Inflation of the Cosmic Kind

Last March, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made a finding that supports Einstein’s last untested prediction about the Theory of General Relativity. According to Einstein, even in the void of space-time, empty of stars and galaxies, ripples known as gravitational waves can move across space in much the same way that ripples spread across the surface of a pond. Until recently, there was only indirect evidence that gravitational waves existed.  In their press release JPL stated that they

[H]ave acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.

The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.”

The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope that measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)
The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope, which measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)

This supports the Inflationary Universe theory, hypothesized in the 1980s by Alan Gult, who held that the initial expansion of the universe was caused by a repulsive form of gravity. “Cosmic inflation” suggests that after The Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light (at .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds, to be precise).

It’s a pretty big deal. According to Time, it means that gravity should no longer be seen as a force, “but rather as the warping of ‘spacetime,’ an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts,” This aspect of Einstein’s theory “also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello.”

Actually, Einstein was skeptical of the idea of a Big Bang. He favored the concept of a static universe as opposed to an expanding one. But when American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed how galaxies recede from the Milky Way, and that distant galaxies recede faster than those nearby, Einstein changed his mind.

Now, I don’t think it’s necessary for modern science and Buddhism to agree, or that science should prove Buddhism, but intersections between the two are always interesting. Here, we have a case where Buddhism and science both agree in some respects and disagree in others.

In The Big Bang theory, the entirety of space was contained in a single point of space and this was the beginning of the universe. Buddhism, however, says that there is no beginning (and therefore definitely no creation) because causes have no beginning.

The first line of Chapter One in Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way reads, “Nothing exists that has arisen from itself, from another, from both, or from a non-cause.”

This does not negate the idea of a Big Bang, only qualifies it somewhat. The Big Bang could not have caused itself, nor could some being have caused it, or is it possible that a Big Bang was a combination of the two – there had to have been some prior cause, and as I understand it, this means The Big Bang must have been an effect. Still, Buddhism discusses the beginning of things in terms of consciousness, which is the real “creator” of all things, and consciousness has no beginning. So, in pondering all this, we should keep in mind the distinction between the ultimate and relative truth.

The other key notion in the Big Bang theory is that of an expanding universe. Here dharma and science seem to agree. In his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, the Dalai Lama stated

So through this analysis of the causal origin of mental phenomena, then the question arises if there is a beginning point of whether the chain of causation goes on infinitely. If we were to choose the first option, which is to say that there must be a beginning at some point, then this immediately throws up conceptual problems about the status of the first cause – whether that first cause comes into being relatively or if it comes into being through self-causation. So, it throws up all sorts of conceptual problems.

The Buddhist option is to choose the second option of accepting the infinity of the causation. Although one could, in a conventional sense, accept or talk about origin or a beginning point of some particular object, like the objects of everyday life, but in a deeper sense, consciousness or mental phenomena are beginningless in terms of their continuum. And since this is the case, according to Buddhism, the continuum of the individual or person can said to be beginningless, because being or person is designated upon the continuum of consciousness or designated upon the phenomena that makes that person a knower or experiencer or agent. Since the basis, which is the continuum of consciousness is beginningless, therefore the continuum of the individual being is also said to be beginningless. However, when we conceptualize it in individual situations, we can say that, in a conventional sense, there is a beginning and there is an end.

Obviously, there are differences between individual beings and universes, but I think the infinity of the continuum would be the same.  And again, from the Buddhist perspective, there must have been something prior, a previous cause existing before all of space was condensed into a single point that apparently exploded into our ever-expanding universe.

Likewise, there were prior points posted on this blog before I posted the single point that began this post, and therefor, today’s offering reflects the infinity of the continuum and therefore cannot be contained in a single end point . . .

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