Why does anything exist?


The Phenomenon of Contingency

It is part of our everyday experience that things happen because they are caused – they do not “just happen”. The window breaks because it has been hit by a stone; the telephone rings because someone has phoned me; I am wet because it is raining. From the largest intergalactic phenomena, to the smallest sub-atomic processes, everything has a cause.

You’re able to read a book because someone wrote it and someone printed it. The paper it is printed on exists because of the wood pulp it was made from, which existed because of the trees it was made from, and so on. We call all these causes ‘contingent’ i.e. they exist because they were caused by something else.

Contingency is the foundation of all science and technology. Science looks at the world we live in and discovers the laws of nature. Technology applies the knowledge gained by scientific research to make useful devices, such as computers, aeroplanes and so on. If scientific research did not discover the causes of things, then technology would not produce working devices. Everywhere that we can do research, we are dealing with things which are contingent.

Tracing Causes back to the Big Bang

If we consider a book again, we can trace its causes back through history. It is made from paper, which is made from trees. The trees grew from seeds, which grew on parent trees, which grew from seeds… But the whole species of tree evolved from simpler plants, which evolved from even simpler life, back to the origins of life on Earth. Life was caused by the complex arrangements of chemicals on the surface of the primeval Earth, and these were made from simpler chemicals, and so on, back to the formation of the Earth from dust and gas in the primeval solar system. Ultimately, we can trace the causes of a book all the way back to the Big Bang, the explosion (for lack of a better word) at the beginning of the universe about 15 billion years ago. At this point we run out of causes in the universe.

What, then, caused the Big Bang in the first place? The universe, like everything in it, is contingent. Of course, this has always been true, but within the last hundred years, the development of modern cosmology has demonstrated this truth more clearly than ever. Two major advances in scientific understanding allowed this. The first was Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1915, the second was Edwin Hubble’s discovery in 1929 that the universe is expanding. These two steps allowed scientists to describe the behaviour of the universe as a whole. Not only do the things in the universe obey the laws of nature, the universe itself obeys them.

Now, if the universe obeys the laws of nature then it is contingent. The cause of the universe cannot be itself, since a contingent thing cannot cause itself before it has even existed. It must be ‘outside’ the universe.

We see for the first time that, in the beginning, there must be that which is not contingent; a Creator. Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, puts it like this:

“My conclusion, then, is that the physical universe is not compelled to exist as it is; it could have been otherwise. In that case, we are returned to the problem of why it is as it is… We have no choice but to seek an explanation in something beyond or outside the physical world – in something metaphysical – because, as we have seen, a contingent physical universe cannot contain within itself an explanation for itself.”

The Need for a First Cause

Whenever we explain a contingent being with another contingent being, we have not got to the source of everything. If we want to find a full explanation for any contingent being, we ultimately need a non-contingent cause. We need a First Cause, that is not itself caused.

Sometimes people suggest that God is not necessary if the chain of causes is infinitely long; you can just explain every link in the chain in terms of the link before. But this is a logical fallacy. For a series of events to be infinite, the consequence would be that there was never a start, meaning the infinite series could never have begun in the first place.

Imagine being at a deli counter, to buy some meat. You take a ticket to wait your turn to be served. But before you can get your ticket, you’re told to take another ticket prior to your first one. However, before you can get that second ticket, you must take another ticket prior to that one. In fact, for every ticket you want to take, you must take a prior ticket. As you can see, without a first ticket, you would never get to the point of buying your meat. Thus, in order for the present day to exist, there logically could not be an infinite series of causes, because the series never would have started in the first place.

We can also answer the question, “Who made God?” The universe requires an uncaused Cause. Therefore, by definition, no one made God, because God is not contingent. This is a difficult thought for some to understand, but it is worth stressing that we have not just imagined a god who does not need to be made; we have discovered that the universe needs God in order to explain it.

Why is the Universe not the First Cause?

People sometimes ask why we need God at all; why can the universe not be the First Cause? Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist, has said:

“To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like ‘God was always there’, and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say ‘DNA was always there’, or ‘Life was always there’, and be done with it.”

The answer to this, however, is clear, as we have alluded to above. We know that DNA and life were not always there. Not even the universe was always there. But there is a more important consideration. The universe and everything in it need causes; they are contingent. God is the only being who can always be there (We should add that, due to our limited, finite capacity as beings in the universe, we don’t have the capability to correctly refer to God as who He really is. To call Him a “being” is to suggest something quantifiable and limited; but our insufficient vocabulary and cognitive skills restrict us to describing Him with words like “being” and “Him”).

Therefore, God must be unlike everything we know from everyday life. Everything created needs to be caused. But we have just seen that to explain the world we need an uncaused First Cause, namely God. Therefore God cannot be created. It also follows that God is not part of the universe; rather He is the cause of everything that exists.

This is what it means to call God the Creator.

Hasn’t Science shown that Something can come from Nothing?

Physics describes how objects move and behave in the universe, but traditional physics has a limit when it comes to describing really small objects, such as electrons and quarks. For that, we need quantum physics, which explains the nature and motion of atoms, as well as the particles that make up atoms.

Because these particles are so small, they can act in strange ways. For example, scientists have observed so-called “virtual particles” emerging, apparently without a cause, from an empty vacuum. If these particles can come into existence without a cause in the quantum realm, then couldn’t the universe have come into being from nothing?

The problem with this argument is that a quantum vacuum is not “nothing”. To say our universe emerged from such a vacuum is not the same as saying it came from nothing. The quantum vacuum has properties and needs an explanation of where it came from. It will not suffice to say that the vacuum has simply existed forever, because this would not explain why our universe is of finite age and isn’t as old as the vacuum from which it came.

Philosopher and theoretical physicist David Albert of Columbia University wrote how physicists are not solving any mysteries when they try to use the spontaneous emergence of virtual particles from vacuums to explain the origin of the universe. Albert writes, “None of this amounts to anything even remotely in the neighbourhood of a creation from nothing.”

It is impossible to provide a scientific explanation of how the universe emerged from pure nothing, because scientific explanations involve the use of natural laws and processes.

However, what could the scientific explanation be for the entire universe, which comprises all of space, time, matter and energy? There can’t be one, because any law or scientific process one uses to explain why the universe came from nothing would be a part of the universe you’re trying to explain.

Instead, the explanation for the universe’s origin from nothing would have to be a supernatural explanation – an explanation that transcends the boundaries of the universe, that transcends matter, energy, space and time. In other words, what we call God.

Video resources

Further reading

20 Arguments For God’s Existence

Can We Be Sure God Exists?

Origins of the Universe

Aquinas and the Big Bang