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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Was the Big Bang Merely a Phantom Event?

Let us imagine a trial in which a man is accused of murder. Suppose there is a crucial witness for the prosecution who says she saw the defendant kill the murdered person. Suppose her testimony goes like this.

District attorney: So tell us what you observed in front of the defendant's house.
Witness: I'll never forget it. I saw a man take out a big knife and plunge it into the murdered woman's chest.
District attorney: And was that man someone in this court room?
Witness: Yes, it was the defendant. I saw him plunge the knife into her chest three times.
District attorney: And how did you happen to be at the defendant's house?
Witness: Well, I was sitting comfortably in my house, when I decided to teleport myself to outside the defendant's house. So I closed my eyes, said “Abracadabra,” and then poof, there I was in front of the defendant's house.

The final detail given here by the defendant is what we may call a narrative disqualifier. A narrative disqualifier is some part of a narrative that is so unbelievable or so seemingly fake that it causes you to throw out the entire story. In this case, no jury would accept the testimony that the witness had seen the murder. They would discard or disqualify her entire story.

Let's imagine another case of a narrative disqualifier, one that we might see in a film. Imagine you are watching a film that purports to be a true documentary about a trip to a strange jungle where creatures like Bigfoot were seen. You watch the film, and it seems very realistic. This film is real and truthful, you tell yourself. But near the end of the film you notice something that reveals the type of film you are watching. The film shows some people that are supposed to be in front of a beautiful vista, looking down from a high hill. You look closely and notice that the scene in back of the characters is fake. The characters are standing in front of some wooden screen on which the scenery was painted!

You have now found a narrative disqualifier. So you disqualify or discard the whole film. Even if all the rest of the film seems very realistic, you now believe the whole thing is fake.

So now you get the idea of a narrative disqualifier. But it is interesting to ask: within the cosmic chronology told by modern science, is there a narrative disqualifier? Is there some part of the story so unbelievable that it should cause us to question or discard the whole narrative?

Below is the modern story of the past of mankind, life, and the universe as told by modern science:

Long before men built cities, they lived in primitive tribes, often living in caves. A few million years before that, there were less intelligent primates walking about. About 50 million years earlier, the planet was dominated by dinosaurs. The major groups of animals first appeared during the Cambrian Era about 550 million years ago. About one or two billion years earlier, the first primitive life appeared from some lucky combinations of chemicals. Millions of years earlier, our planet formed. Billions of years before our planet formed, our galaxy formed. Going back further and further in time, to before the time our galaxy formed, we find the universe was very hot and dense. The farther you go back in time, the hotter things were, and the denser things were. Tracing things back to the very first instant, we see the entire universe popping into existence in a state of infinite density, in the event we call the Big Bang.

Is there anything in this story we might call a narrative disqualifier? If you study the complexity of even the most primitive life and the genetic code, you may be entitled to think that the formation of life from some lucky combination of chemicals is a narrative disqualifier. But there's something in this story that seems like much more of a narrative disqualifier. It's the very end of the story, the Big Bang (or what would be the very start of the story, if the story were told in chronological order). The entire universe popping into existence in a state of infinite density? Perhaps we should regard this as being the “mother of all narrative disqualifiers.”

According to the theory of gravitation, gravitational attraction is proportional to density. The gravitational attraction of a universe an instant after the Big Bang should have been nearly infinite, and should have caused the universe to collapse back into itself instantly, instantly turning the Big Bang into a Big Crunch. Cosmologists know of no known force that could have counteracted this gravitation, and they are purely speculating when they describe a force counteracting this gravity. For example, they may speculate about some “inflaton field,” but there is no evidence for such a field.

Back in the nineteenth century, astronomers tended to believe in an eternal universe. Imagine if someone had proposed the Big Bang theory back around 1850. He would have been almost uniformly denounced as a crackpot selling ridiculous hogwash.

Given the apparent impossibility of the universe popping into existence and expanding from a state of infinite density, perhaps we should regard the Big Bang as a narrative disqualifier. Perhaps the Big Bang disqualifies the whole modern account of the universe's history prior to man's existence. It may be argued that for such an account to be credible, it must have a credible beginning; and that the Big Bang event is not a credible beginning for a universe.

But what alternatives would there be if we made such a disqualification? One alternative would be to construct an alternative physical theory for the past of the universe. That might involve innovative thinking, and an innovative interpretation of red shifts and the cosmic background radiation (the two pillars of evidence for the Big Bang).

Another alternative is to think outside of the box, and to break out of the whole “first there was matter and then there was Mind” type of thinking. Here is one scenario. Let us imagine that there are only minds, and that matter exists only as something that is perceived by minds. Let us imagine that there is what we may call a Mind Source that is the source of minds such as ours.

If such a thing were true, it might be appropriate to distinguish between two types of events: events observed by minds, and events that were not observed by minds. We might call the latter type of events “phantom events,” and assign them a lesser degree of reality. Similarly, we might call years in which no minds could observe anything as “phantom years.”

This would take us into an innovative way of thinking. Scientists have traditionally regarded all years as having the same degree of reality. Just as a poet once proclaimed “a rose is a rose is a rose,” scientists have tended to think like this:

A year is a year is a year.
A century is a century is a century.
An event is an event is an event.

But maybe we shouldn't think in such a simple and monolithic way. If the universe consists only of minds, then years that were never observed by minds should perhaps be regarded as having a kind of shadowy, phantom existence. We might call such years phantom years. The whole first billion years of the universe's history could be regarded as mere phantom years. The Big Bang could be regarded as a mere phantom event.

If this idea seems outrageous, consider how scientists think about particles. You might think it's just common sense to think: a particle is a particle is a particle. But according to modern physicists, that isn't quite right. Physicists distinguish between two types of particles: real particles, and what are called virtual particles. Virtual particles have a kind of ghostly, phantom existence, lacking the same reality as permanent particles. If we can distinguish between real particles and these virtual, phantom particles, why shouldn't we distinguish between real events and phantom events, which might also be called virtual events?

Based on the very strange results of the double-slit experiments, some scientists have speculated on quantum mechanical grounds that events don't become real until they are observed (at which time, supposedly, the wave-function collapses). If that's true, what happens to the Big Bang? It becomes a mere phantom event.

There is another reason for regarding the Big Bang as a kind of phantom event. The reason is a kind of “dirty little secret” of cosmology. It is the fact that the Big Bang is eternally unobservable. There is no chance that we will ever develop technology that allows us to look back to the Big Bang, or anything within 380,000 years of its occurrence.

The physical reason has to do with what is called the recombination era. Scientists say that in the first 380,000 years of the universe's history, matter and energy were so densely packed that all photons of light coming from the early universe were hopelessly scattered. Imagine you are looking through some crazy telescope that is 50 meters long and has 1000 different lenses at different points in the telescope tube. Each of the 1000 lenses causes the light to scatter in a different way. Of course, such a telescope will not allow you to see anything. Just as such an arrangement would act as an impenetrable optical barrier, the first 380,000 years of the universe's history acts as an impenetrable optical barrier. Each light photon from the Big Bang must have been scattered many times every second, as those particles interacted with other matter and energy particles in the dense early universe.

The cosmic background radiation cited as evidence for the Big Bang does not actually date from the Big Bang, but from a time 380,000 years after it. That radiation only tells us about the state of the universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

The visual below illustrates the idea. We can only look back in our telescopes to the edge of the orange area. Trying to look back to the Big Bang is like trying to look through a thick layer of clouds to see the moon, but a million times worse. 

recombination era
 We can only look back to 380,000 years after the Big Bang

If we can consider the light from the Big Bang as a quantity of information, then the first 380,000 years of the universe's history served to shuffle that information billions of times. We can no more recover that information than you could recover the original state of a deck of cards after the deck had been shuffled a billion times.

So we can never look back to the Big Bang. No technology will ever overcome this physical obstacle. Since the Big Bang is eternally unobservable, there are empirical grounds for regarding it as no more than a kind of phantom event, lacking the substantiality of events that we can presently observe or can at least hope to one day observe.

Should we then refer to “the ghostly beginning of all things” when discussing cosmology?