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Phil-osophically Speaking: April 10, 2014

In The Beginning

Let’s take a moment to think about the most famous and provocative opening line in all of literature: “In the beginning,” says Genesis there was...what? Well, nothing, to be exact. Absolutely nothing—not even the laws of physics. And then, inexplicably, there appeared a mass smaller than a proton that compressed, incomprehensibly, all the matter there was and ever will be. The concentrated density of this infinitesimal mass was so immense that it exploded with a force that made all the other explosions in the history of the Universe combined seem like a solitary firecracker.

Despite all this TNT, so to speak, the explosion was not big enough to explain the present nature of the Universe. In 1980 Alan Guth, a young astrophysicist, building upon some earlier postulations explained the discrepancy by hypothesizing an inflationary universe. According to Guth, in one mind-boggling fraction of a second the Universe, after it momentarily cooled from the initial bang, began expanding at many times the speed of light and presently continues to expand at a far slower rate. The phenomenal speed of this expansion (think of a rapidly inflating balloon subsuming everything in it) effectively explained why the Universe appears to be the same in all directions and why the cosmic background radiation is distributed equally --- a uniformity scientists call isotropic.

I became familiar with Guth’s theory shortly after it was published. In those days I was involved in an astronomy club and found myself kibitzing, on occasion, with visiting astrophysicists. During twilight I would walk along the shoreline listening to what Matthew Arnold sinisterly called the melancholy, long withdrawing roar of the sea and gaze heavenward wondering at the remote and renascent stars peeking through the darkening, vaulted sky above.

So when a team of astronomers recently reported detecting gravitational waves nearly 13.5 billion years old my curiosity was piqued. These waves, an echo of early creation, were predicted by Guth’s models of an inflationary Universe. Ever since, the scientific community has been in a stir not only because of the possibility of an elegant theory being reified into reality, but also because the models of an inflationary universe hint, perhaps even imply multiple universes, maybe even an infinite number all with different physical laws than our own.

It’s difficult enough to remotely get one’s mind around the majesty of one Universe, why would scientists then be so welcoming of a multiverse? The answer is what’s called fine tuning, which means that if any of the 20 or so cosmological constants (quantities of gravity, hydrogen etc.) had been just a hairbreadth off, we humans, indeed all life, would not exist. As the astrophysicist Freeman Dyson, an atheist, troublingly noted, it seemed as if the Universe was waiting for our arrival in some unimaginably distant future.

Fine tuning does indeed look like a plot; the odds so astronomical as to be theologically suggestive. This explanation, however, is a no-no in the cosmological canon of modern science. Indeed it’s the one hypothesis that dares not speak its name. However, scientists correctly reasoned, if we are but one Universe amid an infinite number then the odds flatten out considerably and it’s easier to accept that our Universe just happened to hit the jackpot.

But let’s not jump the proverbial gun. This multiverse has not been empirically verified in the way Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was, when during a solar eclipse his predictions were tested and confirmed giving birth to a new theory of the Universe. In fact, there are no testable experiments for a multiverse and, at this juncture it remains a mathematical hypothesis --- albeit a rather elegant, ingenious and explanatory one. It also violates British philosopher Karl Popper’s first rule of science, the principal of falsibility, which states that a theory, at least in principle, must be disprovable. Since a multiverse is not a testable hypothesis it remains nestled in a scientific cul de sac.

Nevertheless, scientists are licking their chops over the possibility of a multiverse because such a proposition, they believe, negates a divine origin making the Universe explicable in purely natural terms. One cannot help but be amused about how readily science is so willing to eliminate one invisible, unobservable God for an infinite number of unobservable Universes.   

As for theists, they shouldn’t fret too much even if the multiverse theory pans out. Models by Vilenkin, Borde and Guth (yes that Alan Guth) have demonstrated beyond dispute that both one Universe and a Multiverse that has expanded throughout history cannot have an infinite past but must have a space-time boundary. This means, in effect, both a beginning and a cause. The philosopher David Hume, a principled 18th century skeptic said it best: Nothing is so absurd as the proposition that anything might arise without a cause.

In other words, something must have caused nothing to become something. Exactly what that cause was remains, well, mysterious and unknown.