In the Beginning was Quantum Mechanics?

NASA pic
Can science really explain it all?

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.

13 thoughts on “In the Beginning was Quantum Mechanics?

  1. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    I have the strong impression that scientists and philosophers keep trying to make the universe in their own personality-type images, in addition to refusing to address (or being unable to address) the relationship between the spirit in man (which, BTW, happens to act just like the Jungian, not the Freudian, Ego) and the Spirit of God. OK, that may seem tangential, and it probably is, but bear with me. The way different people avoid the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything seems to depend greatly on the inner orientations of their minds apart from God’s Spirit and as subject to their own spirits.

    For example, someone quoted by Vicky Jo Varner ( pointed out that Plato probably was a primary introvert (his predominant thought process turned inward, not outward) and so he focused on the inner realities. Aristotle, by contrast, probably was a primary extravert as you and I are (his predominant thought process turned outward, not inward) and so he focused on the outward realities. And ever since, different people have preferred one POV or the other, apparently due to whether they themselves were introverting or extraverting primarily.

    Either way, one can pervert his logical and value judgments so as to avoid addressing the real questions of existence, in whole or in part. But from a certain POV, this differential can be taken as a starting point for the avoidance.

    I hope this makes at least a tad of sense. :D

  2. John Wheeler (Johanan Rakkav)

    If it doesn’t, let me just say that I always enjoy your posts. Even when you speculate, they’re valuable – not least because you always make clear that you’re speculating. :D As a servant of God, given your gift for speculation, should do.

  3. Very good article. That ‘something’ existed before the material universe is a telling admission on their part. And their explanation sounds a lot like Kant’s “a priori” in his “Critique of Pure Reason”… which is indeed the realm of philosophy and metaphysics.

  4. Sorry, but I have to make a joke. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” You know what the corollary is. “I think about myself all the time, because everywhere I go, there I am.”

  5. ptgauthor

    It will be interesting to see how many of these scientists who believe in “no spirit world” backpedal when the false prophet calls fire down from heaven. Some of them may suddenly “get religion”. Then they will say, “of course God created the universe-how else could it exist?” That, or they will want to crawl into a black hole of “no publishing” and hope no one notices them.

  6. Thomas

    Deep down most scientists probably see where all the scientific evidence is pointing as far as origins is concerned. But, being materialists, they choke at having to admit that the idealists might be right. That, and having to admit that most of them have devoted the greater part of their lives, intellect, energy, and passion to a personal ideology that is a lie. More than most can swallow – look at the rarity of real repentance. How many people can honestly say that they are wrong – to their very core. That every fibre of their being is tainted by falsehood. Most people fight to retain the falsehood – it’s part of their identity, who they are. They’ve spent a lifetime building it.

    It will be interesting to hear what future generations make of our generation. All the knowledge we have accumulated, yet most educated people are unable/unwilling to put the pieces together in the proper order to see the reality beyond this one. Until it intrudes, either personally or on a grand scale (as others have pointed out above).

    Thank you for the article and your comments. Always thought provoking.

  7. Beth

    Hi Mr Smith. Thanks for posting the things you do. Can I ask if you would compile a little list of ‘good’ books. You mention some from time to time and I would appreciate it to help expand my brain alongside my bible etc study. ‘Keep abreast’ of the latest, I suppose!

  8. Howdy, Beth, and thanks for the kind words! Sorry about the delay in posting your comment, by the way — I lost it in the queue. :) I don’t have list of books off of the top of my head, and I would suspect that such a list would really depend on one’s own interests. There’s nothing fun about having your brain challenged when the material is completely boring to you! However, the way I found out about the Thomas Nagel book, for instance, was through the subscription I have to, which mentioned it. Perhaps something like that would be a good place to start: a subscription to a timely newsletter on a topic of interest (in this case, for me, evolution and intelligent design) that may recommend books from time to time.

    I hope this helps!

  9. Pingback: Book: Quantum Theory: A Very Short Introduction | jameskennedybeijing

  10. Beth

    That’s exactly why I ask – I appreciate very broad range of topics and all that I have read on the blog so far, hence my request :) nevertheless, if you are too busy I will keep searching anyhow :)

  11. Thanks, Beth, for following up! And I don’t know if I am the best source for a list of books for “keeping abreast of the latest,” but I can make some recommendations. For instance, that evolution news link is great for new information in that arena. As for one of my most favorite topics in the universe, mathematics, I highly recommend The Art of Mathematics by Jerry P. King. It truly is one of my favorite books of all time. Then there is A Tour of the Calculus by one of my favorite writers David Berlinski, if you’d like to delve into a particular fascinating branch of mathematics. Sticking with the author, I recently found Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion to be a fantastic treatise on the pretensions often on display in scientific work by many scientists who don’t seem to recognize the religious framework present in their own beliefs. And, to throw one more out there (with a word of caution), you could consider the book The Brain That Changes Itself, which is a great work (from what I have read so far) on discoveries in the area of neuroplasticity. I should caution on the last case that the copy I had was borrowed from a friend here in one of my local churches who had kindly removed a small section of pages containing material that was apparently quite explicit, so please keep that in mind.

    Not a big list, I know, but perhaps enough to suggest something you might benefit from.

  12. Beth

    Yay! Thanks for that. I have been able to read most of the Brain that changes Itself. I will put those others on my list! Warm regards from cold England.

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