Every once in a while, the average guy or gal needs closure. I speak here not of “getting on with life” after a breakup, loss, or what have you. I mean by way of logical understanding. It has been said that the point of the journey is not to arrive. And yet, if we never arrive at any firm conclusions in our intellectual lives, the journey begins to look like the life of Phil Connors (from Groundhog Day); we’re just not getting anywhere. An individual reading the New York Times each morning will be bombarded by claims. They will not have the time (nor skill) to track down all of the claims, examine their proofs, and explore the validity of counter claims. Sure, we try to stay appraised of “what’s really going on”, as described and explained by the intellectual cognoscenti. But really, we have to take (or not take) their word for it. As applied to secular science, the public needs a reliable creation story. A metanarrative of life. That is, a telling of the unfolding of history. One might think that the skeleton of such a structure already exists. But this is simply—and inconveniently—not true. Worse, the more one gropes down into the rabbit hole, the more confused one gets.
Let us start at the beginning. In the beginning was the Big Bang. Mind you, I’m no physicist, but it sure seems messy. For example, many seem to be arguing that, in the beginning, there was no beginning. In a recent article, Physic.org announced, “Quantum equation predicts universe has no beginning.” This is based on a paper recently published in Physics Letters B (Ali and Das, 2015), but we’ve heard similar things from prominent physicists and mathematicians (for example, Stephen Hawking also argues for a curved beginning of space-time, such that there is no “beginning”). So, what does one think when reading this over a cup of coffee? This matters, because it represents the fundamental grounding of known reality. If there is no beginning to the universe, then does this mean that the universe is eternal or that time doesn’t really exist? And, even if devoid of a time component, what caused the universe? Or is self-causation an (il)logical possibility?
[As an aside, it turns out that the model used in the Ali and Das (2015) paper relies on “Bohmian fluid” corresponding to a quantum mechanical wavefunction. As a colleague explained it to me, “But since Bohm’s wavefunctions don’t have points, space-time contracts down to a quantum mechanical blob, and then stays a blob for eternity.”]
Okay, now let’s flash forward some minuscule sliver of time. At the moment of the Big Bang, apparently space-time was actualized. Time began. But what is space-time? Well, it’s relative. First off, the singularity (the point from which the Big Bang expands outward) would need to have an immense density. But, as Einstein’s General Relativity teaches us, the larger the density, the greater the gravity (or, in his mind, the larger the distortion of the time dimension). Take a black hole for example. It is essentially a super-dense object, that’s gravity is sufficiently large to produce an “escape velocity” that even light cannot manage (black holes are black holes because not even light can escape them). At the Big Bang, what was gravity like, why didn’t matter collapse, and how did the expansion happen (i.e., why not have everything pulled back towards this point of immense density?). By now you’re all already getting bored, so I’ll try to move along. Just be aware that we still don’t really know if particles have ever actually moved faster than the speed of light (say, out of the Big Bang or into a black hole), what such a phenomenon would “look” like, and what it would mean with respect to time. We also don’t really know what gravity is. [this is not to say that there aren’t educated opinions out there].
I also won’t spend time this morning discussing the brain-melting applications of relativity and quantum mechanics (the latter of which still exists as a theoretical hotbed, rife with conflicting interpretations). But the take home is that we can’t assume a common time frame with any other object (apparently not even for planes moving in opposite directions or for people in space stations orbiting earth). Heck, we might even be “actualizing” history that exists only as a possibility until we observe it (effectively allowing us to make the past real). This is about the time one wonders if they need a strong drink and a moment to think…or if they’re had too many already, and can’t think.
Okay, so the past—if it exists—is indeed mysterious and apparently not a static feature of reality. Let’s try to find our footing in some things nearer to us. The origin of life represents yet another serious stumbling block. Not only do we have no clear demonstration of a progression from chemistry to biology (life from non-life), but there are dozens of competing hypotheses, most of which will be entirely resistant to empirical testability. Worse, it’s not as if we have some nested set of hypotheses that all share common denominators. How many origins of life are there? Did life arise spontaneously on earth, or did it come from outer space? Did “life” (that is, replicating molecules) gradually increase in complexity in some step-wise Darwinian fashion, or is life an emergent property? If it happened here, did life arise in a hydrothermal vent, mud bubbles, the backs of crystals, or on some ancient shoreline? The answer to all of these questions is, it depends on which scientists you ask. Once again, we’re off to a bad start.
What about the evolution of life? Here, I am pleased to say that we at least have some basic areas of consensus. Even if we did have multiple origins for life on earth, the consensus view is that none of those origins looked like anything near complex multicellular life. Such forms seemed to have evolved over long epochs of time. There is a fossil record, and—to the extent that they’re helpful—there are molecular data which reveal a basic pattern of life’s unfolding. So, most of us can get a bit of closure in knowing that the earth (and life) is old, and that it has evolved over time. On that timeline, lions, tigers and bears (and people) are recent. The patterns seem to indicate that our species falls within the primate lineage, though no direct ancestor has been unearthed as of yet. Again, there may be some uncomfortable implications therein, but at least we can feel some degree of confidence in knowing this much (at a minimum, a logical statement that it is more probable than not).
But then, what of the mechanism? There, some would have you believe that there is consensus, but the cracks in the proverbial dam have now leaked water into the mainstream media. Too many reputable scientists, with no religious bent, have raised concerns about the “consensus” form of evolution; Darwinian evolution. First, that fossil record telling us of the general pattern of evolution unfortunately displays anything but a gradual increase in complexity. Linked to the problem of life’s origin(s), there is the absence of a viable mechanism for creating information-rich genetic code. Again, I won’t bore people with the details here, but there is the issue of explaining self-referencing systems (where the output of a reaction is also the first input) or why there is external referencing and context among things, even when there is no physical necessity for those relationships. [For example, a major hurdle is to explain why the ordered code of the DNA molecule should correspond to the ordered sequence of a protein. There is no physical mechanism or law that necessitates such a relationship].
Per the usual, one can see all manner of explanations in popular media outlets. While the gradualistic form of Darwinian evolution is largely debunked among biologists, it retains mainline status in the public. But, things like “evo-devo” (“evolution and development”), which attempts to offer large-scale changes in small time increments, have become widely accepted (even while largely unverified as a viable mechanism). Add to this epigenetics (the “extended synthesis”), nearly-neutral evolution, stochastic drift, emergent processes and even “front-loading” or “facilitated” adaptation. One gets the feeling that we are on the Island of Misfit Toys.
Taking stock then, our cosmic origins are a complete and utter mystery. The nature of “real” reality is also enigmatic. Our temporal place in the history of life is fairly well established, but we have no clear mechanism as to how life came to be, nor how we (or anything else) emerged. This is unsettling, because we derive both meaning or purpose (or the absence of those things), as well as the teleological arrow of the future from the mechanism(s) involved in our past. If we were seeded here by aliens, our sense of meaning and purpose would be more like that of the movie Prometheus than the hopeless account offered by Dawkins et al. If there is frontloading, then there may be a teleological target yet ahead of us. You get the idea. I haven’t even broached the uncomfortable issues of objective observation, human consciousness, free-will, etc. Here, science either flatly doesn’t know, or denies the phenomenon in question. Not particularly helpful. How then do we ground our sense of being in the absence of any concrete structures upon which we could fasten ourselves? The common mantra among the scientific community is “give us more time. We’ll figure it all out.” But, in practical terms, this is no different than believing that Jesus will explain everything to us in the end. What do we do in the meantime? At a minimum, what science needs is a creation story, an ontology of existence, that is broadly agreed upon, and salable to the public. At least Jesus offers a concrete account of how we get to the present. Science keeps writing the past in pencil, and erasing it before we can read it.