On the Cosmic Background

(Presented at the ANZURA Conference in Mooloolaba QLD, October 2018)

Based on a presentation at the ANZURA Conference 2018, here is another attempt to build bridges between modern science and traditional religion, concentrating mostly on their differing approaches to knowledge. Science is fundamentally about more knowledge and its test for value is how well the knowledge works in the physical world. Religion is also a knowledge-seeking activity but more in the sense of an individual, internal “knowing” whose value lies more in its God-like and God-conscious qualities.

After working the science-religion problem for a while it eventually becomes clear that the points of difference are real and fundamental. They do not arise merely from people being difficult with each other. The knowledge-seeker who does the hard work of designing ever more demanding experiments will always be at odds with one who claims to “just know”. And the God-knower will always be disturbed when the knowledge-seeker demonstrates God-like powers apparently by peeking inside the universe’s box of tricks without permission.

Yet somehow The Urantia Book manages to cross routinely between the scientific, religious and philosophical viewpoints, treating them like islands with bridges between. Importantly there is not much attempt to dilute or transform these viewpoints, only to appreciate their usefulness and exercise the reader in using these bridges freely and frequently; to be aware of the style of thinking required at any moment and always be ready to move to an island where thinking is done that way. The hope seems to be that proficiency at making such crossings is a worthy accomplishment perhaps even contributing towards a truly advanced form of religion.

Inspired by this Urantia Book approach I would like to take an example from the quantum theories of modern science and make it an exercise to interpret a variety of religious and philosophical implications.

It will help to appreciate how very important the term “cosmic background” is to science whereby the usual starry-sky meaning of “cosmic” is also taken to imply a degree of order just as “chaotic” can imply disorder. This is the sense in which “Cosmos” was used as the title of Carl Sagan’s well-known television series and book.

With cosmos on its side, the operation of science is smooth and easy to describe. The universe operates according to rules.

These rules are reliable enough to permit observation and experiment in one time and place to be applicable in another time and place. Hence the knowledge builds up steadily into a semblance of understanding. And the proof of such understanding is an ever improving ability to deal with phenomena; those happenings which are observable and measurable. The word “background” quite nicely captures the idea that some workings of the universe are outside the reach of science: too big or too small, too fast or too slow, too far away, too subtle and so on. In other words those workings don’t quite qualify as phenomena and we just have to accept it for the time being. But the possibility that the universe might be too unreliable, that cosmos might fail, is completely outside of science, by definition.

It will also help to appreciate that the phenomena of science span a size range so vast that to approach the interesting quantum conditions at the point of cosmos failure is almost impossible.

In terms of size it is sometimes said of humans that we stand at the “centre of immensities” (origin of quote unknown). An individual human is smaller than the diameter of the known universe by the 25th power of ten and bigger than an electron by about the 15th power of ten. Something about 100 km across would be quite near the centre of the size range; about the size of the familiar space we live in and drive around in. Compared to the stars we are small but not inconsiderable. Compared to the atoms we are large but still capable of subtle observations, almost to the point at which matter becomes indefinite.

Incidentally, Roger Penrose’s book, “The Large, The Small and The Human Mind”, asserts that consciousness as we know it also happens near the middle of the size scale.

Brownian Motion

Now with a grasp of how many orders of magnitude we must reach down, it comes as a pleasant surprise that use of a conventional microscope grants access to a wondrous world of living things and also to the spectacle of tiny particles like pollen grains being buffeted about by the molecules of their watery medium, an effect called “Brownian”, after its discovery by Robert Brown in 1827.

And Brownian motion is of particular interest because it is nearly an example of God playing dice with the universe and because it was the subject of some early work by Albert Einstein. Molecules are truly infinitesimal compared to pollen grains and only their immense speeds and definite trajectories make them effective. It was not possible to derive the grain motion from individual molecule motions so Einstein used a mathematical method called statistical mechanics. However the unsettling need for statistics in this case is only a mathematical necessity done with a lively expectation that the motion of all the molecules could be known in principle. Here it is only the humans who play dice and science is spared any humiliation.

It is remarkable how Albert Einstein had so many close encounters with the edge of science. His work on Brownian motion gave him real experience in unveiling strange-seeming statistical phenomena. Perhaps this helps to explain why his confidence in the cosmic background was so firm when presented with the irreducible strangeness of quantum phenomena.

A Quantum Mystery

The quantum mystery, in which order really does seem to break down, is illustrated dramatically in the famous “double-slit” thought experiment, bringing together in the mind as one what was actually a variety of separate experiments in the laboratory.

When a beam of light passes through a hole about as small as the wavelength of that light, it spreads out as if it came from a new little light source. And when there are two holes very close together the waves coming through one hole over-ride the waves coming through the other to make a pattern of lighter and darker regions which can be seen if the light is allowed to fall onto a wall or, even better, onto a photographic film, to make a permanent record. Double-slit is just another term for the two holes and the pattern is the evidence that light is made of waves.

The first hint of strangeness arises when the intensity of the light is reduced until photons of light are entering the experiment only one at a time and hitting the wall one tiny speck at a time. The surprise is that after a while the pattern that eventually builds up on the photographic film is the same as the one from the beam of light. Even though each individual photon would be expected to go through only one of the holes, somehow it is capable of statistically generating the pattern of a wave going through both holes.

The quantum states, the uncertainties and the wave-like propagation can be described precisely in mathematics but it remains an impenetrable mystery exactly how the quantum particle is getting into these states, almost disappearing from reality and how the necessary information is being passed around to satisfy the statistics. This is the other big occasion in Albert Einstein’s experience when physics went statistical, this time rather more deeply. Where it refers to quantum experiments like this one, Einstein’s remark is partly an admonition for science to try harder, instead of settling for a statistical theory, and partly an expression of confidence born of experience that God’s universe is an orderly one in which such an effort will be rewarded eventually.

Just to round out an appreciation of the double-slit experiment, consider what happens when we detect which hole each photon is passing through. Well, each detection is also a confirmation that a photon is behaving as an ordinary particle and indeed the pattern on the film does not appear. And finally, if we suppose the photon detector is itself photon-based it becomes possible, at least in principle, to perform the detection with some chosen amount of uncertainty by lengthening the wavelength of the detector photon. The pattern then improves when certainty is low and it worsens when certainty is high.

A whole range of similar creative thought experiments have been invented to elaborate quantum concepts. But having once understood how fundamental the quantum strangeness was, science was never the same and strongly materialistic philosophical viewpoints have had to soften, all to the betterment of the scientific enterprise and to individuals who care to explore such ideas.

Science and The Urantia Book

Upon return from the brink of scientific understanding, it is time to look for something of philosophical or religious value, for there is a long history of spirit values being attached to each new understanding in the physical world, most obviously in the objects of worship or veneration including the brilliant sun, the benign, watchful moon, the fertile earth, the startling thunder, the destructive volcano, the starry, passing comet and the heaven-sent meteorite.

While such worship behaviour does have a superstitious quality, in many cases there is probably more to it. I think most humans while worshipping the sun, for example, will at the same time be aware that the sun symbol is only partly capturing the idea of God and therefore will be receptive to an enlargement of the symbol. In keeping with the teaching style described in The Urantia Book, Jesus might respect the admiration of such a beautiful, powerful object as the sun and then he might go on to gently suggest that the concept should be enlarged to include another God-like property, such as personality.

In modern times superstition and worship are replaced by ordinary enthusiasm. A couple of centuries ago science was very enthusiastic about the clock because it is an excellent metaphor for universe complexity and the deterministic, cyclic regularity of planetary motion; a mechanical cosmic background. Now similar enthusiasm is bestowed upon a newcomer called the computer whose place is still being worked out.

The computational ability to simulate reality takes some interesting philosophical turns, although use of self-contradictory terms like “virtual reality” makes it hard to agree on what ordinary reality might be. Similarly, the computational ability to simulate intelligence is sometimes discussed in connection with consciousness, which doesn’t make those terms any easier to deal with either.

But more troubling is that what initially seem to be promising bridges from science to philosophy and religion eventually lead back into yet another form of materialism. This difficult thing, materialism, can be thought of as a general unwillingness to consider any aspect of reality beyond the physically observable. It is possible to keep a spiritual viewpoint even while working with materials and trying to understand them as anyone in the physical world must. And I suppose it is also possible to construct virtual realities and artificial intelligence without being much of a materialist. Yet I’m equally sure that mostly these activities are done with a view to demonstrating the completeness of physical reality which puts them fundamentally on the materialist agenda.

So it seems that the materialist is a far more difficult subject than the sun-worshipper mentioned earlier, who is at least amenable to greater spiritual knowledge. For now I prescribe regular exposure to more quantum theory, especially its renowned “spookiness”.

But, apart from the most difficult materialist, no truth seeking, science-influenced human, needs to be left out of the spiritual experience. In terms described in the Urantia Book those who are already familiar with some cosmic realities should be amenable to receiving further spirit values and mind meanings. For this purpose I identify a huge opportunity to explore the wealth of value-laden knowledge that already exists in science. For a great deal of what is understood in physical terms can be re-stated with an emphasis on spirit values. Or, working backwards, imagine having a grasp of religion and philosophy that can be traced right back to physical experiments. Here are a few, formative ideas on how to imbue scientific understanding with spirit values.

Perhaps consider the order in the universe that permits science to occur. This is so elementary that it is usually overlooked altogether. Only the occasional scientist like Carl Sagan ever mentions it. Surely there is spirit value in taking notice of the cosmic background. It’s God’s work even if the word God isn’t used.

Or perhaps compare the sense of wonder in scientific discovery to that described by various prophets, poets, artists and musicians.

Or perhaps consider how the unifying principles of science compare to unifying principles in general, which are always associated with divinity.

I know these ideas are too general to inspire directly, so I continue to look for tiny, specific, but powerful ways to bump them along: Brownian motion for the mind.