Saturday, April 27, 2019

Was the Big Bang Really the Beginning?

The headline declared "The Big Bang Wasn't the Beginning, After All" and in the accompanying article astrophysicist Ethan Siegel made the definitive statement that "the Big Bang is not the beginning of the Universe!" That seems to settle the question once and for all, and to put all of us theists in our place. That declaration should shut the mouths of theists who keep insisting that the big bang is the beginning of the universe and that the origin of the universe requires some kind of transcendent cause, a cause that looks a lot like the traditional view of God. It appears that the headline and the decisive pronouncement by Dr. Siegal has made the argument for God from the origin of the universe null and void. That is, unless you actually read and understand the article itself.

I recommend you do read the article. It is a very nice synopsis of the historical development of our current understanding about the origin of the universe. In the article, Dr. Siegal describes the observation that space itself is expanding and cooling, leading to the conclusion that the universe was once much more dense and hot in the past. He recounts the "breathtaking confirmation" of the big bang made in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Bob Wilson, who discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the residual heat from the hot big bang. He steps us back through time as the universe becomes hotter and denser and we encounter three milestone events, a time when it was so hot that neutrons and protons could not form nuclei, a time when matter and antimatter could spontaneously form from energy, and a time when a quark-gluon plasma existed with no individual protons or neutrons. He affirms that all of these events have been confirmed to be true in that we've observed the physics that explains these events in the laboratory, and made observations that remarkably match theoretical predictions.

He also specifies a fourth event even farther back in time, a point where the density and temperature of the universe become infinite, a single point or singularity which is the moment of the origin of the universe. He initially calls this moment of creation "the Big Bang" and notes that this simple model has three problems, the same three problems I described in this blog post that discussed The Horizon Problem, the Flatness Problem, and the Monopole Problem. Dr. Siegel then explains how the proposed idea of cosmic inflation solves the three problems (which is the favorite solution of most scientists and also described in the blog post I wrote.) Inflation is a period of time when the universe experienced exponential growth, during which all the energy of the universe was bound into the fabric of space itself. Dr. Siegel then states, "when this phase of the Universe — this period of inflation — came to an end, that energy would get converted into matter-and-radiation, creating the hot, dense state synonymous with the Big Bang."

Dr. Siegel is an engaging writer and his brief article is an excellent summary of what we know about the origin of the universe. I actually agree with his entire article, except the headline. And that is because in the last sentence I quoted Dr. Siegel has engaged in a beautiful "bait and switch" tactic. Before describing the inflationary proposal, Dr. Siegel defined the big bang as the moment of the origin of the universe, the singularity. After he describes inflation, he changes his definition of "the Big Bang" to the moment right after inflation ends. For those of you who read my blog on a regular basis, you already know that scientists use the phrase "the big bang" in two different ways, usually without even defining what they mean. The can use it to mean (1) the moment of the origin of the universe, or (2) the moment when we have observational understanding of the physical laws that govern the universe, somewhere shortly after inflation ended, before a trillionth of a second after the "origin." In a previous blog post I wrote:

"Some scientists refer to the Big Bang only from the moment of time that we actually have a good idea of what happened in the universe.  That could be some time from about 10-35 to 10-12 seconds after the "origin" of the universe.  With this definition, there is little controversy about the events surrounding the Big Bang.  Other scientists, however, use the term to mean the actual moment the universe came into existence, what is sometimes referred to as a 'singularity.'"

The article by Dr. Siegel is the first article I can recall reading where the author actually changes his definition of the big bang halfway through the article from (1) to (2). With his new definition of the big bang, Dr. Siegel then proclaims, "The hot Big Bang definitely happened, but doesn't extend to go all the way back to an arbitrarily hot and dense state." So what happened before inflation? Was there an actual beginning? Dr. Siegel correctly states, "What happened prior to inflation — or whether inflation was eternal to the past — is still an open question, but one thing is for certain: the Big Bang is not the beginning of the Universe!" This is a tautology. By defining the big bang as some time after inflation then the big bang is certainly not the beginning of the universe. Thus, it is easy to proclaim in a provocative headline that "The Big Bang Wasn't the Beginning, After All" because by his definition the "big bang" was the time when the universe was very hot and dense, which we know occurred after inflation, and we don't know whether or not it also occurred before inflation. (It should be noted that inflation itself hasn't been proven and there are many models of inflation, but most scientists do think some form of inflation occurred since inflation seems to be the best solution to the three problems listed above.)

Although Dr. Siegel's definition of the big bang doesn't allow the "Big Bang" to be the origin of the universe, he readily admits that we do not know what happened before inflation. This is the same "atheism of the gaps" I have discussed in previous posts such as here, appealing to unknown physics to try to avoid the plain conclusions from the data that appear to be theistic. All the observational data we have extrapolates to less than a trillionth of a second after our universe started to expand and indicates the universe seemed to have an an actual beginning. All theoretical calculations indicate the universe had a real beginning as discussed here for instance. Everything measured, observed, and calculated that has been confirmed points to a definite beginning. You can call it the big bang or whatever you want, but the data leads to a beginning. Of course, we don't know beyond any doubt what happened at the beginning or what caused the beginning. We do know beyond any doubt that everything is consistent with the biblical record that proclaims this universe had a beginning and that all the scientific evidence is in accord with the predictions based on the Bible. As Arno Penzias, the Nobel prize winning physicist who actually discovered the Cosmic Background Radiation, stated, "“The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole."The data points to a real beginning. You can call it the big bang, or call it creation. It doesn't really matter. Science has discovered exactly what theologians have been proclaiming as truth for millennia: a beginning of our universe.

1Browne, Malcolm. "Clues to the Universe's Origin Expected." New York Times, Mar. 12, 1978, p. 1, col. 54.


  1. Excellent piece, Michael. You explained it in a way that those of us who are non-physicists can understand. I would be interested in knowing whether Siegel has seen your analysis and how he would respond to the bait and switch/tautology accusation. The tone of your article is reasonable and even handed, so I would hope he would respond in kind. Keep up the good work.
    Bob Davis, pastor Cantwell (AK) Bible Church

  2. Since I may not be around in 2035, the theoretical date when enough signalling data, etc. has been gathered to whether the current inflation theory can be falsified by experiment and the alternate "bouncing primordial universe" theory gains ground, can you share any opinion on the necessity of falsification as a valid and necessary aspect of the scientific method.

  3. Thank you! So from your view would you be in favor of the big bang or no?

    1. Yes, the big bang seems to be the method that God used to create our universe. It clearly points to a transcendent cause of the universe in agreement with the characteristics of God as described in the Bible. It is also consistent with the story of creation found in the Bible including in Genesis.

  4. Hi Dr. Strauss,
    I am wondering what you think of the response to the cosmological argument that is made by appealing to the B-theory of time. Basically, the idea is that the view of time forced upon us by special and general relativity is one where all moments in time are on equal ontological footing, therefore the beginning of the universe is not really a moment of creation, but just a "front edge" of a tenseness 4 dimensional block universe. To quote William Lane Craig, "From start to finish, the kalam cosmological argument predicated upon the A-Theory of time. On a B-Theory of time, the universe does not in fact come into being or become actual at the Big Bang; it just exists tenselessly as a four-dimensional space-time block that is finitely extended in the earlier than direction. If time is tenseless, then the universe never really comes into being, and therefore, the quest for a cause of its coming into being is misconceived." As a physicist, do you think that there is any way to avoid the b-theory without being in contradiction with the known physics? This seems to be one of the most common responses to the argument and also was brought up by Sean Carroll in his debate with Dr. Craig. Thanks as always for your time and blogging.

    1. I haven't studied the B every of time too much. I'll take a look at it and maybe write a blog post about it. But all of the theories that try to explain the low entropy of the universe do not allow it to exist tenselessly very long back in time. So that doesn't really work. Hibernating cosmologies are problematic since they require infinite fine tuning in the past to explain the low entropy of the early universe. In addition, most hibernating models are unstable so they can't exist in a "limbo" state very long, and thus don't solve any of the origin problems.