John Burton is a retired Professor of Dermatology at Bristol University who published six successful medical textbooks. He has also written Why Man Made Gods and Dogs published in 2010 and his second book for the general reader. It provides an overview of modern science as it relates to religion, ranging from cosmology, mathematics and physics, through the thicket of biology and biochemistry to evolutionary psychology and even a little home-spun philosophy. It is written in a concise yet lucid style and is available from Amazon.
This paper was delivered to the South Somerset Humanist Group on 11th October 2012. I have chosen, with John’s consent, to publish it here because I think that for the non-numerate non-scientist like me, trying to make sense of things, it gives an admirable and accessible summary of the strange, mysterious and unexpected place science is showing us the cosmos we live in is turning out to be. I have added sub headings to make it easier to read on line, but I suggest you print off a copy for serious reading.
You may wonder why I’ve chosen to talk about physics and spirituality since I’m not a physicist and I’m not spiritual.
Clearly I won’t know what I’m talking about, but that is the point. Some theoretical physicists and mathematicians are spiritual precisely because they don’t know exactly what they’re talking about.
Basically this talk is about ‘Nothing At All’. You may think it‘s “Much ado About Nothing“, but nothing is in fact extremely important. I hope you’ll understand by the time I finish that some mathematicians believe nothing is more important than Nothing. Some of what I say might sound like surreal nonsense, but I assure you that these are serious scientific ideas formulated by some of the cleverest and best educated people the world has ever known.
BIOLOGISTS AND CHEMISTS
Scientists, particularly biologists and chemists, tend to be less spiritual than the general population. The reason is obvious, the more you understand about biology and biochemistry, the less need there is to seriously consider supernatural phenomena such as Gods and devils and angels.
When I was a schoolboy, biology was in its infancy and there were very many things in Nature that we couldn’t possible explain. Why do some people resemble their fathers? How do fingers know when to stop growing? How can a leopard-skin know it should have spots? What do lymphocytes do? The complexity of Nature and our lack of understanding of biological processes left room for supernatural or even divine intervention.
But things have changed dramatically in the last 60 years or so, due to scientific advances. Evolution has been definitely confirmed, DNA, genetic engineering, and many other biochemical advances have shown us that human life can be explained by rational science. There is still much we don’t know, but the more we learn the more likely it seems that we shall soon be able to explain everything. Its like a giant jigsaw in which we are steadily assembling the pieces and soon we’ll see the whole picture.
PHYSICS AND MATHS. THE QUESTIONS MULTIPLY.
Physics has also advanced rapidly in the same way of course, but their jigsaw puzzle operate in a different way, because every time they answer a question, this increases the size of the puzzle and throws up several other questions. We biologists can operate at the human level using our 5 senses and a bit of microscopy, but physicists cannot.
The basic physics that Newton did, explaining gravity and the motions of the planets, was also on the human level and for a while it looked as though everything would be explicable in terms of atoms. This led to the reductionist idea in the early 20th century that once we fully understood the Laws of Physics, we’d understand everything. Once we fully understood the Big Bang we’d then know exactly where every particle was in the Universe and we’d then know exactly how and why things happen.
But physicists studying subatomic particles gradually entered the weird world of quantum mechanics. It is very hard to understand the Uncertainty Principle, (which shows that we can never know exactly both the position and velocity of a particle), and ‘entanglement’ of particles which can apparently affect each other at great distances, information being transferred faster than the speed of light etc), and at the other extreme they discovered the immensity of the cosmos which is virtually unimaginable for humans. It can be dealt with mathematically, but this leads to very odd results with regard to novel ideas like the possibility of multiple universes. Physicist are continually finding answers, but the answers are getting more and more difficult to understand.
THE LIMITS OF UNDERSTANDING?
We may in fact have reached the limits of our possible understanding. Stephen Hawking’s latest theory for the creation of matter, the so-called M Theory, could be tested experimentally but first we should need to build a particle accelerator the size of a galaxy. It’s analogous to the monkey which learns how to solve a puzzle to get a banana from a box, but it will never understand why water is H2O rather than H2O2. It seems we may have reached our limits with regard to subatomic particles and the outer limits of the cosmos, and there’s still a way to go!
As St. Simeon said 1000 years ago, “What can the plough know of its maker?”
I think there are two main areas of physics that might suggest that there might be some giant intellect outside our Universe which is beyond human knowledge
1. The existence and the intellectual enormity of mathematics.
2. The possibility of multiple universes and recycled universes.
a). Maths exists outside the human mind. It would be out there in the Universe whether humans ever evolved or not, in the same way that mountains would exist, whereas bicycles would not, since they are created by a human mind.
Wigner wrote a paper in 1964 entitled ‘The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences‘, pointing out that maths seems to understand the answers in physics before we do. Einstein, for example, in his General Theory of Relativity (1916) found that maths showed the Universe was expanding. He couldn’t explain this so he ignored it, but 13 years later Hubble found experimental evidence that the Universe is in fact expanding.
Similarly Paul Dirac predicted the existence of the positron from mathematical calculations. It was later confirmed experimentally, and is now in everyday use in hospitals for positron emission tomography for brain scans etc.
The Large Hadron Collider has recently confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, predicted by Peter Higgs from maths calculations some 48 years ago.
How can maths produce more than is put into it?
M. Tegmark of M.I.T. points out that maths cannot have been ever created by humans, since in order to be created, a thing must first not exist in space-time (the real world, in which we all live), and then it must come into existence. Mathematics cannot not exist in time-space, as it was there when our Universe was formed. He believes that mathematical concepts exist independently of the real world (space-time) and indeed space-time might itself be resolved into a mathematical concept.
It seems that only a tiny fraction of all known maths affects our real physical world, and some areas such as non-Euclidean geometry may be important in different universes which we cannot access. Possibly the whole of maths is involved in other ‘real’ worlds with their own dimensions (space-time) and different Laws of Physics?
Galileo said “The book of Nature is written in mathematics“.
THE STANDARD MODEL AND STRING THEORY
Ed Witten is expert on the Standard Model and String theory. He says physical objects are made from atoms, which are in turn made from sub-atomic particles (protons, neutrons and electrons), which are composed of quarks, leptons and bosons which are formed from strings (incredibly small wave-particles which exist in 10 different dimensions). To fully understand this poses a mathematical question to which there are 10 to power 500 potential mathematical solutions. Each solution might spawn a different universe… clearly this is beyond human comprehension, since there are only 10 to power 80 particles in our known Universe.
It seems moreover that the strings are just numbers, and maths is the physical reality, i.e. matter is actually made from nothing more than numbers, but maths itself is derived from Nothing.
There are two ways of looking at Nothing, and they’re strangely related.
1. The zero used in maths. This can be used either as a convenient symbol, as when we distinguish 2012 from 212, or it can be a concept, as when we have two oranges in a bag and then remove 2 oranges, from the bag, leaving zero.
2. The vacuum (Nothing) from which particles in physics (and therefore the Universe) are derived.
Let’s start with the maths concept of zero. Early mathematicians like the Babylonians had no concept of zero and negative numbers, which allow maths to be developed.
John Wheeler claimed that the whole of maths follows from the idea of a set (a collection of ‘things’) which contains no elements. It starts with the assumption that 0 = 0. An empty set, one with no elements, is zero, as when all the oranges are removed from the bag.
No.1 is a set which contains this empty set, as when this bag itself contains the first bag..
The number 2 is then a bag which contains bag number 1.
Number 3 includes number 2, and so on, like those Russian Matrushka boxes which nest inside each other.
All these numbers thus consist basically of zeros,
Therefore the whole of maths is based on numbers which are based on nothing.
The whole Universe depends for its existence on nothing.
SUB ATOMIC PARTICLES
Now consider sub atomic particles. When the numbers two and minus two are present at the same time, they cancel each other out to leave zero. In the same way positive and negative electrical charges can both be present at the same time and cancel each other out. But the laws of quantum mechanics say that even a vacuum cannot have exactly zero energy, but must exhibit continual small fluctuations of energy. The result is that empty space is not empty at all, but is fizzing with particles that continually pop in and out of existence, perhaps for a billionth of a second or so. So subatomic particles spring into transient existence from Nothing, and also instantly annihilate each other all the time.
The maths of physics suggests that at the Big Bang, matter and anti-matter were formed from nothing in equal amounts, but it is unclear why they didn’t immediately cancel each other out in a flash of radiation rather than producing the matter we now see in the universe.
Quantum mechanics suggests these virtual particles decay at slightly different rates. It has been shown for example that the meson spontaneously decays at a slightly slower rate than the anti-meson, and this might be why matter exists in such large quantities in our Universe.
Now consider the possible origin of multiple universes. Black holes are basically simple; they occur whenever there is sufficient mass in a small enough space. If the entire Earth could be squeezed into a small ball with a diameter of 2 cm. it would of course be enormously dense, and might become a black hole. Black holes suck everything such a neighbouring stars and planets into them because of their huge density. We have no way of knowing where all that matter goes to, as we cannot see beyond the entrance. Such a hole could perhaps take in matter and spew it out on the other side to expand into another dimension, thus forming a new universe.
Alan Guth of MIT suggested that this ‘cosmic inflation’ may have created our universe at the Big Bang. It may be that huge black holes such as those at the centre of our and other galaxies are forming new universes as we speak. It could be that black hole in many galaxies are continually forming huge numbers of new universes like a series of contiguous expanding soap bubbles.
Should all this maths and physics make us spiritual?
Mathematicians over the ages have all agreed that advanced maths is beautiful, and some have said that, like beautiful religious music, a beautiful piece of mathematics can provide a spiritual experience.
Einstein would occasionally talk about God, when he talked about the laws which govern the Universe, He didn’t mean the Christian God, but he was merely reflecting the views of the philosopher Spinoza, for whom God was simply an expression of the harmony of the Universe, something so wondrous that it can command a spiritual awe.
Paul Dirac was a staunch atheist, of whom it was said “There is no God and Dirac is his prophet” and even he said “mathematical beauty is almost a religion to me.” He also said “God is a mathematician of a very high order”.
Fred Hoyle said that the laws of physics were so uniquely conducive to human existence that the universe must be a ‘put-up job’.
Physics shows that the very existence of our universe is a very improbable event. Martin Rees in his book ’Just 6 Numbers‘ showed that very slight changes in the value of any one of six or more constants (gravity, nuclear forces, etc) would have prevented our Universe from ever forming. There is also, given our particular universe, the improbability of earth being conducive to life as we know it (with the correct temperature, the moon to stabilize it, Jupiter to deflect asteroids, the presence of water, and so on). Bacteria existed unchanged for many millions of years and the eventual evolution of more complex cellular organisms, let alone intelligent life, was improbable. The earth might have run its long course and been eventually destroyed with only bacteria inhabiting it.
But highly improbable events happen all the time, particularly if there are infinite Universes in which they can happen, and Stephen Hawking in his latest book, ‘The Grand Design‘, said there is no need for a deity, because the Universe follows inevitably from the laws of nature. His M theory, if confirmed would explain the behaviour of all particles and account for the creation of the Universe.
But, we might ask, where did mathematics itself and the Laws of Physics originally come from? If spirituality is simply the feeling that there is something ‘out there’ which has greater intelligence than humans, then it is not surprising that some physicists are spiritual.
It seems to me that most people have a desire for an after-life, and the need to believe in something greater than humans, with all their failings and propensity to violence. Despite the paranoia about aggressive secularity which the Christian church is currently exhibiting, I think spirituality, as defined above, is here to stay, and any religion which teaches ‘goodness and love’, and avoids making statements of fact which can be disproved, is likely to have a long life.