Common cosmological misconceptions.

todangst's picture

1) Common misconception: Big bang theory is a creation account.

The "big bang" theory is not a 'creation theory', but a description of what occurred at Planck time, and immediately afterwards:

"A common misconception is that the big bang provides a theory of cosmic origins. It doesn't. The big bang is a theory, partly described in the last two chapters, that delineates cosmic evolution from a split second after whatever happened to bring the universe into existence, but it says nothing at all about time zero itself. And since, according to the big bang theory, the bang is supposed to have happened at the beginning, the big bang leaves out the bang. It tells us nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged, or, frankly, whether it ever really banged at all."

- Brian Greene "The Fabric Of The Cosmos."

Big bang theory only tells us about our universe from 'Planck time'. Big bang theory can tell us nothing about the universe prior to this time. (this is what grand unified theories seek to accomplish)

"Before a time classified as a Planck time, 10-43 seconds, all of the four fundamental forces are presumed to have been unified into one force. All matter, energy, space and time are presumed to have exploded outward from the original singularity. Nothing is known of this period (and nothing can be known from this period from the perspective of big bang theory).

A quick point on Big bang and hyperinflation

"The inflationary hypothesis has generated considerable interest in cosmology. It proposes that during a dawning moment of cosmic history the expansion of the universe proceeded much faster than had been thought - indeed at a rate far greater than the velocity of light. For reasons we shall strive to make clear the inflationary hypothesis not only solves several problems that afflicted earlier versions of the big bang theory but indicates that the universe is extremely large and flings open a door onto the startling speculation that our universe originated as a microscopic bubble arising from the space of an earlier universe which may in turn be among many universes strewn like stars across inaccessible infinities of random space and times and sets of natural laws"

- Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang

2) Common misconception: Either the universe was created, or it has always existed.

False dichotomy. There is no reason to hold that there MUST have been a creation point.

A singularity ("something timeless" prior to planck time) does not necessarily speak to ex nihilo creation - and again, big bang theory on its own, at the present, cannot tell us anything about the 'origin' of the singularity or if it has an origin at all.

I think people naturally hold that if the universe 'began' in a singularity, then it follows that it was 'created' or that it was 'caused'. But I think that cosmologists hold that it is an error to conflate the idea of a singularity with all existence being created ex nihilo.

According to Penn State physicist Lee Smolin, there are three possible ways to describe the nature of a singularity, not just one:

* [1] There is still a first moment in time, even when quantum mechanics is taken into consideration.

* [2] The singularity is eliminated by some quantum mechanical effect. As a result, when we run the clock back, the universe does not reach a state of infinite density. Something else happens when the universe reaches some very high density that allows time to continue indefinitely into the past.

* [3] Something new and strange and quantum mechanical happens to time, which is neither possibility 1 or 2. For example, perhaps we reach a state where it is no longer appropriate to think that reality is composed of a series of moments that follow each other in a progression, one after another. In this case there is perhaps no singularity, but it may also not make sense to ask what happened before the universe was extremely dense.

One particular explanation of the third option: The theory of Stephen Hawkings holds that the universe is finite, but boundless, without any "beginning point"

"In his best selling book, A Brief History of Time, Professor Hawking suggests that in order for the "Big Bang" to work, the mathematics requires that the condition of the Universe at the beginning must have been finite and boundless. There must have been no edges, or points of discontinuity. Without this assumption, the laws of physics could not be used to explain the activity and state of affairs in the first moments of the creation of the Universe. By assuming that the Universe was and is finite, yet boundless, physicists are able to avoid the problems created by discontinuities."

In Hawkings "Universe in a Nutshell" he furthers this argument, by hold that a universe that his finite but boundless has no beginning or end point, and no need for a creator. Hawkings himself declared that this point would not possess any 'special' status. It would be akin to any other point in a circle - or more accurately, a globe. Hawkings states rather plainly that his model proposes a boundless, yet finite universe - without any special points in space or time. He covers this in Universe in a Nutshell.

Another third scenario option: Brane Theory

The Myth of the Beginning of Time String theory suggests that the big bang was not the origin of the universe but simply the outcome of a preexisting state By Gabriele Veneziano

More on the theory:

'Brane-Storm' Challenges Part of Big Bang Theory "

The new idea would not replace the Big Bang, which has for more than 50 years dominated cosmologists' thinking over how the universe began and evolved. But instead of a universe springing forth in a violent instant from an infinitely small point of infinite density, the new view argues that our universe was created when two parallel "membranes" collided cataclysmically after evolving slowly in five-dimensional space over an exceedingly long period of time." This collision would provide the original energy. Brane theory holds that there would be no beginning or end to existence.

See also this refutation of Kalam/Cosmological arguments:

3) Common misconception: Ex Nihilo arguments (something out of nothing) are arguments for a magical creation of the universe that violate all the laws of physics.

Theistic ex nihilo arguments are in fact irrational, magical explanations that violate physics.

However, interestingly, there are ex nihilo cosmological arguments that do NOT violate physics.

Deludedgod, on our site, makes the following points:

I once found it difficult to overcome my prejudice against ex nihilo, which clearly violated the iron laws of thermodynamics. However, that all changed one day when I was abruptly reminded by Alan Guth, the founder of the inflationary hypothesis, that the actual matter/energy content may be very low because the false vacuum has negative energy, which cancels out the huge positive total of the energy present in the universe. He pointed out that since matter is interchangeable with energy and vice-versa, the universe could have started out of a quantum tunneling event which broke the singularity, and released a huge tide of positive energy, canceling out the negative energy, albeit not with perfect symmetry, we still see a small excess of energy (symmetry breaking is poorly understood).

Let's cover all the questions that may be brought up:

Where would the matter come from?

"While there would be no matter prior to the big bang, the big bang would release an enormous amount of energy in the form of light, which comes in discrete packets called photons. When photons have enough energy, they can spontaneously decay into a particle and an antiparticle. This is easily observed today, as gamma rays have enough energy to create measurable electron-antielectron pairs (the antielectron is usually called a positron). This would explain the existence of matter." Ok then, where does the energy come from?

As for the source of the original energy? There are several theories:

a) Edward Tryon has put forth the idea of a vacuum fluctation, which is NOT a violation of physical law, as the original source. Alan Guth's Inflationary Model explains the rapid expansion of this energy. Source: The Inflationary Universe by Alan Guth. Tryon makes the point that the total sum of positive and negative energy in the universe may well be ZERO, indicating again, that no physical laws are violated by the big bang event. As Tryon writes: "Im my model, I assume that our present universe did appear out of nowhere 10 to the 10th power years ago. Contrary to the popular belief, such an event need not have violated any of the conventional laws of physics. Source: The Inflationary Universe by Alan Guth. Note: this version is akin to ex nihlio creation, except that it does NOT violate any laws of physics and does not require a 'miracle'.

b) Alex Vilenkin proposed, in contrast to the Hartle-Hawkings boundless model, an initial state of no dimensional nothingness that is overcome by vacuum tunneling to a dimensional state. As per his model, 'eternal nothingness' is an absolute impossibility.

See my audio file on this:

Deludedgod writes again:

However, this quantum tunneling event clearly would violate the laws of thermodynamics. That's OK though, since it is only for 10^-45 seconds, and such small, unpredictable events are allowable under the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (actually, they are demonstratable with the Casimir effect)?

In a flash, Guth had blown my mind. I had forgotten about the negative energy of the vacuum. But in truth, he had pointed out something really obvious. After all, the solution to something that seemingly breaks the first law of thermodynamics would probably have to be so simple and obvious, because if it was monstrous and complex, it would probably be false, given how iron that law is.

I also wish to cover ex nihilo. We need to understand spontaneous breaking. Imagine a dam holding back water. This dam is perched on top of a hill blocking a river. If the dam was not there the water would naturally take the path of least resistance and flow downhill. Simple. The water has progressed to a lower energy state, as nature commands. But with the dam there, the water cannot flow downhill. Nonetheless, the water cannot get over the dam, and thus, even though the water is not in its lowest energy state, the arrangement is relatively stable. It is for this same reason that organisms, which are extremely far from chemical equilibrium, do not spontaneously combust.

If the dam is cracked and bursts, the water will flow from the false vacuum, the dam, to the true vacuum, the water. This false vacuum may have been the original state of the universe and it is what victor refers to as "nothing". We also call it a singularity. A singularity is a point where mathematical relationship is not defined. The universe is believed to have been born out of a singularity after a false vacuum fluctuation, when all the essential forces were unified into one. As the four forces are unified into one, there is no coherent mathematical relationship, also called a singularity. This arrangement is extremely unstable, and as it spiraled asymptotically towards infinity and zero (because it has no mass), it breaks like a dam bursts, and the more stable arrangement (the four forces are broken thus producing the space time continuum) is born. Something can indeed come from nothing

The universe today is like a broken mirror, with the four forces ruling it disjointed and separate from each other. This is because the original vacuum arrangement is unstable. It broke, and from it gushed the true vacuum- the universe. This unified state, the vacuum arrangement, has another name- nothing.

To quote Victor J Stenger in God, The Failed Hypothesis:

> "If the laws of physics follow naturally from empty space-time then where did that empty space-time come from? why is there something rather than nothing? This question is often the last recourse of the theist who seeks to argue for the existence of god from physics and cosmology and finds that all his other arguments fail. Philosopher Bede Rundle calls it "Philosophy's central, and most perplexing, question." His simple (But book length) answer: "There has to be something" (God the failed hypothesis Pg 132.)
> "How do we define "nothing"? What are its properties? If it has properties, doesn't that make it something? The theist claims that God is the answer. But, then, why is there god rather than nothing? Assuming we can define "nothing," Why should nothing be a more natural state of affairs than something? In fact, we can give plausible scientific reason based on our best current knowledge of physics and cosmology that something more natural than nothing!" (God the failed hypothesis Pg 132.)
> "Nature is capable of building complex structures by processes of self-organization, how simplicity begets complexity. Consider the example of the snowflake, the beautiful six-pointed pattern of ice crystals that results from the direct freezing of water vapor in the atmosphere. Our experience tells us that a snowflake is very ephemeral, melting quickly into drops of liquid water the exhibit far less structure. But that is only because we live in a relatively high-temperature environment, where heat reduces the fragile arrangement of crystals to a simpler liquid. Energy is required to break the symmetry of a snowflake." (God the failed hypothesis Pg 133.)
> "In an environment where the ambient temperature is well below the melting point of ice, as it is in most of the universe far from the highly localized effects of stellar heating, any water should readily crystallize into complex asymetric structures. Snowflakes would be eternal, or at least would remain intact until comic rays tore them apart."(God the failed hypothesis Pg 133.)
> "This example illustrates that many simple systems of particles are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since "Nothing" is as simple as it gets, we cannot expect it to be very stable. It would likely undergo a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter." "The answer to the ancient question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' would be be that 'nothing' is unstable." (God the failed hypothesis Pg 133.)

If we wind the clock back, we find a state of hypercompressed energy that created a false vacuum forcing an outward expansion which expanded at the rate of empty space called hyperinflation, which is about 10^50m/s. This is many times faster than light speed, but as there is no matter and no mass empty space can violate the c-limit.

Quantum tunneling and hyperinflation will always be more parsimonious than God. Spontaneous breaking, and SU1xSU2xSU3 Grand Unifying theory (which have to do with something known as a false-vacuum fluctuation) are simply better explanations. They make sense.

The universe has set boundaries defined by the hyperbolic curvature of the space-time fabric. Granted, the universe is expanding under the push of Dark Energy, but it still has defined boundaries. When you reach the "edge" of the universe, you will simply curve around the side. But like the curvature of the Earth, this hyperbolic shape is so vast that it is completely imperceptible. The existence of Dark Matter (albeit not detected yet) was sealed by evidence that Omega is 0.3, and Lambda is 0.7, which is consistent with the known makeup of the universe, which is consistent with the Cosmic background black-body radiation detected by WMAP

The universe is not static either. It is expanding. Fast. There is a fight going on between the gravitational attraction of bodies of matter that reside in the space-time membrane and a mysterious "dark energy" that overpowers gravitational attraction. As gravity becomes weaker, expansion becomes faster. If we were to draw a map of the universe, the dark energy would be spread out in perfectly even pattern of exactly 10^-26 g/cm3. This means there is little more than an asteroid sized chunk in the entire galaxy. Almost nothing. Ordinary matter on the other hand, is clumped. In this map of the universe, there would be billions of of small dots representing galaxies arrayed in a filament-like arrangement, and no matter anywhere else. In most parts of the universe, the denisty of matter is one hydrogen atom per cubic meter, which for all intents and purposes, is nothing.

If the universe is expanding, it had a beginning. It is not eternal. It was born in a singularity exactly 13.7 billion years ago according to extremely authoritative data from WMAP that can establish it to an astonishing 1% margin of error. Idiots call this singularity the Big Bang, when it was not big, and definitely not a bang.

One thing that struck me immediately is the notion that the BB was the "start" of the universe. This is not the case. BB is transition, not creation. The symmetry breaking, brane collision, false vacuum fluctuation etc is the creation, BB is a transitional event that occured 10^-43 seconds after the birth of the universe called the Planck Era. Nothing is known about the prior state, and by the reckoning of some cosmologists, nothing can be known of this state. But BB is a transition event, the genesis of matter and energy, not the universe. Of all the things that sealed my belief in the finite universe, none did more so than when I was shown Smoot's historic picture from the WMAP probe.

c) See above comments on Brane theory. 'Brane-Storm' Challenges Part of Big Bang Theory "


New addition:


"Speaking to a sold out crowd at the Berkeley Physics Oppenheimer Lecture, Hawking said yesterday that he now believes the universe spontaneously popped into existence from nothing. He said more work is needed to prove this but we have time because 'Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end.' There is also a Webcast available (Realplayer or Real Alternative required)."

4) Common misconception: The 'real world' cannot exist without some substratum that supports it. Or: Everything that exists is merely a shadow of the 'real' universe that lies underneath.

"The materialist thesis is simply: that's all there is to the world. Once we figure out the correct formal structure, patterns, boundary conditions, and interpretation, we have obtained a complete description of reality. (Of course we don't yet have the final answers as to what such a description is, but a materialist believes such a description does exist.) In particular, we should emphasize that there is no place in this view for common philosophical concepts such as ''cause and effect'' or ''purpose.'' From the perspective of modern science, events don't have purposes or causes; they simply conform to the laws of nature. In particular, there is no need to invoke any mechanism to ''sustain'' a physical system or to keep it going; it would require an additional layer of complexity for a system to cease following its patterns than for it to simply continue to do so. Believing otherwise is a relic of a certain metaphysical way of thinking; these notions are useful in an informal way for human beings, but are not a part of the rigorous scientific description of the world. Of course scientists do talk about ''causality,'' but this is a description of the relationship between patterns and boundary conditions; it is a derived concept, not a fundamental one. If we know the state of a system at one time, and the laws governing its dynamics, we can calculate the state of the system at some later time... According to the materialist worldview, then, structures and patterns are all there are --- we don't need any ancillary notions." 5) "god" can be a plausible alternative cosmological hypothesis.

Science is a natural endeavor. It cannot work with supernatural claims, as supernatural terms have no ontology. They are purely negative definitions.


So the biggest "hole" in any god hypothesis would be that there cannot be a god hypothesis in the first place. Falsifiable hypotheses require coherent terms. You cannot make a reference beyond nature. All a 'god' claim can ever amount to is:

We don't know.


Something completely unknown is responsible.

And this amounts to reifying ignorance.

There is absolutely nothing to any theological cosmological argument other than an argument from ignorance. Point out a million problems in naturalistic accounts of cosmology, and you've still done nothing from a theological point of view, to bolster a 'god' argument.

No cosmologist has all the answers and my brief review of cosmology here is not intended to imply that there are answers to all of these questions. In the end, we don't know. But let's not reifying our ignorance and pray to it. Let's just concede it.

Sources cited: I'm only a layman when it comes to cosmology, but I've read quite a bit on the subject: Alan Guth, Andre Linde, Brian Greene, Tim Ferris and Stephen Hawkings to name five.

Concerns: Now, about the chaotic inflationary scenerio. While it's certainly an interesting (even fascinating) hypothesis, it is unduly metaphysical. Moreover, it is by no means beginningless or eternal, as it still involves an initial cosmological singularity. (See, for example, "Inflation Is Not Past Eternal".) This wasn't known at the time that Ferris wrote his book.

See also:


"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'