Did the cosmos create itself? Could things be otherwise? Were alternatives possible?
The Autonomous Universe
Imagine if you might, a giant jigsaw puzzle, the million or so pieces of which fit together magnetically. Each of the individual parts of the game are unique and exist in such a way that all mated pieces will only "mesh" together in a single, correctly matched manner.
Okay, let's open the rather large box and dump the entire contents into an even bigger, but shallow tray that allows all the pieces to lie flat without any overlapping. Stay with me now, this gets interesting (I think). The giant pan sits atop a vibrating machine that can tilt, shake, do the hokey pokey and turn itself around; that's what it's all about. Sorry, I couldn't resist the relapse into my childhood days. But you get the idea. This tray is gyrating, jerking to and fro in all directions, literally shaking itself to pieces. Or rather just the opposite.
In this scenario, and after some amount of undesignated time has elapsed, the puzzle finally sits within the stopped tray -- completely and perfectly assembled. How amazing is that? Very, right? But such a thing could never happen, either, correct? Uh, wrong, puzzle puss.
So what does this finished puzzle look like? Probably a galaxy -- maybe a nice spiral one like the Milky Way. I can see the smile on your face, however, because you're ready to pounce on my metaphorical analogy and unmercifully tear it to shreds with a single question. Which I'll go ahead and state because I already know what it is. Which is to say, "So, Mr. Smarty Pants, even if all those pieces could eventually all fit together in just the right way, where did all those pieces come from in the first place, huh?" That's a great question which certainly deserves a serious answer, so I'll do my best.
In the somewhat playful example above, I've described how everything within a cosmological game room might come together and create material bodies, whether in the form of galaxies, planets, comets, human beings, or an entire universe itself -- if shaken and stirred enough. Apologies to James Bond who preferred shaken and not stirred. Or was it the other way around?
The so-called Big Bang was the definitive, one might say, shake-up. But that still leaves the awkward quandary as to where did all that stuff come from, all the building blocks -- all those magnetic puzzle pieces -- to begin with? Something must have existed prior to the Big Bang in order for it to have banged at all. Makes sense to me.
Although, in a way, and to be fair, it is a little like asking where did God come from? There must have been something floating around before God came into Being and decided to make the universe, right? No? God just always existed, you say? I see. So if scientists tell us the universe is about 13 billion-years-old, then God had a lot of time on His hands, I would think, prior to deciding one day to make all those stars and planets. And people and stuff. Hey, I'm just sayin'. No need to resort to name-calling.
You do have to admit that people-of-faith -- those who find my propositions laughable -- do enjoy mocking the idea that a tray full of puzzle pieces might ever "self-assemble" despite a whole-lotta-shakin'-goin'-on as Jerry E. Lewis might have sang about.
Still, though, there's no denying the basic question. Even if all parties on either side of the issue were willing to accept the notion that, given enough time and enough jostling of chemicals and soups and the like -- where the Holy Hell (excuse my Scriptural tone) did all the sub-atomic crackers come from that soaked up the soup? So to speak. Notice how long it's taking for me to get around to answering the basic question. Hey, it's a tough query. Besought by an even tougher crowd. So give me a minute, already. Or 13 billion years give or take a second or two.
If you'll pardon one last momentary digression, I'd like to offer one quick explanation that, while not accepted as gospel (no pun intended) does address the question in question. Some pretty well respected astrophysicists believe in what's called String theory, as it pertains to how the universe banged into being. My cats believe in string theory, but that's a whole other discussion.
String theory, in its latest incarnation, deals with what are thought to be about eleven different dimensions of existence. Give or take. Yeah, that's right -- multiple dimensions -- that whole "multi-verse" business. Don't ask me, because I don't pretend to understand hardly any of it; I'm just the messenger as they say.
In any event, String peeps believe there's these individual universes that float around in a really big area of empty space. Or is that a space which covers a lot of area? Don't get me started. No matter, our universe is just one of these things, each one of which is unique unto itself and the totality of which involve all those different dimensions. The whole slew of them are probably infinite in number, which adds a whole new meaning to word, slew.
These same egghead scientists (some of whom have hair) then go on to tell us how these separate cosmopolises (yes, I just made that word up) are sort of like huge, self-contained membranes -- hence what's been called, "Membrane" or "Brane" theory. Well, duhhh. No, we don't know if the skins of these membranes are semi-permeable or not. Anyway, if one were to pass through the outer shell of say, our own universe, one would find themselves in some other, really weird place. Or it could be another version of somewhere more familiar -- like another Earth.
Once you get on board, these whacky dimension things can get pretty strange. You think? I'll end this by bringing us back to the beginning. Back to the Big Bang itself. Which is what membrane theory predicts in the way of an explanation for the Bang part. They propose that when two membranes collide, bump into each other, scrape, or otherwise engage in the mother of all fender-benders, that the resulting "explosion" creates a new universe whose very beginning is what we describe as the Big Bang. More accurately, perhaps, the Big Bump.
You'll be happy to know I'm done with all that membrane stuff; I just wanted to bring it to your attention that the theory does exist and does have its believers. Other than some thoughts about how time might be affected one way or another, pre-Big Bump or post, I don't have much else. By that, I mean to say your guess (or your faith) is as good as mine when it comes to the rest of it. I sure don't have any answers that are more than -- pure, less-than-expert -- opinions, conjecture, and speculation. And in that game, we're all experts. There is one last point to make, however, that concerns an observation made by the late astronomer, Carl Sagan.
As part of his famous Cosmos series, Dr. Sagan expressed, in more ways than one, his humility and awe with respect to a universe that he perceived as largely or wholly autonomous in nature. He (and the many who share his view) regarded the intricate and elegant mechanisms of a cosmos which, while obeying sets of wondrous laws and mathematical formulae, could spawn endless miracles of self-creation, as nothing less than a kind of magnificent, albeit natural, poetry all its own.
I'm not sure whether he put it in the following words, exactly, but it was if to say that the underlying principles of how our universe operates, as explained and understood by science alone, was every bit as glorious, profound, and awe-inspiring as any Biblical notion could describe or have us believe. That a cosmos created by a God was no more grand a notion of existence, than one capable of self-generation, and in no need of an omniscient Creator.
Both ideas are, at one and the same time, synonymous and diametrically opposed. Either begs us to accept counter-intuitive concepts that strain the limits of comprehensibility, while neither feels wholly satisfactory to the rationalistic, skeptical mind. I have my own preference which is in evidence throughout my essays, yet I'm in possession of no more proof of my beliefs than is the most religious zealot.
But I think such a comparisons tend to miss the true, romantic beauty of what Dr. Sagan was talking about. I think he felt there was a certain compatibility between the two views of the universe. That because both relegate humans to simultaneous roles of insignificance and possibly the only way for the cosmos to ever know itself, to become self-aware, if you will, the truths yet to be revealed will make moot our minor differences and petty disagreements.