Those trouble-making physicists are at it again.
During a panel discussion at the SETIcon II conference in Santa Clara, Calif., over the weekend, scientists discussed the Big Bang and whether there was a requirement for some divine power to kick-start the Universe 13.75 billion years ago.
Unsurprisingly, the resounding answer was: No.
“The Big Bang could’ve occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there,” said astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. “With the laws of physics, you can get universes.”
However, Filippenko, a speaker on the “Did the Big Bang Require a Divine Spark?” panel, stopped short of saying there is no god — he’s merely pointing out that the birth of the Universe didn’t require an intervening omnipotent being to get the whole thing started. The laws of physics, pure and simple, sparked universal creation.
He then meandered into a classic chicken-and-egg argument: “The question, then, is, ‘Why are there laws of physics?’ And you could say, ‘Well, that required a divine creator, who created these laws of physics and the spark that led from the laws of physics to these universes, maybe more than one.’
“The ‘divine spark’ was whatever produced the laws of physics. And I don’t know what produced that divine spark. So let’s just leave it at the laws of physics.”
British astrophysicist and author Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, cares little for society’s belief in supernatural beings (or subtlety for that matter). In his 2010 book, “The Grand Design,” Hawking said, “Because there is a law such as 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.”
A “spontaneous Big Bang” is something SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak, also a speaker at the SETIcon II panel, agrees with.
“Quantum mechanical fluctuations can produce the cosmos,” said Shostak. “If you would just, in this room, just twist time and space the right way, you might create an entirely new universe. It’s not clear you could get into that universe, but you would create it.
“So it could be that this universe is merely the science fair project of a kid in another universe. I don’t know how that affects your theological leanings, but it is something to consider.”
Whenever leading scientists get embroiled in the debate about the existence of God or a god’s involvement in the Big Bang, I cringe. There’s little doubt that there’s a debate to be had, but until physicists stumble across a bona fide theory of everything, or theologists find physical proof of a god, discussions such as this get stuck in an infinite feedback loop.
Last year, Hawking went “all in” and sparked a wave of controversy when he said that there is no God and there is no heaven.
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Hawking didn’t hold back: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Filippenko is deliberately vague on whether or not god (or, indeed, heaven) exists. “I don’t think you can use science to either prove or disprove the existence of God,” he said.
Hawking would likely disagree.
As humans, we naturally hold onto our instincts and beliefs to make sense of the universe we live in. Our capacity to do this no doubt helped us evolve, but in a modern age of incredible scientific discovery, science and faith are increasingly at odds.
The fact that we are gradually revealing the true complexity of the quantum world and the unfathomably huge scale of the cosmos tells me that science, not belief in an omnipotent being, will eventually give us the answers we are ultimately looking for. But that doesn’t mean science has (or will have) all the answers, it just means that the Universe cares little for our faiths — the Universe, as far as we can experience it, is powered by physical laws, not mythical gods.
So, for now, this is one philosophical debate that will keep generating headlines, but will remain stuck in that infinite feedback loop.
Image credit: NASA