The Second Premise
Having discussed the deficiencies of the first premise in my previous article (Part 1) we can now move on to the second premise. The second premise states that “The universe began to exist”.
Now I have actually written an article before about why it is exactly that it is misleading to say that the universe has a beginning, see “Why the Universe had No Beginning”, but I’ll explain here why, relevant to the cosmological argument, I think the premise fails.
The Universe Without a Beginning
It’s very much ingrained in the public’s scientific consciousness that the universe has a beginning in the Big Bang, and that this is the uncontroversial position of the scientific community. While it is true that the Big Bang is pretty uncontroversial in scientific circles, the universe having a beginning is not something that properly gets discussed in mainstream scientific discourse.
This question is more one of philosophy, it’s an interpretation of the data that the Big Bang theory gives us. The Big Bang theory itself makes no such claim that the universe had a beginning. All it claims is that the universe as we know it was crushed into a infinitesimal point around 14 billion years ago. This does not imply the universe had a beginning, in fact there is a significant group in the cosmology community that are investigating “oscillating universe” models in which the universe goes through repeated Big Bangs and Big Crunches.
Even if you don’t subscribe to the Oscillating Universe picture and think the Big Bang is the only game in town, it is still unwise to say the Big Bang is a “beginning” of the universe.
A much more appropriate way of putting it is that at the Big Bang, you can no longer travel backwards in time. Call this a beginning if you like, but more accurately this is a beginning only for things within the universe, not the universe itself.
Category Errors Again
My objection to the second premise is very similar to my objection to the first, the premise “the universe began to exist” is a category error. That is we’re applying the term “began” to the wrong kind of object. We can only apply “began” to things that are within the universe, we can’t apply it to the universe as a whole.
And this comes back to the same point I made before that the universe contains time. Time is a part of the universe, the universe is not a part of time. “Began” is a temporal term, and we can only apply it to things that are embedded in time – objects within the universe for example.
We cannot say that the universe has a beginning because that would require that it is embedded in time. Time however is a part of the universe and not the other way around.
What seem like two fairly common-sense premises in the cosmological argument are in fact both incorrect. The fallacy of each premise is to try and ascribe things to the universe which we only know can be applied sensibly to things within it.
Time is either past-finite or else it is past-infinite. If Time is past-infinite, it’s fairly trivial to understand that the universe always existed. However, even if Time is past-finite, it is also true that the universe was literally never non-existent.
If Time is past-finite, that simply implies that there was a first moment of Time. Trivially, if there was a first moment of time, there were no moments of Time before that first one. However, since Time is a part of the universe, it is true to say that the universe existed in the first moment of time, and that there were no moments prior to that in which the universe did not exist.
So, whether Time is past-finite or past-infinite, it is still the case that there was never a time when the universe did not exist.
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I’ve followed the arguments here with considerable interest. For me the following could do with some expansion:
“beginning because that would require that is embedded in time.”.
I look forward to your response because I like the way this discourse is going.
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Thank you for your interest in my writing! Really appreciate it. I’ll try and expand on what I’m saying there for you.
When people say that the universe has a beginning, what are they really saying? The way that “beginning” is meant here is temporally. We can have other senses of the meaning of “beginning” that aren’t temporal; we could say that the number 1 is the beginning of the natural numbers and this would not be meant in a temporal sense.
When people say the universe has a beginning however, what they mean to say is that the universe has a beginning in time. They mean it in the same sense as saying something like “The Second World War has a beginning in 1939”. In other words there is a specific point in time in which the Second World War, or the universe began.
But now we need to unpack “began” a bit more, what does this mean? I think the best way of interpreting the word began is to say that something began if there was a point in time at which that thing did not exist (prior to it’s beginning) and a point in time at which that thing did exist (after it’s beginning).
We can apply the word “began” to anything inside the universe, a particle for example, because there will be a point in time at which the particle does exist and a point in time prior to its beginning when it did not exist.
We cannot apply “began” to the universe as a whole though, because we cannot identify a time at which the universe did not exist. It is an accepted fact of physics that spacetime is a part of the universe. Time is not something outside the universe, it is a part of it. This is what I mean when I say objects in the universe can be embedded in time, but the universe itself cannot. Objects are embedded in time because any object within the universe sits in a region of spacetime and thus is embedded in space and time. The universe however doesn’t sit in a region of spacetime – it is by definition the entirety of that spacetime, so we cannot say that the universe is embedded in time.
Now perhaps you can argue that I’m being unfair here and that what we mean by the universe is a particular slice of spacetime (i.e. a 3D slice of the universe at a particular time), not the aggregate of all these slices. I maintain that this is problematic because there is no “universal time”. Relativity means that simultaneity is relative and we can’t define a global time for everyone in the universe. But let’s ignore this difficulty for now and say that I have to deal with a 3D slice. Fine. Now we can embed these slices, and so the universe, in time. The universe around you at the moment is a 3D slice and we’ll give it a time-stamp of 8pm 12th December 2018 or whatever. The universe is now embedded in time.
This still doesn’t mean the universe has a beginning though, because we run into a problem. The universe may be embedded in time now, but we can’t point to a time at which the universe did not exist (which as you’ll recall is my definition of began).
We can get to the moment of the Big Bang, but this is our first time, we can’t go any further back in time than this moment. But the universe existed at this moment. So at every time you can possibly point out: now, 5 minute in the past, 10 billion years in the past, the universe existed then. If you could find a time before the Big Bang then there would be a problem because the universe comes into existence with the Big Bang, but you can’t say “before the Big Bang” because the Big Bang is by definition the first moment in time, there is no time before it.
So it is not true that the universe began because there is no moment we can point to at which the universe did not exist.
It may sound strange to say that the universe has always existed, but it has a finite age, but this is the way it is. The universe has always existed because it there is no time at which it didn’t. There’s just a finite amount of time, hence why the universe can be said to have an age.
I really got into this reply! Hope this clarifies things for you.
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It does. I’m all wide eyed now…
Does this all fit in with the idea of a multiverse?
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I’m glad that all helped!
What I’ve said above is neutral with respect to the idea of the multiverse. If the multiverse exists then the universe within it are spatio-temporally separated – that is to say that they are not connected in space or time.
If the multiverse exists then our universe would be embedded within whatever substance the multiverse is made out of, but this will not be spacetime because different universes in the multiverse are by definition spatio-temporally separated.
My argument above still holds then regardless of whether the multiverse exists or not. Personally I believe that the structure of our physical theories are strongly suggestive of the existence of a multiverse. I could probably say a lot more in order to cover all my bases of why the multiverse idea doesn’t conflict with the above argument, but the general idea is just that spatio-temporal disconnectedness entails this argument is still valid.
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