Apologetic Wednesday: The Mystery of Stuff

Today, for Apologetic Wednesday, we are in for a bit of a treat. We have a guest post by Greg West. He runs an apologetics hangout called “The Poached Egg.” The name of his site pays homage to C.S. Lewis.  I would encourage you to visit his site and follow him on twitter for a daily dose of thinking. Now sit back, put on your thinking cap, and enjoy his thoughts on “The Mystery of ‘Stuff’.”

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I’d like to take a few moments of your time to discuss the mystery of “stuff”. What is “stuff”? Was there always “stuff”? Where did “stuff” come from? Was there nothing before there was “stuff” or has “stuff” always existed? If “stuff” hasn’t always been around, did “stuff” just cause itself to suddenly be around, or was “stuff” somehow caused by something made of “non-stuff”?

Most of us humans think about these things, whether we are religious or not, because how all this stuff got here, and even more so, why is there even any stuff at all, is a huge question that has all kinds of implications about how we choose to live our lives. And by the way, by “stuff”, I mean the universe; time, space, matter, and energy–everything that makes up the universe and everything in it. Okay, from now on I’m just going to say: “stuff” without the quotation marks. I promise—“really” I do.

When I say that we as humans have a tendency to think about these things, it makes me wonder how and why, if humans have truly evolved from simpler life forms, should we have evolved to the point where we even think about these things in the first place?

I mean, my dog has stuff—and lots of it compared to a lot of other dogs. He has about a gazillion chew toys scattered all over the house, and whether my wife bought him stuff for his birthday, for Christmas, or just for being a generally good dog, I don’t think he gives a squirrel’s tail where all of his stuff, or any other stuff for that matter, came from. He’s happy just as long as he has some stuff–and even if he didn’t have any stuff of his own, I honestly don’t think it would affect his disposition much at all. Whether or not my dog (or any other animal) thinks about where stuff came from is beside the point because it’s a matter of fact that humans do. But I’m getting a bit off topic so let’s get back to the original topic and explore the question of where all this stuff (everything) came from. The question of why is there any stuff at all we’ll leave for another time.

First, let’s see what science has to say about all this stuff. Now, I am not a scientist, but I do have a brain, and I can at least think about scientific ideas and draw my own conclusions about them based upon the available evidence. There are lots of scientists out there with a lot of different ideas and opinions about how all this stuff got here—from multiple universes, to universes popping in and out of existence, to universes expanding and collapsing and giving birth to other universes, and so on.

But let’s see what one one of the top guys in the field, Alexander Vilenkin (Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University), a theoretical physicist who has been working in the field of cosmology for more than 25 years, has to say:

All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.” (emphasis mine)

He has also been quoted saying,

“With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape; they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (emphasis mine)

Even though Dr. Vilenkin is one of the top guys in his field, we would probably find no shortage of other equally smart people in the field that would disagree with him, so let’s take a look at all the possible options that explain the existence of stuff…

  • Option #1: There has always been stuff. Stuff has always existed. There was never a time when there was never any stuff in some form or another.
  • Option #2: Stuff caused itself to become stuff out of nothing.
  • Option #3: Nothing caused something, resulting in lots of stuff.
  • Option #4: Something non-stuff caused all the stuff to exist.

If there are any other options that I have failed to mention, please let me know because I would sincerely like to know what it is—but for now, please take a moment to ponder these four options, and while you do, feel free to imagine the theme from Final Jeopardy playing in your head. Are you done pondering yet? I can’t tell because I’m not actually here right now as I have written this in the not so distant past and am doing something else at the moment… but after you are done, please bear with me just a bit longer…

At first glance, each option seems as equally improbable as the others, but I would like to posit Option #4 as the most likely to be true. Option #4 is a conclusion drawn from what is known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the first premise of which is known as the Law of Causality. Before we further examine the cosmological argument, let me first explain what I mean by the “Law” of Causality. Something is deemed to be a scientific law when there is so much evidence in its support that it is virtually indisputable. Now that we’ve established that, let’s take a look at the cosmological argument.

  1. Stuff that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence (aka: The Law of Causality)
  2. Stuff began to exist
  3. Therefore, stuff has a cause

This argument makes a lot of sense to me. Why? Because anything and everything that anyone has ever observed that exists in nature has a cause. For instance: A geologist will tell you that a rock exists because… well, I’m not really sure. Go ask a geologist, look it up on Wikipedia, Google it or something, and you’ll get the idea.

I exist today because at some time my parents… uh…well… you know. Now, I realize that my own existence is the result of stuff that already existed (just like the afore mentioned rock), but eventually, whether you are a creationist, evolutionist, or anything in between, you have to get back to an ultimate uncaused first cause, otherwise you are left with an infinite regression, which is impossible, because an actual infinite past cannot exist (watch this video for a short explanation of why). This substantially lowers the likelihood of Option #1 as a probability and the Law of Causality eliminates Option #2 as being a likely explanation because, as already mentioned, nowhere in nature has anyone ever observed any stuff being the cause of its own existence, even if it came from preexisting stuff–I could never have willed myself into existence and neither could a rock.

When it comes to option #3, let’s try and imagine the concept of “nothing”. Things like space, gravity, quantum vacuums, singularities, the laws of physics, etc., are not “nothing”; they are all “stuff” that require a cause for their existence. If you are understandably having trouble with the concept of nothing, the best I’ve heard it described so far is that, “Nothing is what rocks dream about.” Waiting for nothing to cause something, for lack of a better analogy, would be like waiting for a pot of water to boil on the stove when you haven’t even put a pot of water on the stove.

The cosmological argument leads me to conclude that Option #4 is the most likely explanation for the existence of stuff because Options #1,#2, and #3 do not conform to what I know of, have experienced, or observed in reality. This is not absolute proof for the God of Christianity, but it is a very strong case for theism. Regardless of which of the available options you choose to believe, each of them require a step of faith–and I don’t mean faith in the biblical sense of “trust in God”, I mean faith as in “belief in something without proof.”

The case for Christianity is a cumulative one and is not based on any single piece of evidence. A part of that cumulative case is that the Judeo-Christian Bible describes God as exactly the kind of entity that would be required to be the first uncaused cause of all the stuff (see Option #4)—in other words, existing outside of time and space: immaterial (spirit, or “non-stuff”), and eternal (timeless–did not begin to exist).

Some hostile skeptics, those usually associated with the anti-theist crowd (which does not include all or even most skeptics), derogatorily refer to theism or Christianity as blind faith in a magic sky god, and compare it with believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pink unicorns, or any other number of mythical creatures. We can politely respond to this by asking why belief in a creator God takes any more faith than believing in an eternally existing universe, a universe that somehow caused its own existence out of nothing, or a universe that nothing caused to exist; all of which go against what is known in nature. As far as I’m concerned, all of the options require what I would consider to be a miracle.

If this raises the question, “If God caused the universe then what caused God?”; It is not a valid question because being eternal, God did not begin to exist, and therefore does not require a cause for his existence. How can God be eternal? I have no idea. It’s a mystery—a much bigger mystery to me than the mystery of “stuff”.

11 Comments

  • efchristi says:

    I have never read so much about “stuff” in my life. My head is spinning with all this knowledge about “stuff” to the point of utter confusion. I come one conclusion that nothing from nothing still equals nothing.

    In my world faith in God in the center post holding everything in place. I do not question His existence because when I look around every minute of my feeble existence I see proof. I could never make a flower, a tree, a bird or anything else without His glory and blessing. So there is no question of His existence.

    Thank you for your post.

    Walk daily with God at your side!

    Ed

    • efchristi says:

      Please forgive my grammer errors it should read: “In my world, faith in God is the center post holding everything in place.”

      My head is still spinning!

      God bless you!

      Ed

  • Kim Melancon says:

    when i went in the first grade and started learning how to add and subtract the first thing i learned is you cant get something from nothing…. That screams CREATION!!… and when you get to college they teach you everything came from nothing..

  • Walt says:

    This is a good topic. I’m not yet very familiar with it, but I’ll throw this out there. I think there is an option #5 – that we are thinking about stuff, time, and/or nothing the wrong way. There is also an option #6 – that the Law of Causality emerged after the beginning of the universe. Neither of these issues is even close to as simple as the train tracks video suggests, and I’d love to flesh out what I mean by these two options if anyone’s interested.

    On a tangent, I think your introduction about your dog is fascinating, because it strikes me how differently we look at certain things. My tangential question here is how you would know whether or not non-humans were waxing philosophic? There are a handful of animals that we know are self-aware, and I’d be curious to know if it would make any difference if these animals actually pondered the same thoughts as you. Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Josh Fults says:

      So basically, you are saying the universe is eternal? That is an argument many have made, but I feel it doesn’t coincide with much of what we know about cosmology. On the other hand, if you are saying that the universe began (was caused) without the law of causality that seems to be a self defeating.

      The topic of consciousness in animals is definitely fascinating. It would be great if we could ask them questions, but then, on second thought, I don’t know if I would want anyone asking my dog questions. I am sure that would make for some embarrassing moments.

      • Walt says:

        Hey Josh,
        I’m not necessarily arguing that the universe is eternal. I’m arguing that we’re inappropriately turning scientific questions into philosophical questions. The way that stuff, nothing, and time are commonly used is similar to how we would speak of abstract concepts, when in reality it is not so easy to put a finger on it (perhaps we could start by working on a definition for each term). The Law of Causality is not a rule of logic, it is indeed a scientific law as you say. Everything we know and experience is governed by the law of causality in the same way that everything we know and experience is governed by the existence of atoms, yet we know that the universe began without fully formed atoms. My own sensibilities about what the universe was like do not apply, and I would argue that it’s worth thinking about whether the law of causality must have existed before the universe.

      • Josh Fults says:

        I understand your point, but it almost seems to just step the question back a step. Well, how was the universe formed? We must also ask, where did the law of causality come from? To deny the law of causality, or any scientific law, many would say appeals to the miraculous and this is the very thing the naturalist must shy away from. Those whose worldview is driven by naturalism assume there are no anomalies or miracles that happen contrary to scientific law. To say that the universe came into existence without appealing to causality does just that. We can’t have it both ways, can we? If we can appeal to anomaly at one point that opens the door for them within space and time. I know many naturalist that would be extremely uncomfortable with that notion.

        You are right, the law of causality is not a rule of logic, but it is bound by logic. Everything is bound by logic. I believe all questions must be philosophized at some point unless we are just happy with cause and effect, but this greatly limits many, many things.

        Also, do we know that atoms were not fully formed at the beginning of the universe? Is that fact? I am not a cosmologist so I am a bit ignorant in this respect. I would like to know if that is indisputable fact, however.

      • Walt says:

        Josh,
        Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure what it was I said that took the question back a step. If you’re referring to my suggested option 6, I’m simply claiming that the Law of Causality may be an emergent property. Consider the Law of Gravity – it wouldn’t make sense to say that the Law of Gravity existed or was in place in any way before the existence of matter and energy, because it is used to describe how objects with mass interact. Similarly, I don’t know that it makes sense to say that the Law of Causation was created by anything. I do agree that the question then becomes ‘Where did mass and energy come from’ but I don’t see how it’s logically necessary that the physical laws describing mass and energy had to be created. I want to make it clear that I’m not suspending any laws here (my loose definition of a miracle), I just think we’re posing the question wrong.

        I don’t actually think that the Law of Causality is bound by logic. If this were so, then God would have had to be created, because God can be described by logic. God gets out of this causality conundrum because he is not subject to physical laws. Correct me here if I’m wrong.

        I don’t think that philosophy and logic analyses are appropriate to a number of scientific questions. We know that light behaves both as a wave and as a particle experimentally, but this should sound to a Western philosopher like Zen mumbo jumbo – how can it be two contradictory things? We’re pretty good at describing how these seemingly contradictory properties actually work physically, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that there are seemingly contradictory phenomena that we have not yet explained e.g. how the universe began without a prime mover. I’ll make a note here that I and many other atheists accept that there may very well be/have been a prime mover, but that it’s too early to say that this was necessary. Again, I’ll make the point that I think we’re talking about stuff, nothing, and time the wrong way. We haven’t yet defined these terms, which would be an excellent exercise related to this post.

        I’m not a cosmologist either, but this stuff certainly is speculative. Research supports the idea that the first atoms formed a few minutes after the Big Bang. My point here which we can certainly argue is that mathematics and physics is much better suited to handle the unimaginable weirdness of the universe at this point than philosophy and logical proofs.

    • Josh Fults says:

      Walt,
      Thanks for your thoughts, they are well articulated. I will also say that I enjoy your demeanor. Often, I have conversations with people that are in opposition to theism or have a different worldview from my own and it quickly turns acerbic, which I am not about. I greatly appreciate dialogue in the form we are having it.

      When I say that it seems to take it back a step, I was referring to the fact that if we say the law of causation was an emergent property after the universe came into existence we are still left asking, as you say, where did anything (mass and energy) come from to bring about the universe? Why did we get the laws as we have them? Under different conditions we could have gotten different sorts of natural laws, which would have made a life sustaining universe impossible. As an aside, I see fine tuning in the natural laws and mechanics of the universe as a whole as evidence of design.

      I have an issue intellectually with saying that the universe began, but was not caused, and I feel the law of causality is bound by logic.

      Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
      The universe began to exist.
      Therefore, the universe had a cause.

      I do agree with you that God is not bound by physical laws, but that logic is a descriptor of God. Theology is the “logos about the theos” which is the logic of God. While God can do things that are humanly impossible (i.e. he is not bound by the laws of nature) he cannot do what is logically impossible. He cannot make a triangle with four sides.

      In the syllogism I gave, notice I stated that everything that begins to exist has a cause. As a theist, I believe that God is eternal, thereby skirting the “conundrum” of causality. What I know of modern cosmology points to a singularity when the universe came into existence and began to exist. This is why I feel it would be intellectually dishonest for me to divorce causation from the universe coming into existence. I would be more comfortable saying that the universe is eternal, but again, this appears at the moment to fly in the face of cosmology.

      You are right, much of what we know about the how of our origins is speculative, but I personally believe in an unmoved mover. A loving person that brought us and the universe into existence.

      When you said, “I’ll make a note here that I and many other atheists accept that there may very well be/have been a prime mover, but that it’s too early to say that this was necessary.” I have to say, I appreciate your honesty here. It is refreshing to hear an “I can’t be sure” as opposed to the dogma that I am accustomed to. I am curious, with this certain amount of uncertainty, is it still appropriate to be classified as atheist rather than agnostic? I realize these are just labels, but I like understand how people use certain labels.

      Just to share a little more about my thoughts. I feel when it comes to looking at reason for a God/Creator/First Cause/Unmoved mover we often tend to look at different disciplines individually. Such as here, we are primarily talking about physics and cosmology. When I combine all of the disciplines, (Cosmology, Physics, History, Theology, Philosophy, Psychology, History, The Cogency of scripture, the reliability of the Gospels, Jesus claims and teachings, the moral argument, etc, etc, etc) I find reasonable evidence for belief in the divine.

      This is not a defense, but a personal admission; I am uncomfortable with the logical out workings of a world without God defining morality. Bertrand Russell once said that we should build our lives upon “the firm foundation or unyielding despair.” That is not a foundation I hope to employ.

      Again, I think there is reasonable evidence to embrace theism.

      I did not mean for any of my response to be a “steam roll” of information. I just wanted to share where I come from.

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

      • Walt says:

        Josh,
        Yeah, this is a good conversation and I’m happy to have it. Though not a steam roll, it is a lot of information…I’ll try to touch on everything you mentioned with the original post’s subject matter in mind.

        So we agree that we are left with the question of the origin of mass and energy and that the law of causation may be an emergent property of mass and energy and therefore not necessary for their origin? I doubt you agree with this, but that’s how I read your response to this point. Let me know what you think. If on the other hand you do agree that mass and energy may not have required a cause, then we need not ask “what made matter and energy?”

        Fine tuning is a separate can of worms as you say. I think the question “Why did we get the laws we have?” is another example of a potentially wrongly posed question. “Why” suggests to me an assumption of purpose when we need not assume a purpose. Instead, we ask “how.” When we ask “how” we seek to find mechanisms, but when we ask “why” we seek to find purposes. Anyway, my opinion is that this conversation would be better suited for another more relevant post, but I’m happy to flesh this out if you want.

        I have a problem with your logical proof of causality – I think we need to agree on some definitions. Your premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is confusing to me. What do you mean by begins to exist? I agree that an applied force must have a cause by the law of causation, but if you’re talking about an object beginning to exist, we’re simply talking about the rearrangement of atoms. A baby is born and “begins to exist” as a result of you know what, but nothing has begun to exist in terms of physics. Atoms were transferred from food that the mom and dad ate into a reorganized new life. While completely amazing, this is not the beginning of existence. If we are going to have a useful first premise, we should better define it. In our discussion of stuff, we’re agreeing that stuff only began to exist once at the origin of the universe and has continued to exist ever since. How can we derive a law of causation that applies to matter itself when we have a sample size of one?

        I’m confused by the statement that God is eternal, perhaps because I’m not familiar with the arguments against the possibility that “stuff” is eternal. The argument presented by the short video embedded in the original post seems to assert that it is illogical to say that the universe is eternal. If God is bound by logic, then how is it possible that God is eternal?

        While the idea that the “stuff” is eternal does fly in the face of current cosmology, it is not out of the question as far as I know.

        Regarding the possible prime mover, I am curious how you arrive at a loving person from an entity that created the universe. I’ll explain why I’m both an atheist and an agnostic. I am agnostic because I cannot say one way or the other that there was/is a prime mover – I am agnostic toward a deity. However, I am atheistic because I do not believe in any theistic god that I have yet heard about. Theistic gods (Yahweh, etc.) intervene in the world in all sorts of ways that demand evidence that I do not see. A deistic god may have started the universe, though I don’t think it must be so, but it takes a while heap of other evidence with a bit of personal revelation and faith thrown in to believe everything that a theist believes. Does that distinction make sense?

        I hear you on the other fronts of knowledge, but I do think that the main contention here is whether physics and mathematics are better at explaining nothing, stuff, and time than are philosophy and applied logic.

        Morality is another giant can that I’m happy to open elsewhere.

        Take care

  • BigSkyKen says:

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing Greg’s message here!

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