Where Did the Universe Come From?

Right now, I think the best answer anyone can give to the question of where the universe came from is “I don’t know.” Science has traced the history of the universe back about 13.8 billion years, and has revealed many things about it undreamt of by any religious creation myth, but ultimate questions about the exact origin of the universe are still an open subject of investigation. Cosmologists are not even sure it is coherent to ask where the universe came from, since modern physics understands space and time themselves to be inseparable parts of the universe: does it make any sense to ask “where” the universe “came from” if there is no such thing as “outside of” the universe or “before” its origin? Progress in the scientific understanding of the origin of the universe depends on the resolution of deep and complex issues in fundamental physics, to which only a handful of people in the world are qualified to make an informed contribution.

The wisest policy for those of us who do not have that kind of expertise, believer and nonbeliever alike, is to wait for science to come closer to settling the issue. In the meantime, we can note that the trend in every branch of science has been to discover that more and more can be explained adequately without reference to the activity of magical or supernatural beings, and that there is no reason to expect this trend to reverse itself in the future. But as far as the details of the origin of the universe go, we must simply wait. Although this may not be enough for those who hate uncertainty enough to prefer a leap of blind faith, there is in fact nothing wrong with acknowledging the limits of our current understanding, and waiting, with patience and humility, for science to complete its work.

Science aside, is there any philosophical reason to suspect that a god must have played a role in the origin of the universe? Surely not. Apologists will argue that the universe must have been caused by something itself uncaused, or by something timeless, or by something which exists necessarily. Perhaps any one of these must be so, perhaps not. Most modern philosophers think not, but perhaps they are mistaken. But even if there had to have been an uncaused cause, a timeless cause, or a necessary cause, why should anyone suppose any such cause to have been intelligent? Why should anyone suppose the cause of the universe to have just happened to have all of the characteristics of a god, instead of merely those bare characteristics that allow it to cause a universe and itself to exist uncaused? When we push so far into the realm of speculation, atheists can match the extravagant theistic speculations about gods and creators with far simpler speculations of their own about far simpler causes.

To summarize, we just do not yet know where the universe came from, or, for that matter, whether it even makes sense to ask that question. But were it to turn out that the universe must indeed have come from something, there still would be no reason to believe that it must have come from a god. In fact, something as horrendously complex and unlikely as a god is the last explanation anyone should reach for.