Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creation Ex Nihilo? Moses vs. Lawrence Krauss

COBE on faith.
In a small land on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire, an unknown late 1st Century Jew wrote about the origin of the universe:

By faith we understand that the universe was created at God's command, so that what we now see was made out of what cannot be seen.

Much has changed about how we understand the cosmos, since then.  We now know that the ancient Greeks were right in surmising that Earth is roughly spherical, and about 24,000 miles in circumference.  We also know it is one of eight (not five, not nine) planets that circle the sun.  We know the sun itself is one of perhaps 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and that the larget quantity of mass in our galaxy is made up of things "not seen," but that can be deduced.  We know that the Milky Way is one of perhaps 200 billion galaxies in the visible universe alone, and that much more may be permanently out of our sight, because light travels at a fixed velocity, and it even if more galaxies are out there, the light from them can't have gotten here yet.  We know that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old. 

And we also now "know," that indeed, the universe was made of things that cannot be seen -- a singularity, or something like a singularity, first, then a universe expanding for some 300,000 years in an invisible plasmic state before photons were released, some of which (now stretched out into the microwave region of the spectrum) still cross our television screens as static when we flip to the wrong channel.    

How do we "know" these things?  Has the epistemological basis of our "knowledge" much changed, since the ancient author of Hebrews penned these words? 

I think the change is less than one might suppose.  We still know these things -- by faith, "the conviction of unseen realities," as our anonymous author put it. 

First, of course, we believe the scientists who tell us these things.  How did they find them out?  By reading measurements from a radiometer, then telescopes on board Soviet and American satellites.  But they didn't build those instruments themselves, so they needed to trust other people, in large part, for their results.  In fact  Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson, made a key discovery by accident, studying the stars, when they noticed their antenna was heating up more than it should have.  They then consulted Princeton cosmologists including Robert Dicke, who explained the data they had discovered as being caused by background radiation from the Big Bang. 

All that involved a lot of faith in other professionals.  It also depended on the researchers' faith in their own eyes and sense of touch, and in their own rationality and memory, which is of course is fallible as well. 

In other words, all three mundane levels of faith, by which we navigate the world around us, were involved in reaffirming the truth, long since announced in the Bible, and believed by faith all these years, that the universe began in a definite point of origination. 

Recently, physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a popular and controversial book (which I have not read yet), arguing in effect that the universe created itself.  Theologians and other believers in God have lost their last excuse: stuff comes from nothing, end of story.  This kicked off quite a bit of commentary, including from Richard Dawkins, with his usual magniloquence:

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

Don Page, an eminent physicist who is contributing to our new book, posted a review on Amazon taking eloquent issue with such appraisals of Krauss' book. 

And, in the New York Times of all places, from philosopher David Albert (no wonder these guys don't like philosophers!), these wonderful lines:

But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place.

Both men are right, no doubt.  But notice, not 100 years ago, but 2000 years ago, the author of Hebrews didn't quite say God made all things out of nothing, but:

By faith we understand that the universe was created at God's command, so that what we now see was made out of what cannot be seen.

A fact that Krauss, in his usual, shoot-from-the-hip way, is echoing, too.  Whatever God's role in creation -- still, as ever, controversial -- reasoned faith has now again confirmed what reasoned faith taught that ancient Roman Jew: that all we now see, what made out of what cannot be seen. 

And we still add, now as then:



David B Marshall said...

Hisself: Don't bother. Try to post here under a blasphemous name, and I don't even read your comment before deleting it.

A Lesser Son of the King said...

This reminds me of an adage that goes something like, "Physicists make terrible philosophers."

Whether this is true in general or not, the recent slew of books by physicists have definitely supported it.

Dr. Hawking, who said that philosophy was dead and then went on philosophizing. Now, Dr. Krauss who redifines the question before addressing it.