Editor's comment

Davies tackles the thorny problems of the coming into being of the universe and its subsequent development of orderly structure.

The philosophical question of something coming from nothing is addressed.


Davies, Paul The Cosmic Blueprint, Simon & Schuster Inc. New York 1988 [abridged –1400 words] — how the universe came to be

The origin of things

Something buried deep in the human psyche compels us to contemplate creation. It is obvious even at a casual glance that the universe is remarkably ordered on all scales. Matter and energy are distributed neither uniformly nor haphazardly, but are organized into coherent identifiable structures, occasionally of great complexity. From whence came the myriads of galaxies, stars and planets, the crystals and clouds, the living organisms? How have they been arranged in such harmonious and ingenious interdependence? The cosmos, its awesome immensity, its rich diversity of forms, and above all its coherent unity, cannot be accepted simply as a brute fact.

The existence of complex things is even more remarkable given the generally delicate and specific nature of their organization, for they are continually assailed by all manner of disruptive influences from their environment that care nothing for their survival. Yet, in the face of an apparently callous Mother Nature the orderly arrangement of the universe not only manages to survive, but to prosper…

The rise of modem science transformed the rational approach to the problem of the origin of things. It was discovered that the universe has not always been as it is. The evidence of geology, palaeontology and astronomy suggested that the vast array of forms and structures that populate our world have not always existed, but have emerged over aeons of time.

Scientists have recently come to realize that none of the objects and systems that make up the physical world we now perceive existed in the beginning. Somehow, all the variety and complexity of the universe has arisen since its origin in an abrupt outburst called the big bang. The modern picture of Genesis is of a cosmos starting out in an utterly featureless state, and then progressing step by step — one may say unfolding — to the present kaleidoscope of organized activity.

Creation from nothing

…The problem of the ultimate origin of the physical universe lies on the boundary of science. Indeed, many scientists would say it lies beyond the scope of science altogether. Nevertheless, there have recently been serious attempts to understand how the universe could have appeared from nothing without violating any physical laws. But how can something come into existence uncaused?

The key to achieving this seeming miracle is quantum physics. Quantum processes are inherently unpredictable and indeterministic; it is generally impossible to predict from one moment to the next how a quantum system will behave. The law of cause and effect, so solidly rooted in the ground of daily experience, fails here. In the world of the quantum, spontaneous change is not only permitted, it is unavoidable.

Although quantum effects are normally restricted to the microworld of atoms and their constituents, in principle quantum physics should apply to everything. It has become fashionable to investigate the quantum physics of the entire universe, a subject known as quantum cosmology. These investigations are tentative and extremely speculative, but they lead to a provocative possibility. It is no longer entirely absurd to imagine that the universe came into existence spontaneously from nothing as a result of a quantum process.

The fact that the nascent cosmos was apparently devoid of form and content greatly eases the problem of its ultimate origin. It is much easier to believe that a state of featureless simplicity appeared spontaneously out of nothing than to believe that the present highly complex state of the universe just popped into existence ready-made.

The amelioration of one problem, however, leads immediately to another. Science is now faced with the task of explaining by what physical processes the organized systems and elaborate activity that surround us today emerged from the primeval blandness of the big bang. Having found a way of permitting the universe to be self-creating we need to attribute to it the capability of being self-organizing.

An increasing number of scientists and writers have come to realize that the ability of the physical world to organize itself constitutes a fundamental, and deeply mysterious, property of the universe…

In recent years much attention has been given to the problem of the so-called ‘origin of the universe’, and popular science books on ‘the creation’ abound. The impression is gained that the universe was created all at once in the big bang. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that creation is really a continuing process. The existence of the universe is not explained by the big bang: the primeval explosion merely started things off.

The whole and its parts

To most people it is obvious that the universe forms a coherent whole. We recognize that there are a great many components that go together to make up the totality of existence, but they seem to hang together, if not in cooperation, then at least in peaceful coexistence. In short, we find order, unity and harmony in nature where there might have been discord and chaos.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle constructed a picture of the universe closely in accord with this intuitive feeling of holistic harmony. Central to Aristotle’s philosophy was the concept of teleology or, roughly speaking, final causation. He supposed that individual objects and systems subordinate their behaviour to an overall plan or destiny. This is especially apparent, he claimed, in living systems, where the component parts function in a cooperative way to achieve a final purpose or end product…

Aristotle extended this animistic philosophy to the cosmos as a whole. There exists, he maintained, what we might today term a cosmic blueprint. The universe was regarded as a sort of gigantic organism, unfurling in a systematic and supervised way towards its prescribed destiny…

In direct opposition to Aristotle were the Greek atomists, such as Democritus, who taught that the world is nothing but atoms moving in a void. All structures and forms were regarded as merely different arrangements of atoms, and all change and process were thought of as due to the rearrangement of atoms alone. To the atomist, the universe is a machine in which each component atom moves entirely under the action of the blind forces produced by its neighbours. According to this scheme there are no final causes, no overall plan or end-state towards which things evolve. Teleology is dismissed as mystical. The only causes that bring about change are those produced by the shape and movement of other atoms.

Atomism is not suited to describe, let alone explain, the order and harmony of the world. Consider a living organism. It is hard to resist the impression that the atoms of the organism cooperate so that their collective behaviour constitutes a coherent unity. The organized functioning of biological systems fails to be captured by a description in which each atom is simply pushed or pulled along blindly by its neighbours, without reference to the global pattern. There was thus already present in ancient Greece the deep conflict between holism and reductionism that persists to this day. On the one hand stood Aristotle’s synthetic, purposeful universe, and on the other a strictly materialistic world which could ultimately be analyzed as, or reduced to, the simple mechanical activity of elementary particles.

In the centuries that followed, Democritus’ atomism came to represent what we would now call the scientific approach to the world. Aristotelian ideas were banished from the physical sciences during the Renaissance. They survived somewhat longer in the biological sciences, if only because living organisms so distinctly display teleological behaviour. However, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the rise of modern molecular biology led to the emphatic rejection of all forms of animism or finalism, and most modern biologists are strongly mechanistic and reductionist in their approach. Living organisms are today generally regarded as purely complex machines, programmed at the molecular level.

The scientific paradigm in which all physical phenomena are reduced to the mechanical behaviour of their elementary constituents has proved extremely successful, and has led to many new and important discoveries. Yet there is a growing dissatisfaction with sweeping reductionism, a feeling that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Analysis and reduction will always have a central role to play in science, but many people cannot accept that it is an exclusive role. Especially in physics, the synthetic or holistic approach is becoming increasingly fashionable in tackling certain types of problems.