The Endless Mandala

nebulaCourtesy of PajamasMedia, I was drawn to a rather interesting site, Bad Astronomy, run by Phil Plait, an astronomer and self-described skeptic. He writes of a new interpretation of a theory called Loop Quantum Gravity, which he believes explains the behavior of the universe at its figurative Ground Zero: the instant of the Big Bang, where T=0.

Now our astronomer seems to be quite a nice fellow, very bright and a talented writer, skilled at explaining complex scientific problems in layman’s terms. He expounds on this new and most interesting mathematical theory, which concludes, if I understand him correctly, that the zero point of the universe, where its volume in current Big Bang models is theoretically zero and its density infinite, there may actually have been instead the extreme collapse of a preexisting universe — one quite different from the universe we now observe.

Toward the end of this fascinating essay, a few paragraphs caught my eye:

Also, and what \'s perhaps most exciting about these theories, is that they make predictions, predictions which can be verified or falsified based on observations. These are delicate experiments to be sure, but some will be possible to perform in just the next few years …

These theories may seem like mumbo-jumbo or magic, but they have that very basic property of science: they \'re testable.

And of course, I have to use this to stick it to the creationists once again. One thing they love to talk about is “fine tuning”, how so many physical constants (like the charge on an electron, and the strength of gravity and the nuclear forces) appear to be incredibly well-adjusted to produce not just our Universe, but intelligent life in it: us.

Well, some of us.

The creationists claim that the only way this could possibly happen is if some sort of Intelligent Designer — and let \'s not be coy, they mean God — set these values to be precisely what they are…

But now we see another answer to the creationists: maybe this isn \'t the only Universe. There might have been a string of them, reaching back in time, in meta-time beyond time. In those other Universes, maybe the electron had more charge, and stars couldn \'t form. Or maybe it had less, and every star collapsed into a black hole. But if you get enough Universes, and the constants change in each one, then eventually one will get the mix right. Stars will last for billions of years, planets can form, life can evolve, and on one blue green ball of dust, chemicals can get complicated enough that they could look inside themselves, understand what they see, and marvel at the very fact of their own existence.

And maybe, just maybe, they can also figure out how it all came to be. This isn \'t fantasy, folks, it \'s science. It \'s how things work.

Far be it for me to challenge this new mathematical theory of the origins of the universe. I dreamed of being an astronomer in my youth, actually — until I realized it involved more than just looking through telescopes. I had just enough of the wretched discipline of physics to satisfy my requirements as a chemistry major — and when chemistry began to look more and more like physics at its higher levels, I suffered my own Big Bang and ditched it all for medicine.

Now I’ll forbear, as a gentleman, our cheerful astronomer’s gratuitous slap at the intelligence of any and all yahoos who are stupid enough to believe there might be a God, Who in infinite goodness, wisdom, and extraordinary graciousness, created — for His pleasure and ours — this almost unfathomably-complex universe which we struggle to understand. And I’ll ignore — for the moment — the metaphysical Deus Ex Machina our astronomer friend employs, positing an endless recession of universes, an eternal quantum Cuisinart which finally hits the cosmic Lotto big-time, producing, in its billion-to-the-billionth-power iteration, the ultimate jackpot: a scientist who understands exactly what just happened — or thinks he does. (So much effort for so little return, no?). And as for the creationist straw man who understands God merely as a mighty supercomputer fine-tuning variables at T+n, well, … some things are best left to wallow in their own watery stew.

Now, it’s not my style to beat up on scientists — even on astronomers who paddle in the shallows of life’s meaning using self-inflated metaphysical water wings. I am, after all, a man of science, and some of my best friends are scientists (which makes for rather dull dinner parties, I’m told). But I am also something of a big-picture guy, and from my quantum-physics-challenged perch, looking upward with unbridled admiration at our supremely confident scientist-priests, this all looks, well, kinda silly to this simple fool.

My first observation is one of puzzled bemusement, wondering why our good astronomer, and so many of his friends, seem compelled to bother with those crazy creationists. After all, their own superior scientific knowledge of How Things Came To Be is a mere cosmic accident; the inferior knowledge, ye ignorance, of those who assert divine origins is itself simply another random facet of this grand cosmic crap shoot. Since we are all freakish accidents of a billion big bang beginnings, why all the condescension?

Yet there is implicit in such superciliousness a notion of better and worse, of good, and evil. Such moral judgment is inherent in the contempt for those espousing divine origins whenever they are ridiculed or castigated by scientific materialists.

The logic runs something like this:

  1. Science finds truth in fact, i.e. measurable physical properties or events;
  2. Creationists find truth (so-called) in the physically immeasurable, spiritual (i.e., imaginary or fantasy) realm;
  3. Science is based therefore on knowledge, and faith and religion, on fantasy and ignorance.
  4. Knowledge (science), therefore is good, ignorance (faith & religion) bad.

Yet against what objective standard is such value-assignment established? For implicit in judging something good, or better than something else, is the imperative that it stands closer to some objective ideal than that which is inferior. Why is knowledge better than ignorance in a universe engendered by random chance? What is good or evil in a system dictated by mechanistic, mathematically-determined natural selection? One may say that knowledge improves the chances of species survival — but this is simply untrue. The industrial age in the 18th and 19th century, with its rapid and extraordinary advances in science, engineering, industrial production and metallurgy, culminated in utilizing this knowledge to create the carnage of World War I, with 20 million of the species destroyed, and many millions more injured and crippled. Knowledge, after all, is agnostic: it can create antibiotics to save lives, or virulent bacteria to kill thousands by intent. It can target gamma rays to cure brain tumors — or target nuclear weapons to destroy mankind.

Knowledge, if it is to benefit rather than destroy the species, must be subservient to some absolute good which stands above and apart from the species itself — i.e., it must be transcendent. It is not sufficient that the species of man merely establish such absolutes by self-preserving convention from within; the Germans established just such a “good” — Aryan racial superiority — which led directly to the slaughter of 6 million Jews and between 50 and 70 million civilian and military casualties in WWII.

And if knowledge — accurate knowledge of the science of the universe, factually verified in all its intricacies — is the crowning accomplishment of countless eons of cosmic regeneration, then why does it matter? What is its purpose, after all? Does purpose, meaning, accomplishment, achievement make any sense whatsoever in such a world? In the endless mandala of creation and destruction of universes, what does it matter that some intelligent chemical concoction understands what has happened, and some others do not, in our instantaneous slice of time we call Today?

Purpose, aahh purpose: a funny notion this, is it not? Our astronomer finds purpose in understanding the universe, explaining it to others, and poking some fun at those whose insights do not align with his. So this is intelligent life, the culmination of endless ages: to be born, acquire some trivial portion of total knowledge through education and study, write a book, author a blog, get old, and die. To think we waited trillions of years to be but a pitiful ember from a party sparkler, ridiculing our intellectually-inferior time-travelers as we arc downward, our light quickly extinguished to insignificant ash. Pathetic and pointless, if true — perhaps the Epicureans were right: eat, drink, and study astronomy, for tomorrow we die.

Now, I detect a hint of hubris in our astronomer’s assertion that we can test, yes even prove such a theory of our origins. Not being versed in quantum mechanics or the nuances of nuclear physics, I must defer to others far brighter than I to assess this claim. But I must admit to a healthy skepticism about the likelihood of reproducing in the laboratory the tumultuous raging chaos of a universe imploding and instantly exploding outwardly again. Even our astronomer speaks of “bizarre quantum laws” taking effect, making it “impossible … to know everything about the universe at that moment.” Let’s just say my own Uncertainty Principle is hard at work here.

But perhaps this hubris is a window into our astronomer’s disdain, and that of others like him. Theirs is a curious condescension toward any who look beyond the intellect of man for answers our feeble minds get wrong in ways far more important than some immeasurable instant when the universe took shape. For our brilliant minds have failed spectacularly at grasping the far simpler issues of surviving in time. Why do we hate? Why does a man strap explosives to his body, immolating himself to kill those he does not know? Why do we crave ever more power and wealth, in a lunatic larceny which destroys others while culminating in an empty death devoid of meaning? Why do we fight with our wives, rape our women, abuse our children, deaden our mind and spirit with drugs and alcohol, or sexual profligacy, or garish gluttony, or ostentatious materialism?

Perhaps the key lies in this very hubris, this ascendancy of the self at the expense of others. At its heart, the rejection of an intelligent Creator is not about fact or fantasy, math or magic. It is about power and pride. Man must reign at the intellectual apex of the universe, with none higher. If his mind cannot understand it, it cannot be understood; if he does understand it, he can thereby control it. He who is brightest stands tall at the top of the heap, having scrambled over his intellectual inferiors in his climb to the top.

But God forbid our Gnostic priests should accept any such higher power or any intellect superior to their own. For if such a Being exists — One Who in unlimited knowledge, and foresight, and wisdom, created a universe of unspeakable beauty and immeasurable complexity — including the extraordinary mind and spirit of man — such a Being by all rights must be honored, worshiped, sought out and served. But to bend the knee breaks the will — and thus we see instead the extraordinary contortions. To deny a Creator we blithely play statistical roulette, whose odds are light-years long. We invent reincarnated universes whose physical laws are infinitely malleable, whose constants are variable, whose god is Chronos, whose existence we can barely imagine much less prove — and then call foolish those who find in a personal, wise, intelligent, beneficent Being, answers not only to our origins but to the deepest need and emptiness of our very souls.

So let the search continue for the mathematical answer to the meaning of life. Spare no efforts, leave no theory unturned. We fools at peace with our Creator and His glorious creation will watch in quiet bemusement as you spin your endless circles in the feverish pursuit of your tails.

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6 thoughts on “The Endless Mandala

  1. The speculation that there are multiple universes would reinforce the conclusion that there are many things that are inherently unknowable by scientific means. By definition, ‘twould seem that a previous or parallel universe could be the subject of speculation, nothing more.

    So be it. I don’t even know why I’m sitting here commenting rather than getting my old carcass up for a walk or a bike ride in the sun, let alone whether Schrödinger’s cat’s alive or dead, or whether this universe is merely a fly on the eye of a frog on a bump on a log in the bottom of the sea.

    Minuscule vibrating 11-dimensioned strings seem as much a matter of faith as a Triune God, and rather less comforting. Of course, the 11-dimensioned guys make no demands on us that, say, we love and forgive one another.

    Keep writing.

  2. This was a good post, Bob.

    Ironically, a thousand years ago when I was an engineering student( after rebelling and turning my back on all things churchy), the last thing on earth I was looking for was God. But in my last year, while studying the laws of thermodynamics, Bernoulli’s equation and the theory of relativity, a funny thing happened to me: I had a born again God experience.

    Somehow my mind, heart and soul put all this learning together such that the evidence of a Creator was undeniable to me. It was stunning, and it all started coming back to me through the study of math and science.

    So it’s always interesting to see how other scientists look at the universe and see random chaos with no such Creator. How very sad.

  3. How very sad?

    No need to feel saddened for the astronomer, physicist, mathematician who feels the transcendent yet has no need for the supernatural.

    If you feel a need to use religious stories to explain the unexplainable, fine. Not everyone has that need. Some of us have been freed from this need.

    As someone once said:
    “In essence we have become addicted to the certainty, sureness or sense of security that our faith provides.”

  4. Mark,

    I have no “need to use religious stories to explain the unexplainable,” Mark — I have instead been transformed by a personal encounter and relationship with a Being far vaster than our paltry imagination and feeble intellects can begin to grasp — One Who has the infinite power and knowledge to create all the vastness and complexity of our universe, but in an even more astoundingly, can transform and ennoble the human heart, replacing emptiness and futility with peace and purpose.

    To “feel the transcendence” without recognizing the spiritual and supernatural is to manifest the very futility of intellect detached from transcendence.

    And as for being “addicted to certainty”: I know something of addiction. Addiction is that which leads you away from absolute truth to the futility of self-absorption and the black bottomless hole of narcissism. Faith — trust in the Being Who is both truth and goodness — leads us back toward the wholeness and purpose which can only be found in transcendent truth.

    So, yes, there is abundant reason to experience sadness for those who manifest knowledge without wisdom, culminating in the empty purposelessness of random existence without meaning.

  5. “I have instead been transformed by a personal encounter and relationship with a Being far vaster than our paltry imagination and feeble intellects can begin to grasp.”

    There’s no evidence for this encounter at all.

    “Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer , that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

    To say that my one who does not believe as you do has a heart filled with emptiness and futility merely offers the reader your experience of what it is like for you to live a life without these. You should have written “my human heart”, not “the human heart.” I think you have little understanding of individuals who are curious, who love, who contribute, without the need for the great lost and found department.

    Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

    Black bottomless hole of narcissism…” –
    Narcissism is very evident in today’s modern church. We evaluate churches, ministers and truth-claims based upon how they make us feel about ourselves. If the proffered truth supports my self-esteem, it is, thereby, verified.

    “There is abundant reason to experience sadness… of random existence without [my] meaning.”

    You must be very sad as there are many of us who’ve you imagined.

    Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. ~John Morley

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