Lawrence Krauss on the Recent Direct Evidence for Cosmic Inflation–and What It Might Mean for God Belief

At The New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss gives his take on the recent direct evidence that cosmic inflation is real. Money quote:

At rare moments in scientific history, a new window on the universe opens up that changes everything. Today was quite possibly such a day. At a press conference on Monday morning [March 17, 2014] at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a team of scientists operating a sensitive microwave telescope at the South Pole announced the discovery of polarization distortions in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, which is the observable afterglow of the Big Bang. The distortions appear to be due to the presence of gravitational waves, which would date back to almost the beginning of time.

This observation, made possible by the fact that gravitational waves can travel unimpeded through the universe, takes us to 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang. By comparison, the Cosmic Microwave Background—which, until today, was the earliest direct signal we had of the Big Bang—was created when the universe was already three hundred thousand years old.

If the discovery announced this morning holds up, it will allow us to peer back to the very beginning of time—a million billion billion billion billion billion times closer to the Big Bang than any previous direct observation—and will allow us to explore the fundamental forces of nature on a scale ten thousand billion times smaller than can be probed at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Moreover, it will allow us to test some of the most ambitious theoretical speculations about the origin of our observed universe that have ever been made by humans—speculations that may first appear to verge on metaphysics. It might seem like an esoteric finding, so far removed from everyday life as to be of almost no interest. But, if confirmed, it will have increased our empirical window on the origins of the universe by a margin comparable to the amount it has grown in all of the rest of human history. Where this may lead, no one knows, but it should be cause for great excitement.

And here’s a bit more from Krauss:

Even for someone who has been thinking about these possibilities for the past thirty-five years, the truth can sometimes seem stranger than fiction. In 1979, a young particle physicist named Alan Guth proposed what seemed like an outrageous possibility, which he called Inflation: that new physics, involving a large extrapolation from what could then be observed, might imply that the universe expanded in size by over thirty orders of magnitude in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, increasing in size by a greater amount in that instance than it has in the fourteen billion years since. […]

[O]n Monday, [a] probe of the microwave background—one that measures how the light generated at the time the C.M.B. was created might be “polarized,” as space is alternatively compressed and stretched by gravitational waves—apparently sees precisely the signal expected from Inflation. Moreover, the amplitude of the effect is indeed more or less expected if the scale of Inflation is the scale expected for Grand Unification.

And what’s one of the key implications of this discovery? Krauss explains:

If it turns out to be confirmed by other experiments, think about what this discovery implies for our ability to explore the universe (besides the other remarkable implications for physics): when we use light to look out at the distant universe, we can only see back as far as three hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, when the universe cooled sufficiently to become transparent to light. But gravitational waves interact so weakly that even waves produced less than 10-35seconds after the Big Bang can move through space unimpeded, giving us a window on the universe at essentially the beginning of time.

And what about God? Here’s Krauss one last time:

For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.

There are lots of logically possible ways that the cosmos could have been at the beginning of creation, but there is only one way that the cosmos actually was. Science is closing in, by experiment, on what that was. In comparison with arm chair metaphysics and theology, science shows us the money.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Lawrence Krauss on the Recent Direct Evidence for Cosmic Inflation–and What It Might Mean for God Belief

  1. It is the purpose and function of science to find out how thing are.

    Nevertheless, it is still absurd to think that everything happened all by itself no matter the discovery.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      What’s curious it that, insofar as we can tell, nothing happened at the beginning that violates the laws of physics. Things went exactly as our mathematical models at these energy levels would predict. In other words, if God exists, God created laws that (s)he put forward first, then (s)he made things go from there without interference. Put another way, God hides behind physical laws in such a way that, if you were being ungenerous, you might conclude that God doesn’t do anything more than create the base conditions for existence, and so might not exist as a “person” who acts in this cosmos at all.

      • Santi,

        Nothing can happen in the universe that violates the laws of physics.

        What caused the universe to happen is outside of and not subject to the laws of physics.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Okay, so you reject miracles? And you assume that God is transcendent? So you’re an advocate of a sort of deist conception of God who fashions the toy, winds it up, releases it, then leaves it to do its thing without additional (overt) interference?

        I’m open-minded about the possibility that the Thomist’s “God” might exist–some sort of ground of being; an uncaused and unconditioned unitary “Thing” before all things. Such a Being-before-beings may be logically necessary for anything contingent to exist at all, or to go on existing. But this God of the philosophers doesn’t seem to get to a personal God, because whatever this First Thing is, it may not have a mind at all, let alone be a loving and all-seeing personality with purposes. It seems like we’re stuck with metaphysical guessing beyond a certain point, then a leap of faith if we feel we cannot live without belief in a personal God.

        Inflation makes time and space seem all the more, well, vast and empty–and pointless. Between the Holocaust and inflation, it’s hard to know what a personal God could possibly be up to. In some ways, infinitely ongoing inflation, if confirmed, seems as harsh a blow to the theistic metaphysicians as the Holocaust.

  2. Cloud2013 says:

    As is often the case with Krauss once he moves beyond his rather specialized area of expertise, he place fast and loose with philosophical terms and questions. I am not sure what Krauss thinks is a ‘cosmic existential question’ but Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives this definition:

    existential questions, references Existentialism, a 20th century philosophy concerned with questions about how and whether life has meaning, and why we exist. (For more information, look up Existentialism or the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.)

    Whether questions of meaning are “accessible to experiment” is quite a stretch.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Cloud,

      I disagree. First, you ignored the “why we exist” part of existentialism, which is indeed accessible to science (at least on the material level). And as to meaning, were we to find that we came about via a contingent explosion from another cosmically inflated section of space and time (an implication of inflation theory–the multiverse), it’s hard to see how that wouldn’t help us with the meaning question. It would mean that there probably is nothing in particular that God or the cosmos is doing on our behalf (or with us in mind). Nietzsche and inflation go together more naturally than the Bible and inflation.

      • Cloud2013 says:

        SANTI, I have not been keeping up on my notifications and I just saw this. Thanks for taking the time to reply. Two points of note here.
        I would really question whether the “why we exist” question is indeed accessible (and comprehensible) to materialist / reductionist other than to answer: just because. I am not satisfied with that answer.
        I did not bring God (or whatever your conception of that is) into this and discussion. Certainly, Nietzsche declared God dead for a reason – as I read him it is to put man at the center of making moral choices. How inflation physical models help us decide how to make moral choices is beyond me.

    • Whenever I hear people talk about meaning it’s almost always a reference to a postive anthropocentric purpose. There is absolutely no reason outside our own human imaginings to think such a thing.

      In such questions, ‘there is no meaning’ is a valid answer as is ‘the creator tore a whole in his rubber glove and will be back in 459.57 trillion years’. Likewise, ‘we are just an ant farm in some cosmic family home … entertainment for the children’.

      Theism is not even close to being the only answer possible. The only evidence that we have points to nihilistic existentialist reality. When we have searched as far and wide as we possibly can, have been to another universe and back, and still have found no credible evidence for gods will there then be enough evidence that meaning is accessible to experiment? Almost all things in the physical world are such that by experiment one _can_ derive the meaning of the thing. The universe itself should follow suit.

      A rock on a river bank really has no meaning… it’s just a rock. It exists because it does. It is more than possible that this is the case for the visible universe as we know it. And look at the poor rock, it cares not for meaning because it does exist. So it is for us. If contingent things needed meaning or purpose, well, we’re all screwed.

      • Cloud2013 says:

        “if contingent things needed meaning or purpose, well, we’re all screwed’ – you would include human beings as contingent ‘things’? I or did I miss something here?

      • @Cloud2013, all things in the known universe are contingent in some way. If we are to view this existence as a simulation or just one little bubble in a vast ocean of bubbles, then humans are contingent, necessary, and impossible if we allow that not all points of view are possible simultaneously in a relative way.

        Given our current and only perspective, humans are contingent as part of a larger whole. From this perspective, while anything might be possible, only some things are probable. What exists is contingent upon the perspective. When it should be that we have a perspective other than this one things change. Alas, even that is not probable.

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