This is the "big question" — the one that has been with us in one way or another since the beginning of history.
Every culture that we have a record of has asked the very same question: How did the world come to be? How did people and life come to be? Taken within this broader cultural context, it's no surprise that modern-day scientists are as fascinated with the question of origins as were the shamans of our distant ancestors.
Religions across the globe and across time have dealt with the question of the origin of all things in a similar way. (An exception is Buddhism, which we will leave aside for now.) To create the world, with all its material things, there needs to be a stage where things exist — space — and an account where their histories unfold — time. To create space and time and the things within them, religions invoke deities capable of existing outside the confines of space and time — and with the power to create things. So, by definition, to be a god is to transcend the confines of space and time, and to exist beyond the boundaries that define our existence. The gods, or God, do not respect the laws of nature that rule material and living things.
In my book The Dancing Universe, I argued that there are only five possible answers to the question of creation, and that all religious creation myths fall within one of them. First, we organize them by whether there was a moment of creation, a moment when cosmic time started to tick. There can only be two answers to that: Yes, time started at some point in the past; or, No, the universe is eternal. Within each, there are possibilities organized as follows:
I call the "no-beginning" myths those without a single beginning of time. Within those, there are two possibilities: an eternal cosmos, without beginning and end; and a cyclic cosmos, where the cosmos is created and destroyed in cycles that repeat throughout eternity, with no moment of creation more important than any other one. The Jains of India espoused the eternal cosmos, while the Hindus espoused cycles of creation beautifully represented in the dance of Shiva.
Myths with a beginning, the most common by far (including the Old Testament) invoke a God or gods that create the world at a specific moment in the past. There are, however, also myths where there is no deity involved, as in the Maori creation narrative "out of nothing." (Barbara Sproul's book Primal Myths offers a wonderful collection of creation myths.) Finally, order may emerge out of chaos, with or without divine intervention.
Philosophers that took up the challenge to explain creation, quickly realized that our minds hit a hard wall when we causally go back to the beginning. Since we organize reality in terms of a chain of causes and their effects, as we go back in time with must deal with the First Cause, the one that initiates the chain of causation without itself being caused. Aristotle, for example, proposed his "Unmoved Mover," a deity capable of giving the initial quick that sets the cosmos in motion without itself being caused. Much later, Gottfried Leibniz wondered in awe: "How could there be something rather than nothing?"
This is the grand challenge of modern cosmology, as scientists scratch their heads trying to figure out how to explain the Big Bang, the event that marks the beginning of at least the current cycle of cosmic existence.
What do we know? Quite a lot actually, thanks to remarkable advances in cosmology in the past 50 years. We know that the universe is 13.8 billion-years-old and that it has been expanding since its emergence back then. (For more on the cosmic expansion, see last week's essay.) This means that if we play the cosmic history backwards, we would logically reach a point where all matter is squeezed to a very tiny volume, reaching absurdly high energies and densities. The Big Bang is the big release, when this concentration of primal stuff gets on its way, expanding in all directions.
We can reconstruct this history with amazing accuracy starting from about 380,000 years after "the Bang." We can go even further past this time, when the first light nuclei were formed at about one second after the Bang, an epoch called primordial nucleosynthesis. As we get to earlier times, we start to hit limits of what we actually can measure in the laboratory or collecting data from the skies. We are quite confident that we know how to trace things back to a mere trillionth of a second after the Bang (yes, one-thousandth-billionth of a second, a ridiculously small time for us, but not for the elementary particles roaming about back then) — these are the energies currently reached by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland. But pushing things further back in time gets really hard. We can and have been trying to collect data with information about very early times. However, just as with very early historical events or fossil searches, things gets complicated fast.
In any case, during the 20th century we were able to at least eliminate many of the rival cosmological models, to stick with the one that tells cosmic history from a moment in time forward. Curiously, before we had solid data, theories about the universe revisited each of the possible mythic solutions (without deities, of course): a cyclic cosmos, an eternal cosmos, a cosmos out of chaos, a cosmos "out of nothing," and a cosmos with a beginning. We are still grappling with a few of these possibilities (to be discussed in a future post), although "out of nothing" cosmologies — that is, cosmologies that suggest a quantum beginning and rely on the nothing from modern particle physics — are not really from a metaphysical "nothing," but already assume the current laws of physics, such as energy conservation and the principles of relativity and quantum physics, etc.
Contrary to what some scientists say in hyped-up statements in books and social media, we can't build a scientific model out of nothing — science needs a conceptual framework to exist. The challenge is to come up with a meta-theory that describes science's current framework, something we truly don't know how to do. It's back to the First Cause issue.
The fact is that we humans have a hard time coming up with an explanation for the First Cause that doesn't involve something that breaks the logical order of reality based on things happening within space and along time. It may very well be that to explain the origin of all things is an impossibility for our causally-based, logically-oriented, experientially-functioning minds. This doesn't mean that only a supernatural explanation exists; it means that we may simply be cognitively-limited to come up with such a broad-ranging description of such far-removed reality.
Should we give up? Of course not! As Tom Stoppard wrote in Arcadia, "It's wanting to know that makes us matter."
To keep on searching is the only path to knowledge. After all, where would we be if we stopped asking?
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser