Friday, 14 October 2016

Unicorn multiverse, a more rational multiverse and Occam's razor

I grew up in a rational world of cause and effect in which the only supernatural events were those attributable to our Creator, e.g. the Resurrection of Christ and the creation by God of the universe from existential nothingness.

Also, everyone I knew  adhered to the Oxford English dictionary definition of the universe:
All existing things; the whole creation; the cosmos 

Since the confirmation of the Big Bang model for the origin of the universe there have been attempts to skate around the conclusion that every single entity in creation, from a quark to a human being, ultimately originates with an uncaused first cause – God. In this sense everything is spiritual or supernatural. Nobody can pretend that anything is truly secular.  Moreover, this God has made us in God’s image,  having concepts of love, justice, truth and beauty regardless of gender, physical appearance, health, sexual preference, intelligence, race or creed. 

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It has also become established that the probability of morally aware, truth seeking sentient beings like us emerging out of nothingness is zero without invoking a Creator with the properties of personhood. This follows from the unimaginable degree of fine tuning of the physical constants, initial entropy conditions and much else to allow life of any kind to exist anywhere in the universe.  For human civilisation to emerge there are innumerable extra conditions, such as protection from cosmic rays, the availability of the minerals for technology, visibility of an ordered firmament, fertile soil and a freely available abundance of water in liquid form. It all had to be done by an act of will which also imbued humans with the imago dei.

For some obscure reason (the italics are to vent my exasperation)  certain people, including some who purport to base their life on logic and reason, refuse to accept this state of affairs. Instead they have resorted to desperate hypotheses, the most well known of which is the multiverse.

 The implication is, if you can’t stomach living in one universe having a Creator who has made one universe tailored to  achieve the birth of humanity (it is now beyond reasonable doubt that our universe had to be precisely the size and structure it is for humanity, and any other sentient moral beings, to exist) then why not imagine there are an infinite number of eternal universes of which we happen to be one?  That removes the need for  a God since the whole ensemble of universes is eternal, i.e. self existing and having no beginning. And we don’t have to worry about relating to or praising or satisfying or understanding any deity.

Quite apart from the infinite multiverse concept being wholly against the foundation on which the exponential growth of peer reviewed science rests this leads to absurd conclusions, i.e it is invalidated  by reductio ad absurdum.

For example, the unicorn. 

It is necessary to be clear on just what infinity means. The OED defines ‘infinite’ as greater than any assignable quantity or countable number. This means greater than any number or quantity you can imagine. It means that you can multiply infinity by itself an infinite number of times and the result is still infinity, since both results fit the definition. It is also defined mathematically as any number divided by zero.Infinity divided by infinity is meaningless.

To dispense with God (again, why in the name of God would you want to dispense with God and reduce reality to a meaningless conglomerate of energy configurations with epiphenomena giving the illusion of consciousness and meaning?) you also have to invoke eternity, which is infinity applied to time.  An eternal infinite array of ‘universes’ would have to have existed forever, otherwise you would have to invoke a Creator to start the whole show and, heaven forbid, you would then have to try to understand this God.Even if it did last forever it would still be necessary to  explain why it existed at all.

It is not surprising that the use of the words ‘infinite’ and ‘eternal’ to describe reality is going to lead to bizarre and unscientific conclusions.  Applied to a hypothetical ‘multiverse’ it means that any conceivable event or being or set of laws can occur at any time in any place without anyone having to explain it. If one accepts the multiverse fantasy unicorns would be inevitable, along with anything you care to imagine, from Santa Claus to a flat earth.

 Every conceivable thing happens and it happens an infinite number of times. There are an infinite number of yous who have lived identical lives an infinite number of times in an infinite number of universes and this will continue for eternity. There are also an infinite number of yous with one extra atom, and an infinite number with two extra atoms, etc. etc. ad infinitum. There are also an infinite number of different worlds in which the concept of an infinite multiverse does not exist.

Even if we cheat and accept that our own universe started at the observed point 13.8 billion years ago, if we regard this as a purely random spontaneous irrational godless creation out of 'nothingness' (the term is sometimes incorrectly used to denote the energy filled quantum vacuum) then anything goes; there are no constraints. If a whole universe can come out of nothing, so can a unicorn. Even within our own universe the laws could break down at any point, say in the place you are now sitting, and so permit crazy things to happen without need of explanation - unicorns, vampires, tooth fairies  or anything you care to imagine can happen if you bring in inifinity.

Not surprisingly, if the whole ensemble of universes is eternal it does not obey the second law of thermodynamics because it would by now have decayed into total disorder.

The whole idea is an offense against the cherished foundational principle of Ockham's Razor (after William of Ockham, a priest, philosopher and scientist, 1285-1349. It is also spelt 'Occam'.) . This states that 'entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity' (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy). In formulating a new scientific theory always look for the simplest explanation. Western science has advanced since the Christian universities were set up in medieval England and Europe by sticking to this principle. The infinite eternal multiverse violates this principle.

There  are more rational concepts of a 'multiverse' which really mean one universe with parts that are separated and which could conceivably interact in some way. They are finite in time and space and must have been created, being regimes of the same universe with the same laws as the one we know. They only need to be invoked if we find aspects of our observable universe which could be powerfully explained by assuming such additional regimes. For example, one could postulate that  the Big Bang singularity generated more than one expanding pocket of space-time during the initial inflation stage. It would necessitate invoking extra dimensions beyond the space-time realm in which we live our material lives and construct our scientific theories.

If we are to continue sticking to the Ockham's razor principle we should be looking at our universe as imaginatively and creatively as possible. There is plenty in the real universe to explore and stretch our minds: over 95% of it is either dark energy or dark matter, the Standard Model of elementary particles  is incomplete, quantum phenomena seem beyond reductionist physics, consciousness has been shown beyond reasonable doubt to exist beyond the body, no testable theory of biological evolution exists and life has not even been defined. No doubt some powerful theories will be revealed to us and these may allow undreamed of technology when applied.

If you want to believe in an eternal, infinite ensemble of universes (i.e. return to an ancient, pre-Christian view of reality) rather than a rational loving Creator and just the one magnificent tailor-made universe you live in, no one can stop you. But please do not claim it is rational.

 See also
Hold onto the truth

John Sears, author
2077: Knights of Peace.

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Thursday, 6 October 2016

Hold on to the Truth, not the Theory of Everything

While there is life there is hope...
The film Theory of Everything sounds as though it was inspirational. It ought to be since Hawking is admirable for his will power in overcoming the limitations of his illness and using his powerful, creative mind to explore the limits of human knowledge. However, one has to bear in mind that a human being can only go so far. Recent science and philosophy shows that a real theory of everything is untenable - mainly because the 'everything' that such a theory would need to describe would include itself - a logical impossibility.  

I understand that Hawking himself has come to accept this since writing A Brief History of Time. Having abandoned this quest he seems to have become less than rational in his understanding of reality, as I hope to demonstrate below. He is not alone and I contend that the approaches of some theoreticians to the limits we are now coming across in trying to explain properties of the cosmos like fine tuning for life and the emergence of space-time (Big Bang) from existential nothingness are bizarre and unscientific, and arise from an understandable but needless fear of resorting to a god of the gaps.

Science is precious not only as a voyage of discovery but as the source of the prosperity of western civilisation through engineering, agriculture, transport, hygiene, and medicine, and more recently of other parts of the world which have followed its methods. But it needs guarding.

Recently I read a timely criticism of the way science is reported in the popular press and interpreted by society at large (Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre). The cover blurb lists scaremongering journalists, pill pushing nutritionists, flaky statistics and evil pharmaceutical corporations.  Most of these distortions of objective truth come from outside the scientific establishment, threatening it with commercial or grant-related pressures.

Yet there is another enemy of academic research, in my view more insidious. It comes from the academics themselves.

In the 14th century the priest William of Occam proposed a concept which has been religiously followed by scientists to this day and is a cornerstone on which the exponential ascent of Western science has been built: Occam’s razor : a new scientific theory should explain the greatest number of phenomena for the least number of assumptions.  A theory which satisfies this criterion and which can be experimentally verified is deemed one step closer to an objective truth for which scientists strive, knowing that they will never reach it, but that what counts is the constant search for it.

There has also been a belief in the sacredness of truth. Professor James Lovelock, who professes not to be a religious man, recently referred to it as the ‘Holy Ghost’ of truth. In a BBC Beautiful Minds documentary Lovelock related how a prominent neo-Darwinist (Richard Dawkins) had bullied the editor of Nature into suppressing Lovelock's now widely acclaimed ideas on earth systems science, later known as Gaia. In March 1995 Dawkins also purportedly pressurised the editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement into not publishing a commissioned article, already trailored to appear in the next edition, since it attacked neo-Darwinism. See the Open Society and its Enemies. Such practices risk turning the foundation of science into sand and undermining the  power of peer reviewed academic publishing.

At the time the Big Bang theory of cosmology was first proposed Fred Hoyle (a leading astrophysicist and cosmologist at the time) opposed it in the face of mounting evidence, simply because he thought it implied the existence of a Creator. Instead he proposed a steady state model in which the universe was eternal and atoms just spontaneously appeared in the vacuum. A definite case of letting one's beliefs get in the way of truth. (Hoyle later appeared  to abandon atheism and concluded that the universe had a mind.)

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010) is a well written guided tour of modern elementary particle physics and cosmology which I found absorbing, if taxing in parts. I can certainly recommend this as a way of updating one’s understanding.

However, it resorts to post modern metaphysics, namely the abandonment of objective reality, the basis on which physics, chemistry, biology and engineering is built:

'Though realism may be a tempting viewpoint, as we'll see later, what we know about modern physics makes it a difficult one to defend.'

[22% through the book on my  old iPhone Kindle app]

Even special relativity theory acknowledges an objective reality and works out by mathematics (the Lorentz transformations)  how time, space and mass will seem to observers moving at different relative speeds. All its equations are verified by experiment. Quantum phenomena are difficult to pin down and very odd; e.g. in the famous double-slit experiment a pattern appears on a screen hit by particles according to whether one determines or does not determine the paths by which they arrive (NB: the experiment is so designed that measuring the path does not physically disturb the particle). This is no basis for abandoning belief in an objective reality: the challenge is to modify our models of reality, i.e. get a bit closer to the ultimate reality,  until we get some powerful model which incorporates those happenings which at present do not appear to make sense. Lightning did not make sense before the concept of electricity was devised and if you have ever had an electric shock you will know that the concept of electricity corresponds to something real.

Instead, Hawking (who other physicists disagree with)   throws out objective reality, adopts unsound mathematics (e.g. subtracting infinities from infinities) and makes non sequitur extrapolations from bizarre pictorial interpretations of a mathematical tool (Feynman’s ‘sum over histories’ method) for calculating the probability of a quantum event and links this to cosmology on the grounds that our universe probably started as a quantum phenomenon. The authors give up on trying to explain rigorously what they call our ‘apparently’ miraculous universe, which they admit is fine tuned for life to an inexplicable degree, and avoid the need to do so by postulating an unimaginably large number of other universes (10 with 500 zeros after it; there are 'only' 10 to the power 80 atoms in the whole universe) with laws loosely defined by a network of string theories collectively called M-Theory, and an arbitrary number of dimensions (11 instead of the 4 we know: 3 of space and 1 of time; why not 10, or 99, or 100, or 1000 or any number you can think of?) ), all as much beyond scientific testing as Santa Claus. How such a monster assembly ever came into being is not mentioned. In fact I am not sure even this desperate measure explains why the universe anything more than the law of gravity. E.g. does it include the cosmological, electromagnetic and particle masses, all preternaturally tuned for life. It certainly does not 'explain' why sentient beings evolved here, or anywhere else in our universe if that proves to be the case.       

This approach explains nothing and everything. If we observe a new unexplained phenomenon there is no need to delve into it, invent a radical new approach  and laboriously come up with a rigorously peer reviewed theory, as Einstein did. Just say it is there by chance and was bound to happen in some universe somewhere. Suppose someone found that viruses on earth were spontaneously assembling in synchronization with fluctuations observed from a black hole. No need to explain. It just happens to occur in our universe. No surprise! If it had not started we, having emerged from viruses by chance, perhaps,  would not be here to see it.

William of Occam must be spinning in his grave, as must Newton and Einstein.

Science has reached an  impasse. Quantum phenomena like the double slit experiment, quantum erasure and entanglement have been modelled in several different ways, none of them sufficiently established to serve as a consensus theory. Attempts to unify the 4 forces of nature (electromagnetic, gravity, weak nuclear and strong nuclear) are in disarray, as appears to be indicated by the Large Hadron  Collider results. Even if a Unified Theory is achieved it will only be a theory of certain aspects of reality, not a Theory of Everything.

Cosmology is also confronting questions over inflation, the holographic principle (by which  our 4D space-time world would be the encodement of a 2D world), dark energy, dark matter, vacuum energy and much else. Over 95% of the stuff of the universe is a complete mystery, as is the way both ordinary and dark matter is orchestrated. All we know is that something is there and that some phenomena occur which can be predicted and modelled.

 Neo-Darwinism, though still having something to offer in terms of micro-evolution, struggles to come to terms with increasingly sophisticated mechanisms of macro-evolution, e.g. epigenetics, horizontal gene transfer, emergent complexity, sudden leaps forward in speciation and evolutionary convergence, which do not fit well with  blind adherence to evolution by descent with random incremental modifications. On the actual origin of life it has nothing substantive to offer. For some reason these increasingly compelling new findings in evolutionary biology are not getting into BBC science shows such as Horizon yet they should be embraced, not brushed aside. I have not yet come across a major science programme which stresses the importance of the recent discovery that the 98% of DNA referred to as junk only a decade ago is now accepted as being crucially functional. Recent discoveries showing that evolutionary pathways repeat themselves indicate that the mechanism of evolution is not random. Again, barely a mention in the popular science media. What the situation is in school biology teaching I dread to think.

When confronted with the inexplicable it is surely the job of the scientist to find new more powerful models, not retreat in denial or in order to satisfy some favoured view or ethos or ideology or metaphysical view or theology, or just to get career advancement or funding or the approval of the press or one’s friends.

 It is of course impossible to eliminate these worldly influences but, whether one is a scientist, an interested layman (like me) who enjoys witnessing God's wondrous creation  or just one who wants the world to go on advancing in a benevolent way, one can at least try to hold on to scientific truth as an ideal.  Science is not, I maintain, the only answer to human fulfillment; but it is a God-given gift without which material human progress stops. We descend into chaos with no prospect of a peaceful, prosperous life in the material world.

 John Sears


2077:Knights of Peace
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Sunday, 25 September 2016

Deep mystery of existence. 8. Critical mass of the early universe

Many people wonder why the universe is so massive. They say ‘what a wasteful God’.  The exact opposite applies. The importance of life in God’s scheme is highlighted by the need to create precisely the universe we have, in terms of mass and in many other ways which will not be dealt with in this post (e.g.the finest imaginable tuning of the physical constants and entropy of the universe at the Big Bang stage.)

Cosmologists and astrobiologists will confirm that it could not be any other mass and still sustain even bacterial life. Very slightly smaller in mass and life could not survive anywhere. Being marginally larger would also preclude life.  It has been calculated that if during the early expansion of the universe its mass had been out by the mass of a single coin the present universe could not harbour even bacteria. The precision is

 one part in a  trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. ..

Why does the universe have to have this mass? Because otherwise  two life precluding phenomena would occur as the early universe expanded following the Big Bang (the creation event when space, time, matter and energy came into existence as a point source of everything).

A marginally smaller  mass would have resulted in less gravity and the matter of the universe flying apart too rapidly to form stars and planets – in particular our planet Earth, which has a uniqueness which led not just to bacteria but to human civilization.

A marginally larger mass would have resulted in the early cosmic material coalescing rather than forming stars and planets. Not a trace or promise of life could exist in this scenario – even the stuff out of which bacteria are built would not have existed.

This precision is, according to the latest cosmological theory, a consequence of our three dimensional space being almost totally flat, i.e. only curved to an extremely small but unimaginablyprecise degree,  to 

one part in a trillion trillion trillion  trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion.

 It is impossible to visualize what is meant by curved or flat three dimensional space. It is a mathematical concept, but an analogy which is often used is that of an inflated balloon, where the surface of the balloon represents the 3 dimensional space in which we live.  If the balloon is large enough the space is as near to flat as you can make it without the balloon becoming infinitely large. Space is curved to just the precise amount needed to enable bacterial life to survive. To repeat:

 one part in a trillion trillion trillion  trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion

 With space that close to flat the mass density of the universe will have the necessary value to the degree of precision required.

How did space get that flat? As usual in cosmology we have to turn to the mathematicians. The theory that has been proposed is known as cosmic inflation (in fact there is more than one version of this theory). The early universe, when it was only  a fraction of a second old, is postulated to have expanded at such an unimaginably high rate that space was forcefully smoothed out till it became virtually, but not quite, totally flat. This would explain why the universe as observed to today looks so isotropic (similar in structure in all directions) and is flat. But this would not explain why it dperts from absolute flatness to the ultra-fine degree required for a universe with living beings in it.

What could have made the universe expand so much so quickly before it was even a second old no one knows. It was probably not even dark energy (whatever that turns out to be) since that did not come into play until the universe was about 7 billion years old. At this stage it began to expand more rapidly, i.e. to accelerate, after being slowed down by gravitational forces. (If it had not accelerated in precisely the way it has that too would have precluded any kind of biological life. But that’s another story...).

One final point to bear in mind. The idea of increasing or decreasing the mass of the universe by the mass of a single coin having such huge existential significance for living systems applies only if this thought experiment is made at the very early stages of cosmic creation. If such a miniscule mass had been added or subtracted only, say, a million years ago, instead of 13.7 billion - i.e. after the elements, stars and planets had already  been formed - it would, as far as we know, have made no difference. Nevertheless, given that the total mass of the universe at its inception was the same as now, it is no less staggering to think that the mass of a single coin could mean the difference between life and no life some 13.7 billion years later.

As one who has only relatively recently become a follower of the cosmic Christ, the universal source of love,  I had not really understood what was meant when people talked about fearing God. Now I  am beginning to get the point.

 John Sears

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