Sept 12, 2012 - "Why is there a Universe?" by Dr. Alan Batten

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Our Enigmatic Universe: One Astronomer's Reflections on the Human Condition


The question 'Why is there a Universe?' is not, strictly speaking, a scientific one but it is a question that those of us who have studied the physical universe inevitably sometimes ponder. Traditionally, scientific questions tend to be 'how' questions, whereas 'why' questions are thought of as being in the realm of philosophy and religion. Science and religion are currently the two most important elements in our culture and the relation between them is much more complex than is often supposed. The speaker will explore that complexity.

As part of his presentation, Alan will be talking about his book, Our Enigmatic Universe - One Astronomer's Reflections on the Human Condition

Bio: Alan is retired from his position at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. He joined that Victoria Centre in 1961, was president of the national RASC organization in 1976, has been editor of the RASC Journal, and has contributed numerous articles to the RASC Handbook. He has been vice-president of the International Astronomical Union, and Asteroid (3931) Batten is named in his honour. He was a recipient of the RASC Service Award in 1988 Citation.

Below are Dr. Battan's speaking notes for reference purposes.  Please understand that what Dr. Battan actually said does not appear below, however what he did say is at least alluded to in these notes.

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Why is there a Universe?

When Nelson asked me to consider giving a talk on the topic of my recent book Our Enigmatic Universe, I admit that I was somewhat hesitant to do so, and that was for two reasons. First, it is some time since I have come to a meeting of this Centre. Although I have been President both of the Centre and of the National Society, I found during my first wife�s illness that I had neither the time nor the energy to come to your meetings and I got out of the habit of coming on the second Wednesday of each month. Many of you who are members now do not remember when I was a regular attender, but I still feel at home here and am glad to see that the Centre is flourishing. The second reason for my hesitation was perhaps the more important. Several years ago, at the invitation of then Editor of Mercury, the popular magazine published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, I reviewed three or four books on the general topic of the relation between science and religion. Shortly after the article appeared, the Editor received a letter (which he published) from an outraged reader to the effect that that reader subscribed to the magazine to read about modern developments in science and did not expect to be served up articles on matters of faith. It occurred to me that some, perhaps many, of you would share that reader�s attitude (which I believe to be mistaken) and would not want to come to hear whatever I might have to say about science and religion. I was assured, however, that your Council backed the invitation that Nelson had extended and so here I am!

Let me begin, then by saying why I think that the attitude of that reader of Mercury was mistaken. It is arguable that science and religion are the two most important forces in our modern culture. I hardly need to argue the case for science to this audience: you are all well aware of how scientific attitudes and technological inventions pervade our everyday life. At other times in western history, music or the arts have certainly been more important in everyday life than what we now call science was, and may one day be so again, but in our present world they are not, or at least are not perceived to be by many. Similarly, whatever your own religious beliefs (or lack of them) may be, you can hardly escape the fact that the news media, almost every day, carry stories about the effects religious beliefs have in the realms of national and international politics. Often, and especially since the event of eleven years ago yesterday, those effects are presented in a very negative light, but they are undoubtedly real and important. While there are scientists who cannot understand why religious belief should have survived into the 21st century and who wish it had not done so, there are also religious believers who see the dominance of science in our culture as one of the greatest evils in that culture and who deny those advances in science that appear to them to be �godless�. Given, however, that these two forces are dominating our culture, it is surely of interest to examine the relation between them. The reader of Mercury was closing his mind (unless my memory is mistaken, it was his) to what might have turned out to be a very thought-provoking line of study.

It is sometimes said that science is occupied with trying to answer questions about �how� the universe works, while philosophy and religion are concerned with questions about �why� the universe works, or even exists. There is some truth in the distinction, which marks the title of my lecture as �unscientific�. For example, Aristotle asked why stones fall to the Earth and concluded that they were composed of the element �earth� whose natural place was the centre of the universe (where he believed the Earth to be). His ideas dominated European thought after the recovery of his work in Western Europe (in the thirteenth century) until the scientific renaissance of the seventeenth century. Then Galileo tried a new line of investigation; he gave up all thought of asking why stones fell to the Earth and investigated how they fell and, as a result, came up with the law of falling bodies: the distance travelled by a body falling from rest is proportional to the square of the elapsed time. This law, combined with Kepler�s discovery that the planetary orbits were ellipses, enabled Newton to show that the inverse-square of law of gravitation could explain the motions both of falling bodies and of the planets around the Sun. Yet even Newton said �The cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know�.

Not long after Newton published his Principia, he was criticized for the godless nature of his system of the world. We now know how ironical this was because Newton wrote much more about theology than he ever wrote about physics. He didn�t publish his theological speculations partly because of his aversion to publication (remember that Halley had to drag the Principia out of him) but mainly because they would have been considered heretical at that time and he would certainly have lost his Fellowship of Trinity College Cambridge and quite possibly have had to face even harsher penalties. Newton, however, was anything but godless. He recognized, for example, that, in a universe in which every bit of matter attracted every other bit, at least if that universe were finite, all the matter would eventually end up in one big clump, so he believed that God had a role to play keeping all the matter apart. Even more, Newton was impressed by the fact that all the planets revolved around the Sun in orbits that were nearly in the same plane, and both the planets, and all the satellites known to him, revolved in the same sense. Stung by his critics, Newton added a General Scholium to the second edition of the Principia in which he advanced these facts as evidence of Divine design, writing: �This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.� Those words could almost have been written by a modern champion of Intelligent Design as an alternative to the neo-Darwinian view of evolution. Newton was, in fact, advancing a particular form of a very old argument for the existence of God, known as the argument from design. It is an attractive argument but suffers from the disadvantage that new developments in science may show any particular form of it to be unfounded. This happened to Newton�s form of the argument, less than 100 years after his death, when Laplace produced a theory of the origin of the solar system (basically that still favoured today) which explained the coplanarity of the orbits and the sense of revolution within them quite naturally. As Laplace is reputed to have said to Napoleon when the latter asked him where there was a place for God in his theory: �Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis!�

Not only Newton, but nearly all the people that we look on as the founders of modern science (although they called themselves philosophers) were devout, but not always orthodox, men. Remember that even Copernicus was a priest. They thought that by trying to understand how the universe worked they were glorifying God, whom they believed to have created it, every bit as much as were those who devoted their lives to prayer and worship. There was no general conflict between science and religion in the seventeenth century. The persecution of Galileo, so often seen as a fight between a man with new ideas and a conservative and obscurantist Church was, in fact, a much more complex affair, largely determined by the personalities involved, not least that of Galileo himself. Great scientist though he was, Galileo was not an entirely estimable person and his troubles were partly of his own making. True, much against Newton�s will, the approach to physics that he founded in the Principia was increasingly used during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to justify a mechanistic and atheistic view of the universe we live in and this shows up in the quotation I have already made from Laplace, and was strengthened when the geologists Hutton and Lyell argued that natural processes, acting over very long periods of time, had produced the features we see on the surface of the Earth, and thus challenged the received view that the Earth was only a few thousand years old.

As is well known, the work of those geologists was one of the stimuli that led Darwin to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection which precipitated another confrontation between new scientific ideas and those who wanted to preserve the special position of the human race as it seems to be defined in the Bible. Once again, the real situation was more complex than most people believe. There were, in Darwin�s day, scientific objections to his theory of evolution. Biologists did not know the mechanism of heredity, and doubted whether variations could be inherited and lead to new species. Physicists, especially Lord Kelvin, argued strongly against the long time-scale that the geologists required for uniformly acting processes to produce the observed features of the Earth�s surface �a time-scale that Darwin needed if the mechanism of natural selection were to work. On the other hand, there were many Churchmen, some of them quite prominent, who were quite ready to accept Darwin�s ideas. Nevertheless, the aftermath of the publication of the Origin of Species strengthened the notion that there was some sort of conflict between new developments in science and traditional religious (specifically Christian) beliefs. In America, two books were published in the late nineteenth century that were influential in their time, although hardly anyone reads them now. They were: History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by J.W. Draper (1875) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology by A.D. White. The notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science seems to have been a late American one!

One way of avoiding this perceived necessary conflict is to argue that religion and science are two quite independent realms of thought, dealing with different subjects by different methods. In recent years this notion has been popularized by the late Stephen Jay Gould in a book entitled Rocks of Ages. Gould coined the clumsy term �non-overlapping magisteria�, which he promptly abbreviated to NOMA, for this idea. The surprising thing about Gould�s book is that he appeared to think that this was an astonishing new insight whereas, in fact, the idea is quite old and goes back at least to Frederick Temple, a nineteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury. I think the most cogent criticism of it was by the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington who pointed out that the very notion of independent spheres of thought contained within it the possibility of there being frontier areas in which disputes could arise. In the seventeenth century, the motion of the Earth was one such frontier area, in the nineteenth, the relationship between human beings and the rest of the animal creation was another. That relationship is still a problem for many today, but perhaps the real frontier now is our modern knowledge of genetics and the ethical problems it raises.

Let us come back to astronomy, in which we are all more at home. We all �know� now that the Universe began in a �Big Bang� some 13.7 billion years ago, and many of you will have heard of the so-called �anthropic principle� first enunciated by Brandon Carter in 1972. Carter simply stated that what we can expect to observe must be constrained by the conditions necessary for our existence. That is an entirely uncontroversial statement but it turns out that those conditions have to be very closely defined; any slight deviation from even one of several conditions would make it impossible for creatures like us to exist. This has naturally led some people to resurrect the argument from design in modern dress. Like any other form of the argument, it is vulnerable to the possibility of further scientific advances. Perhaps there is a reason why the conditions have to be exactly as they are which will one day be discovered by scientists. That, however, would raise the question: �why should there be such a reason?� The Canadian philosopher, Terence Penelhum, has argued that there cannot be a total explanation of the existence of the universe �the question in the title of my talk is unanswerable. Just as a child told that God made everything is likely to ask �who made God?� so we can always push back any scientific explanation and ask why it should be so. Those of you who have tried to explain the Big Bang to your friends have probably been asked �what happened before the Big Bang?� We used to answer that time and space and matter all came into existence together at the Big Bang and the question was therefore meaningless. The more usual answer now is that before the Big Bang there was a quantum vacuum. A quantum vacuum is not just nothingness �the uncertainty principle forbids that. There is a sort of quantum foam containing �little� bubbles of mass and energy, most of which quickly collapse �and the law of conservation of mass-energy is not violated so long as the bubbles do collapse. Occasionally, even a whole universe will come into being and some of these will be universes that can sustain life. So, some people argue, the laws of quantum physics explain why the universe exists. As one paper in Nature famously put it: �the universe is one of those things that happen from time to time�.

I am like the awkward child who asks �who made God?� Suppose there were no matter, energy, time nor space, would the laws of quantum physics still exist? Think carefully about how you would answer this question, especially if you think of yourself as either an agnostic or an atheist. If you answer �no�, you are stuck with an eternal mystery as to why anything exists. If you answer �yes�, you are saying that something exists eternally which has given rise to all that we observe around us. Either way, there is something eternal that our limited human minds cannot fully understand. You might as well call that �God� as anything else!


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