What Really Happened at the Beginning of Time?

 

My father replies to your comments. 

VISE & LADDER

In a very bravura passage, David Hume writes that “if we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics let us ask this question, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can be nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

 What of Hume’s own remarks? Not so good. Hume was an early victim of the Vise, the circumstance that attends a philosopher who finds himself squeezed between the premises and conclusion of an argument by which he attempted to squeeze others.

In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein found himself in almost the same vise. The universe, he argued, is reflected in the true propositions of the natural sciences. Other propositions are quite without meaning. What about the argument by which this imperative is enforced? Is it quite without meaning? If so, why pay it any attention, and if not, what of the distinction it enforces? The Vise again, one might think. But Wittgenstein urged his readers to regard his argument as a ladder which they were free to kick away once they had grasped its point.  

Vise and Ladder run right through analytic philosophy, from A. J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic to Alexander Rosenburg’s argument that science settles every case and so evens every score.

Mathematical physicists have found their own noses in a good many vises, and they have appealed to a good many ladders to get them out.

Citing somebody with satisfaction, Outstripp remarks that “philosophy is what you do until you understand something well enough to do science.” A familiar enough complaint. The scientists get things right, the philosophers get things confused. Everyone who takes philosophy seriously has had a similar thought. Down with the philosophers and let us burn their books. Enter the Vise. And the obvious argument that follows.

How is it possible, Jordan Rodriguez would like to know, for something to come into being from nothing? I am not sure that this is properly a pre-Socratic question — who knows what those people really meant — but whatever its origins, the obvious answer is that it is not possible. That is why philosophers are so fond of asking it. Theologians too. Physicists who argue that it is possible invariably fudge on the matter of nothing by identifying nothing with something, such as a listless and empty quantum field, or some other universe from which our universe has tunneled in grateful relief. Physicists such as Vic Stenger have made the something for nothing switch with all the aplomb of stage magicians releasing a flock of doves from their underwear.

Am I suggesting that it would do the physicists a world of good to read what philosophers have said on this question, and to understand that the question itself has a long, a troubled, history?

Yes, that’s it exactly.

If Outstripp endorses the thesis that philosophy is the prerogative of those who fail to understand physics, David Williams goes him one better, reserving philosophy for those who do not understand mathematics. Expressing himself nicely in precisely ninety-four words, he finds himself suspicious of words themselves. Whereupon another turn of the screw, a tightening of the vise. Like so many others – he is in good company, at least – he is ascending a ladder he proposes to kick away. His suspicion of philosophical confidence is itself expressed with some considerable self-confidence, I must say.

Haakon Dahl asks for a better definition of the philosophy of physics. Philosophers of physics do not do experiments in physics nor do they create theories within physics. I suppose that they take whatever is left over. Whatever it is, there seems to be a lot of it.

What happened before the Big Bang. This is what Nunov Yerbiz would like to know. Me too. No one knows. The Big Bang marks the point at which physical theories start to stutter. Physicists often say that space and time began with the Big Bang. But as Mr. Yerbiz notices, this is hardly a coherent position. To ask for the time that time began is a little like asking for the length of length. The measure has been applied to itself. The Vise is at work here too. In order to say that space and time began, physicists must renounce the old, comfortable sense that while things may begin or come to an end, beginnings and endings make sense only against the context of an antecedent temporal flow. If the Vise is evident, so is the ladder. Climb it up, the physicists say, and then give up what you is troubling you. Not so easy to do. How would knowing more mathematics help, I wonder? Are these sorts of questions mathematical? They appear all over again when physicists argue that space and time are not even fundamental physical categories. The jiggling fundaments lie elsewhere; and from them, space and time may be derived. That may be so within a particular theory, but the theory must be understood against the background of what can only be called the instinctive human sense that whatever the derivation in theory, space and time remain fundamental. Kicking away this ladder involves kicking away the very intuitions by which things are in the first place judged. Better to give the theory a kick, no?

It is this, perhaps, that motivates some physicists, at least, to search for physical antecedents to the Big Bang – quantum states, universes before our own, the exotica of an active imagination. The unacceptable conjecture is the one favored by most of the human race from time immemorial. John Haldane touches on some of these points in his First Things review of Stephen Hawkings’ most recent book. It is a good, but an obvious, review.

Dogsbody offers a nice sense of the strangeness of current cosmology as cosmologists make the attempt to scuttle back past the beginning of space and time in order to assign the universe a cause at a time before time began. Can they really get away with it, his post seems to ask? It is exciting to see this sense of skepticism on the pages of Ricochet for in a very modest way, it reaffirms power relationships that should never have been allowed to lapse. It is the common beliefs of mankind against which physical theories are judged, just as it is the common judgment of mankind against which art is assessed. The ladders cannot be kicked away. They are unkickable.  Some of our beliefs may need to be given up; but not all and some never.

Dogsbody suspects that I suspect what he suspects: And he is right. In asking for an account of pre-Big Bang cosmology, physicists are attempting to flee from a story that they have heard but do not like. They make little attempt to disguise their aversion either. I am not at all certain that I would endorse the conclusion that K.T. Cat takes from cosmology. He hardly needs Stephen Hawking to approve of wine and women.

Mathew Bartle asks whether physicists ever pay any attention to philosophers. If not, what does philosophy add to physics? But this is to distort the history of thought. Einstein thought very seriously about philosophy in reaching the conclusions that he expressed in his theory of special relativity; so did the great figures in quantum mechanics. The stuff is everywhere and no matter their vigorous contempt for philosophy, the physicists are covered with it.

Herkybird has offered Ricochet a subtle and difficult comment. Whatever Vico may have said, I do not think that mathematics is something man-made. Made by whom? When? Mathematics has been discovered, but made? How on this view, to account for its necessity? Mathematics has none of the arbitrariness we expect of a human artifact. Shakespeare made Hamlet and he might have written to see or not to see, instead of to be or not to be. No mathematician can do as much for mathematics. But then there is the stunning remark: ‘It may be, in the end, that our biggest obstacle in understanding the cosmos is that we didn’t make it.’ Wonderfully put.

As for those two clouds that Outstripp mentions: Merge two clouds and you get a bigger wetter cloud. Separate them, and it is the reverse. But something is not emerging from nothing. Clouds, gases, stuff such as mud, flowing lava, justice, beauty, are all difficult to count because they have no obvious standard of individuation. The question how many muds is meaningless, and even if they do, they tend to lose their individual properties under stress – witness those clouds.

Not JMR has taken a crack in two hundred words at what is a notoriously difficult problem. Some of what he says is right. There is a connection between entropy and the arrow of time. Lubos Motl writing on his own blog, The Reference Frame, regularly abuses other physicists in his own inimitable but incompetent brand of English for not appreciating the connection more robustly. I have nothing intelligent to say on the question.

It happens.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @lakelylane

    All in all I love the vision of ” magicians releasing a flock of doves from their underwear.” The image also fits using the word “politicans releasing…..”

    • #1
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    @Nealfred

    I believe in something from nothing. I believe in God. I think belief is an absolute requirement in order to know. Therefore you are boring me. I would suggest you find creative employment away from the keyboard. I personally find it much more satisfying.

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    @TommyDeSeno

    Hawkings’ latest book (nothing new and a rehash of old work) announces a “something from nothing theory” but when you dig to the bottom of it he still puts a wiggling string of energy at the beginning.

    That ain’t nothin’!

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    @TheMugwump

    And like a clod I stumble late into the discussion . . .

    Nevertheless, it seems to me that time was born from a state of timelessness. To say that matter, space and dimension existed before time began is semantically inaccurate. There is no “before” or “after” in a state of timelessness. God would exist in a state where past, present, and future are experienced in a simultaneous moment. Time began when matter was set in motion. If the universe moves, and we know it does, then it can only move in time. The condition of timelessness would therefore be static and complete. All things subject to the limitations of time can be measured. That which is timeless simply IS. At least that’s how I see it.

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    @MargaretBall

    There are aspects of the universe which my cat (probably) will never understand because he lacks the mental equipment. (OK, it’s possible that he is quietly working on unsolved topological theorems while staring at the window, but I doubt it.)

    It seems quite possible that we, too, lack the mental capacity to understand all the aspects of the universe. I certainly do; five minutes’ contemplation of quantum physics convinces me of this.

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    @DocJay

    Let me get out my copy of Dianetics.

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    @DanHanson

    This strikes me as a ‘philosophy of the gaps’ argument: Wherever science currently does not have an answer, philosophy takes over.

    It is true that we still don’t know the exact mechanism of the Big Bang. Cosmology is currently a bit of a mess of competing theories, unexplained phenomena (dark matter and dark energy), and untestable hypotheses (string theory).

    This is not an argument against science. It probably means that our current models are incomplete or somewhat wrong, and out of this mess will arise a new theory or set of theories that fit the facts better. In the same way, the growing complexity of the ‘wheels within wheels’ models of planetary motion required to explain new observations eventually gave way to a more coherent and correct model.

    And of course, when that model was breaking down, the church and philosophers used that as an argument that they should be listened to instead of those crazy scientists.

    Science is not a set of sacrosanct facts. Science is nothing more than a methodology for discovering the true nature of the universe. The facts may change with discovery and gaps of knowledge remain, but the method remains valid.

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    @DavidWilliamson
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    If Outstripp endorses the thesis that philosophy is the prerogative of those who fail to understand physics, David Williams goes him one better, reserving philosophy for those who do not understand mathematics. Expressing himself nicely in precisely ninety-four words, he finds himself suspicious of words themselves. Whereupon another turn of the screw, a tightening of the vise. Like so many others – he is in good company, at least – he is ascending a ladder he proposes to kick away. His suspicion of philosophical confidence is itself expressed with some considerable self-confidence, I must say.

    Well, thank you. I have confidence in mathematics – more so than I do words.

    Words lead you to ask the question “what happened before the big bang”. Whereas mathematics has no trouble with the concept of space-time starting at the big bang – it does not need “before”. Mathematics has positive, negative and imaginary numbers for that kinda stuff.

    Hawking has recently referred to mathematics that describes the role of “God” in the big bang – or, rather, obviates the need for “God”. I’m not enough of a mathematician to judge his claim, but I can see where he is coming from.

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    @DavidWilliamson

    Oh, one other thought. I was recently chatting with a friend who is intimately familiar with the mathematics of quantum mechanics. He is rather amused by the current controversery over the apparently-faster-than-light neutrinos.

    He pointed out that it is a misconception that nothing can travel faster than light (more specifically, nothing that carries information can travel faster than light). In fact, the mathematics of quantum mechanics allows for faster-than-light particles (or waves – that’s another problem with words) – they are called tachyons. Problem is, they are kinda hard to see because they, um, travel faster than light. They are unable, mathematically, to transition across the light speed barrier.

    This all sounds bizarre in words, but can be expressed mathematically in some short equations that most people can’t understand.

    As to whether the neutrinos really are travelling faster than light, that remains to be seen.

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    @KCMulville

    Bertrand Russell argued that the universe had a definite starting point – which would then require God … or it simply always was. As I recall, Russell argued that there was no absolute need to postulate God, since it was equally possible that the universe simply always was.

    To make the argument that the universe always existed, however, you must argue that the universe is made up of non-contingent, non-changing “atomic” base units, and that the appearance of change is not in substance but merely in form.

    The search for those base units has gotten progressively smaller, microscopic, until it finally leaped into theoretical modeling. Of course, once you leap into modeling instead of hard evidence, you’re as religious as the next guy.

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    @TheMugwump
    David Williamson

    Well, thank you. I have confidence in mathematics – more so than I do words.

    Words lead you to ask the question “what happened before the big bang”. Whereas mathematics has no trouble with the concept of space-time starting at the big bang – it does not need “before”. Mathematics has positive, negative and imaginary numbers for that kinda stuff.

    Hawking has recently referred to mathematics that describes the role of “God” in the big bang – or, rather, obviates the need for “God”. I’m not enough of a mathematician to judge his claim, but I can see where he is coming from. · 4 minutes ago

    This is fine as far as it goes. The problem with math is that it needs something measurable. Without space, time, and dimension math is useless. As I stated above the phrase “before the big bang” is semantically inaccurate. A state of timelessness, where resides the Godhead, has neither beginning nor end. You state correctly that math does not need a “before.” True, but math does require a starting point. Math will never prove the existence of God because He is beyond measure. He is perfect, fixed, complete, and immutable.

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    @TheMugwump
    KC Mulville: Bertrand Russell argued that the universe had a definite starting point – which would then require God … or it simply always was. As I recall, Russell argued that there was no absolute need to postulate God, since it was equally possible that the universe simply always was.

    Bertrand Russell is wrong. When we look at the universe through a telescope, we are literally looking backwards in time. By calculating the velocity of the an expanding universe, we can actually calculate the age of the cosmos.

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    @DavidWilliamson
    ~Paules

    This is fine as far as it goes. The problem with math is that it needs something measurable. Without space, time, and dimension math is useless.

    I have to disagree. Math can exist in any number of dimensions, including zero.

    Math doesn’t need anything measurable – I mentioned the Tachyon in post #9 – these exist mathematically, but they are (currently) not measurable.

    It’s Physics that requires something to be measurable – often the math comes first, and then the Physicists go off and try and measure it.

    Sometimes the measurements reveal a problem with the theory, and the mathematicians go off and work on their equations while the expermentalists check their data – again, this is going on currently with the neutrinos (which also were proposed mathematically before they were discovered – they are very hard to see). Likewise the Higgs Boson.

    This is actually why I mentioned mathematics rather than science in my first post – it’s more fundamental.

    • #13
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    @KCMulville

    My question is absolutely philosophical: how can we explain difference?

    If the Big Bang started from a singularity, and there was nothing else beside, how do we explain how things started to vary?

    When an explosion happens, things start to vary because pre-existing outside forces (gravity, heat, whatever) exert influence on the exploded particles. But if the Big Bang started from a singularity … there were no pre-existing outside forces to exert influence. And if you argue that the exploded particles “created” those forces, you then have to explain how they could have created them differently.

    Believe me, I’m open to any answer you have …

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    @TheMugwump
    David Williamson

    ~Paules

    This is fine as far as it goes. The problem with math is that it needs something measurable. Without space, time, and dimension math is useless.

    I have to disagree. Math can exist in any number of dimensions, including zero.

    Math doesn’t need anything measurable – I mentioned the Tachyon in post #9 – these exist mathematically, but they are (currently) not measurable.

    It’s Physics that requires something to be measurable – often the math comes first, and then the Physicists go off and try and measure it.

    Thank you for the clarification. I stand corrected.

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    @BillWalsh

    The cosmological question I find interesting is that, if we walk entropy backwards, we end up with an extremely ordered starting point of the universe. What that means, I’ll leave to my betters, but the fact that not only did something evidentially come into being from nothing but that that something had order—not merely density or mass, although perhaps it was a by-product thereof, I dunno—strikes me as, well, at a minimum very curious and not a little suggestive.

    • #16
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    @DavidWilliamson
    KC Mulville:

    If the Big Bang started from a singularity, and there was nothing else beside, how do we explain how things started to vary?

    That’s a big area of Physics, or Cosmology, currently – basically a singularity is so tiny that it operates in the quantum realm, where there are quantum fluctuations (you can’t pin sometime down at this level – it’s uncertain). These fluctuations expand through a process known as inflation, which gives us the variations that we see – including us :-)

    Bill – the high level of ordering in a singularity is also because it is tini tiny… entropy is what gives time the direction that we experience (mathematics has no trouble with time going in either direction).

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    @Anon

    I have a bone or two to pick with you, Berlinski, but you have set a hearty meal to begin with.

    Many thanks.

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    @TheMugwump
    Bill Walsh: The cosmological question I find interesting is that, if we walk entropy backwards, we end up with an extremely ordered starting point of the universe. What that means, I’ll leave to my betters, but the fact that not only did something evidentially come into being from nothing but that that something had order—not merely density or mass, although perhaps it was a by-product thereof, I dunno—strikes me as, well, at a minimum very curious and not a little suggestive. · 2 minutes ago

    Bill, I’m certainly not your better, but allow me to offer a somewhat pedestrian analogy. My sock drawer doesn’t spontaneously organize itself. And my garden hose tends to tangle itself unless I supply the energy to keep it coiled. What I’m suggesting is that the universe would exist in a state of absolute entropy without a consciousness and a will capable of imposing order. I can’t prove God exists, but an orderly universe implies a consciousness behind the order.

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    @TheMugwump

    And while I’m on the subject of entropy . . .

    Imagine a universe in a continuous state of chaos. There would be no eyes to see it, and no mind capable of contemplating it (not from within, anyway). Order brings meaning to the universe.

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    @DavidWilliamson
    KC Mulville

    David Williamson

    These fluctuations expand through a process known as inflation, which gives us the variations that we see – including us :-)

    Which logically means that differences were already present. A fluctuation is, after all, nothing but a difference.

    If all existing things after the Big Bang are just the results of pre-existing differences that were present within the Big Bang, then that brings us back to Russell’s argument … either the differences always existed, or a creator (person or process) created them.

    Yes, the differences already and always existed, because of Quantum Mechanics – it’s beyond time and space, like God ;-)

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    @JamesJones
    David Williamson: Oh, one other thought. I was recently chatting with a friend who is intimately familiar with the mathematics of quantum mechanics. He is rather amused by the current controversery over the apparently-faster-than-light neutrinos.

    He pointed out that it is a misconception that nothing can travel faster than light (more specifically, nothing that carries information can travel faster than light). In fact, the mathematics of quantum mechanics allows for faster-than-light particles (or waves – that’s another problem with words) – they are called tachyons. Problem is, they are kinda hard to see because they, um, travel faster than light. They are unable, mathematically, to transition across the light speed barrier. · 3 hours ago

    But tachyons haven’t been proved to exist; they are merely possible according to the equations. Dirac showed (via his mathematical discovery of antimatter) that sometimes this works, but it’s not reliable.

    The ability to transmit information superluminally creates major problems for causality. If neutrinos can do this, it’s going to cause a major rethink of what we think we know.

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    @TommyDeSeno

    Why do most people spend so much time on the “before and after” of the Big Bang, when the clearly more interesting moment is Planck Time, 10-43 seconds after the start of inflation?

    Prior to that, it is understood that the 4 forces of nature were fused into one (or perhaps didn’t exist?).

    This is more fascinating because it is measurable.

    Yet I can find no one, physicist nor philosopher, who wades into the who, what, when, why and how of the start of inflation to the moment of Planck Time.

    If God is at work, I suspect here is where we will find his tool chest.

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    @KCMulville
    David Williamson Yes, the differences already and always existed, because of Quantum Mechanics – it’s beyond time and space, like God ;-)

    But is there any evidence for it … before (or at the time of) the Big Bang? Or is it a theoretical model?

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    @RoyLofquist

    The “Big Bang” theory hinges on one premise – that the observed astronomical red shift is a Doppler effect. From there it grew like Topsy. It grew because the original mathematical model failed to predict subsequent observations. Currently it invokes mythical creatures and untestable assumptions to preserve the edifice.

    There are other theories that are simpler, offering explanations for the knottier problems that bedevil the BB.

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    @dogsbody

    Dogsbody suspects that I suspect what he suspects: And he is right.

    Aha, just as I suspected!

    In asking for an account of pre-Big Bang cosmology, physicists are attempting to flee from a story that they have heard but do not like.

    I… suspect… that the same desire is what drives Richard Dawkins when he insists that Darwin’s theory is the greatest achievement of science. Whether you believe the standard theory of biological evolution or not, this is at least very debatable: I would put Newtonian physics, quantum electrodynamics and the general theory of relativity far, far ahead of evolution.

    Dawkins needs evolution to be “the greatest” so he can use it as a stick to beat Christians and other theists, and flee from some ideas he finds uncomfortable. I agree with Dr. Berlinski that the same basic desire drives the current cosmological speculations about “bubble universes” and the like.

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    @Anon

    There’s an old joke that has a scientist telling God that man has achieved a technological position where he can now create life, and there’s nothing much to doing that. God then asks the scientist how he would go about doing it, exactly. The scientist replies: “Well first we take a little dirt..” and God interrupts him and says, “Get your own dirt.”

    Inevitably it boils down to we mortals not knowing enough to even perceive our ignorance of what is going on now, much less at the beginning.

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    @Valiuth

    Well the level of physics and math needed to understand the current theories of the big bang and the ever finer particles that comprise the universe are beyond me. I am a simple biologist after all and biology often is not much of a science (though it is rather cool).

    The argument between the relevance between physics and philosophy to me seems strange. I feel like the conflict comes from physicists over stepping the intellectual constraints that make science useful. I have always viewed the primary goal of science as describing the mechanisms by which the world operates so as to allow for the creation of general rules (theories) which can predict future behavior of matter. Ascribing meaning to all this is not the job of scientists and asking questions about the origins of the mechanisms also isn’t really the job of the scientist.

    Why is the universe the way it is, is not a scientific question in a strict sense. How does the universe that is work, that is a scientific question. That has been the strength of science in the past is the narrow focus on mechanism, while ignoring teleology.

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    @Valiuth

    Teleology was ignored because it was not needed to explain the function of the observed mechanism. Ignoring teleology though led to the slow bias against it. So the assumption then became the processes need no teleological purpose. This was not wise of people to do even if it may have been inevitable. You don’t need to know why a car was build or its intended function to understand its workings. Not needing to know though doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to the car or that you can not under stand it.

    This is the big complaint I see in biology. You don’t need to understand the purpose of evolution to define a mechanistic model for how species change over time or why the current species arose. We have observed many things that point to a model that fits within Darwinian outlines of differential inherited change leading to divergence. Why is this the system that exists? I don’t know. That is a great question but not one for a biologist per say. That is why we need philosophy and why we need people trained in both philosophy and the sciences. To answer that question.

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    @KCMulville
    David Williamson

    These fluctuations expand through a process known as inflation, which gives us the variations that we see – including us :-)

    Which logically means that differences were already present. A fluctuation is, after all, nothing but a difference.

    If all existing things after the Big Bang are just the results of pre-existing differences that were present within the Big Bang, then that brings us back to Russell’s argument … either the differences always existed, or a creator (person or process) created them.

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