Let the Universe Be the Universe

My article in the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, which asks “Does the Universe Need God?” (and answers “nope”), got a bit of play last week, thanks to an article by Natalie Wolchover that got picked up by Yahoo, MSNBC, HuffPo, and elsewhere. As a result, views that are pretty commonplace around here reached a somewhat different audience. I started getting more emails than usual, as well as a couple of phone calls, and some online responses. A representative sample:

  • “Sean Carroll, servant of Satan…”
  • “God has a way of bring His judgement to those who mock Him… John Lennon stated “Christianity will end, it will disappear.” Lennon was shot six times after saying that… Marilyn Monroe said to Billy Graham after Graham said the Spirit of God had sent him to preach to her: “I don’t need your Jesus”. A week later she was found dead in her apartment.”
  • “See you in hell.”
  • “Maybe GOD is just a DOG that you will meet when you are walking on the Beach trying to figure out how to get sand out of your butt crack.”

I admit that last one is a bit hard to interpret. The others I think are pretty straightforward.

A more temperate response came from theologian William Lane Craig (a fellow Blackwell Companion contributor) on his Reasonable Faith podcast. I mentioned Craig once before, and here we can see him in action. I’m not going to attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of his comments, but I did want to highlight the two points I think are most central to what he’s saying.

One point he makes repeatedly — really the foundational idea from which everything else he has to say flows — is that a naturalist account of the form I advocate simply doesn’t explain why the universe exists at all, and that in my essay I don’t even try. Our old friend the Primordial Existential Question, or Why is there something rather than nothing?

I have to admit I’m a bit baffled here. I suppose it’s literally true that I don’t offer a reason why there is something rather than nothing, but it’s completely false that I ignore the question. There’s a whole section of my paper, entitled “Accounting for the world,” which addresses precisely this point. It’s over a thousand words long. I even mention Craig by name! And he seems not to have noticed that this section was there. (Among my minor sins, I’m happy to confess that I would always check first to see if my name would appear in someone else’s paper. Apparently not everyone works that way.) It would be okay — maybe even interesting — if he had disagreed with the argument and addressed it, but pretending that it’s not there is puzzling. (The podcast is advertised as “Part One,” so maybe this question will be addressed in Part Two, but I still wouldn’t understand the assertion in Part One that I ignored the question.)

The idea is simple, if we may boil it down to the essence: some things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.

The second major point Craig makes is a claim that I ignored something important: namely, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin singularity theorem. This is Craig’s favorite bit of cosmology, because it can be used to argue that the universe had a beginning (rather than stretching infinitely far backwards in time), and Craig is really devoted to the idea that the universe had a beginning. As a scientist, I’m not really devoted to any particular cosmological scenario at all, so in my paper I tried to speak fairly about both “beginning cosmologies” and “eternal cosmologies.” Craig quotes (misleadingly) a recent paper by Audrey Mithani and Alex Vilenkin, which concludes by saying “Did the universe have a beginning? At this point, it seems that the answer to this question is probably yes.” Mithani and Vilenkin are also scientists, and are correspondingly willing to be honest about our state of ignorance: thus, “probably” yes. I personally think the answer is “probably no,” but none of us actually knows. The distinction is that the scientists are willing to admit that they don’t really know.

The theorems in question make a simple and interesting point. Start with a classical spacetime — “classical” in the sense that it is a definite four-dimensional Lorentzian manifold, not necessarily one that obeys Einstein’s equation of general relativity. (It’s like saying “start with a path of a particle, but not necessarily one that obeys Newton’s Laws.”) The theorem says that such a spacetime, if it has been expanding sufficiently fast forever, must have a singularity in the past. That’s a good thing to know, if you’re thinking about what kinds of spacetimes there are.

The reason I didn’t explicitly mention this technical result in my essay is that I don’t think it’s extremely relevant to the question. Like many technical results, its conclusions follow rigorously from the assumptions, but both the assumptions and the conclusions must be treated with care. It’s easy, for example, to find examples of eternally-existing cosmologies which simply don’t expand all the time. (We can argue about whether they are realistic models of the world, but that’s a long and inconclusive conversation.) The definition of “singularity in the past” is not really the same as “had a beginning” — it means that some geodesics must eventually come to an end. (Others might not.) Most importantly, I don’t think that any result dealing with classical spacetimes can teach us anything definitive about the beginning of the universe. The moment of the Big Bang is, if anything is, a place where quantum gravity is supremely important. The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin results are simply not about quantum gravity. It’s extremely easy to imagine eternal cosmologies based on quantum mechanics that do not correspond to simple classical spacetimes throughout their history. It’s an interesting result to keep in mind, but nowhere near the end of our investigations into possible histories of the universe.

None of this matters to Craig. He knows what answer he wants to get — the universe had a beginning — and he’ll comb through the cosmology literature looking to cherry-pick quotes that bolster this conclusion. He doesn’t understand the literature at a technical level, which is why he’s always quoting (necessarily imprecise) popular books by Hawking and others, rather than the original papers. That’s fine; we can’t all be experts in everything. But when we’re not experts, it’s not intellectually honest to distort the words of experts to make them sound like they fit our pre-conceived narrative. That’s why engagement with people like Craig is fundamentally less interesting than engagement with open-minded people who are willing to take what the universe has to offer, rather than forcing it into their favorite boxes.

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156 Responses to Let the Universe Be the Universe

  1. David Lau says:

    Religious fanatics are so out of touch and reality that whatever they have to say can be treated as a bad comedy.

  2. Christian Takacs says:

    @David Lau in particular,
    You really should be very careful about your ‘out of touch’ ad hominem. Please read a few history books about how many people died in religious wars. Estimates have been made… and they all pale in comparison to the head counts of such glorious ‘scientific’ cultural revolutions provided by Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and of course the often admired political theorist Mao Zedong. Each of these learned individuals were in tune with the ‘informed’ du jour intelligentsia of their time and place.
    @Sean Carroll,
    You really need to get over your axe grinding with religion. For you to be bad mouthing others for believing in things they can’t prove while you play host to many ideas based purely on mathematical conjecture is absurd. You thumb your nose and display smug contempt and disdain for people who want to believe God created the universe, while your fellow physicists happily blather on about 10 Exp 500 universes postulated in string theory and you treat them cordially with respect and serious consideration. For all your education and esoteric specialization, you seem quite blind to the beam in your own eye of belief while you kvetch about the splinter in somebody elses.
    Please use Cosmic Variance as a forum to discuss your knowledge of math and physics, and not your contempt of religious belief.

  3. Pseudonym says:

    I note that David, in comment #25, makes the same error that William Lane Craig does, by assuming that science and religion fall into the same category.

    Sean, to his credit, did state in his piece that it is an assumption, and often an assumption that otherwise well-meaning scientifically-minded religious people say they don’t make, but effectively do without realising. Nonetheless, explanations about the physical world are not the only thing that religion provides, and it’s most likely not the primary adaptive trait which the evolution of religion enabled.

    Is religion is purely man made? Yes, in the same sense that music and storytelling are purely man made. But these are also inherent parts of the human condition. Nobody strictly needs religion any more than anyone strictly needs music or anyone strictly needs alcohol. Thinking that we can do away with it is like religious fundamentalists thinking we can all be celibate until we’re married. It’s wishful thinking at its silliest.

    Religion has “created more wars than anything else in this world”… if you squint and equivocate over that claim a lot. As any anthropologist will tell you, for most of human history, “religion” was not distinct a distinct concept from “culture”.

    There’s a sense in which science has delivered on every promise that religion made in the pre-Enlightenment era. It has healed the sick. It has given us the means to fly. It extended our lives. It has given us the means to destroy all human life in a fiery armageddon.

    Science gave us the airplane, and the building, and the economic and political system which makes people desperate enough that they will listen to a crazy guy who tells them to fly the airplane into the building.

  4. Pseudonym says:

    Christian, one comment on your comment to Sean:

    You really should read Sean’s piece. I self-identify as religious (up the ultra-liberal end of the spectrum), and I thought it was extremely fair. A couple of his assumptions about the nature of religion are debatable (though they were true in the case of Craig!), but he did acknowledge that they were assumptions and proceeded on that basis.

    I’ve followed this blog for years, and I’ve never seen Sean display “contempt” for religion-in-general. He has shown contempt for (though more commonly frustration with) certain anti-scientific religious beliefs that are common in the US. Even then he’s been pretty nice about the whole thing. Go read P.Z. Myers’ blog or Jerry Coyne’s blog if you want to see evidence-free contempt.

  5. blindboy says:

    I have always, perhaps natively, believed that to build an argument you must start from some proposition. The most fundamental proposition possible is that things exist. “shit happens” to use the vernacular. To try to answer “why” something exists rather than nothing is to fall into a bottomless, propositionless chasm of meaninglessness!

  6. martenvandijk says:

    Read ”I am my brains” (Dick Swaab).

  7. Paul Wright says:

    @ Christian Takacs: disagreement is not “contempt”, and your ad hominems against Carroll aren’t much of an argument in favour of theism.

    The difference between Carroll and Craig is that, as Carroll says “the scientists are willing to admit that they don’t really know.” Physicists can and should make conjectures and see whether they are internally consistent and match up to reality (I’d add that these conjectures are extensions to theories we already think are good, in contrast to Craig’s wild ideas about disembodied superbeings).

    Contrast this with Craig who claims, not just that there are lot of things we don’t understand, but that one specific god was responsible for some of them. Craig claims to be assured of this by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit such that there’s no (or almost no, it’s not clear) evidence which could ever convince him otherwise. Carroll is much more reasonable than Craig.

    [I tried to submit this once before and it seems to have disappeared, so apologies if it appears twice.]

  8. “Among my minor sins, I’m happy to confess that I would always check first to see if my name would appear in someone else’s paper. Apparently not everyone works that way.”


    I won’t mention any names, but apparently some people read all papers in their field, including mine, very quickly, or they have some automatic method of finding their names in papers which are only a few hours old. 🙂

  9. Ben says:

    @blindboy: a real question for you is: do numbers exist? If yes, what are they? (see my comment #19 hereabove) … you see, no “why” in this question, yet not an easy one. Probably also meaningless for you? But labelling every disturbing question as meaningless is the fast path towards nihilism, not the fast path to Science.

  10. martenvandijk says:

    First see, then believe , said blind Abraham.

  11. Joel Rice says:

    The universe does not need God to exist, the problem is that the Design of the World ends up looking pretty much God-like, in the sense of being about why the world is the way it is. But one does not go to church to hear a lecture on ElectroWeak theory and beyond. Religion is not about God – it is about good behavior. Ditto for Intelligent Design – the issue is not whether the design of the world was created, but that the design results in the existence of Pattern Recognizers – namely civilizations. Is it “intelligent design” ? Or is it “designed for Intelligence, ie pattern recognizers” ? Funny how any mention of pattern recognizers turns it into an Anthropic issue. Just to turn Wigner on his head – it would make perfectly reasonable sense to say that math is unreasonably effective in physics – if the design of the world is an algebra ! Last I looked at works on massively parallel artificial Neural Networks, and Bolzmann Machines and all that – there was lots of algebra.

  12. chris says:

    it’s pretty telling that the first thing the apostles of love and peace invoke is the death squad…

  13. James Gallagher says:

    What we really need to do is convince people like W L Craig that the answer requires a really big collider – then the fool might convince millions of deluded followers to actually invest the billions required to build the hardware (or convince the Republicans to fund it with a Bank tax or similar)

    Then get someone to chuck out an idiotic paper now and again suggesting how the latest particle discoveries probably explain the beginning of the universe.

    Depressingly, this might be the only way forward for big science projects, unless perhaps China gets its act together and takes over.

    I mean, Sean’s argument is more reasonable but it might be more beneficial for practical reasons to pretend that the theologians are on to something rather than ridiculing them.

    “Yes, William that’s really interesting, now if only we had $100 billion we could probably prove the existence of God.”

  14. martenvandijk says:

    The problem has nothing to do with physics, but everything with psychology.

  15. Jesse Rudolph says:

    34. Ben

    I think the questioning of axioms or axiomatic constructions is not meaningless because it’s disturbing, its meaningless because it is out of context, and thus not well formed. Whether or not numbers ‘exist’, without qualifying existence with a context, is of no consequence because they do in many abstract contexts by construction, proof, and axiomatic assertion, and in these contexts are where they derive their meaning and qualities.

    Imagine trying to prove the existence of skyscrapers in the context of pet grooming. The necessary language to describe it is not even available in this context. The question itself is constructed completely outside of the context of pet grooming to boot. Having an intuition for this is not a slippery slope to nihilism, it is a slippery slope to questions that can be answered with anything other than speculation and arbitrary nonsense.

  16. David Lau says:

    I will repeat that religious fanatics are out of touch and out of reality. I respect scientists a great deal more than religious fanatics and politicians. The reasons are what I have already mentioned in comment #23. Plain and simple. Science and religion do not fall into the same category. I also respect Sean’s reasoning and all of his blogging on cosmic variance. He is not bad mouthing anyone but to express his idea about the nature of science and how it is different from religion. When it comes to teaching evolution in a science classroom, any religious contexts and contents should be thrown out. Its real science that we want to educate the youths, not some fairy tales that they can do on the side if they choose to.

  17. collins says:

    Maybe long ago Dr. Carroll wrote why he’s been writing about atheism. The usual reasons are dismay at suffering through history, impediment to modernity, and sometime adverse personal experience in youth, all in the name of “religion”.
    He might wish to state (restate?) why he’s doing what phenotypically is a parallel academic career. It must mean more to him than just an illogical issue or a Rubic’s cube, to spend years on it. As he says in so many words, we are all products of our experiences. I know someone will say “what difference does it make why he writes about it?” but the Quo Vadis question (‘where are you going’) has the component of ‘where are you coming from’.
    I look forward to reading his Blackwell article (it will take time).

  18. Pingback: Why is there something rather than nothing? | Mano Singham

  19. James Goetz says:

    Sean, Thank you for the link with PDF version. I am currently busy, but perhaps I’ll have a comment or two for this thread within a week.

  20. francisco says:

    And where will this go. I am a simple man with no professional background. I have had the science I could understand and the faiths that were put before me on a plate. From what is heard on this page and on the streets of this planet, we all are trying to figure something out. Some try with the powers of science and some by the powers of belief. I know only what I see, what I hear, what I taste, what I smell and what I touch. I am 65 and can honestly say, I think from what the world has given me as knowledge, I know little.

    I will die and cease to exist. I will disperse whatever energy is life and maintain the energy of a physical self. Bury me. Let what I have become be part of the earth. Someday the earth will be no more. What I become will drift in the universe with not a trace of a life before. Perhaps be part of another world where I will become another form of life billions of years from now. To know this, is freeing.

    For me there is no heaven nor hell and what science there is can only guess and scratch at the surface of a mind so small compared to the size of the universe. It is incomprehensible to think we will or have an answer. I think humans will just be looking forever. That in itself is a meaningful occupation.

    For me I am glad to start understanding, it just is. I wish I could have known the simplicity as a younger man. I would have used this time to take in the sight of where I am, hear its sounds, taste the earth, smell the wind, and touch. I would have been a different human.

    Have a nice life.

  21. David Lau says:

    In my comment #23, I was contrasting between science and religion. They are certainly not falling into the same category. Science plays the game of Progress while religion plays the game of Congress. Pro and Con

  22. I understood “now” and “Pinky.”

    Quantum mechanics exists in this little area of science that my pea-like brain sometimes has a difficult time of understanding until I understand it. Then when I do finally understand it, my brain goes “holy crap” and it’s literally awesome. Like how I finally understand the whole idea behind the Big Bang because someone explained how it’s like a reverse black hole.

    Now I’m working on understanding the Higgs Boson.

    Good piece of writing, though. It got a bit confusing for me near the end, but I muddled through it.

  23. PD says:

    A universe can have a beginning without a singularity in the past, with the following reasonable assumptions, each provided with its base:

    1. The universe began its existence in the inflationary epoch, just empty and with only the inflaton field, which from the GR viewpoint is just a big cosmological constant. Base: though we have (non-conclusive) evidence for one-time inflation, namely the CMB anisotropy pointing to adiabatic density perturbations, anything before inflation is just speculation, and so this assumption is as good as any other.

    2. The universe is closed and finite. Base: WMAP observations point marginally but consistently to a small positive curvature (spherical geometry).

    With this assumption, the scale factor at the inflationary epoch is:

    a(t) = a0 cosh(H t)

    with H = c sqrt(lambda / 3), and a0 = c / H,
    and lambda the cosmological constant of the inflationary epoch.

    The universe starts at a finite, non-zero size, with the maximum distance between two points being (a0 pi).

  24. Ben says:

    @Jesse Rudolph: first of all, note that I’m not at all religious. What you didnt seem to get from my post #19 is that all fundamental particles and fields then have the same ontological status as numbers. When you are a working mathematician or theoretical physicist, you cannot avoid thinking as a Platonist, that’s most of the time the working hypothesis hiding in the background to make progress. Even though, for the rare people who think about it, and Sean is one of them (and I admire him for that, even though I disagree with his views on this), one can try some philosophical tricks to avoid admitting it. Mathematical empiricism is the most common such trick, but it has its own problems. In any case, these metaphysical questions about the foundations of mathematics are actually interesting questions, which might even indirectly lead to progress in hardcore physics. I personally think that the general disdain of modern-day physicists for metaphysics, contrary to the attitude of the great minds of the past (all great physicists of the beginning of the 20th century were keen on philosphical musings), is currently damaging the science itself. I personally am a non-theist (rather than atheist, but in the sense that I’m not feeling christian, nor muslim, nor jew, nor hindu, nor buddhist, nor whatever) but I am absolutely appalled that most atheist militants (Sean being an exception, but most of the contributors to this thread being good examples) think that their hatred of established religions necessarily has to go together with a hatred of Metaphysics, qualified as “arbitrary nonsense”… Hatred of metaphysics is not at all the signature of great minds to me, though this is the attitude of many fellow scientists… And that is surely ok for applied science, but damaging for fundamental science, and certainly a bit sad for humanity…

  25. Dennis J says:

    I would like to apologies for my earlier post. It was counter productive and rude. I love the idea that we live in a universe where we have to scratch and dig for the answers to these big questions.