Does God Exist?

In 2006, Leonard Susskind, a physicist and one of the co-creators of string theory, wrote a book entitled The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. In this book Professor Susskind attempts to set forth the physics and the cosmology of string theory for a popular audience. The subtitle “The Illusion of Intelligent Design” appears to be more for the sake of creating controversy because much of the book is devoted to the finely-tuned physical constants, many of which we have already noted, that are necessary for life to exist, rather than to the presence of a creator and his design of the origin and evolution of life.

Professor Susskind posits that these precise physical constants raise the inference of a creator (intelligent design) but this is an illusion. The illusion results because there are 10500 possible four-dimensional universes (three spatial dimensions plus time). Even though only about one in 10120 such universes is capable of sustaining life, every universe splits into two identical (at that time) universes each time there is an event (a leaf falling, for example). Once again, simply by the laws of probability, some of these universes will develop as ours has. We think there must be intelligent design at work because we assume our universe is unique. In reality it’s only one of an infinite number of possibilities. All of the other universes besides ours are unreachable by us and their existence can neither be proven nor disproven. In other words, the “illusion of intelligent design” is no more provable that the existence of intelligent design.

Consider the ramifications of an infinity of universes suggested by string theory. Let us take Professor Asimov’s story a bit further. He ended “The Last Question” with a highly advanced computer creating a new universe. If string theory is correct, there are an endless number of universes capable of supporting intelligent life. If one of those universes is more advanced than ours, it is likely that technology in that universe has progressed to the point it can build simulated universes. We already see that in our world with humans sitting at computers and creating virtual worlds. Imagine greater technology that gives the ability to create not just a city or neighborhood but an entire universe, complete with “intelligent” beings inside them who are unaware that they are living in a simulation. Over time these simulated beings progress to the point where they can create simulations and voila, worlds without end. Thus there may be only one top-level universe and all the rest are simulations. Once again by the laws of probability we are one of the simulations. We may all be nothing more than a geeky kid’s seventh grade science project. Let’s hope the kid’s mother doesn’t call him to dinner and he turns the simulation off!

But here’s the thing. If that conclusion from string theory is correct, we are the product of intelligent design. The creator is not a Supreme Being that most associate with a concept of God but it is an intelligent being, whether that is the level immediately above us or several levels removed. At the top level, wherever that may be, there is an original, intelligent, non-simulated life form that set all the rest into motion.

Professor Susskind recognizes the limits of string theory. He concludes his book by saying that those looking for affirmation of intelligent design in the form of God will find little comfort in those pages. Yet he concedes that neither does string theory disprove the existence of God.

The question may not be, does God exist. Rather it may be, what form do you prefer your God to take?

What is God?

The concept of intelligent design usually involves a type of omniscient, omnipotent being. This being, who is generally known as God, has been the subject of millions of words and thousands of years of religious discussion. This God is the Supreme Being that science has tried to avoid involving in its theories since the time of Galileo. Science dislikes the notion that God was involved in the creation of the universe because such a postulate can’t be proven or disproven. Rather it has to be taken as a matter of faith and is thus unsuitable for science.

But intelligent design doesn’t have to involve God. If we carry the parallel universe theory to one logical conclusion (not the only conclusion, but one) intelligent design can be involved without involving God. Isaac Asimov wrote a delightful short story called “The Last Question” in 1956. The story begins in 2061 when man at last harnesses the energy of the sun. While a world-wide celebration is taking place, two computer programmers, half drunk, discuss this accomplishment.

Dr. Isaac Asimov, head-and-shoulders portrait,...

Dr. Isaac Asimov, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right, 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Now we have energy forever,” one says.

“Not forever,” the other replies. “The sun will eventually burn out and die.”

“That’s billions of years in the future,” the first says.

“But it’s not forever. The law of entropy says everything will run down eventually.”

From this the two programmers wonder if entropy can be reversed and decide to ask the computer.

“There is insufficient data for a meaningful answer,” the computer eventually responds.

From here the story shifts scenes several times. In each scene, which is in the future from the previous scene, a computer, which eventually become housed in hyper-space and accessible simply by thinking, is asked this question and each time the answer is the same: “insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”

Finally the last descendant of humanity dies and his mind merges with the all-knowing computer. The computer now has all knowledge that ever existed. Were it not for the final, unanswered question about reversing entropy, the computer could cease functioning. It spends a timeless interval processing the accumulated knowledge of humanity and can finally answer the question, can entropy be reversed?

“And AC said, ‘Let there be light’.

“And there was light.”

As with so many things first put forward by science fiction writers, later developments in science have moved this story from the realm of pure fantasy into a plausible scientific theory that is actively discussed in serious conversations. In fact, one hypothesis

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 2)

List of The Big Bang Theory episodes (season 2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

from string theory has made its way into popular culture. In a recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory” while trying to impress Penny, Leonard explains that one conclusion to be drawn from string theory is that we are all holograms projected by a far more advanced society. While this got some laughs from the laugh track (and probably from the viewing audience as well), it was not just the wild imaginings of the script writers at CBS. We’ll explore the notion that we are holograms or a sophisticated simulation run by a kid playing Farmville in another universe in coming posts.

Series and Parallel Universes

Carried to its logical conclusion string theory leads to a multiverse, or landscape, of independent universes. There are two ways of viewing the multiverse and its constituent universes. There is a series view and a parallel view. In the series view, the multiverse is one universe but we, in our little pocket universe, can only see a limited portion of the multiverse. The rest is so far away and is moving so fast that information (light) from those nether portions cannot ever reach us. This boundary between the observable and the unobservable is the horizon. Because we cannot get any information from beyond the horizon, whatever happens there is irrelevant to us. Events beyond the horizon can have no effect on our pocket universe.

The parallel view of the multiverse is more interesting. In that view there are many universes evolving simultaneously. At 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang “bubble” or parallel universes began to form because of slight variations. In the parallel or many-worlds view, each time there is more than one possibility, the universe splits, one for each possibility. Consider a leaf on a tree. The leaf can fall or it can remain on the tree. At that juncture the universe splits, one for the possibility that the leaf falls and one for the possibility that the leaf remains on the tree. At that instant both universes are identical except for the one leaf, but from that time forward each develops independently of the other. What is “now”’ to us lies in the pasts of innumerable future universes. Everything that can happen does happen. Perhaps not in “our” universe but in one of the future universes.

The parallel view of the multiverse is what science uses to rebut the need for a creator. With so many evolving universes at least one was destined to be suitable for life. But this view falls apart unless evidence is found for the multiverse. Right now it’s a conclusion to be drawn from M-Theory, which in turn is derived from string theory, neither of which can be proven.

Omega-Point-Multiverse

Omega-Point-Multiverse (Photo credit: Wikipediay, which in turn is derived from string theory, neither of which is capable of proof.

It seems we have three possibilities. One, the multiverse exists and we are here simply due to the laws of probability. With so many parallel universes one of the 10500 and probably more were suitable for life. Two, it’s all just a fluke. Like the one bridge hand dealt out of six billion possible hands, we got lucky. Three, there is a creator or some sort of intelligent design behind this universe.

Neither of the first two possibilities is very fertile ground for further speculation. Only statisticians get excited over probability and if this was just a fluke then that’s all that need or can be said about why we’re here.

But if a creator or intelligent design is thrown in the mix all sorts of intriguing questions pop up. What form does the creator take? What was happening before the Big Bang? If time began at the Big Bang was there even a “before” to talk about?

Down the Rabbit Hole

We are nearly at the limits of knowledge when it comes to the universe. The Big Bang Theory and quantum mechanics have done a more than passable job of explaining what we see. Looking ahead, a few tremors creep into our smugness, however. Scientists worry that we may have passed from the realm of testable laboratory science into an area where the equipment is not sophisticated enough to discern between competing theories. That was the problem faced by Gamow, Alpher and Herman in the 1940s with the CMB radiation theory. Technology may well advance to overcome this fear.

Another concern is apophenia. Apophenia is the perception that there are patterns and connections where none exist. In statistics this is called a false positive. Apophenia is a part of human nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be attuned to discern predators lying in wait. If they thought they saw a lion crouching in the tall grass and were wrong, they got a scare. If they failed to see the real lion hiding, they became lunch. The cost of believing a false pattern was less than the cost of not believing a real pattern.

One of the strongest primal instincts is that of finding meaning in life. We’re afraid of the void and the certainty of death so we try to find meaning in our lives. Yet quantum mechanics suggests that this universe is nothing more than a quantum fluctuation, a random event. Such a conclusion is not reassuring in the least.

So science soldiers on, desperately trying to prove itself wrong. The search now focuses on what physicists call a Grand Unifying Theory, something that will reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. Quantum mechanics only works when gravity is ignored, such as when the other three forces in nature are so strong that gravity becomes irrelevant. On the other hand, general relativity only works on such a large scale that quantum effects can likewise be ignored. A Grand Unified Theory would smooth the kinks between the two.

As we rewind the Big Bang everything collapses inward. The limit of understanding is reached at what is called Planck time, after physicist Max Planck. This is 10-43 seconds after the big bang. The universe is only 10-35 meters across, about 100 billionths of a billionth of the size of a proton. At that size time and space have no meaning. This is called the Planck scale. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle says that particles pop in and out of existence and can be hugely massive if their life is very short. General relativity says that enough mass compacted into a small enough space creates a black hole, an area where gravity is so strong that light can’t escape. Put these two theories together and one result is that, on the Planck scale, virtual black holes can exist.

Some physicists have jumped on this to create a new theory, string theory. String theory is fiendishly complex. Imagine a guitar string. The string is under tension and can produce different harmonics depending on how it is plucked and where. Imagine a tiny string on the Planck scale, but still under tension. Some are free at both ends while some join ends to form circles. Strings can interact. As strings move through time they trace out a sheet, if they are open, or a tube if they are closed. Each string vibrates just like the guitar string and the particular vibration mode determines the mass, spin and electric charge of a particle.

At first string theory seemed promising as a Grand Unified Theory. In the 1980s scientists discovered not one but five separate string theories, with no way to determine which one was the “right” theory. Shades of Big Bang vs. Steady State!  In addition, string theory requires 10 dimensions.Then in the 1990s more work led to the conclusion that instead of being five separate theories, there were five ways to look at a single theory. There is an underlying theory called M-Theory that explains all five separate string theories.

The creator of M-Theory, Edward Witten of Princeton University, never explained what the “M” stands for. Some have suggested “mystery”, “mystic”, “monster”, “matrix”, “mother” (as in mother of all theories), and “membrane”. The latter, membrane, seems to have stuck. In M-Theory there is another dimension, bringing the total to 11 (but who’s counting?). A general object under consideration in M-Theory can range from zero dimensions to a total of nine. A point is a zero-brane. A two dimensional object is a two-brane, or membrane and so on. In three dimensions the theory has to deal with solid objects with interconnecting holes, much like a ball of knotted rope has the rope strands with space (holes) between the strands.  Over six billion “knots” have been described by means of another theory called Knot Theory.

By the time we get to 10 or 11 dimensions the number of possible objects is almost infinite. However if we limit ourselves to four dimensions of space-time, like our own universe, the number becomes a more manageable 10500. Each of these four-dimensional objects has more dimensions on the Planck scale (just as ours) and a unique set of forces and laws on the macroscopic scale. The question naturally arises, what if our universe is one of those 10500 possible states?

In the past couple of decades thousands of papers have been written by extremely bright theoretical physicists. Yet M-Theory hasn’t been proven. Some argue that because of its complexity and the fact that it is non-unique, it can’t be proven and therefore isn’t science any more than Genesis is science.

It used to be so simple. The universe was all there is and we strived mightily to explain it. Now it seems that our universe could be just a “pocket” universe in a landscape that is called the multiverse. The multiverse proposes a vast number of parallel universes, each with its own physical laws and all unobservable to us. If we can never observe them, can they be said to exist? It’s like the question, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, is there a sound?

Never mind. Having come this far we can’t retreat now. We shall proceed forward and consider the implications of the multiverse and a creator. Fair warning, dear Alices: we are about to go down the rabbit hole.

How Weird is My Universe?

By now you might be scratching your head in frustration. That’s normal. The universe is easy to explain the less you know. The more you know the weirder things become. Let’s introduce two more central concepts, both of which add immeasurably to the weirdness.

English: Wave particle duality p known

English: Wave particle duality p known (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first is complementarity. Recall that there are bosons for carrying forces and fermions that make up matter. Photons carry electromagnetic waves like radio waves, light waves, microwaves, x-rays, gamma rays, etc.  Complementarity says that anything can act like a particle or a wave depending on the circumstances. In one classic experiment, light shines through two narrow slits onto a screen. Interference patters appear on the screen as if the waves of light are interfering like waves on a pond of water. So far so good because electromagnetic radiation is thought of as a wave and that behavior is expected in waves. But if the light source is turned way down so that the light escapes one photon at a time the interference patterns still show up, as if the photon passes through both slits and interferes with itself. Richard Feynman, one of the 20th century’s leaders in quantum theory, said if you can explain this, you understand quantum mechanics. Then he added, “no one understands quantum mechanics.”

A second concept is the uncertainty principle. This was developed by Werner Heisenberg and bears his name as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It states that the mere act of observing something at the subatomic level changes its properties.

Think of what happens when we see something. Light reflects off whatever we are looking at, hits the retina in our eyes and is transmitted as an image by our brain. Similarly, when we observe something at the subatomic level, a wave of some sort reflects off the thing and makes an image that can be detected by highly sensitive equipment.

In order for something to reflect back an electromagnetic wave so that it can be detected the wavelength has to be much smaller than the object. That’s why police “radar guns” don’t really use radio waves; they use microwaves. Radio waves are much too long to give a good image of a car.

Electromagnetic waves of whatever wavelength carry energy. The longer the wavelength the less energy the wave has; the shorter the wavelength the more energy it has. So a radio wave, with a wavelength of one to several meters, has less energy than a light wave, which in turn has less energy than x-rays or gamma rays.

When a light wave hits a car some of its energy is transmitted to the car. Because the car is so massive and the energy of the light so small in comparison, there is no discernible effect on the car.  But when we start trying to “see” subatomic particles using very short wavelength electromagnetic waves the energy of the wave is enough to affect the particle. As soon as the wave hits the particle, it is no longer in the same position but has moved, simply because we “looked” at it. Thus we can never be certain of a particle’s position. All we can do is express its position in terms of probabilities as to where it might be.

Complementarity and the uncertainty principle are linked. Particles have a definite position while waves have a definite direction and momentum. Since anything can exhibit both “particleness” and “waviness” at the same time, trying to observe anything changes one or the other of these properties. When we determine the position, it comes at the expense of knowing its direction and momentum and vice versa.

Einstein was frustrated by this lack of certainty, which led to his famous statement that God does not play dice with the universe. However, quantum mechanics is nearly a century old and has stood the test of time. The universe is governed by probabilities, like it or not. Nothing is real until it is observed. An electron is a wave of probability until it is observed, at which time it collapses into a finite reality.

More Evidence of a Creator?

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...

English: René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve already made note of the fact that the big bang looks a lot like the Bible’s description of the formation of the world. We’ve noted that the rate of expansion of the early universe had to be within tolerances on the order of 1 part in 1015 either way. That much more and stars wouldn’t have formed; that much less and everything would have collapsed by now. In the last post we saw the asymmetry between matter and antimatter necessary for the stars and galaxies to form and that that asymmetry is on the order  of one part in 109. As they say in TV commercials, “but wait! There’s more.”

If the asymmetry between matter and antimatter had been smaller, say one part in 1011 there wouldn’t have been enough matter for galaxies to form.  And if it had been greater, on the order of one part in 108 the abundant matter would have congealed into enormous lumps without forming discrete stars.

The same surprises exist in the world of particle physics.  If the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together were a few percentage points greater quarks wouldn’t form protons.  If it were five percent weaker stars couldn’t make heavy elements past hydrogen. If the weak force was much stronger the big bang would have cooked atoms all the way up to iron, leaving no lighter elements. If gravity was stronger stars would be mostly weak red dwarfs; much weaker and they would be fast-burning blue giants.  Either way so-called normal stars like our Sun would be non-existent or rare.

Many have seized on these incredibly improbable coincidences as evidence that some “Cosmic Designer” is at work. It is ironic that cosmology and physics can be conscripted to give evidence of a creator. This notion that the Goldilocks universe in which we live didn’t happen by chance is called the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle can be expressed many ways but the most common is, “the universe is the way it is because we are here to see it. If it weren’t the way it is, we wouldn’t be here.” This is reminiscent of Rene Descartes statement Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am, or cogito ergo sum in Latin). Descartes, a French philosopher of the 17th Century, set out to develop a set of fundamental principles that one can know without any doubt. As a starting point he had to prove his own existence. This he did by concluding that because he thinks, he exists. “The simple meaning of the phrase,” he wrote, “is that if one is skeptical of existence, that is in and of itself proof he does exist.” Similarly, the universe exists as it does because we are here to question its existence.

Does all of this mean there is someone or something behind the big bang? Consider this hypothetical. You have been sentenced to death by a firing squad of 100 trained sharpshooters. You stand blindfolded and hear “ready, aim, FIRE” followed by a volley of shots. Suddenly you realize you are not dead. Under these circumstances the law says you may go free. Is it not realistic to see a higher power behind this? Aren’t the odds against all 100 sharpshooters missing you so astronomical as to be impossible in the absence of divine intervention?

On the other hand, the odds of a bridge player being dealt a particular hand are something like one in six billion. Does the bridge player marvel at the hand she has been dealt or does she simply play the hand she has? Most bridge players play the hand they are dealt rather than wonder why they got that particular hand, since all hands are equally likely.

Many scientists have taken the latter position — that the universe just happened this way. But to bolster their position against the “astronomical odds” argument, they suggest that one view of reality is that there is an enormous number of existing universes, on the order of 10500 (1 followed by 500 zeroes). With so many universes it is virtually certain that one of those is suitable for life. Therefore the Anthropic Principle holds true: the universe is this way because we are here to see it. We need not wonder at this particular state any more than we wonder at any other state. By making the universe non-unique in the sense that this is not the only one there is, the need for a creator is eliminated and replaced by simple laws of probability.

So where did these 10500 universes come from? For that we need to enter the world of string theory.

What is Stuff Made Of?

The Standard Model starts out with this simple question: what is stuff made of?  Until about 100 years ago the answer would have been “atoms.”  The very word atom comes from a Greek word meaning “indivisible.”  Scientists thought atoms were the solid building blocks from which everything else was made.  Ernest Rutherford and others showed that atoms are mostly empty space.  There was a dense nucleus made up of protons (positive electric charge) and neutrons (neutral), surrounded by the cloud of negatively charged electrons.  For a time protons, neutrons and electrons were considered fundamental particles, indivisible any further.  Then in the 1960s “atom smashers,” machines that accelerate particles to extremely high speeds and smash them into each other, showed that protons and neutrons were composed of partially charged particles called quarks.  There was also a weightless particle called a neutrino that could pass through thousands of miles of solid iron without slowing down.  But things were still fairly simple.  There were quarks, electrons and neutrinos. Quarks are incredibly tiny.  If an atom was the size of the Earth, a proton would be a football stadium and a quark would be a tennis ball.

In the next decade, more powerful particle accelerators, capable of accelerating particles to near light speed, demonstrated hundreds of fundamental particles.  All seemed to fall into one of 12 categories of fermions, depending on their mass.  The lowest level of fermions contains normal matter:  up and down quarks, electrons and neutrinos.  The next two levels contain fermions that exist only fleetingly in particle accelerators.  Each of the 12 fermions has a corresponding antiparticle that can only be created with a sufficiently energetic collision.

English: Standard model of elementary particle...

English: Standard model of elementary particles: the 12 fundamental fermions and 4 fundamental bosons. Please note that the masses of certain particles are subject to periodic reevaluation by the scientific community. The values currently reflected in this graphic are as of 2008 and may have been adjusted since. For the latest consensus, please visit the Particle Data Group website linked below. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a counterpart to fermions there are four bosons that carry all forms of energy.  Photons carry electromagnetic energy (light and all other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation). W and Z bosons carry the weak force, which gives rise to radioactivity; and the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together.  Finally there is the hypothetical graviton that carries the force of gravity.  The graviton has never been observed.

The theoretical framework that describes the 12 fermions and four bosons is called the Standard Model. The Standard Model does for particle physics what Newtonian physics first did for the observable world (the world we live in) and General Relativity did for the cosmos. It explains what we see. The Standard Model predicts that the four fundamental forces, which vary greatly in their strength, will be unified at sufficiently high energy. This prediction was partially proven in the 1970s when the electromagnetic and weak forces were unified. Like Newtonian physics and General Relativity, the Standard Model is incomplete. It fails to explain why there are three levels of quarks and light particles. It leaves open the possibility that quarks may be further divisible. For a time scientists theorized another boson called the Higgs boson that gives all other particles their mass in order to preserve the Standard Model.  In July 2012 scientists using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN discovered the Higgs boson. This gave a huge boost to the Standard Model, which some felt had outlived its usefulness.

Why is this important to us? Let’s revisit the Big Bang. One millionth of a second after the explosion the universe is about the size of our solar system and is as dense as air. It’s 10,000 times hotter than the core of the sun. Particles and antiparticles appear, collide and annihilate each other at a staggering rate. By ten millionths of a second after the Big Bang expansion has cooled the universe to the point that particles and antiparticles can no longer form from the radiation. The number of particles and antiparticles is fixed and they begin a war of mutual extermination. By 100 microseconds, a twentieth of the time it takes a bee to flap its wings, it’s all over. All the particles and antiparticles have paired up like guys and gals at a dance. There are no wallflowers. All matter is extinguished and the universe contains only radiation.

But wait, you say. That would be the “nothing” universe and we already know there is “something” because we’re here to wonder how it all began. And you would be right. For some unknown reason the symmetry between matter and antimatter wasn’t perfect. It was off by one part in a billion. For every billion antiparticles there were a billion and one particles. When the last particle of antimatter paired with a particle of matter there were a billion photons for every particle left, and no antiparticles. The photons continued to spread out to be discovered billions of years later as cosmic microwave background radiation and the remaining particles combined under the force of gravity to become 100 billion galaxies, one of which contains a very ordinary star around which eight planets revolve, one of which we call home.

How big is one part in a billion? Imagine someone has laid out pennies over an area three miles on a side. All pennies show heads except one. That one penny showing tails is the one particle of matter left after the billion pennies showing heads were annihilated by another billion pennies showing tails.  It’s from those leftover tails that the universe is made.