This is a draft of a post I intend to publish on LinkedIn after further thought and comments from dear readers like you. So please share your thoughts!
“choice, informed by fact, not by revelation”
These are the words of my colleague Lawrence Krauss, in the epilogue to his book A Universe from Nothing (2012), reflecting his views on how we approach the question of origins. He is an atheistic scientist-philosopher in my own department, engaged in the search for confirmation of his hypotheses (as most academia is, to be fair). The hypothesis relevant to this statement, of course, is that no revelation is possible. And if it is impossible, it is not necessary.
Of course, the origins debate has raged for millennia, and there is no reason to believe it will be settled until our time is up. But there is a strong insinuation – at times overtly declared, as by Richard Dawkins in the afterword to the aforementioned book – that science is deadly to supernaturalism, that a Creator begs the question of his own creation, that our world as it is does not require God to exist.
And yet Krauss has rather a point when he summarizes that “something from nothing may have been required for the universe to come into being”, an observation that is simple and profound. The question, then, is how this transition from something-to-nothing happened. He submits that a stochastic quantum multiverse of spontaneous particle-antiparticle generation in vacuum solves the problem of how things happened and which laws happen to apply to us, but he makes a frank admission that “we generally assume that certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities.”
This is the rub. If one is asking a question about the boundaries of the known, and engages in the task using known tools, one will inevitably find that the boundaries are at the limits of the tools. Maybe that’s confusingly put, but I think of Dionysius Burger’s Sphereland, and the exhaustive investigations of a finite surface undertaken by the squares. They can determine (much to the establishment’s horror) that space is curved – they live on a sphere. But they cannot determine anything about what might lie above or below the surface of the sphere. It is beyond their ken. When the three-dimensional Oversphere reveals himself, it is indeed a revelation. Something outside the bounds of the knowable is reaching into those bounds.
So there is a fundamental problem with the quote from Krauss that opens this article. How does one know that fact is fact? He addresses this internally in his admission of the assumption of the generality of quantum mechanics. But why are the quantum fields facts? They are theories, and they may be very impressive and useful and observable. That’s wonderful! But to call them multiversal fact and treat them as the pre-existing pillars of the universe(s) is questionable.
To be fair, there is also the question of the veracity of revelation. Historic Christianity (among many other religions) declares the existence of the spirit world, of angels, the devil and other fallen angels. Revelation may come from unreliable sources. This is not meant to muddy the waters, but to apply the same challenge to revelation as to fact – how reliable is it?
One can take this skepticism a step further – are we even able to reliably interpret or adjudicate truth claims? This is a major sticking point in psychotherapy – whose definition of health is supreme? We are once again stuck – I think so because I think so. Is there a guide to labeling something “ordered” or “disordered”? How can we even define the term “nothing”? We have no experience of it, as the quantum fluctuations demonstrate (ie – we cannot ever observe “nothing”, because there are always stochastic fluctuations of particle-antiparticle pairs in the quantum field).
To me, of course, this strongly supports the Christian assertion that truth is personal and is found in Jesus Christ. The alternative is a faith-based affirmation of chaos (which flies in the face of observed order, anyhow). And, we can have confidence in the cosmos and in our investigations of it because of the continuous upholding and ruling of it by the divine energy of God. And, we accept the limits of our finitude, and are grateful for revelations made by this personal God in Jesus Christ – revelations of things not knowable to us, such as the beginnings and ends of all things.
Krauss is unlikely to be convinced of anything by such claims (and it’s quite unlikely that he’ll even come across my take on this), but conversely, I am unlikely to be persuaded by his claims. Because, as I mentioned, this debate goes back millennia. Is matter pre-existent? Is a Creator pre-existent? Can either be known with certainty? Can either be investigated with the tools of science?
That last question is perhaps the one to explore further, as it is the assertion of Krauss. History is subject to search. Origins are a trickier question, as this is the transition between unknowable and knowable. Perhaps revelation could give us facts about these, but that’s another discussion.
Cosmologists tend to be math folks. You work with such absurdly large quantities, and you have to find ways of lumping parameters together to ask questions you are interested in. Krauss speculates on the origin of “something”, but swirling around this discussion like the arms on the Milky Way is the question of what that something is. Specifically, the one instance of that something that we know of – our universe, our world, ourselves. Where did we come from?
This is the question pursued by two increasingly convergent fields – evolutionary biologists and astrophysicists/astrobiologists. The latter two disciplines are conjoined, as they are concerned with what kind of worlds there may be, and what kind are needed for life. The evolutionary biologists are concerned with how life can come to be on such worlds.
Let’s introduce the Drake equation, as we’ll refer to it several times.
N_civ = N_galaxy * f_star * f_planet * f_life
N_civ = the number of expected civilizations per galaxy
N_galaxy = the average number of stars per galaxy
f_star = the probability that a star has the needed properties to sustain life
f_planet = the conditional probability that, given a suitable star, one has a suitable planet
f_life = the conditional probability that, given a suitable planet, one develops life
Now, let’s look through a very limited selection of writings that (I suggest) captures the trajectory of serious thought on the origin of life and its possible origin elsewhere in our big universe.
1781 – Immanuel Kant would wager many conveniences in life that there are inhabitants of other worlds. Critique of Pure Reason, Ch.2, S.3, para.112
1855 – William Whewell reasons by analogy that, as extensive as space is, there must be a plurality of worlds, on some of which there must be (by analogy) creatures of whom God is mindful, just as the Psalmist writes in the eighth Psalm. Of the plurality of worlds: an essay.
Late 1800s – Camille Flammaron and Percival Lowell popularize the belief that the Martian “canali” were evidence of civilization on the Red Planet, culminating in Lowell’s 1908 work Mars as the Abode of Life.
1933 – Cal Berkely Prof. C. B. Lipman reports bacteria in meteorites. The bacteria is identical to terrestrial bacteria. NY Times article, 31 January.
1963 – Large group of scientists urge that the chief aim of NASA should be the search for extraterrestrial life, with many suggesting “reasonable prospects of finding some simple living organisms” on Mars. NY Times article, 10 January.
1975 – Gregory Cain, following Carl Sagan’s values in the Drake equation, suggests on the order of ten million advanced civilizations in our own galaxy. The Physics Teacher, 13, p404 (1975);
1998 – Lee Werth urges that we are hopelessly anthropic, and the search is absurd, because we could never recognize extraterrestrial intelligence if we found it. Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1998
2012 – J Woods Halley publishes a Springer Reference work entitled, blandly yet simply, How likely is extraterrestrial life? This book sequentially explores the Drake equation, and the term for the probability of life developing stochastically comes back (assuming DNA is the destination) as 10^( -300943). Simplifying the assumed end-state proto-life structure (to a length shorter than a non-self-reproductive viral phage), the probability of life of 10^(-555) is reached. It should be noted that in the remainder of this chapter, the equation is run backwards with an assumed probability of civilization development >1, thus forcing the chain length “required” for life to evolve to be rather short (130 elements, compared to 5×10^6 base pairs in E. Coli, and 3.2×10^9 for the human genome).
I suggest, on observing these works, that cosmology recapitulates philosophy. The faith in church and revelation of the Christian era was disputed by the Reformers, with rationalism leading to the confidence of the Enlightenment, which gave way to the optimistic science of modernity, which is now giving way to the postmodern despair. The only possible (rationalistic) answer to the postmodern despair is to hide in statistics. These, however, fail when it comes to the origin of life. The estimated life of the universe is 10^10 years or so. It is extraordinarily improbable that the human genome could assemble itself even once. (The odds are more like 1 in 10^300930, a number so big that I struggle to grasp its magnitude – like one byte in a tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-tera-of-terabytes).
And so I trace an expectation that life is out there, nearby, and sentient, turning into a hope that simple proto-life may be detected not too far away, and fading into a desperate effort to probablistically convince ourselves that we aren’t alone. Then the stats come in from the evolutionary biologists. And the Drake equation says that we’re alone. And in fact, that we shouldn’t really exist at all. The bookies would not take bets on us existing, anyhow. And Halley et al. commit the gambler’s fallacy by betting on a second win.
So, out of nothing, something marvelous comes – something that asks questions about origins, self, truth, goodness, beauty, fate, and God. And if we will humble ourselves as creatures, under the Creator, in need of the Redeemer, then this exploration of creation will lead us to joy in that Creator and that Redeemer, Jesus. (NB – Orthodox iconography – in contrast to the Sistine Chapel – consistently depicts Jesus creating the world, per the first verses of the gospel of St. John.)
While we kick against the goads, it will drive us to despair.
But in the meantime, while we apply for grants, we will be as cheerful and optimistic as we can…