Several years ago, while doing my doctoral thesis, I had the privilege of having as mentor and promoter 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?” The presence of so great and saintly a man curbs any temptation to lie so I had to answer: “To be honest, no. Or, at best, very rarely.”
“Then you are not a philosopher!” he gently suggested. “A true philosopher asks the question every day for it’s a miracle that anything at all exists.”
Having met, occasionally, in persons like Walgrave and others, true philosophers, I know better than to claim citizenship in so contemplative a realm. True philosophers, like true mystics, true poets, and true artists, are rare. My natural thought patterns are normally too pragmatic to be numbered among them. More unfortunate still, like most other non-philosophers, I generally take the world and most everything in it for granted.
Sometimes though I have my contemplative moments and, lately, in doing some reading in science regarding the origins of our universe, I am beginning to realize why philosophers such as Walgrave do not so easily take the world for granted. When one examines the current scientific hypothesis regarding the origins of our universe (the so-called “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 was not. Everything that is now in our entire universe began about 15 billion years ago with an explosion (the “big bang”) from something which was 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 is when we examine those factors that we are left with the philosopher’s wonder at why there is something at all instead of nothing. Let me list just a few of these “mind-bogglers”:
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 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 were even slightly weaker we would have only hydrogen in the universe. If it were 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 were any stronger all the carbon would have been converted into oxygen. Again, a variation within a millionth of a part, and we 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 the one proton was left over. A greater or smaller number of survivors (or no survivors 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 symmetrical balance between particles (a billion proton 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 impulse passes 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.”
My mentor, Walgrave, used to define these “theological implications” in the following way … “The next time you are sitting on a park bench and looking at a tree, or you are looking 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?”