Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Down The Rabbit Hole With Me

Divine Stardust



Picture, if you will, a very large old house. It has a basement and some rooms that have been added in various places over the years, so one gets the impression that the structure has not been planned architecturally. It has many doors to admit people from the outside, and on the inside it has many doors between rooms. Occasionally between two older rooms there is a new room or a passageway that has been added. There is no name for the house, but it contains a room for each discipline found in the context of higher education.

We are constructed with material and stamped with a coded reminder of the One to whom we owe our ultimate existence.
In one part of the basement, close to the foundation, the rooms of mathematics and physics are found. Directly above is the room called chemistry and above that biology. It is no accident the building is arranged this way, for the location of these rooms is indicative of their relational dependence.

In another part of the basement the rooms philosophy and theology can be found, and above, covering several levels, appear art, history, music, and many other disciplines that we collectively study. Two noticeably unique features about this structure exist: First, rooms such as biochemistry and bioethics have been added rather recently. They are positioned between older rooms which have been around for a long time. Secondly, there are passageways that connect various disciplines so people can move, for example, from philosophy to any of the sciences or from ethics to business.

Persons of all backgrounds may enter this building, but relatively few go to the basement. While the rooms located there serve as the foundations for those above them, the rooms are relatively quiet compared to many others. In each room there are various nooks and corners which identify the various subsets of the discipline. As we now enter the room named physics we see the specific subsets: atomic, solid state, space, nuclear, thermal, and so on.

Immediately adjacent to the nuclear part of the room is the entry into another rather new room, which is located between physics and astronomy. It has been given the name cosmology. While much of physics is concerned with the ultrasmall, modern cosmology concentrates on the ultralarge as well as the ultrasmall.

ADVANCES IN THE FIELD OF COSMOLOGY
By the close of the twentieth century, the field of cosmology has presented us with some rather startling advances regarding our universe. Only in the past three decades has it been possible to catch a consistent picture of the universe and humankind’s place in it.

A few years ago, Michael Behe produced a book titled, Darwin’s Black Box.1 It deals with certain biochemical systems which he describes as “irreducibly complex.” An example by which he illustrates this idea is the ordinary mousetrap. If you remove any one of the key components of a mousetrap it will not function. He then showed how the same idea can be extended to certain biochemical structures. His book is not against biological change once the system is constructed, but it does challenge the reader to envision the processes whereby the system was initially arranged to be just right.

It is an interesting book, but I want to move the discussion found in Behe’s book to an even deeper level and consider a more fundamental question. Why are the atoms and molecules that make up trees, cars, and computers even here? Or stated more personally: Why are you even here?

You might be concerned with the teleological aspects of such a question, and rightly so because this certainly is a key aspect to be addressed. But I am going to leave that part of the question to first focus on another, often overlooked aspect of the question which considers the underpinning physical properties that make it possible for us to be here. So, the question can be narrowed: Why are you even here physically?

For many centuries, the earth and its inhabitants were viewed as super special by virtue that the earth was thought to be located at the center of the universe. In such a view everything was about humanity. Then Nicolaus Copernicus came along and disrupted the official view of the church (early sixteenth century). He was followed many years later by Harlow Shapley (1917) who showed that even the sun is not at the center of the galaxy. Then Edwin Hubble demonstrated (1920s) that the galaxy in which we are located is not at the center of the universe.

The dislocation of humanity’s centrism in the observed universe was reinforced by advances in astronomy which started down the path that today shows our part of the universe to be very ordinary. The adoption of what became widely known as the Copernican Principle made it clear that, taken on a large scale, the universe is very homogeneous. During the twentieth century, special and general relativity as presented by Albert Einstein reinforced this view of a universe without any special reference frame. The Cosmological Principle—that an observer’s view of the universe depends neither on the direction in which one looks nor on one’s location—was often quoted to capture the idea that, since the universe is very uniform, there is no preferential location for the earth or for human beings.

A NEW AWARENESS
Now as we reflect back upon a century filled with an explosion of knowledge, a new realization about the universe has occurred. That realization is that in the eyes of the Deity, the whole universe of which humans are a part is incredibly special.

This realization has occurred with greater frequency during the past twenty-five years by a conjunction of several scientific disciplines. Back in the big old house, persons from chemistry, nuclear physics, particle physics, astronomy, and astrophysics got together during lunch breaks up on the top floor. Occasionally philosophers and biologists joined the discussions. During the course of their conversation they merged their insights to produce a wealth of new understanding about the universe. So today, the study of the ultralarge (cosmology) is understood to be closely connected with the study of the ultrasmall (particle physics).

We live in a very fortunate period of time regarding humanity’s understanding of the basic structure of the cosmos. There is still much to do to fill in the details, but enough is understood that the broad brush strokes which describe our cosmos should be a discussion point that can engage everyone. Among the broad brush strokes is the clear knowledge that (1) we live in a very old universe, and (2) this universe is very carefully designed. What is the evidence for these claims?

An Old Universe
The first claim, regarding age, is rather straightforward. There are several key evidences of which I will mention but two. First, we know that as the universe expanded during the initial phases of the big explosion which propelled a high temperature plasma, only the lightest elements—hydrogen, helium, and lithium—were formed.2 The observed abundances of these lightest elements are consistent with the short times available for their formation during the early moments of the universe.

To produce the elements from boron through iron requires fusion reactions that take place over a few billion years, as a star accretes matter and generates the necessary pressure and temperatures. As the star continues to burn and the temperature increases, endothermic reactions kick in which initiate the buildup of those elements from iron on up. In some cases the star may become unstable and a supernova occurs which distributes the contents of the stellar crucible over all the cosmos. The process of accretion then begins anew to form a second generation star, but now with the heavy elements already produced during the earlier era.

When optical spectra coming from old stars are compared to those from younger stars there is a vast difference which directly shows the result of nucleosynthesis. Since our earth and sun possess many heavy elements which are part of the stardust that required billions of years to produce, the very presence of these elements serves as an indicator of the long elapsed time. In effect, each person or plant is another evidence of the long past needed to produce the elements from stars which are needed for life.

A second evidence of an old universe is the direct observation, first announced by Edwin Hubble, that the universe is expanding. This discovery in the 1920s produced quite a stir among cosmologists who preferred the universe to be static and infinitely old for philosophical reasons. However, with Hubble’s discovery comes the realization that the universe had a beginning, has been in motion for about fifteen billion years, and appears able to continue to expand indefinitely.

A Carefully Designed Universe
The second claim, that we live in a very carefully designed universe, is one that was only realized in the last part of the twentieth century. With the advent of large particle accelerators, we have been able to gather details about atomic and nuclear structure and to slowly gain a perspective of the basic interactions which operate at the atomic and subnuclear levels. These studies involve the use of quantum mechanics and higher mathematics in order to understand the quantitative symmetries and important slight asymmetries which are present.

As a result, we now talk routinely about the four basic forces present in the universe: strong, electromagnetic, weak, and gravitational. Two of the four forces, the electromagnetic and the weak, are really one overarching force, which operates in different situations. The great hope is that someday a grand unified theory will be found that will include all four forces and thereby increase our understanding of those very early moments of the universe when giga-sized energies and temperatures were present.

EVIDENCES OF DESIGN
In recent years, physicists and cosmologists have realized that the forces which are responsible for the basic building blocks of matter are themselves somehow inherently carefully constructed within narrow limits. There appears to be something at work which has made it possible for the universe to change while yet maintaining its cosmic focus.

David Schramm, noted cosmologist, has written, “It [the universe] had to be a very, very carefully laid out machine. We also know that the universe seems to be very fine-tuned. One of the giants in the area of nuclear physics, Victor Weisskopf, put it this way, “It looks as if ‘somebody’ had arranged it so the density is the same all over, even in places that would not have had any possible communication or interaction with one another.” And further, the origin of the universe can be talked about not only in scientific terms but also in poetic and spiritual language, an approach that is complimentary to the scientific one. Creation ex nihilo (L. "from nothing") is thought to be the most common type of creation described in these stories. It is the type of creation described in the Genesis creation narrative in the Bible in Judaism and Christianity, and also in the Koran's Sura VII in Islam. It is also known as "creation de novo". Besides in the Bible, Ex nihilo creation is found in creation stories from ancient Egypt, the Rig Veda and many animistic cultures in Africa, Asia, Oceania and North America. In most of these stories the world is brought into being by the speech, dream, breath, or pure thought of a creator but creation ex nihilo may also take place through a creator's bodily secretions. The literal translation of the phrase ex nihilo is "from nothing" but in many creation myths the line is blurred whether the creative act would be better classified as a creation ex nihilo or creation from chaos. With ex nihilo, the potential and the substance of creation springs from within the creator. Such a creator may or may not be existing in physical surroundings such as darkness or water, but does not create the world from them. In creation from chaos the substance used for creation is pre-existing within the unformed void. Indeed many ancient religions of the Mediterranean world described the beginning of the world in a way that is surprisingly similar to the scientific model.
And then Weisskopf quotes Genesis 1:1.

The words, “fine-tuned” imply that if any of the four fundamental forces were changed by a very small amount, typically one percent or less, the atomic, nuclear, and gravitational structures composing our universe would not be sustained. Two examples of many should help illustrate this insight. Consider the case of gravity, the weakest of the four forces. If it were slightly stronger, matter would accrete faster and stars would burn more rapidly and there would not be time to fuse the nuclei needed to sustain life. If the force of gravity were slightly weaker, stars would not possess the temperatures needed to ignite fusion, so only the very lightest elements hydrogen and helium would exist.

Consider the nuclear force, the strongest of the four, which is responsible for binding neutrons and protons together. In the simplest system of one proton and one neutron, deuterium, if the nuclear force were slightly weaker the nucleus would not hold together, so the formation of heavier elements would be terminated. If the force were slightly stronger, then neutrons and protons would readily form only very heavy elements so life would not exist.

There are many other examples which could be cited to show the fine-tuning present in the physical world that enables the universe to exist. The universe and its contents are constantly changing, but always within the narrow limits of these four fundamental laws that govern the range of possible outcomes. Change was woven into the very fabric of the universe, but the Weaver apparently kept an eye on the overall pattern.

DESIGNER GENES
As previously stated, due to the uniformity of the universe, the Cosmological Principle (CP) prohibits any statement that places humanity at the focal point of the developing universe. The idea here is that humanity is just another part of the universe that has developed over time and should not be given any special reason for existence. This certainly fits the philosophical ideas that Einstein embraced when he developed his two types of relativity as well as his view of the quantum mechanical wave function-observer problem.

Strong advocates of CP insist that conditions in the universe occurred initially which led to the universe as we see it today as a result of chaotic processes void of any order or probability. Certainly one may envision a full ensemble of possible universes to be initiated which would not possess the characteristics of the universe we observe. However, even after undertaking these mental gymnastics, we still need to explain why our present universe survives after fifteen billion years, whereas the hypothesized universes will not support life.

From the time you were one cell until now—more than seventy-five trillion cells—that set of cells has developed and functioned to make you a conscious organism. Purpose has been part of the overall process. This emerging structure also has had to deal with other interacting agents that would harm the structure (chemicals, X rays, other radiation), but usually the organism repairs itself to remain functional. This is all due ultimately to the nature of quantum mechanics and one or more of the four basic forces within the universe. These hold the cells together and give rise to biological activity that eventually produces the amazing quantity we call life and consciousness.

So in the case of cell material you do not have to purchase designer genes, you were born with them. What I am suggesting is that within the vast array of designer possibilities or design space, similar to the idea of phase space in physics, there appears to be something present which is more than just random construction. J. Polkinghorne puts it this way. “The way life has spread out has not been totally random, for there is a metric on Design Space, a pattern of hills and valleys which directs development in one way and not in another.

THE ORIGIN OF INTELLIGENT BEINGS
The overall effects which result from the four fundamental forces suggest that the physical laws of the universe are “loaded with purpose” or “freighted with the future.” That is, the laws of physics appear to give evidence of intention. Why is it that the universe permits the development of stars and galaxies and intelligent beings at any place or at any time in history?

To answer this and similar questions, one may refer to the “Anthropic Cosmological Principle” (AP). This term was first introduced by Brandon Carter in 1973 to counter an extreme version of the Copernican Principle, namely, that humanity’s place in the universe cannot be privileged in any sense. There are two forms of the Anthropic Principle. One, called the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), states that only one particular set of laws of physics and particular conditions that exist in the universe would allow the existence of (intelligent) life. Thus the WAP is selecting only that universe in which life can develop and exist out of a larger ensemble of universes. Just as a mousetrap has parts which make it “irreducibly complex” for Behe, I am suggesting that a few physical laws of our universe also form a set that appears “irreducibly complex” regarding the ability of the universe to develop and support life.

Could it be that structures, large and small, in the cosmos are endowed by the Creator with the capacity to demonstrate purpose? For me the answer is a clear “Yes.” The remarkable precision of certain nuclear energy levels which control nucleosynthesis and the narrow window for the velocity of expansion during the early moments of the universe which are now known to be “just right,” are only two of many examples of a universe that possesses the critical elements and conditions for life to exist. The WAP can help determine where and when life could arise among all the “gedanken universes” that might be envisioned.8 The WAP informs us that the physics as determined by the coupling constants in each of the four fundamental forces cannot deviate very much from that observed in the laboratory and allow life to continue to function.

BIOLOGICAL DESIGN
The presence of life on earth (or anywhere?) is the all-consuming issue for some persons. If the physical universe, which is evolving since its beginning with the big-bang scenario, contains evidence of purpose and “fine-tuning,” could it be that the (much later) biological part of the changing universe possesses evidence in systems that also demonstrate intelligent design?

The record of biological development is in many ways more complicated than that of the physical which this paper is considering. While the data provides many examples of ongoing change and development that fit a smooth sequence in time, the fossil record that is available is apparently sometimes incomplete.

In addition, the data also indicates the equivalent of a major biological explosion about 570 million years ago (Cambrian era) which effectively signaled “time = zero” in the biological world for the major phyla. A quite recent (cosmically speaking) second big bang! Much of the controversy regarding biological evolution seems to be centered around the existence, or the lack thereof, of credible data. Since science is a data-based enterprise, it is not surprising that the different views of biological evolution quite often are centered around personal interpretations of the available data.

Virtually everyone agrees that evolution is a word that characterizes the changing cosmos, but not everyone seems to agree that the evolutionary processes which exhibit “fine-tuning” and purpose early in the developing physical universe were present later in the biological development. A concise summary of the different types of biological evolutionary thought has recently been printed.

MUST INTELLIGENT LIFE EXIST?
In contrast to the WAP is the SAP (Strong Anthropic Principle). The SAP says that intelligent life must exist in the universe. The reason for the imperative goes back to one of the ways of interpreting quantum mechanics whereby an observer is required to collapse the wave function which produces an observable. However, since quantum mechanics, while very productive, is not totally functional or self-consistent in avoiding singularities, the SAP approach is not widely accepted. And who else, other than a Creator, was present initially to observe!

So, what is it about the nature of fundamental forces that seems to admit the existence of life or even prefer the existence of life? A random set of physical laws would certainly not come close to meeting this final condition of supporting the structure of life. We live at a time in the long history of humanity whereby we can accommodate the idea that the detailed design of life as we see it has been achieved by a purposeful process.

The principles of physics and chemistry permit the operation and functioning of cells, individuals, and large ecosystems with amazing complexity and countless variety. From a design viewpoint it is the WAP that filters only those physical laws that allow the profound creative activity to take place. The WAP does not prove the existence of a Designer, it only gives evidence. However, it does provide a strong indicator through all that is observed. When George Smoot found evidence a few years ago in the cosmic microwave background for early galaxy formation, he said the discovery “was like looking at the face of God. In a very real sense, the entire history of the developing universe has been required to produce life.

CONCLUSIONS
It seems to me the AP affords a combined view of religious myth and scientific knowledge. This is the passageway in the basement of our old house that connects physics and theology which relatively few individuals have dared to enter.

Contrary to the opinion of Einstein that God could not possibly be interested in an insignificant speck in the universe such as a person,12 the view manr religions is shaped by the idea of a personal walk with the Divine. The Creator could have arranged things differently, but he apparently selected from an infinite number of possibilities the particular set of physical laws we see in the universe. As a Father, he created a universe for his image and provided a place for humanity to live.

Humankind is an infinitesimal point in space compared to the vast reaches of space. However, it is also religious dogma that often blinds us as to who we are with where we are. We are conscious beings because the laws of physics facilitate the development of life. It is the total moral, ethical, and spiritual response that reflects the underlying purpose present in everyone who contemplates their own existence.

There is nothing wrong in attempting to connect solid science with our faith to honor our Mother’s work in the universe. In an old Ftraditional Jewish tale, God said to Abraham, “But for me you would not be here.” “I know that, Lord,” Abraham replied, “but were I not here there would be no one to think about you.

In this universe that exhibits order and purpose and proceeds through time, the Creator so wove purpose and change into the very fabric of the building blocks of the universe that as he sustains the creation it unfolds its ultimate purposes. If the Designer chose a particular framework for the universe that also self-selected, then people would see the universe that would be said to be “fine-tuned.” This would not be proof of the existence of the Designer, but it would be a hint regarding his existence. In this way, God can remain invisible and yet achieve the plan for his creation because the universe is governed by physical laws which have his purpose/destiny built into their very nature.

Consequently, the concept of intelligent design is not a human-made dictum, but rather an outcome of what we see and observe. In other words, the divine is inherent in the physical so that everything we see is not just stardust but divine stardust. We are constructed with material and stamped with a coded reminder of the One to whom we owe our ultimate existence.

The opportunity to look upward on a clear dark night into the great cathedral of space is an opportunity to contemplate the universe’s amazing construction. We live in a very old universe, carefully designed, full of grandeur, and in continuous change. It is a universe of vast proportions still being carefully crafted, and yet it is inhabited by people who have the capacity to think about their past and project their future. Lastly, it is a universe whose development through the ages has been necessary for us to even be here to think about it.

NOTES
Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (New York: Free, 1996).
W. A. Fowler, International Association of Geochemistry and Cosmochemistry, first meeting, 1967.
David N. Schramm, “The Early Universe and High Energy Physics,” Physics Today 36:4 (1983):


Hugh Siefken Did most of the hard work here; he is a Professor of Physics and Chairman of the Division of Mathematics and Natural and Computer Sciences at Greenville College, Greenville, Illinois. He has published numerous scientific papers in professional journals. The many changes I made here do not necessarily reflect his views or opinions.






I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit. Kahlil Gibran

2 comments:

Bebbi said...

I love your writing.

Walt said...

Thank you Bebbi, I can only take credit for what little I had to rewrite, only because Professor Siefken's god is a religious one; too small to be what I see as the omnipresent Lord of Creation. In this Matrix, Love is all that matters, and all is part of the Great Mystery.