This Christmas, I was thrilled to receive two books by theoretical physicists: Brian Greene’s “The Hidden Reality” and Stephen Hawking’s “The Grand Design.” As I was unwrapping these lovelies, my father pointed out that they both sound more like books on theology than science.
He’s right. Stephen Hawking noted the same thing on the inside cover of “The Grand Design”: “The most fundamental questions about the origin of the universe and of life itself, once the province of philosophy, now occupy the territory where scientists, philosophers, and theologians meet–if only to disagree.”
And disagree they do. Religious and spiritual writers argue that recent discoveries in quantum physics and cosmology actually prove the truth of a universal, all-knowing consciousness and an intelligent creator who designed the universe to produce life. All the while, the physicists who made these very discoveries say that their equations describe a universe far stranger, one that is decidedly not compatible with conventional religion.
This argument is of great personal interest to me. From toddlerhood onward, devoured every bit of science available to me. For many years I was at once ardently scientific and ardently religious, devouring books on biology, physics, theology, and the lives of the saints side-by-side.
Not until high school did a contradiction become apparent; and this contradiction led to the loss of the faith I was raised with, ultimately driving a wedge between myself and my salvation-oriented family. So whenever I hear these claims of proof–or disproof–of divine intervention, I pay attention.
And physics in recent years is rife with these claims. Quantum physics seems to show that conscious observation has a unique and instantaneous effect on matter; some have even suggested that in order for reality to exist, everything must be under constant observation by some universal consciousness. And cosmology seems to show that either our universe was “fine tuned” to allow our type of life to arise–or that we are part of an inconceivably vast multiverse.
The striking thing about all of this, even more than what has been discovered, is what hasn’t been discovered. The laws of physics practically guarantee that we will never know whether the multiverse theory is true or whether our universe is the only finely-tuned cosmos in existence. The universe seems almost painstakingly designed to keep us in the dark.
This speaks to another religious claim. The salvation religions teach that only believers are assured a pleasant afterlife; they see belief itself as both a gift and an important moral virtue, while unbelief puts one’s immortal soul at risk. Because of this, Christianity and Islam have spread across the world like wildfire, their missionaries believing that spreading faith is the most profound humanitarian work possible.
But if the question of our creation is eternally unsolvable–if divine versus random creation turns out to be impossible to confirm through experimentation–what does that tell us about salvation through faith?
Our circumstances seem to mean that any certainty about God must be based on one of two things: our own personal experience, or the belief in the words of other humans. Such certainty must, in other words, be unscientific. Is there any way it makes sense for unscientific faith to be a virtue?
Now that I’ve posed the questions that have been pressing on me, let’s talk more about physics, and why the truth about Creation seems to be so carefully hidden from us.
In this story, quantum physics is an interesting side note. I won’t talk about it here because quantum physics does not speak to the question of our creation–only, possibly, to other religious teachings like free will and the existence of a universal consciousness.
What does speak directly to the question of our creation is, of course, studies of the beginning of our Universe.
We’ve long since realized that the Universe is billions of years old, that Earth itself didn’t come into existence for billions of years after its creation, and that humans didn’t come into existence for billions of years after that. That doesn’t mean that a God didn’t set the whole thing into motion. We’ve long since concluded that humans did not appear in one day, having been made from scratch by an intelligent designer; that doesn’t mean that “a few billion years of evolution” isn’t a day’s work in the view of an eternal God.
And what physics has discovered in recent years does seem to lead to an almost religious conclusion. As it turns out, there are four fundamental forces (maybe five, if you count the Higgs field) underlying all properties and interactions of matter in this universe. And if any of them were even slightly stronger or weaker, life as we know it could not exist here.
This discovery of the “fine tuning” of our universe for life has led to a revival of the old Watchmaker argument: the fundamental laws of physics of our universe are complex. They’re also seemingly perfectly designed to allow stars to form and biochemistry to happen. The only logical; indeed, the only scientific conclusion, is that the universe was brilliantly designed with the creation of life in mind.
Not so fast. There are, in fact, two possibilities here: it’s possible that all of creation does, by accident or design, have precisely the right physical laws to allow life as we know it to exist. It’s also possible that many universes exist, each with different physical laws, and ours just happens to have all its laws properly in place to support our kind of life.
The claim of many universes is a bold one. To some, it seems utterly illogical; how much do these physicists want to refute the existence of God, that they’d rather postulate an infinite number of other universes based on precisely zero evidence?
Well, it’s not exactly zero evidence. “Evidence” in the sense of actual experimental findings, yes; we’ve never had a shred of physical evidence ot suggest that other universes do exist. But it turns out that this is precisely the result we’d expect whether other universes exist or not; if they do, almost by definition, they can have no contact with us.
And the math supports their existence. It turns out that multiple theories of physics–almost all of them, in fact–have come to the conclusion that the existence of other universes is quite possible, if not a certainty.
The mathematics of quantum physics suggests that a huge number of parallel universes may exist, each ruled by different outcomes of the probability waves and particle locations we observe here.
The mathematics of inflationary theory suggests that it’s entirely possible that multiple big bangs have happened within an ever-expanding multiverse; if the standard model of physics is right, each inflationary event would give rise to a universe with different laws of physics.
The mathematics of string theory suggests that our own universe’s spacetime may in fact be just one shape in a cosmos of many multidimensional blobs, each with their own laws of physics.
Some theories even suggest that universes could reproduce, and that their laws of physics could be subject to evolution by natural selection–this stems from the mathematics of black holes and their parallels to Big Bang-producing singularities.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of this is it’s entirely possible that all of these types of parallel universes exist. These theories are not incompatible: in fact, they are all part of the same framework, and will all likely be incorporated in the Theory of Everything that seeks to mathematically explain all of the laws of physics. There could be an infinity of infinities of infinities–of course, after the first “infinity,” none of the others make any real difference anyway.
And the most frustrating part is that we may never know if any of these types of parallel universes really exist. The lightspeed limit means we’ll never be able to see far enough from our own neighborhood to confirm or refute the existence of other Big Bangs.
If certain parallel universes turn out to have very particular physical properties, we may be able to deduce their existence from the results of particle collisions at the Large Hadron Collider–but it’s also entirely possible that they may exist and be undetectable to our technology.
The idea of parallel universes may seem preposterous and unnecessary–but then, so do many other theories of physics that have been confirmed as true through experimental results.
And this does throw an interesting light on the question of salvation through faith. An intelligent Creator or Universal consciousness may or may not exist. But if He/She/It does, it seems to have gone out of its way to keep us from guessing whether we live in a human-centric universe or an indifferent once, and whether we owe our existence to intelligent design or random chance.
What do you think?