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When I was a teenager, I had the privilege of spending some quiet time with my grandfather. One day he looked at me and said, “You know that book? The one that starts with ‘In the beginning’?” I nodded. “Who says that there had to be a beginning?”

Sistine Chapel

I don’t remember how the conversation went from there, but I do remember having grave doubts about this question. After all, everything has a beginning. Doesn’t it?

Of course, clever as I thought myself at the time, I couldn’t come up with any convincing reason that things had to have beginnings. I was just certain that they did. But Grandpa was onto something. Maybe things have to have beginnings. But maybe they don’t. It’s just a supposition without evidence either way. Later, I went through the inevitable questions about God. If God created everything, then what created God? It’s a small child’s question, and the usual response is typical of the adult desire to avoid uncomfortable metaphysics “God is eternal and everlasting”. And almost every child knows enough to shut up at this point, because the adult’s tone makes it clear that “but you agreed that everything has to have been created” is an unwelcome question.

Like most children and adolescents troubled by such questions, I aged to the point where most people don’t want to talk about them. Ultimately, the non-reassurance offered by an eternal and everlasting God was replaced by the scientific non-reassurance that the universe began with a Big Bang and that questions about what existed before the Big Bang are meaningless. This is not very satisfying, but I have never studied enough physics to push the question any further.

Astronomy Picture of the Day. 2014 December 1

I think of this today, after reading this article. A recently published theoretical physics paper suggests that we can preserve all our current (working) physics theories and observations while denying the Big Bang. The universe, according to the article may be without beginning.

Now, I have no expertise to comment on the article (or on the physics of the Big Bang for that matter), but I am delighted. My grandfather’s question is still alive. Maybe the universe has a beginning, but maybe it doesn’t. For there is no good reason to assert that everything has a beginning, or an initial cause, or a prime mover.

Or maybe it’s just our way of thinking that’s hopelessly muddled.