What Came Before The Big Bang?

There’s an interesting article about What Came Before The Big Bang? written by physicist and astrobiologist Paul Davies. I believe as an agnostic that we don’t have the final answer to this question. This article tackles the question of a first origin and if the concept of a first origin is valid. Science works to prove an answer and honestly weighs in as undecided where religion claims a supernatural answer. This is what Paul Davies opens with:

Can science explain how the universe began? Even suggestions to that effect have provoked an angry and passionate response from many quarters. Religious people tend to see the claim as a move to finally abolish God the Creator. Atheists are equally alarmed, because the notion of the universe coming into being from nothing looks suspiciously like the creation, ex nihilo, of Christianity.

Personally, it makes the most sense for me to believe that matter and energy is eternal. This possibility is touched on later but here’s Paul Davies’ explanation for why an eternal universe is problematic based on what we know of inside this universe.

The first point to address is why anyone believes the universe began at a finite moment in time. How do we know that it hasn’t simply been around for ever? Most cosmologists reject this alternative because of the severe problem of the second law of thermodynamics. Applied to the universe as a whole, this law states that the cosmos is on a one-way slide toward a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. Irreversible changes, such as the gradual consumption of fuel by the sun and stars, ensure that the universe must eventually “run down” and exhaust its supplies of useful energy. It follows that the universe cannot have been drawing on this finite stock of useful energy for all eternity.

It goes on to explain the Big Bang to reach this main point:

The key feature of the theory of relativity is that space and time are part of the physical universe, and not merely an unexplained background arena in which the universe happens. Hence the origin of the physical universe must involve the origin of space and time too…
Once this idea is accepted, it is immediately obvious that the question “What happened before the big bang?” is meaningless. There was no such epoch as “before the big bang,” because time began with the big bang. Unfortunately, the question is often answered with the bald statement “There was nothing before the big bang,” and this has caused yet more misunderstandings. Many people interpret “nothing” in this context to mean empty space, but as I have been at pains to point out, space simply did not exist prior to the big bang… …It is not merely physically, but also logically, non-existent. So too with the epoch before the big bang.

The article hits the real meat of the matter for the lack of a first cause with the big bang. It does make some sense but is ultimately dissatisfying compared to the mystery of existence and the ability for anything to exist at all coming from a nothing void.

In my experience, people get very upset when told this. They think they have been tricked, verbally or logically. They suspect that scientists can’t explain the ultimate origin of the universe and are resorting to obscure and dubious concepts like the origin of time merely to befuddle their detractors. The mindset behind such outraged objection is understandable: our brains are hardwired for us to think in terms of cause and effect. Because normal physical causation takes place within time, with effect following cause, there is a natural tendency to envisage a chain of causation stretching back in time, either without any beginning, or else terminating in a metaphysical First Cause, or Uncaused Cause, or Prime Mover. But cosmologists now invite us to contemplate the origin of the universe as having no prior cause in the normal sense, not because it has an abnormal or supernatural prior cause, but because there is simply no prior epoch in which a preceding causative agency — natural or supernatural — can operate.

Nevertheless, cosmologists have not explained the origin of the universe by the simple expedient of abolishing any preceding epoch. After all, why should time and space have suddenly “switched on”? One line of reasoning is that this spontaneous origination of time and space is a natural consequence of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that applies to atoms and subatomic particles, and it is characterized by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, according to which sudden and unpredictable fluctuations occur in all observable quantities. Quantum fluctuations are not caused by anything — they are genuinely spontaneous and intrinsic to nature at its deepest level…

…one may say quite generally that once space and time are made subject to quantum principles, the possibility immediately arises of space and time “switching on,” or popping into existence, without the need for prior causation, entirely in accordance with the laws of quantum physics.

My instinct and my belief in agnosticism tells me that humans are most likely wrong when they develop a final answer regarding the true nature and origin of existence. I just don’t believe we’re advanced enough to truly understand such things and relate to whatever ultimate truth may exist. Here’s where the article hits on a possibility that resonates with me:

If a big bang is permitted by the laws of physics to happen once, such an event should be able to happen more than once. In recent years a growing posse of cosmologists has proposed models of the universe involving many big bangs, perhaps even an infinite number of them. In the model known as eternal inflation there is no ultimate origin of the entire system, although individual “pocket universes” within the total assemblage still have a distinct origin. The region we have been calling “the universe” is viewed as but one “bubble” of space within an infinite system of bubbles…

Life itself could rise out of an infinite system of bubbles as it fights against the tide of entropy. I believe we exist as a happy accident despite the universe. Everything about our hostile and fragile environment screams to me a truth that we are an accident in the infinite explosions of pocket universes. Paul Davies doesn’t dwell on this and goes on to discuss a singular big bang and the various problems surrounding it including the origin for the laws of physics.

In my view it is the job of physics to explain the world based on lawlike principles. Scientists adopt differing attitudes to the metaphysical problem of how to explain the principles themselves. Some simply shrug and say we must just accept the laws as a brute fact. Others suggest that the laws must be what they are from logical necessity. Yet others propose that there exist many worlds, each with differing laws, and that only a small subset of these universes possess the rather special laws needed if life and reflective beings like ourselves are to emerge. Some skeptics rubbish the entire discussion by claiming that the laws of physics have no real existence anyway — they are merely human inventions designed to help us make sense of the physical world. It is hard to see how the origin of the universe could ever be explained with a view like this.

In my experience, almost all physicists who work on fundamental problems accept that the laws of physics have some kind of independent reality. With that view, it is possible to argue that the laws of physics are logically prior to the universe they describe. That is, the laws of physics stand at the base of a rational explanatory chain, in the same way that the axioms of Euclid stand at the base of the logical scheme we call geometry. Of course, one cannot prove that the laws of physics have to be the starting point of an explanatory scheme, but any attempt to explain the world rationally has to have some starting point, and for most scientists the laws of physics seem a very satisfactory one. In the same way, one need not accept Euclid’s axioms as the starting point of geometry; a set of theorems like Pythagoras’s would do equally well. But the purpose of science (and mathematics) is to explain the world in as simple and economic a fashion as possible, and Euclid’s axioms and the laws of physics are attempts to do just that…

…Although as a consequence of Kurt Gödel’s famous incompleteness theorem of logic, one cannot prove a given set of laws, or mathematical axioms, to be the most compact set possible, one can investigate mathematically whether other logically self-consistent sets of laws exist. One can also determine whether there is anything unusual or special about the set that characterizes the observed universe as opposed to other possible universes. Perhaps the observed laws are in some sense an optimal set, producing maximal richness and diversity of physical forms. It may even be that the existence of life or mind relates in some way to this specialness. These are open questions, but I believe they form a more fruitful meeting ground for science and theology than dwelling on the discredited notion of what happened before the big bang.

The article doesn’t end with any answers other than to say we shouldn’t dwell on what happened before the big bang. Religions say this is the only question that matters and they have the answer. Atheists say religious answers are rubbish. As an agnostic, I agree religious answers aren’t the answer and scientifically speaking the jury’s still out.

Given the choice between an uncaused eternal creator and an uncaused eternal existence for matter and energy, I definitely choose the later. A singular big bang that brought forth matter, energy, time, and space with laws to govern them out of nothing makes no sense to me. Claiming an eternal uncaused being or any other uncaused event caused the big bang doesn’t solve anything. An infinite system of bubbles popping out pocket universes explains how we could rise out of infinity without a specific intelligent cause.

I would suggest we keep looking as long as religions and science both say “poof, we exist” is the cause of it all. I do have this feeling there is more to it… more out there to understand… but I’m fairly certain Christian/Muslim/Hindu/etc. gods didn’t do it. They still make much less sense than the big bang if existence did spring from nothing. All I really know is that we don’t know.

3 thoughts on “What Came Before The Big Bang?

  1. Perhaps the knowing is the problem and the not knowing is the only intelligent platform regarding existence. Is it really that important to know anyway? Can we do something about it even if we did know? How about making a difference for the human condition right here on planet Earth right now? Who cares about so called afterlife? What are we going to do with this life now? That’s what matters. Your article is very well written and I like the logical platform.

    I am a counselor for co-occurring (addiction/mental health) disorders and am currently crusading (pardon the pun) for secular treatment. I have seen so many people trying to stay sober and so many people suffering mental illness on medication, get sidetracked with “being born” again, getting off their medication, and giving up on themselves and picking up that Christian banner. I have seen the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) get attacked and wrecked by spiteful Christian bigotry and want no part of hurting anyone.

    I am an agonistic. I embrace everyone and my treatment is open to all of faith, without faith, LGBT, straight, male, female, transgender, any race, everything! I wrote a book “30 Days to Keep You Sober” for my clients to have something to help them stay sober until they find further treatment leaving jail, rehab, prison, whatever the situation. This is a support tool WITHOUT RELIGION. I champion everyone’s right to believe or disbelieve as long as they are not hurting anyone.

    I find it hilarious that when I was building my book author page on Facebook whenever I typed in humanist, secular, agnostic it automatically labeled it “religion,” the very thing that I avoid. Well, we must all live the life we choose, say the things we mean, and help the human condition by sharing knowledge and dampening superstition. This site certainly delivers a thought provoking message. I will be returning soon. Sincerely, Julia Jankowski at 30daystokeepyousober.com

  2. Hi Jeff. I liked your article, and as a physicist I thought I could add something to the discussion.

    The article you quote tries to argue that quantum mechanics is what allows time and space to switch on. I don’t think this works. Quantum mechanics does postulate some interesting things about how things happen at the very small scale, but it doesn’t violate conservation laws, or switch time on or off. The strange and counterintuitive findings of quantum mechanics should definitely warn us that we can’t just rely on physical intuitions we build in a macroscopic Newtonian universe, but they really don’t suggest that spacetime would suddenly appear from nothing.

    Ultimately, I don’t understand why people like to say that time, space, or matter began with the big bang. How would we know the difference between a today which came from a big bang with no prior state, and a today which came from a big bang originating from something else?

    Physics is probably the single most successful science of all time. There’s no other field that comes close to predicting as many phenomena, with as much accuracy, as physics does. But when we talk about things this far out, the candlelight starts to get pretty dim. Maybe someday we’ll know what happened at t = 0s, but right now and probably for a long time to come, I will second your instinct that “humans are most likely wrong when they develop a final answer regarding the true nature and origin of existence.”

  3. Very nice article. I also liked one of the comments made afterwards in which the substance abuse counsellor posited the question of whether or not it really is important to know the absolute truth. The older I get the more I’m realizing (or coming to believe) that the quest for absolute truth is nothing more than seeking permission to stop thinking. I don’t mean this in an insulting manner, but when we accept something as true, we stop thinking about whether it is true (and whatever other alternatives may exist).

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