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Red-shifting (the shifting in the length of time between light waves from a given source, in this case for the longer) of all the observable galaxies and clusters of galaxies light years away from us, along with other evidence, shows that our universe is expanding - that space itself, along with the matter in it, is expanding. This suggests that traveling 'backwards' in time, the universe would be contracting. The further back in time, the more contracted the universe. At some point in time between ten and twenty billion years ago, the universe would have been so small that all the matter in the universe, all the galaxies and nebulas and planets and dust that exist, would have been contained in a very, very small area. In fact, it is suggested that at a certain point, all that matter would have been contained in a single, infinitely-dense point, known as a singularity (it appears that we can't really know what happened beyond a certain point, known as Planck Time, mere fractions of a second after the assumed singularity). This singularity expanded, for reasons we don't know (and perhaps never will), at an amazing rate and began the expansion which we currently observe all around us. This expansion (and sometimes the singularity as well) is called the Big Bang.
According to theory, before Planck Time we cannot know what happened because the laws of physics break down (become contradictory) in such a situation. What this means is that perhaps gravity, electromagnetism or even the laws of cause and effect wouldn't apply. As such, it seems we really cannot know for sure what happened before Planck Time. In fact, it seems we cannot even be sure there is a before Planck Time. Time has come to be viewed largely as connected to space as a single thing - spacetime - and where space and matter do not exist, or do not work within the laws of physics as we know them, perhaps time may not either. It is largely a mystery, but one which scientists eagerly explore.
One of the possibilities put forth is that the Big Bang singularity and subsequent expansion was actually caused by a previous universe which had more matter than its own expansion could halt (one of the possibilities of where our own universe is headed, the others being a continuous expansion if gravity/matter is not sufficient to overcome the expansion, or forever approaching a limiting value of balance between expansion and collapse) and thus ended in a Big Crunch (all the matter coming together, 'forward in time' to a single point in space, where it would theoretically crunch into a singularity). It is suggested this Big Crunch then gave birth to our own Big Bang; perhaps the previous universe came about similarly itself, and so on in an infinite regression. Others put forth the possibility that there were no previous universes, that everything began at the Big Bang, created by some transcendent first cause (often considered a deity). The infinite regress is often criticized as being illogical because infinity is itself a concept that seems to break many of our familiar logical ideas. The first cause argument is criticized because it is suggested the 'first cause' itself requires a cause by the same principle that the universe does. Others have put forth other possibilities, but for now it remains largely a mystery unsupported by direct evidence either way.
Here, I wish to put forth my own suggestion, one which seems to make the most sense to me, though I don't claim that it is the case, merely a possibility. That possibility is that the universe (and by that, I mean all that exists that is at least theoretically observable in some way by us, including time) began, completely uncaused.
The notion of an event without a cause seems counter-intuitive at first. It runs in opposition to the way we have come to think of time and events and the laws of physics. The notion of an infinite regression of Big Bangs and Big Crunches is used to explain how our universe came into being, what caused it. That is the same reason why many creationists put forth the first cause argument - they argue that something must have caused the world, and since an infinite regress seems (at least, within our logical way of looking at things) unreasonable or illogical, there must have been some first, original cause for the universe which itself required no cause (in this case, because the supposed creator deity exists in some transcendent realm, or has itself existed infinitely (though that seems itself as illogical as an infinite regression of universes)). Both of these notions, and most others put forth in this area, seem to aim at finding a cause for the Big Bang, for the existence of our universe, our time, our laws of physics. However, I see it as more reasonable to consider the possibility that there was no cause, that there was no need for a cause, as there supposedly is for all the other events we know of.
Why is the universe (including time, as we know it) itself exempt from this otherwise seemingly universal rule? Precisely because the law of cause and effect is attached to time, to the laws of physics we know. There can be no causes if there is no time. And just as it is meaningless to speak of something as existing "before time" (since there is no 'before' without time), it seems meaningless to require causes without time. As such, time itself requires no cause, indeed could not have a cause (there could not have existed any causes 'prior to' time, since there is no 'prior to'). Therefore, if time began at some finite time in the past, it must have began without a cause. The law of cause and effect came into existence with time and physics, and thus it seems they would apply only to events that happen from there on out. My use of the word 'began' above should not be confused with the notion of 'created' or 'caused' as colloquial use might suggest, but simply as a point at which, traveling 'backwards' in time towards it, there is nothing beyond it.
What this possibility (again, I stress it as only one possibility) suggests is that perhaps there need not be a cause at all for the origin of our universe. That the universe might have simply began, simply started, uncaused. Of course, many people would object to this on the grounds that it is suggesting 'something from nothing', a concept generally considered unreasonable and illogical. I think there is a misconception here, in that such a suggestion seems to be assuming that there was a 'before' time and the universe, and that during this 'before' there 'existed' a thing called 'nothing'. In other words, 'nothing' is treated like a sort of backdrop, an empty space, on which the universe as we know it suddenly appeared and started expanding. The problem here is that 'nothing' is no such thing. Nothing is not a backdrop, it is not an empty 'thing' on which something can later exist - it is a lack of anything. Keeping that in mind, the problem with the "something from nothing" criticism is in the "from". The 'something' does not, within this possible model I am suggesting, come from anything, not even an empty backdrop. It merely begins, uncaused.