The Universe Itself Keeps On Expanding, And Expanding…

Question from Andreas:
I know, this may have already been answered, but this piece of information so far successfully hid from my search for knowledge. This is why I’d like to ask a physicist
— Lawrence Krauss — these two questions regarding space and time.

Question 1:
First, as I get it, since Einstein there is no universal time, but a space-time. (Newton was so much easier to grasp for a simple human mind.) Means, space and time are tied together, influence each other and got into existence at the same time which was the big bang. Am I right so far?
Thus space started to exist and to expand since then, as did time — start to exist, that is.

So here comes my first question, because I don’t understand a “what was before” question I sometimes read or am asked (mostly by religious people). I don’t claim to understand Einstein, and I assume only a dozen people on Earth fully do — so maybe I got it all wrong, which is why I have to get this answered.
Is it true that there was no time before the big bang? If so, why are people asking themselves, how and when and why the big bang took place? It cannot be answered (well, the how can be answered to an extent) when there was no time in existence before, so there was no “before the big bang”… or what did I get wrong here?
And the implications? Am I right about shaking my head if people ask the “but what was before” question?!?

Question 2:
Another issue I have with time is distance, the speed of light and our view into the universe. Due to the limitation of the speed of light, we look backwards in time when we look into the universe and see distant galaxies. So we see the past. The farther away a star/galaxy is, the older the image we see. So how do we know if it’s still there? How do we know if a galaxy very far out, in a distant past, isn’t long gone and its stars exploded in nova and supernova explosions? And how far can we look back? I once read that the farthest out we can see is the actual time of the plasma that was “shortly” after the big bang… and we cannot see past that. And that we can see residual “background noise.” If that is true, how can we have a current picture of the universe? Isn’t everything we think about it an extrapolation of a past situation—the only thing that we can see, but we have to calculate how it might have developed since then to now in order to have a full understanding of the universe in its present state?

Isn’t it therefore impossible to have a clear picture of the universe, its number of galaxies, its size etc.? It could be no more than a wild guess, like “yes, we see the images, but we cannot put it together in one map of the current (state of the) universe…”

Those were my two questions.
I am really looking forward to seeing them answered by someone who actually understands what he’s saying, and can even do the calculations (e.g. the time+distance thing), as this gives me headaches for a year or two now, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere else… yet.

The biggest thanks in advance!

Answer by SmartLX:
With the disclaimer that I am absolutely not Lawrence Krauss, I’m happy to help.

Question 1:
There are multiple cosmological models with some kind of Big Bang, and there is a form of time “before” it in some of them. When considering the multiverse hypothesis in particular, you have to consider the possibility that before our system of space-time began others might already have been running. (“Before” in this context relates to causality; if something in another system of space-time caused ours to emerge, you can think of the cause coming before the effect.) If indeed there was no time before the Big Bang, though, then the “before” question is indeed inapplicable, and our ideas of cause and effect have a hard time applying as well.

To summarise in the context of the religiously-charged “what was before” question, we don’t know whether there was a before, if there was a before there didn’t have to be a god in it, and if there wasn’t a before then the Cosmological Argument is nonsensical. The Argument from Contingency is a version that attempts to get around the time-based limitations, but it still has most of the same flaws.

Question 2:
Statistically speaking, we know many stars we can see are long “dead”. Our sun has a total lifespan of about ten billion years, and the larger a star is the sooner it burns out. The best telescopes can pick up images from several billion light years away, and some of the far-out stars are hundreds or thousands of times bigger than the Sun. Even one billion light years out, time will be up for a significant percentage of them since they’ve had to last another billion years since they radiated the light we’re seeing.

So of course our picture of the universe is incomplete. We live in a fortunate time, cosmologically speaking, because the expansion of the universe hasn’t progressed to the point where all galaxies are out of sight of each other, or else we might not know there are other galaxies at all. As it is, we are constantly revising our estimates (and estimates they certainly are) about the contents of the universe based on the information we can gather. Right now the estimate for the proportion of stars with planets around them is rocketing upward as we find evidence of more and more extra-solar planets. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything.

I think you misunderstand one significant thing. Our model of the present universe is not an extrapolation from an assumption of the Big Bang; rather our concept of the Big Bang itself is largely an extrapolation from the current state and movement of the universe. Put simply, everything is rushing away from everything else (unless held together by local gravity) so in the past everything was closer, further in the past everything was even closer than that…and at some point beforehand everything was together, and the physicists worked from there. We try to model the current universe based as much as possible on real observations of its present state, rather than extrapolating from an extrapolation – though sometimes we do resort to that.

Feel free to pick up on any of these points in a comment if you think it could be clearer.

A Moment in Hell

Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:

A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.

Here is an example from George Foreman:

http://www.near-death.com/experiences/rich-and-famous.html#a23

Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.

Do these similarities give hell more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.

One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.

Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.

I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.

Islam and Science Again

Question from :
The Quran has verses about the Big Bang, the formation of the embryo, the speed of light and other scientific facts. How do I explain to a Muslim that these Quranic verses are incorrect or that Quran is incorrect? When I discuss such matters with Muslims, the discussion becomes dead as both the sides have their explanations but are not convincing enough. Any help would be really appreciated. I watch your show online from time to time, some callers give very stupid arguments but all in all great work guys. Keep it up 🙂

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, we’re not affiliated with any show. Ask The Atheist with Tom Leykis isn’t us. You might instead be talking about The Atheist Experience, which I love but is not us either.

Anyway, the claims of divine scientific foreknowledge always rely on specific interpretations of passages in the Quran, so the question is whether these interpretations are justified, and the problem with discussing it with Muslims is that the answer to this question is extremely subjective. What’s not so subjective is whether it is convincing to non-believers; no matter how obvious the argument seems to Muslims, they can’t claim that it’s persuading people who don’t already believe. The propaganda is all one-way from devout Muslims, not testimonials from new converts. Therefore if they care about more than just feeling smug and reassuring their fellow Muslims (and they may not), they need to address what you find weak about this type of argument.

For excellent analysis of particular claims, check out TheIslamMiracle on YouTube. There’s a video for each one.

Molecules Say The Darnedest Things

Question from ‘name’:
My question is, really, why would an atheist care to talk or explain his ‘atheism’, if we are just molecules and will vanish one day?

Answer by SmartLX:
Because all matter is atoms and molecules. Molecules differ from atoms in that they are more complex, being made up of multiple atom types (elements) and thus able to act and interact in a potentially unlimited number of ways. To the point, enough molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen (and traces of many other elements) can form a brain, an organic computer which can in principle do the following:
– Understand the general concept of a god.
– Make a judgement that it’s unlikely or impossible that such a thing exists.
– Make a further judgement that belief in a god is ultimately harmful, or at least that lack of belief is preferable, based primarily on empathy for other beings with brains.
– Formulate arguments against the concept and find ways to spread them.

Even if you think God created the brain, you have to admit it’s capable of doing all this. Which of course means God created atheists, which is something Christians must explain for themselves.

Might Be Talking To The Wrong Guy

Question from Jesse:
Where did the gravity come from Mr Hawkins? I’m just curious.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m going to assume this is a question to Stephen Hawking by proxy. It’s the right question as it turns out, as Hawking’s position in A Brief History of Time is that gravity essentially caused the universe. As for its own origin, notwithstanding the limitations of language when describing different workings of time, it was always there, just as you might assume God always was.

If you have a problem with this I suggest you read A Brief History of Time, check any articles which might indicate that Hawking has changed his position since 1988, and address any further correspondence to him.

Go Where The Science Leads

Question from “Not an atheist”:
Why do you atheists believe you know better than actual scientists that figured all this shit out? Science doesn’t lead to atheism, it refuted atheism a long time ago.

Answer by SmartLX:
Science is a process, and it has definitely led many to atheism by helping them discover natural explanations for phenomena previously thought to be the work of gods. Everyone thinks of evolution as an example, but it goes all the way back to things like the existence and movement of the sun. Others simply attribute the new mechanisms to God as well and are awed by the wondrous ways in which He apparently works, so science does end up leading some farther from atheism than they started. Overall, where science “leads” in this sense is highly subjective and therefore varies wildly.

As for your last point, have a quick search of the site to see if the specific refutation of atheism you’re thinking of is already addressed. If not, we’d love to hear about it. If so, drop a comment on the article you find and we’ll pick up from there.

Breaking Down NDEs by Cause

Question from Marcus:
Does this disprove the hypoxia theory for NDEs?
http://skeptiko.com/critique-of-skeptics-guide-249/

Answer by SmartLX:
A quick search on this topic makes it apparent we’ve wandered into a battlefield. The hypoxia hypothesis has been viciously attacked elsewhere as well, always with the express purpose of legitimising claims of near death experiences.

The core issue is that the link has four separate lists of the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), and “hallucinations” isn’t in any of them. This contradicts (for example) the common trope of mountain climbers hallucinating at high altitudes, which has been properly researched but remains largely an anecdotal claim. More widely accepted is that hallucinations, especially auditory, can be an after-effect of brain damage as a result of hypoxia, so potentially it could trigger as soon as the life-threatening event has caused enough damage.

So no, hypoxia is not eliminated as a cause of the kind of hallucinations that can be mistaken for NDEs, but it’s only one of many possible causes anyway. The link attempts to cover some of these but not with nearly as much rigor; one point is dismissed solely on the basis of Occam’s Razor for instance. The other major problem is that it considers each potential cause individually, taking as counter-examples instances of patients only experiencing one (e.g. hypoxia or a seizure). People near death are often experiencing several of these at once: reduced oxygen, harmful CO2 levels, minor seizures or similar convulsions, powerful drugs administered by medical staff, high levels of various hormones and all kinds of issues with blood flow. The consistent cause of the “classic” NDE may lie in a combination.

Eben Alexander’s Adventures In Bed

Question from Halil:
Hello guys,

Recently I read about the Eben Alexander case, a neurosurgeon, who went to Harvard. He claims that he was in a coma, that his brain was 100 percent shut off due to meningitis. I’m sure many have heard of this. There was an article published by Luke Dittrich in 2013 which many atheists took at face value, as they believed that Dittrich proved many flaws in the Alexander story. However, now Alexander himself has come up with a rebuttal, and many of the people Dittrich interviewed said that they were misled by him, and that he changed actual quotes by Alexander.

If this is true, do you believe that Alexander went to heaven? He is a neurosurgeon, and says it could not have occurred as his brain was coming back online. He says that he has had hundreds of patients who have terrible, painful hallucinations when they come back online. Then he says when he was coming back, he hallucinated that his doctor and his wife were trying to kill him. What do you guys think, is Alexander proof of afterlife, or is it possible that even a neurosurgeon is incorrect?

Answer by SmartLX:
Of course it’s possible that a neurosurgeon is incorrect, because neurosurgeons disagree about things all the time (the most common example is how best to treat a given patient) and they can’t all be right.

Anyway, Alexander’s response to Dittrich would constitute proof of an afterlife if Alexander’s response were perfect and Dittrich’s points were the only things keeping it from being a certainty, which isn’t the case. Dittrich’s isn’t even the only major response to Alexander’s claims, because Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Oliver Sacks chimed in too.

To address your one specific point on the details, Alexander says his patients have told him about having horrible hallucinations while coming “back online” but that doesn’t mean all hallucinations in that state are unpleasant, especially when the few pleasant ones are likely to be characterised by believers as NDEs. That’s a convenient way to explain away any experience that doesn’t fit his claim, including his own experience. And none of this says anything about what dreams may come as the brain is going “offline” before the inactive period.

Young Earth Creationism is So 6000 Years Ago

Question from Cameron:
If the snow rings dating have been proven to be wrong (they represent cold and warm days not years) how could I come to believe carbon dating and other dating types. They seem like all a fraud to me. And like saying that the stalagmites in caves formed over millions of years when I could make one in my garage in just a few months.

Answer by SmartLX:
I assume you’re referring to Kent Hovind’s argument regarding the warm-cold layers in snow cores from Greenland. Here’s Hovind’s own spiel on the subject.

There are plenty of rebuttals online if you care to look as Hovind was saying the same thing for years (almost literally the same; he had a script memorised) but to be as brief as possible, once the snow is packed down under enough layers you might get a maximum of one additional warm-cold layer per year, and not very often. Any other fluctuations are mashed together and lost as the layers flatten. Someone digging a couple of hundred feet will see lots of extra layers, and that’s why the deep cores were taken in the first place: to get the good information down where nature has naturally removed much of the “noise”.

The cores are irrelevant to the accuracy of radiometric dating because they were not used to verify the accuracy of radiometric dating. If you wonder about that, actually look up how it’s been tested. If you simply dismiss all old-earth evidence because you think some of it is incorrect and therefore non-creationist scientists aren’t worth listening to, let me introduce you to the genetic fallacy.

Stalactites and stalagmites can form using different materials and in different circumstances, some of which are fast enough to show results in weeks and some of which are slow enough to take millions of years, and geologists know the difference. Even before you consider these structures, the cave they’re in has to form first, and that can take millions of years too. There’s lots more detail here.

In the Face of a Miracle

Question from Markian:
Ok so sometimes people make claims that they saw something that some would file into the “paranormal” or “supernatural” category. Two examples come to mind. 1) a girl wakes up at 2:30 am, sees a transparent image of a girl she hadn’t talked to in 10 yrs. Then she sees the devil’s face, prays to God, the images go away. 2 days later she sees in the newspaper that this exact girl died at 2:30 that night from an accident. Another one actually happened to my parents. They were at a Church event, and they claim that suddenly things turned demonic. One blonde haired lady suddenly had black hair, people were choking, and finally the priest shouted at “demonic spirits” to leave and then everything turned back to normal. Both of these events are anecdotal and I know many would reject these as hearsay. Although you are being rational by doing so, let’s just say for argument’s sake that these events somehow took place, just give them the benefit of the doubt for a second. Would that confirm the supernatural or paranormal? Or would it still be more appropriate to say that we don’t know what caused these events therefore we could never say they are supernatural or paranormal? I personally believe that even if these 2 events are totally real that they don’t necessarily confirm the existence of spirits, gods, supernatural etc. I want your opinions on my opinion. I know many will say these events are bull but I want to know hypothetically if they were real, does that mean supernatural or is it just something currently unknown? People used to think thunderstorms were gods fighting. Others thought lunar eclipse was something to do with gods. Now we know this isn’t true, so could these cases (granted that they actually occurred) be placed into that category?

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks for getting the basic point about whether the stories are true out of the way for me.

So, say as far as we can tell one of these things really did happen as described and wasn’t essentially made up by the witnesses. The first thing to ask would be whether or not a hoax can be ruled out. Someone could have scared the first girl with a projection of a photo from Facebook and a devil mask, and turned the clock back to allow for several hours of preparation after the news of her death. The church could have had a quick spray of a noxious gas or odour that affected people sharply before dissipating, and if the woman was a plant she could have had a wig. Elaborate in both cases, yes, but if something apparently amazing has really happened, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that someone just went to a lot of trouble. Some of Derren Brown’s shows have put people through some incredible stuff and not told them right away that it was a trick.

So then let’s say it can’t have been a hoax (the kind of evidence for this would have to be pretty convincing), and therefore you can finally say with confidence that something supernatural or paranormal (the definitions are practically the same) has happened. The nature of both events you describe have elements specific to Christian mythology: the antagonist is the devil or the location is a church and, most importantly, invoking God makes everything all right. That does suggest that an otherworldly intelligence is behind it if it can respond to a specific declaration, but there are several possible reasons why it might do so. Maybe it really is Satan and he fears God. Maybe it’s some lesser poltergeist pretending to be Satan, or who fears God regardless – whether God is also real or not. (If humans can fear a God who appears to be non-existent, why can’t a spirit?) Maybe a living human psychic/telekinetic is making it happen, consciously or not. Use your imagination, but the point is that even if the supernatural occurs exactly the way believers expect they may still need to wonder whether they’re being supernaturally had. Lots of them fall for false miracles done in old-fashioned ways as it is, or Peter Popoff would never have got anywhere.