The Cosmic Gun Smokes

Imagine positing a theory about the origin of the cosmos, then predicting something odd and otherwise implausible that one would find if the theory were true. Then imagine finding it. That’s what happened. This is via USA TODAY and The Des Moines Register:

[Cosmic inflation] should have magnified tiny ripples in the universe called primordial gravitational waves, which in turn left a stamp on light created some 13.5 billion years ago.

That light still pervades the cosmos today as a faint glow invisible to the naked eye called the cosmic microwave background. A team of U.S. scientists announced Monday that they’d used a telescope in Antarctica to detect a telltale “curl” in the microwaves’ orientation – a pattern that’s the fingerprint of gravitational waves.

In other words, they went looking for the curl that they predicted should be there if cosmic inflation is true, and it is there. They found it.

Six reasons the big bang theory is science and not metaphysics or faith:

  • it’s testable (and therefore capable of falsification or confirmation);
  • it makes predictions;
  • the predictions are fruitful (they pan out);
  • the theory’s confirmed predictions have scope (they explain and accord with a lot of things, not just an isolated thing);
  • the theory is conservative (it conforms with our already well-established background knowledge);
  • in comparison with other theories, it’s the simplest and best (it requires the fewest background assumptions and most naturally fits the facts as we currently understand them).

These are sometimes referred to as the criteria of adequacy, and the big bang holds up well under all of them.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to The Cosmic Gun Smokes

  1. Longtooth says:

    In a bit from BBC news (, Dr. Jo Dunkley commented:

    “I can’t tell you how exciting this is. Inflation sounds like a crazy idea, but everything that is important, everything we see today – the galaxies, the stars, the planets – was imprinted at that moment, in less than a trillionth of a second. If this is confirmed, it’s huge.”

    I wish he had spent a few paragraphs explaining exactly what he meant by “imprinted”.

  2. Proof of the Big Bang which proves the existence of God.

    That’s because the Big Bang means that the universe had a beginning.

    Anything with a beginning has a cause.

    The First Cause which caused the Big Bang is God.

    • Zaya says:

      SO where does God come from?

      • Peter Smith says:

        SO where does God come from?
        No matter what belief system(atheist, theist, deist, etc) you hold to, you still have this problem, that of an original brute fact that seemingly existed for ever. Denying the existence of God does not make this problem go away, it simply makes the problem intractable.

        Your question is not a rebuttal, it is an avoidance tactic.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        But, Peter, positing God doesn’t make the problem go away either. It’s just another way of stating the mystery. God and eternal matter are placeholders for a family of ideas we do not have logical access to: “something from nothing,” “something that just has always been,” “something uncaused that is the first cause,” “matter that makes mind,” “mind that makes matter.”

        My problem with the whole ontological mystery issue is that atheists and theists (depending on their level of confidence) are prepared to shut the mystery down with an answer that is premature. The trick, in my view, is to dwell in the mystery; to acknowledge that our vision does not extend as far as we would like to see, and to try to live with that limitation without getting drawn in by hucksters and confidence men who pretend to know more than they do (or even can). It’s hard to live with that. Hence the varieties of atheism and theism. We all want the undecided decided NOW. We all want to know that love and beauty made the world–or that it’s a jumble, and move on from there. The not knowing seems intolerable. But that’s the way of the cross (to put it in religious terms): “My God, why have you forsaken me?” The hard way through is to work with doubt, not confidence or faith. That’s the path of freedom and difficulty that Dostoevsky’s Jesus offers the masses and that the Grand Inquisitor easily counters with miracle, mystery, and authority.

      • Zaya says:

        It was not meant to be rebuttal but as someone trained in science, all I can say it that I don’t know what started it. But I wont take a shortcut and claim supernatural forces (unless there is evidence). Furthermore, Lets assume “anything with beginning has a cause”, then you have to be welling to apply this to GOD. For time being, I will say I don’t know how it started evidence presents itself.

      • Peter Smith says:

        positing God doesn’t make the problem go away either. It’s just another way of stating the mystery.
        No it doesn’t, but that was not the claim and you should not impute that claim to me.

        It is not another way of stating the mystery. It is a hypothesis. This change in terminology is very important. Calling it a mystery is a form of epistemological despair, an intellectual form of throwing up of the hands. The moment we call it a hypothesis we shape our thinking to deal with the issue in a more rational way.

        When we start thinking of it as a hypothesis we open our minds to several lines of thought, devoid of mystical thinking:
        1) what are the alternative hypotheses?
        2) what evidence is there for the different hypotheses?
        3) what consequences should we expect from these hypotheses?
        4) are the consequences useful?
        5) can the consequences inform us which hypothesis is more likely?
        6) are the hypotheses in principle verifiable?
        7) if not, can we select one hypothesis as being more likely, more probable than the others?
        8) why should we select from the range of competing hypotheses?

        This is a useful reaction to mystery, one that draws on the highest functions of our minds.

        When confronted with mystery we can:

        1) retreat from it.
        This is what Zaya does. Agnosticism is a form of retreat.
        2) approach it.
        One way of approaching it is outlined in steps 1 to 8 above. These are the steps that led me from atheism to Catholicism.
        3) deny it.
        Atheism is a form of denial.
        4) embrace it.
        I interpret your reply as a form of embracing the mystery.
        Embracing a mystery means, I think, that instead of approaching the mystery, we experience it. I think this is what you mean and if that is so I fully support what you say.

        By experiencing the mystery we open ourselves to other ways of knowing, that can also lead to enlightenment. To anyone with a strictly scientific training(like myself) that sounds like nonsense. Slowly, in the last five years, I have come around to the point of view that it is eminent good sense and not nonsense. And I can supply good analytical reasons to support this contention, but not here. Though you might not think they are good. The mystical thinkers of Catholicism and Buddhism have(in my opinion) got it right. Gosh, my rationalist friends would be horrified to see what I have just said, how far I have strayed from the strict ‘rationalism’ that once defined my life(I use the word ‘rationalism’ in its modern, perverted form). It is such an irony that atheism has chosen ‘rationalism’ as their mantra and in so doing perverted the word.

      • Peter Smith says:

        The hard way through is to work with doubt, not confidence or faith
        Here we have the dreaded false dichotomy.
        Faith is commitment in the face of doubt. Every religious believer lives with doubt, as you pointed out: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”. Given the hiddenness of God there will always be doubt, Thomas will ask to see the wounds.

        I know we can dispute the different meanings of the word ‘faith’ but you have put the word ‘faith’ in opposition to doubt and that is wrong. Doubt forever hovers on the horizon of religious belief and the clouds of doubt sometimes obscure the light of belief. Faith is a journey through calm and stormy weather.

        The faith of commitment is “the way of the cross” that you mention. It is the acceptance of discipline, perseverance, suffering, persecution, derision and scorn while following the beacon of hope in the mists of doubt.

        I am indebted to Terry Eagleton for his clear exposition of faith as commitment in the presence of doubt.

        Think of it this way. As a former skydiver I had some doubts that I would survive the jumps(with two near mishaps there was reason for doubt). When I jumped it was a commitment, an expression of faith, even though doubt enveloped me as I poised on the verge of jumping.

        Atheists love to misrepresent faith as rock hard certainty in the presence of ignorance but the irony is that atheists display that rock hard certainty in the presence of ignorance.

  3. Peter Smith says:

    Six reasons the big bang theory is science and not metaphysics or faith:
    Fr. Georges Lemaitre, the Belgian priest who first proposed this theory, would agree with you.
    Albert Einstein was not so sure. He famously said to Fr. Georges Lemaitre:
    No, not this. This is the creation
    Your mathematics is good but your physics is abominable
    But, to be fair, Einstein did change his mind ten years later. it took the rest of science nearly 40 years to accept this unpalatable conclusion. Contrast that with the extreme rapidity with which science has accepted the untestable multiverse hypotheses.

    it’s testable (and therefore capable of falsification or confirmation);
    That is an excellent criterion, indeed the foundational criterion, and we must hold all science to this standard.
    The multiverse hypothesis fails this criterion, so do you agree it is not science?
    Then what is it? Metaphysics, scientific faith, preconceptual science or just plain prejudice?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree that the multiverse hypothesis is metaphysics, not science. Unless and until someone is able to come up with a way of making predictions from it, then testing it, it will remain in the realm of speculation.

      • Peter Smith says:

        A Universe created by God would have two vital characteristics:
        1) It would have a beginning.
        True, the Big Bang.

        2) It would be impossible to observe prior to the beginning.
        True, because of the low entropy of 1 part in 2^10^10^123

        So science has discovered important support that tends to confirm the God hypothesis.

        Other important facts that support this conclusion are that:
        3.1) it is a lawful Universe. Its operation is described exactly by detailed mathematical laws,
        3.2 the universal, prescriptive and exceptionless nature of the laws that govern the Universe,
        3.3) the laws are incredibly finely tuned to allow the development of life,
        3.4) the Universe contains life,
        3.5) consciousness exists in many of the life forms,
        3.6) the highest life form(humankind) is developing a new, vast and unbounded intellectual universe.
        3.7) the highest life form possesses contra-causal free will(necessary for 3.6).

        The atheists have a starting point, or assumed brute fact, of nothingness and pure randomness.
        Theists have a starting point, or brute fact, of an all powerful and intelligent God.

        Neither starting point, or brute fact, is provable in the normal sense of the word. One way to resolve this question is to ask which starting point, or brute fact is more likely to explain points 1, 2 and 3, the observed consequences of the brute fact starting point.

        Can nothingness and pure randomness cause points 1, 2 and 3?
        Can God cause points 1, 2 and 3?

        Which is the more probable explanation? Since we cannot prove either hypothesis we are left with choosing the more probable explanation.

        It seems that science is religion’s best friend!

      • Peter Smith says:

        until someone is able to come up with a way of making predictions from it, then testing it
        All they have to do is create something out of nothing. After all the foundation of the claim for the multiverse is that something spontaneously generates out of nothing, infinitely many times.
        If it is happening all the time, infinitely many times, we should at the very least, be able to observe this and test this.

        Strangely, nobody is trying to generate something out of nothing. What a pity, we could have had infinite resources for an infinitely long time. The cosmos would be the ultimate free lunch.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I agree with you that things start with some sort of free lunch. But I also think you’re getting out ahead of yourself a bit. Confirmation of cosmic inflation opens up an equally plausible scenario: that cosmic inflation is a common and ongoing occurrence and that our patch of “14 billion-light-year cosmos” is part of a much larger, perhaps infinite, fabric. If so, this would mean we live in something more like a Hindu cosmos than a one-off Western monotheistic cosmos.

        If one posits that the cosmological constants are different in each inflationary cosmos, you’ll get a different cosmos in each one–and perhaps occasionally one like ours. Whatever is true–“I am Vishnu, the creator and destroyer of worlds!”–or “Let there be light (but only one time)!”–we live in a cosmic fabric that produces signs and wonders.

        And it’s certainly reasonable to posit an uncaused first cause as a matter of logic, but whether that uncaused first cause is a mind/personality with infinite foresight is tricky in light of the fact that we know cosmic inflation is true. At best, I think, we reach an aporia (an impasse) that brings us to a state of wonder and agnosticism–but not a confident atheism or theism.

        And remember that, in a cosmic fabric where inflation is always going on somewhere, the problem of suffering and the messiness of existence that is in evidence everywhere has a ready explanation: “Shit happens.”

        But on the one-off-God-did-it-with-forethought hypothesis, we suddenly have to posit all sorts of complicated scenarios for accounting for the pain and randomness of so much of existence. Did God really need to go through all the swirls and loops of the past 13.7 billion years to get to planet Earth and human beings–and then fail to steer us clear of the Holocaust?

  4. Zaya says:

    Dear Peter

    Embracing mysteries is great and after all, as a scientist unknown excites more than known. However, to use the mental gymnastics that you use to explain a supernatural being is a stretch. The reason I say “I don’t know” (a retreat) is that I need empirical evidence and as Santi put it “one-off-God-did-it-with-forethought hypothesis, we suddenly have to posit all sorts of complicated scenarios for accounting for the pain and randomness of so much of existence”. Finally, science cannot be religion’s best friend since they polar opposites. One requires evidence and the willingness to say I don’t know and the other claim to have all the answers. Its like comparing engineers to scientist. Late Dorothy Nelkin of NYU made an interesting remark regarding the number of engineers who are creationists. She speculated that engineers HAVE to come up with answers as part of their jobs, so ‘god did it’ as an answer…which answers a great answer!

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