This blog is concludes the blog Outside an Infinite Universe? These blogs are basically my reflection on and response to Janna Levin’s HOW THE UNIVERSE GOT ITS SPOTS . Obviously I don’t read her book as a scientist would, but I am interested in what science has learned about the beginnings of the universe.
“Quantum mechanics requires the profound state of not-being: the electron does not exist at a precise location in space with a precise energy. Rather, there is some probability for the electron to be here or there but no definite meaning to where it is. . . . The quantum mechanical interpretation is more dramatic than that. The electron does not have a precise location and a precise speed until, we, the observer, measure it.” (pp 63-64)
While science argues for an objective reality that can be measured and tested, quantum mechanics has challenged the thinking about what that means. And it has recognized that the observer of the empirical, at the level of quantum mechanics at least, affects what happens and what exists. At a certain level the ‘stuff’ of the universe behaves both like a wave and a particle, and what is observed about its existence is dependent on the observer. Reality is connected to the observer, as the new theories and discoveries in physics have shown. It requires an observer and only exists when observed.
“This wave-particle duality is the first blow to our grasp on the idea of a reality that is independent of the observer. . . . Reality, at least in some aspects, seems to depend on the observer.” (p 62)
Without an observer reality doesn’t exist! And this is something theists would accept: things like truth, joy, love and beauty are all dependent on the existence of observers. Science itself exists only because we exist to observe, record, test what is. Truth itself is dependent on there being observers to note it. And truth is part of meaning for we the observers also assign meaning to truth. And if reality only exists if there is an observer, again for theists it offers support for the idea of the existence of God. Long before there were any human observers the universe existed and became the platform for the existence of humans. Its historical existence is recorded in the microwave background noise of the universe. Yet could it exist without an observer?
Even after the existence of life on earth, it took a long time before we began to consciously observe the universe, especially on the quantum level. And yet the universe existed – perhaps playing out the existence as observed by God and thus influenced by God. If there was no observer of the quantum universe, should it not have remained in an indeterminate state? It didn’t. So was there some observer outside the quantum universe whose observation was affecting the universe? Theists would say, yes, there was God who created the universe, and didn’t only observe it, but loved it, interacting with it and affecting is development. Part of the effect of God’s observation of the quantum universe was the creation of humans who like God consciously observed the universe as well. From the Christian perspective, we learn of this in Genesis 1:27-28 –
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
It is perhaps another way to understand the Anthropic Principle. God, the observer of the universe, whose very observations affect the nature of that universe, causes other conscious observers to come into existence in order to share this life of observing and interacting with creation in order to effect its continued development. This is a way for theists to read both science and scripture and make sense of them both.
The emergence of quantum mechanics has challenged some of the long standing assumptions of science including undermining the philosophical assumption of determinism. Determinism basically has it that the universe is an endless series of cause and effects mindlessly working themselves out following the laws of physics. It was a notion that became entrenched in philosophy after the time of Isaac Newton (d. 1727AD). It resulted in many educated people abandoning theism in favor of deism and accepting the notion that the universe like a great mechanical clock was simply winding down according to mechanical principles. Really no deity and no humans were needed as all that existed was nothing more than cogs playing their predetermined parts following cause and effect. Levin points out that quantum mechanics has challenged not only science but philosophical determinism as well. [And though I haven’t studied this, I wonder if there is not a historical connection between John Calvin’s (d. 1564AD) embrace of predestination and the Newtonian determinism.]
“With calculus we can understand in equations how dynamic systems evolve with time. This formalizes determinism. Put in an initial condition and we can follow the equation to an inevitable, precise outcome.
The universal nature of Newton’s insights entrenched the notion of determinism in natural philosophy. The deterministic nature of cause and effect became central to other branches of philosophy and has had obvious influence on our modern cultural outlook. Determinism and causality are weakened by quantum theory, which, through poorly understood, nonetheless works.” (p 25)
Of course people like me think quantum mechanics in undermining determinism gives support to the theology of theism and to the notion of free will. But in what for me was the greatest challenge to my thinking, Levin says, “not so!”
“People used to try to hijack quantum mechanics and its inherent mystery to cast a cloud around determinism, in the hope that free will could survive modern physics. But that never worked very well. Since when does random chance equal free will? The only salvation for volition is a soul and faith and your’re not allowed to ask me about that.” (p 26)
Here is an issue where physics and theism may be most irreconcilable. Determinism says everything is fixed and you can’t change it – cause and effect is simply playing itself out in mathematical precision. Levin as we see in the quote below does allow moments of doubt to enter her thoughts on volition. But basically as she portrays the universe there are only two possibilities – determinism in which cause and effect is the only power at play or random chance. In both cases basically all atoms are just moving in predetermined ways; the only difference being whether the determined movements is random or patterned.
My thinking is not limited by theoretical physics, as I can imagine another way – that of conscious choice. If the observer in fact determines reality on the quantum level, so the interaction of the observer with the empirical world would seem to allow for changes that are not following a pre-patterned and which aren’t random but are the effects of the observer. And since I do accept the notion of consciousness, I think we as observers are not just passive but are interacting with the universe around us and thus can affect outcomes. The challenge is what it means that an observer determines reality. We apparently do change how things behave or happen. Levin does puzzle over this.
“I watch a man choose produce from the farmer’s stand, the dimpled orange between his ashen fingers. I’m watching him choose. Is he exercising free will, his freedom of choice?
He catches me watching and offers a warm spark of white off his watery eyes and a smile he’s worn for maybe seventy years. Is it really possible that his choice of the orange is an inevitable consequence of determinism? I choose to pick up the red apple. To put it down. Quantum mechanics says no, the entire universe is not just an intricate pinball machine set into motion with predetermined, inevitable outcomes. Quantum mechanics says there are only probable outcomes. But does this really give me volition? I don’t know of any easy way to mesh ambiguity and uncertainty into a profound definition of self-determinism. If this life were to repeat over and over again, there would be some finite probability of my making a different set of choices, not out of wisdom or free will, but from sheer chance. Chance is not choice. Which am I going to do now? Pick up the apple? Put it down? I feel as though I have choice. If free will is an illusion, it is a convincing illusion.” (pp 68-69)
What of course has been observed in the world is that conscious choices by humans have had an effect on evolution on this planet – of ourselves and other living creatures. And though most evolutionary scientists still hold to philosophical determinism, some have come to recognize that consciousness itself cannot be denied, nor its impact on evolution. No longer are humans simply the victims of deterministic evolution, for through medicine and technology, humans have actively effected if not taken control of their own evolution (see for example the work of two scientists, Michael S. Gazzaniga’s WHO’S IN CHARGE?: FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’ APING MANKIND: NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY).
What Levin says is a convincing illusion, other scientists are acknowledging is a reality which the rest of science must take into account if it wants to deal with the entire universe. A theory of everything limits itself to a theory of the empirical universe and does not fully explain consciousness, free will or conscience. It will simply tie together empirical things by reducing them to the inanimate but ignoring that inanimate things do come together to form the animate, and that consciousness is not located in the tiniest of things broken down to their smallest parts, but occurs in organic wholes. Consciousness and free will are the properties of organisms, which mysteriously interact with the universe on a level not controlled by quantum things, but of which the quantum are part. For the theistic believer, there is another level, that of God in whom we live and move and have our being which also cannot be explained by quantum mechanics nor even by astrophysics.
Levin wonders whether a universe made up of finite ‘things’ and in which there are no examples in nature of infinite things could in fact be infinite. Probably in Orthodox there is a somewhat opposite theological question, but it I think addresses the same mystery: How can the uncontainable God be contained in the womb of the Theotokos? The exact connection and interface between the infinite and finite, between the eternal the temporal, between who/what is ‘outside’ the universe and the empirical universe which is the only universe we can know, remains a mystery. In Orthodox theology it is addressed through the incarnation. In physics it is now being looked at by theoretical astrophysicists who are attempting to peer as far into the universe as is possible (in space and in time).
Whether the universe is infinite or not is a question Levin wrestles with. Since spacetime is curved, one thought is that a finite universe should eventually wrap around itself so that something sent off in one direction in the universe should eventually appear at the ‘opposite’ end as it curves its way back to the sender. The claim is that the universe is expanding, so there is a question if the universe is expanding, how can it be infinite? Levin discusses there are different levels of infinite. For me the notion of the universe expanding isn’t answer by asking, “expanding into what?”, for there is no ‘what’ beyond the universe. My understanding of space is similar to my understanding of time – time is marching on, but time isn’t moving into something that already exists, but the future is being created as time moves on and becomes the present. The future doesn’t already exist and we just move into it (that might be the imagery if in fact determinism is true). Rather, as events are working themselves out, time is expanding, like the universe. There is nothing beyond “now” so time is expanding as the universe itself expands. But that also tells me there is an edge to spacetime, so the universe is ‘limited’ by its expanding edge. There is nothing beyond that edge, yet we may never be able to ‘see’ that edge or understand it. It will always remain beyond our ability to reach it. That space and time can expand ‘finitely’ is possible only because in fact there is another reality beyond space and time, namely that of God who is not contained by or limited to the empirical universe.