Is evidence for the "big bang" superior to evidence for "god"?



The question needs little elaboration. Perhaps the big bang could be called an "event in spacetime," yet it is also prior to spacetime. God too is described as "causa sui," with no "before." Neither is "provable" in any old fashioned sense. Each is singular.

As for evidence, Locke, the father of modern empiricism, considered the Gospel or "four independent witnesses" about as good as evidence gets. Less trivially, a pragmatist appeal to reported "experience" and "consensus" would indisputably favor "god." Evidence for the big bang is arcane, recent, almost entirely mathematical, and accidentally corroborated by the single predication of primal background radiation.

Does this mathematical coherence, falsifiability, and predictive correspondence of big bang, however slight, trump all? Or is historical consensus and human "self-reporting" of experiences of god actually the stronger "empirical" case? Because "big bang" is not yet precisely defined, I leave open and/or conventional the definitions of "god."

Nelson Alexander

Posted 2015-09-16T00:33:23.467

Reputation: 11 748

For starters, what evidence for "god" would you consider roughly equivalent in power to the cosmic background radiation as evidence for the Big Bang? – WillO – 2015-09-16T00:40:12.753

Next, what theory of "god" makes (confirmed) quantitative predictions analogous to the Big Bang predictions for the chemical composition of stars? – WillO – 2015-09-16T00:44:40.013

There is equivocation on "evidence" here, "self-reporting experiences" in themselves are not "empirical evidence" as considered by science, so empirical evidence of god is non-existent. Empirical case for Big Bang is not air tight but much stronger than you seem to think, largely because of the way mathematics ties together scores of independent empirical facts in a precise manner. Trying to do the same with religious experiences quickly decoheres. On the other hand, intuitive intensity of such experiences is unmatched by science, so arguably they are a different kind of evidence. – Conifold – 2015-09-16T00:55:00.697

1To allay suspicion, I hold no brief for "god." But loose talk about the big bang strikes me as so very, very far removed from any Baconian foundations of science. I believe my question already addresses WillO's concerns. Or rather, his concerns are precisely what I am asking. I am collapsing both types of experiential "evidence" into a pragmatic definition, which I believe is the best we have, and asking for the compelling distinction. To WillO I would ask, how does unlikely one-case specialist "prediction" (about as good as science gets) trump "experiential" historical consensus? – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T01:25:55.560

To Conifold I would answer, you simply cannot remove "self-reporting experiences" from science. That is an implication of my question. How does a consensus of a handful of "self-reporting scientists" based on "scores" of facts trump "historical" consensus of billions of "self-reporters"? Statistics would seem to favor "god" (Pascal redux.) It is not a matter of "equivocation" on evidence. Because the contradictory nature of scientific "evidence" is the core of my question. I believe it is highlighted by current controversies over "physical cosmology." – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T01:40:19.067

Although I am a half-hearted atheist, I think this is a good question and wish I was qualified to answer it. Are you exploring the idea that our theory-driven science has strong elements of self-fulfilling prophecy? – Nick – 2015-09-16T01:45:01.330

I do not suggest removing self-reporting experiences or intuitions from science, they are often useful as motivations and heuristics. But they can not enter empirical evidence because it is intended as a check on them. Pascal's wager is a case of the base rate fallacy, and illustrates why I'll take consensus of a few (I judge as) experts in a field over consensus of billions (on a matter in that field) any day. Many misleading intuitions are powerful enough to attract billions, and even Pascal, I'd rather hear from those who can use them but know when to leave them at the door. – Conifold – 2015-09-16T02:01:28.093

This is a very interesting topic. / @Conifold, how would you suggest the OP can materially improve the question? (That or to explain why one downvotes or thinks something should be closed are the key purposes of comments). – virmaior – 2015-09-16T02:05:12.767

1One suggestion I have for the OP in terms of improving it is that at least on traditional understandings, God is being whereas big bang falls under the more recent category "event." I don't know if amending your first paragraph to mention this would change anything. – virmaior – 2015-09-16T02:06:05.193

Or may be you can take Confiold's fears off-topic by making it an assertion for this question that you're understanding all experience and empirical data to on a certain level involve self-reporting of experiences (that seems like a common topic in philosophy of science). – virmaior – 2015-09-16T02:07:41.617

I do not understand your more recent comments (e.g. I am not sure what "experiential" or "baconian" or "self-reporting" means in this context), so can you clarify whether you did or did not answer my questions, and if so can you state the answers in more straightforward language? – WillO – 2015-09-16T02:12:20.550

Nick R, That was not really an agenda of the question, but I certainly would describe science as, among other things, predictive and "self-fulfilling," like any living system. Science cannot rid itself of axioms and so remains open to accusation of foundational "beliefs." By what mechanism of "self-correction" does it distinguish itself from massively, statistically averaged "beliefs" like god? This is an old question brought to new problematic levels as scientists venture via math into "physical cosmology" and unique, non-repeatable one-off events like "big bang." – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T02:12:38.060

WillO, sorry but good clarification take time, so I'll have to get back to you. For now, it seems to me that, yes, you have "redescribed" my original questions. In the history of philosophy there are many "proofs" of god, from "first cause" or "design" to "massively historical, self-reported "experience." In what fundamental way is scientific "proof" of an event prior to even the possibility of "experience" like big bang superior to these old rationalist proofs? – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T02:25:06.963

Virmaior, Sorry, still not familiar with format or its "ideal speech situation." Is my question too loosey-goosey? My comments may refine, but admittedly add time and verbal fat. I don't imagine a definitive answer, just concise differentiations. Now, no more "comment" replies from me, which could be endless. If question needs "yes-no" refinement, please specify how. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T02:35:02.487

Nelson, In order to insure that a user receives notification of your comment, you should prefix the user's name with the "@" symbol. The exception being when you are commenting on a user's post (question or answer). – Nick – 2015-09-16T02:39:15.437

This seems like a matter of demarcation to me: I wouldn't wish an engineer building a bridge I drive over to rely on self-reported experiences, on the other hand when it comes to unique historical events first hand accounts are the best. Science is after all about regularities and reproducible effects. So I would rephrase the question as about which sort of evidence is best suited for which sort of matters. As it is it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. – Conifold – 2015-09-16T02:41:54.243

I still do not understand whether you do or do not claim to have answered my questions. – WillO – 2015-09-16T02:50:58.150

I'm not answering your question, but questioning your answer. Why don't you flesh it out in an answer format? Your answer, as I take it, is that mathematical coherence, correspondence with prediction of background radiation, and expert consensus trump "proofs" of "divine events." I tend to agree. But we also know that science rests upon consensus, assumptions, and summed "experience" (which is always by definition "self"-reported). Does a first-cause "event" beyond possible experience and prior to spacetime overreach scientific validation, as in Kantian antinomies or "proofs" of god? – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T14:07:56.563

I would like to know how you would like us to treat the phrase "evidence is superior." For example, if we were to choose to do it mathematically, we could declare there is a poset of such events, ordered by the quality of the evidence. Then we could spend time discussing what it means for one set of evidence to be "better" than the other. As a crude example, one could argue that belief in God is "superior" because it has been in use longer, and thus has had more time to prove its worth. It is worth noting that your ordering may be different from that of others. – Cort Ammon – 2015-09-16T14:45:46.840

That's a good question, but I'm not sure I want to get more technical or "define away" the question. I am thinking broadly of the standard validations of "evidence" in science. Prediction, control, coherence, falsifiability. Evolving along some Bayesian line. To which the history of science has added a big dose of consensus or "paradigm" inertia. Big bang, like god, is a "first cause" prior to any possible experience. Is this problematic for the old standards of validation? – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T16:01:06.547



This isn't an answer, because it's a difficult question; but there is some interesting qualifications which might posited as part of a genealogical perspective - in the sense that Foucault, and earlier Nietzsche make use of it - on the question that might throw further light on it.

I recall reading it was a Belgian priest Lemaitre that posited the Big Bang ie the Comic Egg in the 1920s; a notion that's also prevalent in other cosmologies; but he also called it the primeval atom - which suggestively links it up to Parmenides notion of the One; an interesting question would be what influence Hegels History of Philosophy had here - as this makes it remarkably similar.

When Einstein came up with GR, the notion of an eternal universe was the prevailing opinion which is why he chose a static spacetime; it was Hubbles evidence that the universe was expanding - to be more specific every star was moving away from every other star that helped tip the balance towards the Big Bang theory.

It was apparently because that this notion was so reminiscent of the creative act in Genesis 'Let there be light' that motivated Hoyle to modify the notion of the Steady State universe to take into account Hubbles evidence; but accumulating theoretical and observational evidence pushed mainstream opinion decisively towards the Big Bang.

However it's also important to notice, I think, that this notion has a certain affinity with the notion of the multiverse - for example in Smolins version - in the older theory new matter is continuously created; in the newer theory, new universes are.

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2015-09-16T00:33:23.467

Reputation: 1

Paragraph 3 seems to jump abruptly from Big Bang to steady state -- not sure what the point is. – Dave – 2015-09-16T13:52:02.253

@Dave: I motivate the move in paragraph; both theories were after all contending physical cosmological theories; and later I show how it throws light on current controversies on the multiverse - again a physical cosmological theory. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-09-16T14:00:09.400

Can you pin-point a little more closely how it's abrupt? – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-09-16T14:02:06.050

I voted up, though it does skirt the question. I am not at all qualified to asses the ways in which background radiation tipped consensus away from steady state, or if it might tip back. My point is that physical cosmology appears to me to strain our understanding of empirical proofs. There are problems with any science of "single events," problems with anteriority to all possible human "experience," problems with interpretation of data. If we are driven back into pure logic, probability, and social consensus (however expert), are we still firmly superior to "proofs of god"? – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T14:22:34.310

To me it reads: "because big bang was so similar to Genesis, Hoyle came up with steady state", which I don't think is what you intended (and is inconsistent with my understanding of the state of the field at that time -- Steady State was the orthodoxy, Big Bang was the new idea). – Dave – 2015-09-16T14:55:16.150

@dave: ok, I misunderstood your use of the word 'abrupt': I'll add more detail - as what you say is not something that I disagree with; it's probably better said that Hoyle modified Steady Dtate Theory to take into account Hubbles evidence of an expanding universe; unless you are also disagreeing with introducing Hoyles motivation; I don't recall now where I read that; but I felt it important that one ought to include beliefs in this question, in a way one normally doesn't when reporting on science. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-09-16T15:54:51.327

@Nelson Alexander: strictly speaking we don't have a definite theory of the Big Bang; just extrapolated theories as best guesses; this is why I was pointing out that multiverse theories are returning us back to the notion of the eternal universe - in a sense it's a 'tip back'. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-09-16T15:58:49.577

Hoyle's and Bondi's motivation was a methodological intuition expressed as extension of the Copernican principle: not only is our place in space not special, but our position in time is not also, hence steady state. It was refuted empirically. I also think genealogy helps dispel arcane remoteness worries in the OP. Lemaitre's "cold" Big Bang theory was not viable, the idea was resurrected by "hot" Big Bang of Gamow et al. in 1946, which tied it to mathematically condensed evidence in astrophysics of star formation, nuclear physics, etc., CMB radiation was icing on the cake. – Conifold – 2015-09-16T19:07:41.867

@conifold: sure, the steady state principle is another incarnation of the principle of homogeneity. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-09-17T06:10:47.697


There is, in fact, much more evidence that people have various subjective religious experiences than for any ideas about the big bang singularity. The difficulty is in establishing the connection between these experiences and what most people mean by "god". If you define "god" as only related to these internal effects then you are on pretty safe ground epistemically; however once you start adding more features to "god", e.g. that he/she/they exist outside of people's minds, then you're making a model for "god" that is no longer well supported by the evidence.

A different way to say it is "there is very good evidence for the psychological phenomenon of 'god'"; the issue is in using a model for "god" that goes beyond just the psychological phenomenon, and has evidentiary support.

Some commentary on the premise of the question

My read is that the question is in regards to the "Big Bang Singularity" (my term) -- extrapolation of current models back to "the very beginning". There is no well supported theory for that idea. This article provides a good summary of the issues:

  • There are 4 independent lines of evidence supporting the idea that the early universe was hot and dense; and is currently expanding away from that state. But these don't tell us anything about about times much earlier than the time of the cosmic background radiation.
  • There can be different definitions of the big bang -- the point at the end of inflation, the start of inflation, and some point before inflation (this implies that there is one inflation model -- though constrained, there are many open questions about this model).

To say that "the big bang", which as I interpret it's use in the question is a reference to the big bang singularity, is scientific and supported by evidence is not an accurate reflection of the state of the science.

Basically, the sensible epistemic position about the big bang singularity is "I don't know".


Posted 2015-09-16T00:33:23.467

Reputation: 4 599

Good answer. You are right to observe that "singularity" was intended, which I suspect can never be properly scientific. However, your point about proving a "mind independent" entity is not only a problem for god. It is a post-Kantian problem for any noumenal "reality." Hence the instability of "experience" and the turn to statistical probability, where there might be a stronger case for "god" than for many specified events of physical cosmology. Thanks for references. – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-16T16:12:00.447

@Nelson Alexander Big Bang singularity is largely seen as a mathematical artifact rather than part of the Big Bang theory. The content of the theory is in explaining visible features of the universe, age and composition of stars, galaxies, etc., as emerging from an account of its evolution. At the times close to the initial singularity both GR and SM are expected to break down, so no description is available for that, the consensus is that quantum gravity is needed to provide one. – Conifold – 2015-09-16T19:18:04.033


Our communication in comments frames my answer, so it is reproduced here (emphasis mine):

I would like to know how you would like us to treat the phrase "evidence is superior." For example, if we were to choose to do it mathematically, we could declare there is a poset of such events, ordered by the quality of the evidence. Then we could spend time discussing what it means for one set of evidence to be "better" than the other. As a crude example, one could argue that belief in God is "superior" because it has been in use longer, and thus has had more time to prove its worth. It is worth noting that your ordering may be different from that of others. – Cort Ammon

That's a good question, but I'm not sure I want to get more technical or "define away" the question. I am thinking broadly of the standard validations of "evidence" in science. Prediction, control, coherence, falsifiability. Evolving along some Bayesian line. To which the history of science has added a big dose of consensus or "paradigm" inertia. Big bang, like god, is a "first cause" prior to any possible experience. Is this problematic for the old standards of validation? – Nelson Alexander

By assuming a scientific stance, you have to understand that you will naturally arrive at an answer biased towards science's result. However, if we look at a slightly broader issue, I think there is still some room to breathe life into the counterargument.

Let's look at the underlying assumptions. After all, belief in a big bang is really a result from our mathematical models of the universe, and belief in God is really a result from the reading of the Bible. So let's dig at the underlying tricky axioms that neither outlook really likes to look at. Science, with its mathematical models, explicitly assumes that the "laws of nature" are invariant. The laws of nature you experience within your lifetime are the exact same as were experienced in the era of Jesus, and all is explained with those laws (or at least "most" is explained, depending on how hard lined your scientific stance bends towards deterministic physicalism). What evidence do you have to defend this? Well, the laws haven't changed during your life, or you'd have noticed.... right? Well... maybe? Sort of? Did you ever feel Deja Vu? Perhaps the Matrix changed when you weren't looking? Such troublesome questions are the subject of a great deal of philosophy, and worth reading into if those questions are interesting to you.

Likewise, a belief in God typically is deeply entwined with a belief that the Bible is Truth. What evidence does one have to defend this? Well, the wordings vary from individual to individual, and there's fair argument that they should vary. However, it turns out that no assumption they have to make is any less defensible than the argument that just because we've never perceived the laws of physics change doesn't mean they change (you happen to mention Bayesian statistics... Jeffery's Prior deals with this frustrating aspect of Bayesian thinking, at least as best as can be done).

So, in the end, whether the evidence for one approach is better than the other is highly subject to the particular metrics you choose to apply to it, from a "truthyness" perspective. If I may expound, I would argue there is another metric which one might use instead: how does the application of this belief improve your life? Both outlooks have very intriguing ways to improve your life, and they differ greatly. Many would not trade God for Science, and many would not trade Science for God. There may be something to both. It might even be worth one's time to explore them both!

Cort Ammon

Posted 2015-09-16T00:33:23.467

Reputation: 16 681

Thank you for thoughtful reply. Your answer appears to me pragmatist and "compatiblist." Certainly my default position. I fear I muddied the water by bringing "god" into it, by way of analogy. The gist of my question is the contradiction between a post-Kantian scientific or "positivist" view that we cannot "know" things as mind-indepent (ding an sich) and the "scientific" claims of physical cosmology about things assumed to be prior to mind, consciousness, and even spacetime. How can "physics" meaningfully talk about such things? Has it slipped into metaphysics? – Nelson Alexander – 2015-09-17T01:48:27.833

1I am not sure that science assumes that the laws of nature are invariant, it is more of a convention, whatever isn't we stop calling law of nature. According to Quine and other naturalized epistemologists ideally science assumes nothing at all, any claim or principle, including logic or absence of god, can be discarded whenever suitable. On this view theoretical entities of science are simply mathematical projections, like Kant's noumena or aleph one. The initial singularity is more likely to be that than most. – Conifold – 2015-09-17T02:15:50.717