Thinking About Religion
Volume 4 (2004)

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A Terrible Sublimity: Kant and the Big Bang

Maurice F. Stanley
University of North Carolina at Wilmington


I argue that Kant's claim, that concepts that apply only within the world of human experience cannot be legitimately applied beyond that realm, applies not only to judgments about God but also to the contemporary cosmologists' claims about the Big Bang. At best such concepts can serve as what Kant called "regulative ideas" that further the aim of achieving the most coherent empirical employment of reason.

Stephen Hawking argues that the origin of the physical universe is not off limits to science:

Many people would claim that the initial conditions of the universe are not part of physics but belong to metaphysics or religion. They would claim that nature had complete freedom to start the universe off any way it wanted ... . Yet all the evidence is that the universe evolves in a regular way according to certain laws. It would therefore seem reasonable to suppose that there are also laws governing the initial conditions. (quoted in Lightman, 1986)

Hawking, in a popularization of his research, describes these initial conditions:

At the Big Bang itself, the universe is thought to have zero size, and so to have been infinitely hot. But as the universe expanded, the temperature of the radiation decreased... (Hawking, 1988, p. 123)

Some two centuries ago Immanuel Kant offended metaphysicians and religious thinkers by arguing that certain ideas, among them the idea of a beginning or first cause of the universe, are transcendental, employing concepts outside the realm in which they apply, viz. the phenomenal world, the world of appearance:

The principle of causality has no meaning and no criterion for its application save only in the sensible world. (Kant, 1929, p. 511, A609 B637)

Hawking acknowledges Kant's view and devotes a paragraph to explaining and refuting it:

His [Kant’s] argument for the thesis was that if the universe did not have a beginning, there would be an infinite period of time before any event, which he considered absurd. The argument for the antithesis was that if the universe had a beginning, there would be an infinite period of time before it, so why should the universe begin at any one particular time? ...They are both based on his unspoken assumption that time continues back forever, whether or not the universe had existed forever. As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. (Hawking, 1988, pp. 8, 9)

This is not exactly what Kant argued. His argument for the thesis that the world had a beginning is that otherwise an infinite series of tasks would have to be completed before the world could come to be, which would be impossible. And his argument for the antithesis is that if the world had a beginning, it would, as a beginning, have been preceded by an "empty time," a time when the world was not, But, Kant says, "No coming to be of a thing is possible in an empty time, because no part of such a time possesses, as compared with any other, a distinguishing condition of existence rather than of nonexistence." I read this to mean what Aquinas meant by the maxim, ex nihilo, nihil fit -- "Out of nothing comes nothing." No part of such an empty time could give rise to something that exists. (If it could, that part of "empty time" would be special, distinct from other parts, and therefore wouldn't be empty.)

So it does not seem to me that Kant's view depends upon an "unspoken assumption" that time extends back forever, though he surely thought that. His view depends on the reasonable belief that it is logically impossible to complete an infinite series of tasks, and that you can't get something from nothing. Kant's conclusion is that you can prove neither that there was a beginning to the world nor that there was not, because to speak of a "cause of the world" is to extend a concept that applies within the world of our experience, or possible experience, to the whole universe. Every event has a cause, but for Kant the whole universe is not just another event, one more object of our possible experience.

For Hawking, plainly, it is. And what's more he cites empirical evidence:

In 1929, Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving rapidly away from us, In other words, the universe is expanding. This means that at earlier times objects would have been closer together. In fact, it seemed that there was a time, about ten or twenty thousand million years ago, when they were all at exactly the same place, and when, therefore, the density of the universe was infinite. This discovery finally brought the question of the beginning of the universe into the realm of science, (Hawking, 1988, p. 9)

More putative evidence for the Big Bang has been discovered. On April 23, 1992, Dr, George Smoot, a Berkeley astrophysicist and leader of the research team associated with NASA's $4 million Cosmic Explorer satellite project, announced the detection of a gigantic, wispy cloud of microwave energy at the fringe of the observable universe, some 12 million light-years away, which he and the scientific community believe to have been produced by the Big Bang. Dr, Smoot was quoted in newspaper articles as saying, "What we have found is evidence for the birth of the universe." Subsequently newspaper editorials displayed a variety of reactions, most typically a mixture of awe and misunderstanding.

If these major discoveries really do constitute evidence of the Big Bang, Kant must have been mistaken in placing the beginning of the world outside any possible human experience. Kant believed that any claim about the beginning of the universe -- that there was one or that there was not one -- must involve an illegitimate application of a concept that applies only within human experience to the whole of experience or the universe itself. To assert that God created the universe in 4004 BC is unsupportable by any putative evidence because it applies the idea of cause (or creator, or maker) outside the realm where such concepts make sense. Everything was made or caused or created by somebody or something, we reason, so the whole universe was made by something, viz. God.

Hawking argues that everything in the world obeys physical laws, and so, he says, it is "reasonable to suppose" that the origin of the whole universe, the universe-as-a-whole, obeys physical laws. Maybe it does. But we can't know such a thing, any more than we could possibly know it was pink on the outside or hot on the inside, or such-and-such a size. Every physical object has a size, but it makes no sense to say the whole universe has a size or a temperature because we can't compare its size or temperature with anything else. We can't hold a ruler or a thermometer up to it. To think otherwise is to commit the fallacy of composition, as logicians call it.

But if we have, in those wispy clouds of radiation, real evidence of the Big Bang, all these considerations are wrong. Can we, as the scientific community now seems to believe, have empirical evidence of an event which is itself in principle unobservable?

First we must establish that the Big Bang is indeed in principle unobservable. Though it will seem unfair to quibble with Hawking's wonderfully sportsmanlike popularization of contemporary cosmology, still it is perhaps the best we can do as non-scientists who must depend on such popularizations. But it may turn out that the popularization is misleading rather than that the theory is wrong, or it may turn out that this theory is incapable of being expressed in ordinary language.

When Hawking says the universe at Big Bang time had "zero size" -- "a point of infinite density and infinite curvature of space-time" (1988, p. 140) at which all the laws of science would break down, also called a "singularity," it is hard not to feel puzzled. Could one ever see a zero-size, mathematical point? No, because such a point is essentially an abstraction, like Plato's forms, the ideas of justice, truth and beauty, and the definition of a circle. Something of zero size is not really a something, not a physical thing, at all. A lump of sugar of zero size is not a real lump of sugar. It won't sweeten your tea. And how can such a "thing," of zero size, have a temperature? Could an idea, an abstraction, have a temperature?

Is the idea of Hell a hot idea?

Hawking admits that:

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, ... the general theory of relativity predicts that at the singularity the theory itself breaks down.... This means that even if there were events before the Big Bang, one could not use them to determine what would happen afterward, because predictability would break down at the Big Bang.... As far as we are concerned, events before the Big Bang can have no consequences, ... we should therefore cut them out of the model and say that time had a beginning at the Big Bang. (1988, p. 50)

In this passage he entertains the possibility that there could be events before the Big Bang; but the theory can't predict them, even if they existed, nor would they have consequences (as far as we are concerned), so we must just forget them, calculate them away. For Hawking’s theory, the nonexistence of events before the Big Bang has a kind of necessary truth.

To say there must be a sun is vastly different from saying there is, in fact, a sun. When scientists say there must be a Big Bang singularity, this is quite different from saying there is in fact, or was in fact, an actual Big Bang.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the Big Bang has a kind of theoretical necessity -- as if there must be a Big Bang, as if there being no such thing would be unthinkable. Such certainty is the hallmark of analytic truth, systemic necessity, but not of empirical fact. In order that the Big Bang be a matter of fact, it would have to be possible that it not exist! Kant says that such necessity

is, for human reason, a veritable abyss. Eternity itself, in all its terrible sublimity ... is far from making the same overwhelming impression on the mind.... (1965, A613 B641)

Not only do the laws of physics break down at the Big Bang, but ordinary language does as well. The Big Bang is not really a "bang", for there was no atmosphere to carry sound waves; and how can it "expand" from no size to a larger size? How can it cool down from being infinitely hot? How can it be hot if there's no room for particles or protons to move (no conduction, no convection, no radiation)? It could have no parts to bump against one another. Wouldn't this no-size universe be infinitely cold? And if physical laws do not apply to it, why should it be bursting to expand as if Boyle's Law applied? And we might as well mention that “hot” and “curved” apply to real physical objects, not to abstractions or zero size points. Of course Hawking brings into the account quantum theory, which applies to very small stuff. But zero size is not "very small!"

Even if these concerns, or perhaps quibbles, can be cleared up by a more precise and technical choice of words, the following problem indicates that there is a more serious difficulty with the concept of the Big Bang, at least if it is to be understood as Hawking seems to understand it. If the notion scientists have, that looking into space is looking backward in time, is true, might we in principle build a telescope that would allow us to see 15 billion light-years out into space? We could see the Big Bang itself (well, not if it has, or had, zero size, but perhaps at least as it was on the tail-end of the first moment). Now that would be the whole universe at that moment, which contained everything that ever was and ever would be -- scrunched up a bit, of course, but including us (or at least our physical "constituents"). So we would be looking back at a former state of ourselves, which is surely an incoherent notion, as if we might in principle be able to watch ourselves being born, say.

We resulted from the Big Bang, or at least the stuff we're made of, did. But this, this world as it is now, is the Big Bang, still expanding; and here we are, 15,000,000,000 light years away. So we're here on earth and also there, across the universe. Such concepts as time and space lose their ordinary use in this mad tea party. I can't look at myself sitting on the steps of a house a mile away, even through the fanciest new telescope! I would have to be here and also a mile away from myself. One way out of this problem would be to redefine "myself" as a space-time line that includes my whole past and future, etc., but then we've left ordinary language far behind, again; and besides that we have begged the philosophical question of the nature of time (a fixed continuum or a flowing river?)

Imagine a botanist who observes a certain tree for awhile and concludes that it is growing, and then theorizes that it must have been smaller in the past. She concludes that at some long-ago point in time -- indeed at some definite time -- the tree must have been a point of no size at all, but heavy, infinitely heavy, etc.

We know about acorns, of course, so this is not a persuasive story. The Big Bang is not an acorn and the universe is not a tree, etc. But I submit that there is a certain weak but suggestive parallel, at least if we think of the Big Bang as essentially unobservable and therefore purely theoretical.

A police officer sees a circular patch of light on a wall beside her and infers that the source of the light must be a burning point of no size at a certain point beyond her, etc. Of course she then realizes the source of the light is a flashlight.

Scientists believe, however, that the existence of those wispy microwave clouds is evidence for the Big Bang. But how can you find evidence of something which is in principle unobservable?

In an article for US News Gregg Easterbrook discusses recent accretions to the Big Bang theory. Andrei Linde, for example, a physicist at Stanford University, offers a cosmos that can have no end because it copies itself endlessly. That optimistic prognosis, Easterbrook cautions us, is all conjecture. How, indeed, could it be anything else? Easterbrook says:

Much of the mathematics of the big bang is based on hypothesis. Assumptions about unobservable regions are subjected to pages of number-crunching, creating the quasi result in which fuzzy notions and highly precise formulations are combined, leaving everyone unsure about whether the final product owes more to precision or guesswork. And the ever changing findings of cosmology make genesis theories moving targets.[MIT physicist Alan] Guth has been trying to incorporate into his theory the newly emerging evidence, mainly from studies of distant supernovas, that the cosmic expansion is actually speeding up, rather than slowing down, as most theorists expected. Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, says, “Big-bang theory tends to go overboard for whatever the latest new idea is, whereas experimenters like me tend to assume that the universe is extremely complicated and each new item of information we get only shows us how much we don’t know.”
One thing we don’t know is why there is a cosmos at all. As Derek Parfit, a fellow at Oxford University, has written, “No question is more sublime than why there is a universe: Why is there anything, rather than nothing?”[actually Heidegger’s question! M.S.] Just try to conceptualize true nothingness: that there had never been anything. Probably there always had to be something, because the absence of existence is not possible; the question is how far back one must go to locate the ultimate antecessor. (Easterbrook, p. 22)

Evidence, Kant would say, is a concept that can operate only within the world of our experience, to which our scientific concepts apply. Such concepts, he says,

can be employed ... to explain the possibility of things in the world of sense, but not to explain the possibility of the universe itself. Such a ground of explanation would have to be outside the world, and could not therefore be an object of a possible experience. None the less, though I cannot assume such an inconceivable being as existing in itself, I may yet assume it as the object of a mere idea, relatively to the world of sense. (1965, A677 B705)

Such concepts Kant calls “regulative ideas.”

We might observe the beginning of a star, but not the beginning of the universe, of the world thought of as a totality. This is because the idea of the universe is a regulative idea. Kant offers three examples of such regulative ideas: the “I” itself, the world as a totality, and God. These ideas lie outside all human experience, but at the same time they help direct our inquiries. They are heuristic.

The Big Bang is such an idea, the idea of the universe thought of as a totality. Our empirical ideas apply to the series of causes (conditions) leading up to the totality, but not the totality itself. This series of conditions can be regarded “as if it had an absolute beginning [the Big Bang], through an intelligible cause. All this shows that the cosmological ideas are nothing but simply regulative principles … .” (1929, A670-686, B698-714)

Regulative ideas have been considered by philosophers since Kant as maxims or rules of thought which come out of our fundamental purposes of inquiry – as in, “always look for the cause.” Regulative principles guide our inquiries even though we have no proof that they are true. Kant believed it was rational to look and hope for a complete coherent system of thought, although we have no a priori guarantee that it could be found.

In roughly the same way the “I” which can never be observed is a regulative idea that leads us to the rules of morality, and the idea of God is a regulative idea that gives us hope that justice will finally prevail in the world. Scientists discover laws, but do not like to see them in disarray, unrelated to one another. They want them to come together, one law under another, in some order.

Such concepts as reality, causality, etc., Kant says, “even that of necessity in existence, apart from their use in making possible the empirical knowledge of an object, can be employed … to explain the possibility of things in the world of sense, but not to explain the possibility of the universe itself. Such a ground of explanation would have to be outside the world, and could not therefore be an object of a possible experience.” (1965, A677-A678; B705-B706)

Such regulative principles guide scientific inquiry even though we cannot know whether or not they are actually true. Naturally scientists are always looking for a coherent system of knowledge and Kant believed this is rational, even though we cannot allow ourselves to think that such a regulative principle, in this case the Big Bang (the universe thought of as a totality), can be anything more than a guide to inquiry.

These regulative principles may be useful or even necessary to ensure the greatest, most coherent empirical employment of reason, but they must not be taken as standing for anything actual or real. The idea of God as a supreme, purposive intelligence can guide our reason in its search for teleological connections in nature, but to try to describe such a being by means of empirical concepts is to engage in counterproductive self-delusion. The Big Bang is rather like God in this regard. It is an idea that directs our thought, but it can never be observed. As Kant puts it:

If ... we ask first, whether there is anything distinct from the world, which contains the ground of the order of the world and of its connection in accordance with universal laws, the answer is that there undoubtedly is. If, secondly, the question be, whether this being is substance, of the greatest reality, necessary, etc., we reply that this question is entirely without meaning.... If, thirdly, the question be, whether we may not at least think this being ... in analogy with the objects of experience, the answer is certainly, but only as object in idea and not in reality. (1865, A697 B725)

I conclude, as I believe Kant would, that the idea of the Big Bang is no more than a regulative idea taken too far, an attempt to use scientific concepts that can only apply within the universe -- i.e. within the world of possible human experience -- to the totality of that universe. As Kant recognized, we cannot help making such attempts, but when we do we land in a soup of nonsense. And scientific nonsense is no better (and no worse) than religious or metaphysical nonsense.


  • Easterbrook, Gregg. “Before the Big Bang.” In Mysteries of Outer Space. US News & World Report, 2003, p. 22.
  • Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time. London, Bantam Press, 1988.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York, St Martin’s Press, 1929.
  • Lightman, Alan. "The Origin of the Universe." In Timothy Ferris, editor, The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics. Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1991.

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