How did the universe come to exist?

Theists have a ready answer: God created it. The creation of a universe, or countless universes, presents no difficulty for the theists' almighty God. Indeed, the book of Genesis tells of God creating by the mere act of speaking: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

But how might methodological naturalists answer, whose explanations never include supernatural elements? At one time they might have answered, as Aristotle did centuries ago, "The universe has always existed, much as it exists now." But this "steady state" view came under attack in the twentieth century when Edwin Hubble discovered the redshift of distant starlight, which suggests an expanding universe. Some scientists defended a static universe by proposing that new matter continuously comes into existence as the universe expands. Others accepted expansion, and extrapolated back to a "big bang" which must have started the expansion.

For a while, the two theories competed. Eventually, the discovery of cosmic microwave radiation in the 1960s confirmed the Big Bang theory, which says our universe, as well as space and time itself, began at some point in the past, instead of existing from all eternity. As of today, scientists place the start of our universe at about 13.7 billion years ago.

So, should we think of the Big Bang as God's creation event, as described in the scriptures of various religions? Some people argue we should; they choose to view the Big Bang as creation ex nihilo. Others view it as creation ex materia.

Philosophers describe three types of creation:
  • creation ex materia (out of pre-existent matter)
  • creation ex nihilo (out of nothing)
  • creation ex deo (out of the being of God)

We've already seen examples of the first type, creation ex materia, in our table illustration. If we take wood, fashion a table top and four legs, and assemble them, we create a table ex materia, out of wood.

In the 1930s Albert Einstein postulated a type of big bang ex materia, where the universe perpetually cycles through the stages of: big bang, expansion, zenith then reversal, collapse on itself (the "big crunch"), maximum compression, which triggers another big bang. Refinements of Einstein's theory, that is, cyclic models of the universe, exist today.

Notice the word "materia" in big bang ex materia has a broader meaning than just matter; it refers to the "stuff" that underlies all matter, energy, space, and time—the "stuff" which underlies all that comprises our universe.

Our worldview regards the creation event as creation ex deo because we assume only one ultimate "stuff" exists (i.e., we assume monism) and call that stuff "God. (We may also recognize our view of the creation event as a kind of creation ex materia, if we allow a broad meaning for "materia.") Thus, our answer to "How did our universe come to exist?" differs from the theist's in that the theist answers "God created it" while we answer (to put it simply) "God became it." Or, more precisely, "God becomes it, even at this very moment."

Similarly, our answer to the question, "When did the creation event end?" differs from that of the theist. In the view of the theist who accepts creation ex nihilo, God's creative activity in the natural world ended shortly after the Big Bang, or at the end of the six days indicated in Genesis, or at some other time, when God stopped creating things out of nothing. Although God's creative activity in the supernatural domain may still continue (for example, the creation of souls for newborn babies), God's creative activity in the natural universe has ceased, and the natural universe now proceeds under its own laws (which God ordained), autonomously, independent of God (except in the case of a miracle). In contrast, we define God as ultimate ground of existence and we describe creation ex deo as an ever-occurring act. Therefore, for us, the creation event continues, moment to moment, right before our eyes. (The idea that God, the One, perpetual creates the universe through self-emanation occurs in various religions and philosophies; to name but two, the Indian Vedanta religion and the philosophy of the ninth-century Christian philosopher John Scotus Eriugena.)


Our view of the One as ultimate ground of existence raises two questions: one about objects, the other about properties.

First, how does the One become the physical objects we see around us? Granted, elementary particles ultimately compose those objects, but how does a single, simple, absolute existence become (what science today regards as) elementary particles, such as quarks and electrons?

Second, how do properties derive from the One? Accounting for properties in terms of the One seems difficult because when we successively take an entity's grounds to arrive at its ultimate ground, we lose properties, much as Aristotelian philosophers did when then went from matter to matter to arrive at prima materia. For instance, the table may be tall, short, square or round, but those properties don't apply to its wood molecules. Similarly, a molecule of wood may be oak, maple, or pine, but those properties don't apply to its atoms. Continuing, it might seem the ultimate ground of existence lacks all properties. So how can different properties ultimately derive from the One? How does the One create the different objects and properties that we see?

We'll discuss objects, then properties.

As we've seen, acts, motions and flows may possess properties different from any property of the components involved—for example, the property of "whirlpool" does not apply to water itself but to an act of water: what water does. Thus, consistent with our worldview, we might imagine quarks and electrons as an act or a motion of the ultimate ground, as if a spinning or resonance of the One creates electrons. Just as the continual flow in a fountain creates the streams, by analogy we might picture a continual moment-to-moment motion of the One as creating quarks and electrons. (Of course, the reader should understand our analogy as theology, not as quantum physics.) Once we understand elementary particles, we may understand other objects as component entities created by elementary particles in relation.

Let's examine the creation process in more detail by introducing three refinements to our component entity concept—"joined" component entities, "fused" component entities, and "said" component entities. These three refinements differ in the degree of unity between components.

Joined object
We use "joined object" or "joined entity" for an entity mechanically constructed by arranging components in the proper way, much as we create a mosaic by bringing small pieces of stone or glass into the proper relation.

Tables and engines serve as examples of joined entities: to create a table we join its top and four legs in the proper way; to create an engine, we join its components in the proper manner.

Words, sentences, paragraphs, and books also serve as examples of joined entities: given a set of typographical symbols (uppercase and lowercase letters, punctuation symbols, spaces, etc.) we may join them to create words; we may join words and punctuation symbols to create sentences; we may join sentences to create paragraphs; and we may join paragraphs to create books.

Notice that relations matter: by joining the letters "a", "e", or "r" in one relation we create the English word "ear", a noun. Joined in a different relation we create the word "are", a verb. With words, internal relations between components appear as important as the components themselves.

Similarly, the relation between carbon atoms determines whether we have soot or diamond. Here again, the relation between atoms (rather than the atoms themselves) determines important properties. Arranged one way, we have soot, which absorbs most photons of visible light and appears black. Arranged another, we have a diamond, which allow most photons to pass through and appears clear.

Fused object
We use "fused object" or "fused entity" for an entity that possesses a unity more profound and integral than that of a joined object.

For instance, consider common table salt, which chemists call sodium chloride. Chemists describe sodium as a toxic, grey, metallic element that reacts violently with water. And they describe chlorine as a toxic, greenish-yellow gaseous element once used for chemical warfare. Combine the two elements and we get a molecule of salt, i.e., sodium chloride—not grey, not greenish yellow, but white; not metallic, not gaseous, but crystalline; not toxic but essential for life.

Clearly, in salt the sodium and chloride atoms unite more profoundly than when parts mechanically unite to create a mosaic or engine. The act of chemically uniting atoms seems to endow the molecule with a deeper unity than that possessed by a joined object.

Note that the creation of molecules involves the absorption or release of a fixed quantity of energy. Similarly, in the creation of atoms from protons, neutrons, and electrons, the atom absorbs or releases a fixed quantity of energy. We can maintain our view of molecules and atoms as components objects if we recognize the associated quantity of energy as one of the components.

Apparently, the term "fused entity" applies to any living organism.

Open-ended question: Does the creation and destruction of a fused non-living entity, such as a proton, atom or molecule, always require a fixed input or output of energy?

Said Object
We use "said object" or "said entity" for an entity that possesses the weakest unity, even weaker than that of a joined entity. Often, we create a said entity by uniting components mentally rather than mechanically, as we do for a joined entity. For instance, the constellation of Orion includes stars as close as 243 light-years and as far as 1,359 light-years. From Earth, the stars appear close to each other. So we mentally group them into the said entity known as the Orion constellation.

Some said objects may possess such weak unity as to make us question whether they genuinely constitute an object or entity. The stars of the Orion constellation, for example, have no natural unity except that when viewed from Earth they appear close (but are separated by as much as 1,000 light-years).

As another example, imagine a collection of objects such as some pictures, some letters, some personal effects, and some money. Can we think of that collection as a single object? For some purposes we might, as when I think of "all the things I inherited from my grandfather" as one entity.

Open-ended question: How much unity must exist for a collection to validly constitute an object or entity? Should we regard "all the things I inherited from my grandfather" as a genuine single object? What about an arbitrary collection—for example, the sun, what I had for breakfast today, my first school teacher, and the number five? Does it make sense to think of that as a single entity? George Cantor famously said: "A set is a Many that allows itself to be thought of as a One." For our purposes, should we say "An entity or object is a Many that allows itself—and for which it makes sense—to be thought of as a One."?

Said, joined, and fused component entities possess components but differ in the degree of unity between components. But rather than discrete, mutually exclusive categories, we recognize "said", "joined", and "fused" as marks on a spectrum. For instance, we can recognize a heap of sand as a said entity or equally well as a joined entity; so we might place it on the spectrum somewhere between said entity and joined entity. Thus, on our spectrum of unity, "said" indicates entities with the weakest unity, "joined" those with a more integral unity, and "fused" those with a yet stronger unity. And we might imagine the high end of the spectrum marked by an entity of such profound, absolute unity that its components have vanished and only a simple, component-less One remains.


We have described creation in terms of said, joined and fused component entities. Similarly, we could describe the destruction of objects as when the relation between components ceases to exist, as when we disassemble a table or break a molecule into its component atoms. We now turn to properties.


We do not think of the One as tall, rectangular or brown. So how can we understand such properties as deriving from a One?

In the process of mentally analyzing a table as components, as wood, as atoms, etc., we lose properties. We may begin with a tall, rectangular, brown table, but we end with atoms neither tall nor rectangular nor brown. Ultimately, we arrive at the One, which possesses no particular properties. Our process appears reductive in that it analyzes a complex entity in terms of simpler, more fundamental entities. To understand properties, we reverse the process: from simpler, component entities we built a new entity with new properties, emergent properties.

Open-ended question: Can we think of the One as possessing all properties in a latent state, rather than possessing no properties?

Emergent Property
We use the term "emergent properties" to describe a property of an entity not possessed by its individual components.

For example, consider again the set of standard typographical symbols. By creating strings of those symbols, we create sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books. We can create an English-language textbook or a French-language novel. Yet the properties of English, French, textbook and novel do not characterize the individual symbols themselves but emerge from the symbols' relations to each other.

Similarly, we can start with components (e.g., wood, metal) that individually do not possess the property of table, tennis racket, or automobile, and assemble them into components entities which do possess those properties.

As another example, consider salt's properties. From the union of a toxic, gray, and metallic element (sodium) with a toxic, greenish-yellow, and gaseous element (chlorine), the white, crystalline, life-supporting properties of salt somehow emerge, but how? Salt's properties do not in any obvious way derive from its component atoms.

Can we explain salt's emergent properties in terms of the relation between its atoms? Not in the simple way we described the textbook and novel as emerging from the relation between symbols. For how can a mere spatial relation between atoms create salt? ("Move the sodium to the left of the chlorine, back a bit. There, we've got salt.") Can we find another way to describe how salt's properties emerge?

We used our motion and flow concepts to describe how elementary particles might arise from the One. Let's use them to describe by analogy how salt's properties emerge. In the analogy, let the motion of moving in a circle correspond to sodium's properties. And let the motion of moving left and right correspond to chlorine's properties. Now imagine combining the two motions—for instance, imagine the center of the circle moving left and right—and we get an elliptic or oval path, vaguely analogous to understanding how sodium's and chlorine's properties combine to create salt's properties.

As another example, imagine a straight-line motion, like the motion of a moving bicycle. And imagine a circular motion, like the motion of a point on a rotating wheel. Now, imagine the two motions combined, like the motion of a fixed point on the wheel of a moving bicycle. The fixed point traces a path that mathematicians call a cycloid.

In a vaguely analogous way, if we think of atoms as acts, as motions, then we may understand sodium chloride as the result of combining two separate motions. Understood in that way the distinctive, emergent properties of salt may seem less counterintuitive. (In contrast, when we regard atoms as distinct "substances" with their own inherent properties, then the union of sodium and chloride to form salt seems mysterious, as mysterious as taking, say, a brick and a dog, placing them "in the proper relationship" and somehow getting a hat.)


The static and dynamic view
We may view entities statically or dynamically or both. For some entities, the static view suffices. For instance, we can recognize the word "ear" as three letters in a static relation. For other entities, a dynamic, functional view seems sufficient. For instance, we define a doorstop dynamically, in terms of what it does—hold a door open—rather than in terms of what it "is". Thus, a brick, rock, hammer, old appliance, wood wedge, or my uncle Joe may "be" a doorstop, in that he may hold a door open.

Often, we find a mix of both views useful. For instance, we may understand an engine's weight statically, in terms of the sum of its components' weights. But to understand the engine's torque, power, and compression ratio, we need to understand what it does, that is, understand it dynamically. Often, one view serves better than the other. For instance, we may think of a fist in terms of components—fingers curls into a palm—but thinking of it as an act or motion of the hand seems more natural.

The static view allows us to think of the components as separately existing. For example, the pieces of stone or glass exist independent of the mosaic. The dynamic view, on the other hand, may lead us to think of the entity as an integral whole. For when we imagine an act, we may find it impossible to think of components existing independent of the act. For example, we cannot think of a seller and buyer independent of the act of selling. (We can think of a would-be seller, but no seller exists without the act of selling.) Moreover, an act may appear transformative: that is, although the person—the would-be seller—exists before the act of selling, the seller comes into existence only when the act of selling occurs.

Static concepts presume the existence of independent entities. For instance, component entity presumes the existence of components, and dependent existence presumes the existence of an "other" that the entity depends upon. But our fundamental assumption of monism says that a single entity, the One, ultimately grounds everything else; that assumption precludes the existence of genuinely independent entities. Therefore, we used dynamic concepts to explain fundamental particles and emergent properties.

By extension, we might picture the entire universe dynamically, as a motion, as perpetually in the act of being created, as a continual act of God. To illustrate, we might imagine the universe as a fountain and the One as the water. Or we may imagine the universe like moving images on a monitor or screen, and God as the light. (Remarkably, people sometimes report an epiphany of seeing the universe in that way, as a manifestation of an eternal light, an emanation from a single Source.)

For later reference, we use the "movie analogy" to refer to the view of the universe as images on a screen and God as the light that creates the images. The analogy gives literal meaning to the Christian belief that "we are made in the image of God". We use the analogy in a later chapter when we discuss people who claim experience of God.

We thus arrive at a view of the physical universe as a motion, a continual act, of the One.

We turn next to our place in the universe.