How the Universe Began Without God

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 21, 2009 in General Atheism,Science

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) Last time, I discussed naturalism as a worldview. Today I discuss what we know about The Nature and Origin of the Universe, based on the results of our best methods for truth-finding.

Why does the universe exist? Where did it come from? Why is it the way it is? These are tough questions, and nobody really knows the answers. Our facts are too few and uncertain. But some inferences are more plausible than others.

Let me say up front this is one of my favorite sections of the book, and I’m not usually excited by cosmology. You really should get the book to read it in its full glory.

God: the failed hypothesis

The “Goddidit” hypothesis is especially weak:

…the theory either contradicts a lot of evidence or, to avoid that, entails a huge complex of ad hoc assumptions to explain those contradictions away. Worse, the idea that there was a god around… when there was no place for it to exist, that something acted when there was no time in which it could act… is pretty much unintelligible. Some theologians thus invent a second layer of uncreated time or space for God to work in, but this is yet another ad hoc assumption for which we have no evidence and that only creates a new problem: what caused that layer of space or time to exist?

…observe that the only things we have ever proven to exist are matter, energy, space, and time… Since we can explain everything by appealing to only those things and their properties, then (all else being equal) such an explanation is the most plausible one around – leaving no need… to go beyond them and invent all manner of unproven entities, like gods and spirits and miraculous powers.

[Also, the god hypothesis] does not have much explanatory power. It does not follow from “there is a God” [that] “God will create this universe, just as we see it,” since any description of God that people would agree with would sooner entail a quite different universe… Second, this theory does not have much explanatory scope. Almost none of the features of the universe are explained by saying “God did it!”

Furthermore, God is a poor fit for the Big Bang. The “Goddidit” hypothesis would not predict that God should use such a long and violent process to create a messy universe, much less tiny humans in a remote corner of a vast emptiness. Why quarks or neutrinos or black holes? God needs none of these things. The god theory predicts almost nothing that we actually see.

In contrast, there are several naturalist theories that do predict the peculiar and vast universe we live in, and without resorting to all kinds of magical, ad hoc assumptions about timeless, spaceless, all-powerful, uncaused, disembodied superminds.

Let’s examine two of them.

Chaotic Inflation theory

Alan Guth‘s Eternal inflation and its implicaitons (2007) is an up-to-date summary of the evidence for Chaotic Inflation theory, and what we’d expect to discover in this century if it is indeed true.

Unlike the God theory, Chaotic Inflation makes very specific predictions about what we should find if it is true, and indeed we do find many of those things. Namely:

  • that the universe is unimaginably huge
  • the Hubble expansion
  • the precise uniformity of the cosmic background radiation in the observable universe, in all directions
  • the extraordinary “flatness” of the universe
  • the absence of massive, negatively-charged particles (grand unified theories predict such particles, but we do not find them, and Chaotic Inflation is the simplest way to diffuse such particles)
  • there were once several models that fit all the data, but recent discoveries about the angular wavelength of the cosmic background radiation have ruled out several theories, while Chaotic Inflation still stands
  • that there are quarks and neutrinos with the specific properties we observe
  • only dimensions and particles exist, which happens to be true

Despite this remarkable and precise coherence with known facts, we are nowhere near sure that Chaotic Inflation theory is correct. But after all this, it is rather laughable to think the God theory has any plausibility. The God theory predicts almost nothing in particular, and certainly nothing so specific and previously unknown as all the above!

So what is Chaotic Inflation theory? It posits that certain properties of the universe froze into place when the early universe cooled. Due to quantum indeterminacy, some parts of the universe picked up different features than others (some with no quarks, some with bigger quarks, some with smaller quarks, etc.). Then, when the universe inflated to trillions of times its original size, each of these little parts became as large as our observable universe today. So, the universe appears incredibly uniform in all directions as far as we can see, but if we could see far enough we would find other parts of the universe that behave very differently.

Cosmological natural selection theory

Another theory  that fits all the available evidence – this time with one ad hoc assumption (which is still thousands fewer than the number of ad hoc assumptions required for the God theory to explain all the peculiarities of our universe) – is cosmological natural selection theory (hereafter, “Smolin Selection”).

Lee Smolin, who came up with this theory, recently wrote The status of cosmological natural selection (2006), a nice update on the theory’s status. Like Chaotic Inflation, Smolin Selection makes very specific predictions about what we should find if it is true, and indeed we do find many of those things. For example, Smolin Selection explains why:

  • when we smash big atoms into each other, the resulting mess of tiny particles appears in exactly the same ratio as what apparently came out of the Big Bang
  • our universe is fine-tuned for stars that produce carbon chemistry
  • the Fermi constant is in the narrow range required for supernovas to work
  • there is a specific limit to the mass of neutron stars
  • inflation must be single field, single parameter inflation
  • there was very little early star formation
  • there are quarks and neutrinos with the specific properties we observe
  • the universe is so suitable for black holes

All these very specific predictions follow from the mathematics of Smolin Selection, and so far they are all true. One again, the God theory looks vague, childish, ad hoc, and without any predictive scope and power compared to a genuine scientific theory like this!

So what is Smolin Selection? It all started with the observation that…

…the Big Bang looks just like a black hole. When we crash big atoms into each other in particle accelerators, they break into a whole crazy mess of particles, and it turns out that the ratio among those different particles, every time we do this, is exactly the same ratio of particles that apparently came out of the Big Bang. So the Big Bang looks exactly like what happens when you squeeze a big atom enough until it explodes… Yet this happens all the time in our universe, for that’s exactly what black holes are… Our universe is chock full of these things. There are trillions and trillions of them.

Now, that’s pretty odd. It is almost as if the very purpose of the universe was to create black holes… Simply look at the facts: first, there are a lot more black holes than life-bearing planets… second, a lot more material in this universe is devoted to creating black holes than to creating life… third, this universe is almost entirely a vacuum… yet black holes thrive in a vacuum, while life is killed by it; fourth, even in this very rare, habitable pond called earth, life has a really difficult time surviving… fact number five: space is chock full of [deadly] radiation and debris, which happens to be food for black holes, but death for us; and sixth, life can be wiped out easily, and has a very hard time even getting started, yet black holes are inevitable products of the universe, and then it is almost impossible to get rid of them…

Clearly, we are not made for this universe. But black holes are right at home. “God did it” does not explain this. It doesn’t even make sense of it…

The bottom line? Most of this universe – by far – serves the function of producing and sustaining countless numbers of black holes.

So basically, Smolin thought: if the Big Bang looks exactly like a big mass crushed to an extreme point, and a black hole is a big mass crushed to an extreme point, then maybe inside every black hole a new Big Bang explodes into another dimension, outside our universe.

Like Chaotic Inflation, this fits with everything we know in physics. It requires only one ad hoc assumption: a new physical law requiring that when a new Big Bang explodes into a new dimension, some of the properties of the new universe will be different due to quantum indeterminacy, but some others will be “remembered” from the earlier universe that birthed it.

This is an ad hoc feature. But it has two pieces of evidence in support of it: it predicts exactly what we observe (a universe tailor-made for black holes), and does so by appealing to the only natural process that we know for a fact can produce such complexity – evolution by natural selection. For Smolin’s one single assumption produces all three ingredients: reproduction – as every universe producing black holes spawns new universes… mutation – as each universe is randomly just a little different than the next; and selection – as only those universes that are rich producers of black holes will multiply.

Summary

These are just two theories that explain the specific features of our universe with amazing accuracy, explanatory scope, and explanatory power, with either one or zero ad hoc assumptions. Contrast this with the God theory, which has no predictive accuracy, explanatory scope, or explanatory power, and dozens or hundreds of ad hoc assumptions outside known physics, and you’ll see why the God theory is such a poor explanation for our observable universe. (Also see Theism and Explanation.)

Next up, I’ll discuss section III.3.4 The Multiverse as Ultimate Being.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Derek June 21, 2009 at 5:24 pm


“These are just two theories that explain the specific features of our universe with amazing accuracy, explanatory scope, and explanatory power, with either one or zero ad hoc assumptions. Contrast this with the God theory, which has no predictive accuracy, explanatory scope, or explanatory power, and dozens or hundreds of ad hoc assumptions outside known physics, and you’ll see why the God theory is such a poor explanation for our observable universe.”
 
If P, then Q.
Q.
Therefore, P.
 
Invalid, my friend.  
 
But perhaps you’re just trying to say that “predictive accuracy, explanatory scope, or explanatory power” somehow rationally justify our acceptance of T.  But what’s the argument for this? 
 
Suppose theory T explains everything there is to explain, it makes the most accurate predictions, and it does whatever else a good theory is supposed to do.  Without begging the question, how do these features of T imply, entail, or make probable the truth of T?
 
“…observe that the only things we have ever proven to exist are matter, energy, space, and time…”
 
Proven?  I think Mr. Carrier should stop writing ad vulgus this unenlightened nonsense and challenge himself by resurrecting Popper’s failed project and/or refuting Kuhn’s thesis.  

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lukeprog June 21, 2009 at 6:04 pm

Derek,

You seem to be questioning the entire strategy of abductive reasoning so that theism can be spared. Have I misunderstood you?

In any case, if you demand a thorough defense of abductive reasoning, that would take me some time, just as it would take some time to thoroughly defend the theories of relativity or evolution if you denied them. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to make those battles my battles.

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Lorkas June 21, 2009 at 6:42 pm

 

Derek: If P, then Q.
Q.
Therefore, P.

You’re describing the reason why science doesn’t provide certainty about what is true in the universe, even though it can show us what is very probably true.
 
 
Science is very good at ruling out explanations, in the form:

If P, then Q
~Q
Therefore, ~P

but it can’t say with logical certainty which explanation is actually the true one. If we concoct many, many tests for whether a theory is true, and it passes all the tests, we can say that it is likely that the explanation is more or less true, but it’s always possible that someone could come up with a test that the theory fails, which effectively disproves the theory (or at least an aspect of the theory) by modus tollens.
 
To paraphrase a quote from Einstein: No amount of experimentation can ever prove my theory right, but a single experiment can prove it wrong. This is why science works so well–scientific explanations have to survive every conceivable test, or they are rejected (or modified).

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Derek June 21, 2009 at 7:33 pm


“You seem to be questioning the entire strategy of abductive reasoning so that theism can be spared. Have I misunderstood you?”
 
You explicitly chastise theism for not meeting what you assume to be relevant evidential criteria for its truth, as if such criteria enjoy wide spread consensus or are just plain obvious.   But, as any philosopher of science will tell you, there is no consensus whatever on the relevance and validity of such criteria.  This renders your comments either disingenuous or ignorant, depending on whether you know better.
 
“In any case, if you demand a thorough defense of abductive reasoning, that would take me some time.”
 
I’m not asking for a thorough defense of anything.  A concise statement of the nuts and bolts of your view would be nice.  Hopefully this is all you need.  It would be strange if a theist ought to be deemed irrational or going beyond her intellectual rights if her theism didn’t meet the evidential standards 99.9% of the world would be unable to articulate.
 
“But that doesn’t mean I’m going to make those battles my battles.”
 
If you don’t want anything more than a superficial ad populum cum naive scientism critique of theism, I agree 

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Derek June 21, 2009 at 8:11 pm


“You’re describing the reason why science doesn’t provide certainty about what is true in the universe, even though it can show us what is very probably true.”
 
Probably true?  In the wake of Hume, Popper, Kuhn, et al., this is a very naïve thing to say— unless, of course, you adopt a very “unscientific” metaphysics and/or epistemology. 
 
“Science is very good at ruling out explanations, in the form:
If P, then Q
~Q
Therefore, ~P”
No one disagrees here.  Of course, any falsified theory can be true the moment after it’s been falsified.  To say anything else requires some form of induction.
 
“but it can’t say with logical certainty which explanation is actually the true one. If we concoct many, many tests for whether a theory is true, and it passes all the tests, we can say that it is likely that the explanation is more or less true.”
 

So you say.  But again, what’s the epistemic principle that makes T probably or likely to be true?
 
Suppose T “passes” 100,000 tests.  What justification do we have to think that T is probably or likely to be true?

 

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lukeprog June 21, 2009 at 9:04 pm

Derek,

The quickest way to explain my epistemology here is to reference the work of E.T. Jaynes on probabilistic logic. But I’ll be covering that in more detail in my series Intro to Logic.

What principles do YOU think work the best in discovering truth?

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Ben June 21, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Derek,
I don’t see the wisdom of bringing up the problem of induction in a post not particularly related to that topic since you could refute the probability of someone that is hungry going to the grocery store just as easily.  So naive, right?  hehe
Regardless, I also don’t see how theists know that God’s powers will work tomorrow or that God won’t completely change everything if he wants to in his infinite wisdom any more than naturalists know nature will continue to be uniform as is.  It’s not naivety, it’s practicality (for everyone) and the nuance seems to elude you if you don’t mind me saying so.  Instead of one assumption (of uniformity), theists would like us to add another (the nature of God’s essence) and pretend like we should be philosophically thankful?  Not sure I can buy that.  :D
Such abductive and inductive inferences could just as easily be prefaced with the unspoken disclaimer, “If what we think we know holds true…” and I sincerely doubt anyone will ever be able to do better than that.  Good luck though.
Ben
 

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Derek June 30, 2009 at 11:31 am


“What principles do YOU think work the best in discovering truth?”
 
I don’t subscribe to a particular method or principle.   I would describe myself as an experimental particularist, one who thinks any and all methods presuppose an ontology and epistemology that the method itself cannot account for. My ontology grows with experience, my epistemology is derived from the types of entities that I experience, and pure reason has the job of clarifying the raw data of experience*.   So I make the following two presuppositions:
(1) The “world” is fundamentally knowable.
(2) The mode of knowing follows from the object known.
 
But these two precepts hardly count as a methodology or principle for “discovering the truth”. 
 
* “experience” here should be understood as broadly as possible.  

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 2:45 pm

“Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists”

What a hysterically ironic substitute title, Luke. Freudian slip I suppose. ;)

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 4:38 pm

One more I had to address…

Furthermore, God is a poor fit for the Big Bang. The “Goddidit” hypothesis would not predict that God should use such a long and violent process to create a messy universe, much less tiny humans in a remote corner of a vast emptiness. Why quarks or neutrinos or black holes? God needs none of these things. The god theory predicts almost nothing that we actually see.

“Why would God do all of THIS.. for us?” That is really the quintessence of your dilemma, Luke. The more you study classic philosophy (which evidently you have avoided for the most part), the closer you will get to the answer.

Just my .02

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lukeprog November 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Freudian slip?

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Ben December 1, 2009 at 1:29 am

lukeprog: Freudian slip?

Yeah, I don’t see what he’s seeing either.

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Ben December 7, 2009 at 11:09 am

It does not appear that either of the scientific theories propose how anything got here in the first place. The God Theory attempts to explain how the physical world came to be; these theories explain how our universe is.

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Al Moritz August 11, 2010 at 2:25 am

I point out all the problems with cosmological natural selection here (section 3):

http://home.earthlink.net/~almoritz/cosmological-arguments-god.htm

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Al Moritz August 11, 2010 at 2:30 am

What a hysterically ironic substitute title, Luke. Freudian slip I suppose. ;)

Indeed, hehe ;-)

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Al Moritz August 11, 2010 at 3:11 am

The “Goddidit” hypothesis would not predict that God should use such a long and violent process to create a messy universe,

Indeed, why would God choose such a tedious manner of creation where He has to wait for billions of years until stars and planets form and further, until humans arrive? If there really were a God, he would not have chosen such an inefficient way of creation as evolution.

However, this argument with respect to a ‘waiting’ God is philosophically irrelevant since it ignores the attributes of divine nature; it is based on ill-informed and far too ‘little’ concepts of God.

God is – or from the viewpoint of philosophical concept, has to be – infinite, non-material (i.e. non-corporeal as well) and eternal. He lives outside the dimensions of space and time; after all, He created them in the first place. As a consequence, everything in the domain of time can exist for Him in an instant: God does not need to ‘wait’.

Fine, but why did God not simply put a solar system up there with a nice little Earth, instead of going through all the trouble of physical evolution of a whole universe? Many atheists seem to have in common with creationists, who expect God to have ‘swooshed down from heaven’ in order to tinker with the first living cell, that they see God as an engineer. I prefer to see God as an artist, who apparently found it much more satisfying to let everything develop within a grandiose structure, a vast universe, instead of tinkering around with solar systems and RNA polymerases. A term like ‘efficiency’ does not apply, it only make sense in judging the work of someone who has limited resources at his/her disposal.

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Al Moritz August 11, 2010 at 3:23 am

Quote:
“The “Goddidit” hypothesis would not predict that God should use such a long and violent process to create a messy universe, much less tiny humans in a remote corner of a vast emptiness.”

There are two reasons why God would create such a vast universe.

1. Because of His nature:
Theology has held since ancient time that God is infinite. The revelation by science how vast our universe, God’s creation, really is (and it may be even much larger than what we can observe) gives a limited glimpse to the believer what God’s infinity really may mean. Already in the 15th century the Cardinal, theologian and astronomer Nicolas of Cusa claimed that only an infinite universe would be worthy of its Creator. He would have been delighted to see the pictures from the Hubble telescope.

2. For physical reasons:
As physicist Stephen Barr writes in his essay on Anthropic Coincidences about age and size of the universe:

“It turns out that the very age and vastness of the universe may have an ‘anthropic’ significance. Life emerged in our universe in a way that required great stretches of time. As we have seen, most of the elements needed for life were made deep in stars. Those stars had to explode to disperse those elements and make them available before life could even begin to evolve. That whole process alone required billions of years. The evolution of human life from those elements required billions of years more. Thus, the briefness of human life spans and even of human history compared with the age of the universe may simply be a matter of physical necessity, given the developmental way that God seems to prefer to work. It takes longer for a tree to grow to maturity than the fruit of the tree lasts. It took much longer for the universe to grow to maturity than we last.

“Physics can also suggest why the universe has to be so large. The laws of gravity discovered by Einstein relate the size of the universe directly to its age. The fact that the universe is many billions of light-years across is related to the fact that it has lasted several billions of years. Perhaps we would be less daunted by a cozy little universe the size, say, of a continent. But such a universe would have lasted only a few milliseconds. Even a universe the size of the solar system would have lasted only a few hours. A universe constructed in such a way as to evolve life may well have had to extend widely in space as well as in time. It may well be that the frightening expanses that are so often said to be a sign of human insignificance may actually, like so many other features of our strange universe, point to man, as they also proclaim the glory of God.”

***

Humans in a remote corner (of a galaxy)? Exactly that is what is needed for life. Radiation and gravitational forces do not allow for life close to the center of a galaxy.

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Al Moritz August 11, 2010 at 3:27 am

Worse, the idea that there was a god around… when there was no place for it to exist, that something acted when there was no time in which it could act… is pretty much unintelligible. Some theologians thus invent a second layer of uncreated time or space for God to work in, but this is yet another ad hoc assumption for which we have no evidence and that only creates a new problem: what caused that layer of space or time to exist?

What a bunch of nonsense that Carrier is spewing out here. There is no “second layer of uncreated time or space for God to work in”. God is simply outside space and time; actually, space and time were *created* by Him in the first place.

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