DC: The Moment of Creation

Chapter Three: The Moment of Creation

Haha, okay, now things finally get a bit interesting.

Ian points out the similarities of the creation myths, which seems to be basically that they all involve creation. Those that don’t – such as the Indian notion of an infinite past – are dismissed as “the much simpler view”. Ian does not explain how “stuff was always here” is simpler than “a big invisible man made stuff from scratch”.

Here’s the passage that cracks me up:

Davies argues that God did not cause the Big Bang, because causing, by definition, can only happen within a time-bound realm, not a timeless one. Davies overlooks the transcendence of God, however – virtually all religions argue that a Deity capable of creating the universe is just as capable [of] plunging his hand into it from the outside to stir the mix. I digress, however.

“I digress, however,” is code for, “Let’s not think too much about that part, OK? Cos I’m talking out my arse.”

What Ian is imagining here is a God who sits outside of time and “plunges his hand in” – makes changes – within the time-bound universe. These words are strung together into grammatically correct sentences, but aren’t saying anything at all. To plunge, to act, to change, to cause, to do anything at all… this is an event. To speak of action outside of the context of time is like speaking of shape outside of the context of space. It is simply meaningless babble to say “action outside of time”, because everything we have ever known and meant by “action” is saturated by notions of time. There is a before-acting, a during-acting and an after-acting. Without any of those things, the very notion of making a change or causing anything at all is absurd and meaningless. Not just “so difficult that only an omnipotent being could do it”. Just meaningless.

And this is apparently made meaningful and sensical by the addition of the adjective “transcendent” to the name God. It doesn’t matter what you call God, the statement “action outside of time” means nothing.

So here’s the next bit. Davies suggests that the universe could have come into being via a “quantum event”. The quoted Guardian piece continues:

The larger the time interval, the greater the probability that a quantum event will occur. Outside of time, however, no quantum event is possible. Therefore, the origin of time (coincident with that of space, matter and energy) eliminates quantum tunneling as ‘creator’.

And suddenly Ian takes up the “events outside of time make no sense” standard! “In simple language,” he writes, “there’s still no natural explanation for the Big Bang.” Apparently it’s fine for God to act outside of time, but it’s absurd to talk of quantum events occurring outside of time. Of course, it is absurd to talk of quantum events occurring outside of time, but no more absurd than to talk of anything occurring outside of time.

Forgetting the origin of the universe in general, there are problems with the origins of the physical laws of the universe. Where did they come from? Davies writes:

The root cause of all the difficulty can be traced to the fact that both religion and science appeal to some agency outside the universe to explain its lawlike order. Dumping the problem in the lap of a pre-existing designer is no explanation at all, as it merely begs the question of who designed the designer. But appealing to a host of unseen universes and a set of unexplained meta-laws is scarcely any better.

From which Ian derives, “[Davies] rejects Intelligent Design because, well, it implies a Designer.” Which is not at all what he said. Davies did not dismiss a designer, at least in terms of his quoted statements, simply because he has an emotional aversion to the idea of one. His complaint was that any attempt to find a cause of the laws of the universe in something beyond the universe, be it designer or extra-universal laws, merely brings one back to the same question: where did that design come from?

While Ian’s answer to this question is not explicit, it seems clear that the usual theistic explanation of “God breaks the rules” comes into play. Other things need reasons for making sense; God is the exception.

The choice of Paul Davies as a representative of Big Bang theorists is interesting, as Paul Davies is basically a theist himself. What seems to convince Davies (and Ian) that the universe is designed is the apparent harmony of physical laws, when so many things “could have” been different, and thus not given rise to life on earth.

Ian declares at the end of the chapter that this is going to be a major theme of his book. There are so many things that “could have” been different, therefore we are so lucky to be here that it is unbelievable that our being here is not the result of sentient intention.

At first glance, it’s a compelling argument. It makes a few assumptions, though, that aren’t immediately obvious.

1. The assumption that it is intelligible to speak of what “could have happened” in the universe – that things like “if gravity was just a bit stronger, life wouldn’t be possible” are meaningful statements. Against what other universes are we comparing this one?

2. The assumption that earth life, or even sentient life at all, is special enough to require special explanation. As phenomena go, we find ourselves pretty interesting, but if talk of “what if the universe was different” is meaningful, what makes sentience any more amazing than a total dispersal of all energy and matter? We happen to be the kind of phenomena that can reflect on our situation and think, “Fucking hell, that was lucky!” But just because phenomena in some hypothetical other universe lacks such self-reflective ability doesn’t mean that it’s any less “lucky” in the same sense.

3. The assumption that there aren’t “other universes” which fall victim to exactly the sentient-life-less fate we’re told we narrowly avoided, and that this just happens to be one in which sentient life is possible. I put “other universes” in scare quotes, because if “other universes” exist in any way that is relevant or real, then they are really part of what I call “the universe” – which is everything that exists.

Anyway. I’ll save further rants about the anthropic principle to later chapters, as I assume that’s the direction in which Ian will be taking us.

6 Comments DC: The Moment of Creation

  1. Dominic

    [Ian wants to show] there are so many things that “could have” been different, therefore we are so lucky to be here that it is unbelievable that our being here is not the result of sentient intention.

    I have a feeling that, to do this, Ian will concentrate mostly on the “we are so lucky” part, then quickly skip over why that leads to naturalism being unbelievable.

    That is, I find it very easy to be convinced of the fact that if the universe were different, we wouldn’t be here. Hell, throw as many magical alternate universes in there as you like. I’m painfully aware of how stupidly precarious mankind’s existence is. But I’ve never seen a good argument for the harder part: why this means we were put here by a cosmic sentient intention.

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  2. Ryan Sproull

    Dom,

    That basically comes down to the anthropocentrism, or even sentiocentrism. It’s the latest descendent of the “earth at the centre of the universe” thought. We’re special in a way that other things aren’t.

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  3. Lyndon

    There’s a bit in one of Terry Pratchett’s books that, in modern terms is something like:

    The Dean of astrophysics holds to the very special anthropomorphic principle: the universe is not merely there for the purpose of generating humanity – it’s there for the purpose of generating astrophyscists in general and the Dean of astrophysics in particular.

    It seems Terry Pratchett, incidentally, has been diagnosed with early-onset alzheimers. 🙁

    One a brighter note, Neil Gaiman helps fan propose to girlfriend through book inscription

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  4. peasant

    There is a realm in which concepts of time break down: the quantum world. If time is fungible or even discontinuous in the quantum realm, it seems feasible to suppose that it may operate rather differently at the cosmic level (eg. black holes). And you apparently repeat the error of assuming that the timeline of Earth applies to the Universe; whereas relativity showed that the time dimension can be greatly affected by mass and velocity. Your disdain of a supernatural realm in which Time may operate differently seems rather careless.

    Opposite to the cosmic level, in the quantum world, the smallest distance that makes sense is the Planck length; at this level space-time itself becomes extremely distorted (quantum foam). Here the uncertainty principle allows particles and energy to briefly come into existence, and then annihilate, without violating conservation laws. Beyond the Planck time (5.391×10-44 seconds), time itself as we know it is meaningless.
    (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternity )

    Catholic theology presents Eternity thus:
    That infinitely perfect substantial intelligence, immense as it is eternal, and withal existing entire and immutable as an indivisible point in space and as an indivisible instant in time, is coextensive, in the sense of being intimately present, with the space-extension and the time-succession of all creatures; not beside them, nor parallel with them, nor before or after them; but present in and with them, sustaining them, co-operating with them, and therefore seeing [all]
    (from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05551b.htm )

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  5. Ryan Sproull

    Time can operate as differently as it likes. But if it operates so differently as to be nothing like anything we’ve ever known as time or referred to as time, then it’s foolish to continue to call it “time”. It is in fashion to use the word “quantum” to refer to anything that makes no sense and wave a hand over it and say it’s okay to make no sense. I don’t buy into that. Our concept of time has a meaning. “Before” and “after” are integral to it. And time and “before” and “after” are integral to our concept of action.

    It means nothing to say that something “is time, but unlike anything we’ve ever known as time”. It’s like saying that a colour is “yellow, but unlike anything we’ve ever known as yellow”.

    And seriously, it’s been years since I’ve been impressed by Catholic theology’s habit of stringing together series of abstract nouns and adjectives to give a sentence a real “saying something” feeling without actually saying anything. That New Advent page should be congratulated on resisting the urge to capitalise the first letter of every second word for Added Vagueness.

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