Who Made the Universe? Who (or What) Caused it to Exist?

This page is part of the author’s set of pages on religion.


Sometimes it is easy to pose hard questions. Even children can (and do) ask them: “How was the world made? Who made the world?” A common feature of such questions is that they make one or more hidden assumptions which, however, are false. Let us see some examples of such questions with false hidden assumptions:

  • “Which is the largest number?” (Only very young children ask this question.) The false assumption is that there exists a largest number, so the question asks which that largest number is.

  • “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” False assumption: either chickens or chicken eggs appeared suddenly, out of nothing. But whoever has even a basic knowledge of biology knows that no organism appeared suddenly one bright day on Earth. Chickens are domesticated members of the Jungle Fowl, which evolved from ancestors of the Order Galliformes (which includes turkeys, pheasants, and more), all of which of course were making eggs. The Galliformes is an order of Class Aves (the birds), which evolved from reptiles, all of which make eggs; and so on and so forth, all the way back to primitive cells, which are “eggs”. (A real egg is nothing but a huge cell.) Thus the assumption that there was a first chicken or a first egg of a chicken is false.

  • “Who was the first human being?” The answer to this question is very similar to the previous one. The question makes the false assumption that there was indeed a first human being. But most likely (with very-very high certainty, which we get from the examination of the fossil record as well as from the comparison of the DNA of humans and other primates) there was no first human being. Instead, there was a succession of generations, over thousands of years, during which our ancestors of the species Homo erectus (not “us”, not our species) were gradually turning into the species Homo sapiens (“us”). More on this topic in this article: When Did the First Human Appear on Earth? (by the same author as the present one).

  • “What time is it now on Mars?” The false assumption is that there is a universal clock that ticks the seconds simultaneously in every “corner” of the universe. In fact, physicists up to Einstein’s time were making the same false assumption, and the result is called “Newtonian physics” (after Sir Isaac Newton), or “classical physics”, which is the physics we are taught in high school, and which engineers use in practically all engineering projects. However, the universal clock is a false assumption. There is no such clock. Every local piece of space has its own local piece of time, as we learned after Einstein’s theory of relativity (and this is very important so as to understand the answer to the question of this page, so please take note of it). The “now” is relative to the place. Thus, the “now” right here where you are is different from the “now” in the adjacent room of your home, let alone any “now” on Mars. It makes no sense to ask “What time is it now on Mars?” unless we make special assumptions concerning simultaneity, taking into account the theory of relativity.

Such is the question of the title of this page: “Who made the universe? Who (or what) caused it to exist?” There is a hidden false assumption in this question: it is the assumption that every event must be preceded by a cause. But let’s move on to examine the question, and its possible answers.

How was the universe made? Who, or what, caused it?

First, let us note that our question admits several answers, and we are not in a position, at present, to decide definitively on their truth or falsity. For example, here are some possible answers:

  • The universe was designed by a Supreme Intelligence.
    Here, there are various ways to fill in the details. For example, that Supreme Intelligence might be the God of the monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). And, maybe, that God has some of the specific (but different) properties that those religions assign to such a creature, such as that it has “three natures” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the “Trinity dogma” of Christianity); or that God is the same as Allah, who guided his prophet and apostle Muhammad some 14 centuries ago (the Islamic dogma); and so on. Alternatively, the Supreme Intelligence might be some kind of Deity who doesn’t intervene in the universe and in human affairs after the event of Creation (the dogma of Deism).

    However, this answer leaves many people with a feeling of dissatisfaction: Who, or what, caused the existence of the Supreme Intelligence? To say that the Supreme Intelligence “was always in existence”, or that “it contains the cause of its existence within itself” sounds more like a sophisticated way to say: “We don’t know (but we don’t want to admit it).” If the Supreme Intelligence was always in existence, then the same can be supposed for the universe as a whole: it might be that what we observe as the Big Bang was only a stage, and even in some part of something far greater. (See also the second answer, below, which addresses precisely this issue.) If the rule is “everything that exists must have a cause”, then the same rule must apply to everything that exists, including the Supreme Intelligence. We can’t be changing the rules of reasoning according to whose existence is in question and think that we answer rationally.

  • What we observe as “the universe” is only part of something far greater.
    Perhaps whatever we observe as the outcome of the Big Bang is only one universe, which is part of a very large number of other universes. Just as our Sun is only one among many other stars (more than 200 billion) that make up our galaxy, the Milky Way; and just as our galaxy is only one among many other galaxies (again, more than 200 billion) that make up the universe; perhaps the universe is one among many other universes that make up a much larger structure; which in turn might be one among many other such structures that make up an even larger super-structure;... and so on, ad infinitum. And that might be the answer to the question: ad infinitum. Maybe there is no end to such super-structuring. As a result, each structure (including our universe) has a cause and a creation event, which is to be found in its super-structure; but because the process goes on without end, we cannot find an ultimate cause, a “beginning” at which we can say: “This is the start and the cause of it all.”

    But again, something is amiss in the above explanation. One feels that the cause of each structure (be it the universe or any other “higher” one) is pushed back in time, and then further back, and so on, but one never reaches a final answer. Perhaps this is the same dissatisfaction that one feels with the non-answer to the question: “Who (or what) caused the Super Intelligence?” (see previous paragraph).

Nonetheless, just because we don’t like an answer, this doesn’t imply — in and of itself — that the answer must be wrong. Many times the real answer (i.e., the scientifically correct one) is not the answer we humans would prefer to hear.(*) So we cannot judge an answer merely on the basis of our personal preferences, i.e., how happy it makes us feel.

In what follows we’ll see a third answer that we might “dislike”, too, but the advantage of this answer is that it seems to be supported by the most recent scientific knowledge, evidence, and theories that explain such evidence.

The key to the third answer is an observation we made earlier: the questions “How was the world made? Who made the world?” might make a false assumption. Specifically, they assume that there is a cause, hence a “prior event”, for everything, including the universe. But this might not be true. It might hold for everything we observe within the universe; but it might fail for the universe as a whole. And here is why.

To say that event B (which might be the Big Bang) was caused by event A, it must be that A happened prior in time than B. Thus, there must exist a prior time for every event with a cause. However, the Big Bang is the beginning of time, as well as of space. Indeed, as far as we can tell from modern science, and specifically from the theory of relativity, there is no time without space. Space and time always go together, they are inseparable, and that’s why in relativity we refer to them with one word: “spacetime”. The Big Bang signifies the beginning of spacetime, at least as seen by us, humans. If space “started” at the Big Bang, then time also started then and there. Allow me to explain a bit further the notion that space and time are inseparable, because it is essential for an understanding of this third answer.

Take any interval of space: say, from the floor of your room to its ceiling. This interval of space is inseparable from a corresponding interval of time: it is the time it would take for a ray of light (a photon) to travel from the floor to the ceiling. We can even calculate how long each interval of space and time is. If the distance from the floor to the ceiling is, say, 3 meters, then the associated (inseparable) interval of time turns out to be almost exactly 10-8 seconds (one hundred millionth of a second). Conversely, every interval of time has an associated (inseparable) piece of space: it is the length of space that a photon manages to travel within that time. The relation between space and time is captured by the simple formula: s = c · t, where s is space, t is time, and c is the speed of light.

This all holds true in a universe without matter. When matter enters the picture, things become a little more complicated (we need the general theory of relativity to account for the effect that matter has on spacetime), but the inseparability of space from time still holds. The said inseparability is a consequence of the fact that the speed of light, c, is a limit of speeds in our universe; no particle (with mass)can increase its speed (with respect to its surroundings) so much as to reach or exceed c, nor can any particle that runs faster than c — if one had ever been observed — put on the brakes and decelerate so much as to move with a speed equal to or less than c. Thus, c, which we perceive as a limiting speed, is hardwired into the fabric of our universe as it determines its geometry. Due to this geometry, space and time are not just inseparable, but one thing: the spacetime, which is four-dimensional; it has three dimensions for what we perceive as “space” (length, width, depth), and one dimension for what we perceive as “time”.

So, the main idea is this:

Since the Big Bang is the beginning of our universe, it is the beginning of spacetime. Hence, also the beginning of time. There can be no “before” our universe, because a “before” implies time — time before the universe. But if there was time before the universe, or time “outside” the universe, then there should also be space outside the universe, because time and space are inseparable. Thus, there should be spacetime outside the universe. But this cannot be, because we assumed that the Big Bang is the beginning of spacetime, hence that there is no spacetime outside the universe.

In spite of the previous explanation and reasoning, a reader of this page still expressed the following objection:

“I think anything that has a fixed (known) beginning is a candidate for having a cause, which should be discovered.”

So allow me, dear reader, to make a second attempt to explain why we should not expect to find a cause for the universe. My second attempt will be somewhat more detailed, but easy to follow.

Suppose our universe is like the surface of a balloon of sorts — like a sphere. The surface of a sphere has two dimensions: a longitude and a latitude. (The longitude changes while moving along a parallel to the equator, and the latitude changes while moving along a meridian; in the diagram that follows, the parallels are the red circles, whereas the meridians are the green ones.) Now, our real universe has four (macro-(*)) dimensions: three for space, and one for time. So we are two dimensions down in this analogy when we talk of the surface of a sphere. But it doesn’t matter much, because all three dimensions of our real space are symmetrical and indistinguishable from each other, so we can map them all to one of the two dimensions of our sphere; say, the longitude. Thus, longitude corresponds to space (red lines in the drawing, below). As for the latitude, it will correspond to time in our analogy (green lines in the drawing).

(It should be pointed out that a spherical balloon implies that both of its dimensions, longitude and latitude — space and time — wrap around, i.e., are circular. But there is no evidence that either the space or the time of our universe is circular. Rather, the existence of the Big Bang and some recent evidence concerning the “openness” of our universe point to the contrary regarding time: time in our universe is most likely not circular. But it won’t hurt our discussion if we assume a spherical universe: in two dimensions in our analogy, and in four dimensions in the real case.)

In the analogy of our balloon, we are 2-D beings stuck on the 2-D surface of the balloon. We cannot understand that the 2-D surface (and we with it) curves into a 3rd dimension. We are completely unaware of that 3rd dimension. All we perceive is longitude and latitude — space and time.

Now, let’s say that “going back in time” in our analogy means “going northward in latitude”. It turns out that none of us, 2-D beings, can really move northward and find ourselves in more northern latitudes (“back in time”) than where we are, but we can imagine doing so. Moreover, we have found out that if we go as far north in latitude as possible, we reach a point that we call the “North Pole” (the “Big Bang”). Question: is there any sense in asking: “What is to the north of the North Pole?”

If “going north” means moving on the surface of our balloon toward the North Pole, then “north of the North Pole” (“before the Big Bang”) makes no sense; unless, upon reaching the North Pole, we abandon the dimension of latitude (“time”) and move “upwards”, above the North Pole, in the 3rd dimension; or even downwards, below the North Pole. But this 3rd dimension is not latitude (“time”)! It is something else. And, “above/below the North Pole” is not “north of the North Pole” (“before the Big Bang”), it is also something else, not “northernly” (“temporally”) related to the point of the North Pole.

Let’s picture now our universe as a sphere in space, much like the Earth is, and other universes nearby, much like the spheres of the Moon, Mars, Venus, and so on (see drawing, below). Each of these spheres has a surface with longitude and latitude (a local spacetime). But their surfaces are not “latitudinally” (temporally) related to each other. To go from one to the other we need to move along a third dimension, which is something completely different — neither longitude nor latitude. Similarly — two dimensions higher now — if there are other universes besides our own, we cannot expect to go to them by moving within our spacetime. We must abandon our 4-D spacetime and move along a 5th dimension, which we have no idea what it is, whether it exists, and if so, whether we’ve already encountered it but didn’t recognize it for what it is.

Therefore, “outside this universe” does not necessarily involve spacetime, but a presumed 5th dimension. Even if we assume that this 5th dimension exists, allowing universes to be “hanging” in 5-D space (much as planets are “hanging” in our familiar 3-D space), the 5th dimension does not have to have the properties of time. There can be other, “outside” points in a 5-dimensional space, but those points must be acausally related to the event of the Big Bang.

Given the above, a reader posed the following question:

“Suppose there is a 5th dimension through which we can go out of the spacetime of our universe. Could it be that this 5th dimension is a kind of time?”

To answer this question it is necessary to know what time is. Why, out of the 4 macro-dimensions of our universe, we single out one and call it “time”? Only if we understand what the properties are that make us call a dimension “time” — only then can we determine whether the hypothetical 5th dimension satisfies those properties, and thus can be justifiably called (another) “time”.

As I argue in this article, the 4th dimension of our spacetime, which we call “time”, is deceptively very different from the other three dimensions of space. It is only human cognition that ascribes to time the property of “flowing”, and that events “come to us” from an unknown future, “happen” at a fleeting present, and are “left behind” in a known past. These are all artifacts of human cognition. What distinguishes time from space — but objectively, without the added artifacts of human cognition — is its asymmetry on a grand, universal scale, which is perceived by us as the 2nd law of thermodynamics. For this asymmetry to exist, matter must be present. For example, an egg appears whole “before”, but smashed into pieces “after” it drops on the floor — pieces that cannot spontaneously come back and form the whole egg. This is the asymmetry of time (which we see as “the 2nd law of thermodynamics”, or “order to disorder”, as I discuss in this article). Space doesn’t show such an asymmetry (it is “isotropic”, i.e., the same everywhere), so it differs from time (which is “anisotropic”, not the same everywhere; the “before” the broken egg is different from the “after” the broken egg). So, if the hypothetical 5th dimension showed the same kind of asymmetry, perhaps we could call it “a kind of time”. However, notice that matter is required for the asymmetry of time to make itself present. For instance, an egg that breaks is material. We wouldn’t observe anything temporally asymmetrical (actually, anything at all) in the absence of matter.

So, does that 5th dimension have some matter associated with it? I don’t think this is how it was pictured in the mind of the reader who asked the above question. Rather, the image the reader had was that of “universes” hanging in 5-dimensional space, with “emptiness” separating the universes (see the latest figure, above). If we are to imagine matter existing between the universes, then the latter are not disconnected at all — they are not separate universes, but parts of a larger whole. In that case — if the 5th dimension is of temporal nature with matter in it — we must assume the existence of at least one spatial dimension (a 6th one!), because time and space are inseparable, as we saw earlier. Thus, we see that it is not simple at all to suppose that the — always hypothetical — 5th dimension can have the properties of time; such a supposition forces us to introduce new components (matter, space) into the picture, which becomes quite different from what was originally imagined (disconnected universes embedded in a 5-dimensional space).

In summary:

Without a universe, spacetime does not exist; and without spacetime (and in particular without time), the notion of “before the universe” is nonsensical. The following are ill-posed questions: “What was there before the universe?” “What is the cause of its creation?” “Who (or what) created it?” — just as the questions “Which is the largest number?” and “What is happening on Mars now?” are ill-posed, too.

Thus, in addition to the two answers proposed earlier (which cannot be ruled out), this third answer is one that seems to be supported by evidence from modern science.(*) Whether it has any merit, only time will tell.


Footnotes (clicking on the caret (^) on the left of the footnote brings back to the text)

(^) Examples: the Earth is not at the center of the universe, the rainbow is not God’s sign indicating “peace” in nature, humans were not specially designed but evolved from other primate ancestors, racism is not simply culturally learned but there is also a hardwired aspect of it, and so on.

(^) Physicists have found that there are also micro-dimensions in our universe, all curled up (circular) and of microscopic lengths, but they don’t play any role in our discussion. We are concerned with the large scale of things in the universe, hence with the four macro-dimensions.

(^) Note that the 3rd answer does not conflict with or invalidate the 2nd one. The two are mutually compatible.


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