“Who or what was the first cause?” Inquiries of this nature go back to a time when people wore hides and wondered why the large bright object in the night sky was always changing shape. Those who asked such questions were curious. Those who finally answered such questions were scientists. Those of us who now attempt to answer the specific question are mindful explorers.
Many with advanced degrees in physics, mathematics, philosophy, and cosmology—mindful explorers all—have taken their shot at knocking God out of first place. But their knockouts have lacked finish. The mistake of omission these challengers have made lies in their failure to fill the vacancy left by their vanquished god. If not God, then who or what was the first cause—or, was there even a first cause? They give no plausible answer.
Mindful exploration is speculation that begins with a vague suspicion complemented by intuition, further energized by creative imagination and, possibly, a measure of obsession. When one thinks along the line that our universe had a source rather than with the loaded term a creator, one’s neurons relax enough to allow other possibilities to surface, no advanced degree required.
My hypothesis, a product of mindful exploration, does not merely knock God out of first place but replaces him (it) with a mechanism that long and careful thought suggests to me is responsible for our universe. To detect this mechanism required that I think not outside the box but outside our universe, the territory where this so-called creative action took place. It was not God I found there, but something that was not only plausible but jaw-dropping in its simplicity.
My effort in this, my model of the first cause, is to support the status of atheists by demonstrating legitimacy in our uncommon viewpoints and to bolster the resolve of those governed primarily by reason. It is not my intent or in my ability to convince theists of anything they do not wish to be convinced of. Reason on horseback cannot dissuade faith on foot or trample its god.
Reality, First Class
Reality, fully comprehended, is the fount and handmaiden of reason. The first principle of reality is to comprehend that there are three classes of reality, presented here in the first person: First is the class of reality that exists as it is and independently of my measurement (the exact age of our universe falls into this first class of reality). Second is the class of reality I regard as true (that I believe our universe is about 13.8 billion years old falls into this second class of reality). Third is the class of countless other realities that exist outside my sphere of perception (one such reality, that the universe is 6,000 years old, falls into this third class of reality). Put another way, the first class of reality, that which exists as it is and independently of human measurement, is our universe; the second class of reality, that which I regard as real, is my universe; and the third class of reality, that class of realities that exists outside my sphere of perception, is your universe. Your in this context means anyone who is other than me: everyone else. Your second class of reality, the class of reality you regard as real, is uniquely yours, as mine is mine.
Any measurement humans take of the first class of reality, that which exists as it is and independently of human measurement, is ultimately an embroidered calculation based on the perspective, perceptual limits, bias, and/or arbitration of the measurer. The first class of reality is unaffected by the opinions, prayers, or wishes of humans.
A disagreeing measurement of the first class of reality, that which exists as it is and independently of human measurement, and based on perspective, is the dog that measures its master, Mr. Jones, as larger than itself, while an elephant measures its trainer, the same Mr. Jones, as smaller than itself—the exact same man, two different measures, both legitimate. An example of disagreeing measurements of the first class of reality based on a view limited by perception, is the person who, with a downward glance, measures a depression in the dirt as being that of a child’s shoe, while a dog measures with his nose the actual identity of the child who made the depression—the exact same depression, two different measures, both legitimate. An example of disagreeing measurements of the first class of reality based on bias is the man who measures his dog as loving and faithful, while the man’s wife measures the dog as untrustworthy and destructive—the exact same dog, two different measures, both legitimate. An example of disagreeing measurements of the first class of reality based on arbitration is that one country will measure the length of a dog’s tail in decimeters and another country will measure the length of a dog’s tail in inches—the exact same tail, two different measures, both legitimate.
On the other hand, two independent measurements of any presumed unit of this first class of reality may agree (Earth’s distance from the sun) but not necessarily agree (heaven’s distance from purgatory). This is not to suggest that reality adjusts itself to comply with any interpretation—or that some grand set of measurements existing within the reality of our universe necessarily contradicts the measurements of human or beast—but that this first class of reality, that which exists as it is and independently of human measurement, is the environment from which all measures are taken and that this environment allows different measurements of any one particular unit of reality (such as the age of our universe) to take place in chorus, whether those measurements agree or not, without regard to the value of the measurement and whether or not the so-called unit of reality being measured even exists. The simple economy of our universe, an economy resulting from in-place physical laws, one in legion with the other, has no responsibility to human understanding. That is why scientific claims, no matter how final they may appear, are always provisional—as are the claims of mindful explorers.
The way an individual person stands apart from all other creatures in his or her private second class of reality, that which he or she regards as real, is that he or she has the ability to also be cognizant of the first class of reality, that which exists as it is and independently of his measurement. Further, he or she has the ability to be cognizant of the third class of reality, that class of reality that exists outside his or her sphere of perception. This human capacity is evidenced by the ability to focus on, track, and grasp the thoughts and beliefs of others.
It is in this first class of reality that the answer to “Who or what was the first cause?” is to be found. And like all other measures of this first class of reality, this measure of who or what was the first cause is subject to the perspective, perceptual limits, bias, and/or arbitration of the measurer. On this topic, and in this essay, the author alone is doing the measuring.
Evidence suggests that our universe emerged; emergence presupposes a cause (or a source), and a cause is the action of something or some thing. There are six major hypotheses to explain what that thing was.
1. The universe created itself. For the universe to have emerged from itself, it would have had to already exist, in which case it would have had no obligation to emerge, so the hypothesis that the universe created itself is clearly illegitimate and must be discarded.
2. The big bang created the universe. The big bang was a release of energy that inflated our universe from a condition existing prior to ignition (ignition presupposes a detonating force); that this prior condition, this detonating force, preceded the release of energy knocks the big bang out of first place. (Second place counts for nothing.) There is a model in which the universe cycles from big bang to big crunch to big bang, and so on, but that is a study in infinite regress, a model that, in juggling two first causes, discards itself.
3. The universe materialized from the energy of nonmaterial force field(s). This at first seemingly reasonable notion stems from knowledge that energy and matter are interconvertible; therefore, the energy of a nonmaterial force field, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and/or the gravitational force, one or all were converted from energy to matter—our universe.
Not so fast.
Energy from the nonmaterial force field(s) cannot be said to be the first cause, because each of the four known forces are manifestations of matter, not precursors. Without preexisting matter or a preexisting energy source outside of our universe, there can be no expression of the force fields—no universe. To suggest so is to suppose the cart is capable of pulling the horse.
4. The instability of nothingness was the cause of our universe. This well-intentioned contribution comes from the late physicist Victor Stenger, who suggested that “nothingness is unstable,” which, when the sap is boiled down to syrup, means: because Nature abhors a vacuum, it, Nature, stabilized the vacuum of nothingness with the something of our universe. In other words, our universe had no cause that could be pinned down; it just happened—or it had just taken place, or it had just chanced along, like a hobo in a freight yard. Bottom line: nonexistent Nature caused the universe to exist. Very tricky to defend this one.
5. An unknown, other possibility caused our universe. The only unknown possibility I can give a name to would be dark energy. Little to nothing is known about dark energy except that it—whatever it is—seems to have more energy than our universe, which might qualify it to foster our universe and still have energy left over. But until and unless more is known about this dark energy, the possibility that dark energy is the cause of our universe is too remote to consider at this time.
6. Finally, least plausibly and most offensively, God caused the universe. This god concept has been stomped, reamed, and trashed so many times in so many ways that it is difficult to add anything new, except to present that tired attempt from my perspective.
This hypothesis that God caused the universe begins with the assumption that God does indeed exist and that it only remains to show that it was he who caused the universe. To believe in the existence of a god is to believe based on the support of creative evidence (faith) rather than on the support of intelligible evidence (the product of reason applied to observation and experience). Reason is not an element of faith, which means that any attempt to verify the object of one’s faith, God, with the use of reason is to dilute the purity of a one’s faith. To remain truly faithful, then, the theist must resist the temptation to reason and must rely on faith alone, committed without evidence to the notion that God exists. But because the theist must apply faith to arrive at the notion of God, the notion is neither observationally nor experientially nor logically verified.
Nor is the existence of God a self-evident fact as some claim. What is indisputably self-evident is that we have a self and that our universe exists.
These self-evident facts of reality, self (our station of awareness) and our universe exists, both epistemic primaries, always explain each other and without the necessity of a formal proof for either. Verification happens when any attempt to deny either truth, our universe exists, or self, requires the service of both truths in question: that is, to deny the primacy of the universe is to deprive the self of a platform from which to cast a denial, and, conversely, to deny the self is to negate the possibility of formulating a denial. These two self-evident facts, self and the universe exists, are the foundation of all human knowledge.*
The theist’s claim is that God created our universe and everything in it. First, the theist claims, there is God, then comes our universe, then humanity, then sin (or humans’ knowledge of reality). The fact is that our universe definitely exists, and whether God exists or not, our existing universe is a faultless starting point from which to propose, acquire, and validate knowledge of reality—with the single exception of knowledge of God. Verification that this single exception is not a handicap to acquiring knowledge of reality is that atheists continue to live, learn, and thrive to the same degree as theists.
The notion that God exists is an article of faith, not a self-evident fact, and the belief that God is the first cause is, by any measure, undocumented. From the perspective of the atheist, the God created the universe hypothesis is dead on arrival.
I submit that the first cause of our universe rests outside these six possibilities. To repeat: when one thinks along the line that our universe had a source or cause rather than with the loaded term a creator, one’s neurons relax enough to allow other possibilities to surface.
When I began thinking, not outside the box but outside our universe, my approach changed: the placing of a referential background exterior to the universe seemed to be the only way that would allow me to concretize and distinguish that background as an entity separate from our universe.
I, a human, have and cannot ignore this skill of distinguishing foreground from background. The skill that allows me to distinguish a pink elephant from its background environment is the same skill that requires me to distinguish a pink elephant, and everything else, from its background environment, including a background to our universe, a difficult undertaking.
Consider this: Background gives form to the foreground; without background the foreground would have no setting, no contrast, no outline, no spatial limit—no distinguishing characteristic. Without background, there would be no sense of an elephant’s size or its distance from oneself. When trying to visualize a pink elephant without background, all one might see is pink, as if it were right before one’s nose. (I might liken the above difficulty with an attempt to concentrate on not thinking of a pink elephant for several minutes.) These considerations are a wildly speculative effort to explain to myself what it would be like to not have a background to an entity. My consideration demonstrates the difficulty of imagining—and then defining—any entity without a background, including a background to our universe.
The underlying reasons my mind persists in visualizing our universe with the mental assistance of the referential background are: one, the visualization fits my understanding of a reality in which I observe mainly by seeing; and two, the background notion is aesthetically valid because it settles the upset of an imagination deprived of balance.
As is already known, our universe exists. And though our universe and existence are generally considered one and the same concept or entity, I differentiate between the two, suggest a relationship, and generate a new hypothesis. The foregoing concept mentioned in this paragraph, existence, is now the concept Existence, an entity separate from what is customarily thought of as merely an entity that exists in our universe. Existence is background to our universe.
My working definition of Existence: Existence exists outside of or peripheral to our universe. Existence includes our universe and any other possible universes or other formed entities. Existence is raw energy. Existence is all that there is or can be. Existence is not a visual entity, because Existence itself has no background appearance. (This last will become clear later.)
My definition of our universe: Our universe is—is—the first-class reality. Our universe is the limit of our understanding, beyond or outside of which we cannot acquire knowledge; specifically, we cannot acquire knowledge of Existence itself. We can only speculate about Existence, as I do here.
If our universe literally popped into existence, it popped out of something. As to the pop-up question, Why is there the something of Existence rather than the nothing of nonexistence? If nothing never existed, then it of course never existed—and that is why there is something rather than nothing. (Nothing is no thing, the absence of a measurable quantity or quality, such as dimension, capacity, extent; a quasi-concept.) Or, if it were instead speculated that it were possible for nothing to have existed before something, then it must be admitted that nothing would have had to exist on location in time (before), which means in relation to something. (This relationship is the reference-necessity factor involved in any measurement: a measurement requires that what is being measured be in reference to something else, that is, a measuring device, another existent, or another concept.)
It follows from the preceding that nothing (nonexistence), even as a hypothesis, can only exist in relation to something (Existence itself). It is therefore conclusive that the something I speak of (Existence) exists rather than nothing (nonexistence) because it is the only possibility—which means, Existence exists without alternative, which in turn rules in these two corollaries: Existence is outside the realm of origination or destruction, and, therefore, Existence cannot degrade or run out of energy. That Existence cannot degrade or run out of energy means that Existence need not, for its own self-sufficiency, conserve energy, a state of affairs that leads to and supports my hypothesis: Our universe is an emergent property formed by the unconserved energy of Existence. Existence is first cause.** And because Existence itself has always existed, Existence has no need of a creator; the buck stops at Existence. (Note that my hypothesis is just that: a hypothesis. I do not claim ownership of a new fact of reality.)
In relation to Existence, keeping in mind that matter and energy are interconvertible, the reason the energy of our universe itself is conserved and cannot cease or go out of existence is that there is no other place for it to go.
Skinning the Cat
It is sometimes helpful to bolster the veracity of a hypothesis by advancing the same hypothesis again but from a slightly different set of propositions:
- Evidence suggests our universe began, started, dawned, was introduced, came forth, happened, was caused, was sourced, or emerged. Please consider answering under your breath: true or false.
- In this, our universe, reason—the hallmark of rational humanity—dictates that something cannot be caused by, or be a product of, nothing. True or False.
- The single alternative to nothing is something. True or False.
- If not nothing, then something began, started, dawned, introduced, happened, sourced, or caused our universe. True or False.
- If we name that something the big bang or itself or a force field or Nature or God or dark energy or existence or some other unknown entity, one or the other of these named selections will have to have been that something that sourced or caused our universe. True or False.
- If from the above lineup: the big bang, itself, a force field, Nature, God, and dark energy have been logically eliminated, as they have been, then either Existence or some other unknown entity remains to be considered as the source of our universe. One or the other. True or False.
- Within the range of our current knowledge, and until an unknown other something is named, characterized, and brought into the equation for consideration, the something, which I call Existence, remains, by default of the unknown other something, as the only logical source or cause of our universe. True or False.
- Resolved: Existence is the first cause.
To What End, This Hypothesis?
My hypothesis, Existence is the first cause, cannot be tested. Alan Guth’s theory of an inflationary universe, though not testable, has been almost universally accepted because it makes scientific knowledge cohere in a logical way. Guth’s theory does not advance mine; I wish only to suggest that radical or counterintuitive theories do bear consideration and should not be casually dismissed. Though my hypothesis is not observationally or experientially self-evident, it is at least logically verified. A stretch of time invested in theoretical and, perhaps, scientific investigation may reveal whether or not this hypothesis makes scientific knowledge cohere in a logical way.
It might be argued that I have nothing to back up my claims but reason and that reason is fallible. Yes, but less so than claims of faith. Also, there is this motivational difference between me and the faithful who argues this point with me: it is not salvation I seek but knowledge. Because it is knowledge I seek—and am likely to acquire and be obliged to work with here on earth—it would be self-destructive to seek and accept anything but correct (workable) knowledge upon which to build yet more knowledge.
Whether my hypothesis is a reflection of the first class of reality or not, for me to understand, and to believe, that Existence is first cause, that our universe emerged from Existence, and that I am an integral part of the whole gives me foundation. This belief of mine, right or wrong, and unlike the God-cause belief, is at least backed up by an effort of thought rather than the effortless dodge of faith.
I know there is a history behind this current collection of atoms I refer to as me; those atoms are a part of this universe, and I’m comfortable with that. I know that when I die, the elements that compose me will be recycled with a potential to become anything at all: a plant leaf dipping under a cool drizzle of rain, a portion of sedimentary rock that will one day be uncovered by running water, the ingredients of an eventual supernova, a planet that hasn’t yet formed—even the elemental makeup in part of an intelligent being not yet evolved, the makeup of a being, not in spirit to be sure, but in the actual substance of his atoms.
Though the I will be uninvolved in any of these experiences—for it is unlikely that atoms have the kind of memory that can sort itself into a conscious self—these atoms that temporarily came together to form me, here on earth, will continue to react to the laws of our universe and Existence when I’m dead, decayed, and released in the form of free atoms to wander interstellar space and become gravitationally attracted to other atoms to reform as matter again and again for billions of years until, if it happens, our universe no longer continues to be.
Let the people of faith dream of heaven. As for me, the atoms making up the elements of which I am composed will continue to comply with natural law for all time. Allow me not heaven but the stir of my atoms into this vast universe of direction and change and complexity. Amen.
*This paragraph reflects my bottom-line interpretation of the first three paragraphs in the chapter on axiomatic concepts in Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, published by The Objectivist, Inc.
**I offer here an image that embodies both the duality and the singleness of our universe and Existence in one metaphor: Our universe is internal to and an expression of Existence in the way intellect is internal to and an expression of the eyes.