A discussion of the Big Bang theory was the centrepiece of a talk which I gave recently on the subject of science and religion¹. I have extracted the content, added some extra material, and edited it to become the first three parts in this series, for readers interested in just this topic. The series will then continue with further reflections.
I’m sure that many readers with an interest in science will be familiar with much of the material here. It is important, however, to establish in detail the conventional story of the Big Bang, before moving on in Part 2 to what I believe to be the true story. That will cast doubt on whether the universe did indeed begin with a Big Bang.
For the vast majority of cosmologists the Big Bang has become an accepted fact. In this new series of articles I want to suggest that this theory, even though it might be true, is based on some very poor science and, like the theory of Darwinian evolution, has become tantamount to a religious dogma, a faith no more scientific than the beliefs of religious people that scientists sometimes rush to condemn.
The term Big Bang was coined by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, and it has been adopted even though he intended it to be pejorative. His alternative was called the Steady State theory, which proposed that the universe was both expanding and eternal.
In a 1987 article in New Scientist² Marcus Chown asked: “How do we know there was a big bang?” He could have said, but didn’t, why do we think there was a Big Bang? His justification included the phrases “armed with a growing mass of evidence” and “so confident of the scenario”. I’m going to investigate whether such confidence is justified. What follows is an outline of why cosmologists think there was a Big Bang, the orthodox story, repeated on BBC4 Horizon documentaries, and in various science books for popular consumption.
I transcribed the next paragraph from a BBC4 documentary. Before publication this article was checked by a friend of mine who is a University of Cambridge Physics Professor. He marked this paragraph “not good”. If he’s right, that just goes to show how unreliable the BBC can be.
The idea of an expanding universe could have been predicted by Einstein from his General Theory of Relativity, although he held back from doing so, preferring for non-scientific reasons, a static universe. He introduced into his equations the Cosmological Constant, which he later described as the biggest mistake of his career.
In similar vein, here are two quotes from a New Scientist article³:
- “The big bang was born from our best theory of gravity, general relativity”.
- “According to general relativity it (space-time) must once have been an infinitely tiny, infinitely dense point known as a singularity”.
This is the text of my friend’s correction: “In its original form (1915), Einstein’s General Relativity equations implied an infinite universe. There were difficulties with this, and to make it finite, he found that an addition of an extra term (in 1917) (‘the cosmological term’) could make the universe finite. He then considered a slowly changing case (a quasi-static approximation), which then put a direct link between the value of the cosmological constant and the total mass of the universe. This was a mathematically tractable problem. De Sitter soon considered another approximate solution to Einstein’s equation with the cosmological term, but such that was very far from equilibrium, which then also becomes a mathematically tractable problem. He obtained a finite rapidly expanding universe”.
The significant difference between the two versions is that the programme and the article suggest that the theory of General Relativity predicts an expanding universe, therefore associating the idea with Einstein, while the alternative says that the real issue for him was whether or not the universe is infinite. It was De Sitter, not Einstein, whose calculations suggested an expanding universe. I am not competent to decide which of the two accounts is closer to the truth.
(Returning now to, I believe, a reliable account.)
Then, in the early 1920s, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann published solutions to Einstein’s equations, making no attempt to force a static-universe solution. This work later became the foundation for Big Bang theory, although it was the Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître who in 1927 independently first proposed the idea of a universe born at a single instant in the past, and expanding outwards.
About this time the astronomer Edwin Hubble was analysing the light from distant galaxies, and discovered that it was shifted to the red end of the spectrum. Astronomers interpreted this as a Doppler effect, familiar to anyone who has noticed how the pitch of a police siren changes as it passes by. The siren becomes deeper because the wavelength of the sound is stretched out. Similarly with light, the wavelength of light from a galaxy which is moving away from us would be stretched out to the longest, or reddest, wavelength.
It was therefore believed that Hubble had discovered that most galaxies are receding from the Milky Way, in other words that the universe is expanding. There seemed to be only one conclusion: the Universe must have been smaller in the past. There must have been a moment when the Universe started expanding: the moment of its birth. By imagining the expansion running backwards, astronomers deduce that the Universe came into existence several billion years ago — the figures given ranging between 13.5 and 15 billion years.
According to the scientific method, a hypothesis or theory is required to make predictions which can be tested; if the predictions prove correct, this lends support to the theory, although not definite proof of it.
In 1948 Big Bang advocates Robert Herman and Ralph Alpher, a student of George Gamow, who also made a significant contribution, predicted the existence of the cosmic microwave background radiation (which I’ll call CMBR from here on), believed to be the afterglow of the Big Bang. In 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected an odd signal with a radio horn they were using for satellite communications. The signal did not come from the Earth nor the Sun. It seemed to come from all over the sky. This appeared to be the evidence required, and scientists rushed to the conclusion that they had discovered the CMBR. Hoyle’s steady-state theory was rejected, Stephen Hawking no less saying that the discovery of the CMBR was the “final nail in the coffin for the steady-state theory”.
So far, so good. Later on, however, it was decided that the observable universe did not fit with the predictions of Big Bang theory. The universe had to start off extremely uniform, with only tiny variations in the distribution of matter and energy, and had to be geometrically flat. These starting conditions seemed unlikely. It was therefore hypothesised that there must have been a very early spectacular growth spurt which would have spread out energy until it was evenly dispersed and straightened out any curves and warps in space. This spurt was named inflation.
One could argue that this was just an elaborate fantasy designed to preserve Big Bang theory. After all, what could possibly have caused this inflation? Since the need to preserve the theory was considered so important, soon after inflation was hypothesised, it was concluded that it had indeed occurred.
So everything seemed to be fine again, at least for the time being. I’ll just mention that recently there has been a complication, in that Paul Steinhardt, one of the original contributors to inflation theory, had second thoughts, and wrote a paper in 2011 which expressed doubts about it⁴.
Later on, however, it was again decided that the observable universe did not fit with the predictions of Big Bang theory. Cosmologists were attempting to correlate the estimated mass of the galaxy with the known laws of gravity. Their results were inconsistent to the extent that their estimate of the galactic mass was off by as much as 90 percent. It was decided that the missing mass could be accounted for by postulating the existence of non-luminous, therefore invisible, dark matter. To date no one has detected it, or observed it for certain, but this does not prevent New Scientist articles from announcing frequently: “we know that the vast majority of the mass of the galaxy is hidden”.
So, once again, Big Bang Theory was back on track, assuming that dark matter actually exists. Something akin to Groundhog Day happened, however, when it was noted that galaxies were accelerating away from each other, whereas, if the initial cause of the expansion was the Big Bang, it was assumed that the expansion should be slowing down. Dark energy was therefore hypothesised, to account for the discrepancy.
Have cosmologists forgotten that, according to the scientific method, when data conflict with the predictions of a theory, you are meant to re-examine the theory? It seems, however, that the Big Bang has become so accepted that this is no longer deemed necessary. I have actually heard Harvard Professor of Physics Lisa Randall being interviewed on the radio, discussing dark matter, and saying “we have to defend the theory”. Why?
So, even though Big Bang theory has presented very serious, so far insoluble, problems, it is still accepted uncritically by the majority of cosmologists. Are they right? I believe there is a strong possibility that they are wrong. So, in the next article I’ll turn to an alternative account, what I believe to be the true history. This will challenge the Big Bang theory in its entirety. The following paragraphs give a flavour of some of the objections.
The spiritually oriented writer Robert Cox describes the problem: “Although this theory is enormously popular it amounts to little more than a modern creation myth… Its starting premise is flawed logically. The dictates of pure reason tell us that something cannot be created from nothing. (The universe) must have been made from something, though modern science is mute as to what that mysterious something might have been. If we assume the Big Bang as a starting premise, the subsequent explanation of creation can be expressed logically, though it is rooted in an unexplained miracle”⁵.
Science accepts this last point, calling it a singularity, invoking uses of the word ‘infinite’ usually reserved for God (infinitely small, infinitely dense). Cox’s last sentence is especially important, suggesting that the whole structure of Big Bang cosmology is a series of logical deductions based on the a priori assumption that Big Bang theory is correct. What if this assumption is wrong?
The philosopher Peter Wilberg gives more detail, and is even more scathing in his criticism: “The claim, now accepted as dogma, that the universe, including time and space themselves, began with a ‘Big Bang’, implies that there could be something ‘before’ time or ‘outside’ space. Such a simple logical and philosophical observation as this wholly subverts the assumption that ‘Big Bang’ theory is simply a verifiable scientific hypothesis confirmed by physical measurements and ‘observations’. Instead it is quite evidently a metaphysical theory full of logical and philosophical contradictions and paradoxes. It is effectively just a new religious creation ‘story’ or myth”⁶ .
Or as Jon Cartwright puts it from a scientific viewpoint: “Recounting the beginning of time is about finding not just the right words, but the right physics — and ever since the big bang entered the popular lexicon, that physics has been murky”³. Indeed it has!
1. For links to two versions click here.
2. issue 1583, October 22nd 1987
3. ‘Why the Big Bang was not the Beginning’, Jon Cartwright, issue 3169, March 17th 2018
4. ‘The Inflation Debate’, Scientific American, April 2011, Vol. 304 Issue 4, pp 36–43
5. Creating the Soul Body: The Sacred Science of Immortality, Inner Traditions, 2008, p90
6. The Science Delusion, New Gnosis Publications, 2008, pp 69–70