I have a curiosity about certain scientific topics. But I’m not a scientist, and so I read science mostly at a popular level, things like the magazine, DISCOVER: SCIENCE FOR THE CURIOUS. These are not peer reviewed scientific articles, so the scientist may only pay scant attention to these articles, even if they are written by scientists for the curious.
One issue which I think is related to both theology and science is the issue of time. Certainly at one point even scientists imagined time was a fixed value, and Western thinkers imagine time as marching on in a progression from past to present to future (if one pays attention in Orthodox liturgy and to certain writings of the Orthodox, one will note the Eastern Christians do not hold to a strictly linear understanding of time, especially once the eternal God enters into time through the incarnation!). Albert Einstein changed the thinking on time and how time (or the experience of it) is understood as being relative to one’s position in the universe. Einstein and many scientists think of time as being an illusion with the future being fully set with no difference between the past and the future. This thinking is very contrary to what theists understand about the universe which is unfolding as God wills, changed by God’s will and also by human choice. Avowed atheists hold solidly to a notion that there is no free will, no consciousness and thus believe everything is simply an effect of past cause unfolding in mindless predetermination.
So it was interesting to read in the June Issue of Discover an article about one cosmologist, George Ellis, who disagrees with Einstein. And though the ideas of Ellis have not garnered much support in the scientific world, still he is a scientist attempting to offer a scientific alternative to what is considered dogma for most physicists. The article, titled Tomorrow Never Was, written by Zeeya Merali.
Ellis is troubled by the implications of Einstein’s theory, for if the past and future are no different, but everything is already set, then humans have no free will and there is no reason to hold people accountable for their behavior since all things and all actions are fixed by what came before them. Ellis’ questions are the questions that any theist has to wrestle with. Ellis questions Einstein because of these philosophical implications.
“If we are just machines living out a future that has already been set, then Adolf Hitler had no choice to do other than what he did; Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had no choice,” Ellis says. It would be meaningless to tell them they were doing something wrong, he adds. “To me, that’s an untenable view of the world that will lead to great evil because people will just stand by as evil takes place.”
Ellis’ questions about Einstein’s theory are philosophical and ethical – looking at the question as to what it means to be human, something many scientists do not think to be mere speculation but not science. However, his questions are also based in physics, for scientists have known for a long time that general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible. These problems have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments. Those scientific problems have not led to an abandonment of Einstein’s theory by scientists, but pose a challenge to be solved. Ellis sees the problem as perhaps a reason to rethink Einstein on the philosophical and moral levels as well as on the scientific level.
Of course having one cosmologist thinking outside the box does not mean that he is correct and the rest of the theory is wrong, any more than finding one theologian who abandons Orthodoxy in favor of a novel idea makes the new idea correct. But Ellis’ ideas do give theists and the curious a chance to reflect on whether perhaps the universe Einstein describes in his theories is perhaps not exactly correct either. Of course many mainstream physicists still see ideas of free will or a God as belonging to an archaic way of thinking which is no longer supported by scientific fact, mathematics or scientific theory.
As best as I can make sense of the universe and time, the universe is believed to be expanding. Some question what the edge of the universe could mean. Is the universe spreading into something that exists outside the universe? Many think the universe is simply creating space as it expands – there truly is nothing beyond the universe but the universe is growing in size. It seems to me the same concept applies to time. The future does not exist, but time and space do exist and they do expand. Time is expanding, creating new time, as it does so. The future is not fixed, but the actions within the existing universe shape the future. In their expansion, space/time are pushing the outer edges which are simultaneously creating more space and more time. Space and time work in the same way in their expansion.
Ellis attempts to explain the evolving universe in quantum terms to show how the future is not in fact the same as the past and is not fixed.
He contends that at the front edge of his evolving block universe, the uncertain future crystallizes into the past through a sequence of microscopic quantum events. At each event, particles are forced to transform from their original uncertain quantum state — where they juggle multiple conflicting identities — and settle into one rigid identity. As adjacent particles go through this process, a wave of certainty converts the open future to the closed past.
His scientific peers think Ellis is far from proving his ideas. Ellis contends since observers in fact influence or alter events on the quantum level that shows that time is not fixed as Einstein envisioned it. His critics object
“that vast swaths of the universe are devoid of people to observe quantum processes, which physicists traditionally say is what triggers particles to transform from their uncertain superpositions into defined states. So who or what is observing these quantum particles and forcing them to change their nature?
Ellis counters that quantum collapse can occur without a conscious observer, whenever particles collide with each other, knocking each other out of their uncertain states. This idea, called decoherence, is already gaining popularity (independently) among physicists.”
Believers of course would offer that the entire universe if always being observed by God and so quantum events can occur without human observers. The God solution would never be acceptable to scientific materialists.
At least in the article, Ellis does not bring God into the equation but continues to try to show from science why time is real, not just an illusion, and why it matters what we do and who we are.