All posts by waynespencer

Cosmologists say the strangest things

Do cosmologists make sense? This is a matter of perspective and of how familiar you are with astronomy, but it is worth considering some of the extraordinary and sometimes surprising things that cosmologists say. We should always keep in mind the limits of our human knowledge and of our own ability to come to the answers. The Bible says “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1) Another Scripture says “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

Sometimes astronomers and other scientists who study the origin of the universe are hard for most people to understand and relate to. Some of their comments go against common ideas of most people. Sometimes the truth about the universe is at least as strange as some fiction but when you compare the thinking of different scientists, in the end they are all of the same finite human nature as the rest of us. One very well-known astronomer from South Africa, Dr. George Ellis, has been called the “down-to-earth cosmologist.” He was a coauthor with Dr. Stephen Hawking in the book, The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time. In 2005 he said the following: “There is no physics theory that explains the nature of, or even the existence of, football, matches, teapots, or jumbo-jet aircraft. […] Even if we had a satisfactory fundamental physics ‘theory of everything’ this situation would remain unchanged: physics would still fail to explain the outcomes of human purpose, and so would provide an incomplete description of the real world around us.” (Nature, Vol 435, 9 June 2005, p.743)

We should also be mindful that in a science like astronomy where there is so much out in this vast universe, we cannot go and visit it all first hand. So how we explain it depends on the assumptions we make. There may be multiple explanations of some things we see in space. George Ellis made a comment similar to this. “People need to be aware that there is a range of models that could explain the observations….. I can construct you a spherically symmetrical universe with Earth at its center, and you cannot disprove it based on observations….. You can only exclude it on philosophical grounds. In my view there is absolutely nothing wrong in that. What I want to bring into the open is the fact that we are using philosophical criteria in choosing our models. A lot of cosmology tries to hide that.” (Scientific American 273(4):50-55, October 1995)

In the New Testament, Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible (NIV’84).” This and other passages in the Bible describe God creating the entire universe out of nothing. Biblically, God exists outside the physical universe, since He is self-existent. Thus, “in the beginning, God created . . .” as it says in Genesis 1:1 means God created with no previously existing “stuff” of any kind. Sometimes scientists sound as though they are almost claiming something similar about the universe. From some descriptions of the Big Bang, it almost sounds as though the universe created itself from nothing. But scientists actually mean something different than Scripture in this. For example, Chapter 11 in the book, The Story of the Cosmos, is written by Dr. William Lane Craig. He quotes outspoken physicist Lawrence Krauss saying the following:

“There are a variety of forms of nothing, [and] they all have physical definitions.”
“The laws of quantum mechanics tell us that nothing is unstable.”
“There is nothing there, but it has energy.”
“Nothing weighs something.”

Without going into the physics behind these statements. These statements use the term “nothing” in a special sense that is not it’s normal meaning. For example when a physicist refers to “nothing” he may mean, a perfect vacuum out in space with no matter in it. But even in empty space with no matter, empty space itself does have physical measurable properties. Physicists believe that empty space consists of unseen quantum fields and unseen particles that quickly go in and out of existence. In other words, “nothing” in outer space may not actually be “nothing” after all.

Another physicist (from Australia), Dr. Luke Barnes, criticizes Krauss for making the above statements:

“Now let’s look at Krauss’ claims again. Does it make sense to say that there are different types of not anything? That not anything is not stable? This is bollocks. What Krauss is really talking about is the quantum vacuum. The quantum vacuum is a type of something. It has properties. It has energy, it fluctuates, it can cause the expansion of the universe to accelerate, it obeys the (highly non-trivial) equations of quantum field theory. We can describe it. We can calculate, predict and falsify its properties. The quantum vacuum is not nothing.”

For a short version of Barnes’ response to Krauss, see this article:
https://creation.com/god-created-not-quantum-fluctuation
Or to read Dr. Barnes’ entire blog article on this go to this link:
https://letterstonature.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/of-nothing/

So, scientists occasionally disagree and debate various theories about the universe. An interesting debate between opposing ideas came up in 2017 on the topic of the inflation of the universe. “Inflation” is a theory added to the Big Bang which was put forward to solve certain problems with the early Big Bang theories. It claims the universe greatly expanded very suddenly for an extremely brief time early in the Big Bang. This time is sometimes referred to as the “inflation epoch.” Epoch used like this is not a long period of time but an extremely brief time, from 10-36 to 10-32 second. This is essentially a decimal point followed by 31 zeros then followed by a one. This is such a short time it is unimaginable. To relate this to something familiar, one blink of the eye is about 300 milliseconds. So it turns out in the time of one blink of an eye, you could have 30 billion trillion trillion inflation epochs! Cosmologists have theories about inflation but they don’t really have a mechanism. There are many mysteries about how it would happen.

There are differences of opinion among scientists over the question of has inflation theory been verified by astronomical observations. So there was an article published in Scientific American in January 2017. The article has the very interesting title, ‘Pop goes the universe.’ An apt description of inflation theory. The authors were three physicists, Anna Ijjas, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Abraham Loeb. They wrote about what they saw as problems with inflation theory. Then, on May 10 of 2017, 33 very well-known cosmologists wrote and signed a letter published in response to the original article. The 33 eminent scientists defend inflation theory and take issue with what ‘Pop goes the universe’ says. On May 12, the original three authors wrote a response to the 33 inflation defenders. The entire exchange was a very civil discussion and was quite interesting.

So what was so controversial in the ‘Pop goes the universe’ article? First, there was some differences with the inflation defenders over what the significance was of certain measurements from space. But one of the main disagreements was over the issue of had inflation theory been verified by experiments? The three writers of the article point out that inflation theory requires a type of energy called “inflationary energy” and there is no direct evidence that it exists. They make the point that the outcome depends dramatically on the initial conditions. So much so that any outcome is possible. If this is the case then how can the inflation concept help explain what made our universe as it is? They make the following statement in ‘Pop goes the universe.’ “Inflation is such a flexible idea that any outcome is possible. Does inflation tell us why the big bang happened or how the initial patch of space was created that eventually evolved into the universe observed today? The answer, again, is no.” So the three authors do not think inflation theory has truly been confirmed by experiment. Scientists often disagree in cosmology circles about what it would mean to “confirm” a theory by observations.

“Pop goes the universe” From Scientific American, January 2017.
http://physics.princeton.edu/%7Ecosmo/sciam/assets/pdfs/SciAm.pdf

Then the three authors of ‘Pop goes the universe’ also describe what they call the “multimess.” Inflation theory is a kind of many-universe theory. This claims that in the beginning there would be patches of space that would vary in properties and these regions would bring about many different universes with varying qualities. In inflation theory as the three authors put it, the multi-universe becomes a world of random fluctuations everywhere. They continue saying, “the multimess does not predict the properties of our observable universe to be the likely outcome. A good scientific theory is supposed to explain why what we observe happens instead of something else. The multimess fails this fundamental test.”

Letter response by 33 eminent cosmologists (May 10, 2017)
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/a-cosmic-controversy/

The response letter by the 33 inflation defenders refers to the original three authors as “IS&L” and take issue with their claim that inflation theory is not really testable. The response letter makes this summary statement. “By claiming that inflationary cosmology lies outside the scientific method, IS&L are dismissing the research of not only all the authors of this letter but also that of a substantial contingent of the scientific community. Moreover, as the work of several major, international collaborations has made clear, inflation is not only testable, but it has been subjected to a significant number of tests and so far has passed every one.” The response letter goes on to list some examples of confirmations of inflation theory from observations. They also point out that there are thousands of research papers on subjects about inflation and that inflation is not one model but a class of many models that have variations of the concept. The three original authors (IS&L) take the view that the universe will expand, stop and contract again, then eventually stop contraction and expand again. This idea has been considered by some scientists before. The response letter from the 33 criticizes this view as well.

Later comments on this article by the original 3 authors. Their response to the May 10 letter.
http://physics.princeton.edu/%7Ecosmo/sciam/
Another response agreeing with the original Pop goes the universe apparently (May 12, 2017)
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/is-a-popular-theory-of-cosmic-creation-pseudoscience/

I wish to make a point of my own after looking over the ideas from these cosmologists. In discussion of the idea of verification of a theory by observations something important seems left out to me. We have to make scientific observations in the present, long after the events surrounding the beginning of the universe. The origin of the universe (or of ‘our’ universe if you prefer) was a one-time event that is not repeatable. The traditional concept of the scientific method emphasizes that in order to verify something by experiment it must be repeatable. None of the scientists in the original article or the response letter point this out.

Does this apply to observations made of the universe today? The problem in cosmology and really in any scientific model of origins is that none of it is repeatable and you cannot be certain that the observations made today relate to the events of the past in the way that you think. Thus, though scientific models can be developed, you cannot really ever “verify experimentally” any theory of origins. The study of origins is never the same as experimental science. So the study of origins is more about the question, “Is it plausible?” than “Can it be verified?” The three authors of “Pop goes the universe” almost come to this conclusion but not quite. Scientists, it seems to me, are often unrealistic and sometimes not quite completely honest about the inherent limitations of science in the study of origins. This limitation of science when it comes to origins is very different from the experimental basis for medical science such as in finding a vaccine to fight a deadly virus, or the basis for the invention of the integration circuit chip. So, experimental science is very different from the science of origins. Origins depends on philosophical assumptions and a lot of interpretation of data. There is often more than one way to interpret observational data in astronomy. One scientist, James Gunn, a retired astronomy professor from Princeton, not involved in the inflation articles mentioned above, made an interesting statement about cosmology. He said, “Cosmology may look like a science, but it isn’t a science… A basic tenet of science is that you can do repeatable experiments, and you can’t do that in cosmology.” (A singular conundrum: How odd is our universe?, Science News Focus by Adrian Cho, Vol. 317, Issue 5846, pp. 1848–1850 DOI: 10.1126/science.317.5846.1848 28 September 2007.)

So if cosmology is not a science, do we just throw up our hands and give up on finding answers? No. I think we need revelation from God. We need the word of the One who was there in the beginning. God’s word is not a cosmology text. I’m glad of this, because that means people can understand it! But the Bible gives a framework that we can build our thinking on.

The Exodus and the Corona Virus

I’ve been thinking about parallels between the Exodus account in the Old Testament and the Covid-19 pandemic today. A question may come up in people’s minds, “Is the Corona virus pandemic a judgement from God?” I think the answer is no, though I can see how some could think so. It affects people all over the entire world! We’ve never experienced anything like it. Many Americans are inconvenienced in ways for the first time in their lives. And people are dying. It is astonishing to me how it has turned a very mobile modern society into a very immobile society! But there are things we can do to lesson the deaths and the suffering. I think Psalm 25:8 is an important clue for understanding our current situation. I think the Corona virus is more of a test, it is more of a hard lesson, not a judgement. The God of the Bible does hold in his hands the lives of every human being. Psalm 25:8 says

“Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” (NIV, 1984)

I say God is not judging, he is instructing. But there are hard lessons in this time. God does not just instruct his own people who believe in him. He sometimes instructs sinners who do not believe in him, using action in the world. The account of the Exodus does have some parallels to today. I would not equate the plagues of Egypt to the Corona virus, mainly because the Corona virus does not discriminate. The plagues of Egypt for the most part did discriminate between the Israelites and the Egyptians. Starting with the third plague in Egypt (see Exodus 8) it says the plague would not affect the land of Goshen where the Israelites were. Also it seems to me from descriptions of God’s judgement in the Bible, such as Noah’s Flood and the book of Revelation, that God’s judgement would be even more severe than the virus outbreak we are experiencing. Also, we think of viruses as a bad thing because of all the attention that has focused on those viruses that threaten our health. But there are also many beneficial viruses that fight against harmful bacteria in our bodies. Viruses such as Covid-19 are examples of viruses that likely no longer serve the function they had in the beginning. We live in a fallen world that is corrupted by sin, and that includes corruption of viruses. But we can use science to fight corrupted viruses.

The Egyptians were prosperous and they were one of the most powerful nations in the world at the time of the Exodus. They had their own beliefs, their own religion with multiple gods that they worshiped and served. But Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh and told him to obey God. Pharaoh was told he would see that there was no god like the God of the Israelites. The plagues demonstrated miraculously that the God of Moses was really in control of what was happening. There are a number of specific ways that the plagues of Egypt specifically refuted the beliefs in the gods of Egypt of the time. But that is another story.

Today many people, including many scholars, would not think of the biblical account of the Exodus as a description of real historical events. But there is now some new evidence coming to light through the “Patterns of Evidence” video programs that make a good case for the Exodus being a real historical event. There is good evidence for the Israelites being in Egypt and good evidence that they moved to Canaan. What happened in between Egypt and Canaan is controversial when you deal with the historical evidence. But in Scripture we have an account of what actually happened to real people.

What are the parallels between today and the Exodus? First, the God of the Bible is still in control, though this is something not everyone would acknowledge. We may not have as much miraculous evidence of this today as like what happened in Egypt in the past, but there is all the evidence of good in people’s lives from faith in the God of the Bible throughout history. Many hospitals actually had their founding from the efforts of Christian organizations. Christians have built hospitals for the treatment of all people because of the Christian concept of the uniquely high value of human life! We are glad to have those hospitals today, regardless of who owns or manages them. Christianity also had a role in the founding of modern science and the discovery of principles that are very important today in dealing with the Corona virus. Like the work of Luis Pasteur and Joseph Lister for example, who were both Christians. Science has come a long way since the work of Pasteur and Lister but that is also thanks to God I believe.

In a time like this I think it is key that people put aside differences and cooperate with each other and with authorities. So I think the virus outbreak is for teaching people good lessons about good health and about cooperating with each other. It is also a challenge to people who are first responders and who work in health fields, to treat all types of people equally according to their need. Doctors and nurses and other health care workers are real heros right now. There is another passage in Psalm 32:8-9 I like very much that seems relevant right now. We should learn the lessons we need to learn from times like these.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.” (Psalm 32:8-9, NIV, 1984)

Another parallel between the Exodus and today is about what the ancient Israelites experienced compared to people today. The biggest challenge for the ancient Israelites was not so much about surviving the plagues, because God protected them. It was about their journey to the promised land. They couldn’t see what was ahead or know what would happen next. They were given manna and quail in such a manner that it forced them to trust and obey God in a daily manner. They could not horde manna. They had to collect only one day’s worth, except the day before the Sabbath. It was a lesson about trusting God every day. You can’t horde enough for your whole life, or even for all you need for a couple of months. The way to face it is to trust God for every day. Jesus taught something very like this as well in Matthew 6:34.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34, NIV 1984)

So, we are told we should live with more understanding than a horse or a mule. But Scripture gives a lot more guidance than just this. Trusting God for every day does not mean you don’t make reasonable plans and preparations. But we should be able to be content and not anxious. We feel like asking, “What’s going to happen next?” But perhaps we should be asking the question, “How can I help?” At the very least, we who believe in God can pray.