If someone is making a claim about the ultimate origin of things, and you doubt the claim, you might bring up Herbert Spencer. Spencer was a 19th century philosopher and popularizer of Charles Darwin’s ideas, and for Spencer, beneath all the outward and diverse approaches that science, philosophy, and religion bring to questions about the universe, there is a grappling by humans with an ultimate mystery that seems to resist full explanation, yet consists of only three logical possibilities, all of them equally mind-boggling:
- The universe is self-existent, and has always been here;
- the universe had a beginning, but made itself; or
- something or someone (some mind) external to the known universe made it.
Science, philosophy, and religion, however elaborate and complicated their forms, ultimately come up against this mystery of ultimate beginnings. Here’s how Spencer puts it in Part 1 of his First Principles:
Respecting the origin of the Universe three verbally intelligible suppositions may be made. We may assert that it is self-existent; or that it is self-created; or that it is created by an external agency. Which of these suppositions is most credible it is not needful here to inquire. The deeper question, into which this finally merges, is, whether any one of them is even conceivable in the true sense of the word.
In other words, science, philosophy, and religion all come up against impasses, or aporias, when it comes to fully comprehending certain ultimate things (one of them being the origin of the universe as a whole). In Part 1 of his First Principles, Spenser also discusses other conceptual limitations, impasses, or aporias for human thought (such as the relation of matter to mind). Spencer’s First Principles is thus a useful example of a book that lays out a discussion of ultimate questions with at least some intellectual caution and humility (if these traits are of value to you). It also functions as a reminder that to be a believer in evolution (that is, to believe that the universe is old and plants and animals change over time by natural selection), one need not necessarily be brought to a strictly materialist (atheist) conclusion regarding the direction that evolution is taking (whether it is constrained by design or driven by chance contingencies alone). There are numerous dilemmas, in other words, that adhere to the ultimate origin of some things (the universe, the first cell, the mind) and reasonable people, whether theist or atheist, can draw diverse conclusions about them (even as they agree upon the facts).