What was God Doing before He Made the Universe?

If space and time began with the Big Bang, does it make sense to speak of what came before the Big Bang? Stephen Hawking and other physicists say emphatically “NO!”  Everything started with the Big Bang. To speak of what was before the Big Bang is as ludicrous as to ask what is north of the North Pole.

In the sense of cause and effect within the confines of this universe, science may be right. Scientists and lawyers are always looking for the cause of something. Science is concerned with grander things, like what caused the universe to come into being, while lawyers look at mundane events, like who caused the five car pile-up on the freeway. But both look for a prior event or events that conclude in a certain result. The lawyer might say that the cause of the accident was that the defendant was going too fast for conditions, which caused his car to spin out of control, which in turn caused it to crash into another car, which….. You get the picture. In order to reach this conclusion, the lawyer has to work backward in time from the result, the accident, and piece together a chain of events that are causally related to each other.

Science does the same thing most of the time. Working backwards in time involves a bit more than the lawyer’s task because the scientist has to cover billions of years instead of a few seconds. Furthermore, the journey takes the scientist to the beginning of time, the day without a yesterday. Because there was no yesterday at the time of the Big Bang nothing could have happened that would causally relate to the Big Bang. The Big Bang just happened without anything influencing it because not only was there no time before the Big Bang, there was no space in which anything could act.

This is sound logic as long as we accept the view that the universe is all there is. But string theory argues that there could be series or parallel universes, an infinite number of them if we accept the theory that every time an event occurs the universe splits in two, one for each possible outcome. The theory supposes that nothing in any of those other universes can affect what happens in our universe, but what if it ain’t necessarily so?

Imagine a play is the entire universe. The universe begins with the first notes of the overture and the universe ends when the curtain falls. What happens within the universe is unaffected by anything outside the universe. The audience can conceive of time before the universe began and time after the universe ends. The actors, while in their roles, have no concept of time or events outside of their universe. When the play ends the characters “die” and have no concept of anything because their universe has ended. Time is no more for them and space has ceased to exist.

Now put God in the role of the audience and this universe in the place of the stage. God has a conception of both time and space outside the confines of the universe, though we, the actors in the play, do not. In this context it does make sense to ask, what was God doing before He created the universe.

St. Augustine asked this same question in his Confessions, written in the Fourth Century A.D. It is an apocryphal story that this question was asked of Augustine, to which he replied “He was making Hell for people who ask such questions.” Instead, what Augustine wrote was “I answer not as one is said to have done merrily (eluding the pressure of the question) ‘He was preparing hell (saith he) for pryers into mysteries.’ It is one thing to answer enquiries; another to make sport of enquirers.”

Augustine went on to inquire about a time before the creation. If God was not doing anything for innumerable ages before He created earth, why did He stop doing nothing and start creating? Augustine  answered his own question by saying that there were not innumerable ages for God because He created time as well as the earth. God’s days do not proceed daily. In other words, there is no succession of days, one after the other, for God. Instead His days are today. Everything is present for God.

Return to the play. While the actors are living out their existence in their universe and while time passes for them in their roles, the audience is in its collective present. True, two or more hours of “real” time may pass for the audience but most people would consider themselves to be at the play “in the present” as opposed to in the past or in the future. Meanwhile, in a play like Les Miserables, decades pass for the actors, yet it all takes place in the audience’s present.

This explains how God can hear the prayers of millions of supplicants. When an airplane is crashing and a hundred souls offer up prayers to God, He has not just the few seconds before their lives are snuffed out to consider those prayers. Instead He has eternity. Another crude example may help. A writer has put his heroine in a predicament. She is hanging by her fingertips from a ledge, dangling 100 feet above a raging river. In fact the predicament is so good that neither the author nor his heroine has any idea how to get out of it. The author can leave her hanging there for hours, weeks, months while he does other things and when he comes back to extricate her, no time has passed in her world.

So the answer to the question what came before the Big Bang depends on the view of the questioner. If the question is posed by one who believes that this universe is all there ever was and all there ever will be, the question is nonsensical. But if the questioner accepts string theory and its conclusions, it follows that there can be something outside this universe and therefore we can answer the question.

Series and Parallel Universes

Carried to its logical conclusion string theory leads to a multiverse, or landscape, of independent universes. There are two ways of viewing the multiverse and its constituent universes. There is a series view and a parallel view. In the series view, the multiverse is one universe but we, in our little pocket universe, can only see a limited portion of the multiverse. The rest is so far away and is moving so fast that information (light) from those nether portions cannot ever reach us. This boundary between the observable and the unobservable is the horizon. Because we cannot get any information from beyond the horizon, whatever happens there is irrelevant to us. Events beyond the horizon can have no effect on our pocket universe.

The parallel view of the multiverse is more interesting. In that view there are many universes evolving simultaneously. At 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang “bubble” or parallel universes began to form because of slight variations. In the parallel or many-worlds view, each time there is more than one possibility, the universe splits, one for each possibility. Consider a leaf on a tree. The leaf can fall or it can remain on the tree. At that juncture the universe splits, one for the possibility that the leaf falls and one for the possibility that the leaf remains on the tree. At that instant both universes are identical except for the one leaf, but from that time forward each develops independently of the other. What is “now”’ to us lies in the pasts of innumerable future universes. Everything that can happen does happen. Perhaps not in “our” universe but in one of the future universes.

The parallel view of the multiverse is what science uses to rebut the need for a creator. With so many evolving universes at least one was destined to be suitable for life. But this view falls apart unless evidence is found for the multiverse. Right now it’s a conclusion to be drawn from M-Theory, which in turn is derived from string theory, neither of which can be proven.


Omega-Point-Multiverse (Photo credit: Wikipediay, which in turn is derived from string theory, neither of which is capable of proof.

It seems we have three possibilities. One, the multiverse exists and we are here simply due to the laws of probability. With so many parallel universes one of the 10500 and probably more were suitable for life. Two, it’s all just a fluke. Like the one bridge hand dealt out of six billion possible hands, we got lucky. Three, there is a creator or some sort of intelligent design behind this universe.

Neither of the first two possibilities is very fertile ground for further speculation. Only statisticians get excited over probability and if this was just a fluke then that’s all that need or can be said about why we’re here.

But if a creator or intelligent design is thrown in the mix all sorts of intriguing questions pop up. What form does the creator take? What was happening before the Big Bang? If time began at the Big Bang was there even a “before” to talk about?

More Evidence of a Creator?

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...

English: René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already made note of the fact that the big bang looks a lot like the Bible’s description of the formation of the world. We’ve noted that the rate of expansion of the early universe had to be within tolerances on the order of 1 part in 1015 either way. That much more and stars wouldn’t have formed; that much less and everything would have collapsed by now. In the last post we saw the asymmetry between matter and antimatter necessary for the stars and galaxies to form and that that asymmetry is on the order  of one part in 109. As they say in TV commercials, “but wait! There’s more.”

If the asymmetry between matter and antimatter had been smaller, say one part in 1011 there wouldn’t have been enough matter for galaxies to form.  And if it had been greater, on the order of one part in 108 the abundant matter would have congealed into enormous lumps without forming discrete stars.

The same surprises exist in the world of particle physics.  If the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together were a few percentage points greater quarks wouldn’t form protons.  If it were five percent weaker stars couldn’t make heavy elements past hydrogen. If the weak force was much stronger the big bang would have cooked atoms all the way up to iron, leaving no lighter elements. If gravity was stronger stars would be mostly weak red dwarfs; much weaker and they would be fast-burning blue giants.  Either way so-called normal stars like our Sun would be non-existent or rare.

Many have seized on these incredibly improbable coincidences as evidence that some “Cosmic Designer” is at work. It is ironic that cosmology and physics can be conscripted to give evidence of a creator. This notion that the Goldilocks universe in which we live didn’t happen by chance is called the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle can be expressed many ways but the most common is, “the universe is the way it is because we are here to see it. If it weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here.” This is reminiscent of Rene Descartes statement Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am, or cogito ergo sum in Latin). Descartes, a French philosopher of the 17th Century, set out to develop a set of fundamental principles that one can know without any doubt. As a starting point he had to prove his own existence. This he did by concluding that because he thinks, he exists. “The simple meaning of the phrase,” he wrote, “is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof he does exist.” Similarly, the universe exists as it does because we are here to question its existence.

Does all of this mean there is someone or something behind the big bang? Consider this hypothetical. You have been sentenced to death by a firing squad of 100 trained sharpshooters. You stand blindfolded and hear “ready, aim, FIRE” followed by a volley of shots. Suddenly you realize you are not dead. Under these circumstances the law says you may go free. Is it not realistic to see a higher power behind this? Aren’t the odds against all 100 sharpshooters missing you so astronomical as to be impossible in the absence of divine intervention?

On the other hand, the odds of a bridge player being dealt a particular hand are something like one in six billion. Does the bridge player marvel at the hand she has been dealt or does she simply play the hand she has? Most bridge players play the hand they are dealt rather than wonder why they got that particular hand, since all hands are equally likely.

Many scientists have taken the latter position — that the universe just happened this way. But to bolster their position against the “astronomical odds” argument, they suggest that one view of reality is that there is an enormous number of existing universes, on the order of 10500 (1 followed by 500 zeroes). With so many universes it is virtually certain that one of those is suitable for life. Therefore the Anthropic Principle holds true: the universe is this way because we are here to see it. We need not wonder at this particular state any more than we wonder at any other state. By making the universe non-unique in the sense that this is not the only one there is, the need for a creator is eliminated and replaced by simple laws of probability.

So where did these 10500 universes come from? For that we need to enter the world of string theory.

What Did the Big Bang Look Like?

As I wrote in an early post, many people are familiar with the basic Big Bang Theory: that the universe was born in a violent explosion.  Beyond that popular conception is hazy, with a lot of people thinking the planets, stars, galaxies, asteroids and everything else popped into being fully formed.

If you had been present at the explosion there wouldn’t have been much to see.  Unimaginable amounts of energy were released.  It was pure chaos, with temperatures far too high to allow the energy to convert to matter (Einstein’s famous E = mc2 , where E stands for energy, m for mass and c for the speed of light shows that energy and matter are interchangeable).  However, within about 300 seconds of the Big Bang the temperature had dropped to where lighter elements like hydrogen and helium could form.  During the next critical minutes nuclei were formed.  Once the universe cooled to about one million degrees C, nuclear fusion stopped.  Matter existed in a state known as plasma.  Most people are familiar with the first three phases, solid, liquid and gas.  Hotter than gas, plasma is a state of matter in which the temperature is so high that atomic nuclei cannot hold onto electrons.  This condition existed until the temperature dropped to about 3,000 C, which took about 300,000 years.  At that point nuclei could hold onto electrons and elements began to form.

One other thing was present at the Big Bang: enormous amounts of light.  Had you been there you wouldn’t have seen anything because light is scattered by plasma, just as it is scattered by water droplets in the air, which creates fog.  Just as you can’t see in a car at night in fog because the fog scatters the light from your headlights, so would the light from the Big Bang have been scattered.  For 300,000 years or so the universe was the proverbial pea soup.

After 300,000 or so years the temperature was low enough to form elements, which are electrically neutral.  Light doesn’t interact with neutral elements so it could pass unhindered through the universe for the first time.

Two scientists, George Gamow and Robert Herman, had been working on proving the Big Bang Theory.  They suddenly realized that if the Big Bang Theory was correct and the theory about plasma cooling to allow formation of atoms, which in turn allowed light to pass unimpeded through the universe, the remnants of that light should still be visible today.  If it could be detected it would further prove then validity of the Big Bang Theory.  In fact, detection of this luminoues echo of the Big Bang would be almost conclusive proof of the Theory.  Conversely, if the light wasn’t found the Big Bang couldn’t have happened.