Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Scientific Confirmation for the Beginning of the Universe

Scientific Confirmation of the Creation: The Big Bang

Craig and others have sought epistemic support for creation ex nihilo through the scientific evidence for Big Bang cosmology. Several converging lines of evidence have firmly established this cosmology, which is interpreted by most to require an absolute origination of the universe from nothing about fourteen billion years ago. Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, recently said that “Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang.”[1] Even the atheist Quentin Smith accepts that Big Bang cosmology entails that nothing at all existed before the first event of the universe.[2]

A detailed account of the ascent of Big Bang cosmology is not possible here, but a broad outline may be sketched out.[3] Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1917) had implications far beyond his imagination. His theory of gravitation assumes an eternal universe existing in a steady state that is not expanding. However, Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann found that Einstein had made an elementary mistake in his calculations when he divided by zero. When this was corrected, the theory predicted an expanding universe.[4] Independently of Friedman, Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre found essentially the same thing.[5] The corrected theory then began to be verified by various strains of evidence.

In 1929, the astronomer Edward Hubble picked up on observational data left by Vesto Slipher that about a dozen galaxies near earth were moving away from us at high speeds. This was indicated by “the red shift,” which is “a change in the color of the light from…distant galaxies that indicated, to the trained eye, an enormously rapid motion away from earth.”[6] Using large telescopes, Hubble, with the aid of Milton Humason, verified that the galaxies were moving away from each other, thus further establishing the expanding universe. From this, Hubble formulated his famous law of the expanding universe, earlier predicted by Slipher, that “the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it moves." [7] This principle also applies to inflating balloons and rising bread in the oven. Hubble’s law, taken by itself, does not prove that the universe has always been expanding, but only that it is expanding now; in other words, it is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition, for the Big Bang.[8]

As the Big Bang was gaining ground, some scientists tried to take the ground out from under it. In the late 1940s, Fred Hoyle and two other scientists postulated the “steady state” universe, in which the universe is ever expanding yet eternal. This theory required that new material be created continuously out of nothing in the empty aspects of the universe (a dubious idea philosophically). Then another sky-shaking discovery further confirmed the Big Bang and rendered the steady state theory unsteady at best. At the end of World War II, three scientists calculated that if the universe came into being through a tremendous explosion, this event would have produced intense radiation that, while diminished, would still exist in the contemporary universe. In 1965, the physicists Arno Penzia and Robert Wilson “detected the cosmic fireball radiation [that had been] predicted and thereby made one of the greatest discoveries in 500 years of modern astronomy.”[9] Their initial findings have been further confirmed.[10] Now both the necessary and sufficient conditions for the Big Bang have been established. The implication is that everything in the universe can be traced to an original “singularity” from which it sprang. As two prominent physicists concluded, “At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated in such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo.”[11] But there is yet more cosmic evidence for a beginning of the universe.

The abundance of helium in the universe also confirms what would be expected if the Big Bang occurred.[12] The fact that the formation and life of stars requires hydrogen also contributes to the evidence for an absolute beginning of the universe, since hydrogen is used up and not created in the process. From this astronomers infer that the further back in time one goes, the more hydrogen. “Turning back the clock still further, the astronomer comes to a time when the Universe contained nothing but hydrogen—no carbon, no oxygen, and none of the other elements out of which planets and life are made. This point in time must have marked the beginning of the Universe.”[13]

Lastly, the second law of thermodynamics strongly indicates a beginning of the universe. Thermodynamics is the science of energy. Its second law states that closed systems incline toward a state of equilibrium or entropy. That is, the “universe is moving irreversibly toward a state of maximum disorder and minimum energy.”[14] This end point is known as “heat death.”[15] Entropy is an empirical and physical example of the philosophical concept of contingency. The present order of the universe (its assemblage of useable energy) is contingent on previous states of energy and is impossible without it. This contingency relation is strictly linear and irreversible.[16] Entropy increases over time—and not the reverse. From these considerations, a modus tolens deductive argument follows.

1. If the universe were eternal and its amount of energy finite, it would have reached heat death by now.
2. The universe has not reached heat death (since there is still energy available for use).
3. Therefore, (a) the universe is not eternal.
4. Therefore, (b) the universe had a beginning.
5. Therefore, (c) the universe was created by a First Cause (God).

Or, more simply, “What is winding down must have been wound up.”
G.C. Nerlich rejected this argument, as given by D. Elton Trueblood,[17] in three sentences. “But this is far from lending support to the theistic hypothesis. It simply means that the law leads us to a point beyond which it will not take us. It gives no warrant for the conclusion that the minimum entropy state has a supernatural cause.”[18] But if a natural law indicates a beginning of the universe, and will not take us beyond the beginning of the universe, then that beginning should be explained on other, non-natural grounds. A “supernatural cause” is a fitting candidate when natural explanations give out, as many scientists and philosophers have begun to fathom. The only other alternative is that everything came from nothing without a cause—an idea we challenged previously.

Others have disputed this argument by claiming that the universe as a whole may not be entropic. As Whitrow put it, “It would seem that not only is it difficult to formulate the concept of entropy for the whole universe but also that there is no evidence that the law of entropy increase applies on this scale.”[19] Put more philosophically, to extrapolate from items in the universe that are running down, to the conclusion that the entire universe is running down, is to commit the fallacy of composition. If one feather is light, that does not imply that 18,000,000 feathers taken together are light. Similarly, although each individual brick is rectangular, a wall of bricks may be nonrectangular. The whole takes on new and contrary properties not shared by each of its parts. Therefore, parts of the universe may be running down, but not the whole show. If this is the case, then the argument that entropy entails a beginning to the universe fails. How might this objection be answered?

First, the second law of thermodynamics is purported to be a scientific law; that is, a universal or all-inclusive claim covering all cases of energy exchange. Although it relates to particular parts of the universe, the law is formulated to account for all the energy exchanges of the universe. If the scope of the law is universal, it is not “difficult to formulate the law for the whole universe” (as Whitrow claims) but entirely natural and appropriate.[20] Moreover, there is no positive evidence that the law is suspended or reversed in any part of the universe. Paul Davies puts this point clearly.

Today, few cosmologists doubt that the universe, at least as we know it, did have an origin at a finite moment in the past. The alternative—that the universe has always existed in one form or another—runs into a rather basic paradox. The sun and stars cannot keep burning forever: sooner or later they will run out of fuel and die.

The same is true of all irreversible physical processes; the stock of energy available in the universe to drive them is finite and cannot last for eternity. This is an example of the so-called second law of thermodynamics, which, applied to the entire universe, predicts that it is stuck on a one-way slide of degeneration and decay toward a final state of maximum entropy, or disorder. As this final state has not yet been reached, it follows that the universe cannot have existed for an infinite time.[21]

But does the entropy argument commit the fallacy of composition? The fallacy of composition is applicable to some whole-part relations, but not all such relations. This is because it is not a formal fallacy (such as denying the antecedent, which is fallacious whenever its form appears, independent of any material considerations); but rather, it is an informal fallacy that only obtains when particular material factors are present. In many whole-part relationships, the fallacy of composition does not occur. If each individual playing card is made of paper, then one ton of playing cards will be made of paper. If each individual brick occupies space, then the whole wall will occupy space. In these kinds of cases, a property of the parts distributes as a property of the whole. Therefore, no context-independent rule can be stipulated as to whether a fallacy of composition has been committed. We must consult individual cases.[22]

Additive factors may not cause a transmutation when applied to the whole. Adding up a million individually light playing cards will make the set of cards heavy, but it will not make the set of cards immaterial. There is no good reason to think that a universe consisting only of entropic beings will possess the property of non-entropy. But if the universe is universally entropic, it requires a source of original energy outside of itself. To avoid an infinite regress, we need to infer a First Cause which is not itself subject to the entropic regress.


[1] In Moreland, Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (InterVarsity Press, 2003)478. Science writer and astronomer, Robert Jastrow, concurs, God and the Astronomers, 14.
[2] Smith in Moreland, Craig.
[3] I will be relying mostly on Jastrow, but also see Moreland and Craig, 476-479.
[4] Jastrow, 18-19.
[5] Ibid., 32.
[6] Ibid., 18.
[7] Ibid., 32.
[8] Ibid., 54.
[9] Ibid., 69.
[10] Ibid., 69-72.
[11] John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 442; quoted in Craig, Reasonable Faith, 127.
[12] See Jastrow for details, 79-81.
[13] Jastrow, 85.
[14] J.P. Moreland, Scaling The Secular City (Baker Books, 1987), 34.
[15] For the two versions of this, see Moreland and Craig, 478.
[16] That is, apart from supernatural intervention.
[17] D. Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion (1957), 102-105.
[18] G. C. Nerlich, “Popular Arguments for the Existence of God,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, six vols., ed. Paul Edwards (New York: MacMillan, 1967), 410.
[19] Whitnow, “Entropy,” 529.
[20] See Moreland, Scaling, 37.
[21] Paul Davies, “The Big Bang—and Before (paper presented at the Thomas Aquinas College Lecture Series, Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, Calif., March 2002; quoted in Copan and Craig, Creation out of Nothing, 243-44.
[22] See Ed L. Miller, God and Reason (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1972), 56.


Jorgon Gorgon said...

Gadz. Completely incorrect. That the Big Bang has occurred is not in doubt; but it was the beginning only of this particular region of spacetime that we call "Universe". The initial singularity emerges only within the framework of GR. It only means that GR breaks down at that point and new theories are necessary to describe the behaviour of spacetime there. Two major contenders right now are string theory and loop quantum gravity. I am closely familiar with both, but am not willing to bet on the rightness of either one: I have nothing invested in them (not a cosmologist, but a humble astrobiologist). But even if neither of them is "correct", the gist of the solution will not change: what we observe as "Big Bang" was a phase transition between our current spacetime and some previous form of it. Whether entropy resets at that moment (as LQG implies) or whether the previous spacetime is dual to ours and has decreasing entropy with increasing curvature and size is irrelevant. Second law is not violated. What's more, there are currentlysome doubts about the universal applicability of the second law, in any case. (As a hint: no scientific "law" is 100% correct under all circumstances; that is why new theories emerge to descrbie the behaviour of the Universe at different scales).

Going a bit simpler, the Big Bang could have been a simple quantum fluctuation on some n-dimensional manifold without involving string theory whatsoever. This would alsobe consistnet with observations, since the total energy of our Universe is precisely 0 and its existence would not violate any conservation laws.

There are many possibilities. I recommend reading a good book on modern cosmology and working through the maths (e.g. Weinberg, or Polchinski on string theory). Otherwise, you risk sounding like Lane Craig: the only thing that his kalam argument achieves is in eliciting a chuckle from every astrophysicist and cosmologist (and most philosophers as well!) I am aware of.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Your theories--string and loop quantum gravity--are very speculative and not commonly accepted. The best understanding of the Big Bang is absolute origination, not some spectral pre-existence before that.

Bill Craig's views are deeply researched and not ad hoc. See especially his newest work (with a co-author) in The Blackwell Guide to Natural Theology.

You are postulating something before the Big Bang, it seems, to avoid an absolute origination, since naturalism cannot (or is loathe to) accept it. Consider the possibility of just that. A real beginning to everything caused some something outside the universe. I find naturalists usually write post-dated checks: where their theories break down, they demand more time, but will never accept divine causation.

It is by no means that case that every physicist and philosopher laughs are Craig and others work that see the Big Bang as supporting creation ex nihilo. Just read Craig's work and see his citations. Expand your awareness on this. You sound flippant, frankly.

If there is an absolute beginning, and if the second law obtains universally (not reason now to think otherwise), then my argument goes through. The fact that there are "currently some doubts" about the second law hardly counts as decisive counter-evidence.

The universe "could have been a quantum fluctuation." Perhaps, but it that the most likely explanation, or is that what you are forced to according to a materialist metaphysics? Does any *possible* naturalistic interpretation beat a supernatural explanation?

But even if all the astrophysical arguments fail to establish a beginning, on still has the philosophical resources of the kalam cosmological argument, which rules out traversing an infinte series of events.

ChrisB said...

"the Big Bang ... was the beginning only of this particular region of spacetime that we call "Universe"."

Highly speculative. You have to assume so much. If Groothuis' approach is correct, there are no "laws of physics" at that point.

You're assuming there is something and that this something has laws and that it can result in a universe. All completely untestable. That's not science; it's dogma pretending to be science.

Addison said...

Wait a second. How do you infer god as a first cause? That sounds bizarre!

First of all, before the universe there was no time and no laws of science as we know them. There are models that show it's possible (depending on the state and how some funny laws work that we're not sure of yet) for the universe to simply pop into existence by itself. This also relies on some other stuff I won't go into.

One interesting theory is based on the calculation that if you took all the positive energy in the universe and all the negative energy and mushed them together they would all cancel out and equal exactly 0. We already know it's possible for particles (with their anti-particle buddy) to pop into existence out of nothing, so it is reasonable to think that somehow quantum fluctuations produced lots of particles and before they were able to annihilate the nuclear forces came into play and they formed hydrogen atoms instead.

Postulating a god doesn't really answer anything as you then have to explain how god came about. You can't just say he was eternal, because we could just as easily say that the matter in the universe was eternal (and was simply squeezed really tight before the big bang).

Dr. Polhemus said...

Thanks for the informative article about the Big Bang. I've also read "The Ultimate Question of Origins: God and the Beginning of the Universe" by William Lane Craig, and I was similarly impressed. There is overwhelming evidence for the Big Bang, and it is the appropriate foundation for any discussion about the origin of the universe.

Scientists now widely agree that the Big Bang marked the end of an earlier period of accelerating expansion called inflation. The inflation idea has been around for a couple decades, and it solves a number of long standing problems in cosmology. It gained acceptance in recent years by passing the crucial test: making correct predictions. Inflation predicts density fluctuations at the Big Bang which obey a Gaussian power distribution with a slight "tilt." This has been observed by sensitive measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the early universe. There is still much that we don't know about inflation, and there are several competing theories about how it occurred.

How long was inflation? We don't know. It was at least long enough for the universe to double in size dozens of times, but the universe was expanding so quickly only a tiny fraction of a second is required. Inflation could have lasted longer, but there are some good reasons to believe that it couldn't extend into the infinite past.

Something almost certainly preceded inflation. There are many ideas (string landscapes, loop quantum gravity, de-Sitter space described by conformal field theory) but they are just ideas. None of these theories have not made correct predictions, and in most cases they haven't made any predictions at all. Some of these theories give the universe a definite beginning, some don't, and some are ambiguous or incomplete.

There is no scientific reason to exclude Divine causation from the list of possibilities. The possibility seems very unnatural to most physicists, but physicists have been surprised before.

What I don't understand, and perhaps Prof. Groothius can help me out here, is whether there is a reason to prefer Divine causation over other speculative, natural explanations.

Anonymous said...

Dr.G. This was sent to me by my mentor; he is not very good at the "blog" thing. I am posting this on his behalf.


The Kalam is not so easily dismissed. To do so one must show that an actual infinity of real things is possible (space, time, however configured in N dimensions, electrons, turtles hotel rooms or universes).

String Theory is so complicated its equations have not all been stated much less solved. Its energies are beyond testing and must remain a model. Even so it would be subject to the Kalam argument and the most you could get is a large number of universes equal to the number of solutions to the equations (10^500?).

Quantum Gravity; advocated by Linde, Guth et al doesn’t seem to get around the dreaded beginning either. In 1994, Borde and Vilenkin (Craig and Copan, 233) showed that a universe eternally inflating towards the future the future cannot be geodesically complete in the past. Linde now concurs-there must have been a singularity in the finite past.

I believe (I don’t have my copy of Reasonable Faith) That Guth and Vilenkin went on to show in '03 that any universe that contains mass and has on average expanded, must have a beginning. This is independent of any physical model.

Paul Ernst