After The End

Question from Salim:
I was wondering if you had ever considered the possibility of humanity wiping out humanity or our planet (or the universe) getting destroyed. So what if this one day happens? Will we await another big bang to restart life?

Answer by SmartLX:
It could happen. It could also have already happened.

If humanity does something stupid or clueless enough it could well wipe out all life on Earth, which is to say all known life in the universe – emphasis on known, because we can’t discount possible alien life out there somewhere. (Immediately this conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, who commonly believe that only God can destroy the world and He promised not to, so we needn’t worry about the environment at all.)

If everything does die, there’s a possibility that the chemicals still present on the planet could be driven by natural movement (wind, waves, tectonic plates, etc.) towards a second abiogenesis event wherein a new form of life emerges. The circumstances would be very different from 3.5 billion years ago, but since we don’t know exactly what happened it’s not unthinkable that it could happen another way, or the same way in a different place.

The outlook for that new, unrelated life would be somewhat grim. Earth was already about a billion years old when life started the first time, and about a billion years from now the aging sun will grow too hot for Earth to be inhabitable. Our successors would have to evolve the necessary intelligence to achieve space travel much, much faster than we did to have a chance of escaping.

Forget starting from scratch on Earth so late in the piece. Subsequent life will have a much better chance if it starts further out in the solar system, say on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, say Europa. That will give it up to another 4 billion years to achieve interstellar flight before the Sun dies altogether. But then if we’re hypothesising about the best place for life to start elsewhere, the best candidates are almost certainly planets we haven’t discovered around stars we can’t even see (or if we have seen them, we’ve given them names like HR 8799). There are stars whose lifespans or “sequences” are far longer than the Sun’s.

But what if this whole universe is finally a bust, all life dies out and there’s not enough energy left to restart it? If the universe suffers a heat death then nothing further will come of it, and indeed another spontaneous Big Bang or equivalent might be needed for a new universe, and the possibility of new life, to rise. If on the other hand the universe ends in a Big Crunch (looking less likely in the last decade or so) then it might explode outwards again and produce new life by itself.

So yeah, I’ve given it some thought, as do most people who reflect upon modern cosmology. The sheer scale of the things you have to consider can be unsettling to say the least, and that’s before you start on the existential threats we face as a species. People face the subject through humour, through academics, through faith, or not at all. Sometimes it keeps us up at night, but the world can be a scary place at all levels and yet life goes on…for now.

The Pretend Prime Mover

Question from Sue:
Since God is pretend, how did the world come to be?

Answer by SmartLX:
We don’t know, but there are lots of ideas floating around. We’ve covered it quite a lot here, so try a search or just use this one. Just because the idea of a God explains something doesn’t make it any more likely that there is one.

Theist Cosmology: As Long As God’s Necessary Somewhere

Question from Physitheist:
I’m going to start this by saying that I’m a Christian, but also someone who believes in science…Here’s my question. According to the laws of thermodynamics energy moves to heat. Also there is no process that is truly reversible because we can not reach absolute zero, and the process would take infinite time. Since entropy continues to increase, and there is a limit of mass and energy how are we here? If there is not a limit of energy and mass, then why do you think so? And if you believe that energy and mass can appear out of thin air balanced out by anti matter why haven’t we ever seen this? After all the amount of unusable heat created is enormous. So basically my question is this, given the laws of thermodynamics, if you extrapolate to the size of the universe how are we here? After all the Big Crunch theory doesn’t really solve the energy problem since no process is 100 percent efficient. We’d still only have heat since there’s no such thing as negligible when the scale is eternity.

Thank you, and have a wonderful day!

Jesus loves you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I answered a similar question in my piece The World of Leftover Energy, so you can comment on that one if you like. Here I’ll just try to address some of your specific points and questions.

If you extrapolate the laws of thermodynamics regarding entropy to account for the entire universe they need to be applied as to a closed system, because we’re not aware of any energy leaving the universe. A hypothetical Big Crunch takes all the matter and energy there has ever been and jams it back together in a singularity – even the “lost” energy that’s been radiated outwards throughout the history of the compressed universe. That could actually achieve 100% efficiency through recycling, as literally no energy would be lost and the singularity could behave exactly the same as the previous singularity.

There is most likely a finite amount of matter and energy in THIS universe. If it’s the only universe, an eternal existence would have to depend on some form of reclamation, like the Big Crunch, or an exponential decrease that never hits zero, like I describe in the other piece. If there are other universes, as many have theorised and some evidence actively suggests, then it’s very possible that the total matter and energy in the multiverse is infinite, and entropy doesn’t mean much on the grand scale. I don’t feel the need to declare one or the other scenario more likely. An eternal universe isn’t certain in the first place, but a non-eternal universe doesn’t guarantee an eternal creator god.

Think about what would happen if a small group of matching matter and antimatter particles suddenly emerged naturally somewhere on Earth, and therefore in an environment saturated with existing particles of matter (e.g. air, water or earth). The antimatter would be annihilated by the existing matter in an instant, and the matter it touched would also be annihilated, so you’d be left with no antimatter and exactly the amount of matter you started with. It could be happening all around us and we’d never detect it without precise instruments. This isn’t proof that it happens, but it makes it impossible to say that it isn’t happening.

Aliens In The Family

Question from Archer:
Hi I am an agnostic and do support evolution. I know this is just a supposition but since biological beings continue evolving (through vast increments of time) would it make sense to think that far more advanced intelligent beings do exist and that we could actually be related to them?

Thank you.

Answer by SmartLX:
Considering only Earth, it’s unlikely that there’s ever been a species more intelligent than us here, because if so we’d probably have found some trace of them. We’ve had such a profound effect on the ecosystem that the only things that have had more impact are cataclysms like the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs; a species with even more power to affect its surroundings would have been unmistakable in its influence.

Considering the universe as a whole, though, it was already about 10 billion years old when the Earth was formed, and it took another 4.5 billion to produce human beings. Imagine how advanced we could be in one million years, if we survive that long; now, consider that if a species on another planet reached our present level of intelligence and civilisation just one million years ahead of us, out of billions of years so far, they could be at that advanced stage right now. It’s a big universe, so big that it’s probably more likely that the reason we haven’t been contacted by advanced aliens is that they don’t know we’re here and can’t reach us, not that there are no aliens.

I don’t think we’d be related to any advanced aliens that do exist, and here’s why. The study of DNA tells us that all life on Earth has a common ancestor, an extremely simple organism of some kind that lived about 3 to 3.5 billion years ago, so any related aliens had to be the progenitor of that organism. To do that, they had to be capable of interstellar space travel that long ago. An alien race one million years ahead of us is one thing, but 3 billion years is WAY early. The universe’s first stars had to explode to provide the rest of the universe with any chemical elements beyond hydrogen and helium, so it was several billion years before the building blocks of life even existed and were widespread. Earth is probably the product of at least two full star lifecycles since it formed after 10 billion years. That could be why it’s so rich in minerals, metals and exotic compounds. If that’s what it takes to produce life, it might not have been able to start a whole star-generation earlier than it did. It’s not impossible, because some stars burn fast and blow up after only a few million years, but I just think the “factories” had output so much less raw material so long ago.

Thermodynamics (it’s not what you think)

Question from Anon:
Hi,

I’m engaged in a discussion with a Christian friend of mine who has presented this syllogism to me:

“1. Simply put, if there is no external cause of the universe, then the universe is either eternal or self-created.

2. But, it is cosmologically ridiculous and anti-scientific (i.e. against laws of thermodynamics) to propose that the universe is either eternal or self-created.

3. Therefore, the premise that there is no external cause of the universe must be false (i.e. there must be an external cause for the universe’s existence, e.g. God)”

I believe he is applying the law where it can’t be applied, but I’ve never extensively studied science in college so I’m not really sure.

My rebuttal was that the universe was not necessarily a closed system and he responded with this:

“I have to remind you that my academic background has required me to not only understand, but apply, thermodynamics. [He has an engineering degree.] I know what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics means and it clearly eliminates the concept of an eternal universe. If there is any misunderstanding on my part, it is in what you mean by ‘the law of the universe.’ Further, whether the universe is a closed system or not is irrelevant, since the concept of a closed system is theoretical, i.e. we have never actually observed a closed system.”

Thanks and I hope you can sort this out for me.

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, it’s not the usual creationist argument that evolution breaks the 2nd Law simply by producing order, so at least it’s a change.

He’s got one thing right, the universe is unlikely to be self-created. We don’t know of anything that is, or even what that would mean if it were true. For an entity to be the reason for its own existence would require an exception to the idea that an effect follows its cause. Rather than call this ridiculous, however, I’d just say that time would have had to behave non-linearly near the beginning. It’s strange to consider, but it hasn’t been ruled out as far as I know.

To set up the next option a bit, an eternal universe would need to be one where multiple Big Bangs happen in sequence. We have to work from the scientific fact of the Big Bang to achieve a plausible eternal model, especially after Borde, Guth and Vilenkin successfully ruled out the leading eternal models that didn’t involve singularities.

Your friend’s thermodynamic objection to an eternal universe is that any process that’s already been running forever should have run down by now, because no process is perfectly efficient. There are at least two scenarios in which this is averted (possibilities only, mind you):
– The singularity that immediately precedes each Big Bang reclaims all of the matter and energy in the universe by bringing space itself back to a central point. This includes all of the “lost” energy that radiates from decaying systems and is normally declared unusable, so in the end nothing is truly lost and the universe really is perfectly efficient.
– Extending upon your friend’s response, not even the universe itself is a closed system. It receives energy from an outside source, such as other universes. If there is an infinite number of these as some have hypothesised, they can keep a universe such as ours going indefinitely. (If one takes “universe” to mean everything that exists, in other words the whole multiverse, then the idea is available that it may contain infinite matter and energy, and never have to run down for this reason instead. It’s all a matter of perspective, and to some extent semantics.)

As an afterword on eternal universes, it’s worth asking your friend exactly how he exempts his eternal God from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. I hold it to be true that whatever constraints you place on the universe to necessitate a god, you immediately have to break them to allow for the god, usually by way of special pleading.

Moving on to the third option, it’s telling that your friend’s syllogism uses “e.g.” and not “i.e.” to invoke God. God is an example of an external cause, not the only possible one. The alternative suggested by the above is a concurrent or previous universe, which is part of a great many theories out there. I would love to hear your friend’s reasoning that starts from the external cause at the end of the syllogism and arrives at the Christian God, because at a glance it’s far from a logical step. (The following isn’t a scientific argument, but additional universes seem a more plausible thing to posit than a god because at least we know there’s such a thing as a universe. If your 5-acre cabbage patch has been devoured and you find one fat little rabbit in the corner, you don’t suppose that Bigfoot ate the rest; you wonder where all the other rabbits are hiding.)

Finally, there is a fourth option not covered by the syllogism: that the universe simply came into being without being created, that the common straw-man concept of “something from nothing” actually happened. Something like this is put forward in Lawrence Krauss’ new book A Universe from Nothing; specifically, that the precursor to the universe in certain models could be thought of as “nothing”. Even if you don’t accept this as quite the same thing, it at least advances another alternative external cause to compete with God.

Most of the options are essentially still on the table, despite your friend’s attempt at an argument by elimination. Even the option he wants to be left with doesn’t help the case for God very much, if at all.

The Big Spill?

Question from Jethin:
Space, Time and matter expanding from a tiny spot as formulated in the big bang theory still looks to be confined especially to the question of where and how all the stuff came for the bang. What if the universe that we see is a part of a recycler that create a multiverse and our universe is just one of numerous other universes. A universe like the one we live in could emerge from the tip of a crater of an ultimate system of all creations wherein matter in the form of pure energy is spurted out from a central cauldron holding finite quantum of energy at enormous pressure and temperature. Like a lava flow, energy from this casing could escape through vents in the space-time fabric at higher dimensions, thus creating may be three or multidimensional universes. Studies on CMB radiation and the results therein leading to inflation theory of sudden expansion still call for more observational validations. Could this sudden expansion of our universe be triggered by the super charged energy outflow at tremendous pressure and temperature from an extra dimensional boiler?

What happens to all the matter that fall into a black hole? Spaghettification, singularity, Hawking radiation, black hole evaporation and what more, all such possibilities have been studied but still there is something missing. Should there be a link between singularity and big bang elsewhere; may be a link that is routed through that ultimate crucible of all creations. Like a reservoir, matter in its pure energy form could be encased in such a place from where the distribution starts to create different universes. The feeding source into it could be black holes pulling in materials from their own universes, stripping to its primal form and gushing into the mother pot. Is our universe a part of that energy-matter recycler that has been going on indefinitely?

Answer by SmartLX:
No freaking idea.

There are a great many models for explaining the beginning of the modern universe. Some posit that the Big Bang really was the beginning and some do not make that assumption. Every so often evidence comes to light that rules out one or more models, leaving the rest as candidates for what really happened. What you describe is closer to some of the surviving models than others, and so far I see no obvious reason to rule it out.

The important thing about your hypothesis for the purposes of this site is that it does not require the initiative or the intervention of a deity. It’s been some time since cosmologists turned to God to explain the as yet unexplained, because they’ve had no need. They might resort to God to explain the impossible, but they haven’t come up against that yet.

Eternal inflation? No. Eternal universe? Maybe, nevertheless. And what’s it to ya?

“These three scientists in particular, by virtue of their joint paper, are name-checked more often than any others by apologists not just arguing for an absolute beginning to the universe but claiming that this has been established beyond doubt.”

Question:
Scientists Arvin Borde, Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, in their 2003 paper “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions”, ruled out past-eternal inflationary models of the universe. Does this prove that
1. the universe had an absolute beginning,
2. that it must have had a cause and
3. that the cause was God?

Answer:
No, no and no.

These three scientists in particular, by virtue of their joint paper, are name-checked more often than any others by apologists not just arguing for an absolute beginning to the universe but claiming that this has been established beyond doubt. Apologists up to and including William Lane Craig do this to support the cosmological argument for God, which requires such a beginning to be indisputable.

So what does the paper actually say? Feel free to read it via the link above (it’s dense but short), but the thrust is in the title: spacetime can’t have been inflating infinitely into the past.

That seems obvious since you’d think you’d eventually reach a singularity if you worked backwards, but models have been proposed wherein the farther back you go the slower the expansion is. Some reasoned that perhaps the universe has spent eternity inflating extremely slowly from a size barely larger than a singularity, speeding up as it went along.

Borde, Guth and Vilenkin examined this idea and found, essentially, that it wouldn’t work in the real world. In doing so they pretty much dismissed every model of an expanding universe (or multiverse) that doesn’t involve a proper singularity and Big Bang. Therefore, according to apologists, the universe definitely had an absolute beginning, which must have had a cause, and that cause was God.

That’s going way too far because, for a start, the paper doesn’t take a position on whether the now-confirmed Big Bang was an absolute beginning. There are many more universe/multiverse models wherein the Big Bang was merely an event in an ongoing sequence – where the matter in the singularity came from somewhere, not nowhere. Borde et al only intended to rule out a family of models that clearly don’t work.

Get that? Borde, Guth and Vilenkin did NOT rule out an eternal universe, even if the result of their paper is correct. They merely ruled out one kind of eternal universe, the kind where the Big Bang never happened. The fact that there was a Big Bang does not mean there was nothing before the Big Bang.

The Big Bang as absolute zero, or an absolute beginning in general, is a poor platform for apologetics in any case. The idea that whatever begins to exist has a cause is not based on anything which physically began to exist in the same way the universe supposedly did, completely ex nihilo (literally “from nothing”). We’ve never seen anything like that happen, so:
1. it’s curious that so many people assume the universe came about in this way,
2. there’s no basis for assigning a cause if it did and
3. even if it had a cause, it’s a huge leap to declare it any kind of god, let alone someone’s specific personal deity.

SmartLX