My recent post about how the Big Bang and “Let there be Light” seem equally fantastic to me triggered an interesting comment from a reader. A detailed response requires more elbow room than a comment allows, so here’s a follow-up article instead.
One of the points involved that our scientific ideas, no matter how inaccurate they may turn out to be, are at least based on evidence. And to the credit of science, when we recognize errors in our interpretation of the evidence, science changes to accommodate the new interpretation. This has been, as I mentioned in that post, hugely successful. One of the failures of our spiritual metaphysics is that it clings to frameworks defined thousands of years ago and often stubbornly refuses to accommodate new information.
However the idea that there is no evidence for the existence of God(s) seems wrong to me. There is the fact that the universe exists and the fact that we recognize and are aware of its existence. Existence and consciousness are daily experiences for us all, and they beg for some explanation. Yet for all its progress, science hasn’t answered those questions. One can argue it hasn’t even made much progress towards an answer. It has some guesses, but the more you study those guesses, the more you realize they are filled with assumptions (at least in the case of the Big Bang).
I should be clear that when I refer to God(s), I am using that as shorthand for any mode of creation and existence that goes beyond physics. As Gandhi wrote, “I came to the conclusion long ago … that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them,” and I do not believe that humans can fully apprehend God(s). To me, the creation myths of all religions are just that: myths. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some substance to the idea, some shred of reality.
The key point I want to make is that I think we should remain open to the idea that existence might be more than mere physics and that we may need more than mere physics to fully apprehend our existence. Physics may just be the Yin of reality; we may need to seek out a Yang in order to be complete.
Existence and The Big Bang
As I wrote in that article, quantum physics has a lot to say about what happens after the Big Bang, but it has a hard time with what came before (let alone the why). The laws of quantum physics apply to the spacetime created by the Big Bang, and that seems to require a meta-reality in which the Big Bang occurs. The laws and nature of that reality are very much an open question.
And quantum physics, as embodied by the Standard Model, still has a way to go before it can be called a complete theory. The earliest work in quantum physics goes back over 100 years to Max Planck‘s work. The Standard Model of quantum physics goes back over 50 years to Sheldon Glashow‘s work. Despite this, no one knows exactly what an electron or a quark or a photon really is. The basic building blocks of existence are still a bit of a mystery.
The relatively new String theory (about four decades old) has evolved into M-theory (even workers in the field can’t quite agree what the “M” stands for, which seems an indicator of how much of the work is guesswork). One idea from that theory is that our reality is a three-dimensional membrane that exists in a higher (perhaps eleven-dimensional) reality. The Big Bang may instead be a Big Collision between our membrane and another parallel one.
Physicist Lee Smolin wrote a book, The Life of the Cosmos, suggesting that new universes were born from black holes in a “parent” universe. This very interesting idea addresses the Anthropic Problem rather neatly in that it invokes the concept of evolution to explain the finely tuned parameters of this universe. The problem with those parameters is that they are extremely finely tuned. If they were not so finely tuned, we wouldn’t be here to be amazed at how finely tuned they are. But it seems to me that an assumption of Smolin’s idea is the existence of a higher reality in which this black hole evolution takes place.
There are a number of other theories that seek to explain the universe, and all of them are based on large amounts of guesswork from what little data we can gather down here on our spinning speck of dirt as it whirls through a very, very large cosmos. More to the point, none of them really addresses the simple question of existence. Why should there be any existence at all?
Of course, you can ask the same question of God. Why should God exist? At some point, you have to simply accept existence in some form. My point all along has been that I find all explanations equally fantastic. Once you accept the idea that something exists, the creation of the universe by God actually is one of the simpler explanations, and one could argue that Occam’s Razor might keep it in the running.
Consciousness, our self-awareness, seems to be another fantastic topic. Many believe that our minds are nothing more than an emergent property of the complexity of our brains. The idea is that we are literally biological machines. If you have a complex enough system (such as a human brain), then you will get a mind.
This is a question we will someday answer. Constructing a brain machine is nothing more than an engineering problem, and we are quite good at solving those. Someday we will build a machine as complex as a human brain (which is indeed awesomely, fantastically complex). We’ll turn that sucker on, and then we’ll know.
Until then I find myself leaning towards the opposite belief: that the human mind is somehow more than a machine or an algorithm. Roger Penrose, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, addresses the idea that some things cannot be calculated. The Turing Halting problem is an example of such a thing. It is not a matter of lack of computer power or time: the answer cannot be derived, even in principle. It’s a bit like the speed of light: our physical reality says that cannot be exceeded, even in principle.
Unlike exceeding the speed of sound (or building a brain machine), exceeding the speed of light is not an engineering problem. Physics as we understand it says it is not possible. Period. End of discussion. Doing so requires rewriting physics (which is, based on past history, not out of the question).
[Incidentally, there is a fine point here that physics says it is information that cannot go faster than light, but we'll get into that another time.]
There are also Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which raise questions about what can and cannot be calculated. Machine calculation, even quantum computer calculation, appears to have certain limits, and it’s possible those limits could prevent a brain machine from being a mind machine.
The question then becomes, how does a mind spring forth from a brain? A sub-question is, are human minds significantly different from animal minds (and if so, what is the exact nature of that difference)? Few would argue that many animals experience some form of consciousness. Many animals seem fairly intelligent. But even if you believe that humans and animals exist on some scale of intelligent consciousness, there does seem to be a large gap between us and them. Humans do seem unique in their consciousness.
Are our brains just that much different, or is there something special about being human? Religious people can answer that easily: humans have a soul. So far science really doesn’t have an answer. Maybe someday it will. Maybe someday we’ll turn on our brain machine and discover that we are indeed just bio-machines.
Personally, I’d bet against it. I believe that human imagination, love and appreciation of beauty alone beg for more than an algorithmic process. Penrose suggests the difference may lie in quantum effects that take place in our brains. I’ve read other theories that attempt to solve the brain/mind problem without invoking metaphysics. Perhaps one of those will turn out to be the answer. But “humans have a soul” remains in the running (to me) as an Occam’s Razor simple explanation.
The bottom line is that, even among top scientists who’ve studied the material all their careers, the matter of existence and consciousness are open questions. I find that pretty interesting considering they are both things we all experience every waking moment. If nothing else, it tells me that there is still great mystery to reality, and this alone forces me to keep the question of existence and mind open.