The Inflating, Expanding Universe and the Creator

By Dr. Christopher Plumberg

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If you follow much of what happens in the modern field of cosmology, you have probably encountered references on a regular basis to concepts like the expansion of the universe and inflation. However, although we tend to use the terms "expansion" and "inflation" somewhat interchangeably in every-day parlance, the two terms actually mean very different things in the context of cosmology. My goal here is to briefly explain the difference between the technical usage of these two concepts, and to show that they are not both equally confirmed by the available evidence. I then want to use this subject as an opportunity to illustrate a chain of reasoning which has become quite common in the natural sciences, one which precludes legitimate scientific explanations from containing explicit references to a Creator. I'm not going to aim for a comprehensive treatment of these issues; I only want to provide a short discussion to give a flavor for what makes these ideas so fascinating, as well as what kinds of conclusions they should lead Christians to accept or reject, based on the truth of Scripture and what the available evidence actually requires them to believe.

Let me begin by discussing what cosmologists have in mind when they talk about the expansion of the universe. There is little question that the universe is expanding. How do we know this? The idea is relatively simple: in the same way that a policewoman might use her radar gun to measure the speeds of passing cars on a highway, astronomers have long used their version of a radar gun to measure the "speeds" of galaxies in outer space. The surprising result of these measurements is that almost all galaxies are moving away from us and that the speed of each galaxy depends on how far away it is, with the galaxies near us receding at relatively low speeds, and the galaxies much further away receding at relatively large speeds.

This is similar to the situation which one encounters in baking a loaf of bread with chocolate chips interspersed throughout it: from the perspective of each chocolate chip, every other chocolate chip is moving away from it as the loaf of bread rises and expands. Moreover, the chocolate chips which are relatively close together will not move apart too much, while the chocolate chips which start out far apart will move much more during the expansion of the bread (because there is more dough in between them to expand). From the perspective of each chocolate chip, therefore, the chips which are nearby do not appear to move too quickly, while the chips which are far away do appear to move rather quickly. This is exactly the sort of thing we see when we look at other galaxies spread throughout the universe, and the fact that each galaxy (or "chocolate chip") is moving away from us in the manner we observe gives us good reason to think that we live inside a universe (or "loaf of bread") which is expanding as time goes on.

There's one thing I should clarify before we go any further: the fact that galaxies appear to be receding from us at various speeds doesn't mean that those galaxies are actually moving at those speeds; it means that the universe itself is expanding, and that the galaxies are just "along for the ride." The same thing is true in the analogy of the loaf of bread: the chocolate chips are not actually moving inside the bread; they are just being carried along as the bread itself expands. This is an important distinction to keep in mind when trying to understand what cosmologists today actually believe about the universe and how it began.

The most widely accepted view among scientists today of how the universe came into being is the so-called "Big Bang theory," which states that the universe resulted from something like a colossal explosion out of a space-time singularity. The idea of a singularity can be a little confusing, so let me describe it in terms of an analogy. It is best not to think of the singularity as some little "egg" with the whole universe jammed up inside of it, which is how it is often visualized. Rather, the singularity is much more like an old video tape that (if one is polite) one rewinds before returning to the video rental store: the singularity is like the point at which the video stops rewinding altogether. It's not that the singularity is what existed before the universe, or that the singularity is some strange object which contained the whole universe and then blew up into the universe. Rather, the idea is that when we finish "rewinding" the universe according to the physics we know about, we eventually hit a point where we can't go back any further, and this is what we call the singularity.

Before I talk about how all of this factors into what scientists today actually believe, let me throw one more complication into the mix. As I've already argued, scientists have good reason for thinking that the universe truly is expanding. It turns out that scientists also have good reason to think that the universe itself — even the emptiest regions of pure, outer space — is very close to being the same temperature everywhere. This is quite surprising, if you think about it. In fact, the only way to really make sense of this observation (if you don't have the option of thinking God may have created it that way) is to suppose that, at some point long ago, the universe must have been extremely small, allowing it all to naturally exist at the same temperature. The only way to make this idea consistent with what we observe today is to tack on another phase of the universe's evolution just prior to the earliest moments of the universe's lifetime, during which the universe underwent an extremely rapid expansion, increasing in size by several orders of magnitude. This idea has come to be known as the inflationary hypothesis (or just "inflation"). The key difference between inflation and the "normal" expansion of the universe that we observe today is that the former is thought to have been a relatively short period of extremely rapid expansion, while the latter is now known to be a much slower process. So, to use the standard jargon, the universe is no longer inflating, but it is certainly expanding.

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Published 6-19-2015