When it comes to the existence of the physical universe a host of obvious questions jump out, for example, “What exactly are we seeing?” “How does it function?” “Has it always existed or hasn’t it always existed?” “If it hasn’t always existed then how did it come into being?” “Will it ever come to an end or will it go on forever?” “Does it have any meaning and purpose?”
These are obviously important questions that scientists routinely ask themselves, and as a result of our modern technology we are able to look into space like never before, which has particularly gone a long way in shining light on some of these questions. We know of black holes, elements if stars, and have identified particles and antiparticles, molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, quarks, electrons, positrons, photons, mesons and neutrinos (1). And because of this vast increase in our knowledge physicists are pursuing the notion of a “Theory of Everything.” For example, Peter Atkins goes as far as to say that “There is nothing that cannot be understood” (2) as a result of science. But this line is questionable and Atkins should exercise caution.
In response to Atkins fellow Oxford academic philosopher Keith Ward counters such a zealous overconfidence, Ward articulates: “This is a remarkably bold statement of faith. It goes well beyond all available evidence, since at present there are millions of things we do not understand, including the fundamentals of quantum physics” (3). It is quite apparent that of these “millions of things we do not understand” the speculative concept of a level 2 multiverse is surely a likely candidate that we will almost never understand, namely, that other universes exist beyond our universe (authority George Ellis is critical of the speculative nature of the multiverse, as I touched on here). Ward, whimsically, goes on to add: “So it seems, after all, that if everything can be understood, only a God could understand it, so Atkins is committed to theism. In fact, I am rather puzzled by the fact that he does not seem to realize it” (4).
Nonetheless, Albert Einstein has arguably made one of the greatest contributions to our understanding of the universe. In his 1905 paper On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies it was clear that at the time there was belief in an infinite & eternal universe. It was a universe within which cosmic bodies obeyed predictable patterns, where straight parallel lines would never meet and where time was absolute. This understanding was tuned on its head by Einstein and, by 1915 via his theory of general relativity, he illustrated that the universe was finite, hence not infinite, and that straight parallel lines may eventually bend (5) because of the curvature of space and that, in certain circumstances, time slows down (6).
Yet Einstein was remarkably cognizant of his intellectual inferiority when considering the cosmic scale of things. For instance, he penned that “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior Spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God” (7). He would then also say that “Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must feel humble” (8). Thus in hindsight of Einstein’s humility in trying to understand the universe atheists like Peter Atkins, who over-confidently claim that it is possible to fully and wholly understand it, evidence a lack of humility that would properly characterize good, honest science. Physicist Donald MacKay aptly captures this:
“Particularly in the physical sciences, cocksure dogmatism has given place to a much more cautious and tentative way of presenting conclusions. Arrogant postures may occasionally be struck by a few exponents of the newer sciences, such as molecular biology and anthropology; but these attitudes are widely deplored by fellow scientists as atypical” (9).
Consider dark matter, for example. Astronomer Fritz Zwicky of the 1930s noted that an invisible force seemed to be preventing some galaxies from taking part in the expansion of the universe. Zwicky proposed that this force was the gravity of “dark matter” that was in and around galaxies. This is particularly interesting since dark matter has never been observed; it is invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum (10), hence why its existence is purely hypothetical. However, theories of the beginning, size and end of the universe depend on dark matter even though what it is (or isn’t) is still a matter of speculation. This would be why astronomer Simon Mitton affirms that so much remains unanswered, he asks: “How can we arrive at a picture of the total contents of the universe if we do not even know what fraction of the whole each of the observable forms occupies?… Can we be sure that the great clusters of galaxies are the most important components of the universe? We are even today not at the end of accumulating an elementary picture of the true contents of the universe, although we can paint parts of the picture in exquisite detail” (7).
In hindsight of this would the likes of Atkins and co. require some humility? Certainly.
1. Blanchard, J. 2002. Does God Believe in Atheists? p. 336 (Scribd Ebook Format)
2. Atkins, P. 1992. Creation Revisited. p.3.
3. Ward, K. 1996. God, Chance and Necessity. p.24.
4. Ward, K. Ibid. p.33.
5. Einstein Online. Gravitational Deflection of Light. Available.
6. Redd, N. 2016. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Available.
7. Cited by Barnett, L in The Universe and Dr. Einstein. p.95.
8. Albert Einstein Quotes. Available.
9. MacKay, D in Real Science, Real Faith. p. 200.
10. CERN. Dark Matter. Available.
11. Mitton, S. 1976. Exploring the Galaxies. p.177.