Evolve. the Search for Truth.
Theories of Origin
In the Beginning...
In the beginning of the universe…wait…was there even a beginning?
Throughout history mankind has considered two possible answers. One, the universe is eternally existent, existing from eternity past. Ancient Greeks, like Plato and Aristotle, thought the universe to be eternally existent and thereby had no beginning. If anything, the gods only shaped the chaos of the universe and gave it order. In short, the universe has always been here, it is here, and it will always be here. The second choice is the universe is created and, therefore, had a beginning. Ancient Jews, like Moses and Isaiah, believed the universe had a beginning thanks to a Creator who is maker of heaven and earth. Long ago, these Jewish writers believed God created the universe out of nothing. These two explanations persisted for thousands of years.
There is a long-held human desire to know how our universe exists, why and how our universe has come to be. Let us consider the basic question of the origins of our universe — does it exist from eternity past or does it have a beginning? By understanding the origins of our universe we will gain greater insight into the origins of life and humanity. Let’s start with the all important question — did our universe have a beginning?
Yes! The universe had a beginning, and it began with a big bang. In the 20th century, scientists proved this as a scientific fact and have dated the birth of our universe back billions of years. For those of us living in the 21st century, we take this for granted. The Big Bang Theory has been taught to us from an early age, and we learn about it in our schools and see its beauty as astronomers and astronauts explore the outer reaches of space and time. But throughout human history, science has provided few decisive answers to the origins of our universe. That is, until the last century. Thankfully, physicists have concluded through laws of natural science, like gravity and thermodynamics, the universe had a beginning billions of years ago. Now, we — inheritors of this knowledge — have the commonly accepted, universally taught, and wonderfully insightful Big Bang Theory.
It’s easy to take the Big Bang Theory for granted. It is common knowledge. But we cannot forget, it has only recently become common knowledge. Let us not forget the long road to this theory. From a scientific point of view, the fact that our universe had a beginning has only been proved in the last hundred years. Even Albert Einstein was unsure as a physicist if the universe was finite or infinite. He mentioned in his insights on general relativity how “closed spaces without limits are conceivable” because of curved space. But this insight on a closed space without limits only produced more questions. Because of curved space, Einstein noted,“a most interesting question arises for astronomers and physicists, and that is whether the universe in which we live is infinite, or whether it is finite in the manner of the spherical universe. Our experience is far from being sufficient to enable us to answer this question.”
Thanks to Einstein and other great thinkers, within only a hundred years of his theory being published, human experience is now sufficient. The answer is conclusive. The universe not only had a beginning, but the universe is finite. It’s easy to take for granted this idea, but let us remember, it was billions of years in development. Things Einstein wondered, we now know. Things Ancient Jews claimed thousands of years ago, we recently proved through science. The big bang is now a universally accepted scientific explanation. But, it is only recently universally accepted.
The Big Bang Theory was first proposed in the early 20th century by a Belgian physicist, a cosmologist to be precise, Georges Lemaître. Interestingly, he was also a Catholic priest. I mention Lemaître’s background, as both a physicist and priest, because as an atheist, I had a crisis of faith with respect to the Big Bang Theory and its relation to laws of energy. As an atheist and scientist, I was confronted with what seemed like an irreconcilable dilemma. What is the dilemma? It has to do with energy, specifically, energy transfer.
Humans live by energy transfer. We consume all the energy we need as organisms through eating, drinking, and breathing. These systems of energy transfer abide by laws of thermodynamics. And these laws explain the energy processes behind our everyday experiences. Our cravings for air, food, and water are evidence of our everyday thirst for energy. Our survival in this universe is dependent on our ability to satisfy this energy craving. Energy is necessary for life to exist. We breathe, we eat, and we drink; when these stop, we die.
As humans, we go beyond our everyday energy cravings to do more than survive. Laws of thermodynamics also guide how we manufacture goods, drive cars, cool houses in hot weather, heat homes on cold days, and a myriad of other everyday activities. Whether we recognize it or not, we live by these laws of energy transfer (laws of thermodynamics) not only for survival, but also pleasure.
So, what is so important about these rules of energy transfer? For an atheist, there is the uncomfortable realization that one of the fundamental precepts of these laws of nature is energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred in form.
The issue for atheists, like myself, if we are forced to summarize the Big Bang Theory in one sentence, the result is “the universe out of nothing.” This includes all the energy of the universe. This is a major problem which, if not resolved, means we have an illogical worldview. On one hand, a law says energy can only be transferred in form and cannot be created; and on the other hand, a theory says the universe (and all its energy) is created out of nothing. Understood in this way, the Big Bang Theory violates known and proven laws of nature (as well as King Lear’s edict, “nothing shall come from nothing”). And so, where did we get the energy for all of the universe? Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, only transferred. From where was it transferred?
As a side note, I was glad to learn that Lemaître’s ideas on the big bang were not well-received. I can relate as I too struggle with the implications of what it means to have a universe that began. Lemaître’s revolutionary theory required persistence to face the great resistance he encountered from the scientific world. But his persistence eventually influenced scientists to see the truth of these ideas, rather than hold onto their old and false beliefs.
Another important issue about these laws of energy, frightening as it is, the end of the world. Beyond saying energy can only be transferred in form, laws of thermodynamics also point out, in closed systems, energy is lost (in the sense of unusable) in the transfer from one state to another. This means, as the universe continues to transfer energy, at some point the energy dwindles down to nothing. Just like living bodies die, the universe will likewise perish, as explained through the concept of entropy. As scientists monitor the temperature of the universe, they note it is decreasing, and one day we are destined to reach absolute zero, at which the universe passes away.
From ancient history, humans have always been confronted with death of living beings. We hunt to kill and eat (dead) carcasses. Dead organisms function as nutrients for new soil. But, now we also have scientific evidence and a prediction grander than we ever thought, not only do living beings die, but the universe itself is destined to pass away. As we came from nothing, we will most certainly return to nothing. One day, the universe will reach a temperature of absolute zero, at which point the universe will wear out like an old garment. The whole world, especially atheists like me, need an energy source to not only account for creation of the universe, but also to sustain the universe.
For Lemaître, a believer in God, his worldview easily reconciles the big bang theory with laws of energy. He not only has a source to create the universe, but also has that source which sustains the universe. His one sentence summary is “the universe from God.” His scientific theory is consistent with his religious beliefs because “the universe from God” aligns perfectly with words of an ancient Jew, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” Lemaître simply translates his understanding of reality from religious to scientific terms.
For Lemaître, the Big Bang Theory describes in the language and culture of a physicist the reality about the origins of the universe. For me, the shocking revelation is a physicist priest is able to make better sense of reality than me because of his religious views. This is a hard pill to swallow for my atheism. The physicist priest’s ability to see reality and discover new scientific truths are enhanced — not limited! — by his belief in God.
This is the apparent illogic of my atheism that I needed to address as a young scientist. As an atheist, I believe in a theory that violates known and verifiable natural laws. This ill logic results in flaws of how I see the world. Scientific theories are supposed to make sense of natural laws, not violate them. If nature cannot violate the laws of thermodynamics, neither should a theory about all of nature.
As it stands, atheists have a new challenge in order to solve the apparent ill logic of accepting the Big Bang Theory as true, for their needs to be a source of energy from outside our universe. Otherwise, atheists have misplaced faith in a scientific theory that violates known laws of nature. This should be impossible. Atheists are forced to face the impossible and search for truth about energy.
The good news, when a scientist needs to revisit old experiments gone wrong, they revisit original assumptions. I had to see the origins of the universe from a new perspective. The beauty of science is old experiments guide how to conduct future experiments. All knowledge is beneficial because it shapes what you do moving forward. Luckily, science trained me to believe that those who seek shall find. I knew in my gut there were better answers to be had, I just needed to search them out. From the beginning, I believed and hoped that I would one day resolve my little crisis of faith in science. My starting point would be new investigations into the idea of infinity.
Ultimately, if the universe is not eternal, there needs to be an infinite energy source beyond our finite universe. Otherwise, not only my worldview, but the universe will be destroyed. According to laws of energy, this universe is destined to end, slowly using all its energy until the law of entropy leaves us with nothing. As Shakespeare rightly predicted and spoke through King Lear, “Nothing shall come from nothing.”