Big Bang Metaphysics



Big Bang Metaphysics


Metaphysics typically deals with the universe as it now exists: material objects, space, time, mind, moral values, and so on. But it wasn’t always like that: at the time of the big bang it was very different and didn’t include any of those things. Shouldn’t there also be a metaphysics that deals with the universe as it was then—a truly cosmological metaphysics? And shouldn’t it relate that old universe with the one that confronts us now? We are told that the big bang led to the creation of many things: matter and its constituent particles, space, time itself, and eventually life and mind. Are there metaphysical questions about how this is possible? I am going to raise one such question, but first I need to attend to some terminological matters that have impeded comprehension and muddied the waters. The whole subject is a linguistic morass, sorely in need of revision.

            First the phrase “big bang”, used in contrast to “steady state”. As has been pointed out, there was no bang, since there was no sound medium to transmit waves; nor was there any one to register such waves in a form of a banging sound. The event was also not “big”: there was no space within which to make such judgments, and anyway the universe was tiny at this point. So the phrase is multiply misleading. We need a phrase to contrast with “steady state” that is more literally correct: I suggest “sudden surge” (we could also say “abrupt inflation” but that is a bit of a mouthful). What happened at this seminal moment was certainly sudden—an extremely rapid eruption (nothing like the stately steadiness envisaged by the rival theory). I choose the word “surge” to suggest a swelling, an outpouring, a leap forward and outward. I could have used “eruption”, but it lacks the alliteration and suggests volcanoes. So let us say that the universe exists by virtue of a sudden surge not a continuous steady state; that captures the theoretical difference nicely (and is euphonious). The universe ballooned spectacularly into being.

Now for “singularity”: the OED gives “a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially a point of infinite density at the center of a black hole”. Note that the dictionary makes no reference to the origin of the universe according to the big bang (sic) theory, perhaps because this was not a mathematical point of infinitedensity and heat (just extremely high). The word sounds very grand and no doubt mystifies earnest seekers after cosmological knowledge. George Lemaitre in 1927 called the entity in question a “primeval atom”—and he invented the theory: I think this is a better term than “singularity”. It conveys the idea of an extremely small indivisible entity, along with the suggestion that the whole universe once existed inside a mere atom. We might modify it slightly to form “seminal atom” so as to stress the idea that this atom was not only primeval but also creative—seed-like, full of potential. Then we can say that the seminal atom underwent a sudden surge—and lo, the universe came into existence. If we want something a bit more colloquial I suggest “hot speck”: the universe at this stage was certainly extremely hot (also extremely dense) and it was a mere speck. For brevity we might just talk of the Speck (“the Speck rapidly surged to create space and time” etc.)

There is also a question about using the verb “explode” in this connection. It is sometimes pointed out that this was no ordinary explosion: there was no surrounding space to start with, and no destruction of objects in the vicinity, and no mushroom cloud (also it was completely silent). All true, but there is a definition of “explode” that lacks these connotations: “increase suddenly in number or extent” (definition 3 in the OED). That seems perfectly correct as a way of describing the results of the sudden surge, and it corresponds to the definition of “expand” in the OED: “make or become larger or more extensive”, which some cosmologists prefer to “explode”. What we want is the idea of growth, increase, enlargement; then we can say, “the hot speck grew extremely rapidly during the first second of the sudden surge” and not be accused of misleading metaphors and inaccurate description. Also, this is a lot more comprehensible to the layman than, “the singularity made a big bang” and the like (the what made what?). As a seed grows into a tree, so the hot speck grew into a massive universe (but see below). It wasn’t always fully grown trees existing in a steady state: there was transformation, expansion, and novelty. These ways of talking and imagining help with grasping what the so-called “big bang theory” is really saying. The usual terminology has produced obfuscation not clarification.

Now let’s talk metaphysics. According to the hot speck theory, the universe at this stage was devoid of particulate matter, space, and even time—so not subsumable under Kantian categories. There were no spatial objects existing over time. These concepts are geared to our current universe, but that was just a glint in the eye of the hot speck (if that). But does that mean our entire conceptual scheme fails to apply to the universe as it then was? I think not (as our discourse about it would seem to suggest): I think we can perfectly well apply the concepts of object, event, and process to the early universe. The hot speck is an object, the sudden surge is an event, and the subsequent expansion and cooling is a process (still going on today as the galaxies continue their recession). These basic categories have application even in those remote days to that peculiar entity. Can we be materialists or idealists about the universe as it was then? Not in the sense of claiming that the hot speck was made of atoms and occupied space; and Berkeley’s God had precious few ideas on his mind (just the idea of that tiny volatile speck).  [1]Did causality exist at this juncture? Well, there was no propinquity or constant conjunction (because no space and time), so if causation did exist it wasn’t as it is now. Were there any primary qualities (clearly there were no secondary qualities)? Were there shape and number, solidity and volume? Apparently not: these emerged in the aftermath of the Surge. The composition of the Speck is hard to conceive and it is certainly alien to human perception. Perhaps it needs a new metaphysics—a new type of “substance”, a new conception of “body”. People say the laws of physics break down for such “singularities”; maybe the laws of metaphysics do too (except for the very general categories of object, event, and process). The Speck might need its own special brand of ontology.

But I want to discuss a different question, one that I have not seen discussed; it concerns what might be called “the puzzle of plurality”. The puzzle can be stated simply: how did the hot speck produce the multiplicity of objects we see today? It was one object, minute and homogeneous, not even articulated into component parts, and yet it created a huge number of separate objects—galaxies, stars, planets, molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, animals, plants, and people. It went from unity to plurality, from One to Many, from undifferentiated stuff to articulated objects. What made this possible? High density and heat would not by themselves allow this to happen, so what did? The problem arises already at the level of elementary particles: we are told they arose when the hot stuff of the Speck cooled sufficiently, but how could a mere cooling lead to the plurality of entities that resulted? We have an explanatory problem here: how can we explain the emergence of plurality on this scale from a complete absence of plurality? The problem is analogous to the mind-body problem: how does consciousness emerge from the brain given that neurons carry no trace of it? We have a yawning explanatory gap. We don’t know how to get from the One to the Many. It is a mystery how the undivided Speck produced the vast array of discrete objects that populate our universe. Why didn’t the Surge leave the Speck in its undivided form, just a lot more spread out? Are there other universes in which precisely this happened—ballooning undifferentiated specks, distended primeval atoms? They would be a lot easier to understand. Our universe seems like something from nothing, a miraculous ontological proliferation. If the process were reversed, wouldn’t it seem totally unaccountable? Suppose all of matter started to retrace its steps, speeding towards a singular spot, eventually vanishing into a tiny homogenous speck. Where has it all disappeared? How could that vast plurality turn into a speck of compressed homogeneity? How do we get One from Many?

You might think I am exaggerating the problem: don’t new objects come into existence all the time? Mountains divide, cells split, animals are born. Yes, but notice that these examples of increased multiplicity all involve intelligible production: fission produces new objects and genetic reproduction is the basis of animal proliferation. You can cut things in two and progeny arise from differentiated chunks of DNA. But the Speck has no such internal differentiation; even the idea of parts seems inapplicable. During the Surge there was no fission into distinct objects and there was nothing corresponding to genetic copying—there was just a miraculous coalescence into particles (and later big clumps of them). So the usual models of plurality production break down (compare panpsychism).  [2] Imagine if someone told you that the whole universe came from a single electron with no internal structure—wouldn’t you wonder how so many things came from just one? And being assured that the electron was extremely dense and incredibly hot would not assuage your puzzlement. So we have a puzzle, a mystery, an explanatory gap. That should not be so surprising given how little we know about the early stages of the universe: what triggered the Speck into its sudden surge, how did the Speck come into existence, what was the universe like before the Speck took over? We have some idea, sketchy though it be, of how clouds of gas formed into solid objects, how galaxies were created, how animals came to exist, how minds evolved: but we have no idea how the stuff of the Speck managed to create a multiplicity of objects from its non-object-like interior. More abstractly, how did the Many come from the One? Something from nothing is bad, but so is many from one, plurality from unity. No doubt the theory known as the big bang theory (ineptly so called) is broadly speaking true, but that doesn’t prevent it from harboring serious mysteries that boggle the mind (if I may reach for this cliché). The mystery I have focused on is the metaphysical mystery of the Many-from-the-One, which the theory raises in a sharp form. Let us not malign the hot speck as a hot mess, but we can acknowledge that it raises profound problems for which no obvious solution lies to hand (it’s a hotbed of mystery).  [3]


  [1] A monist might retreat to the idea that the universe was once an indivisible unity even if it is an irreducible plurality now. Hegel would have been right then. The universe shattered into innumerable parts, destroying that beautiful unity. We live among the debris of that ugly shattering.

  [2] Panpsychism postulates hidden mentality in microscopic matter in order to explain its emergence at macro levels. An analogous move would postulate plurality in the initial state of the universe—the hot speck is really a humming hive of discrete objects. That seems distinctly unappealing.

  [3] One can understand the temptation to credit the Speck with all sorts of supernatural powers, as if it is vaguely spiritual and tinged with the divine. But we should resist all such mystical meanderings; they are sure signs of deep natural mystery, i.e. lack of comprehension on our part. In fact, the Speck is as objectively ordinary as a mote of dust, nature not being inclined to intrinsic mystery. But what a work of nature that Speck was! 

4 replies
  1. Ken
    Ken says:

    Very interesting essay. Would you categorize this explanatory problem – one to many, singular to plural, simple to complex – as causal? You mention causality earlier but not (explicitly) in your explication of the metaphysical puzzle. Either it is a causal explanatory problem or it isn’t. If it is, then I’m not sure if it’s different in kind from other causal explanatory problems – i.e., Hume’s problem of necessary connections. (What do you think?) If it is not a causal explanatory problem, THAT is what might make it special (unique?) and mysterious – the idea that we can’t apply the (Kantian) category of causation to this particular instance of something coming from nothing.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      It could be either, depending on whether we think causality existed at that time. I’m not inclined to think it’s just the general problem of causality because of the plurality issue (cf. mind-body problem).

  2. benjamin d weenen
    benjamin d weenen says:

    Wondered that myself. Asked a physicist many years ago. Told me it was Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and don’t bother asking beyond that.


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