Friday, June 14, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

I've been somewhat obsessed recently about nothing. In fact, I can't get nothing out of my mind. The reason why is because us atheists are accused of believing that 'nothing' somehow created everything, and this is supposed to make us all sound so absurd that we'll all somehow become Christians in order to restore our sanity. That's the dream of every Christian at least.

I'm a big fan of physicist Lawrence Krauss. I don't always like what he says about philosophy, but I admire his science cred and his antitheistic attacks on religion. When I read his book A Universe From Nothing he describes as best he can what physicists know going back as far as we can. In the early universe, as you get closer to the singularity, the laws of physics get fuzzy. General relativity breaks down and quantum mechanics takes over. But even then we cannot yet today fully describe the singularity itself because the equations that describe it contain infinities. It might for all we know be an actual infinity, but until we can describe quantum gravity, there will remain mysteries about the singularity. One thing is for sure, theology sure isn't going to offer us any help.

One of the criticisms of Krauss' book from my favorite punching bag William Lane Craig is that he says the quantum vacuum that we can describe the foam out of which the early universe sprang from is not technically 'nothing'. In response, in Krauss' lectures he tries to go back as far as he can to nothing as it might be possible. But, if indeed our universe is the beginning of all of time and space, and there is no other universe preceding it, then we'll never really be able to go back to a point where nothing truly exists, because as long as there is time, we will have something.

The nature of time is very mysterious, and I don't quite fully understand it. I'm not sure anyone fully does. Time appears to be a property of the universe, and not something the universe exists in. Einstein showed us that space and time are intertwined in what he called spacetime. If this is true, there never was a time "before" the universe existed. There never was a scenario when we had 'nothing', and then had something. That would mean time began before time began. So from the first moment, from t=0, we have something. What is that something? It's according to cosmologists and infinitely small, infinitely dense speck of infinite energy, in which everything that the entire universe will contain resides in. This singularity is our infant universe at the moment of conception.

The question then arises, is there a conceiver? Did this infinitely dense speck have a creator of some sort or some kind of cause? When I contemplate such ideas, I'm immediately drawn to the seeming impossibility for anything to precede time. It is like having land that is north of the north pole - it just cannot exist. The prime candidate we have as the creator of course is god, who I'm told lives outside of time and space by his adoring fans. We don't have any evidence that a disembodied mind like god can exist at all, let alone exist outside of time and space. For a mind to exist outside of time, it would not be able to think, since thinking requires time. A timeless, all-knowing mind would somehow have to posses all knowledge of all things that are true, including all logical truths, and all truths that are dependent on things existing, like you and me, all at the same 'time' so to speak. It would really be more like a database of knowledge than an actual thinking mind. It would also be frozen unto all possibility, because any execution of the will or thoughts would require time.

I don't think such a being, such a mind, or such a state is even logically possible. Such things only exist in the minds of believers, like talking snakes and perfect beings. A timeless mind is by definition, non-functioning. I'd even go a step further and say a timeless disembodied mind cannot exist, since minds must think, and thinking requires time. What then precedes the singularity? My guess is - nothing. There may be other universes that preceded it, but before time there was nothing. If time and space are interrelated, there can be no time before you have space. Therefore, the origin of the universe must be uncaused because any cause would entail something that preceded it, and nothing can precede time itself.

This has lead me to adopt the B-theory on time that sometimes goes by the philosophical name, eternalism. Under eternalism, the universe exists as a 4D block, where the past, present and future are all as ontologically real as every other moment. The block universe doesn't exist in time, it is time. Time is a property of it. This early universe's singularity is due to the second law of thermodynamics which states that entropy increases over time. So that means one end of the block universe has to be low entropy and the other end high entropy. Thus, the arrow of time proceeds from the low entropy singularity, to the high entropy abyss that our universe will become many trillions of years from now. Trying to wrap your head around this is not always easy, but, given our current understanding of cosmology and physics, it's much easier to understand than a timeless, disembodied mind, who is an infinitely perfect being, who couldn't quite figured out that slavery is wrong.

When trying to reconcile the origin of the universe, it makes much better sense under eternalism. The universe is eternal and has a beginning, and there's no room for a creator, since the universe never began to exist ontologically. Plus, the known laws of physics of relativity and quantum mechanics infer the block universe's existence. So in a sense the ancient philosophers of east and west were both right, the universe is eternal - just not in the way they thought, and it had a beginning.

We should never pretend that the science here is settled. As we learn more about the universe we will surely find somethings that will falsify our current knowledge. It is only through science however that we inch closer to the true nature of reality.

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