Time and Singularity

Facilis writes:

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.

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Posted in Comment Rescue, Science. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Time and Singularity”

  1. John Morales Says:

    I think I’ll go with what the expert physicists say.

    That’d be ?CDM – a wee bit* too technical for me.

    * Extreme understatement there, in case it’s not obvious.

  2. R. C. Moore Says:

    I think what facilis means to say is “I will go with what I think the expert physicists seem to be saying when heard through the filter of my biases”

    I think we all do that, it is an unavoidable human characteristic. The first step is recognizing the problem of bias, the second step is using a protocol like the scientific method to minimize it as much as possible.

    Words seem to fail us when talking about the singularity, reflecting our biases, which is why physicists and mathematicians use formal symbology that is unambiguous as possible in meaning when talking about such things. It take the better part of a lifetime to learn this language, only a fraction of humanity is fluent.

    Since they have had spectacular results in the past, I will continue to rely on their skills for the future. For those who wish to find God in the equations, I will pay attention when you are speaking the same language as the physicists.

    Also, science is not a philosophy, so I always wonder why the musings of the philosophers are invoked as some sort of evidence in the matter. There is a very good analysis of the subject on Steve Novellas blog here.

  3. Loren Petrich Says:

    I find this “Argument from the Big Bang” very dubious, because of a certain little problem: quantum gravity. We don’t have a good theory of that, despite valiant efforts for over half a century. String theory is the most promising one to date, but it has problems of its own, like the non-uniqueness of the Standard Model in it. This, however, suggests the multiverse solution to the fine-tuning problem, so it may not be that great a deficiency.

    As we extrapolate backward, we run into strong quantum-gravity effects at Planck scales, and to go further, we need a good theory of quantum gravity, which we don’t have.

    Some Xian apologists have a great fondness for the Big Bang, which is very remarkable when one considers how little fondness they often have for evolution. One does not see many of them bragging about how the Bible had described descent with modification on a massive scale.

    Metacrock is one of them; he’s fond of arguing that the Big Bang somehow supports the First Cause argument. I mention him because I’ve tangled with him a lot online.

  4. Facilis Says:

    You are playing word games. Look at a ruler.
    Ask “Does this ruler have a beginning?”. Yes it does obviously. You can see where the measurement starts at 0. Where it begins. Similarly time had a begininng at point zero.
    “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.”
    No we do not. We can say the universe began at t=0. Just as if when you were measuring a line with your ruler, you can say the line begins at t=0.
    “Likewise with the beginning of time. ”
    Notice how you contradict yourself on whether space-time had a beginning.

    “they are refuting Geisler and Turek’s claim that it is not possible for something to come from nothing. ”
    G&T are arguing that God brought the universe into existence and the only alternative for naturalists is to assert that somehow a singularity (nothing) did this on its own.

    “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.”
    I hate that kind of talk. “nothing” is an ambiguous term.

    “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.”
    Here is your fatal flaw. A cause does not have to be temporally prior to its effect. For a thought experiment imagine resting a bowling ball on a couch. The bowling ball certainly causes a sinkage in the couch but the cause and effect are temporally simultaneous. Lesson: a cause is causally prior to its effect but not necessarily temporally prior to its effect.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    The bowling ball analogy is flawed because you have misidentified the cause. The movement of the ball and the deformation of the couch are both the result of the prior acceleration provided by the force of gravity. But it’s an interesting concept nonetheless.

    The problem you are facing is that any kind of change is necessarily going to be dependent on the existence of time, because change, by definition, is a difference in state between two different points in time. Thus, the cause cannot change to produce the effect, nor can any change manifest itself to serve as the effect, unless time already exists. By the time cause and effect are possible, the universe is already in existence.

    As for contradicting myself regarding the “beginning” of time, you should re-read my first paragraph. 😉

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Speaking of beginnings, I’ve re-read your first paragraph, and I notice that your “contradiction” of my point consists of restating the same things I’ve said above: that the “beginning” of time is not a chronological transition from non-existence to existence, but rather an absolute minimum value. Much as I appreciate your support, I find your tone somewhat inconsistent with what you are actually saying.

    But at least you’ve confirmed my main point, which is that there was no time prior to the beginning of the universe for any creative action to take place. Action, too, is a form of change over time, even if it’s only mental action. Imagining, designing, thinking—these are all chronologically-based changes, new ideas being formed that did not exist at an earlier point in time. No time means no action, not even thinking, and thus no Intelligent Design nor creative act. By the time any such action could have occurred, the universe already existed. The universe did not come into being “out of nothing” because there was no prior point in time when the universe did not exist. Hence, the Big Bang disproves Genesis, as literally interpreted.

  7. Facilis Says:

    I forgot to attribute the analogy (it came from Kant).
    Imagine the ball was resting on the cushion from eternity. There was no prior time when the sink in the couch did not exist. Does that mean that the sink was uncaused?
    No. The sink is still caused, we deal with simultaneous causal chains all the time. The cause (ball) is simultaneous with its effect. The ball is causally prior but not temporally prior.
    I’m arguing that God’s act of creation was simultaneous with the beginning of the universe.

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    If the ball has been resting on the cushion for an infinite amount of time, then we are no longer talking about a situation that would be analogous to the beginning of the cosmos, because the cosmos has only existed for all of time, which is not an infinite period. If we want an analogy that corresponds better to the question of how time began, we need to consider a scenario in which the ball, the cushion, and the force of gravity all begin at the same instant.

    In that scenario, an indentation will indeed be produced, once the ball is accelerated by gravitational attraction and thus caused to descend into the cushion. But acceleration is a change in velocity over time, and thus requires the existence of time so that the accelerating force can exist before it exerts its influence over the ball.

    Once the ball has sunk into the cushion, however, we do have an interesting situation. The force exerted by the cushion pushes up on the ball, causing it to slow and eventually stop. The ball, meanwhile, pushes down on the cushion, trying to accelerate as gravity requires. The two forces cancel each other out, equilibrium is reached. But what now is cause and what is effect?

    Does the ball cause the cushion to deform by sinking down into it, or does the cushion cause the ball to sink by yielding to the weight of the ball? If we replace the cushion with hardened concrete, will we achieve the same result? The ball’s cause does not operate without the cooperation of the cushion’s cause.

    The static relationship makes “cause” and “effect” more a matter of one’s point of view rather than of a more strict causality. In strict causality, the forces of the cause produce the observable changes that we call the effect. The static relationship, however, produces no changes at all. What is, simply is. “Cause” and “effect” are merely arbitrary designations for the relationships we observe in stasis.

    There may be a place for the concept of “static causal relationships,” but if they exist at all they are a different class of phenomenon than the sort of cause and effect which produces changes. That makes them irrelevant to the question of whether a Creator acted (i.e. produced changes over time) in order to create the cosmos. Acts require time, since an “act” in which nothing changes is not an act at all, and a change is a difference in condition or status at two different points in time.

    Thus, no act (of God or aliens or leprechauns) could have resulted in the “beginning” of time. By the time acts were possible, space-time was already here. It would be more correct to say that the beginning of space-time is the cause of God’s ability to act.