While doing my doctoral thesis, I had the privilege of having as a mentor the distinguished Belgian philosopher-theologian, Jan Walgrave. One day, while discussing a point in philosophy, he asked me: “Do you ever sit on a park bench and ask yourself: Why is there something instead of nothing?” I had to admit that I didn’t, at least not very often.
“Then you are not a philosopher!” he gently commented. “A true philosopher asks that question every day for it’s a miracle that anything exists at all.”
Having met occasionally persons like Walgrave who are true philosophers, I know better than to claim real citizenship inside that circle. True philosophers, like true mystics, true poets, and true artists, are rare. My natural temperament is a bit too pragmatic to be numbered among them. The fault in this is that, like most other non-philosophers, I generally take the world and most everything in it for granted. However, in order to stand correctly in this world, we may not take existence for granted but rather need to live with the sense that all is gift – and is a very precious and precarious gift too. It’s a miracle that we are here at all!
One of the things that can help us grasp this is contemporary science, particularly what it says about the origins of our universe. Science, like theology, tells us that we weren’t always here and it we shouldn’t take for granted that we are here. Why not?
When one examines the current scientific hypothesis regarding the origins of our universe (the Big Bang theory) one realizes that it is a miracle, something beyond the human imagination, that there is something instead of nothing.
Science today tells us that our universe had a birthday. Roughly 15 billion years ago there was a time-zero, a time when everything in our universe as we have it now did not exist. Everything that is now in our entire universe began about 15 billion years ago with an explosion (the “big bang”) from something which was probably tinier than a single atom. Moreover, for our universe, our world, and human life to have come about a mind-boggling combination of factors had to be just right. I say “mind-boggling” because it’s when we examine these factors that we are left with the philosopher’s wonder as to why there is something at all instead of nothing. Let me list just a few of these mind-boggling things:
First off, as Stephen Hawking writes, “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang has been smaller by one part in a hundred thousand million it would have all re-collapsed” and we would have no universe. On the other hand, if it had been greater by one part in a million, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for planets to form. That equilibrium (upon which depends the existence of our universe) is, even today, still balanced on that same razor’s edge.
Second, if the nuclear force caused by this great explosion had even been slightly weaker we would have only hydrogen in the universe. If it has been even slightly stronger, all the hydrogen would be converted into helium. In either case, we would not have the present universe, the planet earth, and human life. Moreover the explosion was just strong enough so that carbon could form; yet if it if had been any stronger all the carbon would have been converted into oxygen. Again, had there been a variation within a millionth of a part, we’d have no earth and no life.
Finally, in the first seconds that followed this great explosion, for every one billion antiprotons in the universe, there were one billion and one protons. The billion pairs annihilated each other to produce radiation, but one proton was left over. A greater or smaller number of survivors (or no surviving protons at all if they had been evenly matched) and, again, we would not have a universe. And, to accentuate this anomaly, normally there is a perfect symmetrical balance between particles (a billion protons for a billion antiprotons). Why the billion and one?
And then the complexity that is ultimately produced by this big bang! For example, there are a hundred trillion synapses (points at which a nerve impulses pass from one neutron to another) in a human brain and the number of possible ways of connecting them is greater than the number of atoms in the universe.
Looking at all of this, the chance coincidence of so many trillion possibilities that had to be exactly right for a universe and life to emerge, even Stephen Hawking admits, “there are theological implications.”
Jan Walgrave used to define these “theological implications” this way: “The next time you are sitting on a park bench and looking at a tree or into the eyes of someone you love there should flood through you gratitude for the marvel of it all and you should ask yourself: Why is there something instead of nothing?”