Suggested reading: The trouble with “The Big Bang”

by Sabine Hossenfelder

Did the Big Bang happen? Has the James Webb Space Telescope found evidence against the Big Bang? If astrophysicists are sure the Big Bang happened, why do they also think the universe was born from a quantum fluctuation? And what does this have to do with dark matter?

I can’t blame readers for being confused by recent news stories about the Big Bang. The articlethat kicked them off, “The Big Bang Didn’t Happen,” is bad enough. But some of the rebuttals also don’t get it right. The problem is that writers conflate ideas in astrophysics and use the term “Big Bang” incorrectly. Let me set the record straight.

Let’s call Big Bang #1 the beginning of the universe. It’s what most people think the expression means. This Big Bang is what we find in the mathematics of Einstein’s general relativity if we extrapolate the current expansion of the universe back in time. The equations say that matter and energy in the universe becomes denser and hotter until, eventually, about 13.7 billion years in the past, both density and temperature become infinite. We cannot extrapolate any further back in time, so it’s fair to say that this event, if it happened, would be the beginning of the universe. … (continue at Nautilus)


  1. This is a terrific post and Sabine Hossenfelder is one of my favourite writers. Her writing has always been marked by commonsense clarity and she succeeds admirably in clarifying the conceptual confusion surrounding this subject

    I particularly liked this analogy for a singularity which really cleared up the term for me:
    This is what happens in all other theories in which we have singularities popping up: They are mathematical artifacts that stem from using a theory in a range where it should no longer be applied. An example may be the singularity in the surface curvature of a water drop, as it pinches off a tap. This singularity disappears if one considers that the water is made of molecules. What was formerly a point of infinite curvature is now a molecule like all the others.

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  2. This means the Big Bang Event might happen in our mathematics, but we have no observations that can tell us it happened in reality. Indeed, I think we will never have any observations that confirm the Big Bang Event. Some of my colleagues in astrophysics may disagree. But be that as it may, at least for now we just don’t know how the universe began.

    I think this phrase is so important. Science is grounded in empirical observations informed by theory. This is what elevates science above bias, prejudice, faith and speculative thinking so that it becomes our best approximation of truth. Of course we should speculate because speculations guide our future research. And, as Sabine Hossenfelder admits, some things may never be known, in the sense that science knows things.

    But we are irredeemably curious animals and we will always explore the boundaries of knowledge, wondering what lies beyond. And here philosophical thinking plays an invaluable role, clarifying how we may think about knowledge at and what might lie beyond the boundaries. Sabine Hossenfelder might almost be a philosopher.

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  3. Well, we use the term ‘Philosopher King’ admiringly. I think the term ‘Philosopher Physicist’ deserves the same approbation. We need more of them. I know that Sean Carroll has some pretensions of being a Philosopher Physicist but, in my book at least, he fails because he is in thrall to ideological determinism. It is the Achilles heel of good philosophy. But to be fair, I have not read anything by him for a long time.


    1. I don’t use “philosopher king” in a positive sense because I despise monarchies… As for Carroll, I think he’s wrong in some of his positions, but determinism is a legitimate philosophical one, not necessarily an ideology.


  4. because I despise monarchies

    Hmm, that is a little strong. I remember that in the past you have expressed similar sentiments. The present day British monarchy hardly resembles that of yesteryear. Why do you feel so strongly about the subject? I am not a British subject so it is not important to me, but it is certainly interesting.

    As for ‘ideological determinism’, the idea here is that a person has a strong a priori conviction of an ideological nature. This conviction then strongly shapes their reasoning, their research and the way they filter their evidence. Thus their ideological convictions have a strong role in predetermining the outcome of their reasoning.

    This is what I call ‘ideological determinism’. It is a form of determinism because their strong, indeed obsessive beliefs, determine what the outcome of their reasoning will be. There is nothing of the ‘on the one hand this, on the other hand thus’ approach and no attempt at multiple perspective taking. It is often intolerant of differing opinions and thus tries to force its stance on others. This is ‘strong ideological determinism’ . An interesting aspect of this is that the very strength of their beliefs confers a conviction of their intellectual superiority, making them blind to any possible counter arguments. They cannot recognise even that their ground position is ideological in nature. This is why I likened it to a form of anasognosia.

    determinism is a legitimate philosophical one, not necessarily an ideology

    I agree completely and I must add that it is a reasonable position that is very difficult to refute. But from the above I hope you will note I am using the term in a rather different sense.


    1. Peter, I despise monarchies because I think the whole idea is demeaning to human dignity. The Windsors, at best, are useless parasites living the good life on the people’s dime.

      Regarding determinism, it certainly *can* be an ideological position. So can its opposite, especially where theologians are concerned. But how do you know, for instance, that Sean Carroll holds such position because of blind ideology rather than reasoned discourse?


  5. To continue my line of reasoning above.
    I am actually in two minds about the phenomenon of ‘ideological determinism’ and think that it can also be a useful device.

    And that is because the pursuit of ‘Truth’ is not the straight line application of impeccable logic(which some people claim to possess). It is instead a messy process plagued by impartial knowledge, competing egos and competing agendas. The law has always known this and brings to bear the principle of ‘audi alteram partem’. This results in the keen competition of agendas that we call ‘the adversary process’. To date it is the only and best means of arriving at the ‘Truth’ in matters of dispute. It is the foundation of the justice system. And, in a way, it is also the foundation of democracy and of science itself.

    Having said this we should expect, and indeed permit, ideological determinism if it results in strongly competing agendas. The strength of this competition is a purifying force that reveals deceit, bad data and bad reasoning. Only the ‘Truth’ can survive intense competition between opposing agendas. This is why the adversary process is so foundational to law.

    But the law requires that opposing agendas be allowed to compete. Today we have the awful situation where the very principle of ‘audi alteram partem’ is being denied. That is the death of intellectual enquiry.


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