Who Created the Universe?

June 13, 2017

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible

                                                                                                      Albert Einstein.


Is the universe eternal?  Or did the universe originate at some specific point of time in some distant past? Did god create the universe? Or did the universe created itself?  We can find various religious and scientific views on these questions.Religions that believe in a supreme creative power generally called ‘God’,have stories crediting the creation of the universe to god. But, not all believers in a ‘creator god’ have the same position on the extent of divine involvement in creating and sustaining the universe.

The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image shows  some of the most remote galaxies visible  with present technology
The idea that prevailed during most part of the modern scientific era was that the universe had no beginning. Scientists had believed in an eternal and static cosmos.  However, this position was discarded in the twentieth century. The current view of science on the origin of the universe is anchored on what has come to be known as the ‘Big Bang’ theory. This post seeks to explore briefly, the religious and scientific positions on the origin of the universe.

A. The Religious Position

Those who believe in a divine creation of the universe could be classified into three broad categories based on their differing views on the role of god in creating and sustaining the universe. These are Deism, Theism and Pantheism.

  1. Deism: The word is derived from the Latin word for God: “Deus“. Deism believes that god created the universe, established its rules of behaviour, set it going and left the scene once for all.  The philosophical position of Deism is that while god created the universe, that god does not interfere directly with the affairs of the world. God’s only contribution to the universe was to set everything in motion. That done, he just exited never to be seen again. From there on, the laws of science took hold of the system and governed every subsequent sequence of events. This kind of a stand is easy for Deists since Deism does not have any prophets through whom god revealed his mind or any holy book laying down the rules and doctrines of their faith. Its ideas of god are derived from reasoning and real life experiences.
  2. Theism: This term arose from Theos, the Greek word for god. Theism is broadly defined as the belief in the existence of either a single deity (Monotheism) or multiple deities (Polytheism). Theists believe in a God who not only created the universe but also remains directly involved in its day-to-day operations. (In polytheism, the creator god could be different from the god who sustains it). For theists, the divine involvement after creation is particularly strong and striking when it comes to the affairs of human beings, with whom god maintains a continuing relationship. Theism has its prophets and holy books and believes that their religion is ‘sent down from above’.
  3. Pantheism: Both Deism and Theism make a sharp distinction between creator and creation. Both consider God as a power wholly different and beyond the physical universe. For theists, god is eternal but the universe is not. But in Pantheism, (a term derived from the Greek word pan (meaning “all, of everything”) and theos (meaning “god, divine”) no such separation is made between the creator and his creation.  Pantheism holds that all reality is identical with divinity. It believes that god is in everything and everything is part of god.  In the West, pantheism was formalized as a separate theology and philosophy by 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza.  Spinoza’s book, ‘Ethics’ counters the dualistic theory of Descartes that body and spirit are separate. 
Different religions have advanced different creation stories.  But, most such stories are rehashed versions of ancient myths. Some creation stories present the physical world as emanating from the creator as an automatic extension of the divine being. In some other stories, in the creation process the creator uses matter already existing. The Judeo-Christian creation story points to creation out of nothing (ex nihilo).
The Biblical story of creation draws heavily on the earlier creation myths from the Middle East. In it, the creator is entirely separate and independent of his creation. While the Creator has no beginning and no end, the universe has a beginning and an end. As Paul Davies says in his book, ‘The Mind of God’, the creation story found in the book of Genesis is “long on poetry and short of factual details… Uncomfortable questions abound. What was the God doing before he created the universe? Why did he create it at that moment in time rather than some other? If he had been content to endure for eternity without a universe, what caused him to “make up his mind” and create one?”
It is fundamental to the Judeo-Christian doctrine that God created the universe at some specific moment in the past, and that subsequent events unfolded in a unidirectional sequence. But Greek and Eastern philosophies believed in the cyclic nature of time. Ancient cultures that lived close to nature observed the cyclic nature of the seasons. One season went out only to return on a later time. So, they believed that time is not linear, but cyclical.   Everything eventually returns to its original state to begin a new cycle.
For instance, the Hindu system suggests a life cycle for Brahma whose day is divided in one thousand cycles (Maha Yuga, or the Great Year). Each Maha Yuga consists of a series of four shorter yugas. The length of a Maha Yuga is 4,320,000 years.  A thousand ‘Mahayugas’ form a ‘Kalpa’. Two ‘Kalpas’ constituted a day of Brahma. The life cycle of Brahma is one hundred years of Brahma, which works out to a whopping 311 trillion years. Then a new cycle starts for Brahma.

B. The Scientific Position


1. A Universe of Infinite Age

We generally assume that the universe had an origin sometime in the distant past. But it is quite possible to conceive an eternal universe with no beginning or ending. In fact, following the work of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, scientists had started believing that the universe was eternal and static. But, science itself threw up problems that challenged the idea of an eternal cosmos.  For instance, consider Newton’s law of gravity. This law holds that all matter in the universe attracts all other matters. So, it was a great puzzle why the whole universe does not collapse into one great heap because of the interplay of the gravitational forces.  
Newton tried to find an explanation. He proposed that for the cosmic bodies to collapse to its centre of gravity, the universe must have centre of gravity. If the universe is infinite in its spatial extent and that space is populated uniformly by the stars on an average, then there would be no privileged centre of gravity to which the stars could fall. Each star is tugged similarly in all directions making the stars stay in place. However, this explanation failed to satisfy other scientists. They felt that the clarification was mathematically ambiguous since the various competing forces in universe were infinite in magnitude.
Even Albert Einstein was perplexed by the stability of the cosmos. So, Einstein had to come up with a ‘fix’ to his general theory of relativity formulated in 1915, in order to explain the stability of the cosmos. He introduced an extra term in his gravitational-field equations. That extra term represented a repulsive force (a type of anti-gravity). If this repulsive force were made equal to the gravitational pull of all cosmic bodies on each other, the attraction and repulsion forces of equal strength would keep the cosmic bodies in place to produce a static cosmos. However, the ‘fix’ turned out to be unstable since the slightest disturbance would upset the balance and send the cosmic bodies in a runaway outward rush or an inward crash.
The problems of an eternal and static cosmos did not end there. If the universe were infinite in spatial extent as well as in age, the light from the countless number of stars in the cosmos would be pouring down upon the earth. It could be mathematically established that in such a circumstance, the night sky would be bright and not dark. But the reality is that the sky is dark at night (Olbers’ Paradox).  This paradox could be resolved if the universe had a finite age. If the universe has a beginning at a definite point in the distant past, we would be seeing only those stars, the light from which had the time to travel across space to reach the earth. In that case, the night sky would stay dark.
That is not all. Today we know that no star keeps burning forever. At some point in its existence, every star runs out of fuel and dies. Such deaths are irreversible changes. The physical universe abounds with innumerable irreversible processes. In some respects, it is like a clock slowly running down. Just as a clock cannot keep running forever, the universe too could not be running forever without being ‘rewound’. In short, it is impossible that the universe is static and eternal. This gave rise to the need for a more satisfactory answer to the question of the origin of the universe.   

2. A Universe of Finite Age

The latest scientific theory on the origin of the universe is the ‘Big Bang’ theory. This theory originated in 1929 when US astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that everything in the universe is moving away from everything else. The galaxies are rushing away from each other rather than staying in a fixed position. Hubble theorized that the universe was expanding in every direction. This new scientific insight killed the earlier view of a static universe. It is on this foundation of an expanding universe that the Big Bang theory came to be built.
The Big Bang theory states that the entire universe came into existence abruptly about 13.82 billion (1382 Crore) years ago (give or take 130 million years) in a gigantic burst. The universe started building itself from a highly compressed minuscule state (singularity). The process is still in progress as indicated by its continuing inflation. From the relation between the distance of a galaxy and the velocity with which it is running away (the recession velocity) – which is known as Hubble’s Law, scientists could calculate the starting point of the expansion. In other words, it gives the age of the universe.

Now, what was state of the universe when the Big Bang started? Imagine that we could run the process of universe creation backwards from the current stage in a manner similar to running a movie backwards. As the process rewinds, the galaxies would start coming closer and closer. Then they huddle increasingly closer and would start merging with each other. It would be followed by the increasing level of squeezing together of the galactic material. Continuing in this vein, we would understand that there must have been a time when the universe was only half its present size, a quarter, one-eighth and so on.   This squeezing process would continue until a state of enormous density is reached. If this process has to cease, some outward force that could overcome the force of gravity trying to compact the universe has to be present. Since such an outward force is unknown, the squeezing continues. Eventually a stage would be reached when further compression becomes impossible. There is no mass left to compress. At this point, the whole universe would sit tightly squeezed into an infinitesimally small point. Scientists use the term ‘singularity’ to denote this state. It is a kind of no mass, no space and no time, state. All normal laws of physics would be rendered unsuitable to study it. The principles of quantum physics alone might help. This was the original state of extreme compaction of the universe at the point of the big bang. 
At the start of its existence, the universe had a temperature of 1 x 1032(i.e. one followed by thirty-two zeros) degree Celsius. It had a size of 1 x 10-33(one divided by one followed by thirty-three zeros) centimeters. As the universe inflated, the temperature started falling. At t = 1 x 10-11 seconds after the big bang began, the universe had expanded to a point where we could get out of speculations based on quantum physics to simulate the environment in lab conditions with particle accelerators. About 0.01 seconds after the big bang, the universe could be studied by applying the principles of standard cosmology. 
Some 100 seconds after the big bang, the temperature of the universe fell to 1 billion degrees Celsius. After 56,000 years, the universe had cooled to 8,726 degrees Celsius. At the age of  324,000 years, the universe had expanded enough to cool down to a temperature where protons and electrons could finally combine to form neutral hydrogen atoms. About 380,000 years after the triggering of the big bang, the universe became transparent enough for light to shine throughout it.
For the next 100 million years or so, the universe continued to expand and cool. During this period, small gravitational fluctuations caused particles of matter to cluster together. Gases in the universe collapsed into tight pockets. Some 100 to 200 million years after the commencement of the big bang, stars emerged from these gas pockets. Those stars clustered to form galaxies. These galaxies also in turn formed their own clusters (solar systems). Our solar system came into existence about 4.6 billion years ago (That is more than 9 billion years after the Big Bang).  There is no way to determine the exact moment when the universe came into existence because of the limitations of the known laws of science.  
2 The Big Bang Creation of the Universe

The Big Bang theory resolves the paradoxes associated with the suggestion of a static universe in eternal existence. It concludes that the universe has a finite age. Since the big bang theory presents a dynamic universe, the irreversible processes running in the cosmic system do not cause any imbalances.  The night sky is dark because we can see only a finite distance of around fifteen billion light years into the space (One light year represents 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion kilometres).  This is the maximum distance from which light from cosmic bodies has been able to travel to earth since the universe began. It also satisfactorily answers the question why the universe is not collapsing inward into an enormous mass under the influence of the gravitational forces. Since the universe is expanding and the galaxies are flying apart, it is impossible for them to fall together (at least for a long while).
We are likely to get the impression that the big bang was some kind of a huge explosion of an immensely concentrated mass located somewhere in a pre-existing void that scattered debris into the space, thus creating the cosmic bodies and the universe. This is not true based on current knowledge. The Big Bang theory is rooted on Einstein’s general theory of relativity. One of the significant features of this theory is that the affairs of matter is inseparable from the affairs of space and time. At the point of singularity, matter ceased to exist. With it time and space too.  It created a situation where the laws of Physics broke down. According to NASA, the universe did not expand into space, as space did not exist before the universe.  The universe by its definition encompasses all of space and time, as we know it. The Big Bang was like switching on an air pump to inflate a huge deflated balloon with innumerable dots all over.  As the balloon inflates, the distance between the dots keep increasing.  The continuing stretching of the universe creates more and more space and drive the cosmic bodies more and more apart. 


The big bang theory is popular and widely accepted. It is because, all the observations scientists have so far made of the cosmos, support this theory.  However, the Big Bang theory throws up its own issues.   Who or what caused the big bang?’ NASA says it is beyond the model of the Big Bang to say what gave rise to the Big Bang. Although there are models that speculate about the question, none of them has so far come up with realistically testable predictions.
The discovery of the big bang theory has often been hailed by the Christian Church as the confirmation of the Biblical account of creation. The truth is that its resemblance, if any, to the Genesis story of creation is only at a most superficial level. Besides, such a connection would need a completely symbolic interpretation of the Biblical creation story. But the Church mostly prefers to stick to a literal view of the Genesis narrative. The problem is that going by a literal view of the creation story, the first day of creation fell upon October 23, 4004 BCE as computed by James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh (Church of Ireland)! The only similarity that could be drawn between the big bang theory and Biblical creation story is that both accounts demand a sudden beginning of the universe and not a graded one. This too is on the assumption that there was indeed a beginning for the universe. Perhaps, there was no beginning at all.
In spite of the Western tradition of a created universe and a unidirectional (linear) time, there have been attempts to reinstate the Greek and Eastern ideas of a cyclic universe. The studies undertaken by Russian meteorologist Alexander Friedmann on Einstein’s equations have come up with the discovery that the universe either expands or contracts. This seems to support the idea of an ‘oscillating universe’. This apparently bears out the cyclic nature of the cosmos as conceived by Eastern cosmologies.  It means the universe we occupy is neither the first or the last one. It is just the latest one that came into existence some fifteen billion years ago in the last Big Bang!

Fritjof Capra says in ‘The Tao of Physics’, ‘Experiencing the universe as an organic and rhythmically moving cosmos, the Hindu’s were able to develop evolutionary cosmologies which come very close to our modern scientific models“. For instance, Lord Krishna says, “At the end of the night of time all things return to my nature; and when the new day of time begins I bring them again into light. Thus through my nature I bring forth all creation and this rolls around in the circles of time” (Bhagavad Gita 9:7-8). That is amazing insight!
Could it be that  Friedmann’s oscillating solution is the scientific counterpart of the ancient idea of the eternal return, and that the multibillion-year duration from big bang to big crunch represents the Great Year of the Life Cycle of Brahma?” asks Paul Davis (The Mind of God). “Appealing though these analogies may seem, they fail to hold up to scrutiny”, he adds.  
(We can’t go into the details on how ‘it fails to hold up to scrutiny’ here, primarily because I have already stretched to breaking point my niggling knowledge of science).
Select References
1.    Paul Davis – The Mind of God, Simon and Schuster.
2.    Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books.
3.    Fritjof Capra – The Tao of Physics, Flamingo
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