Science's Holy Grail
From whence the universe? That question lies at the heart of the metaphysical quest. For what we believe about the origin of the universe will largely determine what we believe about the most pressing questions of human existence.
If the universe is the product of intelligent creation, then purpose is intrinsic to our being which, in turn, provides a compass setting for life’s direction. If, on the other hand, the cosmos is an artifact of unintelligent processes, life has no ultimate aim or meaning, leaving matters of ethics and morality up to the whims of each individual.
To early thinkers, the rational order of the world suggested a non-contingent source of reality. In various schools of thought, this source was the “apeiron,” the “One,” aether, or the “logos”—in all cases, a veritable fount of being that not only gave birth to the universe, but continuously shaped and sustained it. Discoveries made over the last century have supported this ancient concept, overturning some common perceptions.
The notion that the universe is a vast, dark wasteland, sprinkled hither and yon with random clumps of matter, has been shattered. The universe, as understood by modern science, is a cosmic fabric, supercharged with an all-pervading quantum potential. With space and time its warp and woof, the cosmos flexes and twists under the influence of matter and energy to weave out exquisite patterns of galaxies, nebula, and supernovae.
The interlocking of space, time, matter, and energy suggests a grand unifying principle that gives form and texture to the universe. The hope of researchers is to discover this mega-principle, or, as it has come to be called, the “theory of everything” (TOE). The metaphysical implications of TOE even cause some investigators to go into occasional “transports of delight.”
Remarking on recent speculations that neutrinos—wraith-like, subatomic particles—were the first products of the big bang, one scientist gushed, “We’re descended from neutrinos!” adding reverentially, “They’re our parents.” Another researcher fancied, “Neutrinos may tell us why we exist.”
As Stephen Hawking wrote in A Brief History in Time, “If we do discover a complete theory… [we would] be able to take part in the discussion of why it is we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.”
That helps explain why the TOE has been the Holy Grail of science for the better part of a century.
To be a TOE, a theory must account for the fundamental forces and universal constants of nature, as well as a “zoo” of hundreds of elemental particles. To that end, the “standard model” of physics has been phenomenally successful, being confirmed time and again by experimental data.
That said, the model has two major drawbacks: It doesn’t account for gravity, and it doesn’t explain how general relativity (governing the macroscopic structure of the cosmos) and quantum mechanics (governing its subatomic infrastructure) can be reconciled with each other.
The nonsensical results encountered when a massive object is compressed into an infinitesimal space—like a black hole—indicate that there is something wrong with one or both of these highly venerated theories. And that makes physicists edgy.
Convinced that these problems are insurmountable, a number of researchers have turned their energies elsewhere.
By imagining the building blocks of matter not as vanishingly small points, but as “strings” of finite size, yet still incredibly small, theorists believe that the cosmic rip between the large ”threads” of relativity and the small ”fibers” of quantum theory can be joined up. What’s more, they feel that string theory can account for gravity. But despite these promising speculations, string theory has its own set of problems.
For starters, the theory suffers from a near infinite number of mathematical solutions that make finding the actual solution, if one exists, nigh impossible. Next, although strings are sufficiently large to resolve the incongruities between relativity theory and quantum theory, they remain sufficiently small to preclude verification by foreseeable investigative techniques.
Finally, even if we were to detect strings, according to emeritus professor Timothy Ferris, we would find that they “are just curved space.” Princeton physicist David Gross agrees: “To build matter itself from geometry—that in a sense is what string theory does.” In other words, matter is a product of geometry, which is a measure of space, which, according to relativity, is shaped by matter, which. . . . And round and round we go.
That could be why Harvard researchers Paul Ginsparg and Sheldon Glashow characterize string theory as an activity “to be conducted at schools of divinity by the future equivalents of medieval theologians.”
Recently, a new development has emerged from an unlikely source.
SURFER DUDE DISCOVERY
Late last year, Garrett Lisi outlined a new model of the universe. Lisi has a PhD in physics but works construction, and serves as a hiking guide, when not surfing. Lisi’s novel element is “E8”—an arcane mathematical artifact discovered in the 19th century. The essence of E8 is its ability to model the interrelationships for objects with up to 57 dimensions.
The eureka moment came when Lisi realized that the fundamental particles and forces of nature could be correlated to the geometrical points described by E8. His model also predicts 20 other particles that could be associated with gravity. And some of the top guns of science feel that Lisi is on to something.
Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin called it “one of the most compelling unification models I’ve seen in many, many years.” David Finkelstein of Georgia Tech remarked, “Some incredibly beautiful stuff falls out of Lisi’s theory. This must be more than coincidence and he really is touching on something profound.”
Much of the commotion is over the simplicity of E8, as compared with other theories. In a field where some of the most successful theories are expressed with a few symbols; like E=mc2, simplicity is a strong attractor. There’s also the eerie manner in which the squirrelly members of the particle “zoo” all seem to follow E8. It’s as if its mathematical formulations are embedded in the cosmos.
Needless to say, Lisi’s theory has a long gauntlet to pass before it is enshrined as science orthodoxy. The first hurdle will be experimental corroboration from the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.
OTHERS WEIGH IN
The idea that the laws of physics are embedded in nature is near and dear to the heart of author and astrobiologist Paul Davies. In Davies’ formulation, mind and matter are melded into a kind of cosmic consciousness that has encoded the blueprint of life in the fabric of the universe. As to how that came to be—well, that’s a “matter for future research.”
Others, like Stephen Hawking, believe that our universe is a product of quantum processes. In every moment of time, infinitesimal changes in the sub-nuclear stratum of nature cause whole worlds to branch off into separate realms—each with its own “history.”
At the moment of the big bang, the universe had no unique history; instead, there was a superimposition of histories for all possible universes. According to Hawking, the job of the investigator is to select a “history” from the mix. This amazing feat is accomplished by examining the conditions that now exist, and working backward to discover what the initial conditions must have been. In effect, the present determines the past.
If that’s not enough to make you squirm, Hawking resorts to some mathematical prestidigitation with “imaginary time” to avoid the absurdities encountered with big bang and black hole singularities.
Hawking’s theory is one of several variations on the “multiverse” —a supercosmos containing an infinite number of universes, trotted out by theorists in an attempt to account for our finely tweaked world as neither a creation nor accident, but as an inevitability. But here’s the rub: An infinite cosmos, in which everything (and anything) is inevitable, is one in which even God must exist in one of its branches.
I’m reminded of what quantum pioneer Erwin Schrödinger once said: “Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.”
THE REAL TOE
The notion that E8, cosmic consciousness, the multiverse, or any other naturalistic principle will lead to a theory of everything is flawed from the get-go. Should experimental research eventually verify one such model, it will merely describe how, rather than explain why, the cosmos conforms to it.
Indeed, the most vexing questions of man—Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What does it mean to be human? and What is the “good” life?—will be left unanswered. That’s because the real “Theory of Everything” is not a mathematical abstraction embedded in nature and penetrable with the next generation of particle accelerators; it is the revelation in an ancient text that opens with, “In the beginning God . . .”
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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