The Mystery of “Stuff”
by Greg West*
I’d like to take a few moments of your time to discuss the mystery of “stuff”. What is “stuff”? Was there always”stuff”? Where did “stuff” come from? Was there nothing before there was “stuff” or has “stuff” always existed? If “stuff” hasn’t always been around, did “stuff” just cause itself to suddenly be around, or was “stuff” somehow caused by something made of “non-stuff”?
Most of us humans think about these things, whether we are religious or not, because how all this stuff got here, and even more so, why is there even any stuff at all, is a huge question that has all kinds of implications about how we choose to live our lives. And by the way, by “stuff”, I mean the universe; time, space, matter, and energy--everything that makes up the universe and everything in it. Okay, from now on I’m just going to say: “stuff” without the quotation marks. I promise—“really” I do.
When I say that we as humans have a tendency to think about these things, it makes me wonder how and why, if humans have truly evolved from simpler life forms, should we have evolved to the point where we even think about these things in the first place?
I mean, my dog has stuff—and lots of it compared to a lot of other dogs. He has about a gazillion chew toys scattered all over the house, and whether my wife bought him stuff for his birthday, for Christmas, or just for being a generally good dog, I don’t think he gives a squirrel's tail where all of his stuff, or any other stuff for that matter, came from. He’s happy just as long as he has some stuff--and even if he didn’t have any stuff of his own, I honestly don’t think it would affect his disposition much at all . But I’m getting a bit off topic so let’s get back to the original topic and explore the question of where all this stuff (everything) came from. The question of why is there any stuff at all we’ll leave for another time.
First, let’s see what science has to say about all this stuff. Now, I am not a scientist, but I do have a brain and I can at least think about scientific things and draw my own conclusions based upon the available evidence. There are lots of scientists out there with a lot of different ideas and opinions about how all this stuff got here—from multiple universes, to universes popping in and out of existence, to universes expanding and collapsing and giving birth to other universes, and so on.
But let’s see what one one of the top guys in the field, Alexander Vilenkin (Professor of Physics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology at Tufts University), a theoretical physicist who has been working in the field of cosmology for more than 25 years, has to say:
“All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.” He has also been quoted saying, “With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” (emphasis mine)
Even though Dr. Vilenkin is one of the top guys in his field, we would probably find no shortage of other equally smart people in the field that would disagree with him. Regardless of this, let’s look at all the possible options that explain the existence of stuff…
- Option #1: There has always been stuff. Stuff has always existed. There was never a time when there was never any stuff in some form or another.
- Option #2: Nothing caused everything to happen, resulting in lots of stuff.
- Option #3: Stuff caused itself to become stuff out of nothing.
- Option #4: Something non-stuff caused all the stuff to exist.
If there are any other options that I have failed to mention, please let me know because I would sincerely like to know what it is—but for now, please take a moment to ponder these three options, and while you do, feel free to imagine the theme from Final Jeopardy playing in your head. Are you done pondering yet? I can’t tell because I’m not actually here right now as I have written this in the not so distant past and am doing something else right now… but when you are done, please bear with me for another moment…
I don't know if any, all, or a single option from the ones listed above jumped out at you. At first glance, each one seems as equally improbable as the others…but I want to focus on Option #4 because it is the only option of the four that states that stuff has a cause for its existence transcendent to itself. Option #4 is an conclusion drawn from what is known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. The first premise of the argument is known as the Law of Causality. Before we further examine the cosmological argument, let me first explain what I mean by “law”. Something is deemed to be a scientific law when there is so much evidence in its support that it is virtually indisputable. Now that we’ve established that, let’s take a look at the cosmological argument.
- Stuff that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence
- Stuff began to exist
- Therefore, stuff has a cause
This argument makes a lot of sense to me. Why? Because everything that I’ve observed that exists in nature has a cause. For instance: A geologist will tell you that a rock exists because… well, I’m not really sure. Go ask a geologist, look it up on Wikipedia, Google it or something, and you’ll get the idea. I exist because my parents… uh…well… you know what I mean. Now, I know that my own existence is the result of stuff that already existed (just like the afore mentioned rock), but eventually, whether you are a creationist, evolutionist, or anything in between, you have to get back to an ultimate uncaused first cause, otherwise you are left with an infinite regression which is impossible (watch this video for a short explanation of why).
Even things like gravity, quantum vacuums, the laws of physics, etc., are not “nothing”, and are all “stuff” that would also require a cause for their existence. If you are understandably having trouble with the concept of nothing, the best I’ve heard so far that anyone has come up with is that, “Nothing is what rocks dream about.”
The cosmological argument leads me to conclude that Option #4 (listed above earlier) is a reasonable conclusion because Options #1,#2, and #3 do not conform to what I know of, have experienced, or have observed in reality. This is not absolute proof for the God of Christianity, but it is a very strong case for theism. Regardless of which of the available options you choose to believe, each of them require a step of faith--and I don’t mean faith in the biblical sense of “trust in God”, I mean faith as in “belief in something without proof.”
Another reason Option #4 seems the most reasonable to me is because the case for Christianity is a cumulative case and is not based on any single piece of evidence. A part of that cumulative case is in the Judeo-Christian Bible that happens to describe God as exactly the kind of entity that would be required to be the first uncaused cause of all the stuff—in other words, existing outside of time and space: immaterial (spirit, or “non-stuff”), and eternal (timeless--did not begin to exist). At this point we could expand on other attributes of “God” as described in the Bible, but I think that these two will do for now.
Some hostile skeptics, those usually associated with the anti-theist crowd (which does not include all or even most skeptics), derogatorily refer to theism or Christianity as blind faith in a magic sky god, and compare it with believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pink unicorns, or any other number of mythical creatures. We can politely respond to this by asking why belief in a creator God takes any more faith than believing in an eternally existing universe, a universe that nothing caused to exist, or a universe that somehow caused its own existence out of nothing, all of which go against what is known in nature. As far as I’m concerned, all of the options require what I would consider to be a miracle.
If this raises the question, “If God made the universe then who made God?”; It is not a valid question because being eternal, God did not begin to exist, and therefore does not require a cause for his existence. How can God be eternal? I have no idea. It’s a mystery—a much bigger mystery to me than the mystery of “stuff”.
*This originally appeared as a guest post on Walk Good 515.