Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cosmologists, Theologians, & "Turtles All the Way Down"

A recent issue  of Astronomy Magazine  left me as ticked off as that psychotic Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction.  But rather than tossing pet rabbits into the stewpot, I'm leaning towards boiling up a pot of my own turtle soup. Bruce Dorminey, author of the offending cover article "Before the Big Bang" promised to explore theories about what triggered the Big Bang and thus what came before. Of course, given the nature of the subject, this was going to be an article based on cosmological speculation rather than experimentally-verifiable science.  But the kindest characterization I can offer for the theories the Astronomy article discussed was "turtles all the way down."  This is a phrase borrowed from Stephen Hawking's  recounting of an incident in his 1988 bestseller, A Brief History of Time:


"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"

The Dorminey article described three of the most popular new theories within the scientific community explaining what triggered the big bang.  "Eternal inflation" posits that infinite pockets of  space-time pop out of  nothingness, creating mostly unobservable universes.  The second is a cyclic model that explains the universe’s origin as the collision between two parallel “membrane-like” worlds existing in higher dimensions of space inaccessible to human detection; and third is an “infinite loop of quantum cosmology” concept that continually recycles the universe.  But these are not explanations.  They merely toss these issues to a higher level of complexity.    If we can't figure out how our one universe got here,  theorizing that it is one of an infinite number is certainly no more elucidating.  It reminds me of theories about the origins of life, positing that biological life forms on earth came from outer space.

These are precisely the kinds of mental evasions and gymnastics that those of us who honor the scientific method, accuse theologians of revelling in.  Americans pay their religious leaders to offer emotional comfort in an unpredictable world encircled by death.  The goal is accomplished by preaching that an eternal God created the universe and the answer to any other existential question can be found somewhere in the Bible. Fair enough.  But, when well-trained scientists spend their time coming up with meaningless, theoretical, non-answers to such fundamental questions, something is wrong.  Either they suffer from a barren-ness of purpose or as is more likely, the current paradigm upon which our understanding of the universe is based, has outlived its usefulness.