Blind Faith and Physics
Rabbi Avi Shafran
A recent essay by an award-winning scientist presents a remarkable, and remarkably revealing, picture of current scientific thought about the nature of the universe.
The delightfully named Alan P. Lightman, an MIT professor a major contributor to the understanding of astrophysical processes, titled his piece in last month’s Harper’s Magazine “The Accidental Universe: Science’s crisis of faith.” Reviewing the history of theoretical physics, he notes how, “until the past few years, physicists agreed that the entire universe… is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry… [W]e were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood.”
In the words of Professor Lightman’s MIT colleague Alan Guth: “Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the feeling was that we were so smart, we almost had everything figured out,” referring to the fundamental forces of nature. Professor Guth punctuated that recollection, Professor Lightman recounts, with “a bitter laugh.”
The laugh is bitter because of something that “has unsettled some scientists for years”— careful calculations showing that if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe diverged even a smidgen from what they are, life could not exist. If the nuclear force (which binds protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei) were a few percentage points stronger, all hydrogen atoms would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium. No hydrogen, no water; no water, presumably, no life. Similarly, if the amount of something called “dark energy” (believed to fuel the observed expansion of the universe) in our universe were only a little bit different than what it actually is, “matter… could never pull itself together” to form complex atoms.
“The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be ‘fine-tuned’,” Professor Lightman explains, “to allow the existence of life.”
To avoid the conclusion, Science forbid, that our universe was somehow intentionally created for life, some scientists have come to rely on the “multiverse” model, the theory that there are any number of other “universes” parallel to ours, and that ours just happens to have the configurations necessary for the known elements to form, for life to exist, and for humans to ruminate about it all.
Professor Lightman notes that the multiverse approach undermines the very venture of physics as a description of reality, and summarizes the theory: “From the cosmic lottery hat containing zillions of universes, we happened to draw a universe that allowed life.” Of course, he admits, “we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence.”
Nor, of course, disprove it. Thus the multiverse theory absolves its adherents of the need to ponder the fact of the cosmos’ incredibly peculiar hospitability to life.
The contention that the complexity and utility of nature point to a Creator—the “argument from design”—has traditionally focused on the earth and its creatures. And has been dismissed by many as refuted by modern theories of biological development.
Now, though, faced with evidence from the cosmos itself that the very fundamentals of physics seem shockingly geared toward life, scientists committed to keeping science pure from metaphysical matters have had to bend over so far backwards that they are virtually snapping in half. Samson-like, they shout, in effect, “Let my physics perish with the Philistines!”
“If, in order to keep a Creator out of our thoughts,” they declare, “it’s necessary to undermine the entire enterprise of physics, well, then, by Whoever, it must be done! Long live the Multiverse!”
For many centuries no distinction was made between “natural science” and “moral science”—the latter concerning itself with teleology (design in nature), human purpose and a Creator. Both together comprised “science,” from the Latin word for “knowledge.”
Eventually, however, knowledge was compartmentalized. “Science” came to mean the physical sciences alone, with concerns about other parts of truth consigned to artificially crafted realms like “philosophy” or “theology.”
Now, it seems, the physical sciences’ very discoveries have pointed their discoverers precisely in the direction of a theological truth. Unfortunately, as George Orwell once observed, it can be a formidable struggle sometimes to see what is in front of one’s nose.
© 2012 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.
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