If our discussion on nothingness (nihilo) rendered me cross-eyed, then looking at theories on how the universe may be eternal could potentially melt my brain. I have to be extremely clear. This upcoming discussion will be my attempt to interpret complex physics in relationship to the ideas I previously expounded on. I am not a physicist, so it may be better for me to just go about my day and worry about things I actually have a clue on. I am stubborn though, as well as curious, so the quest for knowledge will carry on.
First I must restate that nothing (nihilo) is a concept incapable of being defined through scientific definitions. It would be better to equate it with a concept the ancient philosophers called the void. The void is impenetrable by physical laws so it remains a notion for the philosophers to contemplate. Here is a report from The Scientific American on a recent discussion by leading scientists on the concept of nothingness; you will see the definition eludes their grasp:
Later in the program, he (Lawrence Krauss) tried to explain the creation of the universe from nothing as being like a photon shooting out of a light bulb—it didn’t exist a second ago, but now here it is. (At which point the night’s moderator, Neil Degrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, interrupted him with “but that was energy, it wasn’t just nothing.”)
Physics attempts to define nothing, as in this post from Scienceblogs, but it is simply a place where space is infinite—not an actual void.
(Y)es, I’m fully aware (it) is not the same as philosophical nothingness…
So again, if the universe began at some point, and the other side of that beginning was a void ex nihilo, the Atheist, as well as the physicist, must concede that science is incapable of determining our cosmological origins and the concept of a Prime Mover must be entertained. The fact is, without a Prime Mover– an entity independent of physical laws such as space and time– the universe must be eternal. It need not have existed in the state presently observable to us but it must have existed in some form to the eternal past. Without a Creator, the universe cannot have beginning. That is why the popular ideas about the Big Bang prove inconsistent with Atheism. Though as with most ideas, the popular ones are misinformed.
I need to shift again. The ideas I will attempt to convey in the proceeding paragraphs will concern the scientific field of Physics. It will not be proper to continue with the Atheist/Christian dichotomy. I do not want to express an opinion which pits scientific research against Christian theology. This research is working to find answers about the nature of our universe. In the Orthodox Church, the use of the arts to search for knowledge and truth is a gift from God and does not exclude that search within the field of Physics. God is, so moving toward a more complete understanding of His creation will never reach a conclusion where God is not. For the record, that does not mean we do not debate these issue in the Orthodox Church. Compatibility with Church Tradition is still something we are required to measure. More on this later.
Physicists have long been aware of the problems they face when advancing the notion that the universe had a cosmological origin for the exact reasons I stated above. A Big Bang from an initial singularity does not answer the question of what came before, so for some time now, physicists have abandoned the theory. You heard that correct; current physics does not teach our universe began 13.7 billion years ago with an exploding singularity. Several popular theories have been circling around to answer how the universe could be eternal. One is the cyclical universe, where Big Bangs, followed by expansion, shrinking, and then Big Crunches repeat into the eternal past. Another is the theory of inflationary cosmology. This is a very difficult concept for my brain to wrap around, but in relationship to an eternal past (jump to the section “Infinite Implications” in the link), the inflation model suggests that the universe expands at different rates which could provide for the existence of multiverses. The third most popular theory is the emergent universe. This theory is often compared to a cosmic egg, where the universe nested into the eternal past and then suddenly expanded. Notice all these are consistent with a Big Bang event but are searching for what came before hand.
These are the current competing models of our cosmological origins. Work with inflationary cosmology, led by Stephen Hawking, is gaining the most ground. Singularities are sort of falling out of fashion and Hawking has even suggested that Black Holes do not have them though he has not provided proofs. All fascinating stuff but have they provided proof of an eternal universe? The answer is no. In fact, a 2012 study done out of Tuft University has proven that all of these models cannot escape what they call a past incomplete. Simply stated—science currently suggests the universe probably had a beginning.
Both eternal inflation and cyclic universe scenarios have Hav> 0, which means that they must be past-geodesically incomplete. We have also examined a simple emergent universe model, and concluded that it cannot escape quantum collapse. Even considering more general emergent universe models, there do not seem to be any matter sources that admit solutions that are immune to collapse.
Yeah, don’t ask me to define anything from that passage. Here is an interview with Alexander Vilenkin, one of the researches in this study.
What does all of this mean for our discussion? Before moving into my commentary on the implications of this current science I want to make a point. In our culture, the loudest arguments get the most attention. There is a loud group of Christians who feel threatened by scientific advances because they feel the scientific community is attempting to discredit their long held beliefs. There is also a loud group of Atheists who feel threatened because they feel people of faith are attempting to discredit their long held beliefs. If these two loud groups were the only groups, their concerns would be legitimate, but they are actually minorities. The scientific community is filled with people of varying degrees and expressions of faith. They do their research solely for the purpose of discovery. There are Christians who champion the progress of science because they do not see it as a threat to their faith. My point is, science and faith are not in opposition to each other; science cannot disprove faith and faith is not asking the same questions as science.
Now that we have all hugged and made up, I want to move back into the Atheist/Christian dichotomy to discuss what the physics presented in this essay means to that debate. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good argument?
Does science prove that Atheism is wrong? Can it? Read on in Atheism and Eternity: Understanding the Being of Creation.