Time and SingularityApril 13, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
The Big Bang theory says that time, space, and matter/energy all originate in the same singularity, not that they all originate in “nothing.”
And I’ve seen several philosopher make the case that such a singularity is ontologically equivalent to nothing. You are just question begging.
Because time and the material universe had the same origin, it can truthfully be said that the universe has no “beginning,” since there was never a time when it did not exist.
“Almost everyone now believes that the universe, and time itself, had a beginning at the Big Bang.” (Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time,)
I think I’ll go with what the expert physicists say.
I’ll go with what the expert physicists say too. The catch is that sometimes, when writing for a non-technical audience, you have to sacrifice strict technical accuracy in favor of readability. That’s why meteorologists, despite being heliocentrists, will say, “The sun will rise at 6:52 am” instead of saying “At 6:42 am the earth will have rotated to a position relative to the sun such that a line between the sun and the eye of an observer of average height will no longer intersect the body of the earth.” Though the latter version is more technically correct, it is so needlessly complex that it actually obscures the information we’re most interested in knowing.
When Hawking and Penrose speak of the “beginning” of space and time, they’re speaking informally, for readability’s sake. For casual conversation, or a layman’s introduction to advanced physics, that’s ok. Where it gets tricky is when you start to think about what the phrase “beginning of time” might mean, because a beginning is a kind of chronological transition. In other words, when we say that a thing begins, what we mean is that a certain point in time, the thing does not exist, and then at some subsequent point in time, it does exist.
That’s our normal, intuitive perception of what a “beginning” is. We don’t even need to think about it, because we’re so familiar with “beginning” being a chronological transition. If the thing we’re talking about is time itself, however, then our normal, intuitive perception breaks down, because in order for time to begin, in the sense that we mean “beginning,” we must assume that at one point in time, time did not exist, and then at some subsequent point in time, it did exist. But that means that part of our argument involves assuming that time existed when time did not exist—a self-contradictory premise.
What Hawking and Penrose are talking about is not a “beginning of time” in the ordinary chronological sense, but rather an absolute minimum value for time. Stephen Hawking uses the example of the North Pole, 90 degrees north latitude. If you travel to the north pole by dog sled, you will find that you cannot travel north of the north pole. Obtaining more powerful transportation, like a snowmobile or a big snow rig, or even a jet or a rocket of some kind, will not help. It’s not a question of needing more power, it’s a question of there being no more “north” to go to. It just isn’t there.
Likewise with the beginning of time. It’s not that we can’t go back before the beginning of time because we lack power, or that we could travel back before the beginning of time if we were omnipotent, it’s that there’s no “before the beginning” to go back to. “What’s before the beginning of time?” is like “What’s north of the North Pole?” or “What is your speed when you come to an absolute stop and then slow down?” We can assemble the words into phrases that sound like they mean something, but there’s nothing real for them to refer to.
As for the unnamed philosophers who make the case that the singularity is “the ontological equivalent of nothing,” I have to say that’s a fascinating refutation of Geisler and Turek’s argument. The singularity referred to in the Big Bang theory is a construct whose properties are defined by the answer to the question, “What do you get when you follow natural cause-and-effect relationships back as far as they will go?” It is therefore one of the properties of the singularity that it is the origin of the entire space-time continuum that we know as our cosmos, by definition. “Singularity” is simply the label we put on the list of qualities that would have to come at the beginning of all natural causal chains.
Thus, to the extent that these philosophers are proving that the universe has its origin in “the ontological equivalent of nothing,” they are refuting Geisler and Turek’s claim that it is not possible for something to come from nothing. Of course, Geisler and Turek could argue back that these philosophers are simply wrong, and that the phrase “ontological equivalent of nothing” is mere philosophical double-talk and vapid sophistry.
For myself, I’m content to leave this particular argument to Geisler and Turek versus Facilis’ philosophers, because it’s all moot anyway. The universe has no cause, since there has never been a time when the universe did not exist. It is entirely pointless to bicker over whether it was caused by something or caused by nothing or caused by the ontological equivalent of nothing. It was not caused.
Cause and effect are concepts that assume the existence of time. The cause of an effect must happen before the effect, and “before” is a chronological relationship. The cause occurs at one point in time, and then at some subsequent point in time, the effect occurs. If Event A happens after Event B, or even at the exact same instant as B, then A is not the cause of B. The cause and effect relationship depends on which point in time corresponds to which event. Since time must already exist in order for there to be points in time, it is not possible for time to have a cause. And since time and the rest of the material universe all share the same point of origin, there is no point in time when any cause could have happened that would have created the cosmos.
Consequently, while time and the universe have the same origin, they do not, strictly speaking, have what we would normally call a “beginning,” and thus no cause. It is quite literally true that the material universe has existed for all of time and that there has never been any time when it did not exist. So add the “First Cause” argument to the list of failed Christian apologetics. It just isn’t consistent with real world truth.