Where did the universe come from? This is a question that has taunted humans probably since we first became sentient.
Most of the attempts to answer this question over the millennium have come from religion, but in the past 20 years or so, real progress has been made in physics to answer this question. Science seems to say that the universe could have been created from nothing.
The renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawkin has postulated that the universe could have arisen from fluctuations in the quantum foam. Others, such as physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, in his new book, “A Universe From Nothing”, suggest something along the same lines.
I’m not going to go into the science since it is far beyond my capabilities. I’m also not going to get much into the religious and theological arguments. What I do want to look at is a basic, simple premiss: we, as humans, don’t understand time.
We experience time in a linear fashion. This means that we have memories of a past, experience the present, and have expectations of the future. Therefore time, to us, seems have a past, present, and future. Physicists call this phenomenon The Arrow of Time, and due to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as well as other factors that involve mind-numbing math, it always flows in one direction.
The most important thing about time, and the hardest one to wrap our heads around, is that time is not separate from space. Time and space are inextricably linked and are collectively referred to as space-time. Time can not exist without space. One of the consequences of this is that time has only existed as long as space has.
Space-time, and the universe it’s self, began, as closely as we can currently work out, 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang, from a singularity (a point of infinite mass), similar to the singularity in the center of a black hole (in fact, some scientists postulate that our universe exists inside of a black hole, but that’s a post for another time).
Scientists have a pretty good idea of what happened as the universe expanded back to about 10^−11 (one hundred billionth) seconds after the beginning of the Big Bang. What happened before that time is unclear. Here, at the very beginning, as in the heart of a black hole, the laws of physics as we know them break down. Nothing inside the singularity can be glimpsed from the outside, but we should be able to, theoretically, go back to the very instance of the beginning. We are close, and the more we study sub-atomic particles with tools like the Large Hadron Collider, the more we are able to learn about these very earliest moments.
The important thing to understand here, for the purposes of this discussion, is that time did not exist before the Big Bang. Since time did not exist until the moment the universe began, the question, “What existed before the universe?”, is non-sensical. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a “before”, it is just that our minds are incapable of conceiving that particular state of things. It most likely was not a time, or a place, or an anything that we can define in terms that human language can express. Only mathematics can express this situation and translating those mathematics into human language is likely impossible, simply due to our innate inability to grasp a concept that literally doesn’t exist in our universe. We just don’t really, and can’t really, understand time. We are trapped in the flow of time, just as a leaf is trapped in the flow of a river. Traveling helplessly onward.
Therefor from my thinking, asking ”What existed before the universe?”, is meaningless. Wether it was created, or if it sprang into existence due to some fundamental laws of physics that we don’t completely understand really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that once it was in existence, everything in it has been subject to laws of physics that are, as far as we can see, so deeply woven into the fabric of space-time that they can not be broken.
The upshot of this means that our universe is self-contained and is subject to those laws. This precludes the existence of a personal God: one who can answer prayers and perform miracles. If there is a god, then it is entirely outside of the universe, and as such, unable to influence, or even know of, anything within it. Hence, worship or prayer to it is useless, except as a way to give ourselves solace if we so choose.
Call it god; call it a quantum fluctuation; call it George, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we are here, if only for the very briefest of moments. Let’s make the most of it.
There is an argument that because there are many properties of our universe that if changed by even a small amount would have made the universe impossible to support life. Some people like to use this as proof that the universe had to have been created because everything is “just right” for life to exist.
If, for example, the strong nuclear force were 2% stronger than it is (i.e., if the coupling constant representing its strength were 2% larger), while the other constants were left unchanged, diprotons would be stable and hydrogen would fuse into them instead of deuterium and helium. This would drastically alter the physics of stars, and presumably preclude the existence of life similar to what we observe on Earth. The existence of the di-proton would short-circuit the slow fusion of hydrogen into deuterium. Hydrogen would fuse so easily that it is likely that all of the Universe’s hydrogen would be consumed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang. (1)
On the face of it, this seems to make sense in regards to an intelligent designer of the universe. If everything is just perfect to support life, then it must have been designed that way.
But look at it from a different way. We are here. We exist. Of course the universe seems fine tuned for us, simply because we are here to observe it. It is a fluke of nature. Just as a depression in the ground wasn’t specially created to hold a puddle after the rain, our universe wasn’t specially created just for us to live in.
We have to get over the idea that we are somehow special. 99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct. Many of those existed for millions of years before disappearing. We, as a species, have only been here, maybe 500,000 years. The earth doesn’t care about us. Nature doesn’t care about us. Neither does the universe.
We are just a happy happenstance. Star stuff that coalesced into a star with planets. Once of those was the earth. It was in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff.
On second thought, perhaps that does make us special. But not because we are the pinnacle of some grand plan, but because we are lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time. Serendipity. Splendid serendipity.
If, for example, the strong nuclear force were 2% stronger than it is (i.e., if the coupling constant representing its strength were 2% larger), while the other constants were left unchanged, diprotons would be stable and hydrogen would fuse into them instead of deuterium and helium. This would drastically alter the physics of stars, and presumably preclude the existence of life similar to what we observe on Earth. The existence of the di-proton would short-circuit the slow fusion of hydrogen into deuterium. Hydrogen would fuse so easily that it is likely that all of the Universe’s hydrogen would be consumed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang.