“To find a capable defense of atheism, one may have to go to the philosophy department. The physics department is of no use.” Meant as humor, this jab at the “philosophic” mind never bothered me, a philosopher all my life. Philosophers are supposed to be pursuers of the truth. But the very existence of “truth” as a non-material property of human assertions about the material world or about abstract things which exist only in the mind is troubling to many philosophers. Like a fresh young colleague we hired, many are brought up to believe that our minds cannot grasp any non-material reality. I asked her why so many recent Ph.D. dissertations were written on how we know “color”, she said that it is a very intriguing question. I agreed. “Color” is a very interesting concept because, while it is a property only of material realities, as a genus it is, and must be, completely colorless. If it had some color, then every colored thing would be at least tinged with that color. Yet a child over three years knows what is meant by “color” and quickly gets to know the names of colors which, for more than a year, it could easily distinguish. [Try giving water to a 2 year old who has asked for milk.]
A physics definition of color could be understood by a blind person, but a child who knows it directly would learn nothing from the definition until it had learned a great deal of physics. Much the same is true of such realities as truth, justice, and genuine love between friends. But the ages at which humans learn to recognize these things differs from person to person. It is stunning to see a child as young as six empathize with a classmate whose head is on the desk weeping. They know and care about what their classmate is suffering and know how to comfort the classmate. It is also disheartening to read philosophers, bent on defending materialism, explain the comforters’ behavior as some sort of elaborate strategy of selfishness. Selfishness as an aspect of the supposedly basic will for survival is understandable, but love of another for the sake of the other is almost impossible to explain, at least with material causes. Yet such love is what “makes the world go round” at least as a joyous and beautiful place to live in. Atheists who wish to avoid the possibility of a spiritual but very real God typically set their defenses out far by denying that there are such things are real friendship where there is no thought of eventual profit from the friend. And these atheists, to the extent they are consistent and open, admit to the darkness of their worldview. Everything delightful in the world is an illusion.
Yet it is both delightful and illuminating to see how quickly bright high school students rise to the level of philosophic insight. In a classroom full of the children of university faculty, I presided over the showing of a video about the chemist’s dependence on the concept of entropy. As a substitute for their real teacher who knew something (quite little actually) about their class, my comments captured their attention: “If entropy is a physical property, not of single atoms or molecules but of large systems of them, and if the whole present universe is such a system, how will it end? In a bang or whimper?” Most chose “whimper” because they understood the kind of deadness in a system where no energy exchanges were possible to get work done and where chemists do not hypothesize about hidden forces which can reverse the process of entropic unwinding.
Then I asked: “If this process is a natural law in which the end will occur in a finite period of time, when did it start? A finite time ago or an infinite time ago?” Most were silent, but a few said with assurance: “A finite time ago.” “Right,” I said. “It is like a clock. If the alarm is set to go off in a finite period of time and I set it an hour earlier than I thought I did, it will go off an hour earlier. And if it was set an infinite time ago it will have gone off an infinite time ago. And so would the winding down of the universe.”
Neither chemists nor physicists have any problem with this notion of the present universe and its laws having begun a finite time ago, with estimates of 14 billion years being common. “The winding down started with the Big Bang,” I stated, with the authority of my physics minor filling my voice. But then I backed off into a more humble tone:” But what was there before the Big Bang? Was there something or nothing.” Eyes widened on a few students whose attention I had caught. “If ever there was a time when there was absolutely nothing, no matter, no space, no God waiting in the wings to create something, would there be anything now?” “No” said a few immediately. A murmured voice said: “Maybe” only to be questioned by another asking how nothing could start something.
I stopped the discussion after a moment to make my main point: “Look, there are philosophers out there who seem almost to delight in reducing the mind of humans to a kind of camera or camera tied to a ‘meat-based computer’, but what you are about to do will show how wrong they are. Now tell me, if ever there was a time when there was absolutely nothing there would be nothing now and there is something now, what do we know about before the Big Bang and before that?” Two boys, right in front of me, eyes both troubled and amazed, said, “There always was something.” It was not an “eureka” moment of delight and I could see it. “Kind of scary, isn’t it.” They nodded in agreement. I then went on: “Here you are, in this laboratory, seventeen years old, in a small town, hardly awake yet, and still your minds have left your bodies and flown back over time, past the Big Bang and its predecessors to all infinity and made a judgment about it. With no idea what it was like or what it was or is, you confidently make the judgment: ‘It existed.’ Or ‘It exists.’” And then, giving in to my professorial bombast, I said: “Here is the oddity. I am more certain that there always was something than that my car is still in the parking lot or my house down the street is still there. Don’t ever let any philosopher tell you that your mind is limited. It knows something about all infinite time past. And whether you believe it was matter alone, God alone or matter with God, you know it was all powerful because it, or they, made everything, infinite in time or eternity past and indestructible.” Bell rings and it is over.
If the chemistry teacher gets sick again I probably could not raise the question about the pre-Big Bang world. But I could ask whether these are scientific questions: what was in the Big Bang that could have pre-existed the Big Bang. and which help explain the how the Big Bang produced in its earliest moments the lighter elements, hydrogen isotopes, helium and lithium? And how, much later, expansion and cooling would allow heavier elements to occur? I think they would agree that these are scientific questions. After all, that is what physics of the origins of the present universe is about.