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Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Universe Doesn't Care!

Starry Starry Night! Posted by Picasa

Consider our sun, the celestial body without which there would be no life on earth. This is not simply because without the sun the earth would wander dark and cold through interstellar space but also by reason of another more fundamental aspect of life and even of physical existence itself.

The Sun is made up of an incandescent mix of, primarily, gas in plasma form. It is composed of about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. About 0.1% consists of metals (made from hydrogen via nuclear fusion). This ratio is changing very slowly over time as the nuclear reactions continue, converting smaller atoms into more massive ones. Since the Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, it has used up about half of its initial hydrogen supply.

Our Sun is a second or third generation star. Second generation stars do not just burn hydrogen; they also burn heavier elements, like helium and metals (elements heavier than hydrogen and helium), and were formed from supernova explosions (the debris of exploded population II stars).

In other words, a significant percentage of our bodies and everything you see around you was forged in the heavy element fusion process of much more massive and hotter stars than our sun that exploded billions of years ago and bequeathed their products to the interstellar gas that eventually contracted under gravity to form our own star and planets. This is what I mean by saying that the sun is a second or third generation star.

When wags say that we are stardust; it is true. Even stranger is the fact that we are stardust from elsewhere in the galaxy!

Let's stop a bit and reflect.

Without the gargantuan energies powering supernovae explosions there would be no solid earth beneath our feet and no chemical life as we know it.

It gets curiouser! The subatomic processes that lead to nuclear fusion and life-capable matter are governed by quantum and sub atomic forces that are incredibly fine-tuned. If the laws governing these processes were nudged out of alignment ever so slightly, not only would life be impossible in the Universe but also the Universe as a long lasting physical reality would be seriously compromised. Some versions of these laws have the Universe collapsing back into nothingness almost as soon as it has been formed. Scientists call this the “anthropic principle” and it makes the unbelieving ones very twitchy and defensive. There are only two general possibilities:-

(1) "The Universe knew we were coming" as the physicist Freeman Dyson once said. The strong version of the anthropic principle is part of the Intelligent Design, fiercely resisted by such atheist scientists as Richard Dawkins. According to this account, for all the seeming indifference and brutality of the cosmos in which we find ourselves, we live in a Universe that is positively benign toward life and highly driven toward its emergence from "dust." (Echoes of Genesis of course). Lets us recall that in Genesis it says "let the EARTH bring forth ...." In other words, God not create without the agency of a physical process ... and it is that physical process that science investigates.

(2) Quantum Cosmology allows for the formation of countless eternal universes each generated by their own Big Bangs and budding off previous universes in a vast infinite ever-branching network. This is the weak anthropic principle and does not necessarily lead to belief in a Creator, (although it can do, albeit of the disinterested deist sort). Some of these Universes will be extremely short lived or dead. In some universes different laws will promote life, in others not. We just happen to live in one that does ... so no surprise there then on this account! Nonetheless, even the weak anthropic principle based on the "multiverse" model cannot answer the question:- "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Some of these issues are spelt out a bit more hear by Dr. Michio Kaku ... a fine physicist and communicator. Read him on this subject here.

"What Happened Before the Big Bang?"

Here is his web site ...

Michio Kaku's Web Site

His latest book, "Parallel Universes" is brilliant! (Can I have my cheque in the post please Dr. Kaku? Thanks).

Another physicist called Steve Weinberg, is famous for this broody depressing comment from an old book of his "The First Three Minutes" ...

“It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built from the beginning . . . It is hard to realize that this all [i.e., life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more is also seems pointless.”

It all depends on one's perspective. Here is the paradox of faith .... it gives the right perspective in the face of evidence that depresses some (Weinberg) and inspires others (Polkinghorne).

For years, as a child, I would gaze up at the deep blackness of the 1950's north country sky and be moved almost to tears at the shear beauty of it all. I knew then that the Universe was an immense violent place, but to me it was just about the most convincing sign of a Creator that I could imagine. Some years later I came to know this Creator as my Saviour as well. You can imagine what this did to my spirit! Anyway, everyone's path is different albeit we can hint to others of different perspectives.

You might find this Roman Catholic's guy's answer to Weinberg's pessimism as enlightening. I like the bit about the Big Bang being the Big Bloom!

"The Meaning-Full Universe" by Benjamin D. Wiker

What though of suffering, of death and of evil?

As far as death in the Universe is concerned I think as Christians we have to say that death physically is natural but that eternal death, separation from God is not as it arises from the Fall. We all have to die and I don't know, qualitatively speaking, how you can compare an 80 year old with a long terminal illness and an 8 year old killed in Hurricane Katrina. All I know is that life is an enormous privilege and gift for as long as it lasts. I think that our lives are God's little experiment not only to get sentient beings knowing themselves and the world around them but also, of course, God himself. Our deaths then become a harvest of that intelligence, consciousness, wisdom into that Greater Mind which is God Himself lovingly bringing forth ever new creations to his own joy and the joy of his creatures .... maybe eternally and without limit. To be consciously aware of that if only for three score years and ten is an immense privilege. I look forward to the time when we shall truly know and see him as a friend might, face to face.

Keep Up To Date with developments in Astronomy, Astrobiology and Cosmology at The Worlds of David Darling


David Darling said...

A very thought-provoking article!

From the purely scientific point of view, there is another possibility why the universe is the way it is - i.e. surprisingly well-tuned for life - without the need for a multiverse or God in the conventional sense. This stems from John Wheeler's participatory anthropic model. It invokes the notion that we actively take part in making things real by observing them - a spinoff of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. According to this, the more we observe, the more reality-creating we do. Ultimately, in the far-future we - our vastly evolved descendants, that is - observe the finest details of cosmic creation into existence and thus initiate the process that will eventually lead to powerful beings that can be the means of their own... well, you get the picture! What you end up with is a sort of self-sustaining, self-sufficient, pick-yourself-up-by-your own-bootstraps - version of Einstein's "block universe". I wrote a book about this back in 1993 called "Equations of Eternity". Although I've since come to doubt the reality of it, having moved more toward spirituality as a way to address the deepest mysteries of existence, it does have a certain logical neatness about it.

Why is there something rather than nothing? The quickest - but not very satisfying answer - is that there can't be nothing. Nothing is the one thing that cannot, by definition, exist. I remember Mr. Kay, our old maths teacher (for the benefit of other readers, Father Gregory and I were at school together), asking a similar question: Why isn't the universe exactly symmetrical? Or, to turn that around, how did asymmetry enter the picture?

Father Gregory said...

Ah, Mr. Kay ... I loved that guy. He inspired me more than anyone to do Maths.
Anyway, David, I think I am write in saying that at the Big Bang there was one superforce and it was only after cooling that symmetry broke and along with it came into being the four elemental forces, (electromagnetism, the weak force, the strong force and gravity), along with all those subatomic particles and fields. In other words symmetry had to break for there to be life. The breaking of symmetry came about from quantum fluctuations that we still theorise today in the false vacuum of space. There is a sort of infinite regression though here. Perhaps we should be asking not so much why the Universe isn't symmetrical as why is the Universe so frothy?

David Darling said...

Here's a piece I wrote for New Scientist some years ago that bears on all this. I'm very, very interested in that first act of creation because it seems to me the cosmologist really does have to fudge it. The piece is called "On creating something from nothing?" (New Scientist, Vol 151, No. 2047, 14 September 1996, p49).


It’s the simple questions that usually tax science the most.
For instance, why should there be something instead of nothing? The Universe is so outrageously enormous and elaborate. Why did it - or God, if you prefer - go to all the bother?

Yes, I know that if the Universe wasn’t more or less the way it is then there’d be no one to reflect on such problems. But that’s a comment, not an explanation . The fact is, nothing could be simpler than nothing - so why is there something instead?

Science has started delving into the minutiae of genesis. No one bats an eyelid these days when cosmologists talk about what conditions might have been like around one ten million trillionth of a second after the moment of creation. And once we’ve got the tricky business of linking gravitation with quantum mechanics sorted out, then maybe we can push things right back to the very first instant of all.

Well, I've read the party manifesto on this and I don’t buy it. I can go along with the quantum foam stuff, the good news (for once) about inflation, the quark soup and so on. That’s fine.
I may not be able to imagine it - who can? But, as far as I am concerned, the fact that the Universe was an incredibly weird place 10^-43 seconds after “time zero” is no big deal.

What is a big deal - the biggest deal of all - is how you get something out of nothing. Don’t let the cosmologists try to kid you on this one. They haven’t got a clue either - despite the fact that they’re doing a pretty good job of convincing themselves and others that this really isn’t a problem.

“In the beginning,” they’ll say, “there was nothing - no time, space, matter or energy. Then there was a quantum fluctuation from which...” Whoa! Stop right there. You see what I mean?
First there’s nothing, then there is something. And the cosmologists try to bridge the two with a quantum flutter, a tremor of uncertainty that sparks it all off. Then they’re away and before you know it, they’ve pulled a hundred billion galaxies out of their quantum hats.

I don’t have a problem with this scenario from the quantum fluctuation onward. Why shouldn’t human beings build a theory of how the Universe evolved from a simple to a complex state. But there’s a very real problem in explaining how it got started in the first place.

You can’t fudge this by appealing to quantum mechanics. Either there’s nothing to begin with, in which case there’s no quantum vacuum, no pre-geometric dust, no time in which anything can happen, no physical laws that can effect a change from nothingness into somethingness; or there is something, in which case that needs explaining.

One of the most specious analogies that cosmologists have come up with is between the origin of the Universe and the North Pole. Just as there’s nothing north of the North Pole, so there was nothing before the Big Bang. Voila! We’re supposed to be convinced by that, especially since it was Stephen Hawking who dreamt it up.

But it won’t do. The Earth didn’t grow from its North Pole. There was not ever a disembodied point from which the material of the planet sprang. The North Pole only exists because the Earth exists - not the other way around.

It’s the same with neurologists who are peering into the brain to see how consciousness comes about. I don’t have a problem with being told how memory works, how we parse sentences, how the visual cortex handles images.

I can believe that we might come to understand the ins and outs of our grey matter almost as well as we can follow the operations of a sophisticated computer. But I draw the line at believing that this knowledge will advance our understanding of why we are conscious one jot.

Why shouldn’t the brain do everything it does and still be completely unaware? Why shouldn’t it just process information and trigger survival responses without going to the trouble of generating consciousness?

You only have to read the musings of Daniel Dennett, Roger Penrose, Francis Crick and others to appreciate that we’re discovering everything about the brain - except why it’s conscious.

No, I'm sorry, I may not have been born in Yorkshire but I'm a firm believer that you can’t get owt for nowt. Not a Universe from a nothing-verse, nor consciousness from a thinking brain.

I suspect that mainstream science may go on for a few more years before it bumps so hard against these problems that it is forced to recognise that something is wrong.

And then? Let me guess: if you can’t get something for nothing then that must mean there has always been something.

Hmmm. And if the brain doesn’t produce consciousness...well, no, that is just too crazy isn't it?


Father Gregory said...

I believe that it is literally impossible for the human mind to conceive of nothing. Here's my argument.

(1) Thought and logic always proceed from the familiar to the unfamiliar. If there was no (minute even) correspondence between reality and either sense recognition or theorisation both of which constitute the very basis of conscious thought or unconscious neural activation, then extrapolation could not proceed within the brain.
(2) Where there is the putative "no-thing" (where 'thing' is anything capable of sense recognition or theorisation), conscious or unconscious mental processes would be completely incapable of registering it as input, let alone extrapolating from it and interpreting it.
(3) Therefore, "no-thing" is closely allied with non-existence and humans have great difficulty in coming anywhere near registering mentally "no-I." Even in trance like states or states of non-cognition facilitated by Zen koans, the transition to that state is a "thing" that the brain registers even if the new no-I state cannot in any way be explained. Some religions of course transpose the problem so that "I" materialises somewhere ekse on the space-time continuum. Arguably we might then question whether the "I" is the same "I" that had gone before.

My conclusion, therefore, is that it will remain completely and utterly impossible for the human mind to conceive of "no-thing" and all its prepositional constructs, eg., creation out of nothing. Faced with this impasse the brain demands either total agnosticism concerning this aspect of reality, or, more commonly the reaction that "no-thing " is really "some-thing" somewhere else or in disguise.

We know that scientists do not like the multiplication of infinities and absurdities that arise from singularities, "summat from nowt" states. So, what do they do? They theorise strings which obviate the difficulties of both point like particles and out of nothing creations. This, also of course, neatly does away with troublesome religious and philosophical issues for if there always has been "some-thing" then no reality can ever be conceived of as logically prior to that any-thing if reality is itself eternal.

However, such a dodge round the problem violates Occam's razor in my opinion as creations, parallel universes and alternate realities multiply in a frenzy comparable to that of those infinities they sought to replace in the out-of-nothing creation accounts. There may indeed have already been and continue to be and unfold zillions of creations but the question of why there is something rather than nothing is not only unanswerable but literally inconceivable. There comes a point where self destructive nihilism or reasonable, intelligent faith based on the evidence is the only choice before us.

David Darling said...

I agree completely. Following on from the first point you list, not only can we not conceive of nothing but, for the same reason, we can't really grasp infinity, timelessness, and the fourth or higher dimensions. Time is an intriguing problem both in physics and theology. We can't conceive of there being no time; yet, according to Big Bang theory, space and time came into existence at some point. What was there before Time Zero? And, if there was no time, how could there have been a transition from no-time to time, since the transition must have taken place in time?! Timelessness, spacelessness, and nothingness defy the brain's ability to analyse, it seems. Part of God, at least, presumably exists outside conventional spacetime, in some mystery state that our minds cannot apprehend.

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