Overview:

Shortly before her death, aged 96, in April 2020, Barbara Smoker, a long-serving president of the British National Secular Society, contemplated time — and the medium of existence.

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“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 mealy-mouthed 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, under the auspices of the erstwhile Progressive League, London. He did not, of course, keep a lifelong open mind on the existence of angels, ghosts, and goblins — so why did he make an exception of a supernatural creator of everything else?

Giving gods the benefit of the doubt, as Popper seemed to advocate, is hardly rational. Yet god-belief, together with belief in a conscious after-life 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 untenable 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 potential 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?)

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In the mid-1950s I attended a lecture in Conway Hall, London, by Fred Hoyle, above, 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, and so the theory fell into disrepute. But Hoyle’s satirical phrase “the Big Bang” lives on, having become common uses, 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 (a mere 13,800,000,000) years ago.

In relation to the human time-scale, 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 spacetime, 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 towards 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 spacetime itself, I cannot but believe that time in isolation must have existed for 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. I must say I still find the thought of eternity awe-inspiring but 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 (0xford 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 marriąge 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!

• Editor’s note: Time, for the Spanish postal system, works in a dimension of its own. Barbara Smoker, a prolific writer but one who never passed the stage of an ancient word processor — and would have no truck with the Internet — snail-mailed me this piece a year before her death in 2020. It was delivered today! Thanks to a scanning app on my iPhone with an integral OCR program, I was able to grab the words off her typed piece in a matter of minutes.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....