This week we had another lecture in the area of the physics of the vacuum (see Whoops! A Universe). It was the 11th Dennis Sciama Memorial Lecture, given by Professor Philip Candelas of the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford. Here are the title and abstract:
Simple Calabi-Yau Manifolds and the Landscape of String Vacua
Abstract: It is widely known that there are a great many vacua of string theory. A small subset of these lead to four-dimensional worlds that are somewhat like the world that we observe. The great majority lead to worlds very different from our own. A vacuum is determined by a Calabi-Yau manifold together with certain extra structure. I will discuss the landscape of Calabi-Yau manifolds and a programme to find realistic string vacua based on simple cases.
You don’t need to understand the technical terms in order to follow the point I wish to make. All I want to emphasize here is that this lecture illustrates very well how completely wrong it is to describe the state of the universe in the absence of matter as somehow simple and not in need of explanation. Some of the best mathematical brains on the planet are puzzling over the nature of vacuum, and it is far from obvious or easy. And yet we continue to see utterly misleading headlines like the following (selected randomly from the web):
“A Mathematical Proof That The Universe Could Have Formed Spontaneously From Nothing
Cosmologists assume that natural quantum fluctuations allowed the Big Bang to happen spontaneously. Now they have a mathematical proof …”
Mathematical proof, no less! So it must be right! But of course what is going on is once again hidden away in that magic word “nothing”, applied to the vacuum. The physical vacuum, that is. The superbly, beautifully structured combination of gravity and electron-positron-quark-antiquark-gluon-photon-Higgs-field-superstring-what-have-you quantum fields reaching throughout the universe, full of subtlety and symmetry and the potential to carry excitations such as ourselves.
The point is, it is completely legitimate to wonder how such a beautiful and patterned physical thing came to be in the first place, and calling it “nothing” does not provide any sort of helpful or insightful answer.
However, one must tread carefully here in saying what can and cannot be reasonably derived from the fact of existence. When we examine physical existence without regard to people and consciousness, when we just think about rocks and dust and gravitating interstellar clouds and the like, then there is only a limited amount that can be deduced about their ultimate support. From the nature of inanimate, unthinking things one can only deduce inanimate, unthinking laws or principles that might serve the role of ultimate reason or support or guarantor. This is what physicists such as Stephen Hawking are asserting in books such as “The Grand Design”.
“Because there is a law like 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.” — Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design
The logic runs: “because there is a law like gravity…” So according to these authors, the universe does not come from nothing whatsoever, but from the prior existence or shaping influence of “a law like gravity”. They don’t offer much help with the question of how or why a mathematical abstraction could ever do anything at all, but if we shelve that issue, then, in so far as it goes, this is correct. You can imagine that a universe could come to be simply because there is some sort of vast play of randomness, or because there is some sort of structured play of mathematical law (one or both are advocated in “The Grand Design”). One might hold that such a shaping law simply is, without further ground or reason, and it is utterly impersonal, with no either loving or hating interest in anything, nor the least ability to take an interest in anything. This is, roughly, what philosophers such as David Hume have said at greater length, and you can see their point. It is a large part of the reason why most scientists are cautious about talk of God. They are rightly cautious, because they don’t want to overstate conclusions.
Now I will say a little about what is going on when people like me say there is something more than impersonal principles at the origins of and continuing support of the universe.
It is not that we discovered it as the most cogent hypothesis about a set of ideas that we can passively stand back from and assess. No, it is a different, but equally important (and legitimate) sort of knowing.
There are two ways of looking at almost anything. There is the passive, standing-over-and-assessing posture, examining the thing with a view to getting clarity about what it is and how it functions, but with no more commitment of ourselves to it than one can give to a piece of paper or a theorem. Then there is the way of recognition and personal relationship, where there is give and take. Here, the completely withdrawn, passive and assessing attitude gets almost nowhere.
There are similarities with how we engage with art. The analytical posture is valid, up to a point. You can use it to unpick the use of harmony and discord in the works of Mahler, for example, or the use of imagery in Shakespeare. But if you only do that then you will never hear the music fully, nor will you fully experience the dilemmas faced by the characters in the drama. In the case of personal relationships, this goes further. The first step is a willingness to recognise. It is a willingness to recognise that you are dealing with the personal—that is, with a nexus of intent and possibly love and certainly the ability to know you back. One whose boundaries may have to shape your boundaries. It is only in adopting such an attitude that you make the second sort of knowing available to yourself.
This is not about mystical experience nor blind faith. It is about a gentle but mature and serious opening of the self, a willingness to explore, to ask, to seek, to knock, not in order to get a scientific idea nor anything that can serve any self-centred agenda. It is done with a view to getting a better heart and a more full engagement with the world as it really is; a better sense of what is going on in the painful lives of our fellows, and of what our priorities should be.
What the basic science of the cosmos can offer you, with regard to this sort of step, is a reassurance that there is nothing fundamentally irrational about it. The universe is impressive enough to support the idea that there is intention behind it, or, perhaps a better phrase, in and through it. It is a universe with a purpose.
image from http://www.travel-studies.com/blogs/ . I include it as an image that suggests the idea of recognition of the personal.