Why the Universe Exists—a Work-Based Explanation?
Asking the biggest question of all—why does the physical universe or, more interestingly, anything at all (including gods, if they do) exist, rather than absolutely nothing?—seems to be as far removed from the workaday concerns of work, jobs, business, economics and making money as the most distant galaxy is from your morning coffee.
Yet, it is just a mental hop, skip and metaphysical jump from that question to one of the main reasons you are expected to have a job and to make a good job of it: the Protestant Ethic—you know, faith in the dignity, rewards and virtue of hard work, thrift, sobriety, etc.
The Work Ethic and Work Metaphysic
I say “faith” because of the “Protestant” part of the ethic, which, in its simplest terms and prominent forms, historically shifted the focus of the faithful believer from traditional spiritual “good works” (such as helping the sick, distributing alms or spreading the Word) to “hard work”, wealth-accumulating work of the materially, secularly ambitious merchant.
Over time, e.g., in Calvinism’s doctrine of “the Elect”—those souls fast-tracked to salvation (whose wealth was evidence of their blessedness), the material fruits of hard work came to be thought to be as much of a measure of a man’s soul as of the man’s wealth, and as satisfying as and more impressive (if not even more so) than the fruits of more purely altruistic traditional good works.
On this interpretation, a work-ethic connection with the reason for the existence of the physical universe or of anything at all (rather than nothing, not even space, time, possibilities, probabilities or abstract directions) is not hard to discern or at least imagine: The (or at least a) reason—in the sense of “purpose” as “cause”—why the universe or anything at all exists is so that we can create wealth, prosper, and thereby prove our rank among the Elect and achieve salvation and eternal bliss in the Heaven created within the Universe (understood as “everything that exists”) for that specific purpose.
(Yes, there is a circularity here—the Universe, or at least its subset, “the spiritual/physical universe”, exists so that we can try to get into its Heaven, but no worse than rationalist-dogmatist philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes’ 17th-century declaration that he believes God exists because the Bible tells him so, and that he believes the Bible because it is the Word of God.)
Why The Universe Exists: For Us!
If all of this, namely, that the universe/Universe somehow is created as a staging ground for us, sounds awfully anthropocentric (human-centered), that’s because it is—but no less so than very old and very modern theories of physics of the physical universe. As for the modern ones, there are various versions, e.g., “weak” and “strong”, broadly lumped together under what is called the “Anthropic Principle”.
Expressed as a crude caricature, the Anthropic Principle says that the physical universe has the features that it has, e.g., at least three dimensions, water, stable and survivable terrestrial temperatures and a human-friendly gravitational force (not too crushing, not too float-away weak), so that we can exist to ask why we do, while we observe the cosmic show. On one extreme version of the theory, somehow the universe is forced to make itself suitable for us to observe it.
Over time, the Anthropic Principle and the Protestant Ethic picked up the anthropocentric self-celebratory torch dropped by the medieval Catholic church’s old earth-centered (“geocentric”) model of the universe when it got humiliatingly bumped, first by Copernicus’ Sun-centered system and then, much later, by the Big Bang unknown-centric model of the cosmos (whose center has not been or possibly in principle cannot be identified).
If human-centered physics can fly, so can the “Protestant Metaphysic”, which I see as also somehow identifying one result (i.e., us) of the universe’s existence as the reason for it.
Of course, what is presupposed in some, but not all formulations of these two otherwise divergent ideas, is that a purpose fulfilled now or later somehow helps explain the primordial beginning of the existence of the means of achieving it.
The Post-Purpose Universe
Countering this, I’ve always allowed that the purpose of the Universe (remember, here meaning “all that exists, including possibilities”) or of its component, the physical universe, if there could be such a function, may just as likely have been fulfilled at the time of the Big Bang billions of years ago, rather than in the future or now—like the purpose of a huge birthday firecracker.
Everything after that Bang would then be just birthday party purposeless fallout, smoke, dust and debris to be swept away or just left as is.
Hence, the physical universe may be nothing more than a firecracker that exploded to celebrate its own birth.
“Push” vs. “Pull” Reasons for Existence
Notice how this “Protestant Metaphysic” and the Anthropic Principle explain why the Universe/universe exists in a way that is dramatically different from the Divine clockmaker model, in which the physical universe is created and wound up like a clock with meticulously and brilliantly integrated components.
The former two models are “pull” models—the purpose of the physical universe’s existence somehow explains it; the clockmaker model is a “push” model—there is a “first cause” that creates and nudges the cosmic dominoes or makes and winds up the cosmic clock.
They are not incompatible and indeed, historically, seem to have co-existed very comfortably in the same periods and minds.
In some of those minds, the purpose is indeed among the “prime movers” (ultimate causes), much as the idea of a clock in the mind of a clockmaker is considered to be a cause of a clock.
However, either way, be suspicious and very wary of any explanation that purports to tell you why the universe or the Universe exists.
“Why?” is a question we understand, only because, or at least fundamentally because, the answer relates one thing identified or imagined in the physical universe or the Universe to another, e.g., when asking why coffee stimulates our brains, we learn the reason is caffeine (thereby explaining the coffee buzz as the result of the caffeine).
How Fast is the Universe?
However, when we then ask “why?” regarding the existence of the universe—and especially the Universe—itself, we make the same kind of mistake we would make in asking “How fast is the physical universe?”
In both mistakes, the key error is in not noticing that there’s no second thing to serve as the frame of reference: “How fast?” presupposes an independent thing or frame of reference by which to measure speed. How fast is your car? Relative to the stop sign at the corner? Or to its own ashtray? There’s got to be a reference point.
If the Universe is everything that exists, i.e., all of “Being”. or even just the physical universe, then by definition there is nothing or no point that can serve as an independent observation post for measuring its “speed” (or for “explaining” it).
“The reason why the Universe/universe exists”, even as just a concept, rather than as a mystery to be cleared up, is defective in the same way.
The whole idea of an explanation is based on relationships between or among things in the imagined identified universe (or Universe). Just as the existence of a house can’t be explained by claiming it was built in its own basement, the existence of the clockwork universe cannot be explained by what goes on in a clock or in the mind of a clockmaker.
Nothing Explains Everything—Especially Itself
This impossibility is even more obvious when it is the Universe (all that exists) that has to be explained, since anything that would “explain” it would have to be part of it, just because such an existing cause or purpose would, by definition, be part of what it is supposed to explain.
Nothing that exists can explain everything that exists—including and especially itself. “Self-explanatory” is never literally accurate.
Clocks and clockmakers, being part of the universe to be explained, can’t be cited as causes of themselves—not even when prefixed with “super-“, as in “super-clockmaker”.
Even the possible existence of a fractal universe cannot be explained by its parts that perfectly resemble the whole in which they are embedded—even though the part and the “whole” are amazingly identical. That attempt is doomed to fail, if only because the part could never explain itself, even if it generated the whole. Besides, fractal structure does not mean fractal cause or purpose.
Parts Can’t Explain Wholes
No, it seems to me that because any model that might be offered to explain why the universe or Universe exists will have the same defect: You can’t explain why houses exist by claiming they were built in their own basements or in something “like a basement” (or by something “like a clockmaker”) since by definition, that something would be part of all that exists and therefore could not possibly have created it.
Since jobs, business, work, wealth and clockmakers are all part of the universe and therefore the Universe, they cannot serve to explain why the whole thing exists in the first place.
As for human-focused purpose models and claims, e.g., to populate some region of space-time with beings to test and sort into saved winners and damned losers, although purposes can legitimize existence, they can’t really causally explain it.
If you don’t perfectly grasp this distinction, look at the nearest clock. Knowing that it’s there to keep you in the office, speed you up, slow you down, redirect you, or to send you out legitimizes having it on the wall.
But it will never explain why its atoms exist or legitimize their existence…
…much less yours or your job’s.
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