The Language of God: In the Beginning…

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

After his prelude, Collins begins at the beginning: The Big Bang. He talks about what it is, asks what came before it, and argues that it cries out for a divine explanation. The Big Bang doesn’t just cry out for an explanation – no, no, no – it cries out for a divine explanation. Nothing like checking your biases at the door when doing that science thing, right?

We saw previously that he knows what a theory is, so this guy knows how to do science. I was a little disappointed, though, when I saw he hadn’t laid out many lines of evidence for the Big Bang. And, given a recent poll that only 33% of Americans agree that the universe began with the Big Bang, I really would have liked to have seen Collins give a fully credible account. Granted, he does a pretty decent job explaining Einstein’s cosmological constant, but that only goes so far as to lend support to Edwin Hubble’s observations of redshift that led to the conclusion that the universe was expanding. The only real lines of evidence Collins provides for the Big Bang are the cosmic microwave background radiation and the theory’s ability to predict concentrations of hydrogen, deuterium, and helium – called nucleosynthesis.

Collins doesn’t lay out all the lines of evidence for the Big Bang as I wish he had, so I’ll add them here, courtesy of AstronomyCast:
Collins’ list:

  • Cosmic microwave background radiation
  • Nucleosynthesis

Additional lines of evidence:

  • Things are older as we look at things further away, with the example of the Hubble Deep Field.
  • Olber’s Paradox, which states that in a stable, infinite universe, the night sky should blaze with the light of the stars that lie in all directions, even those far away. Since this is not the case, the universe is not infinite and must have had a beginning.

OK, so we now have four lines of evidence for the Big Bang. But we aren’t exactly sure what the Big Bang is. Collins states that physicists are in agreement that the universe began as an “infinitely dense, dimensionless point of pure energy” (p.65). This is regularly referred to as a singularity, but there’s a problem with that: Scientists really haven’t been in agreement over this. Here are some interesting hypotheses:

  • Hawking, Ellis, and Penrose published works from 1968-1970 that would refute Collins’ claim that a singularity is a dimensionless point of pure energy. For, as is a common misconception, the singularity did not appear in space; rather, space, time, matter, and energy all appeared in the singularity! Before the Big Bang, according to their model, nothing existed.
  • Hartle-Hawking no-boundary models have the Big Bang representing the limits of time without the need of a singularity.
  • Other models, like brane cosmology and chaotic inflation, invoke string theory and a possible multiverse.

Collins thinks the Big Bang begs the question of what came before that: namely, who or what was responsible? Specifically, Collins talks about faith traditions that maintain that God created the universe from nothingness (ex nihilo). However, Lawrence Krauss gave a lecture at the 2009 Atheist Alliance International meeting discussing a universe from nothing. (Note: this YouTube video is about an hour long, but totally worth it.) In the discussion, Krauss points out that the total energy of the universe is zero! Quoting from an adaptation of The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium, 1st edition, by Jay M. Pasachoff and Alex Filippenko, found on the Astronomical Society of the Pacific:

The idea of a zero-energy universe, together with inflation, suggests that all one needs is just a tiny bit of energy to get the whole thing started (that is, a tiny volume of energy in which inflation can begin). The universe then experiences inflationary expansion, but without creating net energy.

What produced the energy before inflation? This is perhaps the ultimate question. As crazy as it might seem, the energy may have come out of nothing! The meaning of “nothing” is somewhat ambiguous here. It might be the vacuum in some pre-existing space and time, or it could be nothing at all – that is, all concepts of space and time were created with the universe itself.

Collins finds his answer – God did it – from astrophysicist Robert Jastrow: “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy” (p.67).

The essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same?!? Hmm, let’s compare (oh, and we’ll only choose one of the two Genesis creation myths). I found a nifty image showing how attempting to harmonize the creation myth to evolutionary epochs fails miserably. But also note how fruit trees come before the sun, moon, and stars. Our sun is about 4.5 billion years old. Land plants (clade embryophyta) didn’t appear until the Paleozoic era, which was between 543 and 248 million years ago. And let’s not forget that the Bible considers the moon a great light (Gen 1:16). But that’s just one of those pesky details that differs.

Finally, Collins says that he has to agree with Jastrow and that he “cannot see how nature could have created itself” (p.67). This is textbook God-of-the-gaps arguing right here. I could shake my head and say, “Oh, that wacky Collins!” as we see one more expert trying to render an expert opinion on a field of which he’s wholly unqualified, but I know what harm it does when people read stuff like this. My parents gave me this book as a Christmas present last year, which happened to be the first Christmas since my open deconversion. My parents were utterly convinced that Collins’ book would bring me back into the fold. After all, Collins is a smart guy, right? Now, every occasion is greeted by horrible apologetics; they gave me “The Case for a Creator” for my birthday. *sigh*

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Herb

    Things are older as we look at things further away

    I think you mean younger

  • TEP

    Collins finds his answer – God did it – from astrophysicist Robert Jastrow: “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements and the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy” (p.67).

    The error Collins and many theists make is in assuming that if you can prove that a given scenario is consistent with observed facts about the universe, that alone is enough to demonstrate that those facts are simply an instance of that scenario. Hence the universe beginning at a single point in time, being consistent with the Genesis account, clearly must be the Genesis account. Who cares about the fact that there are infinitely many other scenarios just as consistant with those observed facts. After all, the idea that the universe may have been the product of a quantum fluctuation is pretty consistent with the Hellenic idea that the universe came to be when the first of the gods, Gaia, was born out of chaos. This doesn’t give us reason to believe in the Hellenic pantheon, for the simple reason that observed facts being consistent with a given scenario simply means no more than that they fail to disprove that scenario – it gives us no positive reasons for believing a proposition. It says a lot about the state of Christian apologetics that the best that can be done is to show that a given observation doesn’t disprove Christianity, and to then try to give the impression that their compatibility with Christianity makes them evidence for Christianity. By the same standards of evidence, one might as well argue that the existence of rain, being completely consistent with the existence of rain faeries, is therefore proof of their existence.

  • Nathaniel

    Seeing such a smart man become so stupid when it comes to looking at facts relating to his faith is quite painful indeed. Francis Collins, you should know better than this.

  • Scotlyn

    After watching the Krauss lecture (and speaking as a complete non-physicist, so forgive any unavoidable ignorance here), I don’t know why the question is phrased as “how did ‘something’ arise from ‘nothing’”?

    Krauss has done a good job of persuading me that the universe is still, statistically speaking, more like ‘nothing’ than like ‘something.’ Which can easily come from ‘nothing.’

  • mikespeir

    They never leave their suppositions at the door. I dare say that if the idea of God wasn’t already firmly lodged in people’s minds, nothing about the phenomena of cosmology, axiology, teleology, ontology, etc. would suggest it to them.

  • Domyan

    @TEP Well said. I never could understand why would theists feel that they should congratulate themselves for stretching a non-scientific theory to fit the observational facts. That’s not hard at all. You can think of an infinite number of non-scientific (as in untestable and therefore unfalsifiable) claims that are consistent with what we know about the universe. The question is why would you pick one and not the other, apart your purely subjective preference?

    I was also thinking how would a scientific paper of a true and intellectually honest theist (not deist) look like. Maybe something like this?
    “… Even though the results of my experiment are quite surprising I must warn the scientific community that I am a devoted Christian. As much as I have tried to conduct the experiment in an impartial fashion, the all knowing God was certainly aware that my greatest hope, something that I have been praying for most of my life was to make a significant new discovery. There is, therefore, a real possibility that the most wonderful God interfered with the nature of things to allow me to witness this miracle. Was this a once-off experimental event or a result of a real natural law, it’s hard to tell. The further study by teams of atheists and also theists who pray that my results are not correct should possibly shine more light on this subject. I will also try praying (as sincerely as it is humanly possible in the situation) that my result is due to a human error and see if there is any observable effect. Even in case of a independent confirmation of my observation, it’s hard to discern is it a result of a eternal, unchanging law of nature or did God actually make a new law for me to discover. We should certainly keep an eye on this newly discovered effect in case it’s not permanent and also if there is any correlation between the faith of the observer and the experimental result.”

    It seems to me you can’t be both a honest scientist and a honest theist (belief in a personal, omnipotent God who answers prayers) at the same time.

  • L.Long

    The ‘g0d did it’ hypothesis for the very beginning is not that bad cuz you are just saying ‘I don’t know but I want to look intelligent’. But they are really trying to get support for their holey BS written by stone age goat pluckers.
    Saying it is g0d, singularity, flying spaghetti monster, what ever is of no value as we do not know. And in the foreseeable future probably wont know. But I’m willing to bet that once someone finds out it will only be understood by those few who can comprehend a math equation covering 5 blackboards.

  • John Nernoff

    Re: Olber’s paradox. The finding that the universe is not only expanding but in an *accelerating* fashion might make this paradox uninformative. The further you go “out” the faster things (space-time) are flying apart and perhaps the speed of light is overtaken, meaning the infinite light to fulfill the paradox never gets to us.

    Besides we are now faced with having to explain dark matter and dark energy, which throws a complication into the neat BB theory. And when our tiny 1300 gram brains explain that, what will be next? I doubt we will ever explain the existence of anything. Evolution has just not given us the tools.

  • Joffan

    As John said above, Olber’s paradox applies to a static universe – an expanding universe would not have the problem of a blazingly-bright sky, no matter when it began, provided the distant stars were sufficiently red-shifted. The CMB is actually the equivalent of a blazing sky, which I think probably precludes an infinite + infintely-old universe, since it has a distinctive frequency rather than a wide spread.

    I wonder how old the universe was when the CMB stopped being in the visible spectrum?

  • BJ

    I think you can be both an honest scientist and an honest theist, provided you do your science properly. I’m thinking of friends I know who are both theists and Christians, and they draw their conclusions based on where the evidence leads them, provisionally based on whether they find any contradictory. I’ve heard them say things that you’ll see Collins says later: Our scientific discoveries just show you how God works.

    I think Collins might actually be an OK example of this. He conducts science well enough, and it led him to conclude that evolution is, in fact, true. Where he goes astray is by trying to ascribe the origination of those scientific phenomena to a deity.

    I’ve often mused how theists will try to argue that things are a matter of faith, but then they’ll procure all this scientific evidence as if it’s not a matter of faith.

  • BJ

    Interesting perspective on Olber’s paradox. As the fabric of the universe retreats from us at a greater-than-light speed (I remember AstronomyCast spent a lot of time talking about how that’s possible), light from distant stars will never reach us. So, yeah, I think you’ve convinced me that we wouldn’t see blinding light in all directions given that the universe is not static.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    My brain hurts. I’m worn out just reading what is here and some of the links to supporting references.

    I can’t add much at all to this one. I find the subject fascinating, but am easily overwhelmed by the shear complexity.

    I’ll just share a bit of an ironic discovery, though. One link in particular was interesting. I clicked on the “It all appeared in the singularity” link which takes you to http://www.big-bang-theory.com.

    On the right side of that site is a link, “View Short Video Clip on the Big Bang Theory” which takes you an interesting video that discusses the Goldilocks nature of many of the forces and constants in the universe but actually says nothing about a bang.

    Then at the bottom of the article, there is a link to “Does God Exist” which takes you to an article that appears to have been written by an author with an intelligent design bias.

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.com lenoxus

    John Nernoff @ 8:

    I doubt we will ever explain the existence of anything. Evolution has just not given us the tools.

    That’s the spirit! ;)

  • Tacroy

    Finally, Collins says that he has to agree with Jastrow and that he “cannot see how nature could have created itself” (p.67).

    I cannot see how Francis Collins could have been appointed director of the NIH, so therefore I have faith that he is not.

    Wait what do you mean that facts do not work like that?

  • Domyan

    @BJ
    What I can’t understand is how can you be a scientist and at the same time believe in miracles. The universe that is governed by immutable and ‘impersonal’ laws of nature is what makes science possible. In a world of miracles we would have a ‘God Psychology’ in place of physics. :)
    It’s one thing to say that you, as a scientist, believe in a architect or fine-tuner of physical laws. It’s something else to believe that the laws can and are routinely broken by some incomprehensible intelligence. That our wishes can change the basic reality.

  • Roger3

    You have to be careful with what the evidence actually allows you to say:

    At some time in the past, the universe was denser and hotter and more compact than our current understanding of physics allows us to investigate. That’s about it.

    Setting t=0 at the moment when we can actually begin to understand does not mean that there wasn’t a t=-1, it just means that we’ve reached our limit of ability to understand what may or may not have happened before. This is why it makes no sense to speak of ‘before the big bang’. The big bang is also perfectly comfortable residing in a spatially infinite universe, nothing I mentioned two paragraphs ago is inconsistent with this. We have a lower bound on the size of the universe (~4% according to Pamela from AstronomyCast), not an upper bound.

    When a physicist says ‘time began at the big bang’ they are generally using shortcut terminology.

    Just like when you hear talk of ‘multiverses’, you again have to be careful, in some cases they’re talking about casually disconnected versions of our current universe, like in some interpretations of QM, but at other times they’re talking about extensions to our universe with more or fewer causal connections. String theory is just such an extension.

  • Hendy

    Some do try and reconcile the timeline. I encountered Rev. Philip Brown at Debunking Christianity and he pointed me HERE when this came up.

    So… “let there be light” is actually supposed to mean, “when living creatures developed the first retinal photosensing abilities”… riiighhht.

  • BJ

    I want to read Hawking’s The Grand Design. Cosmology has always fascinated me and, after shirking my religious tendencies to gravitate toward the easy answers (goddunnit), that fascination has only grown.

  • lpetrich

    Genesis 1 doesn’t fit modern cosmology very well. It starts out with a dark, formless, and empty Earth, and God commands light into existence. It does not exactly describe some primordial fireball.

    It’s step-by-step, with God creating first environments and then inhabitants, and creating them by commanding and separating.
    Day 1: celestial: day and night
    Day 2: far terrestrial: sky and sea
    Day 3: near terrestrial: land and plants
    Day 4: celestial: Sun, Moon, and stars
    Day 5: far terrestrial: flying animals and aquatic animals
    Day 6: near terrestrial: land animals, humanity, and “You may eat these” about plants
    Day 7: God was so happy with what he had done that he took the first day off in the history of the Universe

  • kennypo65

    I’m not sure we will ever know for certain how the universe came to be. Every answer only poses another question. However, I do know that the genesis story is “crapola”. So goddidntdoit.

  • http://pandasthumb.org RBH

    BJ wrote

    As the fabric of the universe retreats from us at a greater-than-light speed (I remember AstronomyCast spent a lot of time talking about how that’s possible), light from distant stars will never reach us.

    Krauss has drawn an interesting consequence of that fact, to the effect that in the far distant future all that will be visible to observers in the Milky Way galaxy is the immediate cosmological neighborhood; in fact, just our galaxy will be observable. Therefore they will be unable to know that there are other galaxies, they will see no red shifted distant objects, and will detect no cosmic background radiation. As a result they will have a very impoverished cosmology. Their universe will be confined to that which astronomers thought was the case less than two centuries ago. Just our galaxy plus a few stray globulars orbiting it will be their entire universe. They will know nothing about the Big Bang, inflation, or the expanding universe.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X