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Posts Tagged ‘cosmology’

God And Alien Life

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 13, 2010

A new, possibly Earth-like planet has recently been discovered. This seems to have slipped by the major news media. I can remember in the early 90s (?) when the first extra-solar planets were discovered. Now, we seem to have discovered tens if not hundreds. This is awesome!

Gliese 581 g, the planet discovered, is 20 light years from Earth with basic and essential conditions needed to support extraterrestrial life.

Earth-like exoplanets have been predicted for years by scientists in what is called the “habitable zone” around a star, but the identification and measurement of one has been called the beginning of a new era in the search for life beyond our galaxy.

Perhaps I should stress the words possibly Earth-like. Wikipedia notes Gliese 581 g has over 3 times our gravity, which I presume is still within the bounds of possibly allowing life. No giraffes, ‘though— I’m guessing any life there would be short and flat. Squashed elephants, anyone?

[Edit: See my update here.]

On Agnostic Forums this news was claimed by some to be a nail in the coffin for the “Fine Tuning argument” for the existence of God. I’ve been trying to get clear in my head exactly what a fine tuning argument claims. I think it’s something like this?

1. The existence of the universe is extremely unlikely
2. The best explanation for highly unlikely things is that a mind was responsible.
3. Therefore a mind was responsible for the universe.

The first premise is supported by most experts, for example Hawking and Mlodinow in their recent The Grand Design, where they spend almost a chapter on this question. It’s the second premise that I am mulling over. Is it always the case that we credit highly unlikely happenings to a mind? It seems intuitively right.

Eta Carinae Nebula

Eta Carinae Nebula

There is also an argument against fine tuning, which goes something like, “The universe is very unlikely, but we know it happened because we are here, therefore unlikely things do happen sometimes”. This latter kind of argument doesn’t satisfy me, it seems to be almost question-begging.

There were various comments on Agnostic Forums, a couple of which I’ll repeat here:

I would be very skeptical of any ‘scientific’ claims about ecosystems on extrasolar planets. So far we are nowhere near being able to determine an extrasolar planet’s ecosystem. Simply detecting those planets is a relatively new science. The only observational evidence we have that extrasolar planets even exist is the effect they have on the stars they orbit.


If we are not alone in the universe, man made religions need to find a way to reconcile that fact with their core doctrines.

What do you think? If we found alien life, would that be a problem for world religions?


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The Firm | Star Trekkin’


Posted in agnostic, cosmology, god, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments »

Hawking’s Grand Design – Cosmology Still Needs God?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 17, 2010

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 42 is the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything”. It’s a mathematical non-answer to the meaning of life. Stephen Hawking references this in his new book The Grand Design, and in a strange parallel also suggests a mathematical answer, as theoretical physics essentially relies on mathematics. But does it work?

The Grand Design

Cards on the table, I’ve read a vast amount of commentary but haven’t read the book yet. [Edit: I’ve read it now, see below] So this is a review of the reviews, and it’s fair to say the reviews are mixed. There are some five star articles which praise the book as an easy read for a popular audience. Others castigate Hawking and Mlodinow’s book for being dumbed down too much, and for not actually explaining the science.

As I understand it, Hawking isn’t proposing anything new, this is simply a popular account of the current state of play. It happens the author is Stephen Hawking, and he gets a lot of media love. I wonder if a similar book by someone else would have got as much attention?

Blake, Grand Architect of the Universe

William Blake, that hoary old Mason: The Grand Architect of the Universe

Background reading: Cosmogony (Cosmogeny) is the study of the very start of the universe. Cosmology is the study of the whole thing and Wikipedia has a rather good summary of current ideas, although you might need a little science understanding to appreciate some of it.

Hawking and Mlodinow‘s current view is that one version of multiverse theory, M-Theory explains it all, however some reviews say the authors don’t really explain M-Theory, and just use it as a magic bullet. M-theory, as some critics have pointed out, is currently only a mathematical construct in theoretical physics, lacks predictive power and so far is untestable. As happened with its predecessor string theories, it would not be surprising if contradictions or incompleteness are found in the near future. There are also other possibilities under discussion.

Because they’re unobservable, multiverse theories are also untestable, blurring the line between science and speculation and making them controversial in the scientific community. Princeton University physicist Paul Steinhardt has called the multiverse “a dangerous idea that I am simply unwilling to contemplate.”

The same article also speaks of “the growing credibility of multiverse theory”.

So really, Hawking is saying “A few of us think the M-theory multiverse and gravity can generate this universe from nothing, and it doesn’t require a God. (But also doesn’t rule one out.)”

Poor on Science and Philosophy

There are some very positive reviews but I was surprised how many mediocre and even scathing reviews of the book there are by atheists, who want the book to succeed but find it derisory. From a couple of the better reviews:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing […] Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to […] set the universe going.”

This quotation from the book is a good summary of its main thesis. As a statement of our understanding of physics and cosmology this is very likely correct. … As a philosophical statement, however, this is a total disaster. The authors say early in the book that “philosophy is dead”. It certainly is— in their heads.

For instance, what is the meaning of “is” when they say that “there is a law like gravity”? Do they mean that gravity has a real existence, like you and me exist? In this case the creation of the universe is not really spontaneous, because the existence of gravity is necessary to it. …

It is possible that gravity and quantum mechanics allow the “spontaneous” creation of the universe and everything in it. This is, however, not a solution to the problem of existence, because the nature of the existence (or reality) of gravity and quantum mechanics is left unexplained. The authors are too ignorant of basic philosophy to understand this.

My two-star rating is not just because of the bad philosophy. It is to point out that there are much better books on this subject for the general reader. I particularly recommend Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality as an informal, but deep introduction to cosmology. I also recommend Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications as a book on the theory of everything. Deutsch’s book is particularly important because it is very sophisticated from a philosophical point of view. Of course, Deutsch’s philosophy is totally wrong, but it does not matter: Deutsch’s book is an important one, while the present book is lightweight fluff (just look at the illustrations!)

~ Filipo Neri (accessed from Amazon 12 Sept 2010, but now unavailable)

Another cites errors:

On philosophy, he takes many out of context. An example of this can be given on page 22, “Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC), for example, opposed atomism on the grounds that it is “better to follow the myths about the gods [than] to become a ‘slave’ to the destiny of natural philosophers”. Yes, Epicurus certainly says that; but, he was also a staunch materialist. He certainly didn’t reject atomism— he even created his own special kind. Again, on page 135, “Over the centuries many, including Aristotle, believed that the universe must have always existed in the order to avoid the issue of how it was [caused].” Aristotle believed God created the universe and set it into motion before retreating to self-contemplation. Above and beyond outright confusing statements, there are also many statements that are left without support, and kind of feel out of place. Claims that “[Pythagoras] did not discover the theorem that bears his name”— then who did and what is your point?

The science explanations are also exceptionally poor. …

On speaking of Ptolemy’s model being poor “it contains dozens of adjustable parameters whose values must be fixed to match observations, rather than being determined by the theory itself”. I’m just not sure I can conclude that M Theory or String Theory aren’t fixed to match observations. From the text it sounds like they are.
~ from Amazon

The book opens with the claim “Philosophy is dead”, which in context probably just refers to the particular area of philosophy that discusses the origin of the universe. I doubt philosophers are afraid they’ll be out of a job (echoes of the Hitchhiker’s guide, again). Several reviewers point out the book spends a great deal of time presenting what is actually philosophy, not science, and poor philosophy at that.

The God Question

Now for the big question, the one the book is marketed on: Does a multiverse pose a problem for belief? A very useful look at this topic written before Hawking’s book was published says multiverse theory “has failed to create the opposition between religion and the multiverse that [some critics] expect.”

Oxford’s professor of theoretical physics, Frank Close, writes, “I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God debate, either pro or con.” And the University of Surrey’s equivalent, Jim Al-Khalili, calls M-theory “tentative” in The Times, quoted here.

Physicist and science writer Paul Davies, referencing Hawking’s book says that the multiverse hypothesis doesn’t necessarily do away with the idea of God. While accepting that cosmology can probably now explain how our universe began— a claim I was unaware of— Davies writes: “A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?”

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained— eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

Davies concludes “there is no compelling need for a supernatural being or prime mover to start the universe off. But when it comes to the laws that explain the big bang, we are in murkier waters.”

It appears The Grand Design is a very easy popular book, with some serious flaws, and which doesn’t actually remove the need for philosophy, or perhaps God. I’d like to read it and see if there really are black holes in the book.



[Edit: Having read it, I think it’s a pretty good basic introduction and a good read. However, I agree with the criticisms – very poor on argument. My review coming.]


Have you read it? What did you think?

Blast from the past: Thomas Dolby | She Blinded Me With Science
(featuring the wonderful Magnus Pyke)

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Posted in agnostic, cosmology, god, Physics, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

Physically Impossible?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 19, 2010

Here, as promised, is Hugh Ross’ rebuttal of the ideas in Frank Tipler’s “The Physics of Immortality”. You might want to check the first post to refresh yourself.

It is hard to treat these FAP [Final Anthropic Principle] and Omega Point hypotheses seriously. In The New York Review of Books, noted critic Martin Gardner offerred this evaluation of Barrow and Tipler’s work:

“What should we make of this quartet of WAP, SAP, PAP, and FAP? In my not so humble opinion I think the last principle is best called CRAP, the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle.”

Ross goes on to criticise the theory in two scientific areas:

Warning: Journalist does not understand what they are writing about.

Insufficient Memory

Tipler grossly overestimates the role of human memory and the future capability of computers. Just as computers cannot function with memory banks only, so, too, the human mind and human consciousness do not operate by memory alone. While remarkable advances in computer technology are taking place now, the laws of physics impose predictable finite limits on future computer hardware. As Roger Penrose has documented rigorously in The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind, these limits do not even permit the duplication of human consciousness let alone the fantastic capabilities Tipler Suggests.

Let me butt in here, by wondering what those currently engaged in AI research would think of that last statement? I’ve just read an intriguing book about the MIT research with Cog and Kismet, and what implications this has for human consciousness and God.

Expansion of the Universe

Tipler’s cosmic model on which his whole premise rests is now out of date. It depends on the universe possessing enough matter to force the universe into a future stage of collapse. But … measurements in 1999 and 2000 establish that only three-tenths of the mass necessary to force a future collapse of the universe exists. Moreover, the measured value for the space energy density term guarantees that the universe not only will expand forever, it will expand at an exponentially increasing rate.

Science aside, i’ll also note Ross’s objections to

Moral Perfectablity of Humans

Apparently according to Tipler, future computers will give everyone perfect morality by exposing them to game theory. “Consider, however, that if Tipler’s proposal were true, the better people comprehend game theory, the less propensity they would exhibit to commit evil. Unfortunately for Tipler, no such correlation is in evidence”. [Ross]

Relational Bliss

[Tipler] produces an equation to “prove” that this computer generated cosmic utopia will bring a woman to every man and a man to every woman capable of delivering 100,000 times the impact and satisfaction of the most fulfilling partner each can imagine in life as we know it. … Evidently, many people have never tasted any greater delight than what sexual experience can bring.

In an article for the Skeptical Inquirer, Gardner again brandished his satiric knives:

“I leave it to the reader to decide whether they should opt for OPT (Omega Point Theology) as a new scientific religion superior to Scientology – one destined to elevate Tipler to the rank of a prophet greater than L.Ron Hubbard – or opt for the view that OPT is a wild fantasy generated by too much reading of science fiction.”

~ Hugh Ross The Creator and the Cosmos pp 166,167

Tipler’s not the only one to make mileage out of quantum physics, but at least he’s a qualified scientist. I like this comment from Amazon so much, I’m going to repeat it:

Quantum Physics is the new magic. I’ve noticed from hanging out on philosophy forums online, that Quantum Physics is the new magic. There’s a quantum theory of consciousness, quantum this, quantum that. Everything can be proven with Quantum Physics. So some places have a sort of Godwin’s Law that you can’t use Quantum Physics as proof of anything — unless you yourself have a strong background in the subject. Of course, this doesn’t quite apply, as Tipler is a mathematical physicist, but his writings certainly remind me of all the Quantum Physics-as-magic posts I’ve seen written online.

Interestingly, some early quantum physicists speculated on how their theories might speak to our ideas about consciousness, but others in the same period (eg Einstein and Bohr) were equally opposed to these suggestions. Here’s some articles that helped me understand some of the ways people get quantum physics wrong:
* Chopra Mangles Quantum Mechanics – Again
* Wikipedia on Quantum Mysticism
* Quantum Quackery
* Far Out, Man. But Is it Quantum Physics?
* Thinking About Quantum Mysticism

I see at least two interesting things from Ross’s rebuttal. I’m not qualified to comment on the physics, but maybe the full range of human life can’t be modelled in a computer? And what about Ross’s contention that even with better education, we still display far too much evil in our lives?




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Posted in cosmology, God, Physics, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

The Physics of Immortality

Posted by spritzophrenia on July 26, 2010

I came across astrophysicist Frank Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality some time ago in a bookshop. Looked really interesting, if a bit wacky, but it contained way too much high-end physics for me to evaluate. I always wondered what exactly his conclusions were beyond some kind of g0d. Lucky me, Hugh Ross’s The Creator and the Cosmos has a summary.

According to Ross, Tipler (and co-author John Barrow) believe they can prove from physics that As we continue to evolve, we will become the Creator-Designer:

With [their “final anthropic principle”], the life that exists (past, present, and future) will continue to evolve with the inanimate resources of the universe until it all reaches a state that Barrow and Tipler call the “Omega Point”. This Omega Point, they say, is an Entity that has the properties of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience, with the capacity to create in the past. In other words, the Creator-God does not exist yet, but we (all life and all inanimate structures in the universe) are gradually evolving into God. When God is thus finally constructed, His power will be such that He can create the entire universe with all of its characteristics of design billions of years ago.

continued below…

In his latest book [at the time], The Physics of Immortality, Tipler proposes that evolution toward the Omega Point will occur through advancing computer technology. By extrapolating computer capability doubling time (currently, about eighteen months) some millions of years into the future, Tipler predicts that a future generation of human beings will be able not only to alter the entire universe and all the laws of physics but also to create a God who does not yet exist. Furthermore, we will be able to resurrect every human being who has ever lived by recovering the memories that once resided in each person’s brain.
Ross, page 165

Coincidentally, this stuff aligns with some science-fiction ideas I’ve been thinking about, and speculation in some other books I’ve been reading. Since Ross’s book Tipler’s published The Physics of Christianity.

I really like this comment from an Amazon reviewer:

Quantum Physics is the new magic. I’ve noticed from hanging out on philosophy forums online, that Quantum Physics is the new magic. There’s a quantum theory of consciousness, quantum this, quantum that. Everything can be proven with Quantum Physics. So some places have a sort of Godwin’s Law that you can’t use Quantum Physics as proof of anything — unless you yourself have a strong background in the subject. Of course, this doesn’t quite apply, as Tipler is a mathematical physicist, but his writings certainly remind me of all the Quantum Physics-as-magic posts I’ve seen written online.

I’ve since published a précis of Ross’s rebuttal of these ideas. But what do you think? Weird enough for ya? Comment below. You don’t have to be a physicist to have an opinion.

Posted in agnostic, cosmology, Physics, Science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »