Yesterday, David Quinn of the Iona Institute wrote a piece for the Irish Catholic claiming that it was plausible that the Universe was created by God, and it is therefore a religious discussion rather than a scientific one. In the article he recognises the ‘God of Gaps’ idea (“if science can’t explain it yet, God did it”), and then proceeds to use that concept.

I spoke with Quinn on Twitter about some of the concepts he talked about, but it became even clearer that he wasn’t arguing against a scientific basis for the Big Bang, but instead he was arguing against what he thought was the Big Bang.

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In his article Quinn suggests that philosophy and religion might be the best way to explore the creation of the Universe. That may be so, but only from a philosophical or religious viewpoint. Philosophy is a fantastic way for using reason and to help find answer to life’s big questions (“what’s the meaning of it all?”), but as a physicist, I do not believe that one can necessarily use philosophy to counter well-understood and well-established scientific theories.

So let’s take a look. Quinn begins with an introduction and a piece about how evolution doesn’t explain how life came into existence in the first place. I’ll leave that one for someone else to tackle, as my particular contention was with Quinn’s ideas of the Big Bang and cosmology.

Science is able to trace the chain of cause and effect in each of these cases [thunder and lighting, volcanoes, etc.].

But in the case of the universe, eventually we get back to the very start. We get back to the clump of matter that everything in the universe comes from and we have to ask ourselves where did the ‘clump’ itself come from? Again, the answer is either that the clump of matter came from nothing, or it came from a creator, and science has no way to examine either nothing, or a creator.

… science now tells us that billions of years ago this clump exploded in something called ‘the Big Bang’. The matter expanded at enormous speed eventually bringing into being the universe as we know it with its planets and stars and galaxies, and us.

This is where Quinn shows his misunderstanding of Big Bang Theory, and this misunderstanding is what he argues against, rather than against the actual theories.

Firstly, there was no “clump of matter”. The term “Big Bang” generally refers to the very moment of creation when the Universe was extremely small, before the subsequent expansion. Around the time of this creation and/or pre-expansion phase of the Universe, matter did not exist; it was simply too hot and too small.

The Universe at this early stage did, however, have a very high energy density, and as it expanded during the Grand Unification Epoch, the density decreased and the temperature of the Universe cooled down enough to allow the fundamental interactions of electromagnetism, strong nuclear force, and weak nuclear force to form. This all took place in the first 10-36 seconds of the Universe just after the Big Bang, and after this, bosonic matter began to form as energy condensed further.

My point here is that Quinn conflates the Inflation Epoch (and other epochs) with the Big Bang and puts forth what he imagines to be the Big Bang Theory. As one might with a strawman, he then argues against this flawed understanding to make it seem more plausible that a deity created the Universe instead.

I explained to [a class of] fifth and sixth years that the existence of the universe confronts us with one of two very astonishing explanations. One is that it has a creator, namely God. The second is that nothing made it, or to put it another way, that nothing made everything. I asked them to consider which of these explanations seemed more plausible?

Quinn is correct in saying that we don’t yet understand why the Big Bang occurred, but there are various theories and hypotheses to show how the Universe may have “come from nothing”. Things appearing out of nowhere isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds, and can and does happen at quantum levels.

For example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that some amount of energy can exist for a certain time; the more we constrain that time in which it exists, the less sure we are of how much energy there is. Conversely, if we constrain the amount of energy, the time frame becomes unclear. In effect, that energy can pop into existence once it exists within the time given.

Two variations of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Virtual particles can also pop in and out of existence. If you place two plates very close together, such that the space between them is a vacuum, you will detect a net force pushing the plates apart. This is the Casimir Effect, where virtual particles come into existence, and interact with the two plates, pushing them apart.

Stuff popping into existence isn’t as outlandish as you might first think; it’s in fact a very real thing. While the two examples above may not explain the very moment of the creation of the Universe, they’re actual science: surely it’s more plausible to believe that the Universe was created as a result of scientific rules, rather than invoking an all-seeing, all-knowing, ever-lasting deity, that Quinn describes as:

By the way, the question, ‘but who made God?’ assumes that God has a creator, in which case he would not be God, but a creature like the rest of us. Unless there is a first, uncreated and uncaused cause of everything else, nothing could exist at all. That uncaused cause is God by definition.

What Quinn is doing  – and others are doing – here is effectively dream up a being that can do anything, including start a Universe, and then ask that science proves their imaginations wrong. And for anything that science hasn’t yet satisfactorily explained, the imaginary being is declared the reason. This is clearly a woeful fallacy.

In his final paragraphs, Quinn points out that the Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a priest called Georges Lemaître, and that the Big Bang “looks awfully like a moment of creation”. He says that “It looked like a priest was trying to sneak God back into the scientific worldview.” Here, it really sounds like Quinn is trying to make his religious claims look valid by attempting to link theism with the scientific origins of the Big Bang Theory. After all, if a priest discovered the idea of the Big Bang, then clearly God made the Universe, right?

Monsignor Georges Lemaitre

Does the Big Bang on its own ‘prove’ the existence of God, let alone the Christian God? … [but] those who continue to deny the existence of God are still left with the question: how did something come from nothing?

In fact, in the final analysis the vain hope of atheists that science will eventually answer this question resembles nothing so much as an act of faith.

It seems that Quinn is using evidence of the Big Bang as evidence for the existence of God, even though his understanding of cosmology and physics is quite flawed. As I hope I’ve shown, there is no need for a God to explain away the Big Bang and the inflation of the Universe.

In fact, it looks more like Quinn has the vain hope that science will never answer the question, so that he can hold onto his own faith.