Possibly the most common argument for the existence of God is that it is untenable to maintain that the universe came from nothing. This can come in the form of the Kalam argument, the argument from fine-tuning, and even in this popular but ignorant meme:
The fact that there was a big bang which marked the beginning of our universe and its expansion is practically undeniable. I’ve heard from Christians, at varying levels of understanding just what the big bang is, argue: “Well, can you tell me what happened 10 seconds before the Big Bang?” “What caused it? Something must have caused it!” “You just can’t get something from nothing. You can’t get matter from non-matter. You just can’t. That violates the first law of thermodynamics.”
I used to respond to these arguments by saying, “There was no ’10 seconds before the big bang’ because before there was space, so there was also no time,” and “Well, evidently something did come from nothing at least once. How do we know? Because the universe isn’t eternal, yet here it is!” I knew I wasn’t an expert on physics, but the way I understood it, the big bang was the occurrence of matter expanding from a singularity. That’s really all that I knew. If someone wanted to know just how it happened, I would refer them to Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing, because even if I didn’t know how it worked, at least someone did.
If you look back at some of my book reviews, however, you might notice that I myself have never read A Universe from Nothing. I do own it, but I’ve always found it quite daunting.
(Update 9/7/21: I got rid of that book and never read it. There are other books on the big bang that are not by alleged sexual predators.)
Even with my self-admitted lack of capability to understand physics past Newton’s Laws of Motion, I still do my best to learn about the big bang as well as I can. Recently, for example, I listened to The Here and How Podcast’s episode called “Was The Universe Created From Nothing?” The hosts taught me that we don’t know if there ever was an all-consuming nothing or if there were always particles within a singularity which then expanded into the universe as we know it today. It got into some pretty intense quantum physics, at which point I began to zone out because it was so far past anything I can conceivably understand.
I have come to the conclusion that I will never understand the big bang. I don’t know how it happened, where it came from, if there was a “before the big bang,” which now I know, there could have been, and what kind of quantum weirdness can result in a universe like ours. I suppose this makes me some sort of agnostic. In The God Delusion, though, Dawkins defined two different kinds of agnostics: there is the case in which you don’t have enough information to make up your mind but you probably will one day, and there is the case in which you admit that the truth on a certain matter cannot ever be known by humans.
I believe I’m the first kind of agnostic in respect to what exactly was going on that defining moment 13.7 billion years ago. Being an atheist doesn’t make me a genius or a physicist. And I don’t think that the intricacies of the big bang are something that just anyone can grasp, no matter their beliefs.
So does this leave me with an indefensible position that “there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything”? In a way. But I have to be content with not knowing everything about the origins of the universe. After all, I’m just one person, a designer by trade, and not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. And that accusation against atheism, obviously, is incredibly dumbed down and inaccurate, while at the same time purposely saying the word “nothing” so many times that the reader is totally thrown off and can’t help but see atheism as ludicrous.
Speaking of atheism being ludicrous, I’ll close with a response to the comment that got me started on this entire tirade about the big bang in the first place.
“Just wondering if you could clarify this;
‘Here’s the difference, though, between the “miracle” of the big bang creating a world like ours, and the miracle of, say, a virgin giving birth: if you have a large enough sample size, anything that is possible becomes more and more probable. A big bang resulting in one tiny planet of billions was possible, and given enough time, the chances of this possibility to become reality become infinitely more likely. And with billions of billions of planets, the chance that one could sustain life becomes more likely.’ (This was an excerpt from another post.)
No disrespect, but it makes precisely zero sense. Why is it “possible” that the Big Bang would have happened at all without a miracle? And given the fact that the odds of fine-tuning are vastly lower than the number of available planets, any lottery comparison seems to provide the opposite conclusion — it’s unwinnable by any coherent measurement.
There are a number of other things here that have less than viable logic.”
The commenter brought up the point that got me thinking: “Why is it ‘possible’ that the Big Bang would have happened at all without a miracle?” You know what? If you want me to be honest, I don’t know. I didn’t respond back to this comment because I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to coherently explain what caused the big bang. (Someone else did respond, and they’ve been debating ever since, although I haven’t taken the time to read through the whole thread.)
Here’s the thing: me not being a physicist doesn’t mean that the big bang didn’t happen. And it doesn’t mean that it needed supernatural intervention. With the supernatural being on a whole separate plane from the natural, I’m pretty positive that a supernatural being causing the big bang wouldn’t make it any easier to understand. There would still be all this stuff I don’t know about quarks and quantum particles and space and time and atoms and nuclei and galaxies and radiation and who knows what else.
Saying “God did it” doesn’t change any of that, it just inserts an unnecessary placeholder for people who, like me, are too confused to understand quantum physics, but unlike me, are scared to not have an answer so they just slap a god-shaped Band-Aid on it. Those of us who are atheists and not scientists just have to accept that we won’t all understand the big bang ourselves. Of course, we can always ask questions, but just because the answer is too complex for us doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.
37 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Big Bang”
There is a possibility (not necessity) of a non-miracle because the entire argument is based on ignorance. More generically, the question is phrased as, “how is it possible that this thing we really don’t yet understand could not have been a miracle?” Now change it to a statement: “this thing we don’t yet understand could only have been a miracle.”
History is full of “god of the gaps” arguments like this. God is necessary to explain X. Once we have explained X, god is necessary to explain Y. People who follow this path end up believing in a god ever banished to the periphery of knowledge.
With regard to “and then everything magically rearranged itself for no reason whatsoever” (in the box), the meme writer’s ignorance of basic science is in play. Matter is self organizing whether you include life or not. Our planet is roughly a sphere. Why? Because at one point it was in the form of a liquid and surface tension results in liquids forming spherical drops in the absence of other forces. (This can be seen in the ISS when astronauts play with large water “drops” for school children.) While the planet was molten, the materials it was formed from separated themselves according to density. The very dense materials (iron, nickel, uranium, etc.) sank toward the middle (like a rock now sinks through water), while the lighter materials (aluminum, silicon, etc.) rose, floated, formingd a scum on the surface. We now call this scum the earth’s crust.
As the materials cooled (outside inward because the crust insulates the interior) and became solid, crystals formed. You can watch crystals form using nothing more complicated than a magnifying glass. Crystals of astonishing sizes and shapes and colors occur in nature … naturally. (Every museum of natural science has a Hall of Minerals because of the sheer beauty of these crystals (being a major crowd pleaser).) We understand the crystallization process and the forces involved to a very high level.
So, everything did rearrange itself, but it wasn’t magical and it wasn’t for no reason (no physical reason). We haven’t figured out the details of how self-replicating molecules formed themselves first (in order for evolution to work) and some even think that such molecules came to us on meters/comets from outside, but even if that is true, it just shifts the question to a different locale–how did self-replicating molecules form there and get transported here?
I have no doubt we will answer these questions. There are many more questions than there are people to answer them, so having a question like this one, one that sticks in people’s minds, is almost a guarantee of the level of attention needed to find an answer.
People love to criticize Evolution and the Big Bang saying things like “how can this all happen by chance”? For the most part, it isn’t random, while there certainly might be a component of randomness in there. Plus saying that ‘something came from nothing’ obviously isn’t the same as saying ‘something came from a progression of similar things before it, shaped by their environment’. Ironically, many Christians believe God just created everything instantly from nothing, like that is easier to believe in then Evolution or the Big Bang.
More on topic I guess, I have always found crystals to be fascinating from since I was a kid. Same with water droplets when you view them in super slow motion. Stuff like this should really blow the Watchmaker analogy to bits.
Why is it that before I admitted atheism, I was asked no questions; but after such admission must explain the origin of the universe? I can be wrong about many things. The world is fine with that. But if I do not believe in some god, I suddenly must be one and have all the answers? The only thing I remain convinced of is that there are no gods and I’m good with that.
Because everyone is allowed to question atheists but no one must dare question the follower of an almighty god who doesn’t like being tested (sarcastic voice).
Remember, faith is due to the lack of evidence for things not seen or understood, not the other way around (as they say) To be effective in your defense, stick with what you do know. I can’t be certain of all these things, but my experience tells me this…this is what I do know, and stick to the basics. Convolution of evolution is the apologists friend. Answers are coming. As an example, just last month Einstein’s general theory was witnessed in action and verified by viewing through the wake of galaxies warping space-time, although certain technologies have been using principles of the theory for decades. This took 100 years, and evolution is only getting stronger, not weaker. Principles that have no merit die out and get replaced. Not so fast to discredit evolution when all they really know is the basics that get eye rolls and discredited in Sunday school classes.
I myself see no conflict between science and religion. If a god really did create the physical world, why would that god’s existence be “threatened” by any aspect of their creation?
On a related note: The person who came up with the theory that would eventually become “the Big Bang” was a Catholic priest: Georges Lemaitre.
To expand on my earlier comment:
As I pointed out in a comment thread on a previous post of yours earlier this week, when it comes to belief and non-belief, there comes a point where one must humble themselves.
I used the example of the Flat Earth Movement: Despite the evidence for a spherical world — pictures taken from outer space, audio and video recordings by astronauts and NASA, and architecture that has to compensate for the curvature of Earth, to name just three — people are unwilling to part with their belief in a flat Earth. The reason for this, I believe, is pride. How else to explain a person disregarding evidence that they are wrong?
I bring up the Flat Earth Movement because, in your continuing search for truth, evidence will only take you so far.
This is not to equate being an atheist with believing in a flat Earth. And I am not saying that your atheism is a result of pride. What I am saying is: In order to find the truth you seek you must, to quote “I, Robot” (2004), “Ask the right questions.” You must look inside yourself, confronting the aspects of yourself that cause you to draw back in disgust, anger, fear, etc.
A quote from a previous post of yours comes to mind. To paraphrase: “The God of the Bible is an absolute tyrant, and if he’s the standard for what is good and true, than we are doomed.”
With such a view of God, I believe all the evidence in the world will only take you so far. After all: Why accept the existence of a god that you have no intent of allowing into your life? If you have no intent of allowing a god to play a part in your life, does it matter if that god can be proven to exist?
You don’t strike me as a prideful person. That’s one aspect of you that I appreciate: Your humility. To quote the latest example of that virtue:
“…I’m pretty positive that a supernatural being causing the big bang wouldn’t make it any easier to understand. There would still be all this stuff I don’t know about quarks and quantum particles and space and time and atoms and nuclei and galaxies and radiation and who knows what else.”
Keep walking with humility, and you will what it is that you seek.
I don’t necessarily disagree with your philosophy in that science and religion need not be in conflict, but I think it’s difficult to say that religion or theism uses the same thought process to derive truth. It is also true, that historically, churches were largely the places where you could get an education and had books, so certainly we expect a lot of scientific progress to be made by people who at least had to call themselves religious. But certainly the Big Bang doesn’t contradict the idea of a God, but it doesn’t do much for the Christian God, especially those who would like at least some literal interpretation of Genesis. The Big Bang Theory defines God in a different way than Christianity tends to describe today. Christians want to believe that God has a more active role in the goings on of the universe, but if God is relegated to some being that just tuned the dial for various constants and defined some physical laws and then just hit “Enter” to run the whole simulation then this is problematic for much of Christian theology.
It’s also true that while religion and science need not be in conflict, it doesn’t change the fact that religion can be entirely fictional. If we are emotional beings in an indifferent universe, than religion is simply a reflection of who we are as humans, but don’t necessarily represent some truth with a capital T of how the universe works, but only give us some insight into how we work. That in itself is valuable, but certainly doesn’t imply that the details of the story that any religion tells actually happened.
“…I think it’s difficult to say that religion or theism uses the same thought process to derive truth.”
One way to look at it is: You wouldn’t read a poem in the same way that you would read an autobiography, but both still contain truths about the human condition.
“But certainly the Big Bang doesn’t contradict the idea of a God, but it doesn’t do much for the Christian God, especially those who would like at least some literal interpretation of Genesis.”
The different books of the Bible should be read accordingly.
The Bible has been described as a book but, to me, a more accurate description would be: The Bible is a library.
“…if God is relegated to some being that just tuned the dial for various constants and defined some physical laws and then just hit ‘Enter’ to run the whole simulation then this is problematic for much of Christian theology.”
I don’t see how.
“It’s also true that while religion and science need not be in conflict, it doesn’t change the fact that religion can be entirely fictional.”
I write fiction, and for the purpose of more than one story, have made up a religion.
“If we are emotional beings in an indifferent universe, than religion is simply a reflection of who we are as humans…”
The key word being “If.”
“That in itself is valuable, but certainly doesn’t imply that the details of the story that any religion tells actually happened.”
As I understand it, no-one has suggested the universe came out of nothing – all the matter that is in the universe now was always there, just in a compacted form. And philosophically, to suggest it isn’t possible for the universe to have come about from nothing (or something very small) unaided, but that it’s perfectly feasible for a perfectly formed super-being to have always been there (which would mean that god never had a starting point – try getting your head around that concept!) requires a desire for the story of god to be real as strong as an addict’s craving for heroin).
And the one that now and then ScienceFiction writers bring up: we may not be as large as we think we are, and there is no way of knowing, since we are all we have to compare ourselves too. We could even be the atoms under observation in some science lab (and no I don’t necessarily believe or discount it), but it’s a very disturbling thought…
Ah, fine tuning. The whole scheme is posited on physics – the notion that physics is discovered and holds through a singularity(?!) for instance, rather than the notion that physics is constructed as a reliable explanation for our experiences.
We have no reason to believe the former, except that it may feel convenient, which makes fine tuning bullshit
Unfortunately, for some people, the phrase “because God” will always and ever be the answer to everything. A very sad state of affairs, IMO.
Quantum field theory essentially makes incredibly accurate predictions about physical phenomena by using mathematical models that treat particles as if they exist in a range of possible states at once, rather than a single specific value. This gives rise to the unusual prediction that given infinite time, every possible arrangement of particles will occur, even extremely inprobable low-entropy states like a singularity.
Also, matter did come from non-matter…in the beginning and the end it’s all the same stuff, a bunch of eternal energy…fluctuations in quantum fields. The big question is whether there’s any form of existence outside the one exploding spacetime bubble we inhabit, but currently we have no way to answer it.
There’s all kinds of possibilities for what may have gotten everything started which don’t include a “miracle”. Maybe there’s a higher level multiverse generating new universes. Maybe every time a black hole forms in one universe, it buds off a new universe. Maybe we’re just the latest in a succession of big bangs and big crunches. Maybe there’s a cosmic unicorn that farts universes. Or perhaps, and I think this idea is very interesting, the condition of there being “nothing” is unstable, and always decays into “something”. (We don’t have any way to investigate what happens when you have “nothing” because we don’t have any “nothing” to examine!)
What galls me is the theist attitude of “You don’t have a conclusive answer, therefore my answer is correct.” We can conclude that their answer is wrong, even if we don’t yet know the right one. I may not know why my laptop overheats, but I can be certain the answer isn’t “It has a gremlin living in it”. I may not know what caused the universe to expand initially, but I can be sure the answer isn’t “The war-god of one particular ancient mid-eastern bronze-age tribe of goatherders poofed it into existence.”
What I still don’t understand is how the theist doesn’t realize that he or she is not in a better position
Giving god as the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. Does not answer the question, because
God is something
Unless the theist implies that god is a synonym for nothing I could ask the theist why is there something (god) rather than nothing
Yeah the Big Bang is a somewhat complicated thing which I’ll admit I don’t fully understand either. At school one is often taught a simplified version of it, but I think that often creates a lot of misconceptions too… and a lot of bad memes poking fun at atheists. Some things just can’t be simplified a lot in order do be understood.
Not just the big bang, quantum mechanics and some many other issues in science other areas of life are not quite easy to simplify. Depending on how simple you have to make the topic you could go from saying things that are not entirely correct to things that are blatantly wrong
Well, I’m no cosmologist. As some other commenters have mentioned, the Big Bang is not necessarily a moment of creation, of something from nothing, but of rapid transformation when all matter and energy, space and time was condensed into a small point and then expanded. So the something-from-nothing question can be treated separately from the Big Bang which is more of a something-from-something.
As I understand, the something-from-nothing problem suffers from issues with semantics, like a playground argument between children. Usually when someone says ‘you can’t get something from nothing’, by ‘something’ they mean physical things like matter and energy and by ‘nothing’ they mean non-physical things. However, you can have that – empty space is not empty, matter and anti-matter emerge from ‘nothing’ and are destroyed back into ‘nothing’ and space bubbles with this activity.
Naturally, the response to this is to shift the goalposts and declare that since matter and energy can emerge from spacetime then maybe spacetime is really a ‘something’ too. Fine. But then it turns out that even for an empty universe with no matter, no energy, no space, no time, just the laws of physics, spacetime and hence matter and energy will still emerge as a consequence of the laws. Whatever we think the laws ‘are’, to say they are ‘somethings’ too feels like a big case of shark-jumping.
I don’t think this means the something-from-nothing problem is insoluble, only that to say ‘you can’t get something from nothing’ is not as conclusive as people who espouse it may think it is. My suspicion is that however you define ‘something’ there will always be a ‘nothing’ from whence it emerged. Just like how ‘egg’ will always come before ‘chicken’ because however you define the first ‘chicken’ it will always be something that hatched from an egg laid by something that was not a ‘chicken’. Unless you define ‘chicken’ nonsensically.
By the way, Simon Singh has an excellent book on the Big Bang – very accessible for the non-scientist and a fascinating read. It is less about the technicalities of the Big Bang and more a history of how the theory emerged and became the dominant theory of cosmology, defeating alternatives such as the various incarnations of the steady-state model as the evidence came in.
When ask how something can come from nothing, my response tends to be like this your comment
But like you said, the definition of nothing will get changes. I feel that most people definition of nothing is something like
the state of things in which you can not answer the question I just asked you
Can nothing ever have definition. When many people attempt to define “nothing”, they tend to attach some properties. And if it has properties, it is “something”
—Something cannot come from nothing—. But since we are surrounded by “something”, including that which we call empty space, how can we know what “nothing” is? We are taught that it is the absence of something but I don’t know if I am correct in saying that I do understand that description but that I do not grasp the essence of “nothing”?
So perhaps it is not so absurd to accept that something can come from nothing?
Who says the universe came from nothing.
I believe intuitively that the universe/s exist in a cycle, kind of like life or matter on Earth does. Things change. Sometimes violently but usually slowly. But they never really end or begin.
I tend to agree with you, WJ. The world we know is a good example of the ongoing process of life and death so who’s to say this isn’t the pattern for things that exist on a much larger (to put it mildly) scale?
Exactly. I’m not proposing it’s either a fact or not. But it would make sense. Physics being about patterns and cause and effect, in layman’s terms, as I understand it.
I highly recommend everyone who wants an intelligent theist to read and challenge, rather than a series of vapid strawmen and fundamentalists, listen to this and perhaps buy Feser’s books:
Quite frankly, IMO, he’s just one more theist that’s doing his best to “prove” a god exists. Most non-believers have already “heard it all” so it’s highly doubtful Mr. Feser’s viewpoints are going to have any impact.
Dr. Feser outright states that his latest book presents no new arguments; rather, he is trying to present them in a way that will penetrate the obdurate skills of non-believers who believe that “having heard it all”, they understand it all. My suggestion is only for those who earnestly believe that a human being can come to know what is true. If you don’t believe that… There’s nothing I or anyone can say which will convince you of anything.
for those who earnestly believe that a human being can come to know what is true.
And what is true?
What is falsity?
No … no. Don’t move the goal posts. What is true?
I’m not moving the goal posts. I’m trying to discern if you are asking because you want to know or because you’re playing a sophistical game.
If you think there a) is such a thing as falsity, b) we can know it, and c) have an idea as to what is meant by it, then we can have a discussion about truth. Otherwise I will leave the conversation because it wouldn’t be worth having.
I’m not playing anything. I’m just asking you to explain what you mean by “true” when you say that “a human being can come to know what is true.”
Is it a difficult question for you to answer as it stands? If it is, say so and we’ll go no further.
No, it’s an easy question to answer; though the answer may not be easy for you to understand.
“Truth” is an analogical term. Primarily it signifies the correspondence between a mind and the object of a cognitive relation. Secondarily it signifies the disclosure of what is, the letting-be of a being (a-letheia per Plato and Aristotle, via Heidegger). The first sense of the term is ontologically dependent upon the second but is “primary” because of the specific signification of the term (the relation).
Thanks. I may not have used the same verbiage, but essentially, your definition is what I expected. Appreciate you taking the time.
Really in to the discussions on this blog! People actually having a civil debate rather than Godwins and exclamation marks flying about everywhere. It’s nice. Thanks guys! One of the greatest ways to make myself calm down is trying to understand “nothing”. To really envision it, “see” it if you will. My brain will not allow it. The best it can do is show me black. But black is not nothing, just the absence of colour. At some point my brain gives up, reboots and during the reboot I relax. There is so much we don’t understand about the universe and many theories for the “start” of it are plausible. I put the start in because us humans need for something to have a start. It has to have a start right? We get nervous if we need to imagine something to always have been there (yet are eager to believe that God did just that). Like the Closet Atheist I have made peace with the fact that I will not understand the Big Bang in my life time. I’m OK with that and I don’t need God to fill in all the gaps in my knowledge. I will wait until Neil deGrasse Tyson does that :).
Love your +++…trying to understand “nothing”+++ !
After having looked unseccessfully for an explanation of “nothing” during many years, I have come to the conclusion that I will not find one in my lifetime. Neither do I expect to grasp where we’ve come from and, likewise, where we’re going.
Pessimism? I don’t think so. I just move these questions from my “unanswered” box to the “unanswerable” box, and ask myself: what’s wrong with being comfortable not knowing something? These subjects will remain interesting anyway.
And yes, I share your “faith” in Neil deGrasse Tyson to fill gaps!