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.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument and Unwin’s Pursuit of P(G)

A pretty spiral galaxy (Courtesy NASA & STScI). It had a beginning, so does that mean it had a cause?

Recently I wrote a post highlighting a form of Leibniz’s cosmological argument and mentioning how nice it was to see him get some press. Actually, he appeared recently in another book I am currently reading that was just about irresistible at the local Half Price Books when I saw it: The Probability of God, by Stephen D. Unwin. Dr. Unwin is a former theoretical physicist and risk analyst who decided to perform a Bayesian analysis of the probability that the statement “God exists” is true (that is, he calculates P(G)). While, on one hand, I don’t fully agree with all of his points so far–in the spirit of the book, I should say that my confidence in the truth of some of the points he asserts is less than 100%–on the other hand, I understand why, for the sake of the analysis he is trying to do, he makes those points. And it’s amazing to me someone happened to stumble on a recipe for a book that my nature virtually requires me to purchase it. (Theoretical physicist? Risk analyst? Bayesian probability calculations? God’s existence? Can my debit card come out of my wallet fast enough?)

His mention of Leibniz is hilarious in a “wow, what a crazy historical tale the discovery of calculus is, huh?” sort of way.  It went like this in a early passage where he is discussing quantum theory:

Isaac Newton didn’t hear of it, since he was already long dead, but if he had, he would have claimed to have invented it. (This is from my pro-Leibniz joke repertoire and is not really relevant.)

Ha! Not that I side with the Leibniz bunch (the Bernoullis and the gang) on the Newton vs. Leibniz matter, since history has shown the matter to be a draw, but the humor is still appreciated, and the book has quite a bit of that so far. (This really does tempt me to write about the role Calculus has played in empowering the end-time Beast power. I’ve got to write that post one day.)

However, that isn’t really what I intended to write about this morning. Having mentioned Leibniz’ cosmological argument, I thought I would follow up and mention the Kalam cosmological argument, which William Lane Craig (a huge fan of the argument) highlights in his book On Guard to which I referred last time. It’s pleasant and clean in its simplicity and well worth a look for those who enjoy such things:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The third statement follows unavoidably from the first two, so the truth of the conclusion boils down to whether or not the first two premises are true. (Note: If one of the premises is false, it does not mean that the conclusion is false, but if both of the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true, as well.)

Of course, the conclusion is not a conclusion that many like, so most will argue against one or both of the premises to even extreme limits, but at least the discussion is properly focused. And the two premises have the benefit of seeming reasonable on the surface to most reasonable people: Our common experience in life gives us ample evidence of the likelihood that premise 1 is true (indeed, it is the basis for virtually the entirety of scientific enterprise), and ever since the Big Bang revolutionized thinking in astrophysics, premise 2 has become very reasonable, as well. It is, however, the premise which seems to be debated the most.

Of course, no argument is a “knock down, drag out” winner, because there is always something to debate. Even fulfilled prophecy as evidence for God could be argued by some who are of a mindset like that of unsound thinker Michael Drosnin of “The Bible Code” shame who might claim that the scriptures were inspired not by a prophecy-fulfilling God but, instead, by super-advanced, time-traveling aliens from Zeta Reticuli — an argument-ender if I ever heard one. But arguments can still highlight what is reasonable to conclude, and I think the Kalam argument gives a very strong argument that belief in an eternally existing Creator is entirely reasonable.  (Concerning the groupings in our The Real God: Proofs and Promises booklet, I think it falls under the “Creation Demands a Creator” category.)

Arguments and theological premise-wrangling aside, I really am getting a kick out of Unwin’s The Probability of God, and the math teacher/actuary/minister in me hopes it continues to be as good as it has been so far.  Any guy who ends his book (yes, I’ve peaked ahead, but just a bit!) by helping the reader to create their own spreadsheet to calculate their own probability of God’s existence is a special breed.

Mathematicians’ theory means Earth may be the center of the universe

Prevailing model of the origin and expansion o...
Dark Energy, or an Earth-centered Shockwave? (Image via Wikipedia)

OK, how did I miss this article?

On the Popular Science website (popsci.com), dated 9/25/2009, is an article titled “Mathematicians’ Alternate Model of the Universe Explains Away the Need For Dark Energy” — subheading: “An alternative theory eliminates dark energy by placing Earth at the center of expansion.” Actually, it is a “Reader’s Digest” version of a larger article from Seed magazine titled “Erasing Dark Energy” — pre-story tease: “Why do we need dark energy to explain the observable universe? Two mathematicians propose an alternative solution that, while beautiful, may raise even more questions than it answers.”

Here’s the gist of it. Since about 1998, physics has believed that there is some sort of “dark energy” causing the universe to accelerate its expansion. This “dark energy” is supposed to make up about three-quarters of the universe, with its equally mysterious cousin, “dark matter,” making up another 20%, leaving plain-old matter (like you and me and cheeseburgers) making up about 4%. However, physicists have yet to really agree on the nature of this mysterious “dark matter.” Its inclusion solves some of their baffling observations about the universe, but it remains an uncomfortable mystery.

Enter two mathematicians, Blake Temple and Joel Smoller. Their results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, suggest a solution to the accelerating universe that doesn’t require conjuring up anything like “dark matter” — in fact, it doesn’t require conjuring up anything new at all. Their solution works with the current laws of physics we already have.

Their solution? That the acceleration seen is due to an expanding shockwave that occurred after the Big Bang–a shockwave that would have originated very near the Earth.

Did you catch that? A shockwave, plowing through the universe and spreading out the galaxies that originated near the Earth.

To say that such an idea unnerves many modern cosmologists would be an understatement. Modern cosmology takes as an article of faith that the Earth is nothing special. It’s called the Copernican Principle, named after Copernicus who concluded that the Sun and not the Earth was the center of our solar system. In modern science, Earth and the area around it is not allowed to be special or “favored” in any way compared to the rest of space — and it is certainly not allowed to be the center of the universe.

But Temple & Smoller’s theory suggests just such a thought.

Their shockwave has some things in its favor and some not so much so. For the former, the Earth-centered shockwave theory would also explain another phenomenon: the fact that Earth seems to be sitting in an odd “bubble of underdensity” — a region of the universe that doesn’t have much in it. Against it is the fact that dark energy also may account for some other observations, such as certain characteristics of the cosmic microwave background we observe in the universe.

But the biggest strike against it in the eyes of physicists? According to the article, it is the fact that it puts the earth at the center of the universe. As one particular cosmologist, Michael Wood-Vasey, is quoted in the Seed article concerning such a possibility: “It’s very philosophically disconcerting… It’s not very satisfying.”

Personally, regardless of how it turns out, I think one element of all of this is just rich. In the past, any ideas, such as Copernicus’, that suggested the Earth was not the center of the universe were (we are told) turned away as unacceptable and an affront to the truth — to be refused on principle, regardless of the facts or observations. Now, have we come to a point where the reverse bias is in play? Is a theory to be rejected solely on principle because it suggests the possibility that the Earth might be the center of the universe — again, regardless of the facts or observations?

Thankfully, the mere fact that their theory was published in the Proceedings speaks well of the scientific community, methinks. Astrophysicist Philip Hughes, who worked with the two mathematicians, says that we should be open to possibilities, especially given how much we still don’t know — and can’t even agree about — concerning “dark energy.” From the Seed article:

“But Hughes, who calls [the Earth-centered shockwave theory] ‘a tour de force of mathematical analysis,’ argues that though it presents a radical philosophical shift, the wave theory could nevertheless be useful to cosmologists.

“‘The concept of “dark energy” is a way of parameterizing our ignorance,’ he said in an email. ‘Given our shaky understanding of the physics behind it, I would hope that people are open-minded enough to see what might be learned from this work. We have for practical purposes no understanding of “dark energy”; there isn’t even a glimmer of consensus.'”

Is the Earth truly the center of the universe? Spiritually, we know it is the center of God’s plan, but is it actually physically the center, as well? Have we been so long in the God-must-be-banished woods of modern science that such a possibility is that hard to see?

These articles are a little more than a year old. Does anyone know of any new developments? Temple & Smoller were planning on developing their theory further and preparing it for testing. Any details out there about new news would be appreciated — feel free to post below.

Theories are theories, and I am not married to either idea, to be sure. God says through Solomon that “[i]t is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Proverbs 25:2), and at this stage God is certainly holding many cards close to His chest.

Yet, five centuries after Copernicus, it would be fascinating if modern cosmology concluded that Earth is, indeed, the center of the universe. What additional conclusions might follow?


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