I wrote this in reply to the reader’s question below, but the Daily Telegraph has not published it. The Telegraph Editor is regrettably a god-believer.

WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE THE BIG BANG?

SIR—Glenys Roberts (Daily Telegraph, September 12, 2008) asks, “Surely the really interesting thing is what happened BEFORE the Big Bang?”

The answer derives from a merging of quantum physics and high-energy particle physics with cosmology and astrophysics. Knowledge of advanced theoretical and experimental research is required for a full understanding of the necessary principles. I summarise what follows from a book that I have been writing and is nearly complete.

In the beginning was the void. Time and space were nothingness.

Vic Stenger, physicist, explains how quantum mechanics provides a purely natural mechanism for the transition empty Universe to non-empty Universe.
Physics, in all its powers, resolves that the Universe was instantly self-created, uncaused, from an unstable void or false vacuum—a timeless quantum void—with the property that incipient, virtual particles were omnipresent. It was timeless chaotic emptiness.
For quantum uncertainty is all pervasive, throughout the world and the Universe, even unto the void. In short an unstable void or its alter ego the Universe is all there is to contemplate.

Yet in REAL TIME universes are all there can be.
They are eternally present, forever existing, because their absence would imply an unstable state of the void that cannot exist in time.

Thus, our Universe simply is . . .
. . . . because at least one universe is always necessarily present.
For if not, there would be a void instead—but a void being truly unstable, a universe would instantly replace it. Therefore, a universe–or universes—must be. THEY ALWAYS WERE; AND ALWAYS SHALL BE.

Therefore too, because time cannot exist prior to universes, universes cannot have a first cause. With no first cause, there is no primary origin, no creation. Therefore postulations of the supernatural are superfluous, dispensable and worthless. Theism results from inadequate knowledge of science, and people’s gods exist only in their heads. Atheism is the natural condition of the Universe into which we are all born, and innocently persists until indoctrination into some ‘faith’ is pressured upon, most usually, children.

“The nothingness ‘before’ the creation of the Universe is the most complete void we can imagine. No space, time or matter existed. It is a world without place, without duration or eternity . . .” Heinz Pagels, physicist.

Although, like the stars, the void may not be humanly approachable, its physics is within human reach, because it is entrenched in the theory of cosmological inflation which has abundant empirical evidence supporting it.

Charles Darwin said: ““Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science”. The Descent of Man.

Terence Meaden
Oxford University Department of Continuing Education and Kellogg College

Views: 590

Replies to This Discussion

I believe that this is a reference to the thermodynamic arrow of time.
This may be a good starting point
It depends on the viewpoint you take as to the question of whether we inhabit a 'point particle' universe, a view as described by classical Newtonian physics or a string based view based on current superstring theory where the fundamental 'particles' that make up matter and energy (remember E=mc2) are in fact vibrating strings of energy which, even at the microscopically small still retain an extent.

Without getting too into the math, superstring theory and the uncertainty principle lead to the conclusion that in a big crunch scenario, where all matter (and space time) in the universe are crushed to an infinitely dense singularity under the force of gravitational attraction, (which may be the ultimate fate of our universe), the whole universe cannot be crushed smaller than the so called 'planck length' of one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a metre.

Small indeed, but an absolute limit nevertheless on how small our universe can be crushed in upon itself and NOT a point particle with zero extent.

In this incredible compact singularity, superstring theory predicts that, instead of a vanishingly small 'point' getting smaller, at a size smaller than the planck length the singularity would start to expand again, creating a big bang. This is what the theory says!.

This reasoning has fallen out of superstring theory quite unexpectedly, and opens a whole field of research into the nature of our universe and the reasons for the cosmological constants that scientists have so far measured but not explained. String theory also predicts the necessity of so called extra dimensions, tightly bound up in every location of spacetime. Strangly enough, these extra dimensions, predicted by string theory, are exactly what is required to harmonise the 2 theories of Einstein's general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics since the gravitational force is included in superstring theory from the start.

Needless to add - I dont think 'God did it'.
This is one possibility among many different proposals. Loop quantum gravity is another model that also predicts a 'Big Bounce', but has rather different particulars than string theory does. Once the LHC gets going, we might be able to actually test whether those 'other dimensions' exist or not.
Dear Terence,

It follows then that before the Bing Bag there was a “timeless chaotic emptiness,” “a void so unstable that there could have been a Big Crunch” but as quantum mechanics suggests an incredible explosion immediately followed.

Therefore we can describe it as an Act of Creation.

The Hebrew Bible starts with a majestic cosmological account of the genesis of the universe. The opening sentence in the story begins with a temporal clause, “When God began to create the heaven and the earth” continues with a circumstantial clause telling of the existence of darkness and void (1:2), and then in two main clauses (1:3) relates the first act by which God, by divine fiat create cosmic order out of primeval chaos.

The verb br’ used in the very first sentence of the creation story does not imply, as most traditional commentators believed, creation ex nihilo (the primordial organization of the world), a concept that denotes a divine activity that is effortlessly effected.

There is another biblical definition of Creation as a work in progress. It connotes the continuing order and maintenance of the world (creation continua or continuata).

These two senses of creation are inseparably bound up. The very first moment of the universe also say something significant about how the world is currently ordered and structured.

As Juri Manin wisely notes in Mathematics and Physics, “The image of Plato’s cave seems to me the best metaphor for the structure of modern scientific knowledge: we actually see only the shadows.”

To me the real question is which is the force that always existed and what is our relation with that?
i always thought god was just bored one day and like that cooking guy says ''bam''but it was more like a bang lol i dont know the answer to this one but its a great question.one we may never know.and thats what makes it cool to me.we may try to find the answer for thousands of years and never get it right.but i have watch some things one this question on the tv and i guess the best answer i have listened to is that it really doesnt matter becuse everything before the big bang is irrelevent becuse after the big bang that state in the universe was gone never to be seen again.but then again thats to say there was a big bang.we could have it all wrong ony the future can tell.
I was surprised that, neither in Terence's letter nor in any of the comments so far, no mention has been made of multiverse hypotheses which have enormous bearing on the initial question "WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE THE BIG BANG?"

There are quite a few very different ideas lumped under the "multiverse" label which makes it easy to get confused in discussions of the topic: there's the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics and then there's the "bubble universes" of chaotic inflation theory for example. But to keep this from straying off-track let's just think about the type of multiverse idea popularized by Dr. Martin Rees (the UK's Astronomer Royal) in his books such as:

Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others 1997
Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe 1999
Our Cosmic Habitat 2001

In a nutshell what Dr. Rees (and many other physicists) are suggesting is that our universe is just one of a possibly infinite set of "evolving" universes (the "multiverse"). Our universe was spawned at the Big Bang from a parent universe and our universe may be spawning baby universes (possibly via black holes). Each universe inherits from its parent basic physical laws and constants but the physical constants may, akin to Darwinian evolutionary theory of life, be subject to random mutation and natural selection. Rees's reasoning for this is based on the apparent "fine-tuning" of basic physical constants (the "just six numbers" of the second book I mentioned). By fine-tuning I mean that if any of these constants were numerically just slightly different then our universe would not be possible. Apart from the concept of a watchmaker, an evolutionary-type idea like the multiverse seems the most logical explanation of the fine-tuning.

Both evidence and support for the multiverse has been growing in the last few years - please watch this BBC video (2005) where string theorist Dr. Michio Kaku discusses more recent multiverse ideas in layman terms: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rg3uNrI8tE

I am not sure why Terence would not mention the multiverse ideas in his reply to the Telegraph. To simply imply that the original question is meaningless because space-time had not come into existence is no longer an adequate answer in my view. Of course it is head-scratching, to say the least, to contemplate what time really means in the context of the multiverse - to resolve the notion that time (as part of our universe's space-time) was, like space, non-existent before the big bang, with the idea that events in another universe did in fact "precede" our "time". I would love to hear other learned opinions on that.

Martin.
In recent weeks an Atheist Nexus thread has been running entitled "IS EVERYBODY 100% POSITIVE THERE IS NO GOD?
http://www.atheistnexus.org/forum/topics/is-everybody-100-positive?

I have just summarised there the situation as I see it, and I repeat part of it here from the point of view of a physicist.
For a start, considering only the many gods named and worshipped by humans, then because they were invented by humans, they are 100% fake---and nothing less.

Secondly, despite this, there are quite a few atheists positing 99.9999999+++…%, or something less, in case there is something that they could call a god as being behind the workings of the Universe. Not many atheist scientists take this less-than-100%-cautious-stand but biologist Richard Dawkins is one of them. This is surprising, but it may be because he is not a physicist.

However, my view is that if one admits a possibility that there could have been some sort of ‘creator’ somewhere, then we spiral into the problem of the creator of the creator of the creator and so on to infinity; and this I wholly reject as I have written before. To those who wonder whether, regardless, there was perhaps a creator-god ‘who was always there’, and who might still be there, then I suggest that they would do better instead to say that the Universe has always been there. Hence my 100% position for the total absence of any creator-god. Please note this is not claimed from some position of ‘arrogance’. It is a position that is justifiable by the laws of physics and quantum mechanics which are already well known and have been much tested.

For example, for the origin of the Universe I go along with the analysis of physics professor Vic Stenger which is based on the virtual quantum properties of an unstable void, for which the physics is known and arguably applicable here. The hypothesis is that the Universe was instantly self-created, uncaused, from an unstable void or false vacuum — a timeless quantum void — with the property that incipient, virtual particles were omnipresent. This means that in REAL TIME universes are all there can be. They are eternally present, forever existing, because their absence would imply an unstable state of the void that cannot exist in time. To cut it short, either "a Universe is present" or its alter ego "the unstable void” is present. However, a quantum void, because of its virtual particles and its instability, would immediately get replaced by a Big Bang and a new Universe.

Thus, our Universe IS . . .
. . . . because at least one universe is always necessarily present.

For if not, there would be a void instead — but a void being truly unstable, a universe would instantly replace it. Therefore, a universe —– or universes —– must be, AND ARGUABLY ALWAYS WILL BE.

Therefore, because time cannot exist prior to universes, universes cannot have a first cause. With no first cause, there is no primary origin, no beginning, no creation. Therefore postulations of a supernatural creator are superfluous, dispensable, worthless. Theism results from inadequate knowledge and a lack of application of science; people’s gods exist only inside their heads. Atheism is the natural condition of the Universe into which all animal life including us gets born, and we all innocently persist with our atheism until human-brain indoctrination into some ‘faith’ is pressured by super-gnats [supernatural believers]upon, most usually, innocent helpless children.

Although, like the stars, the proposed quantum void is not humanly approachable, its physics is within human understanding (as are the stars) because it is entrenched in the theory of cosmological inflation [a result of the merging of quantum physics and high-energy particle physics with cosmology and astrophysics] which has abundant empirical evidence supporting it.
What is more, some theoretical physicists working at the frontiers of cosmological research in these topics are suggesting that our universe is just one of a possibly infinite set of "evolving" universes (the "multiverse").

Yes, as a physicist, 100% is my standpoint.

_ _ _ _ _

TAGS “False vacuum”, “virtual particles”, “Vic Stenger”, “Big Bang”, Universe

BIOLOGOS FOUNDATION on Vic Stenger: "His 2007 New York Times bestseller, God: The Failed Hypothesis, is one of the foundational texts of the “new atheist” movement, which seeks to take a harder line against religious beliefs. In the book, Stenger argues that evidence from cosmology, particle physics and quantum mechanics shows there is no basis for belief in the existence of a deity".
Glad to see this - as I've argued before, there is a fundamental problem with the 'probably no god' argument:

'If ‘God’ is defined as ‘a higher power of uncertain character’ (in which case it is only really relevant to an explanation of the origin of the universe), then we can only say that it does not exist to all intents and purposes. If we don’t know (due to a lack of logical and evidential foundation) how such a higher power might be constituted, it serves neither the atheist nor the theist to assume that it exists. It is certainly not preferable to a ‘natural’ explanation, and the specific Gods of human religions (from Christianity and Islam to the Norse and Egyptian deities) are precluded for the reasons already discussed.'
Dear Sigmund
I appreciated being directed via the links to your previous fine arguments that you put on the web.
They are well expressed and deserve a fresh audience.
Why not fully introduce them here--under a new thread if you wish?
The subject, as to whether the origin of the universe is natural or not, needs widespread reviewing.
Either the origin of the Universe has a natural explanation or it has not.

If the origin is natural, physics and mathematics can now, or will eventually, explain it. This leads you and me and other atheists to speak of a 100% conclusion that there is no god.

If the origin is not natural but somehow divine, then what was the origin of the divine designer? Some atheists (even Richard Dawkins) seem to allow for this remote possibility (saying that the 'no god' answer is not 100% certain but is perhaps 99.99999........... % instead) but at this point we encounter the endless circular argument about the origin of any supposed supernatural designer, for which there is no answer. That is why some of us reach the 100% deduction that there is 'no god'; why we think that the chances of the supernatural are 0%.
Terry.
Terence, your comments about "faith" in a reply you made to Jim were very useful. Although, even though I can see your distinction between faith that religions talk about and the kind of trust in the scientific process and thousands of testable and repeatable experiments and findings leading to a reasonable trust in what the experts in these areas say is the case, I think that the word faith is so perjorative that it's not useful to use it even in this different and justifiable sense, especially when talking to those for whom it has the more religious meaning. In my experience, it just confuses them and they say silly things like "Ah-ha! See? You have faith too! Your "science" is just as religious as my religion!". This, of course, is ridiculous, but as most religious arguments end up at some point in the religious person making an appeal to faith, which then needs to be navigated, I find it best not to feed them an "in" to that line of thinking!

Having said that though, your explanation of the difference between religious faith and confidence in the statements of experts on different areas was, as I said, a very useful succinct explanation of the difference, so thankyou, and I feel that, if it's ok with you, I will use your words to explain it to people.

I'm also very glad that such confidence can be had. Although I have a fair understanding of the processes of biological evolution, and a better understanding of how to argue with Christians on a historical, theological and exegetical basis, I have to admit that trying to even wrap my mind around some of the concepts that you talked about in your original post. Although I can see what your saying and that it makes sense, the concepts still do my head in a bit, and I DO have the confidence in the processes and expertise of specialists in the field. That being the case, I can only imagine the difficulty that people who are sceptical of science, and prefer their nice neat theistic explanations have with these concepts. Which of the books that you listed would be good for looking at the issues in an accessible way for the Physics and Cosmology laity, and for trying to explain difficult concepts to people with a religious mindset?

Thanks Terence,

Glen Barton
Glen Barton March 21, 2010 ". . . . your explanation of the difference between religious faith and confidence in the statements of experts on different areas was, as I said, a very useful succinct explanation of the difference, so thankyou, and I feel that, if it's ok with you, I will use your words to explain it to people."

Oh yes Glen, do use whatever you wish regarding my comments [to 'Enlightened Observer', September 2008] contrasting the informed actualities of scientific trust with the unformed nebulosities of religious faith.

Regarding the experience of scientific research, repeatability and trust, I came across this earlier today as I was looking up some matters on the theory of evolution. It is an extract from ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA 1926 EDITION volume 10, pp 35 and 37

Printed 84 years ago, the writer was expressing the scientific rationality that goes with the theory of evolution. Yet here we are, 84 years on, and there are many millions of people worldwide (and that sadly includes the USA) who prefer to believe in the origin stories of illiterate desert-dwelling goat-herders of the Bronze Age/Iron Age Middle East.

“The discovery of a single fossil creature in a geological stratum of a wrong period, the detection of a single anatomical or physiological fact irreconcilable with origin by descent with modification, would have been destructive of the theory and would have made the reputation of the observer. But in the prodigious number of supporting discoveries that would have been made, no single negative factor has appeared, and the evolution from their predecessors of the forms of life existing now or at any other period must be taken as proved.” P.35
Almost every side of zoology has contributed to the theory of evolution, but of special importance are the facts and theories associated with the names of Gregor Mendel, A. Weismann and Hugo de Vries.” P. 37
A number of years ago while debating a theist on evolution, I made the mistake of using the word faith. The numskull I was debating leaped all over it, equating science with religion and that science was just another religion that accepted things on faith.
If the audience had been a more sophisticated one his BS would have been discounted; however, they were high school juniors - not known for their critical thinking skills.
I now never use the word in reference to my convictions but use, instead, "the evidence convinces me of it's validity" or something along those lines. Faith is believing in the truth of something without supporting evidence - I don't do that (with the exception of the malevolent gnome that lives under my chicken coop)

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