Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Natalie Wolchover: Will science one day rule out the possibility of atheism?

Here’s an article by Natalie Wolchover on Live Science. (And note that I engaged with people in the comments to that article)

She writes:

Over the past few centuries, science can be said to have gradually chipped away at the traditional grounds for believing in God. Much of what once seemed mysterious — the existence of humanity, the life-bearing perfection of Earth, the workings of the universe — can now be explained by biology, astronomy, physics and other domains of science.

I find this statement odd. We theists think about evidence that has emerged relatively recently that supports theism and we are wondering why anyone is still an atheist in view of the progress of science.

Here is some of the evidence we theists are looking at:

  • the cosmic microwave background radiation
  • the helium/hydrogen abundance predictions
  • the redshift of light from distant galaxies
  • the cosmic fine tuning (constants)
  • the cosmic fine tuning (quantities)
  • the construction of amino acids on the early earth
  • biological information in proteins and DNA
  • sudden origin of phyla Cambrian explosion
  • biological convergence
  • galactic fine-tuning (e.g. – GHZ)
  • circumstellar fine-tuning (e.g. – CHZ)
  • irreducible complexity of molecular machines like the cilium
  • natural limits to biological change (i.e. – the Lenski experiments)
  • genome functionality now rated at 80% or more

We use that evidence to support premises in our arguments. We think that science is moving towards belief in a Creator and Designer. But not our staff writer Natalie Wolchover. She has found a way to save atheism from the progress of science.

The evidence for a beginning of the universe

Let’s take a closer look at what atheists say about the universe:

Gobs of evidence have been collected in favor of the Big Bang model of cosmology, or the notion that the universe expanded from a hot, infinitely dense state to its current cooler, more expansive state over the course of 13.7 billion years. Cosmologists can model what happened from 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang until now, but the split-second before that remains murky. Some theologians have tried to equate the moment of the Big Bang with the description of the creation of the world found in the Bible and other religious texts; they argue that something — i.e., God — must have initiated the explosive event.

However, in Carroll’s opinion, progress in cosmology will eventually eliminate any perceived need for a Big Bang trigger-puller.

As he explained in a recent article in the “Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), a foremost goal of modern physics is to formulate a working theory that describes the entire universe, from subatomic to astronomical scales, within a single framework. Such a theory, called “quantum gravity,” will necessarily account for what happened at the moment of the Big Bang. Some versions of quantum gravity theory that have been proposed by cosmologists predict that the Big Bang, rather than being the starting point of time, was just “a transitional stage in an eternal universe,” in Carroll’s words. For example, one model holds that the universe acts like a balloon that inflates and deflates over and over under its own steam. If, in fact, time had no beginning, this shuts the book on Genesis.

A speculative quantum gravity model?

Let’s see what the peer-reviewed research says:

At the close of their analysis of Linde’s Chaotic Inflationary Model, Borde and Vilenkin say with respect to Linde’s metaphysical question, “The most promising way to deal with this problem is probably to treat the Universe quantum mechanically and describe it by a wave function rather than by a classical spacetime.”{37} They thereby allude to the last class of models attempting to avoid the initial cosmological singularity which we shall consider, namely, Quantum Gravity Models. Vilenkin and, more famously, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking have proposed models of the universe which Vilenkin candidly calls exercises in “metaphysical cosmology.”{38}In his best-selling popularization of his theory, Hawking even reveals an explicitly theological orientation. He concedes that on the Standard Model one could legitimately identify the Big Bang singularity as the instant at which God created the universe.{39} Indeed, he thinks that a number of attempts to avoid the Big Bang were probably motivated by the feeling that a beginning of time “smacks of divine intervention.”{40} He sees his own model as preferable to the Standard Model because there would be no edge of space-time at which one “would have to appeal to God or some new law.”{41}

[...]The question which arises for this construal of the model is whether such an interpretation is meant to be taken realistically or instrumentally. On this score, there can be little doubt that the use of imaginary quantities for time is a mere mathematical device without ontological significance. Barrow observes, “physicists have often carried out this ‘change time into space’ procedure as a useful trick for doing certain problems in ordinary quantum mechanics, although they did not imagine that time was really like space. At the end of the calculation, they just swop [sic] back into the usual interpretation of there being one dimension of time and three . . . dimensions of . . . space.”{48} In his model, Hawking simply declines to re-convert to real numbers. If we do, then the singularity re-appears. Hawking admits, “Only if we could picture the universe in terms of imaginary time would there be no singularities . . . . When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities.”{49} Hawking’s model is thus a way of re-describing a universe with a singular beginning point in such a way that that singularity is transformed away; but such a re-description is not realist in character.

Quantum gravity is a theoretical model that uses imaginary time. When translated back into the real world, the singularity re-appears, and the need for a cause of the universe coming into being is re-asserted.

Natalie explains how strong her speculation really is:

Another way to put it is that contemporary physics theories, though still under development and awaiting future experimental testing, are turning out to be capable of explaining why Big Bangs occur, without the need for a supernatural jumpstart. As Alex Filippenko, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a conference talk earlier this year, “The Big Bang could’ve occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there. With the laws of physics, you can get universes.”

See? Their view is “just because theists have all the experimental data for a creation out of nothing today, that doesn’t mean that these speculative theories won’t replace that  hard evidence tomorrow”. But physical laws are descriptions of how matter behaves – they don’t bring matter into being out of nothing. Physical laws can’t explain the origin of the universe because they don’t even exist until there is matter created for them to describe. Even the New York Times knows that. But that what atheists are reduced to – they deny what you can test in a lab, and hope for things to emerge that have never been tested in a lab. That’s atheism.

The evidence for a finely-tuned universe

What does she make of the fine-tuning evidence? Well, she has a speculation to answer the experimental evidence there as well.

She writes:

But there are other potential grounds for God. Physicists have observed that many of the physical constants that define our universe, from the mass of the electron to the density of dark energy, are eerily perfect for supporting life. Alter one of these constants by a hair, and the universe becomes  unrecognizable. “For example, if the mass of the neutron were a bit larger (in comparison to the mass of the proton) than its actual value, hydrogen would not fuse into deuterium and conventional stars would be impossible,” Carroll said. And thus, so would life as we know it.

Theologians often seize upon the so-called “fine-tuning” of the physical constants as evidence that God must have had a hand in them; it seems he chose the constants just for us. But contemporary physics explains our seemingly supernatural good luck in a different way.

Some versions of quantum gravity theory, including string theory, predict that our life-giving universe is but one of an infinite number of universes that altogether make up the multiverse. Among these infinite universes, the full range of values of all the physical constants are represented, and only some of the universes have values for the constants that enable the formation of stars, planets and life as we know it. We find ourselves in one of the lucky universes (because where else?).

A speculative multiverse? Why should we take a speculative multiverse over one observable, knowable experimentally-testable universe?

Let’s see what the peer-reviewed science says:

The feebleness of gravity is something we should be grateful for. If it were a tiny bit stronger, none of us would be here to scoff at its puny nature.

The moment of the universe‘s birth created both matter and an expanding space-time in which this matter could exist. While gravity pulled the matter together, the expansion of space drew particles of matter apart – and the further apart they drifted, the weaker their mutual attraction became.

It turns out that the struggle between these two was balanced on a knife-edge. If the expansion of space had overwhelmed the pull of gravity in the newborn universe, stars, galaxies and humans would never have been able to form. If, on the other hand, gravity had been much stronger, stars and galaxies might have formed, but they would have quickly collapsed in on themselves and each other. What’s more, the gravitational distortion of space-time would have folded up the universe in a big crunch. Our cosmic history could have been over by now.

Only the middle ground, where the expansion and the gravitational strength balance to within 1 part in 1015 at 1 second after the big bang, allows life to form.

That’s what the science says. That’s what we know from experiments.

An MIT physicist Alan Lightman explains how much evidence there is for the multiverse:

The… conjecture that there are many other worlds… [T]here is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

This is a non-theistic scientist telling us this. There is no evidence for the multiverse, just like there is no evidence for Santa Claus, just like there is no evidence for the Tooth Fairy. Yet atheists are driven to speculate about whether Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy might be real, in order to escape the fine-tuning. And atheism just goes on and on and on like this – from the origin of life’s building blocks, to junk DNA, to the Cambrian explosion, to protein synthesis, to galactic habitability, to DNA sequences, and so on – it’s madness stacked on top of delusion stacked on top of insanity. It’s just speculative nonsense and the denial of today’s cutting-edge peer-reviewed experimental evidence.

What is causing them to do this? What is their motivation for wanting atheism to be true?

UPDATE: A response from Uncommon Descent.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Responses

  1. Jack Dublin says:

    Even if atheists could miraculously(heh) make a steady state theory viable it wouldn’t present a great problem for theists. For example, some versions of the cosmological argument, most notably Aquinas’ 5 Ways, never go for a universal start. They point to God sustaining creation from moment to moment.

  2. zhai2nan2 says:

    ‘What is causing them to do this? What is their motivation for wanting atheism to be true?’

    There are a lot of English-speaking Westerners who got badly traumatized by incompetent Christians.

    Some of these folks say, “Well, Christianity sucks, but spirituality is the real stuff that Christians have forgotten,” and they go into New Age stuff, Eastern religions, etc.

    Others say, “Well, Christianity will continue making me feel bad until I exterminate all belief in magic, spooks, gods, ghosts, and similar woo-woo,” and they attempt to become petty tyrants rather like Cromwell, but with dorkier haircuts.

    • I think that for a lot of the good atheists – the non-insulting, thoughtful kind – the root cause is having strict religion rammed down their throats without discussion or debate.

  3. Steve James says:

    ” But physical laws are descriptions of how matter behaves – they don’t bring matter into being out of nothing. Physical laws can’t explain the origin of the universe because they don’t even exist until there is matter created for them to describe.”

    Well, no. Ultimately, physical laws are descriptions of the universe(s) , and “having matter in them” is just one of the things universes can do. Our current models don’t start with matter existing in the first few zillionths of a second after the big bang.

    We don’t know all the physical laws. We do have good reason to believe in the big bang, and there may or may not have been a singularity. There may or may not be something outside what we call the universe. It may well be that the laws of physics, if applied to an initial state of “nothing exists” produce the result “a universe pops up”. This would be rather fanciful speculation – except that we know that this sort of thing happens within space all the time. As best we understand things at the moment, the rule is “random fluctuations appear”. We certainly don’t know that the rule is actually “random fluctuations appear – but only if there is a universe there to begin with.”

    You ask “A speculative multiverse? Why should we take a speculative multiverse over one observable, knowable experimentally-testable universe?”

    Well, once again, we don’t know, for sure. But a lot of modern physics does strongly hint that way. You try to make it sound like it is a ridiculous last gasp for atheists trying to wish away fine tuning. And it is an elegant solution to the fine tuning probelm. But there are other reasons. As mentioned in the very quote above your question, it is strongly implied by string theory and M theory. Also, the so called “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is well on the way to becoming the most widely accepted interpretation today.

    “There is no evidence for the multiverse, just like there is no evidence for Santa Claus, just like there is no evidence for the Tooth Fairy. ”

    That is just flat out wrong. There is not enough evidence to prove their existence, but there is good evidence to support their plausibility, even likelihood.

    You go on to claim that atheists need to deny lab results, which is nonsense. Worse, you mention “– from the origin of life’s building blocks, to junk DNA, to the Cambrian explosion, to protein synthesis, to galactic habitability, to DNA sequences, and so on” – as if ANY of this makes the existence of a God a jot more likely and again, it is a flat out untruth to claim that any of this relies on atheists ignoring peer reviewed research.

    Indeed, the tone of this whole blog post implies some sort of framework where the atheist must explain everything or the theist wins by default. This is a nonsense. We are learning more about the univserse, and even the possibility of other universes. But science has not produced a shred of evidence for God. Fine tuning is evidence for fine tuning. The multiverse theory is a good explanation. But the competition between explanations is not limited to “multiverse, or God”. It is “multiverse, God, or… one of the countless other explanations we haven’t come up with yet”. The God of the gaps argument doesn’t logically get to win here any more than it does on any other issues.

    Theists on the other hand, DO have to deny a lot of pretty non controversial science. How much depends on how literally they take their holy books. The pattern that emerges is what you’d expect when you test iron age theories and people who still deperately want to believe in them. What can be tested turns out to be a metaphor. What cant be tested is taken to be literally true. We know that the order thing appeared was NOT “The Earth, then light, then the sky, then vegetation – and then the sun and the moon”. So much for Genesis. This leaves the apologist in a lost position. Either they deny the science (in which case who’s denying science now?) – or they use “exegisis” to claim that the bible isn’t actually saying anything like what it says it says. We know women weren’t made from a man’s rib. We know the Ark story cannot be physically true. Etc.

    While we are on the topic, evolution is absolutely non controversial – scientifically. Our advances in the understanding of DNA do nothing to undermine it. I saw you ask “why does Dawkins insist on saying that 95% of DNA is junk DNA when we know this isn’t true.” The answer is simple – he reports the best science we have at the time. He has made the point that evolution would have no trouble explaining junk dna, but this has been misquoted trying to imply that evolution requires junk DNA. Not so.

    You ask about the motivation for atheists. We are not angry at a God we secretly believe in. Our a bullying childhood pastor. The motivation for most of us is simply that we find the arguments for theism range from deeply unconvincing to utterly ridiculous.

    • Canbuhay says:

      There’s a lot to unpackage in your critique. I’m just wondering what your evidence is that theists, particularly Christians, use faulty reasoning such as asserting we can’t discern between prose and history in our own scriptures or that we deny the existence of microevolution.

      If you think this blog is using strawmen to attack the atheists’ position, then shouldn’t we expect that you wouldn’t use strawmen to attack ours?

      And I read your letter but I couldn’t find evidence for a finely-tuned universe that didn’t need a tuner or for multi-universes. Why should I believe in those things? I especially want to know how nothing can produce anything, including physical laws. Because I’m a Christian, I think proof is important in shaping our worldview, unlike what you assert.

    • Sam Harper says:

      It may well be that the laws of physics, if applied to an initial state of “nothing exists” produce the result “a universe pops up”.

      I don’t see how that’s possible. If there is a state in which nothing exists, then how can laws of physics exist? There would be nothing in existence for the laws of physics to describe. If there is or ever was a state in which nothing existed, then there would be no properties that were had by anything, so there couldn’t even be a probability of the universe popping into existence.

      This would be rather fanciful speculation – except that we know that this sort of thing happens within space all the time. As best we understand things at the moment, the rule is “random fluctuations appear”.

      But random fluctuations are not instances of things popping into existence from a state of nothingness. Fluctuations are fluctuations of something that exists, namely the false vacuum.

      And it [the multiverse] is an elegant solution to the fine tuning probelm.

      It doesn’t strike me as being a very elegant solution. It strikes me as being ad hoc and terribly unparsimonious. And it proves too much. You can explain any improbability with it. Nothing is really improbable given a large enough multiverse. As long as anything is possible, then it’s probable in some world.

      As mentioned in the very quote above your question, it is strongly implied by string theory and M theory.

      I think it was Roger Penrose who said that string theory doesn’t even count as science. He said it’s metaphysical speculation. So I don’t think appealing to string theory in order to rescue the multiverse from being “metaphysical speculation” will work. If string theory is speculative, then so is anything predicted by string theory that we have no other evidence for, including the multiverse.

      Also, the so called “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is well on the way to becoming the most widely accepted interpretation today.

      That surprises me. I thought the Copenhagan interpretation was still the most widely accepted interpretation. But I don’t think the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics bears any resemblance to the multiverse predicted by string theory. According to the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, new universes emerges constantly in every situation. If an electron can travel in any of three directions, the universe splits into three so that the electron actually DOES travel in all directions–one direction for each universe. That is quite different than universes happening by way of vacuum fluctuations. If the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, then everything that can happen DOES happen, and it happens all the time. So there is really no such thing as probability or improbability. Everything that is possible is necessary.

      But science has not produced a shred of evidence for God. Fine tuning is evidence for fine tuning. The multiverse theory is a good explanation.

      Why is the multiverse explanation better than the God explanation?

      The God of the gaps argument doesn’t logically get to win here any more than it does on any other issues.

      But the multiverse of the gaps argument wins by default?

  4. Chris says:

    I read Natalie’s LiveScience article yesterday and left the following comment:

    “Unfortunate to read this type of poor outdated science more based upon speculation than anything else. Here are the main objections:

    1. An “infinity of universes” cannot exist due to the impossibility of “absolute infinities.” Absolute infinities only exist on chalkboards in abstract mathematics. Additionally, for infinities to show up in calculations usually signals a breakdown of the theory, attempting to join quantum mechanics with general relativity for example.

    2. The oscillating universe theory does not have supporting math or physics and has few serious adherents. The universe does not inflate and deflate in an infinite cycle. If it had, it would have dissipated its energy an infinity ago.

    3. Parallel universe theories are not science. They are philosophy. For example, an infinite number of parallel universes requires an infinite amount of energy.

    4. The old cosmological argument still presents an impassable barrier. Cause and effect, which is the basis of all scientific deduction, and and absolute infinity can not co-exist. Since the chain of causation for all things cannot logically extend backward in time for an infinity, something or someone, outside of the universe, is required to start the process. BTW, to dismiss the cosmological argument with the question,”\’Who created God?’, is to simultaneously reject the provable law of cause and effect. Remember, the chain of causation CANNOT extend backward in time forever.

    The logical conclusion to draw from the above is that the universe could not have created itself, there are no physical mechanisms outside of the universe that could have caused it, and that the cause of the universe must exist outside of the universe. While this does not prove the existence of God, it does demonstrate that there are no other ways to get a universe.

    In other words, I cannot pull God out of a hat for you to see. But I can prove to you that all the other hats have no rabbits.”

    I would add the following: Traditional, organized, religious Christianity makes for an easy target, which is why it is a favorite whipping boy for atheists. Misguided and misinformed attempts to apply 21st century views as a basis for biblical understanding makes poor scholarship. A fuller deeper educated understanding of what the Bible is and how it came together pulls it out of the realm of myth into history. But religion shrouds facts with tradition, insisting that the earth/man is only 6k years old, that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, that people go to heaven when they die, that dinosaurs and people co-existed, etc.when such things are not found in the Bible. It gets sillier and sillier.

    No wonder when educated thinking people, when faced robes and candles, priests, prayers and fairy tales or a reasoned scientific theory, make a non-theistic choice.

  5. Paradox says:

    Against Dumb Ideas
    Let’s start with the multiverse:
    It does not explain away the fine-tuning of the universe, it can’t explain anything in its “God-Form”. Here’s why: The total number of sets of physical laws and constants that are possible is INFINITE. That means that the probability of any particular universe is 1/INFINITY, which is the same as ZERO! We can reduce the total number of universes, but then the hypothesis becomes arbitrary. Why not just say that our universe is the only possible one? Then, instead of string-theory, the atheist can just bite the bullet about hyper-inflation, have a multiverse (to explain the improbable phenomena of this one), and not have to worry about explaining fine-tuning. If they were as intelligent as they like us to believe, why didn’t they just take this solution, instead of waiting for us slow people to invent it?

    Let’s go to the Eternal Universe:
    Remember the above introspection on the multiverse, as this is crucial to the origin of the proposed solution.
    Really, Dr. Carroll? The ultimate flaw with proposing that maybe the big bang is just the first moment of time, and that the universe “was” timeless “before” that, is the lack of a possible explanation for the first moment. Quantum mechanics can’t produce the first moment, as QM presupposes change in the first place –if QM exists, time exists as an inescapable consequence! So QM can’t apply to our timeless universe, even in theory (the first contradiction of the facts). Further, this timeless universe can’t contain kinetic energy, as that would imply change. So if there was matter in this universe, it was at Absolute Zero, and completely motionless. Now then, what does this hypothesis give us to start with? Nothing, as there is no cause of change within the model, so that time cannot begin. The model fails, QED.
    But let’s go farther than just his proposal for how the universe could exist Godlessly. He says that a theory of everything would describe the entire universe, all the way back to its beginning. Alright, how does that prove atheism? The beginning of the universe implies something outside the universe to produce it, so that his hypothesis breaks down prior to the beginning of the universe. Since, as shown above, the universe can only be explained by an agent, we see a transcendent agent created the universe.

    I’d say that the atheists are struggling.
    Steven, that you think your rhetoric is worth listening to shows that you don’t know what you’re talking about. When you can create a better argument, call back.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Click to see recent visitors

  Visitors Online Now

Page views since 1/30/09

  • 4,504,588 hits

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,155 other followers

Archives

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,155 other followers

%d bloggers like this: