into existence some 14 billion years ago – bubbled out of the spacetime of a preexisting universe. Instead of being all of physical reality, it’s just an infinitesimal part of an ever-expanding multiverse.” 

There is no creation moment, “There is no role for a first cause”.  An “eternal world” would require “no external cause for its existence. It is a causa sui  [it causes itself] — an attribute usually reserved for God”.

The Big Bang model and Christians who believe there was no “time” before God created the universe agree: before the initial creation event (if there was one), “there was no time” (Holt, p 71).  

If we accept the idea that the Big Bang changed nothing into something — then, as with God saying “Let there be light” — this is when “time begins”.

The difference  between Spacetime & Time — What we call space — the stuff all around us that isn’t earth — is more complicated than that.  Yes, it’s space.  But it’s also time.  Bill Bryson in his excellent “A Short History Of Nearly Everything” describes spacetime as “…a dimension comprising three parts space to one part time, all interwoven like the threads in a plaid fabric.”  

That’s what all those stars are twinkling in — their light traveling, in some cases, millions of earth years to reach us.

What do we mean by “NOTHINGNESS”?

In math, it’s an “empty set” — a set that has no members; hence (per Holt): “It is a something that contains nothing”.

Some philosophers argue that the very idea of “nothing” is self-contradictory. “Nothingness is impossible” because “there is no alternative to being”.

It’s kind of the “Well, We’re Here, Aren’t We” argument.

Holt, quoting Grunbaum: “According to Christian dogma, God, being all-powerful, had no need of any pre-existing materials out of which to fashion the world.  He brought it into being out of sheer nothingness” (well, out of a “sort of watery chaos”).

Christian dogma makes  God not only the world’s ex nihilo creator but it’s “sustainer” — he works around the clock to keep the world in a state of being.

This was part of the Christian invention — an obssessive-compulsive deity.  The Greeks and the Romans didn’t have that.  Nor did the Indian philosophers.  Holt: “It was churchy philosophers like Augustine & Aquinas who insinuated the idea of something rather than nothing into Western thought.”

From Holt: “If God ceased existentially supporting the world, even for a moment, it would, to use a phrase from the 20th century British archbishop William Temple, “collapse into nonexistence”.

Does the world NEED an “explanation” for why it is vs why it isn’t?

How Is It We Never See God & Infinity At The Same Place & Time?

Why does God exist?

What are God’s “thoughts” if he has no physical being?  Swinburne: “God can see all of creation without a brain”.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz — 1646 – 1716 — prominent German polymath — one of the most important logicians, mathematicians and natural philosophers of the Enlightenment. As a representative of the seventeenth-century tradition of rationalism, Leibniz developed, as his most prominent accomplishment, the ideas of differential and integral calculus, independently of Isaac Newton’s contemporaneous developments

In philosophy, Leibniz is most noted for his optimistic belief that our world is “the best possible one that God could have created” — “The best of all possible worlds” — an idea that was often lampooned by others such as Voltaire in his classic Candide. 

Leibniz, along with René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, was one of the three great 17th-century advocates of rationalism.

RATIONALISM — a type of theology that provides arguments for the existence of God based on reason and ordinary experience of nature.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 11 February 1650) — often been called the father of modern philosophy, and is largely seen as responsible for the increased attention given to epistemology in the 17th century.[22][23] He laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Spinoza and Leibniz, and was later opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.

Scientific American: Science Will Never Explain Why There’s Something Rather Than Nothing, John Horgan on April 23, 2012

BBC Earth: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing, By Robert Adler 6 November 2014

This is a picture of all the background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Its uniformity — the more or less even distribution of radiation is a proof that Einstein is right and that a Big Bang of some is how our universe “began” its life.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity tells us that the space-time we live in could take three different forms. It could be as flat as a table top. It could curve back on itself like the surface of a sphere (in which case if you travel far enough in the same direction you would end up back where you started). Alternatively, space-time could curve outward like a saddle. So which is it?

Quantum mechanics tells us that there is no such thing as empty space. Even the most perfect vacuum is actually filled by a roiling cloud of particles and antiparticles, which flare into existence and almost instantaneously fade back into nothingness.  These so-called virtual particles don’t last long enough to be observed directly, but we know they exist by their effects.

A quick primer on STRING THEORY: 

String theory represents a major dream of theoretical physicists — a description of all forces and matter in one mathematical picture.

The Problem: Einstein’s theory of General Relativity works perfectly on the macro scale.  It’s all about gravity and how gravity affects spacetime.  On a micro level however general relativity’s rules break down.  What the math correctly predicts about big things, it struggles with on smaller things — like the tiny particles that make up atoms — neutrons, protons, quarks.

String theory solves that problem by reimagining the tiny particles as tiny, vibrating strings (that appear to us as round because they’re constantly in motion).  Apparently, if we “see” the particles as one-dimensional strings instead of three-dimensional particles, that solves the math problem — and General Relativity works for everything.

Alas, it’s not quite as simple as that.  String theory is as complicated as the multiverse it describes.  In fact, there isn’t one string theory, there are five which string theorists have merged into one M-Theory Of Everything.  

A lot of the math remains to be done but string theory — if it does nothing else — has bridged formerly unbridgeable parts of mathematics.  Stephen Hawking used the math created for string theory to describe what we previously could not describe because we cannot see: the inside of a black hole.  

Ultimately, string theory sees no beginning and no end.  The universe is a series of diaphanous membranes — called branes in string theory.  These massive structures — we can’t say how many of them there are — undulate in and around each other, sometimes folding in on themselves and, sometimes, colliding with each other.  Our universe is simply one of those branes, blasted into existence perhaps with a Big Bang sort of birth.  Or maybe the Big Bang is what happens at the other end of a black hole — beyond the singularity where the gravity’s so intense that even light can’t escape.

String theory could explain it all — mathematically.  If string theory is right, there’s always been something.  Something is just “how it is”.  

What Is String Theory?

By Charlie Wood – contributor July 11, 2019

BIG SHOUT OUT to Jim Holt, Why Does The World Exist: An Existential Detective Story — an excellent starting point for the conversation.

How do we “figure out” the cosmos?  How do we figure out what it’s “saying” to us?  We can look to the heavens and wait for them to speak clearly to us (using signs, of course).  

Or — another option — we can make a great show of listening — having convinced everyone that only we could hear & interpret what the cosmos needed us to know.

Or — still another option — we decide to meet the cosmos half way — and find a common language between us.  Turns out — that’s exactly what mathematics is.    

Mathematics describes the cosmos in measurable terms.  Numbers can more accurately quantify the universe’s vastness than any amount of words, fancy ones included.  Math is how the cosmos answers our questions about it.

So — a more accurate (less individualized because of individual interpretation) picture of the cosmos, where it came from (if it came from anywhere), what our place in it might be, 

Jim Holt, pages 63-64 re Adolf Grunbaum: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a “scheinproblem” — a pseudo-problem.”  

Oh no — we’ve wasted everyone’s time!

Randy’s Notes

A couple of other brain teasers to warm us up for the conversation:

One of the things we have to get our head around is that time is our own construct.  So, the question of why did God choose a particular time isn’t actually a valid question.  All time was now before this “something” was created.  So, God didn’t choose a time.

Here is another one:  

Q.  “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  

  1.  But is there?  How do we know there actually is anything at all?  This view was memorialized in the movie “The Matrix”.  The idea is that we are simply dreaming this reality.  It still implies that there is something, but it expresses serious doubt about the material world.  Does it really exist?  Or is it just a bunch of neurons flying around in our brains?

Now, on to my take on this:

The first word of our question is really important.  We posed it with the word “why”.  Alan has answered the question “how”.  The “how” is the domain of science in our day and age.  Typically religion/spirituality has focused on the “why” questions.  But, as Alan has shown, some Scientists take their theories beyond the “how” and into the “why”.  In the case of Jim Holt and the New Inflation Cosmology, a scientific theory used the how to evacuate any meaning to the question of “why”.  

So, how did we get to such a world view in this day and age?  And is this the way that things had to go?

Taking the second question first, history shows us that the “why” and the “how” question do not have to be at odds with each other or with one canceling the other out.  Not only this, but Hanbury Brown in his book “The Wisdom of Science:  Its Relevance to Culture and Religion”, says that most human societies worked with both priest and scholar to develop a world view into which they could fit their knowledge and belief.  We are peculiar in having such a strong tension between priest and scholar and “how” and “why” to the point that they two try to invalidate the other.

A quick story of how we got to this place:

The last widely accepted worldview in Western culture which successfully brought the “how” and the “why” together so that both questions were filled with meaning was the Medieval Model which was put together by Christian theologians in the 12th and 13th centuries.  (p. 145 Brown).  It brought together Christian doctrines and Graeco-Roman cosmology into one comprehensive world view.

Modern science destroyed this synthesis of knowledge and belief by showing that the cosmology of the Medieval Model did not in fact agree with what was actually observed in the sky.  However, the Church was heavily invested in the Medieval Model and wouldn’t let go of it without a fight.  This is where the battle between “how” and “why”, between science and religion heated up.  

Now, be sure you caught this key point:  the problems between science and religion in the West flow out of a conflict between an older, Graeco-Roman view of the cosmos and the new, modern view of the universe.  Christianity got caught in this battle because biblical religion was held captive by the older cosmos idea.

Here is an interesting example:  In the 17th century Archbishop James Ussher dated biblical creation at 4004BC.  In doing this he paradoxically uses the mathematical exactitude of the modern age to firmly plant the biblical view in the Graeco-Roman view of the Cosmos.

The point, as philosopher Charles Taylor says in “A Secular Age”, is that there is no barrier to re-thinking biblical religion according to our present day notions of the universe.  After all, the Medieval Model was a joining together of “how” and “why”, of cosmos and spirituality.  And pre-medieval theologians such as Origen and Nicholas of Cusa worked on the same project in their day.  We need people to seriously work on it in our own.  (Pascal’s comment about “eternal silence of the infinite spaces” was a move in the right direction.)  

It is interesting that Holt shifts the why question to an eternal multi-verse.  Basically, this theory posits “something” eternal that causes what we know and experience.  He just moves it from a “larger” personal being over all things to a larger multiverse.  One wants to ask, as people do about God, well then how did the multiverse come into existence?  The answer, as the answer about God, is that it didn’t start because it is eternal.  Same concept, just depersonalized.

Christianity, in contrast, would point to God as the ultimate reality rather than the multiverse.  God is revealed, not through cause and effect, in the belief that God is even beyond cause and effect, but through “revelation”, by opening our minds to God, often experienced with awe and wonder.  We learn more about this God through the Scriptures, the ways in which God been revealed to various people at various times.  And in the Scriptures we find, rather fittingly, that there is something because God used words, the first of which were, “Let there be light.”  As Wittgenstein says, “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”

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