Scene: Advanced Placement Chemistry at a university-town high school, 25 students.
Today’s Teacher: “Dr. D” a recycled philosophy professor, specialist in philosophy of science, substituting for a sick chemistry teacher.
Articulate Students: Mike, front row, center; Alana, bright challenger, on teacher’s left; Monica, also a challenger and Alana’s buddy.
Task: Fill up the time after a film on entropy.
Class: Expecting something about science. They didn’t expect it to be about God too.
Dr. D: So, if entropy measures the process by which the entire universe gradually winds down, evening out the differences between hot and cold, between highly organized and disorganized structures and regions, will it end in a fizzle or a bang?
Mike: Fizzle obviously.
Dr. D: O.K., If it fizzles out at a definite future time, when was the process started? A finite or an infinite time ago?
Dr. D: Right. If a timer is set an hour too early, it goes off an hour too early. If the finite entropic wind-down started an infinite time ago, it would have reached the fizzle-out an infinite time ago.
Alana: How can we say for sure?
Dr. D: Let’s accept the physics theory that entropic wind-down is a universal and irreversible property of all the material in the universe. Following the theory, Mike is right. Now, Alana, what do they say started the wind-down a finite time ago?
Alana: Are you talking about the “Big Bang”? That’s a theory too.
Dr. D: True, but we have agreed to work with the current theory of entropy, so there has to be some kind of starting point, bang or not. So let’s just call it “Big Bang” without tying ourselves to the details of the theory. So, Mike. What was going on before the Big Bang? Was there some pre-big-bang state of the universe?
Mike: What are you getting at?
Dr. D: I am “getting at” the power of all human minds, but I can’t do that by telling. I want you to answer based on what you know absolutely without depending on anyone. I ask: if the present material universe and the laws it generates started at a time we call the Big Bang, was there a pre-big-bang material universe before it?
Monica: Can we know such things? Maybe God started the whole thing.
Dr. D: O.k. but if ever there were a time when there was absolutely nothing, no matter and no God waiting to create matter, would there be anything now?
Mike: No, especially if you eliminate God.
Dr. D: I am not trying to eliminate God, but to show how physicists and any thoughtful person intuitively reasons about the beginnings of things. Mike, if at any time there were absolutely nothing, there would be nothing now. And there is stuff now, so what do you know for sure?
Mike: There always was something.
Dr. D: (Triumphantly and annoying Monica and Alana). So there had to be a pre-big-bang universe, or maybe God. But unlike other facts, you know this one absolutely. Your human mind has left this class-room and swung over all times and stages of the universe and all the theories about them and declared: ”There had to be something.” And you can give an unshakable reason for it: “Because nothingness could not produce what we have now or anything else”.
Monica (with Alana’s support): Maybe something could come out of nothing.
[A murmuring argument breaks out on the left, Monica digs her heels in. Dr. D tosses in that it would be a very powerful “nothing” since it produced everything which is today.]
Mike: It is kind of scary to think about matter or whatever existing eternally in the past.
Dr. D: Yet I am more certain about it than I am that my car is still in the parking lot. About the pre-big bang universe I know that it was but not what it was. Mike, do you think there is any way to learn more about what it was or is?
Mike: I enjoy physics and have heard about string theory, extremely tiny things which make up the particles of regular physics. Are they supposed to have existed before the Big Bang?
Dr. D: Well they were not proposed to explain the Big Bang. But if they are proposed to be the fundamental, basic particles then they might naturally have that job. But if they made what went into the big bang and control what came out, i.e., today’s regular physics particles, do they have to be well structured? Or could they be just be disorganized stuff?
Mike: Well, I suppose organized.
Dr. D: No “supposing.” We have to give serious answers. The particles, atoms, of this world belong mainly to six of the elements, with members of each of the elements being identical twins of each other or maybe plus or minus a proton or two (isotopes). But then the protons are identical to each other, as are the members of six families of quarks which make up the directly observable particles. Can any “machine” or process make identical parts without itself being well organized? It has to have a part or parts to do the making and, properly joined to it, a part to retain the pattern. At least two parts are needed for any self-moving duplicating machine. Naturally the theorists don’t think of the pre-Big-Bang universe as being some sort of automated waffle iron, but they do have to propose a fairly intricate and mathematically precise structure in their strings or their quarks so that they can account for the intricate and precise observable outcome we see in the gazillions of identical atoms or of their subparts. A formless, disorganized sub-part would be useless for explanation and hence no reason for even being proposed.
Mike: So do we have to believe strings are eternal and make everything?
Dr. D: Let’s not believe anything. In the theory strings do make everything. But since their conversion to the Big Bang, or whatever form of matter went into the Big Bang, was triggered by its own laws and processes to occur at the Big Bang moment, the count-down to that moment had to start a finite time before that. So while they may be eternal, their pre-Big-Bang condition was not smoothly eternal. It had stages of some sort. So do you know what I am going to ask next.?
Mike: You are going to ask: “ Did the pre-pre-big-bang universe have to be well organized?”
Dr. D: Yes.
Alana: I heard some physicists are proposing a much simpler two stage universe: our stage which is winding down followed by a wind-back-up stage.
Dr. D: Right, and some physicists claim that parts of the universe may be in the wind-up stage right now while in our region we are winding-down. But does that get away from the need for the wind-up stage which starts our stage to be well enough organized to explain the precision and exact twinning of gazillions of our particles?
Monica: Dr. D, Alana was just trying to point out a simpler model, more likely to be self-explanatory.
Dr. D: And I’m just asking how self-explanatory any well organized material system can be.
Alana: All we need is a two stage continuous cycling going on from all eternity past.
Dr. D: Like self explanatory clockwork?.
Alana: Why not?
Dr. D: Well if we proposed that any elementary particles, lower than ones we can indirectly see in laboratory experiments, were the self-explanatory causes of this world we would have left out one huge mystery: They are identical twins of each other but have no common father. And if you back away from that and appeal to strings then you have strings, actually families of strings within which they are identical twins but no common father either. And now in the two-stage cycling theory, they have to have properties in their “blue-prints” to explain both ordinary physics and wind-up physics. These strings are the furthest things from being self-explanatory. These are not simple entities. Opponents of string theories quip that only about twenty mathematicians can understand the math that describes string behavior. And if you resort to pre-string entities which somehow impress the blue-prints on the strings, you still have the complexity of the “string-stamping machines.”
Monica: Well, the string stamping machine is pretty silly, so why bring it up?
Dr. D: It’s silly but we need to see that when brilliant humans think up a structure which is supposed to explain everything, they typically load so much on its elementary particle structure that the particles cannot explain themselves.
Monica: Maybe future scientists will find some system of simple particles or strings that can run an infinitely long system and which do not require any explanation beyond themselves.
Dr. D: Self-explanatory because simple?
Dr. D: The problem is that it is not that simple. Take the blue-print of elements: We begin to be able to express the inner workings of simpler atoms, but more complex atoms escape mathematical expression. Quarks were introduced in part to simplify, but they quickly morphed into six families. And the success so far warns us that further advances will reveal even more marvelous blue-prints. And if they inherit these from the strings, strings themselves are going to have to be marvels of organization themselves. And they will have families of identical marvelous twins without a common father.
Monica: But anything can happen, or at least we don’t know what can happen when it escapes our minds by becoming infinitely far back.
Dr. D: Unless something new happens out at infinity, any problem a chain has in front of us will still exist out at infinity. Definitions do not change by shoving them into the past. If “Out of nothing comes nothing,” is true now, it is true at infinity. Here is an analogy: A woman is peeking out of her apartment window and can see a brush painting an ugly fence. She remarks to her husband. “Finally the painter is here to do that fence.”
Her husband asks: “Is it Joe?” She replies: “ I don’t see him. I just see the brush going up and down.” He asks: “What part of the brush do you see?” “The bristles, the metal band holding them to the handle and a couple inches of the pole handle,” she replies. “So what is moving the bristles that you can see?” he asks. “The metal band, the wood inserted in it and the piece of the handle,” she replies. He says: “It would be reasonable to believe there is a painter there, but a hidden piece of pole, bonded by chemical bonds of wood cells to the part you do see is going up and down and dragging the brush with it. And a piece further back is doing the same.” “Until you get to the painter,” she says. “Not so” he says, “ The further-back piece’s movement is all the next piece needs to explain its movement. So all one needs is an infinitely long paint brush handle.”
Appeals to infinity are like that. To do away with a painter you need a self-moving piece of wood. And then it would be more efficient to tie it right to the bristles. Something new has to happen to escape the uselessness of the infinite series of well-organized particles giving rise to well organized particles. And your suggestion of a clock-like cycling of particles in two stages still does not explain the twinning of the particles endowed with the same blue-print.
No material cause based on this kind of twin- particle creative power is finally solving the mystery: where did the blue-prints come from? Well designed particles are needed to do the job of explanation, but they cannot explain the origin of their own design.
Monica: Should you be pushing an argument leading to God in a public school?
Dr. D: Sharp, Monica! You saw this leading to a physics-based “intelligent design” conclusion. If “intelligent design” has been excluded from biology, it is surviving well in archeology, geography, anthropology, astrophysics and a dozen other fields where being able to distinguish artifacts made by intelligent agents from those made by nature or chance is critical. If physics decides, prior to investigating the evidence, that an intelligent designer cannot be the ultimate cause of the design of the universe or that, if there is such evidence, physics is not allowed to reach that kind of conclusion, too bad for physics. But there is no scientific reason for a science which deals with real causes not to be able to distinguish between different kinds of causes. How will we discover intelligent life in outer space if we can’t tell the difference between chemistry and intelligence? Rules which limit reason’s quest for explanation have historically been the enemy of science. They say: “There are places where you cannot look.”
Monica: Yes, but those sciences deal with human intelligent agents, not God, not some eternal, indestructible, non-material, all powerful, and all knowing—and in my opinion—impossible myth. And offensive in a public school.
Dr. D: Ouch! Two things, Monica, one for you, one against. Some authorities would probably say this kind of argument should not happen in high school. It is interesting that the history of physics has been filled with efforts to exclude from its “legitimate” questions the ultimate question: where did it all come from? In fact some really good physicists call string theory “theology” because it explains without predicting anything. Do they want rules against strings? They know that many physicists and chemists are devout believers, including at least 14 Nobelists. And they don’t like it, especially if they seem to claim, or actually do, that something in physics calls for an architect of the blue-prints which is not dependent on any material blue-prints in itself. An intelligent, eternal non-material creator! “This is too much, and certainly not the product of scientific reasoning”, they say. So you are in the company of a lot of good scientists.
Monica: And against me?
Dr. D: That you assign to matter the same properties you find incredible in God: eternal, makes everything and is essentially indestructible.
Monica: The “non-material” part is too “religious.”
Dr. D: Maybe too philosophic. “Truth” itself escapes any chemical description. Yet atheistic scientists love truth with a passion. They even sacrifice their youth in its pursuit. Or take my love of my mother and hers of me. I did not love her for the properties of her body but for her immaterial self and her kindness, justice and care for the poor and her kids. In the end, her body was a nuisance to herself. She saw things in me she loved and it made me want to live up to them. It is not matter that makes the world go round but love, the love of immaterial things. It takes bodies to express such things, but love between persons, the most wonderful thing in the world, is immaterial.