[T]he Jatravartid people of [the planet] Viltvodle VI believe that the entire universe was in fact sneezed out of the nose of a being called the Great Green Arkleseizure.

Douglas Adams, in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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We are a very inquisitive species, in our search for causes and reasons, each of us using them to flesh out the narrative of the Story of Me. The biggest question of all is: How did the universe (that is, my environment, in its broadest possible sense) come to be?

I should point out first that the question doesn't require an answer. The universe is here, it sustains us, and it won't go away if we don't figure out what caused it. But it's nearly impossible for us to turn off the questioning mechanism inside us.

The question itself leads to the broadest possible use of the concept of God: even people who don't believe a Supreme Being exists (and takes an interest) in the present-day universe believe that some thinking power must have created all this: an "Intelligent Designer" of all we see around us. And even people who don't ordinarily hesitate to accept "it just happened" as an explanation for everyday events such as the weather or train wrecks find it hard to attribute the existence of the universe to happenstance.

Science, in this case, is only semi-helpful, because scientists haven't finished working it out yet. That Science has been unable to finish answering the cause-of-the-universe question (to date) is seen by the devoutly religious as proof that God must have done it. Such people often declare Science to be a failure, but in many cases that is because they only have a rudimentary, and often wildly inaccurate, notion of what Science is. So I want to put in a word on behalf of Science here. It is often pointed out, by those extremely religious people, that scientists often aren't sure; they make errors; the consensus of scientists often shifts from one explanation for a phenomenon to an entirely different one. All of that is true. But that is not because there is anything "broken" about Science -- all of that is a key part of what Science is intended to be, as an exploration of the world around us. Scientists don't know everything. They don't claim to know everything, because knowing everything would actually end the subject. Science is about finding out, and if everything were known, there would be nothing to find out. If all mysteries of the world around us had been solved, then the people in charge of keeping track of that knowledge wouldn't be scientists. They would be librarians.

Yet all through history, despite mistakes and false starts, more has become known. Scientists can now offer explanations for uncounted phenomena that previously had been attributed to the Will of God. You can choose to reject scientific explanations and stick with the Will of God for everything if you want, but what is different today from yesterday is that today, and every day, the Will of God has more alternative explanations competing against it than ever before. God continually becomes less indispensable as time goes by; where once you could only believe God must have caused something, more and more often you have another explanation now that you can use instead. And that doesn't require that all scientists agree. It only requires that the explanation be plausible. Many of the explanations offered by scientific theories become steadily more plausible as time goes by.

The word "theory," now that I've used it, is often abused by people who wish to disparage science: "Evolution is only a theory." This is the sort of thing usually said by people who don't actually understand what the word "theory" means. Most often they are confusing it with the word "conjecture" -- often they don't know what that word means either, or in some cases haven't even heard of it, but what "conjecture" means is what people usually (incorrectly) assume "theory" means. A conjecture is simply an untested statement; basically, conjecture means "guess." Sometimes an educated guess, when you have some reasons to think your guess is true; sometimes a guess out of nowhere with nothing to support it -- yet. A "theory" is something else.

A theory is a framework, a structure. You can think of a theory as a desktop organizer -- your pens go here, your paper goes there, everything on your desk has a place to go so that you know where everything is without fumbling for it, and it all fits neatly and efficiently. A theory is like that, with observations, rather than desktop implements, as its contents. You perform an experiment, you observe and record what happens, and the result of all that should have a place to go in the theory. At the beginning the theory holds only a few observations together, and it was designed by a scientist to hold those things. But if the theory is any good, gradually more and more observations related to the phenomenon being studied have a place to fit in the theory -- the theory is helping to "explain" the observations. Sometimes an observation has no place to fit in the theory. The theory, in that case, might be adjusted in small ways, and afterward perhaps the observation fits; on the other hand, sometimes the observation can't possibly be fit into the theory, and the theory breaks down. Perhaps then a new theory can be designed, and a lot of scientists jump in trying to do exactly that.

But the best theories, the strongest theories, are the ones that have stood the test of time, sometimes for centuries, accepting and fitting into their framework every observation that has come along. The number of scientists who accept the theory grows, until in many cases overwhelming consensus is reached. Evolution is such a theory.

Now, back to the subject of the universe, and how it got here.

Early in the 20th century, astronomers observed that all of the stars in the observable universe outside of our immediate neighborhood in space, all of them, were moving away from us. (If you wonder how it is possible to know that, look up things like "cosmic expansion," "Doppler Effect" as it applies to light, "red shift," and "Edwin Hubble.") The only explanation anyone could come up with, or has come up with to this day, is that the universe itself is expanding. That is, as time goes by, the universe is continually getting bigger and bigger: tomorrow it will be bigger than it is today; yesterday it was smaller than it is today. Looking farther into the past, there is an obvious limit to how far that can be taken: the amount of space occupied by the universe could never have been less than zero. It was the Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître (of all things, a Jesuit priest!) who first proposed, in 1927, that all of the observable universe began from a tiny point, the "primeval atom," its expansion beginning with an explosion that came to be called the "Big Bang." Current measurements of how fast the expansion is going imply that the universe was a single point about 14 billion years ago (as you may have heard in the theme song for the U.S. television series "The Big Bang Theory").

The idea of the expansion of the universe, and the resulting Big Bang Theory, have stood up to a lot of tests over the past century: time after time observations have fit into the theory. Few cosmologists (those scientists who study the origins of the universe) have any doubts about it anymore. At most the cosmologists differ about details.

The big question, for my own purposes here, is: with the consensus of scientific thought having come to accept a creation date for the universe about 14 billion years in the past, what does that imply one way or another about the universe being "created by God"?

It certainly doesn't disprove God's existence, at least not all by itself. If the universe had a beginning, in an unimaginably huge explosion, the question remains: "So what made that happen?" There is room for God there. But there is also room for the absence of God, for an explosion that simply happened on its own.

As I've said, many people refuse to believe anything ever "just happens." And such resistance to happenstance seems reasonable here. Our experience with explosions is that they always have a cause, and for the Big Bang, it is not at all obvious what the cause might be, since our universe itself presumably didn't exist before the explosion.

That does seem to leave one feeling that a more mystical force must have caused it, but the claim that the God of Abraham made the Big Bang happen does turn out to have some problems. One of them is that scientific evidence shows that our own small piece of the universe, our own sun and its system of planets, Earth being one of them, is only about 4.6 billion years old. That is, two-thirds of the entire history of the universe went by before our sun and our planet ever put in an appearance.

(That 4.6 billion year figure is, like the 14 billion year measurement, something that I don't want to take time to explain here, because that would not only make this a much, much longer book, it would make it a different kind of book. But I do want to say this much about scientific measurements in general: scientists have very specific reasons for stating particular numbers. In many cases it takes years of study to reach a point of understanding the principles and techniques used in making those measurements, and anyone who really wants to understand them fully is going to have to put those years in -- you can't just learn it all spending an afternoon with Google. That is a further reason why science is often belittled by non-scientists -- non-scientists think scientists are just making this stuff up and pretending there is a reason behind these numbers. Scientists aren't making it up and they aren't pretending, but they can't explain the source of the numbers to people without enough knowledge to understand them. If you truly, seriously are curious and want to know, you can get started trying to learn the details whenever you want to. As a hint of a way to get started on understanding how the age of the solar system is estimated: it has a lot to do with the relative amounts of different isotopes of chemical elements and the rates at which the isotopes decay. If you don't know what any of that means, that would be one place you'd need to start: learning what chemical elements are, what isotopes are, how different isotopes are detected and the amounts of them measured, what "isotopic decay" is and what its rate tells you... Stop there if you're not interested, but look into it if you are.)

If our world, Earth, is indeed only a third as old as the universe but still several billions of years old, then the idea that the God of the Bible created the universe runs into two problems:

  1. The Bible says God made "the heavens" and the Earth together. Science says He did not -- not even close;

  2. Bible scholars estimate that, according to the Biblical account, based on family genealogies of the leading participants in the Biblical narrative starting from the Book of Genesis, the Creation occurred about 6000 years ago. So scientific measurement holds that the Earth is literally almost a million times older than the Bible says it is.

So on the subject of Creation, you can accept Science or you can accept the Bible, but not both.

I've already addressed the questionability of the Bible at great length, so between Science and the Bible, I don't have a problem choosing a side. But what about God, separately from the Bible? There is still that question of an "Intelligent Creator."

I can't disprove the existence of a "Creator" -- it's just not subject to scientific disproof because it's an idea outside science -- but I don't need to. I have already brought the general idea of "God" into question earlier, in so many ways, that all I need to do here, as I said above, is offer an alternative that is plausible.

Let's go back, then, to that Big Bang -- the description of the beginning of the universe which, as I said above, originally came from a Catholic priest who also was a scientist. If God didn't make the universe start, then what did?

Consider the following:

A growing number of cosmologists (including, if you want some famous names, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson) believe in the possible existence of something bigger than the observable universe, something which contains the observable universe as part of itself, and that "something" is usually called the "multiverse." The nature of the multiverse is... well, there are almost as many different versions of the idea as there are scientists.

There is one popular version of the notion of the multiverse that I have taken a liking to. It states that the multiverse is an unimaginably huge space that occasionally gives birth to "bubbles," each bubble being a universe. One of these bubbles is our own universe, just a tiny piece of the multiverse, though of course very large to us. Each of these bubbles originates in a huge explosion and expands from there, just as we perceive that our own universe has done.

There it is, a description of where our universe came from: an explosion that happened, as such explosions sometimes do, within the larger multiverse. The multiverse may extend forever into the past -- the fact that we aren't able to imagine extending the existence of the multiverse forever into the past is just a limitation of our imagination. The multiverse, in this version of the idea, simply exists, has always existed, will always exist -- it is simply what is. It requires no explanation for its beginning, no "Creator," because it has no beginning. As for the explosion within it that resulted in our own universe, that could be the result of an action by an intelligent being -- but there is no reason it has to be. It can, like so many other explosions in our experience, simply be the result of an accidental set of conditions in the multiverse that no one intentionally caused.

I'm comfortable with that. I've already accommodated my beliefs to the absence of God in all other situations. On this one question, the creation of the universe, the question where most people believe a God must have done it, I find that I don't feel a need for God there either.