Monday, 17 December 2012

The end of eternity (updated 19 Jan 2013)

Cosmology has become rational again.

Genesis 1:1
 The cover story of the New Scientist, 1 December 2012, is entitled Before the Big Bang: Three reasons why the universe could not have existed forever. Marcus Chown shows that the three cosmological models which invoke eternity – eternal inflation, eternal cycling and emergence from an eternal  high energy vacuum – are flawed when examined in the light of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem (2003) and later work by Vilenkin and Mithani (2012). The article includes these statements, long overdue in a national (UK) popular science magazine:

‘in the context of known physics, however, Vilenkin and Mithani conclude that, whatever way you look at it, the universe cannot have existed forever so must have had a beginning. According to Vilenkin, quantum theory has a solution because it permits something to pop out of nothing. So the next question surely is: where did the laws of quantum theory come from?’

It might be added that the agency which led to the reality we know also led to sentient beings with concepts of meaning, curiosity, love, truth, beauty and justice.

Update added 19 January 2013: Since the New Scientist article it has been announced that the idea of a quantum foam has been more or less abandoned. Space-time is, as Einstein predicted, continuous. This means the concept of quantum particles popping into and out of existence is not valid, according to the latest quantum physics.
Previous posts

Infinity, eternity and cosmology 
Eternity and thermodynamics

 have drawn attention to why the concept of an infinite or eternal material universe is untenable and outside the realm of logical thought – something which leading cosmologists have appeared unable or unwilling to accept. I find this mystifying. Is it because they don’t want to have to admit that some agent, i.e. God, must have created what has a beginning? Yet there is no comfort for them in proposing an eternal universe, because they still have to explain why there is anything at all – something rather than nothing. Even a universe without a beginning would have existence rather than non-existence. (NB: the holy concept of Eternal Life is outside the realm of physical materialism - this is a state of being outside the man-made constructs of time and space. In Christianity it starts in this life and survives physical death.)

Georges Lemaitre
Ever since the initial proposal in 1927 by Georges Lemaitre and  subsequent observations, notably by Edwin Hubble, led to the conclusion that the universe began as a single point from outside of space and time (the Big Bang) theoretical cosmologists have gone through the most extraordinary contortions to try to explain it in naturalistic terms. As the fairly recent discovery of cosmic fine tuning became undeniable the attempts to avoid a created universe, and the theological implications of this, grew ever more desperate. To make life even more difficult the concept of biological evolution by random mutations plus natural selection has also been shown to be untenable: intelligence is present throughout the natural world.

 So what do we have?

 1. A universe that was created along with space and time in which to expand.

2. At the instant of creation the point-sized universe was  preternaturally fine tuned for the evolution of sentient beings. Many physical constants were tuned to many decimal places to be just right for life. See A universe built for life; but how much life?

3. Intelligence is present in evolution (e.g. in the extraordinary machine intelligence within the 'junk' DNA  of a cell's nucleus and the cytoplasmic organelles surrounding it, and in the cognitive processes in a wide range of life forms).

On top of this philosophers of monotheistic religion point to a fourth aspect of reality: that the end result of the evolution of the universe and life is a being with concepts of truth, love, justice and beauty together with a relentless desire to seek these out. Collectively this points to a conclusion which many in the modern world seem afraid to admit.

There is even a fifth factor to upset the old fashioned materialist scientist, which is the emerging realisation that there are epistemological limits to what science can deduce or infer even about the natural order. No matter how long we keep searching we will never find all the answers. This is not just a belief. Ironically, it emerges from logical analysis itself. Logic has proved its own limitations by the process of logic. See, e.g., The non-local universe: the new physics and matters of the mind by Nadeau and Kafatos; and my previous posting Are some scientists from the planet Vulcan?  and Chimpanzees and a free lunch.

All five factors need to click in the mind of the average specialist scientist. Once they do science can advance within a framework of clarity and reality and, I maintain, attract more young people into what could again become a noble and exciting profession.

See also Striking the knowledge barrier

author, 2077 AD

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Consciousness without a brain

In a previous blog (Intelligence without brains) I mentioned the occurrence of intelligence in organisms without brains, in particular amoebae. The power of reason seems to crop up everywhere in the natural world and its relationship to configurations of matter and energy defies reductionist analysis. Recently I came across a cover story in Newsweek (7 Oct 2012) which strongly suggests that consciousness too can occur independently of the brain;  or more specifically, that there can  be consciousness in a human being without the neocortex showing any sign of activity, despite assiduous monitoring by a neurosurgical team.

What is the neocortex? Here is the definition from a medical dictionary: ‘Part of the cerebral cortex; constitutes about 85% of the human brain’s total mass. The neocortex is thought to be responsible for higher level cognitive functions, such as language, learning, memory and complex thought.’

 The feature concerned an experience of an academic neurosurgeon of world renown, Eben Alexander, who has published over 150 peer-reviewed papers. A virulent form of meningitis had attacked his brain, leaving him in a coma for 7 days during which he had been closely monitored for any trace of neural activity in the neocortex. Dr Alexander unexpectedly came back to earthly consciousness  and claimed he had been having a coherent conscious experience during the 7 days.

As a neurosurgeon he had always been sceptical of NDEs (near-death experiences). But this one was different. Previous ones he had encountered in his career and read about had been attributed, rightly or wrongly, to illusions resulting from activity in a malfunctioning neocortex. This time no activity, and hence no malfunctioning, was detected despite the very closest monitoring and scrutiny: the neocortex was totally inert. It was not working imperfectly because it was not working at all.

Dr Alexander wrote down what had happened soon after coming back to ordinary consciousness and used his account as a basis for a book, Proof of heaven: a neurosurgeon’s journey into the afterlife, which I have not yet read.  Apart from the visual events of this journey he experienced infinite love, something encompassing all forms of earthly love and more and the presence of God, who reassured him that he could do nothing wrong. All the beings he met or became aware of  were interconnected in some way, both with each other and with him. He also felt that far from being in a dream this was reality, and that his memory of this world seemed like a dream.

The number of NDEs grows as medical technology advances and is being taken seriously by an increasing number of neurologists and doctors. That consciousness of some kind is able to exist indepedently of the body is now almost certain. Cases have been recorded where the patient knows what is going on around him, in detail, despite being brain dead, having his eyes covered and his ears plugged.

As a Christian I am not sure what to make of this. Many of us find NDEs as difficult to understand as do materialists. The eternal life which we experience here on earth by faith and which continues after physical death takes us beyond space and time until God creates a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, at which point we receive our resurrection bodies.

It is really up to the individual but personally, I am inclined to believe that the NDE is indeed a genuine state of being which God creates for us (the way he has created the reality of life on earth) en route to an afterlife proper, once physical death is final. This could be God's kind way of handling the transition and it would be natural for some of our earthly culture to be reproduced in  this intermediate NDE state, to reassure us in our journey. Or could it be that our society and culture here are pale imitations of a richer and more intense reality? As St Paul says 'For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.'   1 Cor 13:12

As one who has spent most of his life steeped in the scientific worldview I have to  remind myself of the perplexiing and mysterious nature of our existence here. Is there a soul independent of the body? Karl Popper,  probably the most respected philosopher of science, likened it to  a piano player. Our brain-body system was the piano, played by the soul. If our material self was damaged it was like having the mechanism of the piano damaged; but the piano player carried on. You can shoot the piano, but not the piano player.

It is only because I have had time in the last few years to look into the deeper implications of the diverse divisions of science, albeit subject to my limitations,  that I've become aware of the strangeness of our existence that seems to have escaped the awareness of many competent but highly specialised scientists cocooned in a fragment of the total picture. Listed below are some aspects of reality which are now accepted by people in the various disciplines, though few of them seem to have grasped the whole.

  •  Nothing is solid but much appears solid. A lump of lead is totally space and energy put together to give the impression of solidity.

  • Time, space and matter are interconnected by Einstein's equations.

  •  Matter and mind are different aspects of the same underlying entity (follows from quantum physics experiments; it is analogous to wave-particle duality, whereby one entity has both wave and particle aspects but is itself neither of these).

  • All entities are instantanously connected in some way, independently of their separation in time and space. Thus quantum events in our neurons, in fact in all the cells of our body-brain system, are instantanously connected to all quantum events in the universe - past, present and future - including the point of the Big Bang creation. This arises from quantum entanglement.

  • Quantum events, including those in our own brains, affect what we call past events as well as future ones. (E.g. the delayed choice experiment in quantum physics).

  •  Physical reality is of such a nature that it cannot be fully described by mathematics or physical models on a one-one basis; i.e. science will never be able to describe more than limited aspects of reality. To attempt to do so would be like squaring the circle.

Previous posts touched upon some of these and there is plenty more to say about them and other aspects of the world we live in. Unlike the ancients, we have concepts of other dimensions and our reality gets stranger the more you look into it, so it should not be difficult for modern, post-Enlightenment man to believe in heaven and a Creator.


Author, 2077AD