Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did the universe have a beginning?

Georges Lemaître
This question has fascinated scientists since 1931, when the Belgian astronomer, physicist and priest Georges Lemaître formulated the theory of the primordial atom, which since 1950 was known as the Big Bang theory. According to this cosmological theory, as the universe is expanding, if we move back in time we must come to a point (13,800 million years ago, the cosmologists tell us) when it would have gone through a singularity, with a volume tending to zero, while pressure and density would tend to infinity. Could this have been the beginning of the universe?
In 1951 Pope Pius XII, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said the following words:
A mind illuminated and enriched by modern scientific knowledge, calmly evaluating this problem, is led to break the circle of a matter entirely independent and autochthonous, either uncreated, or because it has arisen by itself, and to rise to a creative Spirit... It seems really that present science, by jumping back over millions of centuries, has succeeded in being witness to that primordial “Fiat lux”, when out of nowhere burst forth, together with matter, a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of the chemical elements split and were reunited into millions of galaxies
Next, in the same speech, Pius XII quoted Edmund Whittaker, who in his book Space and Spirit (1946) wrote this:
These different calculations point to the conclusion that there was a time, some nine or ten billion years ago, prior to which the cosmos, if it existed, existed in a form totally different from anything we know, and this form constitutes the very last limit of science. We refer to it perhaps not improperly as creation... Were this conclusion to be confirmed by future research, it might well be considered as the most outstanding discovery of our times, since it represents a fundamental change in the scientific conception of the universe, similar to the one brought about four centuries ago by Copernicus.
Notice that Whittaker does not say that there was nothing before the Big Bang; he says that the universe, if it existed before the Big Bang, would have been radically different.
Based on this speech, it has been said that Pius XII thought that the Big Bang theory could be considered a scientific proof of creation, and for some time he toyed with the idea of ​​presenting it in this way. It is also known that in 1952, while he was preparing a speech for the assembly of the International Astronomical Union, the pope met in a private audience with Lemaître, who by then was a member of the Astronomical Union and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Although nobody knows what they talked about, it is assumed that the Belgian priest advised the pope to reduce the scientific triumphalism of his speech. The fact is that Pius XII simply stated in this speech that science, while progressing by leaps and bounds, will never be able to answer the final questions, such as the origin of everything. This fits well with Lemaître’s ideas, as he had claimed that the Supreme Being cannot be reduced to a scientific hypothesis.
Thomas Aquinas
This controversy is much older than many think. About 750 years ago, Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica (part I, question 46):
One cannot prove by a demonstration that the world has not always existed.
In other words, according to Aquino, creatio originans (the world had a beginning) is undecidable for human reason. On the other hand, creatio ex nihilo (the fact that the world was created) would be within reach of reason. The difference between them is that the created world could have an infinite duration. In other words, we can conclude that the world was created, but we can never prove whether it had a beginning or not.
John C. Mather

On October 11th 2016, in an interview in a major Spanish newspaper, Nobel Prize John Mather said this:

If the universe did not begin with a bang, how did it start?
It did not start. There is no time zero, because it should be a point of infinite density, which is not possible. Everything we do in physics has to do with processes. There must be something that already exists and is transformed into something different. We cannot say that there was nothing and then there was something.
Mather denies that the Big Bang was a singularity. I guess, if he is consistent, that he will also deny the singularity inside black holes, where Einstein's General Relativity also predicts the existence of points of infinite density. In fact, what Mather doubts is the current form of the theory of relativity. Perhaps his claim (that time zero did not exist) is too drastic (it would be difficult to prove), but note that what he says is not very different from what was said by Thomas Aquinas, Whittaker and Lemaître.
From the possible absence of time zero, Stephen Hawking has tried to draw the conclusion that we do not need God. He believes, therefore, that creation must always be creatio originans, and that by denying the beginning, one denies creation. What he actually does is to exhibit once again his abysmal ignorance about philosophical questions, as I said in another article.

In the next article I will review some of the alternatives currently offered by physics to the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe.

Manuel Alfonseca


  1. Thanks for this. I've seen a lot of Catholic apologists argue that a universe without a beginning is incompatible with Catholicism, but I've come to realise that what you wrote is quite reasonable - "we can conclude that the world was created, but we can never prove whether it had a beginning or not." Glad someone else has thought that way :-)

    1. The problem is, some Catholic apologists have never read Thomas Aquinas. Otherwise they would not fall in the same trap as Stephen Hawking.