Sunday, July 02, 2006


Die Schöpfung

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Most of us recognize that as the opening lines of the book of Genesis, from the King James Version of the bible. Today I'm going to talk about my thoughts on the creation of the universe, put together from bits of various conversations I've had over the years and set into a semblance of sense and order last night, entirely without, I assure you, the benefit of any psychoactive substances.

I put the title in German and quoted the very first lines of Genesis to point out that I'm not getting into a "Creation" vs "Evolution" discussion here; rather, I'm considering things before that, looking at the very first aspects of how the universe came about. And so, onward....

The first thing I'll note is that I do not believe that the universe was created by the willful act of a sentient being — and there are actually a few statements in that one sentence; we'll get to them all in time. But I also don't accept that the universe was created by the sudden explosion of a "primeval atom", and I consider the two explanations to be very similar from a metaphysical point of view. So let's back up.

I actually believe that not only do we not know how the universe came about, but we can't know. That is, we don't have the capacity to understand it. The answer could be right in front of us, and we wouldn't see it, we wouldn't have the understanding required to even know that there was something there worth seeing. Consider:

We create things all the time, from constituent parts, ingredients, ideas. When a carpenter builds the frame of a house, or when I write a computer program (or a blog entry), the thing we're making didn't exist before. We put it together sequentially, through a process, from the wood and nails, from the design, from the ideas. We build a house, we move the furniture into it, we put people there, we plant a garden and a lawn out front. This is the only way we understand how things can come to be.

And we've attributed the same mechanisms to God (or to a set of gods; for convenience here I'll just refer to "God" to represent whatever set of entities you may think about). But why? Surely any being with the power to create all we see around us and all that's beyond our sight, out into infinite space, surely any such being would not have to work that way, putting things together in sequence with a figurative hammer and nails. We think of it that way because it's the only way we can understand it, and we're driven to understand it.

But whatever we think about for the creation, there's a hole. Whatever got things started forces the further question of what got that started. If God created the heaven and the earth, whence came God? If it was a big bang, what brought about the explosion? If the answer is "God has always existed," what does that mean, and why can't the entire universe just as well have always existed?

Because as we must think of creation as a process that relates to what we know, we also think of time in the sense that we know it, and of the universe as a state machine, where we can describe its state at any moment in time. At time t, Tom Cruise was with Nicole Kidman; at t+10 he was with Penelope Cruz; at t+34 Nicole married a guy called Urban who sings rural songs. And while we have the intellectual concept of "forever", we really can't get our collective heads around that, and are always looking for that time t0, the time when things "began". I think there is no such time, at least in the sense that we understand time.

We also only understand things that happen through the observed laws of physics and nature as we know them. Things that can't be explained through those laws are called "miracles" when we attribute them to God or God's cabinet ministers, and "magic" otherwise. And we assume that those laws have also existed from time t0, since "the beginning". Again, I'll ask, "Why?" It's a postulate, but it doesn't have to have been that way.

Fantasy writer Piers Anthony, in his "Adept" series, creates two parallel worlds, where "science" works in one and "magic" in the other. Maybe Mr Anthony got it partly right — maybe there was a time, for some meaning of "time", when what we think of as "science" didn't exist, when the laws of nature didn't apply, when things happened in ways that we would now call "magic". Perhaps physics "happened" at the same time as did our planetary rock, and perhaps there was a "time" before that, when things worked differently. We don't know. We can't know.

Putting that all together, maybe everything around us always existed, or maybe it just "happened" out of nothing. No God, no primeval atom, no flying spaghetti monster. Just "nothing". Because, you see, we also can't understand "nothing". We understand the emptiness of a jar, and we say there's nothing in it. We even understand the emptiness of outer space, but that's not really "nothing" — we know we'll eventually run into the moon and Jupiter, Sirius and Aldebaran and M-31. What if there once was, truly, nothing?

Let me summarize, then, what I'm saying: I believe that we don't have the capacity to understand how the universe came about, because I believe it must be the result of things so far beyond our comprehension that we have no basis with which to understand it:

  • We can't understand things coming about without having been "created".
  • We can't understand the idea that there wasn't a "beginning".
  • We can't understand a version of "time" that's not a continuum.
  • We can't understand things that happen outside the laws of physics or nature.
  • We can't understand the concept of "nothing".

It's not that I wouldn't like to know, not that I'm not curious about it. And I'm eager to see us keep looking. It's possible that we can, over time, begin to understand the pieces so that we can eventually understand the whole. But meanwhile, I see no value in making up answers in order to satisfy ourselves pro tempore. I'd rather spend my time looking for answers that I have a hope of understanding when I find them.


Chris said...

Kierkegaard said much the same thing; there was no point reasoning your way to god, because any concievable god would be too far beyond our understanding to cross with us at any point. You had to take an existential leap of faith; then you got your evidence.
He was up for it, I'm not, but I see his point.

David Harmon said...

Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean that science can't cope with it. Hawking discussed the implications of time beginning "with the universe" in his "brief history" and elsewhere, and bluntly, the math works fine -- it's just hard for us timebound creatures to wrap our brains around.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The fact that some of our greatest writers can only imagine other beings in the universe as being humanoid (whether physical or cultural - having some of the same precepts as ours), despite some attempts to make other beings not humanoid, I find that they usually fail.

We are so egotistical as a species that we can not imagine things except as they relate to us. Even the Big Bang theory has so much to do with "us" that it can not be separated from "us." Before "us" nothing, after "us" nothing.