Big Ol’ Bang

Question from Call Me Static:
So, I found this looking for an answer for the Law of Biogenesis (I’m on the younger side) for school and came across this. This interested me and I thought I’d ask a question to you about what you believe with an atheistic point of view.

Do you believe in the Big Bang Theory and if not, what do you believe created the universe? I’m curious to see what you believe on this.

I’m doing this for pleasure, not anything for school. Just thought I’d ask out of simple curiosity.

Answer by SmartLX:
Lucky you, I just revisited the “law” of biogenesis the other day. But hopefully you found the earlier piece referenced therein.

Anyway, I do think the evidence supports the Big Bang, so I accept the theory and I just plain think that it happened. This leaves some pretty big questions, like what existed beforehand and what caused it (if time was, “at the time”, in a state where either question even makes sense) and what it implies for the future of the universe (heat death? Big Crunch?) but that particular moment in cosmic history is looking pretty solid right now.

From Infinity To Certainty?

Question from Blake (lost, then recovered – sorry Blake!):
If there is an unlimited number of universes with an unlimited number of possibilities, then would there be a universe in which there doesn’t exist other universes?

Answer by SmartLX:

Unlimited possibilities do not necessarily mean every possibility. The set of multiples of two (2, 4, 6, 8…) has infinite numbers, but no odd numbers because odd numbers are not multiples of two. The question uses the premise that there is an unlimited number of universes, and with that established the infinite universes you are not in are not negated by the one you are in, no matter what kind of universe it is. The basic qualities of the set of universes make a solitary universe impossible.

A similar argument is sometimes used to establish the existence of a god. See the piece that just went up. (That piece is the reason I found your question, due to similar subject matter.)

A Universe With A Mission?

Question from The Devil’s Advocate:
This question is going to be different. That is to say, I’m inclined to think that it should be interpreted and processed in a somewhat different manner than most of the emails you receive. It’s about what might be, rather than what is. In my experience, a significant minority, if not the majority, of atheists tend to take the position that there’s no point in exploring a possibility unless there’s evidence in support of that possibility. Most of the time, that makes a lot of sense. Are reptilian fairies from the seventh dimension kidnapping homeless people and prodding them with rectal probes? Well, if there’s no scientifically credible empirical evidence in support of the possibilities, why even pursue that possibility?

However, there are conceptual frameworks in which what might be can be almost as illuminating as what is. Science fiction literature is all about what MIGHT be, as opposed to what is or what will be. Exploring what MIGHT be (with the rigor and scientific literacy of someone like Issac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke) can be extremely illuminating.

I’m going to make this as brief as possible on the assumption that you’re smart enough to appreciate the full implications of the possibilities that I’m alluding to here.

Consider the power of technology. Consider the exponential rate at which that power has grown over the course of only a few generations. If we don’t kill ourselves off as a result of our animalistic instincts, consider the power that human technology will wield a thousand years from now. Imagine a civilization that has been fully technological, as we presently are, for a hundred thousand years. Or a million years. Can you grasp that intuitively? The scale at least? The mind-numbing scale?

Okay. Here’s the deal. It appears to me that there are no forces in the known universe even remotely as potentially powerful as technology (applied science). What are the most powerful natural forces we know of? A supernova? The mega black holes at the center of most galaxies? I don’t know if you’re a futurist or a science fiction fan, but if you are, you KNOW that a supernova or a mega black hole doesn’t even BEGIN to compare to the technological power that a civilization ten thousand years more technologically advanced than us could conceivably wield. So, here’s the paradigm that I hope to communicate…

Given the mind-numbing, breathtaking power of advanced technology… and by that I don’t mean Star Wars or Star Trek because mainstream science fiction only depicts technologies a hair’s breath more advanced than our own, for utterly pragmatic reasons. (If a mainstream science fiction film were to depict a technology ten thousand years more advanced than our own it, watching it would be like having an acid trip– nothing in it would be at all comprehensible– therefore there’s no financial motivation to produce such a film. The technologies in Star Wars and Star Trek are JUST BARELY more advanced than our own, by necessity.)

Given the mind-numbing, breathtaking power of advanced technology… and the fact that nothing that we currently know about anywhere in the multiverse can even begin to compare with that potential power— is it so outrageous to think that LIFE (which is the source of such technology) could possibly be an even bigger influence in the configuration of the cosmos as gravity? What if– and mind you, this isn’t random speculation– this is in the broader context of the mind-numbing potential power to which I am referring– what if LIFE (both biological and silicon-based) is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, forces defining the form that the multiverse takes?

That could very well include universes designed and created for a particular purpose (or something not completely unlike “purpose”) by intelligent entities. The particular (unexpected and rather surprising) delicately balanced configuration of natural laws in our own universe, which seems unexpectedly predisposed towards allowing for the evolution of life– could, in principle, be explained by such forces.

There is, to be sure, some speculation embedded in the above. But the mind-numbing potential power of technology, which seems to vastly exceed all other known forces in potential, isn’t speculation. That’s concrete, and unavoidable. Is there anything that we know of in the universe/multiverse at the moment that could conceivably compete with a technology 500, 000 years more advanced than our own? If not, wouldn’t that imply a possibility that entire universes might be purposefully and intentionally designed and created for a purpose?

Note, what I’m eluding to here is the empirical potential POWER of applied science, relative to the potential power of other, puny, natural forces like supernova explosions. That’s the empirical reality to which I’m referring. Not blind speculation– but that potential power, and how much greater it is than any other natural power we know of.

My Question: What do you think about the possibility, implied above, that we might live in a universe– or rather a multiverse– in which universes are created intentionally for a particular purpose or in a search for existential meaning? And, do you appreciate the EMPIRICAL reality of this paradigm? The EMPIRICAL foundational reality that inspires the speculation?

Answer by SmartLX:
Yes, there is a possibility that we are in a universe that was created for a purpose. Not really with you on the rest of this.

I’m a huge sci-fi fan, but the power of technology in science fiction is speculation by definition and very little about it is empirical. There are any number of potential roadblocks to the mind-boggling progress you describe. The seemingly most likely two are:
1. Some of the critical technologies common to futuristic stories, like faster-than-light travel, may simply be impossible to make practical according to the laws of physics.
2. Due to social and psychological factors, a civilisation may be incapable of maintaining a discipline of scientific advancement long enough (or even surviving long enough) to reach speculated levels. We may be fated to destroy ourselves with present-day technology, or to repeat a cycle of dark ages and renaissances.

Even if life and technology are as unthinkably powerful as sci-fi makes them look, just the possibility of creating a universe does not mean every universe is created. Life may have to evolve and develop technology at least once in a natural universe, and this may be it. Or there may only be one universe, or all universes exist concurrently, so that there was no “before” for a creator to exist in. Or the universe may not have begun to exist at all, if the Big Bang was merely a transitional event.

The more you imagine, just as sci-fi authors do, the more possible explanations you come up with, and the less likely any given scenario seems with the sole supporting argument that it seems plausible.

Comprehending Nothing Without God

Question from Topher:
First time asking here, so I have a lot of questions, and I apologize in advance…

[snip – SmartLX]


Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve moved your questions into my section for easy reading, without editing them. The answers will be the quick-and-dirty ones because we’ve covered them many times before. Search the site for keywords like “origins” for a lot more material.

How often do atheists doubt that God doesn’t exist?
Depends entirely on the atheist. Some never do, some occasionally do, some actively wish a particular God existed but can’t bring themselves to believe. I am fairly confident that there are no gods based on the conspicuous lack of good evidence, but I recognise it’s not intellectually defensible to be certain.

Do atheists believe nothing is self-existing?
Depends on the atheist but none of us have experienced true nothing, we’ve always been surrounded by something. It’s very hard to speculate on the nature of nothing when it’s never been observed.

If nothing is self-existing, why is there something?
If there was once nothing and now there’s something, it’s because “nothing” was unstable. Matter and antimatter can emerge from a space where neither previously existed, balancing each other out by keeping the net matter/energy at zero. That’s the best hypothesis so far, if a something-from-nothing scenario is considered.

Doesn’t anything require something?
Not based on the above phenomenon. Apart from that though, we are in no position to say what is required to create matter and energy because everything we see consists of matter and energy that has existed since the Big Bang, merely converting from one form to another over time. Perhaps it has been like that forever, even before the Big Bang.

At the very least the natural laws are self-existent, right?
We have no idea what they are contingent upon, if anything. If there are multiple universes the natural laws for each might be completely different. Every universal value we think of as constant might suddenly vary by 50% next week, for reasons we wouldn’t have time to discern before we were destroyed by the resulting cosmic upheaval.

If there was no time or space pre- Big Bang, how or why were there natural laws if there were?
Continuing the thought just above, perhaps there weren’t, and what you think of as natural laws are dependent entirely on (or emergent from) the presence of time, space, energy and matter.

Scripture gives you simple answers to questions like these, or at least gives you the confidence to assert certain answers. You have no assurance that your answers are correct except the insistences of the text itself and your fellow believers, so while you do not need to consider them further you are merely rolling their uncertainty into the all-encompassing assertion that God took care of everything. Atheists simply admit they don’t know, and are content from day to day with not knowing because as long as we don’t believe in creator gods the only alternative for us is self-deception.

0 = 1 + -1

Question from Herman:
For so long I have tried to understand the atheistic theory of the creation of “everything”.
I get the answer that before the big bang there was this waves/energy/*something about density I am too much of a aesthete to understand * or that there is negative matter so that it is really zero matter, but there still is something here right? I guess my question is the ultimate “what happened before that”.

My thinking goes thus:
Energy can’t be created, just altered. Therefore either we believe in eternity and something that has existed without ever being created. Or something outside of the laws of physics must have started it, that in turn must be able to create itself.

Help me understand!
Best regards and holiday greetings!
The Deist from Sweden

Answer by SmartLX:
Holiday greetings to you too Herman.

The idea of the “negative matter” is antimatter, which has been observed and even generated and “captured” in labs. It really is the negative of matter; when it comes into contact with matter the two annihilate one another. If there is as much antimatter as there is matter in the universe then it all comes to zero in a very real sense; it just hasn’t recombined to level out, so there are local positives and local negatives.

Regarding the origin of this system, the answer to the question, “Why did something come from nothing?” in this context is, “because ‘nothing’ is unstable.” Quantum fluctuations can apparently cause matter and antimatter to spontaneously emerge or erupt from an area of zero matter, which violates no laws because the total matter is still zero. This is what has been caused in labs on a very small scale to produce detectable antimatter. This on a large scale can produce a universe’s worth of matter, and if it happens quickly then there’s your Big Bang.

This is of course one theory of many. Another is that, as you say, matter has always existed in some form without ever needing to be created. As for something outside the laws of physics, that’s another possibility but it may only be outside our laws of physics, e.g. another “progenitor” universe in a larger multiverse with its own separate physics (and possibly in an infinite series).

I’ve written a lot about this over the years; search the site for the keyword “origins” to find most of it.

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.

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.

The Beginning Ain’t the Be-All and End-All

Question from John:
Universe had a beginning, “proved” by second law of thermodynamics.
Dear Sir, I understand that an argument used by creationists, in favour of a Universe that had a beginning, is that the second law of thermodynamics requires that it will inevitably wind down. In essence, the claim is that the universe can not have been infinite into the past as it would have inevitably already run down. The fact of a purported finite amount of usable energy therefore implies that the universe MUST have had a beginning or else we would not be here now to discuss this. Is there a scientific rebuttal to this claim please?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are two principal possibilities which address the idea of an infinite universe having run down by now, both of which are centered around the concept of renewal.

1. The universe periodically contracts in a Big Crunch before a new Big Bang. This drags together not only all the matter in the universe but all the space and time as well. All the unusable energy lost to the edges of the universe is brought back to the singularity and can be useful once again.
2. The matter and energy in the hypothetical (but currently quite likely-looking) multiverse is infinite. When one universe runs down, countless others are still going and more universes spontaneously start up all the time. No laws of physics are broken by this sudden emergence if the amount of anti-matter that emerges is equal to the amount of matter, because matter and energy are conserved in an equation akin to 0 = 1 + -1.

Creationists often think, as they are told to by people like William Lane Craig, that once they establish that the universe had a beginning the argument is basically sewn up. Even if the above two possibilities are dismissed and you take it as read that the universe began, that it was begun by a god can only ever be an argument from ignorance. Without knowing how it happened, you can’t just assert it was one particular thing without eliminating all other possibilities, even the ones people haven’t thought of yet. The potential for spontaneous emergence from the “quantum foam” suggested by quantum mechanics, for one, ensures for the moment that well-formulated alternatives are out there, and you don’t even have to appeal to the un-thought-of.

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.

The Universe and Everything

Question from Bryson:
So based on scientific evidence the universe at one time began to exist right? Explained by What we call the big bang theory. Another law is whatever begins to exist has a cause right? As in there’s something that begins to exist, there’s a cause for it, it existing being the effect. So if a universe existed, logically there’s a cause. Since the universe hasn’t existed yet, there’s no time/space/energy. Which leads to the conclusion that the cause of this “big bang” has to be something outside the laws of time/space/matter.

Well since only two things fall under this category, one would be a divine entity, the other an abstract object like the number 1 or something. My question is how would something abstract be a cause? I know Stephen Hawking said something along the lines of because of the laws of the gravity, there is no need for a creator because that proves the universe will create itself from nothing. But, of course, after thinking about it, if the universe hasn’t existed yet, that would mean the laws don’t exist yet. Plus, while the laws of gravity are describe gravity, it has no creative power. If put 1 dollar in the bank, and then next week 2 dollars, I can logically and mathematically explain why I now have $3. But, if I put 1 dollar in the bank and depend on mathematics to increase it, I would never have more than $1.

I know some people have even talked about something to do with a multiverse, but of course that doesn’t disprove god either because logically with a being capable of creating one universe, why would he not be able to create more if it wished.

Answer by SmartLX:
The good old cosmological argument. This argument falls at the first hurdle, but drags on and knocks over all the others regardless.

– No, scientific evidence has not established that the universe began to exist. It has established that it was once concentrated at or near a single point, then expanded outwards. The evidence says nothing about whether the matter and energy in that point was created at that instant or it got there from somewhere else.

– There are two modern perspectives on matter and energy. According to the classical laws of conservation, they may be converted into each other but they are never created or destroyed. Since they exist now, this would imply that they have always existed and didn’t need a creator. On the other hand, according to quantum mechanics matter can emerge spontaneously in certain circumstances as long as the same amount of antimatter does too, because the total amount of positive energy stays the same. Again no creator is needed, so neither way supports the supposed necessity of a creator.

– If the Big Bang was caused by something outside of our universe’s space and time, it doesn’t make the cause timeless or spaceless. It might be a natural entity with its own spacetime and energy, say, another universe.

– We have never unambiguously observed a divine entity, so it is pure assertion to say it can exist outside of space and time. We have only observed the “abstract” (mathematics, logic, etc.) within the confines of a physical universe as it affects the objects in that universe, so we don’t know whether the abstract can exist without the material either. Regardless, you pose a false dilemma because there is at least a third choice: an object in a different system of spacetime. And the whole thing is moot until the necessity of a cause is established.

– No, the possibility of a multiverse doesn’t disprove the existence of a god, but nothing does. A god is a possibility in a multiverse as well as in a single universe. There’s just no good reason to think it’s real, let alone necessary.