There has been an argument in theological/cosmological circles for a while now that I’ve seen from time to time but haven’t addressed, surrounding the existence of a singularity at the beginning of the Universe. Why?
For some reason that I honestly can’t fathom beyond some possible act of desperation, from time to time I’ve seen the singularity being called “God”. I want to have this post in place for the next time I see an example because I think it’s a really problematic argument.
Personally, I think that Coca Cola would make a better deity; the drink not the corporation. It has about the same capacity to give moral and spiritual guidance as a singularity, but with the added benefit of empirical evidence to buttress any ontological assertions. Although maybe a Coke bottle isn’t enough to hang The Infinite off of.
Yes, yes. Very clever. Grow up. Etc. Blah, blah, blah… It’s a reductio. Give a counter argument to show why it’s invalid, or live with it. I suspect most readers here will do the latter.
In case some of you reading this don’t know, there is no empirical evidence that singularities actually exist. They are simply inferred by our current, limited understanding of the Universe. Particularly the general theory of relativity.
Singularities are inferred in general in two (or more) places – in black holes and at the beginning of the Universe (and at the end in some inflationary models, and at the bounce points of some rebounding Universe models).
Get enough mass in a small enough area, and gravitational collapse will, according to the general theory of relativity, become intractable – down to a single, finite point of infinite density and zero width, height or depth. Time comes to an end (or a boundary) as well.
Why is this a problem? Why are singularities a bad thing to hang God (or anything else) off of?
General relativity, a theory which makes a host of testable predictions (including black holes), provides an extremely accurate account of the way gravity works in the Universe. Quantum mechanics, which deals with the very small in a similarly successful way, doesn’t deal with gravity at all (at least not yet); gravity which is a very weak force, at the scale of the extremely small, isn’t particularly amenable to study. It’s like trying to study the smallest volume of the most diffuse gas – you don’t have enough to work with.
There is of course one glaring exception where gravity is significant on a quantum scale – the alleged singularity, or at least, the confined conditions at the heart of a runaway gravitational collapse. So what if it’s a weak force? Under these conditions you’ve got a lot of it, so much so that in a black hole, it should dominate the other, stronger forces.
The singularity should ideally be the place for general relativity and quantum mechanics to cross over. Indeed, necessarily if the two theories were to maintain logical self-consistency; by definition, both theories have the singularity within their domain and hence both need to explain it seamlessly.
But this isn’t the case. The situation is far from ideal. All those infinites get in the way of being able to tie one theory to the other. The math doesn’t work. The two theories as they stand, are irreconcilable. One or both has to change. And that’s before considering the fact that quantum mechanics normally deals with matter, while general relativity deals with space-time.
Hence the singularity isn’t something that can be reasonably asserted as actually existing. The singularity is a mathematical product of our current deficient understanding of the Universe, at precisely the point that our understanding fails. The part of theory that predicts singularities is the part that is broken. The singularity isn’t a thing, it’s a place-holder for a gap in our knowlege.
I use the word “gap” advisedly. As in “God of the gaps“.
Although maybe it’s even worse than that.
Traditionally, a God-of-the-gaps argument states that “where there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, God did it”. But this singularity mumbo-jumbo is different. This is a case of “there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, and God is it”.
God of the gaps theology traditionally reduce God’s role in the Universe as human understanding advances. God’s agency being squeezed out like the cream in a Monte Carlo.
However, if the singularity is ever done away with, if a theory of quantum gravity is developed that reconciles general relativity with quantum mechanics and doesn’t posit a singularity as a mathematical product, then that gap is gone. But instead of God’s agency being the cream in the Monte Carlo being squeezed out, it’s God itself.
It should be obvious that the rejection of the concept of the cosmological singularity is a possible, reasonable outcome of honest scientific conduct. Or even just a part of responsible speculation in an attempt to develop the first hint of a solution to a very difficult scientific problem.
The Hartle-Hawking theory is just such a speculation (see Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for an in-depth explanation). At least in as far as the Big Bang is concerned. By applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle to space-time, specifically to the state of a given dimension (uncertainty of space-or-time) – Hartle and Hawking demonstrated in theory that it is possible that space time as we know it emerged from a region of uncertain space-time on the Planck scale.
Which is to say a region of space-time that is very, very small, but not infinitesimal.
Singularities are discrete, infinitesimal points (or rings in the case of a rotating black hole) of infinite density and zero volume, but when space-time is itself subject to the Uncertainty Principle as in the Hartle-Hawking theory, there aren’t any discrete, singular points in space-time in order for singularities to be possible. I’ll avoid using the phrase “impossible initial conditions” because even “initial” is in this scheme is by definition impossible.
At such a small scale, according to the Hartle-Hawking theory, quantum effects would hold sway allowing for time to emerge from a fourth dimension of space, and thus allowing the Universe as we know it to follow.
Still, it’s a speculative theory; testable predictions haven’t emerged from it.
It is useful speculation all the same, because it provides logical refutation against assumptions held to be a priori truths that restrict the way the Universe is theorised about. For example, the assumption that a finite Universe must have a beginning (a reoccurring theme in cosmological arguments for the existence of God) is ruined by the logical possibility of the Hartle-Hawking theory.
It may not cure our ignorance about what may actually lay at the heart of a black hole, but what this reasonable speculation and speculation like it does tell us, is that the singularity (and the “first cause” in general) is an ambiguous and unsafe place to park your cherished ideas!
Maybe somebody should put up a sign.
Afterword: Aside from being a pre-prepared rebuttal, I’m writing this in anticipation of singularity-dogma, and the casting of singularity-rebuttals as alleged atheist propaganda, rather than responsible inquiry.