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Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Posted Thursday, 17 January 2019   |   107 views   |   General Interest   |   Comments (0) There have been many arguments for the existence of God. In this cover story from Skeptic magazine 23.4 (2018), Michael Shermer delves into the question that underlies all the arguments: Why is there something rather than nothing?

In my many debates with theists over the decades a handful of arguments for God’s existence are routinely articulated as “proofs” of divine providence. These include the cosmological argument (that all natural things are contingent on something else for their existence so there necessarily exists a being independent of nature), the ontological argument (that we can conceive of an absolutely perfect being means it must exist because existence is a necessary feature of perfection), the design argument (the universe is fine-tuned for life, and life contains design features, therefore God is the fine-tuner and intelligent designer of life), the moral argument (without God anything goes, with God there is objective morality), the consciousness argument (the qualitative experience—qualia—of consciousness cannot be explained by the activity of neurons, and abstract concepts like logic and mathematics exist separate from brains, therefore God must be the source), and others. All of these arguments (they are certainly not proofs in the mathematical sense) have counter-arguments made by philosophers over the centuries, but there is one that seems to trouble a great many thinkers of all persuasions, and that is why there should be anything at all. That is, all of the other arguments for God’s existence presume that something exists that needs explaining. The argument that asks why there is something rather than nothing underlies all the other arguments, and is cognitively challenging because it is simply not possible for existing beings to imagine not existing, not just themselves (which forms the cognitive foundation of afterlife beliefs), but to imagine nothing existing at all. Go ahead and try it. Picture nothing. When I ask myself this question I start by visualizing dark empty space bereft of galaxies, stars, and planets, along with molecules and atoms. But this picture is incorrect because if there were no universe there would not only be no matter, but there would be no space or time (or space-time) either. There would be absolutely nothing, including no conscious being to observe the nothingness. Just… nothing. Whatever that is. This presents us with what is arguably the deepest of deep questions: why is there something rather than nothing? In his 1988 blockbuster book A Brief History of Time, the late Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking put it this way:

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?1

Even if it could be established that something must exist, this does not necessarily mean that the something must be our universe with our particular laws of nature that give rise to atoms, stars, planets, and people. There could be universes whose laws of nature permit time and space but no matter or light; such universes could not be perceived because there would be no one to perceive the darkness. Our universe has particular properties suited to planets and people. According to England’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, there are at least six constituents that are necessary for “our emergence from a simple Big Bang,” including (1) O (omega), the amount of matter in the universe = 1: if O was greater than 1 it would have collapsed long ago and if O was less than 1 no galaxies would have formed. (2) e (epsilon), how firmly atomic nuclei bind together = .007: if e were even fractionally different matter could not exist. (3) D, the number of dimensions in which we live = 3. (4) N, the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to that of gravity = 1039: if N were smaller the universe would be either too young or too small for life to form. (5) Q, the fabric of the universe = 1/100,000: if were smaller the universe would be featureless and if Q were larger the universe would be dominated by giant black holes. (6) ? (lambda), the cosmological constant, or “antigravity” force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate = 0.7: if ? were larger it would have prevented stars and galaxies from forming.2

The most common reason invoked for our universe’s “fine-tuning” is the “anthropic principle,” most forcefully argued by the physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler in their 1986 book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle: “It is not only man that is adapted to the universe. The universe is adapted to man. Imagine a universe in which one or another of the fundamental dimensionless constants of physics is altered by a few percent one way or the other? Man could never come into being in such a universe. That is the central point of the anthropic principle. According to the principle, a life-giving factor lies at the center of the whole machinery and design of the world.”3 So we really have two questions to answer: Why there is something rather than nothing, and Why this universe? Here are a number of responses, ranging from the philosophical to the scientific, that I have compiled from a number of sources, including a comprehensive taxonomic work by John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn titled The Mystery of Existence: Why is There Anything at All? that catalogues all extant explanations without religious, scientific, or philosophical prejudice.4

Skeptic magazine 23.4 (cover)

1. Nothing is Inconceivable

First, as I suggested above, just as it is not possible to conceive of what it is like to be dead, it is impossible to conceptualize nothing—no space, time, matter, light, darkness, or even any conscious beings to perceive the nothingness. As Robert Kuhn conceives it: “Not just emptiness, not just blankness, and not just emptiness and blankness forever, but not even the existence of emptiness, not even the meaning of blankness, and no forever.”5 Inconceivable.

2. Nothing is Something

The analytical philosopher Quentin Smith pointed out to Kuhn that it is a logical fallacy to talk about “nothing” as if it were “something”; that is, to suggest that “there might have been nothing” implies “it is possible that there is nothing.” As Kuhn articulates Smith’s argument: “‘There is’ means ‘something is.’ So ‘there is nothing’ means ‘something is nothing,’ which is a logical contradiction. His suggestion is to remove ‘nothing’ and replace it by ‘not something’ or ‘not anything,’ since one can talk about what we mean by ‘nothing’ by referring to something or anything of which there are no instances (i.e., the concept of ‘something’ has the property of not being instantiated). The common sense way to talk about Nothing is to talk about something and negate it, to deny that there is something.”6 Here we are bumping up against the problem of defining what we mean by “nothing” and the restrictions that language imposes on the problem. The very act of talking about “nothing” makes it a “something,” or else what are we talking about?

3. Nothing Would Include God’s Nonexistence

In Kuhn’s taxonomy of “nothings” he lists what categories of things might be included in “something” that would be negated by “nothing”: physical, mental, platonic, spiritual, and God. Physical: all matter, energy, space and time, and all the laws and principles that govern them (known and unknown). Mental: all kinds of consciousness and awareness (known and unknown). Platonic: all forms of abstract objects (numbers, logic, forms, propositions, possibilities—known and unknown). Spiritual and God: anything that could possibly fit this nonphysical category (all forms of religious and spiritual belief).7 If by “nothing” is meant no physical objects or matter of any kind, for example, there can still be energy from which matter may arise by natural forces guided by the laws of nature. Physicists, for example, talk about empty space as seething with virtual particles, from which particle-antiparticle pairs come into existence as a consequence of the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics. From this “nothingness” universes may “pop” into existence.8 But if by “nothing” is meant that there is no physical, mental, platonic, or nonphysical entity of any kind, then there can be no God or gods, which means that there cannot be anything outside of nothing out of which to create something. If God is proposed to be outside of or preexisting the “nothing” from which the “something” was created, then why can’t the laws of nature that give rise to “somethings” (like universes) be outside of or preexisting nothing? Some theologians argue that God is a “necessity,” by which they mean it is impossible for God not to exist. This is the famous Ontological Argument for the existence of God, first proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in 1078, which defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” The argument is that God is necessary because necessity is a higher form of perfection that can be conceived than is contingency.9 The argument has been refuted time and again. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, for example, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume countered: “Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose nonexistence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.”10 To my ears this is all just word play, armchair speculation of what we can or cannot conceive of without once looking out the window to see what is actually in nature that may confirm or disconfirm our imaginary ideas.11 I can just as easily argue that the laws of nature are a necessity for existence because they give rise to the universe, which makes them “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Or that abstract objects like circles, squares, and rectangles and the geometric principles that govern them, or mathematical principles like 3 2 = 5, necessarily exist because the existence of a circle is a higher form of perfection than the nonexistence of a circle. If circles did not exist then what would the formula for the area of a circle, A = pr2 , describe? In any case, the conception of “perfection” is once again bound by the cognitive restrictions of thought and language we faced with consciousness and nothingness. How can an imperfect being conceive of what perfection even means? Who knows what an extra-terrestrial intelligence with a brain ten times the size of ours would be capable of conceiving, or a post-Singularity AI with an intelligence capacity a million times greater than humans would be able to conceptualize?

4. God Did It Ex Nihilo

For the many millennia that people have been asking these questions the most common answer given was some version of “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence ex nihiloout of nothing. Revealingly, Genesis does not actually say that God created the universe ex nihilo—that is a later inference made by theologians. Genesis 1:1 reads simply: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It does not elaborate on what God made the heavens and the earth out of, which theologians have presumed to be nothing, but that it is not stated in the Bible. As Skeptic magazine’s religion editor Tim Callahan notes, the Hebrew word for creation in Genesis 1:1 is “bara,” which can mean create but can also mean “choose” or “divide.” Callahan cites the Old Testament scholar Ellen van Wolde, who argues that the most accurate translation of “bara” is “separate,” so Genesis 1:1 should read “In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth.”12 This, says Callahan, better fits the context of Genesis 1, “in which the creation is presented as a series of separations: light is created and separated from darkness, the firmament of heaven is created to separate the waters above it from the waters below it, and the separation of land from water. This is followed by a series of creation events populating the separated realms—the land populated with plants, the firmament populated with heavenly bodies, the sea populated with fish and sea monsters, the air with birds, and the land, again, with animals—followed finally by the creation of humans in the image of God.”13 Even if one rejects this interpretation of Genesis 1:1 and opts for creation ex nihilo, this just begs the question of who or what created the creator? Theists retort that God is that which does not need to be created. But why can’t the universe be in the same ontological and epistemological category as God, wherein we could simply say that the universe is that which does not need to be created? Theists counter that the universe had a Big Bang beginning and everything that begins to exist has a cause. But not everything in the universe is strictly causal, such as some quantum effects, and even though our universe in its current state can be traced back to a Big Bang beginning that doesn’t mean there was not a previous universe that gave birth to our universe through the Big Bang. Theists also note that that the universe is a thing, whereas God is an agent or being. But don’t things and beings all need a causal explanation? Why should God be exempt from such causal reasoning? Because, rejoins the theist, God is supernatural—outside of space, time, and matter—whereas everything in the universe, and the universe itself, is natural—made up of space, time, and matter, so God and the universe are ontologically different. But if that is so, then how would we detect God with our instruments? If a supernatural deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, wouldn’t that make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer, along the lines of a sufficiently advanced ETI or far-future human in my earlier thought experiment? And if God used unknown supernatural forces to effect change in our natural world, how do they interact with the known forces of our universe? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? If so, wouldn’t that bring God into the universe as a natural being and thus subject him to the search for a natural causal explanation for his existence? Finally, if God made the universe ex nihilo—literally out of nothing—then apparently it is possible for something to come from nothing, so this brings us back to searching for the best causal explanation for anything—natural or supernatural?

5. Natural vs. Supernatural Explanations of Something

The history of science has been one long and steady replacement of the supernatural with the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are today known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are currently sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma, or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics, and risk. If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for supernatural agents like gods and demons? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe, or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to the physicist Sean Carroll, in his examination of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.”14Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, such as the thermodynamic arrow of time and the Core Theory of particles and forces, you can scale up to planets and people, and even assess the likelihood that God, the soul, and the afterlife exist, which Carroll concludes is very low. But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories like geocentrism (the Earth is the center of the solar system), phlogiston (a fire-like element that causes objects to burn), miasma (the “bad air” source of disease), spontaneous generation (fully formed living organisms can abruptly arise out of inanimate matter), and the luminiferous aether (the medium filling outer space for the propagation of light)? Yes, and that’s how we know we’re making progress. The postmodern belief that the very existence of such discarded ideas means that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is wronger than all of the wrong theories combined. I have called this Asimov’s Axiom, after an observation by the science writer Isaac Asimov:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.15

There is real progress in science. Think of it as an expanding sphere of knowledge. As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow—the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But in this mathematical analogy note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the expansion of the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. So as the sphere of scientific knowledge expands the volume of the known increases by a ratio of 3:2 over the surface area of the unknown. The more you know the more of the unknown becomes known. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science. Take the Core Theory of the forces and particles that make up the universe. This includes the four forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, along with the Standard Model of elementary particles making up the nucleus of the atom: quarks, leptons, and bosons, plus the underlying Higgs boson. Carroll says this Core Theory is “indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Ha-ha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism’.” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics rule out supernatural and paranormal claims. Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate, read minds, or perform miracles, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”16 It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation, for such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle. Humans have always filled in such gaps in our knowledge with gods, and it never leads to any useful or productive theory. Let us try to overcome this psychological propensity to fill in the gaps with supernatural forces and follow the path of science in searching for natural forces.

6. Nothing is Unstable, Something is Stable

Asking why there is something rather than nothing presumes “nothing” is the natural state of things out of which “something” needs an explanation. Maybe “something” is the natural state of things and “nothing” would be the mystery to be solved. As the physicist Victor Stenger notes in his book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning: “Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence. The laws of physics themselves are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing. There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.”17In his 2012 book, A Universe From Nothing, the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss attempts to link quantum physics to Einstein’s gravitational theory of general relativity to explain the origin of something (including a universe) from nothing: “In quantum gravity, universes can, and indeed always will, spontaneously appear from nothing. Such universes need not be empty, but can have matter and [electromagnetic] radiation in them, as long as the total energy, including the negative energy associated with gravity [balancing the positive energy of matter], is zero.” And: “In order for the closed universes that might be created through such mechanisms to last for longer than infinitesimal times, something like inflation is necessary.” Observations have revealed that, in fact, the universe is flat (there is just enough matter to eventually halt its expansion), its energy is zero, and it underwent rapid inflation, or expansion, shortly after the Big Bang as described by inflationary cosmology. Thus, Krauss concludes, “quantum gravity not only appears to allow universes to be created from nothing—meaning…the absence of space and time—it may require them. ‘Nothing’—in this case no space, no time, no anything!—is unstable.”18 In his follow-up 2017 work, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far, Krauss notes that “Einstein was one of the first physicists to demonstrate that the classical notion of causation begins to break down at the quantum realm.” Although many physicists objected to the idea of something coming from nothing, Krauss adds that “this is precisely what happens with the light you are using to read this page. Electrons in hot atoms emit photons—photons that didn’t exist before they were emitted—which are emitted spontaneously and without specific cause. Why is it that we have grown at least somewhat comfortable with the idea that photons can be created from nothing without cause, but not whole universes?”19


The anthropic principle invoked to explain our universe troubles most scientists because of its antithesis known as the “Copernican principle,” which states that we are not special. The anthropic principle puts humans right back in the center of the cosmos, not geographically but anthropocentrically—it is all about us. There are a number of counter-explanations for our universe that continue in the scientific tradition of defenestrating humans from the Tower of Babel.

1. Inconstant Constants

The various numbers invoked in the “fine-tuning” argument for our universe as being special, such as the speed of light and Planck’s constant, are, in fact, arbitrary numbers that can be configured in different ways so that their relationship to the other constants do not appear to be so remarkable. As well, such constants may be inconstantover vast spans of time, varying from the Big Bang to the present, making the universe finely tuned only now but not earlier or later in its history. The physicists John Barrow and John Webb call these numbers the “inconstant constants,” and they have demonstrated how in particular the speed of light, gravitation, and the mass of the electron have in fact been inconstant over time.20

2. Grand Unified Theory

In order to explain our universe we need a comprehensive theory of physics that connects the subatomic world described by quantum mechanics to the cosmic world described by general relativity. As the cosmologist Sean Carroll notes in his book From Eternity to Here: “Possibly general relativity is not the correct theory of gravity, at least in the context of the extremely early universe. Most physicists suspect that a quantum theory of gravity, reconciling the framework of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s ideas about curved spacetime, will ultimately be required to make sense of what happens at the very earliest times. So if someone asks you what really happened at the moment of the purported Big Bang, the only honest answer would be: ‘I don’t know.’”21That grand unified theory of everything will itself need an explanation, but it may be explicable by some other theory we have yet to comprehend out of our sheer ignorance at this moment in history. And as I repeat ad nauseum to audiences curious about unsolved mysteries and anxious to fill in scientific gaps with questionable pseudoscientific conjectures, it’s always okay to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that.

3. Boom-and-Bust Cycles

Perhaps our bubble universe is just one episode of an eternal boom-and-bust cycle of expansion and contractions of the universe, with the bubble’s eventual collapse and re-expansion in an eternal cycle. Sean Carroll argues that “space and time did exist before the Big Bang; what we call the Bang is a kind of transition from one phase to another.” As such, he says, “there is no such thing as an initial state, because time is eternal. In this case, we are imagining that the Big Bang isn’t the beginning of the entire universe, although it’s obviously an important event in the history of our local region.”22 Although there does not appear to be enough matter in our universe to halt the expansion and bring it back into a big crunch that could launch it back into a new bubble out of another Big Bang, the relevant observation here is that something existed before the Big Bang, thereby obviating the need to invoke a supernatural creator.23

4. Darwinian Universes

According to the cosmologist Lee Smolin, the evolution of the universe may include a Darwinian component in the form of a “natural selection” of differentially reproducing bubble universes. Like its biological counterpart, Smolin hypothesizes that there might be a selection from different “species” of universes, each containing different laws of nature. Universes like ours will have lots of stars, which means they will have lots of black holes that collapse into singularities, a point at which infinitely strong gravity causes matter to have infinite density and zero volume, which many cosmologists believe gave birth to our universe from the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps collapsing black holes create new baby universes out of these singularities, and those baby universes with laws of nature similar to ours will be fine-tuned to life, whereas universes with radically different laws of nature that disallow stars, planets, and people will go extinct. The result of this cosmic evolutionary process would be a preponderance of universes like ours, so we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a universe fine-tuned for life.24

5. Multiple Creations Cosmology

In his 1997 book The Inflationary Universe, the cosmologist Alan Guth proposes that our universe sprang into existence from a bubble nucleation of spacetime. If this process of universe creation is natural, then there may be multiple bubble nucleations that give rise to many universes that expand but remain separate from one another without any causal contact between them. Of course, if these universes were truly causally-disconnected then there is no way to get information from them, which would make this an untestable hypothesis.25 But, again, there is much we still don’t know about the cosmos, and I am encouraged by the startling discovery of gravitational waves, which could open up possibilities of obtaining information from other bubble universes, if they exist.

6. Many-Worlds Multiverse

According to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of universes in which every possible outcome of every possible choice that has ever been available, or will be available, has happened in one of those universes. This model is grounded in the bizarre findings of the famous “double-slit” experiment, in which light is passed through two slits and forms an interference pattern of waves on a black surface (like throwing two stones in a pond and watching the concentric wave patterns interact, with crests and troughs adding and subtracting from one another). The spooky part comes when you send single photons of light one at a time through the two slits—they still form an interference wave pattern even though they are not interacting with other photons. How can this be? One answer is that the photons are interacting with photons in other universes! In this type of multiverse you could meet your doppelgänger, and depending on which universe you entered, your parallel self would be fairly similar or dissimilar to you, a theme that has become a staple of science fiction (see, for example, Michael Crichton’s Timeline). I am skeptical that this version of the multiverse will pan out, however, because the idea of there being multiple versions of me and you out there—and in an infinite universe there would be an infinite number of me’s and you’s—seems to me to be even less likely than the theistic alternative “God did it.” Still, as Richard Feynman famously quipped, “no one understands quantum mechanics,”26 so who am I to write off this theory considered legitimate by many quantum physicists.

7. Brane and String Universes

Universes may be birthed when three-dimensional “branes” (a membrane-like structure on which our universe exists) moves through higher-dimensional space and collides with another brane, the result of which is the energized creation of another universe.27 A related multiverse is derived through string theory, which by at least one calculation allows for 10500 possible worlds, all with different self-consistent laws and constants.28 That’s a 1 followed by 500 zeroes possible universes. The number is so large that it would be miraculous if there were not intelligent life in a number of them. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, the late physicist Victor Stenger created a computer model that analyzes what just 100 different universes would be like under constants different from our own, ranging from five orders of magnitude above to five orders of magnitude below their values in our universe. Stenger found that long-lived stars of at least one billion years—necessary for the production of life-giving heavy elements—would emerge within a wide range of parameters in at least half of the universes in his model.29

8. Quantum Foam Universe Creations

In this model, universes are created out of nothing, but in the scientific version of ex nihilo the nothing of the vacuum of space actually contains quantum foam, which may fluctuate to create baby universes. In this configuration, any quantum object in any quantum state may generate a new universe, each one of which represents every possible state of every possible object.30 This is Stephen Hawking’s explanation for the fine-tuning problem that he himself famously presented in the 1990s:

Why is the universe so close to the dividing line between collapsing again and expanding indefinitely? In order to be as close as we are now, the rate of expansion early on had to be chosen fantastically accurately. If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been less by one part in 1010, the universe would have collapsed after a few million years. If it had been greater by one part in 1010, the universe would have been essentially empty after a few million years. In neither case would it have lasted long enough for life to develop. Thus one either has to appeal to the anthropic principle or find some physical explanation of why the universe is the way it is.31

Hawking’s collaborator Roger Penrose layered on even more mystery when he noted that the “extraordinary degree of precision (or ‘fine tuning’) that seems to be required for the Big Bang of the nature that we appear to observe…is one part in 1010123at least.” Penrose suggested two pathways to an answer, either it was an act of God, “or we might seek some scientific/ mathematical theory.”32 Hawking opted for the second with this explanation: “Quantum fluctuations lead to the spontaneous creation of tiny universes, out of nothing. Most of the universes collapse to nothing, but a few that reach a critical size, will expand in an inflationary manner, and will form galaxies and stars, and maybe beings like us.”33

9. M-Theory Grand Design, or Auto-Ex-Nihilo
Stephen Hawking continued working on this question, and he and the physicist Leonard Mlodinow presented their answer in their 2010 book The Grand Design.34 They approach the problem from what they call “model-dependent realism,” based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events, and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions “we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” Employing this method, they write, “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.” The dual wave/particle models of light are an example of model-dependent realism, where each one agrees with certain observations but neither one is sufficient to explain all observations. To model the entire universe, Hawking and Mlodinow employ “M-Theory,” an extension of string theory that includes 11 dimensions and incorporates all five current string theory models. “M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity,” Hawking and Mlodinow explain. “For these reasons M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself.” Although they admit that the theory has yet to be confirmed by observation, if it is then no creator explanation is necessary because the universe creates itself. Call it auto-ex-nihilo.

By no means does this list exhaust the possible explanations for why there is something rather than nothing and why our universe is the way it is, but perhaps it gives one a sense that the questions are answerable through science, through natural and testable hypotheses and theories, without resort to supernatural intercession. It is good to reflect on the fact that the history of science is relatively young compared to the history of religion—roughly 500 v. 5000 years—so it is premature to say that because science does not yet have a definitive explanatory theory accepted by most scientists it means that one is not forthcoming. Despite the optimism derived from my expanding sphere of knowledge metaphor in which the known expands into the unknown at a ratio of 3:2, there is still much we do not understand about the cosmos and everything in it. But given science’s track record over the past five centuries this only means there are remarkable and exciting new discoveries and theories yet to come. As Carl Sagan expressed it in his 1985 Gifford Lecture Series titled The Search for Who We Are (published in book form posthumously in 2007 as The Varieties of Scientific Experience):

By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion.35

Dr. Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

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The 5 Best Classic Cars Magazines

The 5 Best Classic Cars Magazines

Classic cars are like a fine wine - they only get better with time. Whether it’s their extraordinary style, fascinating history or simply their authentic nature - they have certainly found their place in the world, as well as in the hearts of many true vintage car enthusiasts. More...
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