How Cosmic Existence Reveals God’s Reality
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) famously posed the ultimate question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” To this, theoretical physicist Sean Carroll replies: “The universe can simply exist, end of story.”
Still, as I have shown elsewhere, everything must have a reason for its being or coming-to-be, including the cosmos. This metaphysical first principle is ably defended by others as well.1 One distinction must be added: either a thing is its own reason or not. To the extent it fails to fully explain itself, something else must be posited as an extrinsic sufficient reason: a cause. So, does the cosmos “simply exist” – or does it need a cause?
The leading philosophers of ancient Greece showed no inkling of the concept of creation ex nihilo in time. For Leucippus (c. 490-430 B.C.) and Democritus (c. 460-360 B.C.), indivisible atoms were eternal in the void and creation of the world simply entailed them becoming packed or scattered, thus producing the world of things about us. For Plato (c. 428-348 B.C.), the creation myth of the Timaeus entailed the demiurge looking up to the eternal forms and patterning the pre-existing unordered material chaos according to them to produce the orderly cosmos. Even Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) appears to argue in his Physics, book one, that matter must have always existed as the substratum for the endless change of forms.
Unique to Western thought was the Jewish and Christian belief in a free creation of the world by God in time – ex nihilo et utens nihilo: out of nothing and presupposing no pre-existent material. Neo-Platonists, beginning with Plotinus (c. 204-270), did have a notion of creation ex nihilo, but solely as a necessary emanation from God, not the free creation of Christian thought.
Flash forward to the seventeenth century and we see a resurgence of philosophical atomism by theists Descartes, Gassendi, Boyle, and others. This later begot scientific atomism in nineteenth century chemistry and physics, which then invited the atheistic interpretations of scientific materialism and naturalism. For centuries, atheistic materialists had assumed the eternity of the material world, a view seemingly harmonious with the “new atomism.” All of this also fit well with twentieth century astronomy’s standard “steady state” theory.
The advent of the “Big Bang” theory of cosmic origins by Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) thus met opposition for proposing a scientific hypothesis that the cosmos actually had a temporal beginning. Among the first to complain was Albert Einstein himself. Science had seemed squarely in the atheist’s corner, until this upstart theory was proposed – a theory that sounded too much like what atheists viewed as the “Christian mythology” of creation in time. As astronomer Robert Jastrow observed, this led to a peculiar reaction by scientists in which they opposed a promising new theory – possibly on grounds more philosophical than scientific. It wasn’t until the 1964 cosmic microwave background radiation discovery by Penzias and Wilson that the Big Bang theory became generally accepted as correct.
In the final two sentences of his 1978 book, God and the Astronomers, Dr. Jastrow writes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
Battle Over the “Big Bang’s” Significance
Atheistic scientists, like physicist Stephen Hawking, seek to avoid any possible theological implications of the Big Bang by redefining the meaning of this absolute beginning in time in terms that would avoid any need for God. He posits an imaginary time in which there would be no boundaries to space-time just as there are no boundaries to earth’s surface, concluding: “Thus, the universe would be a completely self-contained system. It would not be determined by anything outside the physical universe that we observe.”
Today we see atheists doing all they can to eliminate a cosmos instantly created by an all-powerful God, either by (1) alleging that something can, indeed, be made out of nothing, in light of quantum mechanics, or (2) by claiming, like Dr. Hawking, that the beginning somehow does not really need a metaphysical explanation.
Still, it turns out that the “nothing” that atheists claim can be used to make an entire cosmos from is not really “nothing” at all, but simply the actual something of a quantum vacuum, which entails a lot of matter-antimatter potential that “crackles with energy.” Empty space is not nothing, but something very physically real.
Everyone truthfully knows that you simply cannot get something from absolutely nothing. Even Dr. Hawking tries to evade an absolute beginning in time for the cosmos by his “no boundary” explanation offered above. This also why materialists who would evade a Creator feel forced to affirm the endless past existence of something -- be it physical matter as such, or some kind of minimal energy field from which the Big Bang exploded, or at least, certain laws of physics. Indeed, one method used to defeat the Kalam cosmological argument for God is to claim that the premise that the universe must have had a beginning in time is false.
The fact that such mental gymnastics are engaged in so as to evade precisely an absolute cosmic beginning bespeaks the massive problems it would present to atheistic materialism.
What is there about the very thought of the cosmos suddenly popping into existence out of absolutely nothing that so instantly moves the mind of most sane men to say, “Then, God must exist!’? What is there about such instantaneous creation ex nihilo that bespeaks so unequivocally to the human mind the exclusive mark of true divinity?
Why Infinite Power is Required
Both atheist and theist alike see in the “out-of-nothing” explosive instant appearance of a Big Bang the manifestation of unlimited raw power, infinite power. Just as clear is the fact that infinite power could reside solely in an infinite being that fulfills the classical definition of God. This is precisely why atheists go to great lengths to deny that any such “creation event” could have ever occurred at the beginning of time.
Still, is such instinctive inference rationally justified? What first stands out is the fact that absolutely no one claims that the cosmos actually appeared out of nowhere and from absolutely nothing. Atheists either claim it always existed in some physical form or other, or else, attempt the bait and switch of claiming it came from nothing – but the “nothing” turns out to be the actual something of the quantum vacuum as explained above. In proclaiming the Christian doctrine of true creation in time, theists do not hold that the cosmos arose from absolutely nothing either. Rather, they say the world was made by the power of the eternal God.
Thus, all explicitly or implicitly concur (1) that something has always existed and (2) that you do not get something from absolutely nothing.
But then, why does it take infinite power to create ex nihilo et utens nihilo? After all, the cosmos which is created, though immense, is still existentially limited. So, why would unlimited power be required to create what is itself limited in being?
Well, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out2, “… the power of the maker is measured not only by substance of the thing made but also from the manner of its making ….” To build the Empire State Building in one year is impressive. But to build it in a single day would defy belief. To make a chicken from another chicken by cloning is impressive. To evolve a chicken from random subatomic particles is nearly unimaginable – since the distance between what there is to work with and the produced chicken is even greater than in the cloning example. But to produce a chicken from no preexisting matter requires immeasurable power, since there is no proportion at all between nothing and something. Since immeasurable power is the same as unlimited or infinite power, it would take infinite power for God to create the cosmos ex nihilo.
The Real Meaning of “Being Created”
Thus, on the hypothesis that the cosmos did begin in time, it would depend on the infinite power of God to have created it. Now what depends on another to bring it into existence clearly does not account for its own existence, but rather depends on another for the existence it has received. The creature that “pops into existence” is an effect, that is, a being that does not adequately explain its own existence. As such, it depends on an extrinsic cause for its existence.
So, if God exercises his infinite power to bring the cosmos into being, what happens the next moment after he has created it? Can God cease his causal activity in relation to the world, and yet, the world still exists? As St. Thomas observes3, “When the cause ceases causing, the effect ceases.” Were God to withdraw his creative causality from the cosmos, the cosmos would cease to exist. God must continue to create the universe in order for the universe to continue to exist. This creatio continua or “conservation” must continue for as long as the world continues to exist. Thus, God is said, not only to create the world, but also to conserve it in existence.
Moreover, for St. Thomas, there is a real distinction between the world having a beginning in time and its being created ex nihilo. This is clear from the fact that, while St. Thomas maintains that the belief that the world was created with a temporal beginning is a doctrine of Catholic Faith, he does not maintain that this is possible to prove from natural reason. Indeed, in his short work On the Eternity of the World, St. Thomas explicitly argues for the philosophical possibility of the world’s eternity. After all, God could have been creating (conserving) the world from all eternity: it would have no beginning in time, yet still be created.
This means that the concept of the world beginning in time is distinct from the concept of its being created by the power of God. Even if God did not create the world with a beginning in time, the world would still be the object of his creative act in order to sustain it in being throughout eternity.
For the same reason that it would take infinite power to create the world at the beginning of time, it takes infinite power to keep it in existence even if it existed from all eternity. This is because the real meaning of “being created” is not tied to having a temporal beginning, but rather to the fact that anything exists as opposed to non-existence. It takes infinite power to explain why anything simply exists – even the least subatomic particle “popping into existence” for a nanosecond in a quantum vacuum.
In other words, the creative act is not measured by the fact that something goes from non-being to being at the beginning of its existence, but simply by the fact that it manifests the act of existing as opposed to non-being during its existence. Both acts require exactly the same power to explain fully: infinite power.
The key insight here is that existence itself is an act – the most basic of all acts: that by which a thing is constituted as real as opposed to being nothing at all. This act “does something.” It keeps every creature in being. And the power needed to do this is measured by the same criteria we discussed earlier. Since there is no proportion at all between non-being and being, there is no way to measure the power required to posit this act by which a finite being is being continually created, that is, “standing outside of nothingness,” even if it had no beginning in time.
Infinite power is required to explain the existence of every finite being and of that whole collectivity of finite bodies known as the cosmos. It takes infinite power to explain the existence of the cosmos. But infinite power cannot reside in a finite being or even in a collectivity of finite beings.
Therefore there must exist an Infinite Being, God, who alone can possess and manifest the infinite power required to create and conserve in existence the finite cosmos.
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer to this ultimate question is simply “because God exists and creates it.” God’s infinite power is the reason for his own existence. My argument here is a redacted version of a formal paper that I have published elsewhere.
Given the difficulty that some viewers of Strange Notions have had in grasping the insight that physical laws like inertia fail to fully explain the continued motion of heavenly bodies, I suspect that they may find the argument presented herein demanding full explanation of cosmic existence to be even less compelling. Still, it is curious that these same minds that are so skeptical of any rational explanation of our incredible universe should so easily be intellectually satisfied with the “just so” explanation of a cosmos that has always “just happened to exist” without any real explanation either in itself or from an extrinsic cause.
- Among the traditional Thomistic understanding of the principle of sufficient reason’s best defenses is this passage from Bro. Benignus Gerrity’s Nature, Knowledge, and God (1947), pp. 400-401: "But is the principle objectively valid? Is it a principle primarily of being, and a principle of thought only because thought is about being? The answer is found through the intellect's reflection upon itself and its act. The intellect, reflecting upon its own nature, sees that it is an appetite and a power for conforming itself to being; and reflecting upon its acts and the relation to these acts to being, it sees that, when it judges with certitude that something is, it does so by reason of compulsion of being itself. The intellect cannot think anything without a reason; whatever it thinks with certitude, it thinks by compulsion of the principle of sufficient reason. When it withholds judgment, it does so because it has no sufficient reason for an assertion. But thought - true thought - is being in the intellect. The intellect is actual as thought only by virtue of some being in it conforming it to what is; whatever the intellect knows as certainly and necessarily known, it knows as the self-assertion of a being in it. This being which compels the intellect to judge does so as a sufficient reason of judgment. Nothing, therefore, is more certainly known than the principle of sufficient reason, because this is the principle of thought itself, without which there can be no thought. But by the same token the intellect knows that the principle of sufficient reason is a principle of being because it is being, asserting itself in thought, which compels thought to conform to this principle." ↩
- Summa Theologiae, I, q. 45, a. 5, ad. 3. ↩
- Ibid., q. 96, a. 3, ob. 3. ↩
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