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Inflated Claims for Genesis 1—Recent Cosmological News and Ancient Cosmologies





The world that the priestly author of Gen 1 lived in becomes more and more distant from ours every day, and there is less than no reason to think further scientific research will have us find that his view of the cosmos is scientifically more in tune with the natural world than any other archaic, mythical construct. And so it will be with the next story about science proving the existence of the Star of Bethlehem or how the Shroud of Turin is an authentic relic. Instead of excitement, we should supply a collective groan when seeing time wasted to force an ancient belief into mathematical models of the universe.



See Also: Star Light, Star Bright: How Astronomy Fails to Explain the Star of Bethlehem



By Aaron M. Adair
Department of Physics, the Ohio State University
https://gilgamesh42.wordpress.com/
April 2014


Recent news from astronomers about gravitational waves has rippled across the world’s media, announcing a discovery of great importance to the scientific community about the origins of the universe. Close on the heels of this announcement are the claim that we have new, powerful evidence that favors a universe divinely orchestrated and in conformity with a particular holy book. Part of that claim is based on a misunderstanding of the new evidence, and part of that claim is based on a manipulation of the text of Genesis 1. To untangle this, first we need to know what is the new discovery, what it is not, and does it have anything to do with any ancient cosmology, biblical or otherwise.

What was announced concerned the careful observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the “afterglow” of the Big Bang. The CMB has been observed since the 1960s using radio antennas, and it is usually considered the most important piece of evidence in all of Big Bang cosmology. The most recent observations are not further proof of the Big Bang; that already happened before the birth of this author by the discovery of the CMB in the first place. Instead, the breakthrough concerns what happened the merest moment after the origins of the observable universe—that is distinguished from the “universe”, as discussed below. In 1980, a hypothesis was proposed to explain several features of the universe we see that emerged from the Big Bang, one of them being the amazing uniformity of the cosmos as seen on the largest of scales—in particular, the uniformity of the CMB, which appeared to have no detectable variations in its temperature, even though there has not been enough time since the Big Bang for this uniformity to have happened. Much like how it takes a while for the inside of ones house to heat up on a summer day, it takes time for the “sides” of the universe to reach the same temperature, and with the speed of light acting as the limit to this, there was no way for a hot spot on one side of the universe to reach a cold spot and balance things out. This, along with other problems, led to the idea of cosmic inflation, where the universe expanded1 in size exponentially very early in its existence. The cosmos expanded so fast that all of the fluctuations in temperature of the very, very early universe would be smoothed out by having space itself expand faster than the speed of light for a short while. This may sound arbitrary, but the field theories developed by particle physicists also suppose that this sort of thing is possible when in the state of the earliest moments of the universe.

Inflation solved many problems in cosmology, but the evidence for it was difficult to find. One feature that supported it was an even more careful look at the CMB. With our best probes, we could measure the amazingly small variations in temperature. Inflation actually had a solid prediction in how large those variations in the CMB would be—one part in 100,000—and observations have borne this out. However, it is the most recent observations of the CMB by the Antarctic observatory known as BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), that has provided evidence of a phenomenon expected only because of inflation: gravitational waves. The waves themselves were a prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the effect is seen in the rippling around the regions between the ever-so slightly warmer and cooler spots of the CMB. Basically, inflation causes a disturbance in space-time not unlike throwing a rock into a calm lake (thus the gravitational waves), and the gravitational waves should produce a sort of blurring or bending that is observable in these regions, and it is measurable by looking at the orientation (called polarization) of the light emitted in those border regions.2

What those observations showed was that the period of inflation took place a mere 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang, and it lasted for a whopping 10-32 seconds. Or to put this in words, the period of inflation began one hundredth, millionth, billionth, billionth, billionth of a second after the Big Bang and lasted for roughly a millionth, trillionth, trillionth of a blink of an eye. In that time, the universe increased in its size by a factor of at least 1028 (ten thousand trillion trillion), which would be the same as a proton blowing up to a size larger than that of the solar system. The observations confirming inflation are a huge breakthrough since our previous studies back in time could only go to about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the CMB itself was created. In this one, great data collection period at BICEP2, we have new confirmation of gravitational waves, proof of inflation, and a window into the earliest moments of the observable universe. This is also a window into levels of energy far more powerful than can possibly be created by particle physicists with their colliders—they come up short by a factor of over a trillion, and already these machines are the most complicated devices ever constructed by humans. Continued research may provide insights and tests of physical theories that explain all of the forces of nature, the Theory of Everything.

If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the Book of Genesis, you are asking a very good question. Even on the most esoteric of readings one would not think of looking for talk of gravitational waves or exponential inflation due to the uncoupling of the fundamental forces of nature 13.8 billion years ago in the first chapter of the Bible. Instead, what some are looking at is how apparently God created all things ex nihilo, and this is what our newest cosmology supposedly indicates. In particular, a condensed-matter physicist, Nathan Aviezer, claims that the recent news has confirmed the Big Bang theory (and with it the Bible) over its competitor, the Steady State theory that has a never-ending universe.3 As noted above, the latest results do not provide any new evidence for the Big Bang itself, and the Steady State theory had been abandoned by almost all cosmologists before the end of the 20th century. However, it is Aviezer’s biblical and cosmological claims that are more interesting.

In his reading of Genesis 1, Aviezer believes that the statement “Let there be light!” is a direct, though metaphorical, reference to the Big Bang. Moreover, the creation of the CMB is connected to God “separating light from darkness” since the universe’s light was trapped in a hot plasma and it was impossible to see, but then after cooling down enough the plasma became normal atoms and the universe became transparent, created the CMB, and then there was darkness for millions of years. Perhaps of greatest theological importance is his understanding of Genesis 1:1 where apparently God created everything out of nothing.

Aviezer is hardly the only person to try to connect the Big Bang to the command for radiance by God,4 but it does seem to beg a contextual question that is simply not dealt with: in Gen 1:2-3, before God created light his spirit moved over the face of “the waters”. If the Big Bang is the beginning of the universe and corresponding to the creation of light in Gen 1:3, then what is all of this water doing before creation? Aviezer apparently has no comment on this in his book,5 nor is this something explained anywhere by Old Earth Creationist and astronomer, Hugh Ross, on his website, Reasons to Believe. One looks in vain for a serious attempt to find someone taking this issue seriously.6 And it should also be noted, the Big Bang would have filled the entire observable universe with temperatures so high there would not even be atoms, let alone water. Water itself would not come into existence before oxygen, an atom not to be found in our universe until it was manufactured by the nuclear furnaces of stars millions of years after the Big Bang. Already this reading of the biblical creation account begs many questions when trying to find a mapping from the Hebrew to models by recent cosmologists.

It becomes even more difficult to fit modern astronomy and earth history to Gen 1 should one read a few more verses into the account. Ignoring any claims about whether the word used for ‘day’ in Gen 1 refers to 24-hour days or not, it still has photosynthesizing plants coming into existence before the Sun appeared in the sky. There are fruit-bearing plants before insect pollinators and the animals to eat that fruit and carry away the seeds. Perhaps this can work if we abandon the theory of evolution and the fossil record, but then what is the point of claiming modern science agrees with the Bible if you ignore the inconvenient science? The same book also has stars coming into being after the Earth, when in fact our solar system is part of a third generation of stars in our galaxy; millions of stars had been born and had died before our own star fused its first atom. It bears repeating that there was no water in the universe before those stars, so there were no “waters” to separate on Day 2. The match between modern science and a chronological reading of the creation in Gen 1 is nonexistent. Only with continuous and dubious liberty in interpreting the text is it possible to conform to anything we know in modern times about the history of the world, and it requires being so loose that we might as well derive our cosmology from a Tarot card reading.

So much for biblical literalism—or even taking what the text of Gen 1 says seriously. But perhaps what many believe to be the most profound idea that modern science is claiming—that there is creation from nothing—and this fits what Gen 1 speaks of, a creation ex nihilo. However, even this reading of Genesis may be anachronistic. As pointed out in a recent debate by B&I contributor, Hector Avalos,7 he argued Gen 1:1-3 does not speak of the world created from nothing, but instead there are the primordial waters (noted above), and Gen 1:1 is more likely a construct phrase, not a sentence. Rather, the depiction of creation seems to comport better to the context of Israel’s neighbors and their mythologies of using preexisting chaotic matter to form the cosmos.8 The comparison to modern science becomes embarrassing if we consider the notion of creation by combat in the background of the story and previewed in other parts of the Bible (i.e., Ps 74: 13-14; Ps 89:5-12; Job 40-41).9 Unless we find some evidence of a preexistent Godzilla, the battle between a dragon and Yahweh is strange as history but explicable given an Ancient Near Eastern context.

To look at it another way, it seems possible to interpret creation myths of other ancient peoples with as much justification to match modern cosmological ideas. Instead of looking to Gen 1:4 about the separation of light from darkness and matching that to cosmological recombination that produced the CMB, perhaps the Zurvanists of Zoroastrianism matched this better. In their view, Zurvan (infinite time) parented the opposite gods, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) who represent both good and evil as well as light and darkness. It took 380,000 years for the universe to expand and cool enough for the universe to become transparent and dark, and such a period of time would conform well to a period of time close to the Persian world-year of 360,000 solar years,10 making this a superior “prediction” than the indefinite days of creation in Genesis. For the origins of existence, the birth of Chaos as described by Hesiod imitates the early universe well in describing the first of the gods11 with a name meaning emptiness, a void, or empty expanse—not a bad fit to a universe without any matter in it at the very beginning, yet from it would emerge everything, including darkness and light.12

Or better still, consider the atomists such as Democritus. Not only did they correctly theorize about the nature of matter in terms of atoms and voids, they even anticipated the random nature of quantum mechanics by including the notion of “the swerve”.13 Perhaps a reading of this notion of swerve is just how the Romans tried to describe the B-mode polarization of the CMB recently reported. If the strained reading of Gen 1 is supposed to fit Big Bang cosmology and thus show divine inspiration, what are we to make of the originators of modern physics with Greek and Roman theorists? Based on this method of interpreting ancient beliefs, we should become Epicureans before we become Abrahamic monotheists. Perhaps we should adapt the Muslim Shahada into “There is no god but the Atom, and Lucretius is its prophet”. It seems just as well justified or better, so, a fortiori, if this appears to be absurd, it is all the more when someone forces modern physics into the story of biblical creation.

However, there is something that is missed by those trying to argue that the newest cosmological news supports the notion of the universe created from nothing: it also fits into the theory that universes create themselves all the time. One of the features of inflation is that, unless you constrain it in artificial ways, it does not just produce one universe. Instead, with chaotic inflation apparent nothingness14 generates countless universes. This is the key difference between the “observable universe”, our own bubble of matter and energy, and “the universe” which includes all smaller observable (or pocket) universes.15 In other words, our observable universe may be a member of the expansive multiverse. And this recent news provides fresh support to that hypothesis, one preferred by most physicists. Instead of this news indicating that our universe came from nothing and required a kick-start from the God of the Bible, what it supports far better is that nature has a tendency to produce universes all on its own all the time, forever.

It may be worth repeating what has been confused by some people concerning these news reports and needing correction:

  1. The BICEP2 data does not provide new evidence for the Big Bang, but instead for a particular extension of the original theory, inflation.

  2. The new data does not suggest a universe in need of a creator working with nothing.

  3. The Genesis narrative is a poor fit to mainstream science, and it fails to communicate a supposed creation ex nihilo

  4. The newest data in fact supports the idea of chaotic inflation, which generates a multiverse without any input from any outside source, including a supernatural one.

Both the science and the Bible have been significantly confused in these matters. On a literal reading of Gen 1, there is no noteworthy conformity with what is known from the natural sciences, and the support for creation ex nihilo based on the first verse is a difficult case. Conversely, a less literal reading would find plenty of other ancient beliefs that could equally or better fit with the most recent science. On the other hand, modern cosmology is demonstrating working hypotheses16 that conform to all background knowledge and generate universes without external intervention—supremely opposite of what is claimed by many devout readers of Genesis. A multiverse also undoes the argument from fine-tuning of the constants of nature for life. With countless universes all forming under different conditions, that some are life-bearing goes from apparently improbable to a certainty. Instead of confirming a particular religious doctrine or proving the existence of a god, the recent news is, if anything, evidence against a creator, not for one. Now even that cannot be held to with firm conviction since the multiverse is still not proven, and it does not affect the argument for God as being itself, but it is certainly strange to configure evidence for a universe-creating inflation field without a deity into solid confirmation of a transcendental hand involved at the beginning of time, à la Gen 1:1-3.

The world that the priestly author of Gen 1 lived in becomes more and more distant from ours every day, and there is less than no reason to think further scientific research will have us find that his view of the cosmos is scientifically more in tune with the natural world than any other archaic, mythical construct. And so it will be with the next story about science proving the existence of the Star of Bethlehem or how the Shroud of Turin is an authentic relic. Instead of excitement, we should supply a collective groan when seeing time wasted to force an ancient belief into mathematical models of the universe. It is as if we, contra Bultmann, are trying to re-mythologize the Bible. While it may be natural for some to do this in modern times in an effort to hold onto old traditions and values, it does not deserve to be applauded any more than when ancient astronaut “theorists” reinterpret old religions into spacemen.



Notes

1 Often the expansion of the universe is visualized using an inflating balloon, showing how points on the balloon become more distant as it is inflated. This metaphor has the problem of begging the question “what does the universe expand into?” What the expansion means is that, between two points, the space between them increases. Perhaps an economic metaphor is better. The expansion is like economic inflation; there is just as much stuff to buy, but you need more dollars to buy it. Similarly, there is just as much universe, but now the space between galaxies has stretched out and you need more time to traverse the gulf between them.

2 Polarization describes how the light is oriented. For example, vertically polarized light means that the waves are oscillating up and down. Sunglasses are often polarized lenses so it only allows the light that has the correct polarization through, and thus cutting down out how much light passes through the lens. Also, modern 3D glasses at the movie theater uses circularly polarized light to create stereo images and the illusion of depth.

3 As noted in a recent Times of Israel article at http://www.timesofisrael.com/with-new-big-bang-evidence-creation-is-a-fact/

4 Cf. Gerald Schroeder, Genesis and the Big Bang Theory: The Discovery of Harmony between Modern Science and the Bible (Bantam: 1991).

5 Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science (KTAV Publishing House: 1990).

6 Schroeder, op. cit., p. 93 suggests that the spirit moving over the face of the waters was a reference to inflation. However, God’s spirit is moving over the deep before he created light, so even this reading of Gen 1:2 fails to fit the order of events described. It is also absurd to read “moving over the face of the waters” as “anti-gravitational field expanding space-time”, if for no other reason than the existence of space and time is already implied by God “moving” “over” something.

7 Interested parties can watch there debate here (with the pre-show skipped): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPD9bUE7NAU&feature=share&t=1h23m28s

8 See also Gerhard May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ in Early Christian Thought (T&T Clark: 2004).

9 John Day, God's Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (Cambridge: 1985).

10 E. S. Kennedy and B. L. van der Waerden, “The World-Year of the Persians”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 83 (1963), pp. 315-327.

11 Hesiod, Theogony 116ff.

12 Hesiod, Theogony 124; Hyginus, Fabulae preface.

13 Lucretius, De rerum natura 2.251-260.

14 By ‘nothing’, physicists mean no stable particles or radiation. There can still be quantum fields and thus not metaphysically nothing. It is from these fields that we can get something, so long as there is no net change in the amount of energy. And fascinatingly, the total amount of energy in the observable universe seems to come to just around zero—the positive energy of matter and light perfectly balanced out by the negative potential energy in gravitational fields, as if our income and debts perfectly balanced out.

15 Usually astronomers just speak of “the universe” to mean “the observable universe”, and this elision has caused confusion for non-specialists. This must include Aviezer, who quotes many physicists in his book and fails to realize that their claims about “the universe’s” creation is more constrained that he realizes.

16 Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam: 2012); Sean Carrol, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time (Dutton: 2010); Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something rather than Nothing (Atria Books: 2013).





Comments (11)


Thank you for providing this perspective. I think that the Achiles' Heel of creationism is the lack of knowledge about biblical cosmology and cosmogony. Most creationist don't know what their Bibles say, and other creationists don't believe their Bibles when a literal interpretation of Genesis (and other biblical texts) reveals the Bible's cosmology/cosmogony to be very similar to that of other ancient Near Eastern myths.
#1 - Hector Avalos - 04/02/2014 - 02:58



Thanks for this excellent and clear article. I listened to the NPR coverage of this but your further explanation made it really much clearer for a non-physicist. I think there is good reason to think of Genesis 1 (including the proper translation of Genesis 1:1, see JPS, etc.) not as "Creation," but rather a Hymn about the "ordering" of primeval Chaos into order, structure, and unfolding "life,' including humankind. As such it is a lovely piece.
#2 - James Tabor - 04/02/2014 - 11:47



> what it supports far better is that nature has a tendency to produce universes all on its own all the time, forever.

Not particularly pertinent to the Bible, but isn't the picture implied above a sort of grander steady state cosmology, where the cosmos is not just our observable universe but instead the multiverse?
#3 - Allen Thomson - 04/02/2014 - 11:48



Very interesting; however, claiming the multiverse theory is an argument against creatio ex nihilo seems to be a similar category error to the pseudo scientific creationists you argue against. Observation can never settle the question of ultimate origin, this just pushes our ignorance back another step... how many turtles do you want to discover?
#4 - Matt - 04/03/2014 - 07:18



@Hector & James

Thank you for the very kind comments. If what I say seems clearer than what is heard on NPR or elsewhere that's likely because those scientists have to fit into a soundbite without a worked-out speech. I have such an advantage writing and adding footnotes.

I also agree with you, James, that Gen 1 seems to make more sense as forming the world out of pre-existent materials. I am curious what both you and Hector think about the creation by combat as a backgrounds for what we see here in Gen 1.
#5 - Aaron Adair - 04/03/2014 - 19:00



@Allen

The Steady State Theory proposed that our observable universe had always existed and that matter would continuously enter into it or be created so that there would always be hydrogen for stars to fuse and thus shine. That is considerably different than the multiverse where our observable universe had a definite starting point but there are potentially many, many earlier universes having been created by the same quantum processes. Steady State also by requiring that continuous influx of matter would seem to violate conservation of energy, while chaotic inflation does not have that problem. But if you mean that the multiverse implies there was always something, then see below

@Matt

I don't see how the observations cannot help illustrate a universe/multiverse that has always existed. If the observations fit best into models that imply that there was always something, then that fits into scientific theory just fine. There was never a creation ex nihilo because there was always something.

Now, to make things extra complicated, the inflation cannot go infinitely into the past, as proven by Vilenkin. However, that means that before then there could have been a period of compression. And in Carrol's book cited above, in that universe the arrow of time is in the opposite direction (because of how entropy is increasing acting as what dictates the arrow of time). So cosmology is awesome and mind-splitting.

But since you also mentioned turtles, are you arguing that it is not possible to have an infinite number of turtles, a la William Lang Craig? He tries to argue that it is not possible to have an actual infinite, but I have not found his arguments persuasive--heck, I have had to deal with actual infinites in my past physics homework. Also, most mathematicians have no problem with actual infinites and it's really hard to do math without them.
#6 - Aaron Adair - 04/03/2014 - 19:11



Thanks for the very thought-provoking reply (especially the "arrow of time").

I meant that, whether time is finite or infinite, we would never be able to observe its "origin" (obviously impossible in the case of the infinite), but as you point out, what we have observed may point in one direction or the other (or oscillate between the two, as this may have done to the traditional understanding of the Big Bang as the start of everything). Anything which discourages an attempt to prop up a belief in God by appealing to the Big Bang seems a good thing to me!

What I fail to see though, is how creatio ex nihilo requires a finite amount of time to hold true. God transcends time; is "beyond" it, not before it standing there holding a match! The mystery of "why is any of this here?" still remains, and creatio remains a philosophical solution: scientific evidence doesn't seem to me to be relevant to the theory, however tempting the Big Bang may have seemed for it, nor how fascinating and vitally important it may be to understand as much as we can.
#7 - Matt - 04/04/2014 - 07:03



Dr. Adair, thank you for the excellent article. I wondered if you would like to comment on the developments made by Ivan Aguilo and Abhay Ashtekar regarding the attempt to unify the principles of general relativity and quantum physics within the context of loop quantum gravity. I see some interesting applications of their contributions to physics and the article you have so expertly written. The possibility of LQG’s removal of the singularity and the possibility of the bounce that they speak of would remove a great deal of concern over the creatio ex nihilo. Your thoughts?
Timothy Bagley
#8 - Timothy Bagley - 04/04/2014 - 18:11



@Matt
I get your point. So you are getting at the metaphysical argument about why something rather than nothing. It seems for me to go with the God argument, it requires showing that a God is a necessary being while a universe is not. But that would require something like an ontological argument for a deity, and those haven't been promising. Also, the argument that nothing is somehow a more likely that of existence than nothing doesn't seem to be obvious. We could turn the question around and say "why nothing instead of something?" And consider there is only one way there can be absolutely nothing, but countless ways there could be something, just by random chance. So it seems that something is more likely just on that thinking. There are some mathematical issues to consider when thinking about infinities in this way, and my friend James Lindsay talks about this in his book "Dot, Dot, Dot..." (he discusses the use of the concept of infinity with respect to gods and other things and how it's fascinating and head-imploding).

@Timothy
I have little expertise in Loop Quantum Cosmology, especially since we only have a string theorist at Ohio State; there is a tendency for a university department to either have people in string theory or loop quantum gravity and not both. But from what I have seen, it may really have a better chance at explaining things than string theory. Only time will tell. Considering that LQG folks can at least make some predictions we can test (i.e., the distance traversed by light will affect its wavelength), and it doesn't require extra dimensions and super-symmetry, they have a lot going for them. But no proof yet.
#9 - Aaron Adair - 04/08/2014 - 23:51



Aaron, thanks for the reply. Testable predictions are good. Exciting times we live in: Higgs-Boson verified, string theory, LQG, etc. All my best to you in your scientific endeavors.
#10 - Timothy Bagley - 04/09/2014 - 11:46



I think that there are remnants of other creation stories in the Hebrew Bible that do involve allusions to a combat myth. Job 26:12-14 comes to mind.
#11 - Hector Avalos - 04/20/2014 - 08:13






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