Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cosmology and Culture: A Beginningless Universe?

According to a recent article, some physicists have developed a theory that would provide an alternative to the Big Bang theory (the actual theory, not the bland, unfunny TV show). According to this theory, the universe is beginningless (i.e., it has always existed), whereas according to the Big Bang theory the universe came into existence roughly 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang itself is supposed to have been a tiny singularity that could not have made a sound, so oddly enough it was neither big nor a bang – I guess a catchy name never hurts, though, even in science.

I can't claim to follow all of the details of the physics involved. As an outside observer, however, I do think it's interesting that at least three of the physicists mentioned in the article in conjunction with this theory (Das, Raychaudhuri, and Bhaduri) are Indian or at least have Indian names. The Big Bang makes sense in cultures dominated by Abrahamic views of creation found in the Bible and the Qur'an, whereas a beginningless universe was not an uncommon idea in classical India.

Indian Buddhist philosophers, for instance, frequently refer to the beginninglessness of the universe and the suffering it contains. Even the one classical Indian school that does have a theistic account of creation, Nyāya, argues that a deity created the universe with the building blocks of pre-existing eternal atoms and selves – the idea of creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) was for the most part philosophically abhorrent in classical India.

So what I am wondering is how, and to what extent, one's cultural background may have some effect on what seems plausible in science or what hypotheses are taken seriously. This could be true even if plain old scientific criteria (simplicity, conservatism, etc.) are doing most of the work once the hypotheses are out there.

As for which theory seems more plausible to me, much of my thinking on these issues comes out of my teaching and thinking about what philosophers call Cosmological Arguments and criticisms of these types of arguments. Cosmological arguments posit that God is the cause or explanation of the fact that the universe exists; unsurprisingly, one criticism is that the universe may be beginningless or otherwise not in need of an explanation.  And of course Stephen Hawking has provocatively claimed that the Big Bang and the laws of physics suffice to explain the universe on their own without needing an additional (theistic) explanation.  Whether we're talking physics or philosophy of religion, however, I suspect that both kinds of models (a universe coming from nothing or a beginningless universe) are equally difficult for humans to fully conceptualize – it’s something out of nothing versus the physically infinite. In neither case do our minds, which evolved to make sense of relatively small and predictable chunks of space/time, have much to go on. The amazing thing, however, is that our minds evolved the ability to ask these questions, even if answers are often elusive. This is something that also continually amazes me about philosophical questions with elusive answers.

Will the new beginningless model overturn the Big Bang? Probably not. Scientific theories as well established as the Big Bang aren’t taken down easily. Nonetheless, it will be fun to watch the physicists try to sort this out, especially in theoretical physics (or as I came to think of it when reading about string theory: metaphysics with fancy math).

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