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Like Nothing You’ve Seen Before: Big Bang Errors and God Errors

Filed under Cosmology

Universe 1

NOTE: Today we share a guest post on cosmology from one of our top non-theistic commenters, Paul Rimmer. Tomorrow, we'll post a response from Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Research Director at Oxford University's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion.


First things First

Many articles about God and cosmology begin with ignorance, and this article will be no different. I'm not a cosmologist. My research involves much of the same mathematical formalism cosmologists use, and I have spent five years interacting with some of the worlds leading cosmologists, but I myself do not research cosmology. The purpose of this article is not to examine small technicalities or still controversial results in modern observational or theoretical cosmology, but rather to discuss a large misconception that many theists and non-theists have about the Big Bang.

The misunderstanding centers around Stephen Hawking's bold claim, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” If you think this sounds like Hawking is talking nonsense here, I encourage you to read further. I think what Hawking's saying not only makes sense, it could be correct!

This misunderstanding isn't just my opinion. It's a real and serious conceptual error about Big Bang cosmology and it has wide-reaching implications for the cosmological argument. But don't take my word for it. Don't take anyone's word for it. The Big Bang theory is part of science, and science has no authorities. My goals for this article are unambitious. I hope that by the end of this article, you will be encouraged to learn more about Big Bang cosmology before using it in theological arguments. More importantly, I hope this article gets you interested in learning about cosmology for its own sake.

Touching God's Robe

The error I'll reveal is not new. In fact, it was first identified by the scientist who came up with the Big Bang theory, the Catholic priest Fr. Georges Lemaitre. The more elegant name for his theory, “Theory of the Primordial Atom”, was inspired by his 1931 paper in Nature, which is in some sense the first paper on quantum cosmology. In this paper he gives an elegant description of the cosmological origin of the universe:

“The beginning of the world [may have] happened a little before the beginning of space and time. I think that such a beginning of the world is far enough from the present order of Nature to be not at all repugnant. It may be difficult to follow up the idea in detail as we are not yet able to count the quantum packets in every case. For example, it may be that an atomic nucleus must be counted as a unique quantum, the atomic number acting as a kind of quantum number. If the future development of quantum theory happens to turn in that direction, we could conceive the beginning of the universe in the form of a unique atom, the atomic weight of which is the total mass of the universe.” (Lemaitre, 1931, Nature, 127, 706)

In this paper, Lemaitre also says that space and time themselves are, in the quantum regime, “no more than statistical notions” and “if the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning”, foreshadowing some of the emergent theories in Big Bang cosmology that drive some theists crazy: what Krauss and Hawking refer to as the origin of the universe from “absolutely nothing”.

Sadly, the poetic name “Theory of the Primordial Atom” didn't survive. Thanks to Fred Hoyle, it got the name “Big Bang”. It was a term Hoyle made up during a BBC radio show in order to make fun of Lamaitre's theory, which he found repugnant. The name stuck around and the theory definitely stuck around, in large part because it predicts an afterglow from the first explosion. This afterglow was observed at the predicted frequency, confirming the Big Bang theory.

The Misunderstanding and the Warning

After the Big Bang theory started getting traction, Pope Pius XII referred to Lemaitre's result as a “scientific validation of the Catholic Faith”. You might think that Lemaitre, as a Catholic priest, would be pleased with this interpretation. On the contrary, Lemaitre wrote a gentle letter to the Pope, correcting him on his cosmology. Part of the letter reads:

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being...For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God...It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”(Selection of Lemaitre's letter to the Pope, as taken from Cosmic Horizons: Astronomy at the Cutting Edge, ed. Soter and deGrasse Tyson, 2002)

Why isn't the Big Bang “smoking gun” evidence for God? Because it is not the kind of beginning that theologians need. It's the limit of observability. It is the beginning of our current physics. But nothing about the Big Bang necessitates the sort of beginning that begs for a divine cause. That's why Lamaitre talks about the hidden God. If God did set off the Big Bang, evidence of his first creative act is forever shrouded from our instruments and theories.

New Theories and New Theologies

So where does this leave the cosmological argument?

If your pet argument for God's existence is the Kalam cosmological argument, I'm sorry to inform you that modern cosmology has rendered it pretty-much useless. If I'm able to write a future article for Strange Notions, I'll write about the Hartle-Hawking model, which gives the universe a definite beginning, but requires no outside efficient cause. Ignore the details for now, though. The implications can be clearly seen already from Lemaitre's Nature paper. If space and time themselves are just emergent properties from nature, nature itself can act as a cause outside space and time.

Now, here's some advice for the apologists and evangelists here who want to engage the scientific community: I think it in your best interest to avoid using the Kalam argument. Stick with arguments that don't rely on scientific misunderstandings. The Leibniz's cosmological argument is a good example.

Let me close this article with two thoughts. First, a Catholic priest came up with these revolutionary scientific theories, and did not find his faith challenged. This is strong evidence that the conflict between science and religion can be resolved, and that good scientists can be people of faith. Second, if you disagree with my conclusions here, remember that you are also disagreeing with a Catholic priest. This shows that not even Catholics need to be on the same side of this issue. The Catholic Church can be a place for considerable freedom of thought.
(Image credit: HD Wallpapers IA)

Paul Rimmer

Written by

Paul Rimmer is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St Andrews. He investigates chemical tracers of lightning on exoplanets and what that chemistry might reveal about the origin of life on Earth. He received his BS in Physics from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and his PhD in Physics from The Ohio State University. He is interested in the dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics on the existence and nature of God, and on improving the tone and quality of that dialogue on both sides. Paul is an ex-Catholic.

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