Sunday, March 13, 2011

In The Beginning - Part 2

2. Something from Nothing
To assert that something, anything, came into existence from literally nothing is absurd. It is so absurd that I would not even have included this as a possible answer were it not for confusion resulting from a misinterpretation of the phenomena in physics known as the quantum creation of particles which is often described as “something from nothing.” While I have a solid foundation in physics, physics is not my profession and I make no claim to a thorough understanding of the subject. However, I do understand physics with enough depth to say with confidence that subatomic particles popping into and out of existence is not “something from nothing” in the sense that is relevant to the question at hand. When I say that something cannot come from “nothing,” I mean from literally nothing including the physical world itself, even an empty one. An empty physical world might be “nothing” to a scientist, but it is very much something in the context of questions about the origin of the physical world itself.
In their 2010 book titled The Grand Design,[1] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have attempted to popularized the idea dating back to the 80’s which extends the idea of quantum creation of particles to whole universes. They then use this idea of quantum creation of universes to explain the origin of the physical world.
The problem with using quantum creation of the universes to explain the origin of the physical world[2] is that even on the outside chance that this extremely speculative theory were true, it is a cosmological theory which seeks to explain the origin of our universe given the existence of the physical world. The idea of the quantum creation of our universe requires the pre-existence of the physical world into which our universe (or any universe) could pop into existence. Therefore, the idea of quantum creation of the universe does not even touch on the question at hand because it assumes the existence of the physical world which is of course the very thing in question. For a more detailed discussion of quantum creation of the universe and The Grand Design I recommend Stephen M. Barr’s September 10, 2010 review titled "Much Ado About “Nothing”: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe"[3] in First Things.
Quantum creation of particles and even of universes notwithstanding, I therefore conclude that something cannot come from literally nothing and thus Answer #2 is false.
Because of the weight given to books like Hawking’s, I feel compelled to write a few paragraphs on the role of scientists in discussions such as this that lay outside of their field. All ages have priests, people whose opinions are respected on all subjects regardless of the merit of their arguments. In the West, scientists have become the priests of our modern technology-driven age and so when a brilliant scientist like Hawking offers an opinion about the origin of the physical world it is parroted unquestioningly in the mass media. Hawking is a philosophical materialist, and materialism is a hidden assumption in everything he writes including his speculations about the origin of the physical world. Indeed, materialism is the hidden assumption of most scientists who are quoted in the mass media and therefore it is not surprising that they often speak with one voice about such things as the origin of the physical world. However, it is imperative that we keep in mind that it is not their shared understanding of science which leads them to speak with one voice, it is their shared philosophical belief in materialism. Of course there are plenty of scientists who are not materialists, but most such scientists understand the limits of what science can teach. As a result, they generally speak less about non-scientific subjects, and they are more careful to point out the limitations of science when touching on topics which are beyond the realm of science.
One illustration of this materialist bias can be seen by looking at the history of the effect that radical changes in cosmological theories have had on the beliefs of materialist scientists regarding the question of the origin of the physical world. I begin with a very brief history of cosmological theories.
In the period after World War II there were two competing theories, the Steady State theory and the Big Bang theory with the Steady State theory being the more generally accepted theory. In 1965 Penzias and Wilson famously discovered the cosmic background radiation which ended the debate in favor of the now almost universally accepted Big Bang theory. But even the Big Bang theory itself has seen a major change. For the first forty years or so Big Bang theorists believed the universe was expanding, but at a decreasing rate. Then, in the late 90’s evidence forced scientists to make another major shift. Most cosmologists now believe that the universe is expanding at an increasing rate.
While both the Steady State and Big Bang theories agreed that the universe was expanding, the Steady State theory maintained that our universe is uniform in space and time. Materialist scientists argued that Steady State theory supported the notion of a self-existent physical world changeless in space and time. The change from Steady State theory to Big Bang theory was profound. One theory proposed an essentially changeless eternity while the other set the age of the universe at approximately 14 billion years during which the universe underwent spectacular change. Did this radical shift in cosmological theories cause a correspondingly radical shift in their opinions about the origin of the physical word? While a definite date put on the beginning of the universe would seem to be troublesome to the idea of a self-existent physical world, this radically different Bing Bang theory was used to support the exact same notion of a self-existent universe. The universe expanding at a decreasing rate left open the possibility of a grand cycle with the universe eventually collapsing and starting the whole process all over. Thus the idea of a uniform universe gave way to the possibility of endless cycles of big bangs. What was notably missing was any questioning of the belief that the world is self-existent. Any doubt about the materialist bias is removed when we look at a third major change in cosmological theories when data led to the conclusion that the universe is not only expanding, it is expanding at an increasing rate making the idea of a cyclical universe untenable. Did this finally lead materialist scientists to question their belief in a self-existent universe? Absolutely not. Instead we get The Grand Design. The important thing to notice here is that no matter what the scientific input, the output is always the same, some type of argument for the self-existence of the physical world. If advances in science lead to future radical changes in cosmological theory one thing can be certain, materialist scientists will find a way to support (or to at least reconcile) the notion of a self-existent universe with the new theory. The reason for this is because it is not their understanding of science that is leading these scientists to argue that the physical world is self-existent, it is their philosophical belief in materialism, and their belief in materialism does not change no matter how much science changes.
I will conclude this part by saying that while I would not go so far as to say cosmology has absolutely nothing to teach us about the origin of the physical world, the truth is that any cosmological theory resulting from current scientific methods could be reconciled with any major philosophical theory about the origin of the physical world. Therefore cosmology can do little more than reinforce an opinion about the origin of the physical world whose real foundation is composed of beliefs that have nothing to do with science. For this reason, we would be wise to steer clear of any arguments based on science when honestly trying to examine the question of the origin of the physical world.
Part 1 - In The Beginning
Part 3 - Impossible Question
1. ^ Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. Bantam, 2010. Print.
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2. ^ I do not use the terms “universe” and “physical world” interchangeably even though I believe them to be one and the same. I defined the terms as follows in part one of this post: By “physical world” I mean the world of matter and energy which exits in space and time. It is important to understand that I use the term “physical world” very broadly. While I do not find the highly speculative idea of multiple physical universes even slightly compelling, I use “physical world” so broadly here that it would include not only our universe, but the entire system of universes were such a system to exist.
3. ^ Barr, Stephen. "Much Ado About “Nothing”: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universe." First Things 10 Sep 2010. Web.
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