Epistemological Angst (or When Does “Before” Lose Meaning?)

I find myself in a philosophical mood today and it’s based on some experiences with testers that simply don’t ask questions. As testers we have to ask questions. Lots of questions. We also have to recognize when we are getting answers. Sometimes, however, we have to realize that sometimes answers aren’t that easy to come by. And here I’m not just talking about the idea that no one has the answers. What about when answers just aren’t possible at all? Can that happen? Of course it can. It depends on the types of questions being asked and the context in which answers are expected. (See my time travel post for one example of this.)

So — just bear with me here — I want every tester out there to consider a question: what existed before the big bang?

Even if you don’t believe there was a big bang, that’s fine. A specific belief in a scientific idea is not the point here. The point is the nature of the question relative to what the big bang is presumed to be.

So, back to the question. Obviously the short — and somewhat unsatisfactory — answer is that we don’t know. We don’t know what existed before the big bang. However what’s really important to realize is that we don’t even know whether this question has a meaningful answer. It might sound like a sensible question, but in fact its physical basis and foundation may be utterly lacking, which means it is — effectively, if not philosophically — meaningless.

As we explore this idea, consider that Einstein’s theory of General Relativity tells us that in the cosmological setting, the concepts of time and space did not pre-exist the big bang. In this scenario, the big bang is seen as the defining “singularity” that quite literally created space, time, matter and energy. Notice an important point there: the big bang was where time was created.

You should not — indeed cannot, by this logic — ask what happened “before” the big bang because the big bang gave rise to time — and thus the notion of “before” and “after” — in the first place. In fact, this singularity is often described as a timeless and spaceless state that lacked concepts like “before/after”, “then/now”, “here/there”, etc. (In fact, you couldn’t even call it a “state” in any meaningful sense.) It’s quite possible to look at this as nothing more than semantic obfuscation. Another way to look at it is showing the basis of the knowledge that we can hope to have in a specific context. And that takes you a little into epistemology, a favorite subject of mine.

On the other hand… Okay, it is true that some physicists, like Maurizio Gasperini, have worked on so-called “pre-big bang” scenarios. (Sheesh. There’s always someone to rock the boat, huh?)

Okay, so let’s ask the logical follow-up question: if we can’t say what happened before the big bang, how did the big bang “happen”? Note that this is basically asking: what was the cause of the big bang? That’s an interesting question when you consider that we just agreed there was no time in which a cause could happen when we speak of the big bang.

And, again, the answer here is that we simply don’t know. It’s not even clear, at this stage, if we can know. The long-sought marriage of quantum mechanics and general relativity — a quantum theory of gravity, as it were — would seem to predict the occurrence of a timeless, spaceless singularity (whatever that means) that underwent a “quantum fluctuation” (whatever that means), then crossed, in an acausal sort of way, some kind of threshold — and once that happened the singularity began a big bang-like expansion out of something called the “Planck State.”

Here’s where it gets interesting for some people. This Planck State, if our hypotheses are correct, had a size of about 10-33 centimeters; a temperature of 1032 Kelvin; an energy of 1019 GeV (billion electron volts); and a matter density of 1095 grams per cubic centimeter. As the story goes, after about 10-35 seconds, the nascent universe entered an “inflationary” state which essentially begat our universe as we see it today. The universe literally “inflated”, by this model, sort of like a balloon. (Except not really like a balloon at all. But whatever; just ride the wave for now.)

I say this gets interesting for some people because notice how calling it something technical sounding (“Planck State”) and ‘backing that up’ with various numbers makes it all sound so darn official. Certainly you’ve seen that in your career, right? Something is given a name (like “Agile”, “BDD”, whatever) and then lots of stuff is put around that which makes it seem like we really know more than we do.

Now I want to go back to something I said there regarding the inflation of the universe. What this would mean, if true, is that the big bang, its name notwithstanding, was not really a bang at all. It was not an explosion. In fact, it really couldn’t have been an explosion in any normal sense since space was supposedly created with the big bang. An explosion is something that takes place within a space. The big bang provided space, so it had nothing to explode within. Certainly you’ve seen this kind of thing in your career, right? Where people use a term for something but it’s not really indicative of what you see around you at all. Again, consider various forms of “extreme” practices or the idea of “being lean” or “being agile.”

Anyway, as you can see, we are dealing here with extremes of energy, temperature, length and mass. So much so, that it’s doubtful that the numbers we give this “state” even really make any sense. And yet by putting this “state” to numbers, we seem to indicate that it was a definable thing with, presumably, some sort of definable shape. Sound like any software projects you’ve been involved with? (As long as metrics can be attached, we must be in control of this thing, right?)

So, yeah, it seems unlikely we can never know what the topology of any sort of initial geometric state might have been, because — during what is called the “Planck Era” — nothing was truly certain about topology, dimensionality, or any other attribute of our universe today. That’s part of what is meant by the “quantum foam” term you might hear tossed about. For example, one such aspect of this is that at the levels where we can do “big bang physics”, we find that space and time merge together in such a fashion that you can no longer separate them in any meaningful way. Thus one prediction of the big bang model is that time and space became “crystallized” out of a much more amorphous state.

Given that, maybe this helps to understand why there is no “edge” to the universe, which is another question that many people ask. There is no edge on two counts. First the big bang did not “start” in some specific location that we could demarcate in some fashion. The big bang was the formation of space itself and thus it happened everywhere, so to speak. In terms of seeking an edge, you will, therefore, not find it. This is why the “big bang” cannot be considered an explosion in space since the big bang was formulated as the creation of space.

What we could ask, however, is if we can see the big bang singularity itself somehow. Remember that looking out into space is looking back into the past. Since it takes light a long time to reach us from distant objects, we see those objects as they existed in the past. For example, the Andromeda galaxy, as we see it “now” is really what it looked like two million years ago. Even our own Sun, when we look at it “now”, is really showing us what it looked like eight minutes ago. So can we perhaps look “far enough out” and thus enable us to see “far enough back”? It’s a good question, I think. The answer to that question is “no” as well.

What you see if you look out into space is an increasing number of younger and younger objects. Eventually you reach a point where the individual objects are too faint to see and only their very diffuse light remains. Even beyond that you eventually reach objects so young that you arrive at the 300,000-years-after-the-bang point. This point is important because, as far as we can tell, all that existed at that time was a dilute plasma. So you never reach a true “edge” to space. You just run out of objects that are old enough and bright enough to be detected and then eventually you run into a plasma wall that cannot be penetrated. So we can’t receive images of the big bang earlier than this horizon. With that said, if we could use neutrinos — a type of subatomic particle — we could explore back to about one second or so after the big bang singularity. And if we could harness gravitational radiation — composed of graviton particles — we could presumably even see back to the big bang singularity itself. Presently such imaging technology is beyond what we know how to do.

Sound like anything in your career? We can use better techniques and build more effective tools to help us better answer questions.

Not surprisingly much of what I said here is part of the reason why the big bang, as a concept, is very problematic for many people to deal with. I personally find the big bang conceptually interesting because it might highlight one of those situations where we, as humans, simply have trouble coming to grips with it. We are three-dimensional creatures that have evolved on a world of relatively moderate temperature ranges, with relatively slow velocities being the norm, and where not only do we perceive a “direction” to time, but that concept of direction imposes causality: an ordering that suggests all effects must have causes and those causes must come before those effects.

If something out there does not conform to the conceptual framework that our evolutionary baggage has placed us in, it often becomes difficult to understand that concept or even to accept that perhaps we cannot truly understand that concept. In other words, discounting the notion of the big bang just because scientists cannot answer “what came before the big bang” or “what caused the big bang” is not a very tenable position to hold necessarily. And yet if it is demonstrably the case that all of our current physical models break down at the “big bang event”, then scientists must realize that the epistemological ground upon which they stake their flag can seem a bit shaky to some people.

That is then perhaps the human pathos: the ability to question but without the ability to always understand the answers to the question or even when to recognize that an answer might not apply.

Maybe this is what Douglas Adams was “teaching” us with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in a roundabout way. After all, in those stories the answer to “life, the universe and everything” was 42. The problem was that no one understood the question. Here we know the question(s). But we are not entirely certain what the answers are or if any answers are even possible or, even if we assume answers are possible, that they would even make sense to us and thus be recognized or accepted as answers.

There have to be parallels there to your career in the software field, yes? Notice, however, that everything hinges on our ability not to answer questions, but rather to seek them out in the first place; to determine when questions make sense, when the limits of our knowledge have been reached, when what we are learning cannot constitute knowledge but rather just bits of information.

All of this pondering reminds me of the words of Steven Weinberg:

The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

I guess I’ll conclude by saying that this post is provided “as-is”, without any expressed or implied warranty of any kind, including warranties of spiritual harmony or metaphysical understanding. I am not liable for any existential angst nor I am accountable for any epistemological and/or ontological confusion you may feel upon completion of this post. As always, reality is up to those who define what is real, and the observer always affects the observed. Quaerendo invenietis.


This article was written by Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.

4 thoughts on “Epistemological Angst (or When Does “Before” Lose Meaning?)”

  1. Interesting, Jeff! I know you steered clear of any religious ideas but I was thinking how some people use the big bag as a naturalistic counter to the concept of God creating everything. Since you tried to relate this to points in our careers, I wonder if that’s about the idea of speaking about uncomfortable things that people don’t want to bring up. Scientists can’t disprove beyond a doubt that God does not exist yet some people still use the big bang as a way to suggest that God isn’t needed. Not trying to steer this in a religious direction but I needed to respond because I really liked this post!

    1. As far as speaking about uncomfortable things, perhaps you could argue that to a certain extent such as “truths we don’t want to face” or “truths we’re being asked to accept that we’re not quite sure about.” Another way to look at it, however, is by looking at the explanatory power of a given argument (such as why you need more testing time or why bugs keep getting into production). Another way to look at it is in terms of what people use as confirming or disconfirming evidence.

      As an example, you say “Scientists can’t disprove beyond a doubt that God does not exist…”

      I would personally word this as scientists are unable to prove a universal negative (i.e., the non-existence of a god).

      You add: “…yet some people still use the big bang as a way to suggest that God isn’t needed.”

      So going with the explanatory approach I was just talking about, turn the negative condition into the positive side of the argument — the existence of god. This is not necessarily required by models of the universe such as the big bang. That does not, of course, mean a god does not exist, simply that the model from a purely scientific — explanatory — perspective does not require a god. That’s not really news since this has been known for quite some time. Scientific models do not require non-scientific means. If they did, they would not be scientific models in the first place.

      That’s one way to look at it but there’s tons of assumptions even in that wording, right?

      However, on the other side, since time effectively ceases to have meaning at the “big bang” — at least according to most physical theories — then there really is no way to assign a “cause” to the big bang because that would have to have happened BEFORE the big bang. Since time had no meaning until the big bang, there was no “before” in which a cause could have taken place.

      So even if you don’t rely on the concept of a god for explanatory reasons, the physical basis of why the big bang happened is not currently answerable by our physical models. Yes, there are inflationary models — but those take place after the big bang. There are quantum vacuum fluctuations but no model can say why such a fluctuation should have led to the creation of a universe, except by pushing the question back and saying that the creation of our universe was due to a fluctuation in another universe. (Which, of course, begs the question: what, if anything, created that universe. And so on. And so forth.)

      And I guess that’s my point, assuming I had one at all. We may have reached a limit of explanation — and thus of understanding — with the big bang. Obviously the big bang is an extreme situation, but people often treat more mundane aspects as if we have reached the limit of explanation/understanding when we have not. On the flip side, some people feel we have perfect explanations/understanding of things that we simply don’t. In both cases what matters is the evidence used to make those assertions.

    1. Right. But that, again, just seems to push the problem back. What started off the chain? If anything. Or do we assume eternality? (Shades of “this is the way it’s always been” in the software world, perhaps?) So, again, it goes back to our formation of the problem. Are we talking about a systemic beginning or a localized beginning?

      This is probably the most useless article I wrote on this blog. (And, believe me, that’s saying something.) Optimistically assuming I had a point at all, I guess I was looking at how we sometimes have to operate in context where knowledge may or may not be lacking; knowledge may, in fact, have limits. But it may be because of how we have chosen to observe the problems around us. It may be due to how we have framed the context of the problem. (I talked about this in time travel post a bit.) It also may be due to inherent limitations that we simply cannot get around for one reason or another.

      Effective question framing is a necessary prerequisite to problem definition and eventual solution. Even if the end result is that a solution is not possible.

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