Big Bang for beginners-15: The essential tension in science

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series, see here.

As I wrote earlier, the state of play is that according to our best estimates, the Big Bang theory predicts that the universe is flat and consists of 72.1% dark energy and 23.3% dark matter, with the remaining 4.6% being all the other matter that we are familiar with and know exists.

But while the Big Bang theory has been hugely successful in explaining so many things, it is important to acknowledge what the standard Big Bang cosmological model does not do. It does not say what caused the Big Bang. It describes the evolution of the universe after it came into being. In that sense it is like the theory of evolution that also does not deal with how the very first replicating molecule came into being but only what happens afterwards.

The standard Big Bang theory is also not designed to answer the question of what existed before the Big Bang or what lies beyond the observable universe because there is no way as yet (as far as I know) to get any data that on these questions.

It is also perhaps a little unnerving that we have directly detected only about 5% of the universe we live in but that is where things stand now. Alternatively, some suggest that instead of invoking the existence of dark matter and dark energy, maybe the basic laws of gravity need to be modified, thus creating a new paradigm. This school of thought argues that perhaps it is time to abandon Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in favor of a new one that does not require dark matter and dark energy.

This is always the essential tension in science. No scientific theory ever explains all the phenomena that it confronts at any given time. There are always disagreements and anomalies. When they inevitably occur, scientists have several choices.

One is to treat the anomaly as a puzzle to be attacked with increasing vigor and focus. In the course of this, new entities and variations on the existing paradigm may be brought into the mix. Dark matter, dark energy, and the inflationary model can be considered as examples of this kind of approach to solving the current puzzles of cosmology, creating new entities and modifications of the theory while still remaining within the same basic framework, which in this case is given by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

Another approach is to set aside the problem for future scientists to deal with either because a solution requires knowledge and skills and technology that are currently unavailable, or because the problem itself is currently seen as uninteresting and not worth devoting human and material resources to.

The third approach is to suggest that the anomaly signals a breakdown in the theory itself, requiring a new one. While one can always find scientists who suggest new theories to solve the anomaly, the scientific community as a whole takes such a drastic step only as a last resort, because doing so requires abandoning a fruitful old theory that has served them well and re-evaluating all its past successes in the light of the new theory to see if they hold up. This is a lot of work. While it does happen in scientific history, it is not undertaken lightly. One needs an acute sense of crisis to trigger such a shift by the scientific community as a whole.

For example, for nearly sixty years after Newton proposed his theories of motion, its predicted motion of the moon’s perigee was only half of what was observed. While some scientists suggested that Newton’s theory be modified or even abandoned, most scientists did not take those suggestions seriously, believing that a solution would be found within the Newtonian framework. And it was, when it was discovered that the mathematics that had been used was wrong. (Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1970, p. 81.)

Newtonian physics was so successful that when it was discovered in 1859 that the motion of Mercury could also not be explained by Newtonian physics, it was assumed that a solution within the Newtonian framework would be found for this too. But it turned out that in this case, the solution actually did require the rejection of Newtonian physics in favor of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that came along in 1916.

The point is that the presence of unsolved problems does not mean that they are intrinsically insoluble, and the solution can appear in many ways. But as is usually the case, religious apologists tend to seize on unsolved puzzles du jour in science and elevate a select few to the status of Deep Mysteries for which the only solution is god.

The origin of the universe has been a favorite of religious apologists ever since its inception. As particle astrophysicist Victor Stenger writes in his 2003 book Has Science Found God? (the answer is no, by the way):

The notion of the big bang was first proposed in 1927 by Belgian astronomer and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre. Well before observations of the cosmic microwave background radiation provided the first good observational support for the theory, Pope Pius XII used the big bang theory to validate Catholic theology. In a speech before the Pontifical Academy, the pope asserted that “creation took place in time, therefore there is a Creator, therefore God exists.” At the urging of academy member Lemaitre, however, the pope stopped short of making this an “infallible” pronouncement. Lemaitre realized how dangerous that would have been, knowing that his theory like any other was not infallible. (p. 84)

More recently, when the COBE results came out showing the slight deviations from perfect uniformity of the cosmic microwave background, religious physicists like Hugh Ross claimed that they fulfilled the prophecies of the Bible (Stenger, p.84).

Religious apologists also argue that the cause of the Big Bang and what existed before it are Deep Mysteries. What is their solution? No surprise here. It is that god always existed and so was around to create the universe with all its matter and laws. They say that this is either the only or the simplest explanation and hence is to be preferred. As I will discuss in the next (and final!) post in this series, they are wrong on both counts.

While the modern scientific community may decide to temporarily shelve a problem, or work within an existing paradigm to solve it, or decide it is time to choose a new paradigm, what it never does is throw up its hands and say ‘god must have done it’.

POST SCRIPT: The Lady and the Gramps

Sarah Palin campaigns for John McCain, but is she helping?

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