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I recently finished reading Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe. It blew me away. Tegmark describes plausible theories for multiple parallel universes that take us way beyond the familiar story of the Big Bang.
Before I go into more detail, here’s the message of this post: religious creation stories are beginning to look ever more quaint as physics becomes more and more sophisticated, and this is something to celebrate, because the physics is so much cooler!
In an episode of the podcast Real Atheology, the hosts talk to philosopher Felipe Leon about creation ex nihilo – the idea that the universe is something created out of nothing, an act which, according to apologists, can only be performed by God. There are several problems with this idea, some of which are discussed in the podcast. I won’t be fleshing them out here.
Instead, I want to share some of the ideas floating around in modern cosmology that make the ex nihilo biblical narrative seem increasingly naive. Interestingly, this shift is relatively recent: the fairy-tale-like idea of a god waving a metaphorical wand and magically poofing the universe into existence has, until only a few decades ago, seen little competition from cosmology, which has only recently come into its own as a science, thanks to massive strides in observational techniques and technologies.
The first thing to note about creation ex nihilo is that it is based on classical ideas of physics. Time, for instance, is seen as the everyday, steadily passing phenomenon distinct from space.
But the truth is that the universe is far more complex and counter-intuitive than anyone could have imagined. Einstein, with his special theory of relativity, showed that two observers, one travelling at a very high speed with respect to the other, will disagree about the timing of events and even the size of objects. As the name of the theory implies, no observer has the “correct” answer: it’s all relative. Both observers measure correct values relative to their own reference frames.
This leads to all kinds of strange, yet accurate conclusions. For example, what appears to us as a universe of infinite spatial extent may appear to another observer as a universe of finite extent, if that observer is traveling at the right speed, and in the right direction. Thus, while our universe appears to us to be infinite, it may also be accurately described as a finite bubble existing alongside other finite bubble universes (that we can never visit). Mind-blowing and difficult to understand as all of this is, it’s not fringe science. It’s a result of special relativity and other widely accepted cosmological ideas (such as inflation).
Add to this mix the weirdness of quantum mechanics which tosses out the familiar theory of physical particles with well defined positions in space, and replaces it with a probability-based theory involving waves and interference patterns. Here also can be found Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds hypothesis in which the measurement problem of quantum mechanics (don’t ask!) is solved by having our universe split every time a random event occurs: each possible outcome of the random event spawns its own universe.
Finally, and this is where Tegmark only starts to get controversial, is the idea that universes are nothing more than mathematical structures: there is no tangible reality. What you feel and see around you is a mere illusion arising from mathematics.
Religious philosophers are seriously behind the game!
The Bible and other religious texts do not, for obvious reasons, hint at any of these astounding, mind-bending ideas. As a result, continued attempts to defend creation ex nihilo seem, these days, about as relevant as attempts to defend geocentrism or the flat earth.
Science has moved on.
Finally, this is a reminder to all of us that the actual world, as revealed by honest observation and hard work, is often far stranger, and more wondrous, than fiction. Inspired as the Biblical authors may have been, I think they, too, would be inspired still further by learning what we know today.
Perhaps some of them would have made top notch cosmologists.