Friday, June 4, 2010

Origin of the Universe! Pt. 2

And here we are with Part 2.

Now, there's really a lot that can be said with Vilenkin's book - a field day could be had with his embracing infinite numbers of multiverses alone - but there's a key point in Craig's review I want to highlight. Specifically how Vilenkin tries to grapple with the idea of the universe coming into existence from absolute nothingness.

Unfortunately, Vilenkin draws the mistaken inference that "The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe" (p. 181). Even if one takes a Platonistic view of the laws of nature, they are at most either mathematical objects or propositions, abstract entities that have no effect on anything. (Intriguingly, Vilenkin entertains a conceptualist view according to which the laws exist in a mind which predates the universe [p. 205], the closest Vilenkin comes to theism). If these laws are truly descriptive, then obviously it cannot be true that "there was no universe." Of course, the laws could have existed and been false, in which case they are non-descriptive; but then Vilenkin's theory will be false.

It's important to read Vilenkin at p. 181 with his further thoughts at p. 205, as Craig indicates. At 181, you get the impression that Vilenkin is just stating his idea about "The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe" as if it were obvious, and shrugging off how strange that sounds in order to justify his "tunneling out of nothing" (which he takes to mean as there being no cause required.) Skip to 205, close to his epilogue, and he takes a more humble tack:

The picture of quantum tunneling from nothing raises another intriguing question. The tunneling process is governed by the same fundamental laws that describe the subsequent evolution of the universe. It follows that the laws should be "there" even prior to the universe itself. Does this mean that laws are not mere descriptions of reality and can have an independent existence of their own? In the absence of space, time, and matter, what tablets could they be written upon? The laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations. If the medium of mathematics is the mind, does this mean that mind should predate the universe?

This takes us far into the unknown, into the abyss of great mystery. It is hard to imagine how we can ever get past this point. But as before, that may just reflect the limits of our imagination.

What I find particularly interesting here is how this contrasts with Vilenkin in a Closer to Truth video. There, Vilenkin passes over the idea of a personal God pretty quickly (Basically saying, 'I don't think any God would care what we do.') Let's put that aside.

But he also makes a strange move (aside from mentioning the problem of consciousness). Vilenkin says he rejects the idea of identifying God with the laws of nature for reasoning which amounts to 'Why give it another name? 'The laws of nature' suit them just fine.' On its own, that seems reasonable.

Here's the problem: That attitude only works if the laws of nature are what we think they are. I don't mean this in the sense of mere accuracy, but the actual nature of those laws themselves. Again, look at Vilenkin at 205: He's speculating that the laws of nature are able to exist independent of "space, time and matter", and he pins his ideas on the origin of the universe to exactly this existence. But he's openly wondering how the hell this can be possible, and he entertains in passing the idea that these laws could be the thoughts of a mind.

Refusing to identify the laws of nature with God sounds reasonable only so long as we're working with the common view of those laws - where they're just reflections of the results of empirical experiments. Once we're in a kind of full-blown quasi-Platonism where laws really and truly exist even utterly independent of space, time and matter and they may well be the thoughts of a mind, it's no longer reasonable. It's like saying that the idea of viewing the universe in totality as "God" is inane, then speculating that the universe may be Brahman, complete with self-consciousness and an eternal, single soul.

In the end, I think what Vilenkin is relying on here is almost a kind of word game. Imagine if I told you that the moon was made out of cheese. But I start to explain the particular kind of cheese this is - it doesn't come from milk. It doesn't go bad. Hell, it isn't edible. It has a crust, and minerals, and... etc, etc. Until finally I'm giving a very accurate description of what the moon is made of. But, did I prove that the moon was made out of cheese? How far can I get with this game before you jump up and say, "Hey! You're not talking about cheese anymore!"?

Well, what if I say that no God was needed to create the universe ex nihilo, merely the laws of physics. But, these laws existed before the universe did. They did not exist in space, time, or matter. In fact, they were able to bring space, time and matter into existence ex nihilo. How far can I get before you jump up and say, "Hey! You're not talking about the laws of physics anymore!"?


The Phantom Blogger said...

Alan Guth's (who has co-authored papers with Vilenkin) theory is this.

Guth has investigated the conditions for how a universe could be created in a laboratory, consistent with the laws of physics. Traditionally, one would need the energy of several galaxies, but inflation theory showed it is actually much easier to create a universe. All one needs is one ounce and false vacuum. Once false vacuum exists, the evolution of the universe is independent of what came before. Physicist Roger Penrose once stated that one would need negative energy to create a new universe, but Guth showed that it could also be made by quantum tunneling.

The birth of a new universe also does not affect the old one. It would take about 10−37 seconds to disconnect from its parent. However, all an observer would see is the formation of a black hole, which would disappear very quickly. Creating a new universe actually would be quite dangerous since it would result in the release of energy similar to that of a 500 kiloton explosion.

According to Guth’s theory of cosmic inflation, the universe originated from a false vacuum filled with high energy. The existence of a repulsive gravitational field caused the universe to enter a great period of exponential expansion. He realized that the expansion was so quick that in only 10-33 seconds, it was 1050 times the original size. Due to the fact that the false vacuum is not stable, the expansion will not continue forever. Instead, quantum tunneling will cause the false vacuum to decay into a low-energy true vacuum. When it decays, bubbles suddenly appear to fill in the space. Although the bubble universes start out small at first, many of them will quickly become fairly large. The ultimate conclusion was that, on the contrary to popular belief, it was possible for the universe to suddenly appear from nothing.

His theory seems to suffer from the same problems as Vilenkin's though, with the laws of physics existing before space, time, or matter.

Crude said...

Heya TPB,

From wikipedia:

Alan Guth's main beliefs about the universe are that it definitely has a beginning and that it is just one of many universes that came into existence.

I love the idea that a universe can be made in a laboratory. I wonder how ID proponents would take that.

I think any talk of something coming from literally nothing (as opposed to God, or anything else) is a waste of time, I admit. At the very least, I don't merely question whether or not such speculation is science - I, even as a layman, will say flatly that it's not, and what's more it's bad metaphysics, and go on my way.

And I have to say, I'm not opposed to the laws of physics existing in the absence of space, time, or matter, so to speak. I'd simply say, "It wasn't just the laws."

The Phantom Blogger said...

The main reason it caught my attention is that it was the first time I've ever seen anyone put forward a concrete proposal about the universe coming from literally nothing, rather than just stating its what they believe.

"[To an atheist] the universe is the most exquisite masterpiece ever constructed by nobody" G. K. Chesterton.