What caused the Universe?

First in series “20 Atheist answers to questions they supposedly can’t”

  1. What caused the universe to exist?

Short answer: Dunno. But God isn’t any better an explanation.

Longer answer: My understanding of early universe cosmology is limited, but we don’t have a fully tied up account of the early picoseconds of the universe. Perhaps one day we will, as well as an explanation of what ‘kicked off’ the big bang. However, that will just push the problem one step back: what caused the cause of the big bang? etc.

The argument behind the question is (aptly enough) a cosmological one. These come in two-ish flavours: The first (Kalam) talks about causes – all things have causes, so the universe itself needs a cause, and the only thing likely to metaphysically fit the bill is something like god. The other (Leibniz, etc), instead of talking about causes, talks about explanations: and again, the universe requires some sort of explanation, and again, god is the only object that fits the bill.

Are there any other options? Yes.

Least plausibly (but plausibly enough to be a ‘good answer’), one can just say the causal/explanatory regress goes on forever (turtles all the way down). One can offer thought experiments that suggest these lead to counter-intuitive outcomes (Hilbert’s Hotel for infinite concreta, etc), but none of these are that lethal, if nothing else that modern physics is generally counter-intuitive, and there’s no particularly strong reason to think a completed physics of the early universe won’t be either, so we that an account offends our intuition gives us little reason to reject it – Newtonian motion did the same.

A much easier go-to reply is to deny the universe had a cause (or explanation). Maybe the universe just is a brute fact (or some necessary constituent of the way things are), or an unmoved mover. This ‘necessity’ account doesn’t seem any worse than Theism, for Theism just seems to move the stop further back: God, instead of the universe, is the necessary entity or unmoved mover devoid of prior cause or explanation. There’s no obvious reason to say the big bang or universe cannot take up these metaphysical properties whilst God can, and in their defence, they have fewer objects involved. The ‘no cause’/’brute fact’ view also seems fairly safe. We might rely on principles like “all things have causes” or “all things have explanations” as useful heuristics for things like science, but there’s no reason to think these are necessary truths of the universe – we can conceive uncaused events or things without sufficient explanation easily enough, and so if they are possible, why not think the universe is one of them? Sorted.

Further reading:

STEP article on Cosmological arguments. +/- google.

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