Essay — From the January 2016 issue

What Came Before the Big Bang?

The physics and metaphysics of the creation of the universe

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The quantum cosmologists are aware of the vast philosophical and theological reverberations of their work. As Hawking says in A Brief History of Time, many people believe that God, while permitting the universe to evolve according to fixed laws of nature, was uniquely responsible for winding up the clock at the beginning and choosing how to set it in motion. Hawking’s own theory provides an explanation for how the universe might have wound itself up — his method of calculating the early snapshots of the universe has no dependence on initial conditions or boundaries or anything outside the universe itself. The icy rules of quantum physics are completely sufficient. “What place, then, for a creator?” asks Hawking. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist, reaches a similar conclusion in his book A Universe from Nothing, in which he argues that advances in quantum cosmology show that God is irrelevant at best.

One would expect most quantum cosmologists to be atheists, like the majority of scientists. But Don Page, a leading quantum cosmologist at the University of Alberta, is also an evangelical Christian. Page is a master computationalist. When he and I were fellow graduate students in physics at Caltech, he used to quietly take out a fine-point pen whenever confronted with a difficult physics problem. Without flinching or pausing, he scribbled one equation after another in a dense tangle of mathematics until he arrived at the answer. Although he has collaborated with Hawking on major papers, Page parts ways with him on the subject of God. He recently told me, “As a Christian, I think there is a being outside the universe that created the universe and caused all things. God is the true creator. All of the universe is caused by God.” In a guest column on Carroll’s blog (which is called The Preposterous Universe), Page sounds simultaneously like a scientist and a theist:

One might think that adding the hypothesis that the world (all that exists) includes God would make the theory for the entire world more complex, but it is not obvious that is the case, since it might be that God is even simpler than the universe, so that one would get a simpler explanation starting with God than starting with just the universe.

Significantly, most quantum cosmologists do not believe that anything caused the creation of the universe. As Vilenkin said to me, quantum physics can hypothesize a universe without cause — just as quantum physics can show how electrons can change orbits in an atom without cause. There are no definite cause-and-effect relationships in the quantum world, only probabilities. Carroll put it this way: “In everyday life we talk about cause and effect. But there is no reason to apply that thinking to the universe as a whole. I do not feel in any way unsatisfied by just saying, ‘That’s the way it is.’ ”

The notion of an event or state of being without cause drives hard against the grain of science. For centuries, scientists have attempted to explain all events as the logical consequence of prior events. Page argues that at the origin of our universe — whether in the Two-Headed Time model or in the universe-out-of-nothing model — there was no clear distinction between cause and effect. If causality can dissolve in the quantum haze of the origin of the universe, Page and other physicists note, there is reason to question its solidity even in the world that we live in, long after the Big Bang, which is surely part of the same reality. “Causality within the universe is not fundamental,” said Page. “It is an approximate concept derived from our experience with the world.” Strict causality could be an illusion, a way for our brains, and our science, to make sense of the world. But without strict causality, how can we take responsibility for our actions? A crack in the marble foundation of causality could send tremors into philosophy, religion, and ethics.

Quantum cosmology has led us to questions about the fundamental aspects of existence and being, questions that most of us rarely ask. In our short century or less, we generally aim to create a comfortable existence within the tiny rooms of our lives. We eat, we sleep, we get jobs, we pay the bills, we have lovers and children. Some of us build cities or make art. But if we have the luxury of true mental freedom, there are larger concerns to be found. Look at the sky. Does space go on forever, to infinity? Or is it finite but without boundary or edge, like the surface of a sphere? Either answer is disturbing, and unfathomable. Where did we come from? We can follow the lives of our parents and grandparents and their parents backward in time, back and back through the generations, until we come to some ancestor ten thousand years in the past whose DNA remains in our body. We can follow the chain of being even further back in time to the first humans, and the first primates, and the one-celled amoebas swimming about in the primordial seas, and the formation of the atmosphere, and the slow condensation of gases to create Earth. It all happened, whether we think about it or not. We quickly realize how limited we are in our experience of the world. What we see and feel with our bodies, caught midway between atoms and galaxies, is but a small swath of the spectrum, a sliver of reality.

In the 1940s, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the concept of a hierarchy of human needs. He started with the most primitive and urgent demands, and ended with the most lofty and advanced. At the bottom of the pyramid are physical needs for survival, like food and water. Next up is safety. Higher up is love and belonging, then self-esteem. The highest of Maslow’s proposed needs, self-actualization, is the desire to get the most out of ourselves, to be the best we can be. I would suggest adding one more category at the very top of the pyramid, above even self-actualization: imagination and exploration. Wasn’t that the need that propelled Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama and Einstein? The need to imagine new possibilities, the need to reach out beyond ourselves and understand the world around us. Not to help ourselves with physical survival or personal relationships or self-discovery but to know and comprehend this strange cosmos we find ourselves in. The need to ask the really big questions. How did it all begin? Far beyond our own lives, far beyond our community or our nation or our planet or even our solar system. How did the universe begin? It is a luxury to be able to ask such questions. It is also a human necessity.

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, a physicist and novelist, teaches at MIT. His essay “Our Place in the Universe” appeared in the December 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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