The Eternity of Time

Barbara Smoker

Editor’s Note: This essay by Britain’s longest-serving atheist activist harkens back to a time when most unbelievers assumed that the cosmos was eternal. Until the second half of the twentieth century, most atheists, humanists, and freethinkers dismissed the notion that the universe might have begun with a specific event, regarding it as just more proof that the Genesis account of divine creation was ludicrous. Agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) even argued that this ruled out any possible existence of a creator god. If matter and force “can neither be increased nor diminished…. it follows that nothing has been or can be created; that there never has been or can be a creator,” he declared in his final public lecture, “What Is Religion?” (1899).

Mid–twentieth-century unbelievers still took for granted that the cosmos was eternal. They viewed what we know as the Big Bang theory as a pitiful rearguard justification for Genesis cosmology. (It didn’t help that Georges Lematre, the astronomer-physicist who’d first framed the idea in 1927, was also a Roman Catholic priest.) One of the theory’s harshest critics was British astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915–2001), who with colleagues Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold argued for a “steady state” cosmos with no beginning and no end. (Both Hoyle and Bondi were active in the British freethought movement, holding various honorary positions and frequently addressing atheist and humanist gatherings.) Ironically, Hoyle popularized the term Big Bang in a 1949 BBC radio broadcast. He meant the label pejoratively, but it stuck.

In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs codiscovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, an echo of the Big Bang. With that, the scientific case that the cosmos had begun with a specific event soon grew unassailable.

For his part, Hoyle never accepted the Big Bang. But most atheists and humanists did, and so completely that today it is nearly forgotten that until the early sixties, unbelievers agreed almost as an article of faith that the universe had no beginning. In this essay, Barbara Smoker takes us back to those days and shares her current opinion that even if the cosmos began with a specific event, time itself is eternal. All of this is more illuminating when its historic context is understood.

“Some forms of atheism,” declared Karl Popper in 1969, “are arrogant and ignorant and should be rejected, but agnosticism—to admit that we don’t know and to search—is all right.” This rather mealymouthed humanism suggests we should cling to the wreckage of religion, even after years of mental turmoil that finally rid some of us of childhood indoctrination.

I once attended a lecture by Popper, given under the auspices of the erstwhile Progressive League in London. Popper did not, of course, keep a lifelong open mind about the existence of angels, ghosts, and goblins—so why did he make an exception for a supernatural creator of everything? Giving gods the benefit of the doubt, as Popper seemed to advocate, is hardly rational. Yet god-belief, together with belief in a conscious afterlife for human beings (though now brain-dead!), is the underlying ideology of many well-educated people—not excluding some knowledgeable physicists.

Existence—especially our personal existence—seems so miraculous to us that it is little wonder there have been supernatural ideas to account for it ever since we apes became capable of abstract thought; but it is hardly defensible that the theistic conclusion, whereby all existence was magicked by a suddenly creative, intelligent, ethereal creator, is still prevalent in this age of science.

However, a presumption of eternity outside the universe is something that I share with the theist. For me, it is the only philosophical alternative to an idea I find untenable: a specific start-up of time. For theists, it is the necessary milieu of the First Cause, conceived as the purposeful creator-god itself (or himself?!)—whether as a threesome, or alone, or together with the Zoroastrian twin spirit of evil—though the eternal existence of such complex, conscious spirits is obviously far less credible than the simple eternity of time itself with the potential for energy.

For the past few decades—at least since the publication of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988)—we have been told consistently, and authoritatively, that it is meaningless to say “before the Big Bang,” since that is when time began. But I am unable to accept the postulate that time itself ever had a beginning. (How?)

In the mid-1950s, I attended a lecture in Conway Hall, London, by Fred Hoyle, who was celebrated for that mocking coinage of his, “the Big Bang.” Not only did he reject the alleged beginning of time but also the very idea of a sudden start to existence altogether. I agreed with him on both counts and still do. His solution, in association with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold, was the “steady state” theory, hypothesizing the continuous autonomous creation of atoms, maintaining equilibrium in the universe—which was thus held to be infinite, with no beginning. Sadly, however, every calculated prediction based on this steady state failed, so the theory soon fell into disrepute. But Hoyle’s satirical phrase “the Big Bang” lives on, having become the accepted label, without mockery, for the birth of the universe.

If our observable universe really constitutes the whole of existence, then maybe it is itself eternal—either integrally static (as Hoyle, Bondi, and Gold hypothesized), or else oscillating between phases of expansion (as at present) and absolute contraction to the “singularity” that immediately precedes another Big Bang. The only alternative is the absurd hypothesis that all existence, including time, energy, and mass (not to mention our own evolution to consciousness), suddenly came about spontaneously, out of nothing at all, less than fourteen billion years ago.

In relation to the human timescale, however, this is of course immense, as is the amazing extent of the material universe—comprising billions of galaxies (some actually orbiting others and many comprising billions of stars and planets) in space-time, which is still expanding like mad. It is therefore understandable that it should boggle our human minds. In fact, the sky always did, even before the invention of the telescope. But to presume that, apart from supposed timeless creative spirits, this universe is the whole of existence—and, moreover, all there ever has been—is surely unjustifiable (and almost parochial).

Interestingly, it is mitigated in recent years by the speculative notion of a possible multiverse, which goes some way toward my own belief in the eternity of time.

While, contrary to Hoyle, I have no doubt that our expanding universe was triggered by the Big Bang and actually created by space-time itself, I cannot but believe that time in isolation must have existed from all eternity—either punctuated by episodic Big Bangs occurring throughout a putative multiverse, or else, in our alternative solitary universe, sustaining a perpetual pulse of inflation and deflation from one Big Bang to the next.

As a child born into the Catholic faith, I used to make myself giddy, I remember, by thinking “For ever and ever, and ever,” without beginning or end: both backward, before my personal existence, and into the unimaginable future. And I must say I still find the thought of eternity awe-inspiring—and inevitable.

My personal longevity has enabled me to hear many famous prewar lecturers discourse on a variety of subjects, including astronomy and cosmology—the academic theories of which have changed in that period as rapidly as pop music. Some sixty years after hearing Hoyle speak, I attended a lecture by today’s foremost cosmologist, Roger Penrose (Oxford professor of physics), whose major work Cycles of Time (2010) confirms my lay philosophical contention that time must have existed before the Big Bang—and, indeed, eternally. I am gratified that this amateur theory of mine seems to tie up with the scholarly Penrose calculation verifying his “aeons of time.”

Although it is now established in physics that time as we know it is inseparable from space—the Big Bang having caused the marriage of time and space, apparently bringing forth the physical universe in which we find ourselves—I still maintain that time, devoid of space, has existed forever.

And the contemplation of this eternity still makes me feel quite giddy!

Barbara Smoker

Barbara Smoker was hands-on president of the National Secular Society (U.K.) for twenty-five years (1971–1996).

Editor’s Note: This essay by Britain’s longest-serving atheist activist harkens back to a time when most unbelievers assumed that the cosmos was eternal.

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