When Did It All Begin? Or Did It?

Victor J. Stenger
Reality Check in Skeptical Briefs March 2000

While big bang cosmology might not be quite as solidly established as evolution, it is not far from being so. Yet, it also still has its skeptics. Of course, we should not be surprised to hear doubts about the big bang from the same young-earth creationists who oppose evolution. And we can expect those who had proposed once-viable alternatives, such as Sir Fred Hoyle (who coined the term "big bang"), to cling to their pet theories.

However, I occasionally run into a third group of big bang skeptics. These are atheists who see the big bang as religious propaganda. Perhaps they got that idea from a 1991 book The Big Bang Never Happened (Times Books) by science writer Eric Lerner, which can still be found in the stores. Lerner's critique of the big bang was lame, and I know of no contemporary cosmologist who takes his alternative plasma universe seriously. But Lerner did not limit his discussion to scientific issues. Instead, he also tried to make it appear as if the big bang was some kind of right wing Christian plot (see my review and an independent one by Martin Gardner in Skeptical Inquirer 16, Summer 1992).

No doubt that big bang cosmology has become a major weapon in the theist arsenal. Popes, preachers, theologians, and a few believing scientists have claimed that it confirms the Genesis creation fable. No matter that the biblical creation took six days, and has the sun and stars created after the earth. That can be apologized away (see Skeptical Briefs December 1998, p. 12). And, no matter that most religions have creation myths of their own, which resemble big bang cosmology no more remotely than Genesis.

Let me assure you, cosmologists are not involved in any Vatican-led conspiracy. Like eighty percent of physicists and astronomers, most are non-believers. But, more important, they are all completely committed to letting the observations decide. They know full well that they would be disgraced if they were to allow religion or politics to influence their scientific judgments. Right now, observations strongly support the big bang. But whether they support the notion of a creator is another matter.

The well-known Christian philosopher-debater William Lane Craig argues that the big bang can be used to prove the existence of God. He employs the Islamic Kaläm Cosmological Argument (Barnes & Noble, 1979):

(1) Whatever begins has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Craig gives the following justification for (1): ". . . the first premiss [his spelling] is so intuitively obvious, especially when applied to the universe, that probably no one in his right mind really believes it to be false" (1979, p. 141). I am sure this line goes over big with his debate audiences, which are usually heavily on the pro-God side. However, somehow I do not find it very convincing. His debate opponent might reply: ". . . the first premiss is so intuitively obviously wrong, especially when applied to the universe, that probably no one in his right mind really believes it to be true."

Craig uses the empirical evidence for the big bang to justify the second premise. He also makes an elaborate philosophical and mathematical argument, in essence concluding that an infinite regress into the past cannot occur and so time must necessarily have a beginning. I have heard other Christian debaters employ Craig's reasoning.

The first kaläm premise has been disputed on the basis of the non-causal nature of quantum phenomena. This and other refutations can be found, along with Craig's updated claims and responses, in the 1993 Oxford book he co-authored with philosopher Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology.

Previous responses to Craig, by Smith and others, have not disagreed with premise (2) per se, but questioned whether it even made any sense to talk about a cause before the existence of time. The common assumption, even among atheist philosophers, is that time started at the beginning of the big bang. This is usually the position taken by the atheists who debate Craig and other Christians. I propose an alternative response in which (2) is also disputed.

No absolute point in time exists in the equations of physics. Any point can be arbitrarily labelled t = 0. In fact, the most important law of physics of them all, conservation of energy, demands that there be no distinguishably special moment in time. (In technical terms, energy is the generator of time translation symmetry; when a symmetry is obeyed, its generator is conserved). This is why it so important to theologians that there be a unique t = 0. The existence of such a special point would imply a miracle, the violation of energy conservation, thus leaving room for God. Ironically, Hoyle's steady state universe has all the miracles they need--constant violation of energy conservation.

In modern cosmology, t = 0 is an arbitrary point on the time axis that defines the beginning of the inflationary epoch that most cosmologists today think occurred prior to the current Hubble expansion. At that instant, space is empty except for the zero point energy required by quantum mechanics, stored in the curvature of space. In the de Sitter solution of Einstein's equations for curved, empty space, exponential inflation occurs on the positive side of the t axis and exponential deflation, usually ignored, on the negative side. However, that is just from our point of view. Observers on what we perceive as the negative side would see an exponential inflation away from time zero just as we do, with their "arrow of time," defined as the direction at which entropy increases, opposite to ours. To them, they are on the positive side and we are on the negative side!

And so we have no miraculous "beginning" to time or the universe, and no absolute arrow of time. Try to make a creationist theology out of that.