The current issue of New Scientist magazine has an article titled “Before the Big Bang: Three Reasons Why the Universe Can’t Have Existed Forever.” It is, effectively, a follow up to their earlier “Genesis problem” story which I mentioned in my Tomorrow’s World article, “Where Did the Universe Come From?” and doesn’t add too much new for those who read up on the topic. I did appreciate the reference to Susskind’s conclusion that if inflation is true and that this universe is simply one of a seemingly infinite number of big bangs that have occurred throughout multi-space and multi-time (something I don’t believe, by the way), then even if there were a beginning it may have been so long ago that there is no longer a detectable imprint of that beginning left in the universe we currently enjoy. It seems, though, an encouragement to stop trying to find a coherent theory for the beginning, which would be a shame given what such searches do to press science into confronting its most fundamental questions. (For a similar reason, I like the research on origin of life issues, because it presses biologists and evolutionists in the same way.)
And on those fundamental questions, I like how the New Scientist article ends. (I’d link to it, but it seems not yet available to non-subscribers. You might try the site after a few weeks have passed.) Earlier, Alex Vilenkin makes the same claim that many astrophysicists to: That there need be nothing in existence before the universe since quantum mechanics allows something to come out of nothing:
In the context of known physics, however, Vilenkin and Mithani conclude that, whatever way you look at it, the universe cannot have existed forever so must have had a beginning. But how did it begin? According to Vilenkin, quantum theory has a solution because it permits something to pop out of nothing–with that something being a small universe that starts to inflate, cycle or hang for an extremely long time before inflating.
He makes the same claim in his book Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes — quantum tunneling and all that stuff. It is, essentially, God-avoidance at its best.
But not exactly “at its best” — not really. After all, the “nothing” mentioned by physicists in such statements is never really “nothing,” regardless of anything Lawrence Kraus might say. There’s always a “something” there. And rather than ignore it (or, at least, rather than ignore it completely), in the NS article the author, Marcus Chown, and Vilenkin mention in the closing paragraph what they must admit existed before the universe of their imagination: quantum mechanical law.
Still, cosmologists have plenty of other big questions to keep them busy. If the universe owes its origins to quantum theory, then quantum theory must have existed before the universe. So the next question is surely: where did the laws of quantum theory come from? “We do not know,” admits Vilenkin. “I consider that an entirely different question.” When it comes to the beginning of the universe, in many ways we’re still at the beginning.
While on one hand, I respect Vilenkin’s willingness to avoid explicit philosophical or metaphysical speculation (something many scientists ignorantly don’t avoid these days. See Dawkins, R. or Hawking, S.), he actually fails to avoid it all together. The idea he champions actually assumes a Platonic view of the laws of physics: That rather than being descriptions of the behavior of the natural world, they are–in his view–apparently magically immaterial entities that exist in their own right.
And that is closer to God-avoidance at its best. There is no real basis for believing that the laws of physics would exist when there was nothing material whatsoever for them to describe. The idea that rigid and exacting laws describing the behavior of quarks, gluons, neutrons, electrons, etc. somehow existed in some timeless magical, immaterial nothingness is not physics–it is metaphysics. It is not the realm of science. It is the realm of religion.
It reminds me of Bishop Berkeley’s biting (and effective) mockery of an “infidel mathematician” (apparently Edmond Halley) for his faith in the “Ghosts of departed Quantities”–a rebuke that helped motivate mathematicians to finally ground the calculus firmly and solidly in the limit of Cauchy and Weierstrass and to jettison the useful-but-dangerously-fuzzy ideas behind Newton’s fluxions and differentials. Perhaps Vilenkin, Hawking, or some other luminary can one day show us the realm in which quantum mechanical law existed in nonexistence, waiting patiently to guide an entire zoo of somehow “more nonexistent” future particles and fields. Perhaps they will show us such a preexistent nether realm and explain the ground for the ethereal existence of these ghostly equations. Perhaps they will show us the immaterial parlor where the Wave Equation and the Laws of Thermodynamics sit for nonexistent tea and excitedly discuss all they plan to do once something finally exists.
And until they do, perhaps they will forgive us for not taking such suggestions seriously. To believe in such fantasies of convenience and to claim that science has done away with a need for God’s existence is to be a hypocrite. The dilemma is a reminder of what David Berlinski has pointed out: “No less than the doctrines of religious belief, the doctrines of quantum cosmology are what they seem: biased, partial, inconclusive, and largely in the service of passionate but unexamined conviction.”
Perhaps Vilenkin must see the ridiculous state of such things to some extent. He does seem pressed in some way when he says at the very end of his book:
The picture of quantum tunneling from nothing raises another intriguing question. The tunneling process is governed by the same fundamental laws that describe the subsequent evolution of the universe. It follows that the laws should be “there” even prior to the universe itself. Does this mean that the laws are not mere descriptions of reality and can have an independent existence of their own? In the absence of space, time, and matter, what tablets could they be written upon? The laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations. If the medium of mathematics is the mind, does this mean that mind should predate universe?
This takes us far into the unknown, all the way to the abyss of great mystery. It is hard to imagine how we can ever get past this point. But as before, that may just reflect the limits of our imagination.
While it smacks of then-candidate Obama’s comment about certain questions being “above my pay grade”, I appreciate the admission at which it hints, intended or not.