The BB singularity: implications for a creator?

Before looking at further questions concerning the Big Bang model, let’s consider the possible implications of the singularity problem (see previous post) for religion, as this topic often arises in the media.

Our best description of gravity (the dominant force in the universe at large) is Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Applied to the cosmos, general relativity has made some spectacular predictions that have since been verified by experiment (the expanding universe in particular). However, it is true that the theory breaks down as we rewind the clock of the expanding universe all the way back to time zero (the equations blow up to infinity).

Some religiously-minded scientists consider this significant, suggesting that we may be coming to a limit to what the human mind may comprehend about the work of a creator and this is also the view of many theologians. I heard several interesting talks on this topic at Cambridge last year, see the July posts on Cosmology Day at the Faraday Institute here.

Implications for a creator?

However, it’s important to emphasize that most cosmologists would say that the uncertainty really arises from quantum physics. We already know that general relativity is incomplete because it doesn’t incorporate quantum theory (the theory that describes the world of the very small with extreme accuracy). Since the space and time of the infant universe will be of quantum dimensions, we will not be able to describe it until we have a successful quantum theory of gravity. In other words, our current lack of a clear picture of the birth of the universe simply arises from a well-known limitation of the theory of relativity. In time, theoreticians will hopefully find a quantum version of relativity and we will have a clearer picture – so no there are no real implications for religion, one way or the other. I made this point in a public talk on the Big Bang last year (see post on this here), and you can find my description of the lecture in the July issue of Physics World 2008.

Interestingly, one thing we do know from quantum theory is that, even with a successful theory of quantum gravity, some uncertainty will always apply to the first instant of the universe. This is because one of the central tenets of quantum physics is that an inherent fuzziness pertains to the properties of phenomena on the smallest scales (not just a fuzziness in measurement, as many philosophers wrongly believe). This is a direct consequence of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Applied to the Big Bang model, Heisenberg uncertainty predicts that there is no exact point in time called time zero – a trade off between time and energy ensures an in-built fuzziness around this (and any other) instant in time.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle also has implications for the ‘something from nothing’ question. The trade off between time and energy of quantum theory predicts that particles of matter can ‘borrow energy’ to come into existence out of a vacuum, provided their lifetime is short enough. This bizarre behaviour of the smallest constituents of matter has been verified by experiment beyond a shadow of a doubt. Amazingly, it is actually possible in principle that the matter of the entire universe came into being this way, and then had its lifetime extended by a process known as inflation (more on inflation later).

In summary, most cosmologists would argue that there are no real implications for or against religion arising fom the singularity of the Big Bang model, particularly when quantum effects are considered. Indeed, quantum theory even predicts that the entire universe may be a free lunch!


Filed under Cosmology (general), Cosmology 101

9 responses to “The BB singularity: implications for a creator?

  1. James

    I don’t see how anyone can produce an argument from a singularity: after all it is nothing more then where your maths breaks down. I guess this is an example of the “gap argument” for mysticism. People need to fill the gaps in human knowledge, and a maths breakdown is a gap so there must be goblins or dragons there to fill it. Religious nutters, like drug addicts, will always take any excuse available to avoid confronting their problem and moving on.

    Not so sure that “spectacular” predictions of GR have been seen yet. We have evidence for some things but nothing observed has really caught the public immagination. Nobody gets impressed by the perihelion precession of mercury, or how GPS works (who even cares how their mobile works?), or pictures of distant blobs that MAY be black holes… – whatever…

    Moreover, you talk of inflation – but this is only a fringe part of the standard cosmological model – certilny NOT a consequence of clasical GR. (Probably have Einstein spinning in his grave, etc…)

    • Bill

      The reverse might be true as well. As much as there is a “God of the Gaps” as Dawkins like to say when belittling things he knows very little about (namely theology)…there is also an “Atheism of the Gaps” in which a promisory faith in some forthcoming advancement om human understanding is used to “plug up the gaps” in what is understood so far and explain away the mere suggestion of something possibly resembling an independent reasoning and purposeful agent (whatever it may be God or something other), in addition to anything other than pure blind luck in the cosmos. Perhaps I just don’t have enough faith in me to buy into the “Atheism of the Gaps”…but it is a faith based proposition none the less.

  2. cormac

    Re ‘God of the gaps’ arguments. Exactly right, it does fall into this category of argument, although the version here is that the gap is not accidental.
    Re ‘spectacular predictions of GR’, the best examples are the uniquivocal bending of light by stars and the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. I personally think the phenomenon of time dilation, particularly in GPS satellites, is the most spectacular of all – the clear intereference of gravity with time is physics at its most bizarre.
    Re ‘inflation’, I don’t mean to imply that it is a part of classical GR – of course not. However, the theory of inflation has received strong support from recent measurements of the CMB by the WMAP satellites.

  3. James


    but you’re preaching to the converted. Sure I could add the beauty of the differential geometry of Lorentzian manifolds – but I’d loose friends down the pub coming out with that kind of stuff…

    Where are the worm-holes, mini-black hole power plants, cosmic string time travel paradoxes, etc.

    QM gave us lasers, transistors, spooky enatnglent, and zombie cats.

    Well, I suppose SR gave us the atomic bomb.

  4. James

    Well, as it happens, I did list GPS in my original post.

    Once I was a passanger in a car with someone who was initially very proud of their new GPS device stuck to the inside of their winscreen. Then they got lost, and started shouting at the thing.

    I kept quiet about null geodesics…

  5. James

    “However, the theory of inflation has received strong support from recent measurements of the CMB by the WMAP satellites.”


    Is this to do with proof of inflation as an idea (or a multitude of them) or just desperately grasping for something to deal with the obvious failure of current theory to describe observations? :-)

  6. cormac

    From a theoretical standpoint, there are now many reasons to think an inflationary epoch is almost inevitable.
    From an experimental standpoint, the size of the fluctuations in the CMB, and their polarization, as measured by both COBE and WMAP, are strongly suggestive of an inflationary epoch…more on this later

  7. just for the record

    What make you so sure GR needs to be adjusted to QM, and not the other way around? After all, GR arises from clearly-formulated first principles, but no one can really tell what are the first principles underlying QM. Furthermore, the SM is based on a YM field theory, which is very similar to GR in spirit (at the classical level). I therefore guess QG will arise as a synthesis in which QM follows naturally as the high-energy manifestation of some elaborated GR-type theory, instead of GR going through some quantization process…

  8. cormac

    Both may be incomplete!
    In the case of QT, many theoreticians claim that QT may very well be incomplete. Certainly, this would explain the fundamental problems such as the measureemnt problem.
    However, this still won’t save GR – as I understand it, it is well recognized that GR does not hold on the sub-atomic scale,nor does it claim to..