Tag Archives: Origin of Universe

Outside the Fishbowl (a fable)

Author’s Plecostomus contemplating the meaning of life.

Let me tell you a story I was recently privy to. I can’t vouch for all the details as I wasn’t there, but both our cats assure me they stealthily witnessed the events and overheard enough to reconstruct the following.

Our two fish were swimming in their aquarium, amidst all  their brightly colored rocks,  “plants”, and decorations.  Life is pretty laid back for them: food appears floating on the surface of the water each day, and they have an aerator, a pump, a filter, a thermometer, and a pH sensor to keep things just right for them. But these aren’t your ordinary fish that die 2 days after you get them home from the store. Despite our cats’ intense desires for fish fillets, these fish have been around a while, so they’ve had time to think. They’re surprisingly contemplative fish – philosophical fish, you might even say. They stare out the tank at the vast expanse beyond the glass walls and wonder about what lies beyond. They often talk about things like that, although they apparently disagree a lot. One fish -call him, Bob, for neither I nor the cats can pronounce what he calls himself – came to some sad conclusions about life. He felt that their world, “Aquarium”, and all that was in it, and all that might lie beyond it in the great “House” beyond the glass, even their own bodies, were simply the result of something he liked to call “chance” or “just a big accident”. There was no overarching reason for him to exist, no purpose to his life other than whatever he chose as a life goal. In fact, the vastness of what they could see outside Aquarium led him to believe that they were really a very insignificant part of all that existed. After all, the House outside the Aquarium was a huge hostile environment, so obviously fish were meaningless in the grand scheme of things.

The other fish – call him, Joe – wondered why there was anything existing in Aquarium rather than simply nothing. And why did it seem like everything was “just right” for their existence where they were?  Was there some cause or maybe even some being responsible for what he observed? Maybe the vast, unlivable House beyond served some other purpose they didn’t know about. These were just a few of the questions that kept him awake at night. Being the thoughtful (and rather talented) fish they were, Bob and Joe decided to build a vessel to explore the great unknown beyond Aquarium. After a while, they had worked out  a way to bring some of their aqueous environment with them into the ominous air beyond Aquarium, and they boarded their vessel, and went out to boldly go where no fish had gone before! They explored the wonders of the other rooms of the House, and saw many strange things they could not imagine any possible purpose for. They made a map and labeled these things “Chair” and “Couch” and “Table”, and wondered what they could signify. Bob thought they were interesting anomalies at best, or maybe an ominous confirmation of their own insignificance at worst. Joe, on the other hand, wondered if these oddities might be clues about the nature of the one responsible for their own realm.

Eventually, they came to windows that opened up onto an even bigger world beyond the House, one covered in snow and ice, so that getting near the windows made their little portable heater strain to keep the water temperature stable in their ship. Then they realized that while the House was a hostile environment to them, it was necessary for their fish-friendly environment to survive. The House supplied the power to run Aquarium’s water pump, filter, light, and water heater. As their water evaporated, it was replenished from a nearby faucet. Fish food and pH balancing chemicals and replacement filters were all stored nearby to keep the Aquarium habitable for them. But even seeing the fish food stored nearby, and the source of fresh water, and so on, they only had more questions than when they started. How did food and fresh water and filters and such get from where it was to their home by itself? Although Joe’s suggestion of some nonfish being outside of Aquarium that was responsible for these things was a more straightforward explanation, Bob assured Joe that someday they would figure out a completely natural, impersonal explanation. Joe wondered to himself why any impersonal explanation, no matter how improbable, was preferable to Bob over any explanation involving intelligent agents. After all, they themselves were intelligent agents who made decisions every day. Was it so hard to extrapolate that there might exist a being beyond them doing the same thing on a grander scale?

But then there was also the troubling aspect of the apparent design of Aquarium: they had to work long and hard to design a portable version of Aquarium’s life-sustaining environment. Yet, looking back on their home from outside, they had to wonder why this perfect little place for fish was carved out of this larger environment so unsuitable for fish. Everything about Aquarium, from its structure to its mechanical components, seemed focused on sustaining their life in a very intentional way. In fact, most of their design of their ship was simply copied from Aquarium, yet they had no problem saying they intentionally designed their ship. Even if they were insignificant compared to the scale of the House – and more so now that they had seen an even bigger, more hostile world outside of the House – that still didn’t explain the origin of the carefully built haven they had grown up in, or it’s continued maintenance and protection.

Fortunately for our piscene explorers, our cats are fat and lazy, and Bob and Joe returned home to Aquarium unharmed, with a lot of new knowledge, but even more questions to hash out in their home on the table above our eavesdropping cats.  Now, I tend to take what cats say with a grain of salt, but humans sometimes express the same views as Bob the fish, so maybe the cat was serious. People do sometimes say that the inhospitableness of the vast majority of the universe is a strike against the God of the Bible. It’s true that the universe is not life-friendly, but that doesn’t negate the fact that our little piece of the universe appears to be uniquely habitable among all we’ve observed. Besides that, God gave us rational minds far beyond any animal (even Bob and Joe), such that we really can make spaceships and actually live in space, and potentially other planets. So does the immense and inhospitable nature of our universe make me doubt God’s existence? Hardly. He just gave me a huge playground to explore! As a parting thought, it’s been said the universe is more massive than we can really grasp because the universe is not displaying our glory, but God’s. Something to chew on next time you’re looking up at the stars “outside the fishbowl.”

“I Fought the (2nd) Law & the Law Won”

Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy Nasa.gov.

No, today’s title doesn’t mean this post is about misremembered lyrics to 60’s songs. This is a different law, and one even harder to win against. Today, I want to review some basics of thermodynamics that point to the need for a nonmaterial, transcendent, first cause of the universe. This is a problem for atheists because the most reasonable candidate for that position is the God whose existence they deny. Let’s jump in.

The first and second laws of thermodynamics may be summarized as follows: 1) energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only changes form, and 2) the amount of usable energy in any closed system is always decreasing. The first deals with the quantity of energy, while the second deals with the quality of that energy. The measure of that decrease in usable energy is called entropy. A low-entropy system is highly ordered with much energy available to do work. A high-entropy system is approaching (or has reached) a state of uniform, random distribution, with little to no usable energy available. What does this have to do with anything? Let me quote from my college thermodynamics textbook:

Since no actual process is truly reversible, we can conclude that the net entropy change for any process that takes place is positive, and therefore the entropy of the universe, which can be considered to be an isolated system, is continuously increasing. … Entropy increase of the universe is a major concern not only to engineers but also to philosophers and theologians since entropy is viewed as a measure of the disorder  (or “mixed-up-ness”) in the universe.

S_{gen} = \Delta S_{total} \begin{cases} >0 & \text{irreversible process}\\ = 0 &\text{reversible process}\\ < 0 & \text{impossible process} \end{cases}

This relation serves as a criterion in determining whether a process is reversible, irreversible, or impossible.[1]

There’s a couple of relevant statements in that section. One is that the entropy of the universe is an issue for philosophers and theologians as well as engineers. The textbook author correctly realizes the implications of the 2nd Law. It has been our consistent observation that usable energy does not increase without a contribution from outside the system being studied. At best, it stays constant, like the idealized reversible process mentioned in the text (that doesn’t actually exist), but otherwise it’s always decreasing. And it can’t have been decreasing forever or the amount of usable energy in the universe would be exhausted already. This leads to the second noteworthy statement above:  the last case of the system entropy equation above defines what is an impossible process. Now, in science, we don’t take words like impossible lightly. This isn’t like watching a basketball game and seeing an “impossible” shot. No, this is more than just our typical hyperbole. If the universe is an isolated physical system that can never increase in total usable energy, and is clearly decreasing, then we have to recognize that there had to be a starting value. If the fuel tank of our universe is getting closer to “Empty”, there had to be a “Full” at one time. Things run down, disperse, and seek equilibrium, or their lowest energy state. We see this with our own sun, which should burn out in roughly 5 billion years.[2] And this is happening throughout our world, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe. Closer to home, this irreversible dispersal of energy is also why we have to keep our coffee cup on a warmer to keep it from equalizing to room temperature; it’s why we have to do preventative maintenance to keep our equipment from rusting if it’s exposed to the environment; it’s why perpetual motion machines are simply not possible.[3] Consider how bluntly Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer who first observationally confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity, put it:

The Law that entropy increases—the Second Law of Thermodynamics—holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations— then so much for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation— well, these experiments do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation[4]

Now, perhaps you might say that that initial description of the universe as an isolated system is rendered inaccurate by the existence of a multiverse. Although completely unsupported by any scientific observation, and believed to be beyond the ability to ever observe by our event horizon, the multiverse is a popular escape for many – a kind of magic place where anything is possible.[5] Well, that might make our universe an open system briefly, until you simply label the multiverse as your isolated system, with our universe being one subsystem and the surroundings – i.e. the rest of the multiverse – being another subsystem in the arbitrary isolated system. So, appealing to the multiverse to get around the 2nd law doesn’t really help.

Maybe there is an escape in the idea of a cyclical universe that recycles itself. Consider then this statement from Alexander Vilenkin:

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.[6]

But what are we to do if there is a definite beginning to the universe and it can’t simply have existed eternally? Things always require a cause outside of themselves to come into existence. And that’s what worries atheist scientists. When you’re talking about all of our physical reality, what’s outside of that? Nothing according to a materialistic worldview. And so their presuppositions actually make them close-minded to viable options – options that match up with our daily commonsense observations: basic cause and effect, that things don’t simply pop into existence for no reason, that things running down can’t be running down forever. The Second Law reminds us of our finitude [Is 51:6], the existence of a beginning [Gen 1:1], and by implication, the need for a Beginner. And the Second Law… always wins. Take care 🙂

[1] Yunus A. Çengel, Michael A. Boles, Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach, 2nd Edition, (Ney York: McGraw-Hill, 1994), pp.304-5.
[2] http://www.space.com/14732-sun-burns-star-death.html
[3] In fact, a perpetual motion machine is defined as a device that violates either the 1st or 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics. But their inviolability is why the US Patent Office has not accepted patent applications for perpetual motion machines since 1918. Thermodynamics, p. 255-257.
[3] Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, 1929, Ch 4.
[4] In the words of Alan Guth, “anything that can happen will happen—and it will happen infinitely many times.” Quoted by Paul Steinhardt in “Theories of Anything“.
[5] Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One, 2006, p.176, quoted in  William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith (3rd edition), p. 140.

Ex Nihilo

Hubble Telescope - Cluster of massive stars in Tarantula Nebula
Hubble Telescope – Cluster of massive stars in Tarantula Nebula

When we speak of God’s act of creation, we speak of “ex nihilo” creation. If you’re Latin’s a little rusty, “ex nihilo” means “out of nothing”; so we are talking about God creating the universe out of nothing. But is that just nonsense? What about the idea that “out of nothing, nothing comes”? You might remember Julie Andrews singing something similar in The Sound of Music, (“…Nothing comes from nothing / Nothing ever could…”), but that’s actually a much older idea that dates back to the ancient Greeks, who believed in an eternal universe. Were they right? Let’s investigate that.

There are some prerequisite propositions that need to be understood. We propose first that God exists “necessarily”, and second, that nothing else does. This then requires creation out of nothing. What do these propositions mean, and what warrant do we have for them? Necessary existence means that God is not contingent, that there is no possible time or place, no “possible world” or alternate dimension, where God does not exist. Even in a scenario where there were no universe, God would still exist. You and I, however, are contingent. The world was moving along fine before we arrived and will keep right on going long after we’re gone. In fact, all of humanity – all of life – is contingent. On this, Christians and atheists can agree. While we claim to know how life first arose (based on the revelation from God, the author of life, in the Bible), atheists continue to search for a naturalistic mechanism to explain abiogenesis (life arising from nonlife). So we agree that life didn’t always exist. But matter, energy, space, and time are a different story.

That brings us to our second proposition: there can only be one necessary existence, whether that’s a being, or a force, or an object. Everything else is contingent on that one, whether directly or indirectly through a long chain of dependencies. If a second something could necessarily exist, then the first necessary existence wouldn’t really be… well, necessary. For both the Christian and the atheist, there is ultimately no escape from the Law of Causality. Cause and effect invariably has to lead back to a necessary, uncaused first cause – that is, something without beginning, or eternal. For everything that has a beginning must have a cause. For the Christian, that first cause is obviously God. God has power, knowledge, the ability to choose, and transcends space and time. God is therefore easily eligible to be considered a first cause.

For the atheist, however, there are some serious complications. If “out of nothing, nothing comes,” then something has to be eternal. Before the Big Bang was proposed, this was assumed to be the universe. But now we have roughly a century of scientific confirmation that the universe can’t fulfill that role.  Whatever your thoughts on the Big Bang theory and the age of the universe currently assigned to it, one thing it won’t let us say is that the universe is static, and therefore eternal. The universe is a material thing – planets, comets, asteroids, stars, interstellar dust, and so forth. These things exist in space and time. But now we understand that space and time are tied together and both had a definite beginning point. It’s not that matter came into existence in an eternal empty universe; it’s that there was no space for matter to occupy until that singularity called the Big Bang (or Creation).  It’s hard to have a materialistic origin of the universe when it’s impossible for material to exist. More recent attempts to postulate a “multiverse” of universes are ultimately only semantics that simply kick the proverbial can down the road. Likewise, appeals to matter coming into existence from “fluctuations in quantum vacuum fields” assume there is still some space for these fields to exist, but at the origin of the universe, space doesn’t exist yet.

Despite the varied confirmations that the universe had a beginning at some kind of singularity, scientists have struggled to postulate a purely materialistic origin scenario for that singularity. The laws of physics appear to break down at that point. Any potential traces of prior material existence (like a cyclical universe) are completely obliterated in the singularity. Even if a purely natural origin of the universe were true, it could never be scientifically proven because there’s no way to observe any evidence of what led up to that moment. This puts the atheist in the awkward position of having to trust in the hope that science will “someday” find evidence for what appears to be an untestable, unfalsifiable  gamble against God as Creator. This sounds like the “blind faith” that atheists often accuse Christians of having….

But what of the alternative? Does God, as described in the Bible, match what we see in nature? We see from science that time and space had to be caused by something outside of time and space. The Bible tells us that God is both immaterial and eternal.[1] Science tells us that time and space both had a beginning. The Bible tells us that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[2] Why does it just say “in the beginning”? Because time did not exist prior to that; it really was the beginning of time. So, can something come from nothing? Yes, science points us to this conclusion as the time-space continuum comes into existence at the cosmic singularity commonly known as the Big Bang. The Bible tells us that God is He who “calls into being that which does not exist.“[3] The critical distinction here is that while something can come into existence from nothing, it can’t come into existence by nothing. Everything that has a beginning must have a cause, including the universe. And the only answer that makes sense of what we observe is God.

[1] John 4:24, NASB; Titus 1:2, NIV.
[2] Genesis 1:1, NASB.
[3] Romans 4:17, NASB.