Did Our Universe Have a Beginning?
by Robert Lawrence Kuhn (9/27/10 8:28 pm)
Everything in the universe has a beginning, but did the universe itselfcome with a start date? Does a “cosmic commencement” make sense?
“Did our universe have a beginning?” seems to be an easy question to pose and, with recent cosmological data, possible to answer. Not necessarily. The question has only three meaning-carrying words (the other three are grammatical facilitators), and these words—“our,” “universe,” and “beginning”—are all deeply ambiguous. Each can have multiple referents or expose alternative perspectives.
“Our”: Could there be other beings from whose frame of space-time or frame of mind the question would differ radically from ours?
“Universe”: What’s a universe? One of Alan Guth’s “pocket universes” generated by continuous inflation or one of Andrei Linde’s “balloon universes” generated by eternal chaotic inflation? Or does “universe” mean “all there is” (“all-that-is” in Arthur Peacock’s formulation), encompassing literally everything?
“Beginning”: What’s a beginning? Some kind of kick-starting, local event in our observable, light-cone universe? By direct evidence, that’s the most, it seems, we could ever know about, and even then only under the most optimistic of conditions. Well, that kind of a “beginning” would be interesting and certainly important, but not ultimately satisfying, at least not for me.
Pardon my epistemological greediness, but “satisfying” to me would only be some kind of ultimate, absolute, universally exhaustive answer. I’m not all that sure that such an answer would even be logically meaningful, much less ever approachable, but nonetheless, for whatever maladaption, that’s my minimum hurdle of satisfaction.
Creation is humanity’s ancient and perpetual fascination. In the past, when the “beginning” question was raised, there was no ambiguity because, no matter who you were or what your orientation, there were only two possible kinds of answers from which to select: something from nothing, or always existing.
In cosmology, it was the big bang versus steady state.
In religion, it was the Judeo-Christian creation of the world versus the Hindu-Eastern repetitions of endless cycles. Some in the Judeo-Christian tradition put more stock in God as sustainer, creating the world, as it were, all the time, irrespective of whether human-perceived clocks could ever have registered an actual beginning. Thus, the affirmative creative act of the Judeo-Christian God may bring the universe into being by a creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) or it may be a continuing creative sustaining of the universe (creation continua), or both.
Today, the cosmology is more complicated than big bang versus steady state. Several theories generate an endless sequence of cosmic epochs, each of which begins with some kind of a “bang” and ends with some kind of a “crunch.” In the Paul Steinhardt-Neil Turok “ekpyrotic” model, cycles of accelerated expansions are followed by contractions that produce the homogeneity, flatness, and energy needed to begin the next cycle (with each cycle lasting perhaps a trillion years). These physicists theorize that the cosmos was never compacted into a singularity but that what we call the big bang resulted from a collision of sorts between our entire three-dimensional existence and another such entity within higher-dimension space.
Mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose postulates a succession of universes prior to our own by envisioning some kind of mathematical-geometric space-time identity between the remote future of one universe and the big bang of the next (“conformal cyclic cosmology” is his terminology). He calls his suggestion “outrageous.”
But all this is theory. What’s the data?
Wendy Freedman and her team at the Carnegie Observatories took the better part of a decade with the Hubble Space Telescope to calibrate the Hubble constant, which measures the rate of the universe’s expansion. Though there are complications, of course, to a first approximation, it seems one can run the movie of the universe’s expansion in reverse and calculate a beginning (now set at 13.7 billion years ago).
Is it that simple? Does a tight Hubble constant “prove” that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning? What impresses me are the multiple tests and independent measurements, all of which converge on a similar origin and age of the universe. Most meaningful is the cosmic background radiation, that “afterglow” of the heat of the big bang, which fills the sky in all directions and which shows the steady state universe to be false. Experimental astrophysicist George Smoot won the Nobel Prize for these measurements; he calls the pictorial representations “an ultrasound of the embryo universe”—galaxies and clusters of galaxies germinating from quantum fluctuations, seeds smaller than protons.
So it seems that our universe did have a beginning. We call it the “big bang,” but technically, under the most widely accepted cosmological model—inflation—the big bang was not the beginning. It emerged from the cauldron of cosmic inflation, when something infinitesimally small expanded majestically in an astonishingly brief instant, cooking up space, time, energy, and matter in a colossal cosmic stew.
The fundamental question is this: No matter the theory, was there ever a “something from nothing” start? In Guth’s inflation, no matter how high the number of universes that exist at any moment, inflation had to start with a beginning. Cosmic inflation may engender infinite universes forever into the future, but it cannot do so forever into the past. Under inflationary theory, there must be a finite number of universes in the past. Time’s arrow is not symmetrical. So unless something like the Steinhardt-Turok model of cyclical universes is correct, inflation demands that the universe had a beginning and that it had to start with some stuff, however small.
But where did this early stuff, no matter how small, come from?
Theology may posit an answer, but science, it would seem, cannot. Physicist Alexander Vilenkin disagrees; he claims to have an answer. He postulates that the laws of quantum mechanics can have the universe originating spontaneously, “quantum tunneling” out of the “quantum foam.” This is not absurd because the laws of quantum physics require particles to be popping in and out of existence.
But Vilenkin still has those pesky “laws of physics” with which to deal. From where did the laws of quantum mechanics come?
So, did our universe have a beginning? Three little questions: When? How? Why?
When: Well, 13.7 billion years ago. Cosmologists seem to have nailed the date with remarkable precision, a magnificent tribute to human ingenuity.
How? What caused it all?: Perhaps quantum fluctuations. Perhaps some prior state. However it happened, the laws of physics made it happen.
And we come quickly to why: Why did our universe begin? Why the laws of physics? Sometimes only silence … gets us closer to truth.
+ view all Discussions (11)
What do you mean by universe? Do you refer to that which is finite in space-time and has an event epicenter or to that which is infinite in space-time and has no event epicenter? This question has no meaning until this distinction is made.
Posted 9:46 AM / December 19, 2012
I just watched the episode " Does the Cosmos Provide Meaning " and wanted to comment on something that Sir Martin Rees said but I couldn't find an online discussion started from that episode. I chose this discussion as the most closely related.
During the show Sir Martin Rees made the comment that when the universe was very small and dense the " quantum fluctuation ..... could shake the entire universe " .
After hearing this I immediately thought of the occult idea that the universe began like an egg or a seed; having it's future form already programed in it's apparenty formless condition.( read Madam Blavatsky's " Secret Doctrine " - 1888 )
But like the yolk of an egg or the pulp of a seed there only appears to be no form until one attains the ability to overcome the limitations of the naked eye. Then the seed's genetic code may be observed and the mystery is partly solved.
Accepting this idea may lead us to new questions like: who laid the egg ? Is the universe fully hatched? and if so; is it yet a fully formed adult ? Is there universal reproduction ? And is there a universal death? But even if we came close to answering some of these (realistically) impossible-to-answer questions, we would still be a vast distance from finding for ourselves a fulfilling sense of meaning or purpose from our understanding of the cosmos.
The idea that the universe began something like this might lead us to start looking for it's "genetic" code or whatever it is or was that has launched it into it's current direction or what may even be still guiding it in it's current progress. ( Ancient occult ideas not only describe a big-bang-like event but also include the idea that the universe is guided by a heirarchy of intelligent entities reborn in this cosmological cycle because of their karmic affects in previous cosmological cycles. )
These ideas contradict most of modern scientific ideas and may be completely inaccurate or they may have a slim thread of truth; either way it allows us another perspective and is another baby-step; no more or less valuable than any other baby step because the questions being asked are so vast in their scope and boldness that even bad ideas are RELATIVELY as valuable as what might appear today to be a great scientific or logical idea or theory. What might seem perfectly logical and scientific today may in 200 years appear ridiculaous or naive. History has shown us that. With questions so huge; ALL ideas, from ALL sources become equally valuable. It's like buying lottery tickets; it may seem like you are getting closer to solving the mystery of what the winning numbers will be by buying more tickets or by applying logic to the your choices of numbers, but in reality choosing numbers by intuition, imagination, or even by the use of an oracle are no more or less effective in calculating which numbers will be drawn; yet in the end someone eventually wins ! All the tickets are equal in value until all the numbers are chosen and the story is COMPLETELY told. similarily, we will never know which theory or idea is correct until the ENTIRE story of the cosmos is revealed. So the idea that any of us will aquire any substantial understanding of the nature or purpose or meaning of the universe through the use of mere science and logic comes close to being ridiculous.
Personal progress in this direction is best attempted through the use of the shortcut methods that have been used and taught by mystics, adepts and prophets for as long as we know. The search and journey is much shorter when one's attention is turned inward,
It would be more useful for us accept the possibility that our sensual and intelectual limitations are far, far too great to rely upon obervational science and logic alone to aquire understanding or realize meaning in the cosmos. By expanding our methods to also include ( in a much more practical and ligitimate way than we do now ) imagination, intuition and even revelation ( why not ? ) we can only improve our progress, however equally small that progress may be.
If we are truly more devoted to the end than the means.
Love, Peace & Liberty
John Thomas Frederick
Posted 12:25 AM / April 15, 2012
I believe that we are the only beings like us in the universe. As with constant motion, being on the move all the time our combination to make us was at our exactness. The recipe to make us humans was at a precise exact moment for us to become. That moment has past as we are always in the pull into space. With constant motion there is no way that our recipe could belong to anyone else but us. At that precise moment on the run in the dark energy with the pull we became. Whatever else became we don't know. But their exactness will never be like ours. It just can't be. Different space, different time, different recipe. We are the only humans like us.
Posted 8:15 PM / March 16, 2012
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