This is the nineteenth in the series The Case Against Physicalism. In this post we consider the fact that the universe began. There are few discoveries that have caused more consternation among dedicated physicalists than this simple but profound realization. Why does this still rile many and how do scientists propose to escape the obvious metaphysical implications of this discovery?
Carl Sagan memorably defined the universe as “all there is.” For much of human history, humans believed that the universe always was. Buddhism and other Indian religions suppose an eternal and infinite universe. The Abrahamic religions presented the idea of creation but, like other beliefs that featured a beginning, the Genesis account featured the idea of chaos from which order is generated. The Greek myth of origins began with this chaos and the power of light which created Gaia, or mother earth.
The scientific revolution beginning in the 17th century undermined the idea of a creation event suggesting instead that we live in a “steady state” universe. Einstein represented this view with a considerable degree of stubbornness even though his own theory undermined it and there were growing suggestions and ideas among scientists about the possibility or likelihood of a beginning well before Edwin Hubble.
Einstein’s theories of Special Relativity and General Relativity with his field equations suggested a dynamic or expanding universe. But, committed as he was to the idea of a steady state universe, he imposed a “cosmological constant” that provided an energy force to counteract the force of gravity needed to maintain the steady state. However, soon after Dutch physicist Willem DeSitter and then Russian physicist Aleksandr Friedman, using Einstein’s own field equations, showed that the universe was dynamic and expanding.
Einstein’s steady state dogma
Einstein refused to accept this. Vesto Slipher, an American astronomer showed that the Doppler effect would result in light arriving from receding stars would be redshifted, or have a lower wavelength than would be expected. A Belgian priest and physicist, Georges Lemaitre, used Friedman’s equations, Slipher’s redshifting calculations and early data from astronomer Edwin Hubble to propose that the universe was not static, but expanding. He suggested that the universe began with a primeval atom. He is called the father of the Big Bang.
Still, Einstein resisted. The idea of an expanding universe opened up a metaphysical can of worms. At the famous Solvay conference in Brussels in 1927 Einstein told Lemaitre:
“Your calculations are correct but your physical insight is abominable.”
Later he accused Lemaitre of allowing his Christian beliefs to get in the way of science. He claimed his primeval atom theory was:
“Inspired by the Christian dogma of creation and totally unjustified by the physical point of view.”
As it turned out, Einstein’s physicalist dogma prevented him from accepting the truth. But, being the brilliant man of science he was, only for a while.
Hubble, using the then largest telescope on Mount Wilson, near Pasadena, definitively proved the expansion of the universe through observation. He showed that observable galaxies were moving away from each other and this could be seen in the red shifting.
Einstein reluctantly agreed and the conclusion that the universe had a beginning was on its way to becoming scientific orthodoxy. The great scientist likely had concluded that the universe was not static and had a beginning before he visited Hubble in Pasadena. In 1931 Einstein sat in Hubble’s wooden chair peering into the telescope and was photographed with Hubble on the bridge to the observatory.
Many years later, we were visiting Pasadena as we did frequently. My brother-in-law was with me and we went up to the observatory. I told him: “this is where creation was discovered.” He looked at me as if I was talking nonsense.
An expanding universe could only mean one thing. Run the time backwards and it would be collapsed into some sort of tiny beginning as Lemaitre suggested. This was abhorrent to committed atheists and physicalists such as Fred Hoyle, who is credited with coining the term “Big Bang.” It is often said he called it that in an effort to discredit it, but Hoyle claims the idea just needed a more memorable identity. Hoyle went on to pose various means of saving the idea of a static universe, but all failed. Interestingly, it was also Hoyle who developed some of the critical proofs for the fine-tuning of the universe for life. Fine-tuning, with its near impossible coincidences, led the atheist to declare it appeared the universe was a “put up job.”
Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose are credited with developing Lemaitre’s idea of a primeval atom into the established view of the singularity. As a black hole necessitated the emergence of a singularity where the laws of physics must collapse, so the big bang required a singularity with all that the universe contains collapsed into essentially nothing and where the laws of physics do not obtain.
It is no great stretch for someone taking the biblical account of Genesis seriously to see in this singularity and the resulting emergence of everything from it as the creation event. The idea of inflation introduced by Alan Guth in 1981 further supports this image. Cosmologists were struggling with several issues that needed explanation, such as why the universe is flat and why energy in the early universe was distributed uniformly. Guth proposed inflation, a gigantic and near instantaneous leap from near nothingness to space, time, matter and energy suddenly becoming gargantuan. To do this, all matter and energy had to expand at a billion times the speed of light. Guth proposed that a supercooled condition would be the trigger, but this required extreme fine-tuning of the parameters required. Fine-tuning suggests someone moving the dials to remarkable precision, and Guth much preferred a natural solution.
Many scientists today see in the eternal inflation model developed by Guth, Andrei Linde, Andreas Albrecht and Paul J. Steinhardt to be the best answer for how the universe got started. In this model, inflation at the unimaginable rate mentioned above ends up slowing as it converts from a false vacuum to true. It goes from a supercooled condition to the super hot explosion of the big bang as previously understood. But, inflation is eternal which means it keeps on going and the slowing and heating end up creating an endless series of pocket or bubble universes.
As those supporting the idea of a creation event emerging from outside of time and space found much to cheer in the idea of the big bang and the singularity, so physicalists rejoiced in the eternal inflation model. For two very big reasons: it defeated the idea of beginning as “eternal” inflation meant it was always going on and always will. With this we are back to a steady state universe if we include all bubble universes in it. It also supported the idea of the multiverse which was essential to answering the question of how chance versus design could explain the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe for life.
For many physicalists, that is likely where they would like the issue of the origin of the universe to be left: steady state with a process that creates endless new universes in a fantastically powerful process operating far, far beyond the limits of our typical physical laws such as the speed limit of light.
But, there are some problems that won’t go away.
First, even these conditions require a far greater level of fine-tuning. Second, later analysis showed that eternal inflation cannot evade the requirement of a beginning. Third, physical science is positing a solution to problems of physical science that will forever evade science as it is, or at last as it has been, understood. Finally, the philosophical belief in the multiverse does away with science itself.
No avoiding fine-tuning
As for the first problem, the fine-tuning necessary for inflation, the Wikipedia entry explains the problem simply. Paul Steinhardt was one of the creators of the eternal inflation model although Andrei Linde wrote the paper based on his and the ideas of Steinhardt and Albrecht. Steinhardt later saw some real problems with the theory:
“In analyzing the Planck Satellite data from 2013, Anna Ijjas and Paul Steinhardt showed that the simplest textbook inflationary models were eliminated and that the remaining models require exponentially more tuned starting conditions, more parameters to be adjusted, and less inflation. Later Planck observations reported in 2015 confirmed these conclusions.”
Fine-tuning for life, as we saw earlier, either requires a designer or an immense (I mean immense immense) number of chances to land on the right numbers. Paul Davies has noted that just one factor of many in the fine-tuning of our particular universe for life required the equivalent of 400 consecutive flips of a non-trick coin to land heads. Those long odds can only be explained by intention or by infinite chance, which is why the multiverse with varying laws of nature is such a popular idea among physicalists even though the numbers stretch even the greatest imaginations. But, if inflation requires an even much greater degree of fine-tuning then it does nothing to do away with the big question of design or chance. If inflation creating bubble universes is used to somehow answer the problem of fine-tuning for life, Bruce Gordon, Canadian philosopher of science, commented it was like:
“Digging the Grand Canyon to fill a pothole.”
Many have believed string theory, or M theory as the newer versions are referred to, provide some answer to the fine-tuning problem. This theory has proven attractive because of its very complex but “beautiful” mathematics, but also because it mandates a multiverse. But, it suffers from the same problems as inflation: it requires even more fine tuning, it leads to more scientifically challenging requirements such as multiple inaccessible dimensions and the multiverse, and because of that leads to the same ultimate challenges to rational thought and science.
The credited creator of string theory and atheistic/physicalist promoter Leonard Susskind said in a New Scientist article in 2005:
“If, for some unforeseen reason “the [string] landscape turns out to be inconsistent — maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation,” [then] “as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature’s fine tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [intelligent design] critics.”
As string theory seems to be losing adherents, one wonders when Susskind will admit he and fellow physicalists are in the awkward position he predicted.
No avoiding a beginning
The second reason is that according to the Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem, all models of the universe including inflation, the multiverse and oscillating or cosmic egg models, cannot evade the necessity of a beginning. As Stephen Meyer in his 2021 book Return of the God Hypothesis explains:
“Consequently, Vilenkin argues that evidence for a beginning is now almost unavoidable. As he explains, “With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape; they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” Since our universe is expanding and the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem does not depend upon any energy conditions, the theorem has reinforced one of the main conclusions of the original Hawking-Penrose-Ellis result (i.e., that the universe had a temporal beginning), albeit on different theoretical grounds.”
In short, Alan Guth, a founder of inflation, participates in undermining the hope that physicalists express that inflation ends the problem of beginnings.
Beyond the definition of science
The third reason is that inflation is understood to require the creation of an infinite or near infinite number of universes — the megaverse. Paul Steinhardt is one of a great many scientists and philosophers who point out that such an idea evades science as currently understood:
“Although some cosmologists would later come to embrace the multiverse, Steinhardt consistently expressed his concern that it utterly destroys the predictive power of the theory he helped create. Because the inflationary theory leads to a multiverse that allows for every possible outcome, Steinhardt argued, we must conclude that the inflationary theory actually predicts nothing.”
Despite this concern, Linde and Guth both hold to the theory and suggest that, though very slim, there is a chance that the multiverse is not a requirement of the inflation theory.
Before responding to the last concern which is how science is undermined by the idea of the multiverse, readers may think: what about Stephen Hawking. The remarkable scientific achievements and the captivating pathos of his physical condition have been well documented. I’ve also pointed out that Hawking was an outspoken philosopher who used (abused) his elevated position as a science celebrity to issue philosophical statements he said were scientific statements. He said “philosophy” is dead, but his books showed that he considered philosophical ideas divergent from his own to be dead.
Quantum cosmology and the creative power of laws
If there is a view among the non-science public that science has proven that God is not necessary to answer the questions of origins of the universe, it may be at least in part because of Hawking’s two best selling books: A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design written with Leonard Mlodinow. In the first he wrote:
“So long as the universe had a beginning, we would suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end; it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”
Then he went on to show how the universe could be seen to have no boundary or edge, a round bottom instead of a point-like singularity, and if so there was no real beginning just as there is no beginning on a perfectly round sphere. The problem was, Hawking had to insert something called “imaginary time” to support the mathematics describing this no boundary universe. He admitted that imaginary time wasn’t real, it was merely a mathematical construct that had no connection to reality:
“When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities. . . . Only if [we] lived in imaginary time would [we] encounter no singularities. . . . In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science break down.”
The problem is that Hawking spent a lot of time expounding on his imaginary time idea all the while suggesting that it did away with the necessity of a beginning. These ideas seem to have gotten a lot more attention and dedication than his simple admission that this has no bearing on reality.
Hawking, Krauss and others have used the ideas of quantum cosmology to promote a universe without needing a creator. Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing makes that clear. A more in-depth evaluation of this may make a new post in this series. For now, we will look at statements by Hawking and Krauss that raise some philosophical questions:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
“The laws themselves require our universe to come into existence, to develop and evolve.”
It was fellow atheist and physicalist promoter Victor Stenger who said the laws of nature are man-made constructs. This he said to avoid the question of where and how those laws mysteriously appeared at the beginning. But, then Hawking or Krauss are crediting the creation of those laws, generally starting with Newton, for the emergence of the universe about 13.8 billion years before that. That makes man the creator.
More fundamental is understanding the difference between laws and cause. Take Newton watching the apple fall from the tree. He observed a relationship between matter and the force of gravity and formulated a law of gravity. He described that law in strict mathematical form. Does that mean Newton’s math caused the apple to fall from the tree? Isn’t it more appropriate to say the law explained why the apple fell from the tree?
To appeal to laws as cause is to confuse categories. Mathematics may show how mass is necessary in the force of gravity and may demonstrate the dark matter and energy must necessarily exist, but the laws described by mathematics do not in themselves cause gravity. Unless with Max Tegmark, you make mathematics the fundamental reality. Laws explain what we observe, they do not cause what we observe to happen.
Can rational thinking — and science — survive?
Returning to the questions of the multiverse, this solution runs into an even more severe problem: how can science exist in a multiverse dependent on physicalism?
As well explained by numerous physicalists scientists writing popular philosophy, everything that exists or will exist happens through the accidental and purposeless interactions of matter and forces that control them. As Paul Steinhardt pointed out, when any outcome is not only possible but required, science is impossible.
Our brains in the physicalist system are random assemblages of particles brought together according to the laws of physics but without intention, design, purpose or meaning. I’ve explored the implications of this in previous posts including the reality of Boltzmann brains. In brief, your brain with all its memories, consciousness, and totally unique patterns of brain activity that make you who you are is absolutely certain to reappear over and over in the grand history of the universe even if the multiverse doesn’t exist. Numerous scientists and philosophers have noted this and explored its uncomfortable consequence. One of those was Darwin, but another was British biologist J.B.S. Haldane who in Possible Worlds and Other Essays said:
“If mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I [would] have no reason to suppose my beliefs are true . . . and hence no reason for supposing my brain to be made of atoms.”
But the attempt at answering the fine-tuning for life problem and the problem of the beginning of spacetime in a creation event have led to an equally perplexing problem. The heavily promoted and now relatively common idea of the multiverse has a big problem. Note that this concept was derived from three different sources: to evade the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, as a result of eternal inflation, and as a requirement of string theory. All appear to posit the very counter-intuitive idea that because of this, everything that can happen does happen. Period. These ideas also require that laws of physics will vary, possibly considerably from universe to universe. Other ideas, such as Tegmark’s “mathematical reality is physical reality” suggests that there is no certainty to the laws of physics even within our own universe.
What happens to science if the laws of physics are not stable and do not reliably describe what happens. What happens when every theory, no matter how cockeyed, is proven true in at least one of an infinity of universes? Many have pointed out that the scientific revolution in the Western world was a consequence of the theological idea of a creator God who established laws that would enable the universe to operate. When Kepler, Newton and the others drew conclusions about how things really worked, they did so from the basic understanding of reliability.
If anything that can happen does, and that means anything by an infinitude of exotic laws, how does science work? Does the multiverse then mean the end of science? It may be one reason why many scientists are finding such ideas unacceptable.
A beginning is the conclusion
It appears difficult to escape the conclusion of a beginning. Before there was nothing. Nothing in the universe and no universe. Then, there was something, a whole lot of something, including finally us who spend a lot of time and brain cells trying to figure this stuff out. Despite innovative attempts to evade that conclusion, it appears to stand more solid than ever.
I’ll conclude this with a quotation by an Oxford philosopher and another by a Russian writer:
“It is the height of irrationality to postulate an infinite number of universes never causally connected with each other, merely to avoid the hypothesis of theism. Given that . . . a theory is simpler the fewer entities it postulates, it is far simpler to postulate one God than an infinite number of universes, each differing from each other.”
“But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.”