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Further Reading

Feature

It's Beyond Us

Extraordinary Claims Need an Extraordinary Cosmos

by Regis Nicoll

Today the thoughtful scientist finds himself embroiled in an internal war between his devotion to naturalism and his realization that the universe is, as physicist Steven Weinberg put it, "one fine-tuning that seems to be extreme, far beyond what you could imagine just having to accept as a mere accident."1

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 41

To ease the conflict, a scientist in good standing begins with a bit of Sherlockian logic: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Then, by defining the "impossible" to include any divine influence, he concludes that the life-friendly conditions of our world are not improbable, but inevitable. As to how, well, he is free to spin out any explanation he likes, as long as it is free of the "impossible."

The latest explanation, trotted out by Columbia astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, is that an early, advanced, non-biological civilization "decided to tinker with the expansion" of the universe in a way that made it amenable to the evolution of biological life.2

Extraordinary Claims

In a critique of intelligent causation, the late Carl Sagan famously quipped, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." However, the extraordinary claims concocted by the science popularizer and his disciples lack any evidence, extraordinary or otherwise.

Sagan, along with mathematician and astronomer Fred Hoyle and DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, proposed that terrestrial life may have been seeded by extraterrestrials, either intentionally, by sowing, or accidentally, from cosmic pollution produced by their civilization. "Panspermia," they called it. Yet, despite probing the recesses of space for nearly sixty years in his quixotic Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Sagan failed to come up with any evidence of those cosmic sowers or their seeds.

Panspermiais a fringe scientific theory, but the multiverse theory has gone mainstream over the last couple of decades. Its proponents, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, assert that our cosmos is part of a "multiverse" that contains an infinite number of universes, ensuring that the intricate network of coincidences necessary for our existence will have been actualized. Accounts of how these universes came about rival anything imagined by H. G. Wells or Gene Roddenberry. Here are a few:

• Many-Worlds Theory

In 1957, Princeton's Hugh Everett III proposed the many-worlds theory. Many-worlds starts with a controversial interpretation of quantum theory in which sub-atomic particles continuously split into separate quantum states. Everett imagined that each split created a parallel universe in which particles existed as mirror images of themselves. The result is that every possible state of a particle is realized somewhere.

The problems with many-worlds are many, including where all of these parallel universes exist, how an entire universe can be created by an infinitesimal change in a particle's state, and the endless stream of universes created by every object in the cosmos at every moment in time. Taking many-worlds to its logical conclusion, cosmology consultant Marcus Chown quipped, "Elvis didn't die on that loo eating a burger but is still alive in an infinite number of places."3

• Chaotic Inflation

Rank-and-file scientists embrace less mystical models of the multiverse. For instance, in the early 2000s, Stanford cosmologist André Linde reasoned that the universe could have been created by an "inflationary"phenomenon. Through a set of mathematical gyrations, Linde showed that if there were a sudden fluctuation in a sub-atomic vacuum, it could become a "bubble" of intense energy ballooning into a whole universe.

Linde further mused that if the initial "bubble" quickly disintegrated into a constellation of bubbles (much like the fizz created in a shaken soda bottle) and if inflation is a continuing process (are you keeping track of the number of "coulds" and "ifs"?), then an infinite number of bubbles would be created, leading to an unending variety of universes. Luckily for us, we live in the one where life is possible.

While "chaotic inflation" resonates with many in the scientific community, its lack of empirical support has led to other proposals.

• Black Holes

As a star ages, the outward pressure from nuclear reactions decreases and the inward pull of gravity increases, compressing the stellar mass into a "black hole" that gobbles up everything in its immediate neighborhood. The voracious appetite of this cosmic gourmand produces a rip in spacetime—a cervical opening, if you will—that gives birth to a baby universe from its digested contents. Or so the story goes.

But despite its prediction by the theory of general relativity, black hole creation has a major problem. Unlike chaotic inflation, in which matter disappears over the microscopic time scales allowed by quantum uncertainty, black hole matter disappears over macroscopic time scales, violating the law of conservation. That problem eventually led Stephen Hawking, who had supported the theory for three decades, to recant: "I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if [mass and energy] is preserved [as required by the laws of physics], there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes."4

More Metaphysics than Physics

In essence, multiverse proponents assert that an infinite number of universes have to exist, because we're here. Their theory makes no predictions, has no technological cash value, and holds no promise for the betterment of man or the planet, all the while defying Occam's Razor, a cardinal principle of science which holds that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the correct one. Moreover, even ifanother universe did exist with its own unique set of physical parameters, it would be undetectable with instruments constrained by the distinctive parameters of our universe. In other words, the multiverse is unfalsifiable.

But there is too much at stake for naturalism to accept a single universe, because, as cosmologist Bernard Carr warned his peers, "If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner." In other words, "If you don't want God, you'd better have a multiverse."5

Thus Carr tipped the hand on the dirty little secret of modern cosmology: the object is not to follow the evidence wherever it leads, but to follow our wishes and boldly go where they lead, hoping it's so. And this from folks who are proud to say that, unlike believers in the Impossible, their beliefs are not based on faith or wish-fulfillment, but on hard evidence.

Those of sober mind will sense that there is more metaphysics than physics going on here. As science writer and journalist John Horgan notes, "Multiverse theories aren't theories, they're science fictions, theologies, works of the imagination unconstrained by evidence."6 Harsher criticism comes from a former proponent of multiverse theory, theoretical physicist Paul Steinhardt: "The key thing that distinguishes science from non-science is that scientific ideas have to be subject to tests. Some people are nowadays thinking, no, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case." But for him, Steinhardt says, unfalsifiable theories that can be made to fit any possible set of data are "deal-breakers."7

Other scientists, however, persist in favoring theories, no matter how flawed, that allow them to avoid the Impossible.

Virtual Worlds

One such theory holds that a universe like ours, containing over 100 billion galaxies with over 100 billion stars each, is certain to have many stars with habitable planets orbiting them, and some of these planets are bound to have advanced civilizations possessing the technological wherewithal to create universe-sized simulations, or "virtual worlds."

As such theorists have it, it is more probable that we are "artificial intelligences" in an ET's computer simulation than that we are intelligent beings in a world of matter and motion. Really.

For instance, Britain's royal astronomer Sir Martin Rees, alluding to the Wachowski brothers' film, suggests it is quite likely that we're "in the matrix rather than physics itself."8 Inventor-entrepreneur Elon Musk goes a step farther, putting the odds at a "billion to one."9 Yet, I wonder: when Rees and Musk come home at night after a long day at the office, are they warmed by the thought that their loved ones are avatars whose loving expressions merely follow the program of an ET gamer? I guess we'll never know.

To its credit, virtual worlds theory shares the one merit of panspermia: it presumes the need for intelligent causation to account for the informational complexity of the universe.

In another version of virtual worlds theory, our universe is not the "matrix" of an alien programmer, but a virtual universe created by quantum processes. According to supporters of this theory, virtual reality makes sense of a number of scientific phenomena that are conundrums in the real world—things like the flexibility of time, the bending of space, and quantum entanglement.

Whatever one thinks about virtual worlds, the theory reflects a notion that goes as far back as Plato, who was fond of calling the things of this world "shadows" (projections or virtual representations) of the real and true one.

Maybe modern theorists are on to more truth than they know. And that goes for a group of researchers in Canada.

From a Higher Dimension

With a pinch of theoretical physics and a heap of mathematical prestidigitation, a trio of scientists at Canada's Perimeter Institute believe that the universe isn't the product of a big, physics-defying bang; it is the three-dimensional "event horizon" of a black hole in a four-dimensional universe.10 What's more, a wave of their mathematical wand has revealed that the horizon (our cosmic home) is a hologram of its higher-dimensional "parent."

Hmm. An ancient narrative tells of a higher-dimensional Being in a hyperspatial realm who brings a three-dimensional world into existence, operates within it to sustain it, and interferes with its "natural" course of events on occasion.

If, as string theorists propose, a hyper-dimensional region is woven into our three-dimensional cosmos, that would account for how the Impossible could do the "impossible." Let me explain.

In hyperspace, things become more simple and interconnected, so what is difficult-to-impossible in lower dimensions is easy in higher ones. For example, imagine living on Platter Boulevard in a two-dimensional world with no height or depth, only length and width. Now imagine trying to enter a locked house without a key. As long as you're confined to a pancake existence, it's an impossible task. But if you could move in the third dimension (of height and depth), you could step effortlessly over (or under!) the door.

Also, one of the implications of relativity theory is that space and time form the warp and woof of the cosmological "fabric" known as spacetime. If we follow that insight a step farther and imagine a hyperspatial realm filling and interlocking with the interstitial spaces of that fabric, we can understand how an ultra-dimensional being could "violate" the inviolable laws of nature, and do so undetected.11

We could also understand how the material (3-D) body and the immaterial (ultra-dimensional) spirit could co-exist and co-operate to form the self, or "living soul," as that ancient narrative puts it, and how things like consciousness, thought, creativity, moral agency, will, shame, and guilt would not be reducible to neural impulses produced from chemicals triggered by external stimuli, but would be unsubstantial properties of the self that enable interaction with both the seen and unseen aspects of the world.

Last Best Hopes

For entrenched materialists, these theories are "last best hopes" for keeping the flames of the Enlightenment burning. In their view, the very notion that the Impossible could be true poses an existential threat to science that could hurl civilization into a new Dark Age of superstition, ignorance, and fear. But their worries are groundless.

Whatever the ultimate cause of our existence may be—whether God, the multiverse, or some cosmic evolutionary process—it has no effect on the scientific enterprise or on our ability to harness nature for our benefit. Advances in medical science do not depend on whether microevolution is a phenomenon of mud-to-man Darwinism or a process front-loaded into nature by an intelligent Designer. The discovery of the Higgs boson didn't hang on whether it was produced by a fluctuation of the quantum field or from a divine pronouncement. These things and more are there to be discovered and studied irrespective of their ultimate origin.

At the same time, our favored explanation will always be a matter of faith to some degree, because no matter how sound and robust our theory, there is no way of proving for once and for all that it is true. Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind admits as much: "One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution [to fine-tuning] will emerge is as faith-based as ID" (emphasis added).12

Indeed, when theories depend on "extraordinary claims" about fantastic quantum behavior, imaginary singular events, and principles defying known physical laws, and lack "extraordinary evidence," they can be sustained only by unwavering faith in naturalism. •


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