The Evidence from Physics and Cosmology (Part 2)

My previous post describes the evidence for a rational agent based on an ordered universe created by the “Big Bang”.  But if the laws of nature are so orderly, where does unpredictability come from?  Where does uncertainty come from?  We will need to know more about what we mean by “laws,” and why some of those laws might allow for some sort of non-deterministic behavior.  Might some non-deterministic activity be evidence for an ongoing role for a rational power in the universe?  But first, what are our most certain assumptions about nature?  What is it that all of physics depends on?  Leonard Susskind specifies three unconditional laws of nature (from The Black Hole War):

  1. The maximum velocity of any object in the universe is the speed of light, c. This speed limit is not just a law about light but a law about everything in nature.
  2. All objects in the universe attract each other with a force equal to the product of their masses and the Newton constant, G. All objects means all objects, with no exceptions.
  3. For any object in the universe, the product of the mass and the uncertainties of position and velocity is never smaller than Planck’s constant, h.

Susskind emphasizes, “There is no dispute . . . .  They apply to any and all things – everything.  These three laws of nature truly deserve to be called universal.”  For the really picky reader, there are some additional qualifications that probably need to be added, but I’ll ignore those now to keep things as simple as possible.

To these three unarguably fundamental laws, Susskind would probably add the conservation of energy (energy is neither created nor destroyed; mass being a form of energy due to Einstein’s famous equation, E = MC2); the conservation of charge (charge is neither created nor destroyed; electrons and protons are examples of charged particles); and surprisingly, time reversibility or conservation of information.   Susskind maintains that it is fundamental to the laws of physics that, in addition to predicting the future, the laws do not allow for an ambiguous past.  In other words, information about the prior states of a system is never lost.  He has successfully argued this point with Steven Hawking and apparently won. Roger Penrose appears to be a lone holdout in this debate about conservation of information.   Time reversibility will prove to be a paradoxical factor in the laws of physics.

Speaking of Roger Penrose, he would probably add to this list as well.  He rates our best scientific theories as ‘SUPERB’, ‘USEFUL’, or ‘TENTATIVE’.  In the ‘SUPERB’ category, he places Einstein’s theory of relativity (both special and general relativity), quantum theory, Newton’s laws of motion and law of gravity, and Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism.  Into the ‘USEFUL’ category go the standard model of particle physics and the Big Bang theory.

Let’s look at some of the implications of these fundamental laws of physics for an orderly, rational world.  The first fundamental law stating that the speed of light is the maximum speed for any observer is included in Einstein’s special theory of relativity.  There are some remarkable features of the special theory of relatively.  The constancy of the speed of light for all observers leads to conclusions that distances along the direction of motion must contract and time must slow down for any system that is moving with respect to another system.

This effect is symmetric with respect to two systems that are moving past each other at a uniform speed so that observers in each system will conclude that the other system is measuring shorter distances and slower times.  However, if one system reverses direction, this implication of the special theory of relativity will have permanent consequences.

For example, if identical twins are born on earth and one of them is placed on a rocket to a nearby star and that rocket is moving at a speed close to the speed of light, then the space traveler twin will return to earth younger that his or her sibling.  The effect of time slowing down is made permanent by the reversal of direction of the rocket.  The space traveler twin will experience acceleration and deceleration that will break any motion symmetry between the two twins.  This is called the twin paradox.

The surprise is that each observer in motion has his or her own time frame.  With the twin paradox, it is possible for anyone who is willing to travel fast enough to move forward in time.  The space traveler will return to earth at a time in the future compared to the traveler’s own clock or calendar. If one is willing to travel fast enough and far enough, one could actually return far into the future.

This effect has been measured in particle accelerators and in the effects of cosmic rays that strike earth’s upper atmosphere.  The high energy cosmic rays that strike high altitude molecules will create exotic particles (muons) which normally decay so quickly that few would reach the earth.  However, some of these particles are moving so fast that time is slowed down to the point where more of them can be detected at a lower altitude.

You might wonder if it’s possible to travel forward in time, is it also possible to travel back in time?  The answer is no.  Backward time travel world require traveling faster than the speed of light which is prohibited by the Einstein’s special theory of relativity, and Susskind’s first fundamental law above.  That is a good thing because if one could travel back in time, causality could be violated: it would be possible to alter history (for example, think of the movie, “Back to the Future”).  It is not even possible to send a specified signal at a speed faster than light.  If one miraculously had such a device that could send a signal at greater than light-speed, and if that signal could be relayed back to its source, then a report of a future event could be received in the past thereby providing the option of avoiding the future event!

Even though special relativity makes time relative to each moving observer, it guarantees that time will always move forward, never backward.  It thereby guarantees causality:  causes will always precede effects.  Causality is one of the fundamental guarantees of a rational universe.

From time to time, there are scientific theories or experiments that appear to show that the universe has the possibility of violating causality.  One such possible implication arises in general relativity in the theory of black holes – stars so massive that not even light can escape.  Another implication of a possible violation of causality arises in the quantum theory of entangled particles.  Both of these situations imply that the universe has capabilities that are not made available through any normal activity.  But even if the universe has the ability to violate causality, that ability is not available to its inhabitants and it is still not possible to send any message back into the past.

In fact, the mere possibility of a violation of causality in relation to black hole singularities led Roger Penrose to propose a cosmic censorship hypothesis which states that it is not possible to observe any physical process that will lead to a violation of causality.  The sort of determinism in which time always flows forward is a key property of this universe.  Yet this property is in direct conflict with Leonard Susskind’s assertion that the laws of physics must be able to be reversed.  How will this tension be resolved?

Susskind’s law concerning the conservation of information is based on a fundamental assumption that the laws of physics are unambiguous with regard to the past.  This is sometimes stated that the laws of physics are still true whether time runs forward or backward.  This feature of scientific theory is necessary if we are to project events backwards to arrive at a beginning point.  The obvious question then is why don’t we ever see time running backward?

In a previous post, I have framed my discussion of rational agency in terms of a contradiction between two concepts.  One idea is that the universe is fundamentally governed by deterministic laws which include a provision for random action. I have called this concept materialism, but its main determining factor is a randomness which accounts for any observational results that are not strictly predictable.  The other concept I have called a rational agent, but its main determining factor is directed, rational action that conforms to the deterministic laws.  I have stressed that these are two extremes and that the truth might lie somewhere in between.  So far in my discussion on science, I have described the Big Bang creation of the universe and special relativity.  Both of these narratives intimately involve matter.  Even if the rules governing matter are rational and rigorous, why does that imply a rational agent?  And how do rational laws result in uncertainty?

All of the theories listed above – from relativity to quantum theory – are models of physical reality.  That is, they describe physical reality using mathematical equations along with constraints or principles that are applied to the analysis of physical reality.  The mathematics associated with each theory is an integral part of the narrative that explains why the theory is true.  Without such a narrative, doubts would immediately set in if there were anomalous observations.  For a well-tested and mathematically consistent theory, there are strong reasons to doubt the anomalous data.

For example, not too long ago some observations suggested that neutrinos could travel faster than light.  There was an experiment associated with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland in which neutrinos were timed at about 60 nanoseconds faster than a light beam going a distance of 450 miles.  If that observation had proved true, it would have been a significant violation of special relativity.  The problem was eventually traced to a GPS synchronization issue between the two clocks used to time the trip, but resolution took several months.  This episode illustrates both the confidence generated by a mathematically consistent, well tested theory and the provisional nature of any theory.  The provisional nature of scientific evidence is one reason for looking at a gestalt of the evidence rather than relying too much on any one result.

As mentioned above, the special theory of relativity describes the way that different observers, moving at different speeds will view the same events.  Mathematical equations define how clocks and rulers change when moving at high speed.  These changes have been observed in particle accelerators:  particles accelerated to high speed flatten out, like a pancake, and particle lifetimes increase in accord with special relativity.

The naïve question won’t go away:  how is it that matter in the form of very small particles knows how to obey the laws of special relativity?  Unless one thinks that the real world is a computer simulation (and some actually do think this), how do ‘inert’ particles know how to behave under the laws of physics?  Either the particles are not so ‘inert’ or there is a rational power that enforces the laws of physics, or both.  This is part of my evidence for panpsychism.  Matter and consciousness are intimately bound together.  Matter is knowledge made manifest.  Our mathematical theories hint at the connection.

What our best theories don’t tell us is how physical reality really works, or as Stephen Hawking says (quoted by Jim Holt): “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to govern?”  Or as someone once asked, “How does the electron know to follow the rules defined by the equations of magnetic force?”  Holt adds, “How do they [the equations] reach out and make a world?  How do they force events to obey them?”  Our scientific theories are rational models of how the universe works.  As such they are evidence for a rational process at work in the universe.  But they are not the actual power that enforces the physical laws.  That power lies outside our knowledge, but our best theories are pointers or signposts that indicate that the power is real.

My answer to these questions is that it is a rational agent that breathes the fire into the laws of physics and makes out of them a coherent world in which to live.  In order to understand how that happens without recourse to any supernatural power, I will need to describe two kinds of uncertainty or unpredictability that are present in our empirical view of the universe.

The first kind is easily dispensed with.  It is what Leonard Susskind calls experimental “sloppiness.”  I think that is a bit unkind because what he means is the inability to keep track of all the minute details that are necessary for the prediction of a result.  Think of a drop of ink placed into a glass of water and how it spreads out with apparent randomness.  Theoretically, if we knew the positions and velocities of all the particles we could predict the spreading.    Not only that, but we could reverse the spreading so that the dispersed ink coalesced into a drop and popped out of the water!  This is what Susskind means by “time reversal” or conservation of information.  But before information can be conserved, we have to know what that information is, and in complex systems, it is impossible to know all the variables that we would need to know.

What is important in the conservation of information is that it be theoretically possible to reconstruct the past, not that it ever be practical to do so.  This type of unpredictability is caused by the observer’s lack of complete knowledge.  But, as far as I can tell, there is no ordering power in lack of knowledge.  So this type of uncertainty is not very interesting.  (But I don’t mean to denigrate such useful scientific tools as stochastic modeling!)

Much more interesting from the perspective of conservation of information is the uncertainty that comes from quantum physics.  This is a completely different kind of uncertainty.  It is an unpredictability caused by the universe’s direct intervention in the outcome of any transfer of energy.  If you’ve heard of Schrödinger’s cat or the “collapse of the wave function,” you already know what this is.

Schrodinger’s cat is the archetypal and somewhat hackneyed example.  A live cat is placed in a box with a poison vial which can be broken by a single well-aimed photon that passes through a half-silvered mirror.  A photon passing through a half-silvered mirror has a 50% chance of being reflected and a 50% chance of transmission.  So there is a 50% chance that the vial will be broken and the cat poisoned and a 50% chance that cat will live.  The example concludes by speculating that we won’t know if the cat is alive or dead until we look in the box.  But, more dramatically, the story raises the question of whether the cat exists in a quantum superposed state of half-dead and half-alive!  This is what distinguishes the quantum example from the first type of uncertainty which is due to lack of complete information:  Schrodinger’s cat would be both dead and alive.

We never observe half-dead cats; so most physicists believe that quantum superposition never rises to the level of cats or anything else as big as a cat.  That means that the photon wave function must collapse to a definite state before whole cats get involved.  Most people believe that the cat is either dead or alive before the box is opened.  (Lest anyone be troubled as to why the universe might get involved in choosing life or death for a cat, remember, it was the hypothetical scientist who set up the experiment!)

Oddly enough, science has not been able to resolve this deep puzzle about quantum physics.  Lee Smolin, in The Trouble with Physics, calls it one of the “five great problems in theoretical physics.”  Roger Penrose has written at least two books to put forward his theory that there must be some objective reduction in the wave function based on the laws of physics.  The main reason that this problem has resisted solution is that attempts to test when the wave function collapses typically cause the wave function to collapse.  There may be indirect evidence, however.

The indirect evidence to which I am referring is that the universe, by choosing an outcome in every transfer of energy, is actually adding knowledge to an observable process.  We shall need to look for processes at the quantum level that concentrate energy or concentrate information that would not be expected from the law of increasing entropy.  Some of this evidence will be found in my next post dealing with quantum coherence and quantum entanglement.  The remaining evidence will be described under the topic of evolution when I look at biological processes that increase order and concentrate energy.

Supplementing and partially compensating for the lack of direct evidence is the philosophical perspective of objective realism.   There are strong reasons to believe that the wave function does collapse even if there is no observer.  This is the quantum physics version of the conundrum, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall?  There are strong reasons to believe in the reality of quantum states and strong reasons to believe that the universe picks one of the possible quantum outcomes, but the evidence is circumstantial.

If one takes the point of view that the collapse of the wave function is a real event that is initiated by the universe (whether or not there are governing rules) then one has taken the position that the universe chooses one particular outcome among all the possible outcomes that are predicted by quantum theory.  That means that anytime energy is transferred, at least one choice is involved and more often many choices are required.  This is the basis for a fundamental ‘decisionality’ in the universe that underlies all activity.  It is this fundamental decision process that prohibits any backwards movement in time.  It is the reason that we only observe time moving forward.  And ‘decisionality’ is evidence for rational agency.

Leonard Susskind confirms this position by insisting that, in order for time to be reversed, the quantum state must not be disturbed:

“Take the photon. When we run the photon in reverse, does it reappear at its original location, or does the randomness of Quantum Mechanics ruin the conservation of information? The answer is weird: it all depends on whether or not we look at the photon when we intervene. By “look at the photon” I mean check where it is located or in what direction it is moving. If we do look, the final result (after running backward) will be random, and the conservation of information will fail. But if we ignore the location of the photon—do absolutely nothing to determine its position or direction of motion—and just reverse the law, the photon will magically reappear at the original location after the prescribed period of time. In other words, Quantum Mechanics, despite its unpredictability, nevertheless respects the conservation of information.”

In Susskind’s narrative about information conservation, I sense an underlying agreement with Roger Penrose.  It is the decision process associated with the collapse of the wave function that prevents time from running backwards and it is also part of the basic mystery of the law of increasing entropy.  In order for the fundamental ‘decisionality’ of the universe to lead to rational agency, it must demonstrate the ability to perform activities that minimize entropy.  We will see some of that evidence in my next post regarding lasers and superconductivity.

The inescapable conclusion is that the collapse of the wave function does indeed discard information: it concentrates information about the state of the universe; it eliminates possible energy states; it sets a limit on the increase of entropy.  Quantum physics began by solving a profound puzzle about the energy spectrum.  In the nineteenth century, the energy spectrum was considered continuous.  If the energy spectrum was continuous, then there would be an infinite number of energy states and any heated object would radiate infinite energy.  Everyone knew this wasn’t true, but it was Max Planck who postulated in 1900 that radiation energy was quantized in units that now bear his name.  This one simple change limited the number of energy states and reduced the hypothetical infinite energy to a finite energy that was confirmed by experiment.

If we are to truly understand how the universe works in all of its magnificence, how it is able to produce both deterministic order and adaptable life, then we need to understand any process that limits entropy or has the potential of reducing entropy.  That physical process is quantum physics.

These topics will be explored in my next post.

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The Evidence from Physics and Cosmology (Part 1)

(This continues my previous posts about the evidence for a rational power at work in the universe.  This part will describe the evidence from the “Big Bang” creation and will emphasize the orderliness of the creation process despite images of a chaotic creation conjured up by the appellation, “Big Bang.”)

If you do any physical activity at all – even lifting a glass of water to drink – then you have an intuitive grasp of the laws of physics.  If you play sports, drive, walk or run, you know about speed, time and distance.  You already know how fast to stop or which way to turn to avoid a collision.  If you can keep your balance, you have an intuitive grasp of gravity.  This knowledge is built-in probably from evolution, but also from experience.  You know that the world is a very ordered place and that the physical laws of nature have consequences.  There are events and causes for events; time always moves forwards, never backwards; energy is necessary for life; causes always precede effects.

We have evolved to have this intuitive understanding of physics and to learn from experience in order to improve our physical abilities.  If that is all the evidence you need to indicate a likely rational power in the universe, then you can skip the sections on physics.  But let me pose one question: If evolution has built in some hard-wired comprehension of physical law, what about our mathematical understanding of physics?  Where did that come from?  Few people are born with or have acquired the abstract reasoning to understand the physical laws.  It is a difficult process to apply abstract mathematical models to our universe, and those models lead to some very counterintuitive explanations for the deep reasons the universe is the way it is. And the most surprising of all is that our best models have been confirmed by experiment.   If you are willing to ponder these questions, read on.

One of the key discoveries in the twentieth century was the discovery that the universe was expanding.  Prior to the twentieth century, the universe was assumed to be static.  Albert Einstein, when he was completing his work on the theory of general relatively, believed that the universe was static.  Yet, his equations predicted that the total mass of the universe should lead to a contraction of the universe.  So he added a term to his equations called the “cosmological constant” term in order to counteract the contraction.  When the scientific community began to accept the new observations that the universe was expanding, Einstein realized that he had changed his equations because of an unwarranted assumption about the universe.  The cosmological constant has proved useful, but Einstein called this change in his original equations as his greatest blunder.  Einstein considered it a blunder not because the cosmological constant wasn’t warranted, but because he had put it in for the wrong reason.

In the Nineteenth century, the assumed static universe led to another puzzle.  Since it was assumed that the static universe had always existed, the puzzle was why hadn’t the stars burned themselves out?  (There are serious philosophical issues with infinite past time, but those won’t detain us here.)  Various answers were put forth to attempt to deal with this problem, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that astronomers began to observe other galaxies in the universe.  Not only were there other galaxies besides the Milky Way, but they were moving away from us.  And not only were they moving away from us, but the further they were, the faster they were moving!

When cosmologists projected the expanding universe backward in time, it led to the theory that the universe began as a very tiny region that rapidly grew in size until it was the size it is today.  This theory was somewhat capriciously called the “Big Bang” theory.  The beginning wasn’t an explosion, however, but a very fast and very orderly expansion.  The projected beginning time is now set at about 13.7 billion years ago.  Thus there was a direct, simple answer to the nineteenth century question:  the stars hadn’t burned out because they were still very young. The “Big Bang” did not become the accepted consensus until the second half of the twentieth century.

I used the word ‘orderly,’ above, because our current understanding of atomic physics agrees very well with observations from the early universe.  In other words, almost from the very beginning, as we now understand it, the universe has behaved according to a set of laws that undergird all of physical reality.  What is particularly amazing is that the various laws of physics worked together to produce the universe we now have.  We currently have no model of a unified theory that includes both Quantum Theory and Gravitation, but both sets of laws worked to produce a universe with the right fuel for stars to burn provided that the fuel could be ignited by the force of gravitation.

The evidence for the Big Bang theory comes from astronomical observation and from verified theories of atomic physics.  We can actually capture some observational evidence that originated about 300,000 years after the universe began when we observe the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) which forms an opaque horizon beyond which we cannot currently see.  Verified theories of atomic physics allow us to project time back to about the first second after the universe began.  Limitations in experimental and theoretical physics currently prevent us from confidently projecting back much further than that.

My first important point is that the universe had a beginning.  This is the consensus view in the science community.  If the universe had a beginning, then there has been a limited, finite amount of time for the universe to develop to where it is today.  That time limit is 13.7 billion years.  This point is important because it puts limitations on what a completely random process can produce compared to a rational process.  In other words, if 13.7 billion years is insufficient time for a random process and we know that some process produced a given result, then the existence of a result that is unlikely from a random process is evidence of a rational or a directed process.  The key assumption is that a rational process takes into consideration the laws of physics.

My second important point is that the Big Bang birth of the universe was orderly in the sense that it followed our known laws of physics.   It was not a chaotic explosion.  One significant piece of evidence that the creation was orderly is the extremely low entropy at the creation.  Entropy has traditionally been used as a measure of disorder: high entropy means high disorder.  The more modern explanation is that entropy measures energy dispersal.  Low entropy means concentrated energy and high entropy means dispersed energy.  We shall be using both interpretations, but I would like to point out that high energy concentrations call for our attention and amazement.  Lightning is an example of concentrated energy and we are justly attentive to its power.   Concentrated energy is unusual because of the second law of thermodynamics which states that in any natural process, energy tends to disperse: heat flows from the warmer object to the cooler object until thermal equilibrium is reached.

The primary elements of the Big Bang were hydrogen and helium in a ratio of approximately 75% hydrogen to 25% helium.  This is the ratio that would be expected from atomic physics for which we have very good experimental and observational data.  Elements heavier than helium like carbon and oxygen are created during the fusion of elements that takes place at the center of stars and during the explosion of large stars called supernovas.   The heavier elements that are essential for human life were fused in stars and spread into the universe from exploding stars; hence the expression that we are composed of “star dust.”

To give some idea of how low the entropy was at the creation, Roger Penrose has calculated the ratio of the energy dispersal at the beginning to the energy dispersal of the universe at its end.  That ratio gives an entropy of approximately 10123: that’s 1 followed by 123 zeroes.  Rather than explain Penrose’s math (which is based on the entropy of a massive black hole representing the entire universe), I would like to ask you to imagine the universe at its end, when all the stars have burned themselves out and all their heat and elements have been scattered uniformly throughout the universe.  That is complete energy dispersal.  At that point, the universe is at thermal equilibrium at a temperature near absolute zero.  The huge entropy calculated by Penrose represents the complete dispersal of energy compared to the incredible orderly concentration of energy at the beginning.

Stated another way, the beginning of the universe was very special because of the huge store of concentrated potential energy that was present in the 75% hydrogen and 25% helium that was created.  We could imagine another creation scenario where, instead of hydrogen and helium, we got iron or some random mixture of elements.  If the universe started out with iron, it would have no reserve of energy to burn in stars.  Almost any random mixture of elements would contain less energy for future use.  If there were no stars, there would be no life.

This discussion of entropy is typically the type of discussion one might have when one speaks of the universe being fine-tuned for life.  We can imagine the universe being created with just slightly different rules or values for certain constants so that life would not be possible.  There are about 20 different constants that need to have just the right values or we would have a very different universe, most likely one where life was not possible.  One way to visualize the complex dependencies present in the laws of physics is to look closely at the first 30 minutes of the creation.  The following description is based on Steven Weinberg’s, The First Three Minutes, along with other sources.

Somewhere around one second after creation, the universe is a very hot ‘soup’ of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons (anti-electrons), photons (particles of light) and neutrinos.  By this time, the protons and neutrons are those remaining after annihilation with corresponding anti-protons and anti-neutrons.  This slight excess (1 part in 1 billion) of protons and neutrons over their corresponding anti-particles is one of the big puzzles of the early universe. The remaining protons and neutrons are in thermal equilibrium with particles constantly undergoing atomic reactions such as protons changing into neutrons and vice versa.  Very energetic photons (particles of light) are constantly creating electrons and positrons which then annihilate each other creating another photon.  Protons and neutrons are beginning to come out of equilibrium and at that point neutrons comprise about 18% of the total number of neutrons plus protons.

As the universe cools, the density of protons with respect to neutrons is no longer governed by thermal equilibrium and the natural decay of neutrons into protons begins to dominate.  After the universe is about 10 seconds old, this decay is controlled by the Weak interaction (Beta decay), which causes the neutron to emit an electron and a neutrino, thereby converting into a positively charged proton.  Beta decay is a relatively slow process and the normal half-life of a free neutron (in this environment) is about 10 minutes.  That means that half of all free neutrons will convert to protons in about 10 minutes.  Once a neutron becomes bound to a proton, it becomes much more stable. But it is still too hot for protons and neutrons to bind together – that will begin to happen after the 3 minute mark.

After about 20 seconds, the temperature has dropped to the point where photons are no longer energetic enough to create electrons and positrons (anti-electrons).  There is a slight imbalance in the number of electrons and positrons with the electrons having a slight excess.  This is another huge puzzle for the early universe, because not only is there no explanation for the excess of electrons, but the excess of electrons is thought to exactly match the excess protons so that the entire universe is electrically neutral.  If the earth and the sun had an electrical charge imbalance of only one part in 1036, the electric repulsion between them would be greater than the force of gravity.

Once the creation of electron-positron pairs ceases, all pairs will annihilate each other except for the slight excess in electrons.  It is still too hot for any electrons to combine with atomic nuclei; that won’t happen for at least 300,000 years.

After about three minutes, the ratio of neutrons to protons has dropped to 1 neutron for each 7 protons (about 13%, down from 18%).  This ratio is critical for predicting the observed ratio of hydrogen to helium.  At this point the universe has cooled sufficiently for the formation of atomic nuclei.  The process begins with the formation of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen which has one proton and one neutron.  Deuterium then acquires another neutron to become tritium or it acquires another proton to become helium-3.  This is a short intermediate step that leads quickly to the very stable natural element, helium (minus the electrons), which has 2 neutrons and 2 protons.

After about 20 minutes, the universe has expanded and cooled to the point where nuclear fusion can no longer take place.  The percentage of helium produced is frozen at about 25%, by weight.  For each 16 nucleus particles (14 protons plus 2 neutrons), 4 (2 neutrons and 2 protons) are needed to make one helium nucleus.  And 4 is 25% of 16.  But there is also some deuterium remaining plus a very small number of other light elements (for example, helium-3 and lithium-7).  The small amount of deuterium remaining is a very important confirmation of this early creation scenario, because deuterium cannot be easily created by any natural process.  It is consumed, but not created and therefore the amount of deuterium in very young stars that we can observe in the early universe is a good indication of the amount of deuterium left over after nucleosynthesis ended.

The accepted scenario for the Big Bang is well confirmed by observation.  The quantity of light elements produced by fusion during the first 30 minutes is confirmed by measurement of these elements in stars and in interstellar dust.  These predictions are also dependent on the number of photons in the early universe and this is confirmed by observation of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR).

But there are also some very big mysteries associated with the Big Bang.  I’ve already mentioned the very small excess of particles over anti-particles and the fact that the excess electrons must match very closely the excess protons so that the universe is electrically neutral.  There is also the puzzle of “dark matter” and “dark energy” for which there is no generally accepted theoretical answer.

There is also another kind of puzzle: why did the various laws of physics produce results that are so consistent with the growth of the universe.  One example is the force of gravity.  Gravity is a very weak force compared with the electric force.  The electrical attraction between electron and proton in the hydrogen atom is about 1039 (1 followed by 39 zeroes) time stronger than the gravitational attraction.  The force of electromagnetism is governed by quantum theory and the force of gravity is understood by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  These two theories have not been reconciled and yet the early universe expanded at just the right rate and cooled at just the right rate to produce just the right fuel (hydrogen and helium) for stars to burn even though stars would not ignite for another 300 million years!

Those who have pondered the incredible fine tuning associated with the laws of physics find it hard to escape the incredible awe inspired by the birth of the universe.  How did all these forces and particles, governed by laws that we still don’t completely understand, how did they work together to produce a universe so conducive to life?  Does the universe know something that we don’t yet know?  As you might expect, there is another point of view.

That other point of view is the multiverse theory.  The multiverse theory says that our universe is not the only universe and that each one was produced by random chance.  Therefore, there should be nothing surprising about our universe.  We are here to ask these questions because random chance has created a universe conducive to life.  That’s all.  The fact that physical theory and observation agree so much, that is a coincidence.  The abstract world of theory and the empirical world agree because human life has evolved to see the real world in ways that make sense to us.  There is no ontological necessity that the world has the attribute of making sense.

For me, that is a difficult argument to accept.  The strict discipline of mathematics does not appear to be the product of evolution, though there are cultural aspects:  nobody today is doing math with roman numerals.  But ii plus ii would still equal iv.  I take the perspective that the amazing correlation between the abstract world of mathematics and the empirical world is a remarkable confirmation that a rational force is at work in creation.

For those wanting to explore the multiverse theory (and an enjoyable read of historical developments), I would recommend Lawrence Krauss’ 2012 book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  Krauss takes the path that the universe spontaneously burst into being from fluctuations in the quantum field and so leaves open the question of where did the quantum field come from.  Krauss’ path leads to multiple universes, each one created with random initial conditions, and that approach is very different from my approach which is based on the fact that the one universe we inhabit is the only one we can observe.  But his story of the Big Bang and his reasons for choosing his path are worth reading even if they differ from mine.

But even Krauss does not completely discount the possibility of a rational agent as a “first cause:”

In this regard, there is another important point to stress here. The apparent logical necessity of First Cause is a real issue for any universe that has a beginning. Therefore, on the basis of logic alone one cannot rule out such a deistic view of nature. But even in this case it is vital to realize that this deity bears no logical connection to the personal deities of the world’s great religions, in spite of the fact that it is often used to justify them. A deist who is compelled to search for some overarching intelligence to establish order in nature will not, in general, be driven to the personal God of the scriptures by the same logic.

Krauss’ observation about the difference between a rational first cause and the traditional deity of faith communities is important.  But I think that there is evidence that a rational power did not stop with creation, and that a rational power is currently active through life and consciousness.  I will continue to present such evidence in my next post.