by Lyle Lofgren
October - November 2010

This three-part essay was written in response to a question raised during an e-mail discussion with a cousin, Jon Kent. The question, which some people would say is THE question:

Why is there anything at all? Wouldn't it be simpler to just have nothing?

Ockham's Razor, taken to its logical extreme. If you think I'm going to give you a definitive answer, you're wasting your time reading this. My rationale for publishing it is that it might clarify some points as to why the question why is unanswerable.

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
--Biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927].




In the beginning, God (Jahveh) created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. ... And God said , "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters." And God said, "Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water." And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.1

The Jews were slaves in Babylon, and some scholars think that Genesis was written during that time (circa 600 BC). They may have borrowed their creation story from the Sumerians (who preceded the Babylonians, circa 1500 BC): Marduk, the first patriarchal hero, fights Tiamat, the ocean goddess. He kills her, and splits her into two parts: heaven and earth. He puts the lesser gods to work farming, but they complain so much that he creates humans to do the heavy lifting.

Egypt, which enslaved the Jews (circa 1700 BC?) before the Babylonians came along, gives us this story: it all starts with Nun, which is the primal, chaotic ocean. Ra, the sun god, born of Nun, creates Shu, god of air, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture. She, in turn, gives birth to Geb, the earth god, and Nut, the sky goddess. Earth and sky are separated, and everything else follows.

The Hindu story begins with a vast dark ocean, bordered by nothingness, and with a giant cobra floating on it. Vishnu is sleeping and dreaming. He awakes to find Brahma on his belly, sitting in a lotus flower. He tells Brahma to create the world, which Brahma does by splitting the lotus flower into three parts: heaven, earth, and sky. Vishnu goes back to sleep and dreams the universe. When he awakes, the whole thing will disappear and Brahma will have to start all over again. Meanwhile, the existence of everything depends not only on Vishnu's dreams, but the opposing efforts of Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the destroyer.

For the ancient Greeks, the beginning took place in empty darkness. All was void except for Nyx, a bird with black wings. She mated with the wind and laid a golden egg that she sat upon for aeons, until the egg hatched Eros, the god of love. One half of the shell rose into the air and became the sky and the other became the Earth. Eros named the sky Uranus and the Earth Gaia. Then Eros made them fall in love

The rationalist Greek philosophers knew better than to believe in creation by an egg-laying bird. Plato (428 - 328 BC) sidestepped the origin question by hypothesizing that all we can observe here on earth are distorted shadows of an ideal reality that exists in an unattainable realm. His contemporary, Aristotle (384 - 322 BC), applied logic to the origin question, arguing that every motion requires a mover. Continuing the argument backwards, he concluded that everything must have begun with a Prime Mover that was itself unmoved, something we would later call God with a capital G.

A different explanation was put forward in China circa 300 AD by Kuo Hsiang :
I venture to ask whether the creator is or is not. If he is not, how can he create things? If he is, then (being one of these things), he is incapable of creating the mass of bodily forms ... The creating of things has no lord; everything creates itself and does not depend on anything else. This is the normal way of the universe.2

When Christianity took over western Europe, the matter was settled: the Hebrew version of creation was the correct one, and any other ideas could get one executed as a heretic. Needless to say, there was not a lot of discussion on the question. Baruch Spinoza (1632 - 1677) was a heretic who survived, perhaps because he lived in Holland and published under a pseudonym, or perhaps because he died before the church authorities figured out who was publishing the heresy. He was a Portuguese Jew who was expelled from Judaism for heretical beliefs that were mild compared with his later beliefs. He carried Aristotle's Prime Mover one step further: God is the only thing that exists (no Christian trinity for him), and everything in the universe is an expression of that God. Furthermore, he said that God is "free," by which he meant that He is not influenced by anything else. He then came to the interesting conclusion that God therefore must behave the way He does. Rather than behaving in the arbitrary manner one might expect of a truly free being, Spinoza said that God had to create the universe and do all the other godly stuff for the same reason that the three angles of a triangle add up to 180°. In other words, God has no free will, and neither does anyone nor anything else.

Meanwhile, over in England, Isaac Newton (1643 - 1727) was developing his theories of motion and gravitation, which allowed very precise calculations of planetary motion. By now, it was obvious that the earth revolved around the sun, overthrowing the old Greek system that had the earth at the center of the universe. Newton evidently accepted the Judeo-Christian creator, but, in order to make his system work, God had to be a clockmaker: wind up the universe and it runs by itself forever, following Newton's laws. The decline in the power of the Roman Catholic Church after the Reformation meant that there were places where you could say heretical things without being executed, but there seems not to have been a lot of interest in creation questions. During the Age of Invention and the Industrial Revolution, there were so many exciting discoveries using Newton's ideas, so many profitable inventions to be made, so much land to exploit, that no one in the western world had much time for reflection on First Causes. Geologists discovered that the earth was probably very old. Even major perspective shifts, such as the development of Evolutionary Theory, concentrated on biological events that happened long after any original creation.

The discoveries of the twentieth century about the structure of matter (atoms and Quantum Theory), the nature of space and time (Relativity) and the development of sophisticated gear for exploring the universe (telescopes, spectroscopes, sensitive ultraviolet, infrared and radio receivers, etc.) led to a renewed interest in creation. I remember, from the 1950s, a very public argument between astronomer Fred Hoyle, who proposed a static universe with continuous creation and destruction, and physicist George Gamow, who believed in Big Bang creation. Big Bang theory says that the entire universe started with an infinitesimal spot of very hot, very dense primal something (the whole universe a singularity in space and time) that expanded space-time very quickly, then slowed down as the cloud cooled enough to allow atoms to form. The Big Bang theory won out, mainly as a result of the 1964 discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which has been interpreted as proof of the Big Bang.


The Hebrew, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Hindu stories describe creation of heaven and earth, but water was already there. No word on who created the water, or the other raw materials needed to make everything on heaven and earth. The Greek story requires wind. All of them have chaos, but you can't have chaos, after all, without some material to be chaotic -- empty space is about as unchaotic as you can get. In all of these stories, the hardest part seems to be to separate the sky from the ocean, with solid ground being easier to create. The separation of water into two parts, the water above (heaven) and the water below (ocean), at least explains where rain comes from. It seems to me that the gods described here are organizers of chaos more than creators.

Infinite Regression

Some people do not take the Genesis story literally, but say that God created absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing. But then we're left with the childish question, "Who created God?" Any attempt to answer this has to involve an infinite regression: A super-god created God, but that one was created by a super-super-god, ad infinitum. Here's a demonstration of the principle, from our bathroom, using Liz as a model.

Plato's theory about an ideal unobservable reality has the advantage (for him) and disadvantage (for the rest of us) that there's no way to show whether it's true or untrue.

Aristotle's Prime Mover was an attempt to circumvent the infinite regression problem by cutting it off at a hypothesized starting point. He can be forgiven for not knowing about Newton's Third Law (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), since it wasn't propounded until almost 2000 years later. But we can fault him for hidden assumptions that the universe is finite and has been here for a finite amount of time, so that motion had to have a beginning. And he was oversimplifying when he posited only one mover for each motion. He was at least aware that a theory of the origin of motion is required, but he ignored the origin of matter.

Kuo Hsiang's self-creation theory has the advantage of cleanly cutting off the infinite regression problem at its source. It has the disadvantage that no one has ever figured out how self-creation might work.

Spinoza's free-therefore-totally-constrained god results in an orderly universe, if a little dull. As with Plato's theory, there seems to be no observation that anyone could make to test the hypothesis.

Newton's clockmaker God is just as constrained in his actions as Spinoza's. Newton had faith that God is not going to cancel the Law of Gravitational Attraction tomorrow simply because he's angry at humanity's evil ways. And, to judge by his published writings, he didn't spend a lot of energy wondering how God could have created something out of nothing.


The Big Bang theory makes the same unprovable assumptions as those made by Aristotle (i.e., a finite universe with a specific beginning), but it's become the new orthodoxy. Since the 1940s, discrepancies between observations and simple Big Bang theory has resulted in add-on hypotheses, such as Dark Matter and Dark Energy, attached like remoras on a shark.

I think that all these creation stories, including the Big Bang, reflect a failure of imagination as a natural result of our human-centered thought-system. The life of each of us has an observable beginning and ending (although I could argue that they aren't really beginnings and endings, just transformations). We extrapolate this observation to the entire universe, and make up stories of the beginning and ending of everything. But an even more important failure of imagination is the failure to conceive of either infinity or eternity. A universe with no borders, no beginning, and no end is a scary and lonely place. So we assign infinity and eternity to God, and then pull an emerald curtain in front of Him to alleviate the vertiginous anxiety.

The Big Bang Theory has a credibility problem with Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation, which says that even a small mass contains an enormous amount of energy. A physics professor recently gave me an example: the mass contained in 1 gram of matter (about equal to one-third of a penny), if completely converted to heat energy, would boil the water in 85 olympic-sized swimming pools. The Big Bang must have started out as pure energy, since if it were matter, it would be so compressed that nothing could move, and therefore the matter would have no temperature — therefore, no energy to expand. The energy that would have been required to create all the matter in the observable universe is unimaginably large, even ignoring the energy that would have been required to expand it from an infinitesimal cosmic egg. If God had to create the universe out of energy, where did He get that much? Of course, if God, the Prime Mover, is infinite, He had infinitely more energy to draw from, and could create an unlimited number of universes. He could also suspend all the laws of physics for the duration of the creation. In fact, we don't know if our physics laws, which are based on observations of ordinary matter, even apply under such extreme conditions as Black Holes or Big Bangs. And there are no experiments we can conduct that will tell us. But saying that we don't know anything is just as scary as a universe with no borders, no beginning, and no end.

Two generations before Newton, Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626), in his 1620 book Novum Organum, described common errors based on our habitual modes of thinking. He called them idola, a Latin term misleadingly translated into English as idols. It's derived from the Greek eidolon (something imaginary), and refers to unexamined but misleading influences on our ideas. He identified four idola:

Idols of the Tribe: the human tendency to interpret the universe from a human vantage point, and thus to see more order and regularity in systems than truly exist.
Idols of the Cave: an individual's errors in reasoning due to prejudices, personal likes and dislikes, personal history.
Idols of the Marketplace: confusion due to the fact we communicate with each other, but misapply and misinterpret language, resulting in errors because our perceptions are filtered through language.
Idols of the Theater: believing what "experts" such as teachers, preachers, or politicians tell you without independently checking the information.

All of the creation stories (with the possible exception of Kuo Hsiang's theory) we've looked at invoke some version of these idols, particularly the need to invent order whether or not it really exists, which is related to the need to make up a story. The religious creation stories are dependent only on faith, with no need for observations to check either facts or logic. I think facts and logic are undesired because we need more than an entertaining story (although all creation stories that survive are entertaining); we need a story where humans are relevant to the cosmos -- we are perhaps the only living thing that has that need. That's an Idol of the Tribe that's hard for us to eliminate.

The scientists who take astronomical data and make up a story are in a much more precarious condition. Every new discovery requires a modification to the story. When enough contrary data piles up, the whole story collapses and must be replaced by another one. This process is called a paradigm shift3. You could avoid this problem by stopping the attempt to tell a story, but everyone, including scientists, would find themselves in a terrible confusion. What is one to believe?


1. Genesis 1, 1:2 and 6:7. (King James Version).
2. "Creation, Myths and Doctrines of" Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. 5, p. 243.
3. Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (University of Chicago Press, 1962).


Some quotes from Niels Bohr (1885 - 1962), one of the founders of Quantum Theory:

•     It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about Nature.
•     Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.
•     Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.


The basic question: why is there anything at all? It has one obvious answer, which isn't really a reason, but an observation: if there were nothing at all, there would also be no one to know that there was nothing at all. Therefore, the fact that there's someone who wonders why there's nothing at all is related to why there's anything at all. Some scientist-philosophers elevated this observation into the Anthropic Principle, which says, in some of its more extreme variations, that the universe has to be exactly the way it is, because otherwise there would be no conscious observers to observe its grandeur. As the name itself betrays, Conscious observer is a code word for mankind (even though most of us are not very observant at all), and the principle indulges in circular reasoning. My objections to the principle:

1. The universe is big enough to exist quite well on its own, thank you, without anyone to sing its praises. It got along for billions of years without, as far as we know, any sentient being to observe it. Copernicus moved mankind away from the center of the universe. The anthropic guys want to put us back.

2. Life on earth evolved from a set of environmental conditions. A different set of conditions, and even a different set of accidental occurrences, could still allow for the existence of a different type of life4. Another example: if it weren't for one or more large meteorites hitting the earth 65 million years ago, mammals probably would still be living in the shadow of the dinosaurs. Of course, it might be that dinosaurs would have evolved into a sophisticated life-form that could properly appreciate the wonders of the universe. That theory would be called the Saurophic Principle.

Even before the anthropic principle was invented, Sir Arthur Eddington wrote:

We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origins. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.5

Even from the distance of 400 years, I hear the ghost of Francis Bacon yelling, "Idols of the Tribe!"

I wonder if we can talk about the universe without making up a story about it, or at least a story where humans are irrelevant. Obviously, that means we have to abandon any ideas about the hypothesized original creation and the anthropic principle. But maybe by looking at the present universe, we can get some fresh ideas about how, rather than why, it exists. This is going to be a brief summary, with many unexplained gaps. If you're interested, the internet has lots of information and misinformation about the terms used here.

Yin & Yang

The Greeks had four elements: earth, water, air and fire. I'm going to go further, and say that we have only two elements: matter and energy; and, further, that they are yin and yang: opposites that, together, make up all of existence. In fact, Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2, implies that matter and energy might really be two expressions of something else, which we might as well call the universe.

Matter is a noun. It says "I want everything to stay just the way it is."
Energy is a verb. It says to Matter, "You've got to change."

I could quit now, having revealed the secret of how the universe works, but I sense that some might be skeptical of such a simple answer. So let's look closer.

First of all, of course energy is a noun. But energy is all action, and naming it as if it were a thing obscures its real character. In fact, everything that has a name has been obscured by a foggy layer that prevents us from perceiving reality: Bacon's Idols of the Marketplace are everywhere.

What is matter? Mechanically, it's something that exhibits inertia, which is defined by Newton's First Law of Motion:
Objects at rest remain at rest, and objects in motion remain in motion in a straight line, unless acted upon by an outside force.
Matter also has substance, which means that no two objects can occupy exactly the same space at the same time. Matter typically exists in one of three forms: solid, liquid, or gas. All matter is made up of one or more elements (used in the modern rather than Greek sense). There are 92 elements still in existence, the lightest of which is hydrogen, and the heaviest of which is uranium (elements heavier than uranium are man-made, since any that were made when the earth formed have undergone radioactive decay to other elements long ago). Most elements can combine chemically with other elements to form more complicated compounds.

The smallest bit of a compound that can exist and still retain its chemical properties is a molecule. The smallest bit of an element that can similarly exist is an atom. At the most microscopic level, an atom consists of a compact nucleus, surrounded by a cloud of electrons. The nucleus consists of protons, which have a positive electrical charge, and neutrons, which have no electrical charge. Each electron has a negative electrical charge exactly equal to the proton's positive charge. The number of electrons surrounding the nucleus of an electrically neutral atom equals the number of protons in the nucleus. The nucleus is very tiny compared with the orbits of the surrounding electrons. For example, hydrogen, the simplest atom, consists of one proton with one accompanying electron. The orbit of the electron in its normal state is about 145,000 times the diameter of the proton. The electron has a mass only 1/1836 that of a proton. Electrons are involved in the chemical reactions that form compounds.

Free protons and electrons (those that are not bound into an atom) are stable, but a neutron by itself is not. It decays within minutes into a proton and an electron. In spite of this, physicists claim that a neutron is not just a proton and an electron stuck together.

We're all familiar with mechanical forces, because we experience them every day, and they are usually obvious: you can directly see or feel the mechanism that is forcing something to move. But there are other forces that cannot be perceived directly, but only by their effects on other objects. Matter could not exist without such forces, particularly those that hold matter together. The main forces for a brief survey like this are electromagnetic, nuclear, and gravity. The most important electromagnetic force at the atomic level is the electrostatic force, which is attractive for unlike electrical charges and repulsive for like charges. Thus, the positive atomic nucleus attracts the negative electrons that cloud around it. Although attracted to the nucleus, the electrons stay far away from it -- not from a counteracting force, but for other quantum-theory existence rules that seem to be necessary for describing reality, even though they make no rational sense. Physics runs into these a lot.

The next most complicated stable atom is helium, which has a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons, with two orbiting electrons. Its atomic number, or number of protons in the nucleus (and hence the number of orbiting electrons) is 2, while 4 is its atomic weight, or total number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Since the protons are positive, they should repel each other, but they are held together inside the nucleus by the strong nuclear force, which is an attractive force. It is stronger than the repulsive electrostatic force, but has only a very short range, so has no effect outside the nucleus. The neutrons also evidently act to moderate the repulsive electrostatic forces between the protons -- Only the simple hydrogen nucleus requires no neutrons. All elements (even hydrogen) have isotopes. Isotopes of an element all have the same number of protons, but have different numbers of neutrons. So hydrogen can also exist as deuterium (one proton and one neutron in the nucleus; stable but rare in nature) and tritium (one proton and two neutrons; radioactive and existing only inside stars or as a by-product of man-made nuclear reactions).

Theories about the nature of these forces involve the exchange of virtual particles, which, as you might gather from the name, cannot be observed when they're producing the force. For example, positive and negative electrical charges attract because they are exchanging virtual photons, which, when they become real, carry electromagnetic energy through space. Some of the virtual particles, such as the quarks and gluons believed to produce the strong nuclear force, can never be observed. Accelerator collision experiments, as well as some highly energetic cosmic events, produce fragments from nuclei (mesons, muons, neutrinos, etc.) that greatly add to the complexity of the problem of understanding matter. Theories of the nature of matter and force deduced from studying the fragments agree with the observed data, but don't seem to give us any deep understanding of the nature of matter. It's like trying to learn how a watch works by smashing it and examining the fragments.
[Note: I do not infer from this simile that the existence of a watch implies a watchmaker. Kuo Hsiang and his self-creation theory could still be the correct one.]

At atomic distances, gravity is negligible. But at our size, it's an important force, causing you to fall down if you're not careful. Gravity is also responsible for the formation of galaxies, stars and planets. Without gravity, matter wouldn't amount to much. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity (1915) said that gravity isn't really a force, but a distortion of space-time due to matter. Thus, the earth moves around the sun in an elliptical orbit because that's the shortest distance in space-time (a geodesic), not because of any outside force. This was a rewriting of Newton's First Law of Motion, changing the concept of a straight line to that of a geodesic, but retained inertia, which is still useful for defining matter. Matter changes the shape of space-time, and space-time affects the motion of matter through it. If Einstein is right (and all experiments so far indicate that he is), gravity is very different from the other forces, and may not require the existence of quantum gravitons, although physicists are looking for them.

What is energy? It's something that moves from a location that has an excess of energy to a location that has less energy (another circular definition -- the fact is that no one knows exactly what energy is). Kinetic energy, or energy of motion, is energy that's already moving. Potential energy is energy stored in matter, available to become kinetic energy under the right circumstances.

Stars are the major source of energy in the universe. They produce energy mainly by converting hydrogen to helium (more on this later). That energy is transferred to less energetic bodies through electromagnetic radiation. Some examples of electromagnetic radiation are radio waves, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays, and gamma rays. Electromagnetic energy is carried by photons, which have no rest mass (and thus can't exist when at rest), but they travel at the speed of light, and have a small apparent mass when they strike something, due to their motion. They follow a wave pattern that also travels at the speed of light in a vacuum, but at slower speeds in such materials as glass (resulting in lens and prism effects). Electromagnetic radiation is the main means for transferring energy through empty space (energetic particles of matter traveling through space carry only a very small amount of energy, because there are comparatively few of them). Our sun is our only energy source.

The atomic weight of an atom is not precisely equal to the weights of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, because the binding energy has a mass equivalent. A star is essentially a controlled hydrogen bomb. It converts (fuses) hydrogen to helium through a complicated process. To oversimplify, the process is the fusing of two deuterium atoms into one helium atom. Because of the difference in binding energies, 0.63% of the deuterium mass is lost in the fusion process. This tiny mass loss results in the enormous amount of energy a star emits (Einstein's E=mc2 again).

Binding Energy

The standard theory of star formation says that a star originally begins as a hydrogen cloud that collapses around its center due to the influence of gravity. As the gas is compressed, it heats up until it gets to the very high temperature where hydrogen-to-helium fusion takes place. At that point, the energy generated by the star counteracts gravity, and it remains stable until much of the hydrogen is depleted. At the intense heat inside a star, other nuclear reactions take place, resulting in the creation of ever heavier elements: lithium (atomic number 3), beryllium (4), boron (5), carbon (6), etc. (the order in which the elements are created is not that simple, though). Each of these fusion processes releases energy, although not in as great amounts as the original hydrogen-helium fusion. The energy released for each nuclear transformation is given by a binding energy curve (see graph).

Binding Energy

The binding energy graph is unclear, because the vertical axis shows the negative of binding energy. It makes more intuitive sense to invert it, so that lower energy is lower on the curve, similar to balls rolling down hill. It's now a little easier to understand that fusion of light elements and fission of heavy elements releases energy.

Elements with atomic weights near iron do not release any energy, when fused to form elements with higher atomic weights. The formation of elements with a higher atomic weight than iron absorbs energy. Thus, fusion no longer works to help the star exist (in fact, the very heaviest elements, such as uranium, release energy when they split up into lighter ones, a process called fission). Present theory says that the star begins to run out of fuel and collapses under its weight, thereby heating up again. If the star is large enough, the pressure and temperature eventually becomes so great that the star becomes a supernova, exploding with tremendous energy and creating all the elements heavier than iron in the process. This material then recollects somewhere else as clouds, forming new stars such as our sun. These clouds, when they collapse, must get rid of angular momentum in order to collapse further, so they leave behind rings of material which form planets. Some of our planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, are almost completely hydrogen and helium. Those closer to the sun, such as Earth, have heavier materials, including those created by our parent supernova.

Energy is emitted by the sun in the form of infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light. This is kinetic energy, and it comes from the destruction of matter. The matter on earth absorbs this energy. Most of it is transferred to kinetic energy of the molecules that make up matter. The molecules of a gas are always in motion, bouncing into each other or into things. We measure the kinetic energy of this motion in terms of the temperature of the gas. The molecules of a solid are held in place by intermolecular forces that behave like springs. When these molecules absorb energy, they vibrate back and forth more vigorously, which we also interpret as increased temperature. Finally, if the heat energy is greater than the intermolecular forces, the solid melts to become a liquid: the molecules now can move around in a limited manner, but can't fly away until they get even hotter, and the liquid boils to become a gas.

There are other forms of kinetic energy besides heat -- basically anything that moves, including baseballs, wind, sound waves, etc. Most of the kinetic energy we observe on a daily basis comes from the conversion of potential energy (originally from the sun) into kinetic energy. The classic example of the difference between the two involves carrying a rock up a hill. As you carry it up, you expend kinetic energy, but increase potential energy. When you drop the rock and it rolls back down the hill, the potential energy is converted back to kinetic energy. In a closed system, total energy is not lost — it only seems to disappear because of friction, which increases the kinetic energy (heats up) the atoms in the two interfacing surfaces.

An atom can absorb a photon -- the energy from the photon raises one or more of the outer electrons to an orbit more distant from the nucleus (more correctly, to a higher energy level). The energy from electromagnetic radiation can only be absorbed in discrete amounts, called quanta. Similarly, the energized electron(s) can fall back to lower energy levels, but only to those that are allowed by quantum theory. When this happens, the atom gets rid of the excess energy by emitting a photon, which is a quantum of electromagnetic energy. As far as we know, the electron disappears from one energy level and reappears at another, without being anywhere during the transition. These peculiarities are explained by the observation that, while light waves are made up of particles (photons), sub-atomic particles, such as electrons, behave like waves. Wave theory was interpreted as meaning that a wave function determines the probability that a particle will be at a specific location, and that there's zero probability that an electron will be between the stable orbits around an atom. When this theory was first developed, in the 1920s, it excited quantum physicists: the symmetry between matter and energy looked like a great step forward in understanding the universe, but many were distressed by the idea that reality might be based on probability rather than rigid cause-and-effect processes.

A naive interpretation of the E=mc2 equation implies a symmetry between energy and matter that doesn't agree with experiments. There are lots of examples where matter is converted to energy: inside a star; hydrogen bombs (fusion of hydrogen); atomic bombs or nuclear power reactors (fission of uranium or plutonium). Energy can sometimes be converted back to matter, as when a very energetic photon passes close to an atom and becomes converted to an electron and a positron (the antiparticle of an electron). But the positron annihilates itself along with the first electron it meets, changing back into a photon. An even more energetic photon can convert to a proton and an antiproton, with similar annihilation when the antiproton meets another proton. So matter can create energy, but we know of no way that energy can create a net amount of matter. And at least one particle has to already exist in order for this transformation to occur.

These two inconvenient observations (the need for a seed particle, and the symmetric conversion of energy into particles and antiparticles) create a further problem for theories that hypothesize the original creation of matter from pure energy, such as the Big Bang Theory. The main problem is that, as far as we know, there is no permanent antimatter in the universe. How could energy convert to matter without producing an equal amount of antimatter? Theoreticians have calculated that they can explain the present condition if there were only an excess of matter over antimatter of 1 part per billion at creation. In order for this to happen, some asymmetric processes had to happen during creation that don't occur any more. No one has answered where the seed particle might have come from -- that requires suspension of the principle of Conservation of Momentum, one of the sacred laws of physics. A problem with hypothesizing a violation of that principle is that Nöther's Theorem proves that Conservation of Momentum is violated only if the interaction is dependent on location. I suppose one could argue that the infinitesimal cosmic egg from which the universe arose is the ultimate location-dependent point, but it would be nice to have something more convincing.

[I like to pick on the Big Bang theory, because to me it's so obvious that it won't be around 20 years from now. I don't know what will replace it, but it will be related to someone figuring out alternative explanations for the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation and, perhaps, the cosmological Red Shift.]

A pessimist would say that, since matter creates energy, but energy can't create matter, eventually the universe will be all energy zipping around with nothing to energize. But there are other theories that says that, long before that could happen, more matter will appear out of nowhere. The problem involves the properties of nothing (sometimes called a vacuum or empty space). The investigation of nothing involves a paradox, in that, once you give it a name, it is no longer nothing, but becomes something. Some quantum theorists define a vacuum not as an absence of matter but as the lowest possible energy level, and hypothesize that a vacuum has unobservable negative energy levels that are filled with virtual (and hence unobservable) particles that are continuously appearing and disappearing. If there were no real particles left, these virtual particles would become real, thus producing something from nothing. If we're to investigate this, however, we have to understand what level of vacuum is required before this creation can occur. We can produce a very hard vacuum here on earth, but it still contains about 15 million molecules or atoms per cubic inch. Even outer space is not nothing — there are about 15 atoms per cubic inch in even the remotest interstellar regions, and no one has observed evidence of matter being created, even out there.


If stars and supernovas are able to produce all the elements given only hydrogen and some neutrons, we can explain creation by learning how to produce only a proton, an electron, and a neutron. But we haven't found a credible way of doing even that. If there were a truly single creation (the Big Bang), it had to take place under circumstances where the laws of physics, as we presently understand them, were quite different. Processes that are now so minor as to be unobservable could have been the major ones during that era. (The core of a star represents a similar situation. We can't create such an environment on earth and run experiments on it.).

None of the explanations advanced so far can be easily visualized, and digging ever deeper into the details of matter and energy pulls us ever farther away from the original concept of physics as a science that depends on observation and measurement, and onto the slippery slope of metaphysics. Even those scientist-philosophers who go beyond physics into metaphysics are only trying to explain how rather than why. I believe that no one will ever figure out the why of anything, and that it most likely is a meaningless question.

It's easy to call all of this nonsense, but calculations based on some of these ideas yield testable predictions that have been partly verified. The theories are non-sense in that there appears to be no way to make sense out of them so that any of us can understand.

Most scientists agree with Karl Popper (1902 - 1994) when he wrote that a valid scientific theory must be falsifiable6, i.e., capable of being proven false. Some recent theories of ultimate reality, such as String Theory, have a problem in this regard, in that no one has yet calculated an observable prediction from the theory, and therefore there is no way to prove it false. Until String Theory comes up with a result that can be refuted, we should provisionally regard it as humbug. The famously irascible physicist, Wolfgang Pauli (1900 - 1958), put it very well in commenting on an unclear paper written by a colleague:
Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! ("Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!")


4. See, for example: Gould, Stephen Jay. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. (W.W. Norton & Co., 1989).
5. Eddington, Sir Arthur. Space, Time, and Gravitation. (Cambridge University Press, 1920).
6. Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 1959).


Having failed to find a credible explanation for the origin of matter in the universe, we'll just assume that protons, electrons, and neutrons somehow came into being, and move on to one of the more spectacular features we know of: self-replicating mechanisms.

Before we do that, though, I want to stress a principle that seems to hold true universally, as hinted at by Newton's Third Law of Motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction):

Every process has at least one counter-process that opposes it.

Examples are not hard to find: energy vs. force (which we covered in Part II); attraction vs. repulsion; assembly vs. disintegration; order vs. disorder, and so on. We tend to think of these as isolated opposites, but the reality is that there are all kinds of processes going on all the time, some aiding each other and others opposing. Given enough time and with no other disturbances, the result should be a dynamic equilibrium where the processes exactly balance each other out and nothing changes. But, of course, other disturbances are arising all the time, so we never reach equilibrium. But even if equilibrium were to happen, it would not result in a complete victory of one process over its counter-process.

Mazda Vs. Ahriman

This principle has long been recognized, although not necessarily on a conscious level: the Chinese, for example, had their Yin/Yang symbol, which expressed the underlying unity of the opposites. They applied the principle to both the universe and human affairs. Mideastern religions were more concerned with the moral sphere. For example, the Zoroastrians in Persia believed that two opposing deities, Ahura Mazda, god of light, and his twin brother Ahriman, god of darkness (pictured), are perfectly balanced, so human behavior can tip the scale in either direction. And then there's the Judeo-Christian God and His equal twin, Satan.

Basic Chemistry:
Chemistry was an empirical science long before atomic structure was known. The concept of valence, for example, was refined throughout the 19th century. It's a way of classifying which elements are likely to combine with each other to form compounds, and in what ratios. Metals usually have positive valences, while non-metals have negative valences. The noble gases, such as helium or neon, would not combine with any other elements, and so were assigned a valence of zero. The valence rule for chemical combinations is that the total of the valences in the elements that make up a compound must add up to zero. A metal such as sodium (Na), for example, has a valence of +1, while chlorine (Cl), a non-metal, has a valence of -1. Knowing only this and chemical principles, you can predict that the two elements will combine in equal amounts (adjusted for the different atomic weights) to form NaCl (sodium chloride, or table salt). Similarly, oxygen (valence -2) can take on two hydrogens (valence +1) to form ordinary H2O. Some elements can exhibit more than one valence: iron (Fe) can have a valence of either +2 or +3, and so, depending on conditions, rust can occur as either ferrous oxide (FeO) or ferric oxide (Fe2O3).

The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834 - 1907) made sense out of a lot of confusion by devising the Periodic Table of the Elements (circa 1870), which showed which ones were chemically related to each other:

Periodic Table

The elements on the left side of the table are all metals, while those on the right side are all non-metals. The noble gases are on the extreme right side. Of special interest is carbon (C), element #6. It's halfway between the extreme metals and extreme non-metals, and can have a valence of either +4 or -4, which means that one carbon atom can connect with another, and in fact can form long chains and rings, while also hooking onto many different elements with the other two unused valences. The possibilities are so complex that a whole separate discipline, organic chemistry, grew out of the study of carbon. Silicon (Si), which is directly below carbon on the periodic table, can also connect to itself to form useful products such as silicone sealants, but it's heaviness limits its flexibility. For life, carbon is king.

We now know that the periodic table relates to the structure of the outer electron shell of the atom, and that chemical processes involve the exchange and/or sharing of these electrons (called valence electrons) between the atoms of the different elements. Although a normal atom or molecule is electrically neutral (total number of electrons equals total number of protons), there are residual forces which tend to hold even neutral molecules together. At sufficiently low temperature, all materials, except helium, are solids, because these forces are then dominant. As temperature increases, heat energy overcomes these forces causing solids to melt into liquids, and finally boil into gases. Even gas molecules, though, which are bouncing around and into each other with high energy, experience some of these forces (called van der Waal forces) when they near each other.

Life on earth requires a number of elements and compounds, but the one essential feature (other than carbon compounds) is water. Water is such an important feature for life that most scientific origin theories assume that life arose in a primordial ocean, or maybe a shallow pond. Water is plentiful, and has a low enough viscosity that a molecule can travel about relatively freely, which increases the chance that it will meet up with a compatible molecule to form a new compound. [A recent proposal is that this could have happened in the atmosphere, also, where wind-driven molecules could run into each other and be activated by ultra-violet radiation from the sun.]

If we don't believe in intelligent design (which definitely does not meet Popper's criterion for a valid scientific theory), molecular mobility is crucially important. Molecules randomly run into each other and, if they fit just right, stick together to form a new, larger molecule. Some creationists argue that random collisions could not produce a highly improbable result, but they haven't done the math. In a modest-sized (10 X 10 X 10 feet) room at room temperature, approximately 5 X 1036 molecular collisions take place per second. A one-in-a-billion event occurs 5 X 1027 times a second. That's a 5 followed by 27 zeros! If you allow a few million years for an extremely unlikely event to occur, it's sure to happen.

But what happens after the unlikely event? One could argue that molecules randomly running into each other are just as likely to break each other apart as to combine, but that's not true. Heavier molecules are better able to absorb energy than lighter ones, whether the source is sunlight, lightning, or other molecules. Energy (E) absorbed by a molecule causes the atoms to vibrate against the bonds that hold the molecule together, and these vibrations are divided up approximately equally among the internal bonds. If the molecule has a mass M, the amplitude (A) of these vibrations is approximately proportional to the square root of E/M. Thus, if E increases, A increases. But if M increases, A decreases, because it takes more total energy to move the atoms. Lower vibrational amplitude means the atoms are less likely to break apart. Thus, if a burst of energy comes along, a larger molecule is more likely to survive the onslaught intact. So self-assembly into large molecules is a process that can counteract the disruptive effects of incoming energy. Carbon has the facility to easily form large molecules, so evolution would favor large carbon compounds on the primordial earth. This development, of course, might take quite a bit of time. But the earth has been around for a very long time — even the brief span of a million years (more than 30,000 33-year human generations) is beyond anyone's ability to imagine.

Heating one end of a rod eventually results in the entire rod getting hot, a special case of the general observation that energy absorbed in one location flows to other areas that have less internal energy. An even more general principle, first observed in chemistry, is that any system naturally heads for the lowest local energy state. Equilibrium occurs when energy is uniformly distributed. But there are some other peculiarities of energy's interaction with matter. One of them is the Principle of Least Action, which states that any mechanical motion is such that Action (defined in this case as as kinetic energy minus potential energy) is a minimum7. If you didn't remember that a thrown object on earth follows a parabolic path, you could use this principle to show that it does, although by the time you got the answer, whoever asked you the question would have become bored and walked away. Kinetic energy is associated with vibrational amplitude, while potential energy is stored in the bonds between the atoms in a molecule. Therefore, lower vibrations and more bonds mean lower Action.

The Miller-Urey Experiment:
More complex molecules could have been formed violently, by lightning or volcanoes, rather than by the slow process of solar heating. An experiment first conducted in 1952 by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey showed that electrical sparks in a hypothesized primeval atmosphere can produce amino acids and other complicated building blocks for life8.

The complex molecules interact with each other. Any interaction that merely results in a larger molecule will eventually result in a dead end. But suppose a certain configuration resulted in a molecule that could gather up smaller molecules and form another molecule identical to itself. You now have a self-replicating molecule, the first life form. Of course, if complicated source molecules are required for the process, the new life form would quickly run out of materials -- another dead end. But if a molecule could harness the sun's energy (which is always available) to make complicated molecules out of simple chemicals abundant in water, the process would continue to grow and become more complicated. This happens with photosynthesis.

The problem with this simple idea is that photosynthesis is a complex process that requires a lot more synergy between lots of different molecules, as well as a container (cell wall) to keep these chemicals in close contact with each other. Each cell becomes a tiny primordial ocean importing and containing only the chemicals necessary for the process and excluding all others. If only photosynthesis (reduction, in chemical terms) occurs, the raw materials will again eventually run out, unless the material created by photosynthesis is used by organisms with the opposite (chemical oxidation) process, and in turn provide more raw materials for photosynthesis by the plants9.

From here on, Darwin's Theory of Evolution gives a simplified explanation of the profusion of life around us. Unfortunately, some of Darwin's followers, such as Herbert Spencer with his Survival of the Fittest10 slogan, stressed competition: Nature red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson wrote. Even recent books, such as Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, stress competition. But cooperation rather than competition is the key to evolution -- for example, many of the components of a cell, such as mitochondria, are permanent incorporations of formerly free-living organisms. The resulting synergy means that both the cell and the mitochondria benefit from the collaboration. And, of course, all more complex living beings depend on innumerable bacteria and viruses that live inside us, provide necessary support for life, and in turn are supplied with shelter and nutrients. Darwin himself realized that reality was very complex -- he didn't talk about a tree of life, but a tangle of life. At the end of The Origin of the Species, he wrote:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Finally, lest we get too snooty about our position in the Great Chain of Being, here's another quote from the biologist Haldane. When someone asked him what, in a lifetime of studying plants and animals, he had learned about the mind of God, he answered:

He seems to have an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Science as a Faith-Based Enterprise:
I'm naturally biased towards the provisional findings of science rather than the self-confident pronouncements of religion. I believe that Science will never be able to say anything about anything that even comes close to complete certainty. But a lot of "philosopher-scientists" around today refuse to let the mystery be (to quote the song by Iris DeMent), and trumpet their ideas as if they were speaking the final truth.

But science, particularly cosmology and other disciplines that try to reconstruct history, is based on a number of unspoken premises that require exactly the same type of faith as believing that the Eucharist is literally changed into the body and blood of Christ on its way to your stomach. Some that come to mind:

1. The laws of the universe, including the value of basic physical constants such as the charge of the electron, are the same everywhere, and have been the same throughout time.

2. Careful observation with sophisticated instruments provide useful information about the universe.

3. The logic of mathematics, applied to these observations, provide truthful information about the universe.

4. Processes under extreme conditions, such as the interior of stars, can be deduced by extrapolation of processes observed under less extreme conditions.

5. The universe had a beginning and will have an end. The universe must have an outer limit somewhere, even though we can't observe it.

6. The simplest explanation that agrees with observations is the best (a version of Ockham's Razor). If more observations show deviations from the simplest explanation, corrections can be applied later. As explained in Part I, this process goes on until the entire structure collapses, and a completely new theory is devised.

There are many more unspoken faith-based assumptions in science, but you get the idea.

Why do we get in trouble when we try to answer the question why with logical conclusions from careful observations? My answer is that why already assumes that a cause exists. But if the marvelous world around us is only the result of innumerable random processes that are interconnected, there is no cause. Even science's attempts to answer how leaves us with a lot of uncertainties. A most uncomfortable condition for anyone who wants believable answers.

An "unscientific" thought: the Hindu religion posits Maya, the Goddess of Illusion. Her function is to hide the Cosmic Spirit (whatever that is) from us. Maya is neither true nor untrue. The Cosmic Spirit is the only truth, so Maya can't be true. But she presents to us the material world, so when you stub your toe in the dark, you know Maya can't be untrue. The Hindus say that, if you think you're sensing the Cosmic Spirit, you're really sensing its reflection off Maya's invisible face. So much for the search for ultimate reality.

Aristotle's attempt to answer why really already assumed a Prime Mover, and so it's no surprise that he found one. But the universe is a gigantic, perhaps infinitely large place. A Prime Mover that creates such a universe without itself being affected would have to be infinitely more powerful -- perhaps possible, but certainly unimaginable, and a waste of power that's more improbable than the random hypothesis. But I don't have (and no one will ever have) the ability to say that Creationists are absolutely wrong. There's no way to prove that unobservables are wrong, which is why they're of no practical use. Actually, if there were a Prime Organizer rather than a Prime Mover, it wouldn't need to be omnipotent. Power can be harnessed to drive itself in a certain direction, merely by organization, which doesn't require much power at all. Even random events can harness power so that it appears in retrospect to have been intentional. So maybe the old creation myths of God as organizer rather than creator from nothing were sensible after all, given the limited information available at the time. We still have only limited information, but it seems that nobody feels comfortable praying to the Law of Averages.


7. This definition of Action, which is different from the original idea, was formulated by the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton (1805 - 1865).
8. This article gives further information on Miller-Urey and more recent experiments.
9. See this essay for more commentary on the need for balance between reduction and oxidation processes.
10. Survival of the Fittest is another circular definition -- you find out who are the fittest by looking at who survived.