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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