Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

Archive for the tag “2011 Physics Nobel Prize”

God:Big Bang::Chicken:Egg?

Last week, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their 1998 discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This overturned the conventional idea that the universe, at this point in time 13.72 billion years after the Big Bang, was actually slowing down due to its own gravity. Below, you will find a presentation from 2009 by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, called “A Universe from Nothing.” To help put this information in context, I will explain the ‘cosmological argument’ for the existence of God, which it may be useful to read before the video. Then I will attempt to discuss some of the philosophical ramifications of this discovery, as I understand them.

Why is there something rather than nothing? This is the fundamental question at the heart of the cosmological argument. Like much philosophy, it dates back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle. The former, in Timaeus, posited that a supremely wise ‘demiurge’ had created the cosmos; the latter, in Metaphysics, asserted there was no first cause, or ‘prime mover’, because the universe was eternal. This was consistent with the statement of the pre-Socratic Parmenides, “nothing comes from nothing.” The rest of the history of the argument has mostly been dominated by Christian thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, who simply concluded that the universe need not be seen as eternal, because God was the original prime mover. We now know that the universe certainly is not eternal, and we know exactly when it began to exist (after the Big Bang). So, the cosmological argument can seem rather intuitive from a certain points of view:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
It goes without saying that there are many objections to these apparently logical assertions, as well as various versions of the argument (in fact, the differences between these versions has led to it being defined more as a ‘method’ than a specific argument).
  • For starters, a skeptic would not hesitate to make the most obvious objection: “what caused the first cause?”. This also highlights the biggest problem with the entire argument itself–that it depends on some type of causality understood either through deductive (logically necessary) or inductive (gained by experience) reasoning. Basically, our knowledge and ability to understand phenomena is based on our experience as humans on planet Earth, but the same rules of causality may not apply to an unknowingly-vast universe with properties we cannot yet measure or even observe.
  • Secondly, it follows that even if there were a First Cause of the universe that initiated the Big Bang, we have no way of knowing if it was the work of God. The First Cause in this case could also conceivably be some other ‘spark’–this is the central point discussed in the video above. Furthermore, even if it could be demonstrated that God had created the universe (which I think we must understand as ‘causing the Big Bang to occur’), it is still a quite different question to connect this creator God with the God of religions throughout the world. We would be left with the ‘Deist’ God, popular with Enlightenment thinkers, who merely created the universe but then ceased to interact or manifest itself with this creation in any way.
  • It is difficult to imagine these abstract concepts, and the huge time spans required to understand them (once again, the universe is 13.72 billion years old). Therefore, it is virtually impossible to conceive of an idea such as “what existed before the Big Bang?”. Science, led by physicists such as Krauss, attempts to answer this by explaining that there was simply ‘nothing’. Since time came into being as one of the dimensions of existence, whatever there was before the Big Bang was effectively ‘timeless’. Krauss presents the case for why the old question of “why is there something rather than nothing” can actually be understood through quantum physics. He explains that something can come from nothing, and, in fact, always does. Science, despite occasional errors (which are eventually discovered and corrected), explains the world and the universe around us as we experience it or can logically deduce it. Sometimes the knowledge it presents to us can, nevertheless, be open to varying interpretations of a metaphysical type.  Krauss himself admits as much at the 11:40 mark of the video, when he summarizes Belgian priest/physicist Georges Lemaître’s (discover of the ‘Big Bang’) letter to the Pope as such: “This is a scientific theory.  You can take it, if you believe in God, to validate your beliefs. But you could also take it to mean that the laws of physics take us right back to the beginning of time without God. What you take from it depends upon your religious and metaphysical beliefs…but whatever you say, the Big Bang happened. If we could just convince people of this simple thing…we could probably overcome a lot of problems in this country.”
  • Dark matter and dark energy have never been observed. According to my understanding of things, even such possible (and probable) future discoveries will not change the fundamental philosophical or religious arguments and search for proof of the existence (or non-existence) of God. Theists could just as easily explain dark energy as ‘God’s hand’ in the universe, while atheists would take it as ever more proof building up their case that no deity is necessary in order for the universe to work, or even for setting events into motion. In addition, theists who attempt to insert the presence of God into any realms of science that are as yet unknown are making a grave strategic error. This “God of the Gaps” concept risks painting the idea of a deity into an ever smaller corner, as new scientific discoveries will inevitably continue to explain away the mystery. For example, it is only the most remote tribes without knowledge of modern germ theory who still attribute superstitious causes to illness and disease. It is still common for politicians and religious leaders to interpret for their constituencies the divine meaning of various meteorological events (Texas governor Rick Perry thinks Texas is suffering from enormous wildfires and drought because of the Federal Reserve…then why did they strike Texas rather than New York?).
  • My desire is that we respect science and actively discredit anyone who rejects it if it does not fit their own personal beliefs (or financial gain, in the case of industrial polluters spreading rampant climate change denialism). Ultimately though, we still must understand and interpret things beyond the facts that science gives us, and here we must use philosophy and our ability to reason. This is our most advanced ability and the only thing that separates humans from non-human animals, as well as (as far as we can tell) everything else in the universe. If there is a God, it would surely intend us to use our ‘God-given’ reason to question the nature of things and why we find no evidence for God in the universe. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

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