The Origin of the Universe – Three Views (RJS)

In his book Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything Gerald Rau considers four different aspects of origins – the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of species, and the origin of humans. The first, the origin of the universe, is in many respects the least controversial although significant differences in perspective remain. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the scientific evidence for the age of the universe.

Einstein and the Expanding Universe. Rau points out that Einstein assumed that the universe was stable, not expanding or collapsing. As a result he added a cosmological constant to his equations to bring them in line with this expectation. One of the most readable discussions of this I’ve found is in the book God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe by Amir D. Aczel. Without the cosmological constant Einstein’s equation predicted an expanding universe, and he was convinced that this meant that something was missing from his theory. But the data quickly showed that the universe was, in fact, expanding. Einstein’s paper with the cosmological constant appeared in 1917. In that same year Vesto Slipher reported that some of the stars he observed were rapidly moving away from us. By 1929 astronomers had come to realize that the Milky Way is but one of many galaxies (not known in 1917) and Edwin Hubble found that galaxies are receding from us at a velocity proportional to their distance. Einstein abandoned the cosmological constant, and several other preconceptions about the very early universe. It was, he felt, an embarrassment and his greatest blunder. (By the way, The images in this post are from the Hubble Space Telescope – named in honor of Edwin Hubble.)

Today the cosmological constant has made its way back into the theory – not to make the universe stable, but because the newest data suggests that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The cosmological constant is a parameter with a value that must be determined by experiment and observation. The story is an excellent example of the way preconceptions can shape theory and the scientific endeavor, and how experiment, observation, and community operate in the scientific pursuit of understanding. Aczel’s book is a fascinating case study well worth the time to read (it has a few equations – but these can be safely ignored, they need not be understood).

The current best estimate for the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years – as determined by the European Space Agency’s Planck Mission (see this article for a fascinating discussion of the results emerging from this mission).

How is the origin of the universe considered in the six models Rau has outlined? (See the previous post Models, Models, Models for a description of these models.) Four of the models, nonteleological evolution, planned evolution, directed evolution, and old earth creationism have no difficulty dealing with the age and origin of the universe. All of these agree that there is a creator, although perhaps an impersonal deistic creator in the case of nonteleological evolution (evolution with a creator but no designed purpose).

Old earth creationism takes a concordist view of scripture and interprets the term “day” as referring to an age, an unspecified period of time. The other three approaches take a nonconcordist view of scripture. While old earth creationism holds that concordance between the Bible and scientific discoveries provides evidence for the inspiration of scripture, both planned and directed evolution (and more nuanced positions around these) find no new science revealed in scripture. The revelation in scripture uses ancient near eastern cosmology to make theological points, not scientific points. Those who hold to nonteleological evolution are more likely to see creation account in Genesis as “mere symbol,” a human produced myth.

The other two views – Naturalistic Evolution and Young Earth Creation have some difficulty dealing with the evidence for the origin of the universe. For those who take a rigorously naturalistic view appeal to the supernatural is nothing less than a cop-out, there must be some “natural” explanation. The origin and fine-tuning of the universe is something of a conundrum. For those who feel that scripture clearly teaches a young earth, the apparent age of the universe is a puzzle that needs to be solved.

Apparent Beginning. Rau suggests that the origin of the universe provides problems for a purely natural view that are not present in any view that admits of the existence of the supernatural.

Although naturalistic evolution accepts big bang cosmology as the mechanism by which the universe came to have its present structure, it does not view the initial singularity as the point of origin. Since, according to this model, there is no supernatural (and thus nothing that cannot ultimately be investigated and explained by science) the energy present at the beginning must have come from some other physical source. Currently the most popular explanation is the idea of a multiverse. (p. 76)

Multiverse models postulate the existence of an often infinite number of parallel or sequential universes. A recent article in Scientific American New Physics Complications Lend Support to Multiverse Hypothesis gives an idea of the problem and the “solution.” Our universe may be natural, with perfectly logical reasons for all the “fine-tuned” constants we observe, making life inevitable. But the may not be natural, it may be “unnatural.”

Physicists reason that if the universe is unnatural, with extremely unlikely fundamental constants that make life possible, then an enormous number of universes must exist for our improbable case to have been realized. Otherwise, why should we be so lucky? Unnaturalness would give a huge lift to the multiverse hypothesis, which holds that our universe is one bubble in an infinite and inaccessible foam. According to a popular but polarizing framework called string theory, the number of possible types of universes that can bubble up in a multiverse is around 10^500. In a few of them, chance cancellations would produce the strange constants we observe. (SA article p. 1)

In one possible scenario then, the fabric of reality suddenly shifts and a bubble of a space-time universe erupts (the Big Bang), the result of a fluctuation. The Big Bang that formed our space-time universe, or any new universe, is an “apparent beginning” erupting out of the fabric of reality. “The properties of this new universe are determined by chance: the amount of energy unleashed during the fluctuation.” The cosmological constant may play a big role here. When it is tiny, as in our universe, life will be possible. When it is large (positive or negative) the universe will expand or collapse too rapidly for the development of life. A universe with a small cosmological constant is “unnatural” or “atypical.”

Rau says of multiverse models:

All are mathematically and logically possible, but all posit other universes fro which there is no empirical evidence. Thus the existence of these multiverses is no less a matter of faith for atheists than the existence of a supernatural is for theistic models. (p. 77)

Apparent Age. The other model that struggles with the question of the origin of the universe is the young earth creationist view. The origin itself is not a problem, of course. In the young earth view, as in the nonteleological, planned, and directed evolution, and old earth creation views, the universe exists, and is finely tuned for life, because the Creator God made it so. The young earth view does have a problem, however, with the abundant evidence for the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) and the age of the earth (4.5 billion years). Because the fundamental assumption is that the Bible inerrantly places creation some 6000 to 10000 years ago over the course of six 24-hour days, the apparent evidence for age must somehow be wrong.

Two different explanations are common.

According to the older apparent-age explanation, … God, being a master artist, created a masterpiece so realistic that no matter how carefully we look, the appearance of age is perfect and consistent. This explains all of the evidence for things that appear older than ten thousand years, whether on earth or in the heavens, including the light of stars created en route to earth. (p. 79)

One implication of this view is that God created a world with such a perfect history that the only way we can know it isn’t true is because he told us so in the Bible. Some find theological problems with such a view. Rau notes that it has been largely dropped in favor of another view in more recent YEC writing.

Currently, many scientists within the YEC community have adopted a different interpretation of the evidence, the universe is expanding out of a white hole. According to this explanation, our galaxy is thought to be near the center of a finite, bounded universe. Being closer to the center of gravity, the gravitational time dilation predicted by general relativity causes time to run slower here than it does further from the center of gravity. Thus during the fourth day of the creation week, “while one ordinary day was elapsing on earth, billions of years worth of physical processes were taking place in distant parts of the universe.” As a result the stars appear very old, even though the earth is young. … This explanation also appeals to apparent age, but proposes a mechanism by which the stars and earth could appear to be different ages. (pp. 79-80)

This “white hole” model, Rau notes, has been criticized by Christians with appropriate expertise on the ground that the math does not work. Most non-Christians pay little attention to it.

How does the origin of the universe pose a problem for theistic or naturalistic assumptions about the nature of reality?

What role does assumption and preconception play in the development of any theory?

In this post there are three different examples of a role that preconceptions play in the development of a theory of origins. (1) Einstein’s assumption that the universe is stable led to the introduction of the cosmological constant. (2) The naturalist assumption that something out of nothing is counter intuitive and that the fine-tuning of the universe must have a natural cause leads to the multiverse hypothesis. (3) The assumption that scripture teaches a young earth leads to hypotheses of apparent age, with analogy to art and/or the development of the white-hole proposal.

When is it appropriate to question the preconception rather than the theory?

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  • Rob Bradford

    Obviously, the major problem for people who read Genesis literally is their assumption that the Bible is inerrant and all the other descriptors that go with the idea that it contains accurate scientific and historical data. Assumptions and preconceptions are the bane of investigations seeking answers about certain phenomena. It’s the same problem for science and history too. If one assumes that rationalism alone can solve a puzzle, the solution will be skewed toward the assumption. In science, however, we have the option of changing our assumptions or preconceived ideas; this is not an option for literal readings of the Bible. Einstein’s famous assumption about God not playing dice with the universe is a famous error. Chance does play a significant role in the universe, and until the assumption was identified and Einstein’s disciples changed their mindset, or others helped with the change, the assumption would have continued in play. Such paradigm shifts are the conceptual birthplace for all new ideas, assumptions, and conceptions.

  • Rick

    “Obviously, the major problem for people who read Genesis literally is their assumption that the Bible is inerrant and all the other descriptors that go with the idea that it contains accurate scientific and historical data.”

    Or is it more an issue of understanding genre?

    “Chance does play a significant role in the universe, and until the assumption was identified and Einstein’s disciples changed their mindset, or others helped with the change, the assumption would have continued in play.”
    How much chance? How can we determine the distinction between design and chance?

  • AHH

    The current best estimate for the age of the earth is 13.8 billion years
    You mean “age of the universe”.
    And under “Apparent age”, you probably mean “6000 to 10000”.

  • RJS4DQ

    Whoops, fixed.

  • Marshall

    I have read that the largest-scale structures in the observable universe are inflated from quantum fluctuations … I suppose perhaps in some pre-existing universe similar to our own. Taking the as assumptions that God intervenes for the purpose of getting somewhere, then perhaps there is a succession of universes, a sequence (or a tree) that is evolving by incremental change and selection. Then the fitness of the physical constants is not random, and we don’t need a huge number of universes. There is a theodicy here: the universe we live in is a pot spinning on the wheel in the shaping hands of the potter, not a finished thing. “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain.”

    Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe these few score millennia really are what matters, the diamond in a cubic mile of kimberlite, the mustard seed in an endless desert. Sure there’s a lot of useless rock out there, but so what. God can afford to be very wasteful of time and space.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    From an evidentiary point of view, there is (currently) no difference between the multiverse concept and the non-YEC four models suggested earlier. The first suggest a theoretically possible, as-yet-unproved physical cause. The second suggest a non-physical, ie divine origin, also not proved (in terms of mathematical/scientific proof). Both are key assumptions. While neither can be falsified, we do have evidence for naturalistic causes in other phenomena. Do we have adequate proof for non-naturalistic causes in other phenomena? There is the question.

    YEC is trivial and can be discarded (scientifically falsifiable and hence falsified, philosophically without epistemological basis – see last Thursdayism).

  • Well said Rob.

  • Rob Bradford

    If you mean can we determine how much chance or randomness is in the universe, the answer is that we have no method of measurement: it just is. Now to the distinction between chance and design. As I see it, design always infers some sort of designer that takes raw materials and forces them into the designer’s desired product. There may be chance or randomness at work in where the “chips fall” or a storm knocking out the lights in the workshop, but these are independent of the designer’s actions. So, even if the design is flawless, there will always be a chance that raw materials don’t respond as the designer wishes. This is the distinction.

  • Rick

    “design always infers some sort of designer that takes raw materials and forces them into the designer’s desired product.”
    What if the design is already built in to the raw materials (all of them), so that the outcome was pre-designed?

  • AHH

    While I don’t see it in this post, sometimes people act as if the multiverse hypothesis is incompatible with theism. We should recognize that it isn’t — that a transcendent God can as easily be sovereign over multiple universes as over the multitude of galaxies in our universe.

    So while the multiverse, if true, would weaken one particular argument for theism, it is not something Christians should fear and oppose at all costs. Here’s an article by a Christian cosmologist reflecting on some of this:

  • Rob Bradford

    Can you give me an example of pre-designed raw materials?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    One quibble: There is a lot more than one diamond ina cubic mile of kimberlite. For economic mines, the median grade is about 0.25 carats/metric tonne. The average diamond recovered is only 0.07 carats (that is why the big ones are pricey). A cubic meter of kimberlite weighs around 2.2 metric tons – thus on average would contain 7.9 diamonds. There are 35.31 cubic feet in a cubic meter – thus your average economic kimberlite would contain 0.22 average diamonds. But, we are talking about cubic miles – now no kimberlite in the world is even remotely that big, nor would every portion of the pipe be economic. But if you presume a cubic mile of kimberlite, you should expect to recover 32 383 549 440 diamonds with a mean stone size of 0.07 carats, assuming 100% recovery and assuming a normal distribution etc etc.

    Sorry, could not resist! 🙂

  • RJS4DQ

    At what or who are you aiming this question? I’d venture an answer, but I am not really sure what you are asking.

  • Tom F.

    Great point. If there were good evidence of a multi-verse, than it would weaken one argument for theism, but not be incompatible with theism, no. Spot on.

  • Tim


    With respect to the multiverse solution to the seemingly arbitrary physical constants necessary for the emergence of life, I’d once again challenge that these constants are at all arbitrary. To put forward a fine-tuning argument is to pre-suppose that these constants are arbitrary…which very much begs the question. As in the logical fallacy of begging the question. A big no-no. I know that I sound like a broker record here, but for the life of me I don’t see how reasoning like this is ok. These constants may be required to be what they are based on an underlying physics (and we know there’s an underlying structure to the universe that unifies our theories and which presently eludes us). To me, pretending that we know something that we don’t (i.e., that these constants can assume any value) and then making the leap to “God did it” is just an argument from ignorance.

  • Rick

    Not sure if this was meant for me, but if so, I am speaking to predetermined properties of matter, even from their origin (Big Bang for example). So as they are part of the expanding (or retracting) universe, the weight, trajectory, etc… of each was already known (and authorized, for lack of a better word).
    Does God allow chance, and therefore not constantly direct ever single atom? Perhaps, but maybe only in so far as it fits into the overall design, and plan, He has set forth.

  • RJS4DQ


    You are right – the constants may be determined, although that doesn’t seem to be the current consensus among physicists investigating such things.

    For the discussion in this post (from the paragraph that starts “Multiverse models postulate” until the sentence “Rau says of the multiverse model”) I turned to secular sources to look at the state of the issue.

    The long quote – “Physicists reason …” doesn’t come from Rau’s book, but comes from the Scientific American article I’ve linked.

    I wanted to see what cosmologists and scientists were saying about the issues of origins and fine-tuning. I suggest you read that article as a start.

    I’ll add a comment in the post to make this clearer.

  • Rob Bradford

    Rick, when you speak of “the weight, trajectory, etc…of each was already known”… neither weight nor trajectory of any object or particle in the universe can be determined to follow predetermined conditions, from a scientific perspective. Now if you are speaking from a faith perspective, then anything is possible when you associate phenomena with a creator.

  • Rick

    “neither weight nor trajectory of any object or particle in the universe can be determined to follow predetermined conditions, from a scientific perspective”

    So if you control all the conditions, you cannot determine where and when a plane might land?

    “Now if you are speaking from a faith perspective, then anything is possible when you associate phenomena with a creator.”
    Yes. When dealing with a mind that is beyond our limited understanding, we have a hard time comprehending just an ability to create and plan. However, from a faith perspective, that is what we are dealing with here.
    Which goes back to the question: how does one distinguish between chance and design? What appears to be chance, from a scientific perspective, may in fact be planned before time began.

  • M_J_Murcott

    For a view of why the expansion of the universe might be accelerating you could watch this –

  • Rob Bradford

    “what appears to be chance, from a scientific perspective, may in fact be planned before time began. . . If this is the case, then you are making it very difficult to have a discussion. Your Planner has predetermined all events and conditions; under this scenario, reality has become an illusion; we only think we observe randomness in the universe. I would be very careful crossing the street the next time you’re out. You may experience the illusion of being hit by a car. But don’t worry, the Planner had it all worked out from before time.

  • Rick

    Thanks for the heads-up. I will keep that in mind. :^)