2006-05-17

Big Bang or Big Bounce?

One of the major headaches (and blessings) of having really smart kids in your youth group is that they ask really tough questions. Today, I got one from Marcus. Really, it wasn't so much of a question as "Whaddaya think about this? Huh?" You see, Marcus, just for fun, was looking at articles on quantum physics and the origins of the Universe (yeah, that's what kids in my youth group do). And he came across an article about a new hypothesis put forth by Penn State quantum physicist Abhay Ashtekar, in which Ashtekar says that as the universe eventually implodes on itself into an infinitely small "ball" of matter-energy-space-time, certain "tears" occur in the multi-dimensional fabric of space time, which actually reverse the force of gravity, and turn it into an explosive force. This results in what is termed the "big bounce", in which the universe bounces out from the "ball" and creates a new universe. What this theory implies is that the universe and space time are infinite, and every time the universe "dies" in the "big crunch", it is "re-born" in the "big bang".

This theory is actually not new, but is "reincarnated" every generation or so. There are about four major theories about the origin (and demise) of the physical universe. Here we enter into the realm of "cosmology", in which the origin and end of the cosmos is studied. Here are the four major cosmological theories (that I know of) in drastically simplified form:

1. Steady State Cosmology: Basically, this states that space and time are infinite, and have always existed. Somehow, quantum "holes" (or something like them) open up in space and time to release matter and energy into space and time. This type of universe has no beginning and no end. No serious physicist I know of holds this theory, as it has been shown by quantum physics that matter, energy, space, and time are all part of the same "fabric" woven together through multi-dimensional "strings" or "membranes". Furthermore, astrophysics has shown that the universe is expanding from a central point, and that at that point (called the "singularity") all space-time-matter-energy had a common beginning (i.e. the big bang). Finally, there is the problem that matter and energy never just "appear" from nowhere (something cannot come from nothing). Sure, some physics experiments have shown that sometimes subatomic particles seem to disappear from one place, and somehow appear at another place (via a warp in space-time?), but there has never been a particle that appears from nothing at all.

2. Big Bang / Big Crunch Cosmology: Basically, all space-time-matter-energy explodes from a singularity. It keeps expanding to a maximal point, until the total gravity and other physical forces cause the universe to start imploding on itself (kind of like a rubber-band that snaps). Finally it all collapses into a small chaos ball of fusion, and then ceases to exist at all. Perhaps it may have a "rebound" or two where it bounces on itself, but eventually it just collapses into nothingness. This is one of the most common forms cosmology among physicists, along with cosmology #4.

3. Big Bounce Cosmology: The same as cosmology #2, except that it says that somehow at the point of the singularity, the physical laws start to work in a completely different way than they do right now, so that the singularity is able to explode again into the same size universe that it collapsed from. Basically, the universe is endless and exists through an infinite number of births and deaths. This is a minority version of cosmology for decades, mainly held by physicists who are atheist or pantheist (more on this later).

I do not have anywhere near the technical skills or knowledge of physics to say this is wrong. However, I will say the following: Hugh Ross (an Evangelical minister and astrophysicist) spends chapters seven and eight of "The Creator and the Cosmos" discussing the various problems with the "big bounce" model (which he calls the "oscillating universe"). The main problem is the elasticity of space-time. He presents commonly agreed upon arguments that there is just not enough "elasticity" (or "bounce") for the universe to keep expanding and contracting infinitely. A couple of three bounces, with each bounce smaller than the previous one, maybe (kind of like a basketball bouncing on its own). But not infinite bounces. Likewise, people as diverse as world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and Anglican priest and particle physicist John Polkinghorne also flatly reject "big bounce" ideas in preference for something more like #2 or #4. It seems that most of the "people in the know" just don't think there is a physical way around the second law of thermodynamics: All physical systems tend to loose energy as time goes on and become more and more disorganized, unless acted on by a force outside of the system.

It seems that Ashtekar's current hypothesis is an effort to get out of the second law of thermodynamics by using an un-testable faith statement: The universe "bounces" because of some unique reversal of physical laws that can only happen at the "end of the universe". Every few years it seems like a physicist floats an idea like this in the scientific community, and after a short time of popularity, the community generally writes it off as highly improbable and un-testable. I am waaaay out of my league to make such a statement with any type of authority, but that is what an educated "layman" sees in it.

4. Big Bang / Big Freeze Cosmology: Finally, in this cosmology, everything explodes from the singularity and the universe keeps expanding until the second law of thermodynamics sucks all energy out of the universe. The universe dies frozen, stretched out to its absolute ending point, with no hope of a "big crunch" or a "big bounce".

It is no secret that I tend to support cosmologies #2 or #4, with a preference for the "big freeze" version. Why? Two main reasons: First, I think they are the most probable hypotheses, and have the most support by "experts". I think that they best reconcile with my theology of the beginning and the end of the universe. In the beginning, God spoke and "bang", everything exploded into being. In the end, the physical universe will come to an end and God will "re-make" it, or at least restore it (more about that later).

Yet, this brings up the issue of faith-stances and cosmology. You see, science is not that scientific the further away we get from actual testable phenomena. If we are doing a chemistry or physics experiment, there is not much that faith can say about the results. They are fairly self-evident. But, when we are hypothesizing about the beginning and end of the universe, which we can never actually see and take measurements on, we start reading in our own faith-stances (or presuppositions) into the data we do have. I am a Christian, and I read a Judeo-Christian-Islamic singular monotheistic intelligent Creator into the data (so no wonder I like theory 2 and 4).

But, what happens when someone who is either atheist (no belief in God) or pantheist (belief that "God" is an impersonal force in all things) looks at the data? They want a theory that uses the data, but does not need to resort to an intelligent super-Person behind the data to account for it. They want the universe to be eternal and ongoing. Furthermore, if they are a serious pantheist of the Hindu or Buddhist varieties (among many) that believes in a cycle of death and reincarnation leading to ultimate union with "the Source" of everything, then they are likely to hypothesize the death and rebirth of the entire universe as well (in fact, this is just what many versions of Hinduism state).

For the atheist, the "big bounce" model seems to give us a universe with no cause. It just bounces infinitely, creating different kinds of universes every time it bounces. We are just lucky enough to be a universe that bounced in such a way that it was able to create self-aware beings that can do science (like us). For the pantheist-reincarnationist, the "big bounce" gives a cosmology that validates their religious beliefs. If you will look carefully at Ashtekar, you will find he is from a Hindu culture (India), and I believe you will find he is either a Hindu or a Hindu-sympathetic atheist. This is not to say he is "bad". He's not. He does just what Ross and Polkinghorne do from a Christian perspective. I am just making sure everyone in the debate is honest about the religious baggage they bring into the debate.

In the end, science can only tell us how the universe works, it cannot tell us why we are here, or why any of this is important. As Albert Einstein said "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind". None of these theories, in themselves, can answer the following questions:

1. Why is there something rather than nothing? Excluding theory 1, which seems to believe that mass and energy appear by magic, all of the other theories seem to rest on the idea that there is something rather than nothing (and a limited amount of something at that), and that something does not come from nothing. All somethings come from something else. But what is the Source, which is outside of space-time-matter-energy which makes it exist in the first place? Why are we here? The answer to this question is outside of the realm of physical science. No matter if our universe "banged" or "bounced" it still had to have a "Something" or "Someone" outside of space-time to be the Source of all lesser somethings, and get us to where we are at now.

2. Why is there intelligent complexity? Even given an infinite amount of time and "bounces", the probability that the irreducible complexity we find in our universe could exist by chance is still so infinitesimally small as to be zero. The universe, from the "elasticity" of space time, to the nature of gravity, to our exact position in the galaxy and solar system, to our atmosphere, to our DNA, to the unique adaptations of our brain, eyes, and other organs, seems to be uniquely engineered for life to appear and evolve into self-aware creatures. This is called the "anthropic principal", the principal that the complexity of the universe is uniquely and intelligently made to support human life. This does not exclude any other beings anywhere else in the galaxy, but simply states that the occurrence of life in the universe was designed, not a random "roll of the dice". No matter if our universe "banged" or "bounced" it still had to have an intelligent person setting up its parameters and guiding it to get to where we are at now.

3. Why are there self-aware persons? Impersonal things do not give rise to persons. Even if we one day create "artificial intelligence" in computers, we will just have proved this, because it was only by the design of persons that another person (i.e. a thinking machine) was created. No matter if our universe "banged" or "bounced" it still had to have an intelligent person, and not an impersonal force, to bring us to the point of personhood where we are at now.

4. What shall we do with Jesus Christ? No matter what theory we have, we still have to deal with the historical life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Christ. He still existed as a real person in real history. We have to decide whether he was a legend (a myth developed by the early Christian community), a leader (a enlightened human like Gandhi or Buddha), a liar (who pretended to be God incarnate), a lunatic (who merely thought he was God incarnate), or Lord of all in human form. Given his miracles, his resurrection, his claims to divinity, and his disciples claims to his divinity, I think the only truly probable hypothesis about him is that He is Lord, God Incarnate. No matter if our universe "banged" or "bounced" we still have to deal with the Lordship of Christ.

5. Is there Hope in the End? Excluding theory 1, all of the other theories present a rather dismal end to the universe. Left to itself, the universe either crunches into oblivion, freezes to death, or bounces out of control forever. Is this all there is to hope for, both as individuals and as a cosmos? If so, why continue living? Why bring children into this world? There has to be some hope that a Force outside of the physical system of the Universe will come in and give us hope. This we get a foretaste of in Jesus' resurrection. In Jesus, the "law of sin and death" (i.e. the personal version of the second law of thermodynamics) was destroyed by his resurrection. Just as his resurrection gives us hope to overcome the entropy of sin and death in our own lives, so also Christ will create a "new heavens and a new earth" (see Isaiah 65; Revelation 21-22) which overcomes the entropy and/or endless cycle of bounces of our universe.

As for whether or not the "big bounce" reconciles with Genesis 1-2 and the Judeo-Christian account of the creation of the world, I will say this: It certainly does not reconcile as well as either of the "big bang" theories (#2 or 4), but neither is it irreconcilable. Scripture tells us nothing about what was before the universe, other than that God was before with his Spirit "brooding" over the chaos of "the waters". It is conceivable that this is God causing the universe to "bounce" and create another universe (our universe) from the chaos of an imploded universe. I find this less than compelling, but possible. It would not hurt my pride if I found out that God made aliens in this universe, or other universes before this one, or better universes after this one. I am just glad that God loved me enough to guide the universe to make me, and that he redeemed me through Christ and calls me to be his own!

Furthermore, could the "New Heavens and New Earth" be what God makes for us after the next "bounce"? I suppose, but it does not seem probable. It would not bother me if this was the case, but I think that the "New Heavens and the New Earth" do not represent a "bounce", but rather a radical restoration of all this universe was supposed to be.

So, whether we "banged" or "bounced" my faith is not affected, because it is rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ, not in current scientific theories. It is always a mistake to wed theology to the science of the day, because the science of the day will change and make one look dumb in the future. In ages past, some theologians have wedded Christian faith to versions of a "flat earth", then a "geo-centric (Earth-centered) universe", then a 6000-year age of the earth, then a mechanistic model of the universe drawn from Newtonian physics, and most recently to a radical rejection of any type of evolution. All of these attempts seem absurd in retrospect (especially in light of current quantum physics, which may look absurd in a 100 years too!). All are wrongheaded attempts to use Scripture as a science book.

While some theories of the physical world simply cannot square with Christian faith, most scientific theories that assume the order and knowability of the universe can be squared with the Biblical account of an intelligent Creator-God. Even the "Steady State" theory (#1) above can be squared with the idea that God could have made the entire universe as a whole, without explosion or expansion, at some time in the distant past. So, while I am not a big fan of the "big bounce" theory, and I can see how it could give limited support to the ideas of atheists or pantheists, I am not afraid of it either. Because, if it is true (not likely), then it actually fits better with a Christian worldview of an intelligent, loving, Creator than it does with any other worldview.

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Copyright 2006 © Nathan L. Bostian

Bibliography:

Basic Information on concepts in this essay:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_bang
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bounce
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscillating_universe
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Crunch
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Freeze
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_foam
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle
http://www.humanthermodynamics.com/2nd-Law-Variations.html

Theology intersected with Quantum Physics and Cosmology:
Stephen Hawking. The Universe in a Nutshell. (New York: Bantam. 2001)
Stephen Hawking. Lectures on space and time. http://www.hawking.org.uk/lectures/lindex.html
John Polkinghorne. The Faith of a Physicist. (Fortress Press. 1996)
John Polkinghorne. Science and Providence: God's interaction with the world. (Templeton Foundation Press. 2005)
John Polkinghorne. The God of Hope and the End of the World. (Yale University Press. 2002.)
Hugh Ross. The Creator and the Cosmos. (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress. 1993)

Articles by Abhay Ashtekar:
http://www.science.psu.edu/alert/Ashtekar5-2006.htm
http://gravity.psu.edu/people/Ashtekar/articles.html

Some websites with dubious credentials that discredit Big Bounce and Steady State theories of the Universe:
http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~wright/stdystat.htm
http://www.godandscience.org/slideshow/sld012.html
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.