Landscape in Carina Nebula [Courtesy NASA] Spires on west facade of La Sagrada Familia cathedral, Barcelona, Spain [Photo by DHB, (c) 2011]

Did the universe have a beginning?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

The "big bang" is a name given to the origin event of our universe, which scientists now date at roughly 13.75 billion years ago. The big bang cosmology originally grew out of Einstein's general theory of relativity, which was published in 1915, which in its original form suggested that the universe would be expanding in all directions. In 1929, Hubble confirmed the expansion of the universe, by showing that the distances to these galaxies were roughly proportional to their outward velocities. This inferred that the entire universe is expanding, and that there must have been a time when the universe was very much more dense than it is today -- a "big bang."

The big bang cosmology theory received substantial confirmation from an important discovery in 1964. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, two radio astronomers in New Jersey, used a large "horn," which had been developed at Bell Laboratories for satellite communication, to make some measurements of radio waves. They found low-level radiation, constant in all directions of the sky, suggesting that it must be coming from the cosmos itself (as opposed to the sun or the Milky Way galaxy). Other scientists recognized that this "noise" was in fact a remnant of the universe itself from 300,000 years after the big bang.

Today, the overall big bang cosmology is very well established empirically. Scientists have mapped the cosmic microwave background with great accuracy and in great detail, and have found undulations in this otherwise constant background that are consistent with imperfections in the uniformity of matter back from the very early universe that could lead to stars, galaxies and us 13.75 billion years later. For additional details on this evidence, see Big bang.

Possible solutions to avoid a creation event

In recent years, physicists and scientists have investigated whether the "creation event" suggested by the big bang can be avoided. As noted physicist Stephen Hawking commented in January 2012, "A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God." [Grossman2012].

The solutions most often sought are to rely on an eternally inflating universe, as suggested by cosmologist Andrei Linde, or to a cyclic universe, in which the universe expands from a big bang out to some maximum, then contracts and eventually recollapses and generates a new big bang. Both of these could continue infinitely in the past and the future, thus eliminating the need for a genesis event that was outside the realm of known physical law.

Eternal inflation is an extension of the "inflationary" theory of MIT physicist Alan Guth. Guth proposes that in the exceedingly early universe (less than 10-30 seconds after the big bang), the universe underwent an incredible explosion in size, increasing by roughly 30 orders of magnitude. This theory explains well why the universe is so uniform today, and why stars and galaxies on the opposite sides of the universe, from our perspective, look the same, even though there has not been enough time for light or any other physical signal to have traveled between them since the big bang event. Eternal inflation suggests that our universe is but one pocket universe of an ever-expanding realm of universes, with countless big bangs.

The cyclic universe theory suggests that the universe has gone through an infinite number of big-bang-expansion-big-crunch cycles, with no need for an actual beginning.

However, both of these theories have significant difficulties. In a 2003 analysis of eternal inflation by a team of researchers, including Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin, found that the currently measured value of the Hubble constant (related to the expansion of the universe) is inconsistent with the notion of eternal inflation. But there are problems with the cyclic universe cosmology too, notably the fact that it runs counter to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (see Thermodynamics). In other words, just as in our universe disorder increases with time, then over an infinite number of cycles, our universe should be in a maximal state of disorder -- a featureless and lukewarm structure that certainly could not contain such highly ordered features as stars, galaxies and human beings.

Several of these scenarios and difficulties are summarized in an excellent January 2012 article from New Scientist [Grossman2012].

Creation events and theology

Such developments are often greeted enthusiastically by theologians and individual religious-minded persons as confirmation of the notion of a transcendent Being overseeing all of creation -- in other words, the notion of God as Creator, as described in Genesis. But there are plenty of reasons to avoid seizing on these developments as a foundation for religious faith. To begin with, there is considerable question as to whether "God of the big bang" truly coincides with the compassionate, weeping God described in Psalms, the Gospel of John, and in other religious works. Is this truly the same being that now inspires countless millions to lead moral, charitable, purposeful lives?

In any event, should one base one's personal sense of values and spirituality on the outcome of some extremely esoteric investigations into the fundamental nature of particles and forces in the universe? Probably not! Also, lessons from the creationism-intelligent design controversy are clear: claims that one can "prove" God via arguments based on apparent design or seemingly inexplicable phenomena in the natural world are likely to disappoint in the long run. And invoking a Creator or Designer every time unexplained phenomena arise is a "thinking stopper," burying the grand questions of science and religion in the inaccessible, inscrutable mind of some transcendent being.

Catholic philosopher John Haught warns of these difficulties in the following terms [Haught1995, pg. 131]:

For even if scientists concluded that some intelligent being had tinkered with the initial conditions and cosmological constants, pointing them in the direction of life and mind, this "being" would still be an abstraction, and not the living God of religion. It would be a great empty plugger of gaps, and not the personal God of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad. The [strong anthropic principle] is no more capable of confirming or deepening our religious life than are the old arguments of God's existence. The realms of science and religion are radically distinct. Once again, then, in the interest of maintaining the integrity of both religion and science, we refuse to derive any theological consequences or religious comfort from this spuriously popular "scientific" theory.

For additional discussion, see Big bang theology.

References

[See Bibliography].