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.

“I Have No Need of that Hypothesis”

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace, one of the m...

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace, one of the main early developers of Bayesian statistics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1814, Pierre-Simon Laplace, a French mathematician, developed a theory of the universe which he presented to Napoleon. As the story goes, Napoleon asked Laplace why the theory contained no mention of God. Laplace is said to have replied, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”). Some have taken this as evidence that Laplace did not believe in God; however, others believe that Laplace meant that he saw no need for God in the role of a creator of the universe.

Modern science has come up with string theory and probability that likewise allows it to say it has no need for a hypothesis as to the creation of the universe that includes God. But as we’ve seen string theory can lead to a conclusion that there is some sort of intelligent design involved in the creation of the universe; it’s just not the same form of intelligent design that Judeo-Christian theology presents.

As I mentioned a few posts back, string theory presents us with three choices: The universe is just a fluke, a random happening; this universe is a result of the probability of huge numbers; or there was some form of intelligent design involved in the creation of the universe. We chose (actually I chose because, after all, this is my blog) to follow the third possibility because it offered more room for speculation.

Now we face another choice: what form do we want our intelligent designer to take? Do we want to believe we are just simulations in a seventh-grader’s science project? Do we want to believe Earth was seeded by a more advanced society millions of years ago? Think the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Of course, this latter view begs the question, where did the more advanced society come from? Or do we want to take a more traditional view that we are uniquely created by a benevolent Supreme Being whom we refer to as God? Personally, I’m egotistical enough to reject the notion that I’m nothing more than a holographic image projected in someone’s basement or dorm room. Once again the third option offers more fertile ground for speculation.

Postulating God in this form raises all sorts of interesting questions. What was God doing before He created the universe? Was God doing anything since if He was doing something, was that not some sort of creating? In that case, it couldn’t have been “before” the creation. Can there be God if there was no “before” the creation, since both time and space began at the moment of creation? If there was no “before” where was God?

God the Father 16

God the Father 16 (Photo credit: Waiting For The Word)

So with foreknowledge that one should never discuss sex, religion or politics in order to remain on good terms with all involved, I will throw caution to the wind and dive headlong into a discussion of the nature of God.  To make is a bit more manageable, this God will be the traditional Judeo-Christian God of the Bible. And, in view of the fact that I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), I’ll make use of its doctrine as well.

Does God Exist?

In 2006, Leonard Susskind, a physicist and one of the co-creators of string theory, wrote a book entitled The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. In this book Professor Susskind attempts to set forth the physics and the cosmology of string theory for a popular audience. The subtitle “The Illusion of Intelligent Design” appears to be more for the sake of creating controversy because much of the book is devoted to the finely-tuned physical constants, many of which we have already noted, that are necessary for life to exist, rather than to the presence of a creator and his design of the origin and evolution of life.

Professor Susskind posits that these precise physical constants raise the inference of a creator (intelligent design) but this is an illusion. The illusion results because there are 10500 possible four-dimensional universes (three spatial dimensions plus time). Even though only about one in 10120 such universes is capable of sustaining life, every universe splits into two identical (at that time) universes each time there is an event (a leaf falling, for example). Once again, simply by the laws of probability, some of these universes will develop as ours has. We think there must be intelligent design at work because we assume our universe is unique. In reality it’s only one of an infinite number of possibilities. All of the other universes besides ours are unreachable by us and their existence can neither be proven nor disproven. In other words, the “illusion of intelligent design” is no more provable that the existence of intelligent design.

Consider the ramifications of an infinity of universes suggested by string theory. Let us take Professor Asimov’s story a bit further. He ended “The Last Question” with a highly advanced computer creating a new universe. If string theory is correct, there are an endless number of universes capable of supporting intelligent life. If one of those universes is more advanced than ours, it is likely that technology in that universe has progressed to the point it can build simulated universes. We already see that in our world with humans sitting at computers and creating virtual worlds. Imagine greater technology that gives the ability to create not just a city or neighborhood but an entire universe, complete with “intelligent” beings inside them who are unaware that they are living in a simulation. Over time these simulated beings progress to the point where they can create simulations and voila, worlds without end. Thus there may be only one top-level universe and all the rest are simulations. Once again by the laws of probability we are one of the simulations. We may all be nothing more than a geeky kid’s seventh grade science project. Let’s hope the kid’s mother doesn’t call him to dinner and he turns the simulation off!

But here’s the thing. If that conclusion from string theory is correct, we are the product of intelligent design. The creator is not a Supreme Being that most associate with a concept of God but it is an intelligent being, whether that is the level immediately above us or several levels removed. At the top level, wherever that may be, there is an original, intelligent, non-simulated life form that set all the rest into motion.

Professor Susskind recognizes the limits of string theory. He concludes his book by saying that those looking for affirmation of intelligent design in the form of God will find little comfort in those pages. Yet he concedes that neither does string theory disprove the existence of God.

The question may not be, does God exist. Rather it may be, what form do you prefer your God to take?

What is God?

The concept of intelligent design usually involves a type of omniscient, omnipotent being. This being, who is generally known as God, has been the subject of millions of words and thousands of years of religious discussion. This God is the Supreme Being that science has tried to avoid involving in its theories since the time of Galileo. Science dislikes the notion that God was involved in the creation of the universe because such a postulate can’t be proven or disproven. Rather it has to be taken as a matter of faith and is thus unsuitable for science.

But intelligent design doesn’t have to involve God. If we carry the parallel universe theory to one logical conclusion (not the only conclusion, but one) intelligent design can be involved without involving God. Isaac Asimov wrote a delightful short story called “The Last Question” in 1956. The story begins in 2061 when man at last harnesses the energy of the sun. While a world-wide celebration is taking place, two computer programmers, half drunk, discuss this accomplishment.

Dr. Isaac Asimov, head-and-shoulders portrait,...

Dr. Isaac Asimov, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right, 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Now we have energy forever,” one says.

“Not forever,” the other replies. “The sun will eventually burn out and die.”

“That’s billions of years in the future,” the first says.

“But it’s not forever. The law of entropy says everything will run down eventually.”

From this the two programmers wonder if entropy can be reversed and decide to ask the computer.

“There is insufficient data for a meaningful answer,” the computer eventually responds.

From here the story shifts scenes several times. In each scene, which is in the future from the previous scene, a computer, which eventually become housed in hyper-space and accessible simply by thinking, is asked this question and each time the answer is the same: “insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”

Finally the last descendant of humanity dies and his mind merges with the all-knowing computer. The computer now has all knowledge that ever existed. Were it not for the final, unanswered question about reversing entropy, the computer could cease functioning. It spends a timeless interval processing the accumulated knowledge of humanity and can finally answer the question, can entropy be reversed?

“And AC said, ‘Let there be light’.

“And there was light.”

As with so many things first put forward by science fiction writers, later developments in science have moved this story from the realm of pure fantasy into a plausible scientific theory that is actively discussed in serious conversations. In fact, one hypothesis

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 2)

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

from string theory has made its way into popular culture. In a recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory” while trying to impress Penny, Leonard explains that one conclusion to be drawn from string theory is that we are all holograms projected by a far more advanced society. While this got some laughs from the laugh track (and probably from the viewing audience as well), it was not just the wild imaginings of the script writers at CBS. We’ll explore the notion that we are holograms or a sophisticated simulation run by a kid playing Farmville in another universe in coming posts.

The Time has Come

The metric expansion of space. The inflationar...

The metric expansion of space. The inflationary epoch is the expansion of the metric tensor at left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time has come, I tell you now, to speak of many things.

Of matter dark and giant bangs and theories made of strings.

And how the universe began and what the future brings.

Physics has settled on the theory as to how the universe came to be, which it named The Big Bang Theory.  The theory isn’t without warts.  Remember that the Big Bang predicts a universe that is younger than the planets and stars it contains.  Another unanswered question is why was it so hot right after the Big Bang?  A third question is why is the universe so uniform on a large scale?  Even with billions of stars and galaxies clumped together in local regions, on a very large scale the universe is quite uniform.  Another significant question is why is the rate of expansion so finely tuned?  If the rate of expansion of the universe had been smaller by one part in 1015 just one second after the Big Bang, gravity would have overcome expansion and the universe would have collapsed on itself by now.  Had it been about that much greater, gravity wouldn’t have had a chance to accrete matter to form into stars, galaxies and planets.

We’ve noted several times that the Big Bang Theory smacks of a creator, or intelligent design.  The last question, why is the universe so finely tuned, feeds that notion.  We live in a Goldilocks universe, not too big, not too small, but just right.  Why is that so?  What are the odds of that happening in the absence of some benevolent outside influence?

The way science has responded to these questions is interesting, to say the least.  Consider the Big Bang itself.  How did that happen?  Doesn’t the description in an earlier post of what the Big Bang looked like sound an awful lot like Genesis 1:3 in the Bible?  Can science explain what caused the Big Bang so as to eliminate an outside influence?  One explanation that has been posited is one of Alexander Friedman’s models.  Remember that Friedman said that three possibilities exist for an expanding universe.  The first is that it expands continually at a fairly steady rate.  The second is that it expands continually at an ever-decreasing rate, but never actually stops and contracts.  The third is that the universe goes through cycles of expansion and contraction.  The end of each contractive phase ends in a Big Crunch as all matter collapses in on itself.  This in turn causes another Big Bang.  It’s much like a Slinky going down an endless flight of stairs.  The Slinky expands and pulls itself over the first step then contracts as it hits the second step.  Then it bounces and expands itself over the second step.  This explanation only solves the problem for our particular expansive stage of the Slinky universe.  The question still remains, who or what pushed the Slinky off the top step?

Physics describes the universe by means of two partial theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, neither of which can fully explain the current universe that we observe, and each of which, alone, give contradictory predictions.  General relativity breaks down as we work backwards.  With all matter squeezed into what scientists call a singularity, general relativity is inadequate for the task.  At that point we have to look at the opposite spectrum of physics, particle physics, the science of particles, the things that make up atoms .  When we enter that realm, we leave the certainty of the real world behind.  Nothing is at it seems.

Stay with us; things are about to get very weird.

Religion Weighs In

Most scientific debates take place in coffee houses and scientific conferences.  But with something as fundamental as how the universe began the public got involved.  George Gamow was in large part responsible for the publicity by writing articles for popular magazines.  Eventually even the Catholic Church got involved.  In 1951 Pope Pius XII gave an address in which he praised the Big Bang Theory as proof  of the existence of a creator:

“Thus everything seems to indicate that the material universe had a mighty beginning in time, endowed as it was with vast reserves of energy, in virtue of which, at first rapidly and then ever more slowly, it evolved into its present state. . . . In fact it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial Fiat lux uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies. . . . Therefore there is a Creator.  Therefore God exists!”

image of pope Pius xii

image of pope Pius xii (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The atheist and jokester Gamow seized on this and mischievously quoted the Pope in a research paper he published in 1952, knowing it would annoy many of his colleagues who were anxious to avoid any overlap between science and religion.  The large majority of physicists believed that the validity of the Big Bang Theory had nothing to do with God and that the Pope’s endorsement of it should not be used in a serious debate.  Supporters of the Steady State Theory began to use the Pope’s address as a way of mocking the Big Bang Theory.  British physicist William Bonner suggested that the Big Bang Theory was part of a religious conspiracy to shore up Christianity.  “The underlying motive,” he said, “is of course to bring in God as a creator.  It seems like the opportunity Christian theology has been waiting for ever since science began to depose religion from the minds of rational men in the seventeenth century.”

Bonner was clearly referring to Galileo’s experience.  Since that unfortunate encounter between religion and science, science had portrayed a religious person as someone who checked his intellect at the door of the church when he entered.  This wariness toward religion sometimes bordered on paranoia.  English Nobel laureate George Thomson observed: “Probably every physicist would believe in creation if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old-fashioned.”

English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-bo...

English: George Gamow (1904—1968) — Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. Русский: Георгий Гамов (1904—1968) — советский и американский физик-теоретик, астрофизик и популяризатор науки. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the end of the decade of the 1950s, scientists were fairly equally divided between the two theories.  Both models had established themselves as serious contenders but neither had proven conclusive.  Both were based on observations that were made at the limits of science’s technology, so the “facts” deduced from those observations had to be taken not lightly but with critical examination.  Furthermore there were a number of highly intricate connections between the facts that were necessary in order to arrive at the final version of each theory.

Lemaitre Sheds Light and Creates Conflict

Georges Lemaitre was born in 1894.  He began studying engineering but, like Friedmann, his studies were interrupted by World War I.  In the trenches he observed first-hand the effects of German mustard gas and won the Croix de Guerre.  After the war he returned to his studies but switched to theoretical physics.  He also enrolled in the seminary and was ordained a priest in 1923.  For the remainder of his life he pursued two careers, physics and the priesthood, saying “There were two ways of arriving at the truth.  I decided to follow them both.”

Georges Lemaître is credited with proposing th...

Georges Lemaître is credited with proposing the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe in 1927. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1923 after spending two years in Cambridge with Arthur Eddington, Lemaitre returned to Belgium and began his own cosmological quest for truth.  He adopted Einstein’s general relativity but, like Friedmann, rejected the notion of the cosmological constant.  Without knowing anything about Friedmann’s work, Lemaitre resurrected the expanding universe model.  Unlike Friedmann who was a mathematician, interested mainly in the numbers of the theory, Lemaitre wanted to understand the reality behind the numbers.  If the cosmos were expanding, Lemaitre decided to run the clock backwards.  An expanding universe implied that things were closer together yesterday, closer still 100 years ago and still closer 1 million years ago.  Run the clock backward enough and the inescapable conclusion was that everything was together at one point.

Perhaps influenced by his theological training, Lemaitre realized that general relativity implied a moment of creation.  He concluded that the universe began in a relatively small, compact region that suddenly expanded and evolved into what we observe today.  He refined his theory into what he called the primeval atom that contained all of the matter that eventually became the stars and planets.  Though a moment of creation was central to his theory, Lemaitre was interested in the evolution of the universe from the primeval atom to the stars and galaxies.

Lemaitre published his theory and was met with the same deafening silence that greeted Friedmann.  To make matters worse, Lemaitre also had a run-in with Einstein who rebuffed him, saying that his mathematics were correct but his “physics is abominable.”  Einstein had thus been offered two chances to accept an alternative to the steady state view of the universe and rejected both.  As the world authority on cosmology, Einstein’s words had the force of law.  It is ironic that, having challenged authority in his early career Einstein had now become the authority behind whom virtually all scientists fell into line.  It probably didn’t help Lemaitre that he was a priest and his theory smacked of a Creator.  Though it had been nearly four centuries since Galileo was forced to confess, the wounds science felt from religion were still tender.

The truth is, both theories were appealing and both had flaws.  The flaw in the steady state theory was the cosmological constant, which, as we have seen, is nothing but a fudge factor to make the theory conform to the accepted view of how things are.  The flaw in the nascent big bang theory (it still had not been thus named) was that there was no evidence to support the theory of a sudden explosion, other than the logic behind an expanding universe.  For that matter, though, there was no evidence to support a steady state model other than the belief that this is how things are.  The theorists needed evidence to support their various theories so they turned to the experimental physicists, the astronomers.