Dear Believer, It is Arrogant to Think Humanity Occupies a Privileged Place in the Universe

In their video, Plumbline Pictures claim it is arrogant to think that we occupy a privileged place in the universe – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[1]

“Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? Its time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers. You must confront these fundamental questions.”[2]

The idea that people are arrogant for observing humanity’s privileged place in the universe seems odd to me. It’s odd because first, this push-back seems unaware of the scientific data that shows humanity has a privileged place in the cosmos. The data suggests our place is very privileged indeed. It is also odd because second, data is just data. To claim data as “arrogant” is simply mistaken. If the data did not support the conclusion that our position in the universe was privileged, then maybe you could make a case that this claim could be arrogant.

So – how does the scientific data support the claim that we are in a privileged spot in the universe? It does so in at least two ways.

1. We are Positioned for Scientific Discovery

The scientific revolution started in the 16th century, and has relied on some very specific sets of circumstances that most individuals have probably just accepted as a given. And yet, the fact of their existence is striking. The Copernican Principle has often been understood as the point when mankind and our cosmic home was found to be mundane. This was not the point Copernicus was originally making. And the more we learn about the universe, this mundane interpretation of the Copernican Principle is harder and harder to sustain. 

Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Philosopher of Science Jay W Richards have amassed a surprising body of evidence that shows that the fact that humanity is here now at this place and time, and we are physically capable of making scientific discoveries, is the result of an optimal balance of competing conditions (just like any humanly designed system). We are equipped with mental and physical capacities, and we are unusually well positioned to decipher details about the cosmos. We are therefore exceptional in our existence and in our ability to do science, and we sit at the optimum location to do that in cosmic terms. Surely this requires an explanation? [3]

What do they mean by an optimum location?

  • We inhabit a planet with a moon that stabilizes our orbit and climate. The relative sizes are perfect for allowing us to see solar eclipses. The moon is travelling away from us, and this capacity will be lost in an estimated 250 million years’ time. Yet we are here now to take advantage of our conditions to do science.
  • The earth’s surface is a data recorder. Ice cores store ancient data about CO2 and methane levels and allow us to correlate nitrate spikes to past cosmological events in the universe.
  • Planetary earthquakes and plate tectonics allow us to map the planets interior, and also maintain a planetary crust that sustains the carbon cycle and a life permitting ecosystem on the planet.
  • Earth’s magnetosphere shields and protects the atmosphere from solar wind.
  • If our gravity force was weaker, our atmosphere would leak away. 
  • If our atmosphere was thicker, it would be harder for us to see through it to do astronomy.
  • Jupiter and Saturn are our solar-system’s vacuum cleaners, protecting Earth from asteroid impacts, and also acting as a source of material for us to study dating back to the formation of the solar system.
  • Our sun is at a particular size right now making it stable. It is unusual and contributes to the earth’s habitability and our ability to do scientific analysis.
  • Our position in the Milky Way galaxy is higher significant for us. We are actually sitting at the best lab bench in the galaxy. If we were any closer to the centre, our night sky would be so bright it would obscure light from distant stars. 
  • We are also at the right time in planetary history for astronomical discovery. This will not always be the case during the Earth’s history. Big Bang cosmology predicts accelerating expansion of space, causing distant objects to fade from view from Earth. But at this very particular place and time in cosmic history, we are here to observe them.

Of course, you could reply that we are just lucky and we just happen to exist at this time and place. This seems to me to be the wrong way to interpret the scientific data. Why?

Well, consider the activity and development of the sciences. These are only possible because of these and many many more highly specific parameters that have very particular settings. Are we going to accept this rich prime location to perform scientific study, while at the same time passing our position off as the result of blind chance? We do not leave any part of scientific analysis to chance. So why is it fitting to leave the precise conditions allowing us to do our science to blind chance? We are sitting at the best lab bench in the galaxy, and surely that demands an explanation.

The naturalist may dismiss these notions. Not because he disagrees with the data, but because the interpretation of the data does not fit within his limited, naturalistic box. And – probably because he doesn’t like to think about the possible implications of the conclusion that we were put here to allow us to use of minds to study nature.

If the universe did exist for a divine purpose, how could we tell? Surely the answer is – look for the existence of some incredible coincidences within nature. Perhaps, the optimum balance of competing conditions just like the ones Gonzales and Richards point to.

2. We Live Within a Finely Tuned Universe

Physicists have discovered that the incredible coincidences just keep on coming as we look closer and closer into the fabric of the universe. 

It turns out that for our universe to exist at all requires a highly precise setting of many initial conditions that are themselves independent. Each of these initial conditions is sometimes described as being like a very precise dial that can take different values. If even one of those dials was to be set slightly differently, our universe would cease to support the existence of life. 

The incredible thing is that the laws of physics as we know them depend on the initial conditions of the universe being set correctly. But the initial conditions are not set by the laws of physics. In fact, physics relies on dial settings that are fundamentally mysterious. We don’t know why they are set as they are, but life couldn’t exist in our universe if they were not correct.

Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis give some examples:[4]

  • Turn off gravity and there’s nothing to drive matter to gather into galaxies
  • Turn of electromagnetism and there is no chemistry as there’s nothing to keep electrons bound to their nuclei
  • Turn of the nuclear strong force and there are no atomic nuclei in the first place

These ideas are explored by theoretical physicists. But surely, they are also relevant to the claim being made by the “Dear Believer” video. Do we occupy a privileged place? Absolutely we do, the whole universe is the result of incredible and precise fine-tuning.

The late great Douglas Adams once mused that, “imaging a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly…staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it.”[5] Could it be that our universe works the same way? If the hole weren’t there, the puddle wouldn’t be there. If the universe wasn’t here, neither would we.

Except Adams’s puddle analogy fails to describe the fine-tuning of the universe. The water in a hole will always take on the shape of its hole. If the hole had been different, the water will adjust to match it. Any hole will do for a puddle. However, not just any universe will do for life. It is more likely that a universe would pop into existence for 1 second before collapsing again. Or, the universe would last longer but contained so few particles that no two would ever interact during the history of that universe.[6]

Fred Hoyle, who discovered the incredibly unlikely carbon atom production process within stars, once exclaimed:

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[7]

3. Attempting An Anthropic Escape

The common response to the religious implications of the physical fine-tuning of the universe goes something like this:

“We exist. So – what else should we expect from a universe that contains us? We expect precisely these facts you lay out. Namely, that the universe can support us. If the universe wasn’t finely tuned this way, we would not be here to discuss it. So – don’t worry about all this.”

The reply tries to undercut the impact of the incredible coincidences that lead to our existence on this planet. But this anthropic response fails to undercut the impact of the scientific data and its implications. Why?

Well – lets write the anthropic escape response this way:

            If (physical_observers)

            then

                an observer permitting universe

The problem is, this little conditional statement does not answer the question – “why observers in the first place?” After all, this statement as it is written is true whether there are physical observers in our universe, or whether there are no such observers! So, we have not touched the crucial question – why are there observers anyway?

The anthropic response is good at explaining why we do not have a life prohibiting universe. But it doesn’t explain why a life permitting universe exists. In fact, it doesn’t even try to approach that problem. Surely this question deserves some thought and consideration?

4. Summary

As the Dear Believer video states, it is time to understand how the universe really is and to accept this even if it challenges our philosophical presuppositions. Humanity’s privileged place in the universe will deflate the conceits of naturalistic philosophy, and the non-believer will try to resist its implications. And yet if we are committed to truth rather than just supporting our own pet theories, we must honestly face the implications. We have been put here for a purpose.


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 08:48.

[3] Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004).

[4] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2016), 91.

[5] Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitching the Galaxy One Last Time.

[6] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, The Trouble with “Puddle Thinking”: A User’s Guide to the Anthropic Principle, https://arxiv.org/pdf/2104.03381.pdf.

[7] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November 1981. Pp. 8-12, quoted in Fred Hoyle, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle.

Why We are Fortunate to Live Here

If you want a fun physics book exploring the scientific basis for the claim that nature seems set up ahead of time for intelligent life, and also the philosophical arguments for why we may find ourselves living here – I can recommend “A Fortunate Universe.” Luke A. Barnes and Geraint F. Lewis are talented and passionate professors of Astronomy who both study the universe, and want to discuss the observation that it appears to be set up – or fine-tuned – for intelligent life. It’s not the universe that’s fortunate. Actually, it’s us!

Definitions

The book starts here. The term “fine-tuning” does not imply or assume a creator of the universe. Rather, it implies the sensitivity of an outcome to input parameters or assumptions. Fine-tuning for life observes a contrast between a wide range of possibilities and a narrow range of outcomes that lead to life.[1] Their definition of “life” is a pragmatic one; “life is characterized by the capacity to grow, metabolize, actively resist outside disturbance, and reproduce.”[2] They also clarify that the universe’s physical laws have mathematical forms that only accurately predict natural occurrences when particular constant numbers are inserted into these equations. These constants, like electron mass and force strength, can’t be arrived at by theory, they can only be measured experimentally by scientists.

The Fun Stuff

The meat of the book, is an exploration of the implications of what would happen if natural constants and the laws they support were changed. With particle physics, the electron is fundamental, the proton and neutron are composed of different configurations of other fundamental particles, up and down quarks. Crucially, Barnes and Lewis observe fine-tuning in the properties of the members of this particle zoo. Change anything, life is not possible because chemistry and the periodic table are lost! What about natural forces? If you change the nuclear force holding atomic nuclei together, you are facing an uncertain universe where anything is possible. They also observe the beginning of the universe, pointing out the low entropy starting point. This means, much free energy was available for universe creation. But – it need not have been that way at all. There are many ways the universe could have been born, and so the wealth of free energy that must have been available at the start is surprising.[3] In summary, in these and other ways, they show our universe to have a particular initial state, and a set of life-permitting laws, masses, and forces that play out in three dimensions of space and one of time. “With so many potential ways the universe could have been, we cannot ignore the apparent specialness of our existence.”[4]

This book is a great resource. It goes beyond just saying that there is a narrow band within which the natural constants can be set for a life-permitting universe, and it actually shows what the universe might be like if each of these natural constants were different. Starting with particle mass, they move to forces and onto energy and entropy. Taking basic principles of physics and chemistry, they reveal how a life-permitting universe would easily be broken if each of these constants were adjusted. This lends further weight to the argument for fine-tuning because it tangibly demonstrates the narrowness of the life-permitting band in a convincing way.

Cool Question and Answer Session

Towards the end of the book, they switch gears. Chapter seven is a compendium of common reactions to fine-tuning, and the authors response to them. For example, one reaction observes the largely inhospitable nature of the universe. If the universe is fine-tuned for life, why is so much of it hostile to that life? They answer that inhospitable areas have nothing to do with the conditions on planet Earth. The phrase ‘life-permitting’ does not mean ‘crammed with living beings.’[5] Rather, it means the universe has some necessary physical conditions in particular locations. Even the vacuum of space, which is hostile to life, plays its part in making the universe life-permitting and a place where scientific discoveries can occur.[6]

Philosophical Answers to the question, “But Why?”

Yet my favourite chapter is the final one. Gears shift again, and Barnes and Lewis launch into a discussion together about the issues around fine-tuning. It is clear that, while Barnes prefers a theistic answer to fine-tuning, Lewis opts for the multiverse explanation. William Lane Craig has observed that the fact that they fundamentally disagree on this point gives their book an aura of open-mindedness and credibility.[7] I would add that it also makes the book a powerful tool for the Christian apologist who seeks to engage skeptics on these issues.

Theism is raised when Barnes states “there is another, older answer,”[8] for why fine-tuning exists. While theism is challenged by Lewis, Barnes does reply with a thoughtful exploration of the argument for evil and suffering, and I think it is wonderful to find this content in a physics book. Perhaps the readers who come for the physics may receive more than they were bargaining for. I hope many physics enthusiasts who are undecided on “THE G WORD!” are challenged to think more deeply. In the course of their discussion, they also touch on the fact that the universe is not just a physical construct, it is also an inherently moral one. A universe capable of producing and sustaining moral beings is one that God may create.[9] I agree with Tripp, who opines, “Barnes … challenge[s] atheistic arguments of the Richard Dawkins variety …a universe that tends toward living, moral agents is simply more likely with a God who is also a moral agent.”[10]

Lewis and Barnes also uncover the argument between naturalism and theism. While Lewis seems open to both options, Barnes clearly favors theism and presents solid arguments against the ability of naturalism to answer the big questions. Barnes reminds Lewis that the conflict is not between science and theism, but rather between naturalism and theism. The theist is no less rigorous a scientist than the hard naturalist, and the “success of science looks the same on naturalism and theism.”[11] But while the naturalist is left with a narrow interpretation of the scientific results, the theist has a much more open field available to him. To the naturalist, there is no explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe. Why would the naturalist expect to find simple equations that govern nature, combined with specific and significant constants which orient it for life? Surely on naturalism, the likelihood of any physical universe is the same as any other. There are no facts or explanations for why the universe is as it is, “there is nothing that explains the ultimate laws of nature.”[12] Yet Barnes concludes that theism naturally points to, and so explains, the tiny subset of possible habitable universes including our own. With God in the picture, it is more probable that a habitable cosmos would occur, over the infinite sea of uninhabitable universes across parameter space.[13] I appreciate their openness and feel they have encouraged me to more firmly point out the consequences of naturalism to the skeptic in my discussions.

Conclusion

This book is relevant for skeptics and Christian believers alike. It models healthy interactions between these two groups, and it guides the discussion through the important empirical and theoretical science of fine-tuning, as well as the philosophical resources available to explain it. It is strongly illustrated with graphs instead of complicated mathematics, and there are no spelling errors in the text. I felt that some of the scientific chapters became tougher going, and personally, I found their treatment of probabilities and Bayesian Theory quite challenging. Yet I think their brief introduction to these and other topics lays the groundwork for further learning. I strongly recommend this popular level physics book to the mainstream audience. While it may sometimes frustrate the professional physicist, I feel it does an excellent job of explaining the issues in the fine-tuning discussion. This is not simply a numbers game. The science points to fine-tuning, and there are rational philosophical approaches to understanding why this state of affairs exists.

 

 

 

[1] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), kindle edition, 3.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Ibid., 236.

[5] Ibid., 246.

[6] Ibid.

[7] William Lane Craig, Philosophia Christie, Volume 20, Issue 2, (2018): 596 – 599.

[8] Barnes and Lewis, 322.

[9] Ibid., 340.

[10] Jeffrey M. Tripp, “A Fine-Tuned Universe, or These Scientists Sound Like Theologians,” Religion & Theology 26, Issue 4 (October 2019): 562-567, accessed February 29th, 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/rirt.13642.

[11] Barnes and Lewis, 336.

[12] Ibid., 335.

[13] Ibid., 343.

Was the Medieval Church Anti-Science?

The popular myth says science and Christianity have always been at each other’s throats. Now – despite the fact that many people today promote that narrative – the truth of the matter is quite different. And historically speaking, the war thesis is simply a myth. The myth supposes that it was early scientists who represented unbiased scientific objectivity, while the Medieval Catholic church stood for ignorance and superstition.

Here’s an example of the statement of this myth:

“[The Catholic Church had been] torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars.”[1]

This quote, and many others like it, conjures up the picture of theologians resisting the early scientists as they urge them to look thru a telescope at the stars. The myth says – Christianity was anti-science, anti-progress and very aggressive.

Well – it is true that the Medieval Church did incredibly cruel and un-Christ like things to people who promoted anti-Christian doctrines from within the ranks of the church. An example of this is seen in the life of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. His crime wasn’t a scientific one, however. It was a theological one. He tried to turn the church towards pantheism.

So what evidence exists that the Medieval Church was not anti-intellectual and anti-science? A proper look at what happened in the life of Galileo Galilei shows us that science and Christianity were viewed as complementary fields in discussion with each other. Not at war.

Who Was Galileo?

He was a well respected church official who loved God and cared deeply about the Bible. He was also passionate about astronomy. Through his telescope, he found the moon surface was not, “perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical (as a large school of philosophers believes concerning both the moon and the other heavenly bodies).”[2] This discovery overturned centuries of Greek Aristotelian thought. He also observed Jupiter’s moons.

Galileo was a convinced heliocentrist. That meant he subscribed to the ideas of Copernicus, who said the earth was not at the horrible bottom of the universe. Rather, it was an elevated planet in the solar system. Further, the other planets did not orbit earth, but rather they orbited a stationary sun at the centre of the solar system. Galileo was convinced of these ideas.

How Did the Church React to Galileo’s Ideas?

Was the church scared and aggressive to these ideas? Not at all. This is part of the myth that Sam Harris has fallen for. Why do we know the church was open to cosmology in the Middle Ages?

1 – Tychonic Cosmology Already Existed

At that time, Tycho Brae’s Tychonic system of cosmology competed with Galileo’s favourite Copernican system. Tycho’s observational science resulted in a cosmology that was subscribed to by the Jesuit astronomers of the Roman College. In general, the church felt Tycho’s scientific system was more likely to be consistent with observations, the statements of scripture, and long standing Greek ideas which involved a static Earth rather than the Copernican idea of a static Sun. In short – the church was onboard with the scientific discussion of the time.

 

2 – The Inquisition Was Potentially Open to Copernicanism

The head of the feared Inquisition, Bellarmine, was interested in the competition between the Tychonic and Copernican cosmologies. It was unclear to Ballarmine that a Copernican system was provable, but without this uncertainty, Ballarmine would have gone with Copernicus, and this shows he was not anti-scientific progress.[3] His uncertainty eventually led to the church deciding that Copernicanism was “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture,”[4] but was not heresy. The door was open to rethinking these ideas. But Bellarmine instructed Galileo not to pursue Copernicanism, but stay with the Tychonic system and it’s apparent consistency with their understanding of scripture.

 

YET – history records that Galileo was put thru a trial by the church. Why did that happen? The myth says it was because of Galileo’s scientific ideas. As we have found, this is clearly not the case because the church was open to and interacted with different scientific ideas. So why did Galileo face the Inquisition?

 

What Led to Galileo’s Trial?

1 – Galileo sought the Pope’s permission to write a book engaging Copernican ideas, and the Pope agreed.

2 – In his book, Galileo proceeded to insult the Pope by putting his favourite anti-Copernican arguments into the mouth of his character Simplico, meaning simpleton, who was ill informed and rude. The Pope, who was facing political turmoil in a contracting Holy Roman Empire, saw Galileo’s book as a betrayal and so Galileo was called to trial.

3 – Galileo was not tortured or put in prison before or after the trial, showing the respect that the church maintained for him.[5] He lived a comfortable existence under house arrest in his home environment overlooking Florence.

4 – During the trial, Galileo admitted to Bellarmine’s warnings not to hold or defend Copernicanism. He failed to convince the court his book did not attempt to defend or refute Copernicanism. This led to a plea bargain. “They promised not to press the most serious charge (violation of the special injunction) if Galileo would plead guilty to [a] lesser charge (transgression of the warning not to defend Copernicanism).”[6] Galileo agreed and he was found guilty of a lesser, “vehement suspicion of heresy.”[7]

5 – After his conviction, Galileo proceeded to write further important scientific works unhindered.

 

The Church Was Not Anti-Science

So – does the Galileo incident give evidence of a Medieval war between religion and science? Not at all. The church was very much engaged with scientific cosmological ideas. This incident speaks not of a war between church and science, but a battle of ideas between church tradition, and dual cosmologies, Copernican and Tychonic. Galileo’s rude and pushy insistence on the Copernican one in spite of general uncertainty, put him in conflict with the church. They required a conservative approach, leaning towards the Tychonic cosmological system. Galileo chose instead to both pursue Copernicanism, and insult the Pontiff. This led to his trial and his humiliating defeat.

The Medieval church was not anti-science. But it did violently punish some heretics within its ranks.

 

 

[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), 105 quoted in

[2] Galileo Galilei, “Neither Known Nor Observed by Anyone Before,” in Dennis Richard Danielson, ed, the book of the cosmos, (Perseus Publishing, 2000), 147.

[3] Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion, (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2019), 81.

[4] Keas, 82.

[5] Keas, 84.

[6] Finocchiaro, “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism,” 7, quoted in Keas, 85.

[7] Ibid.

String Theory, Beauty and God

Do you remember the movie “A Beautiful Mind” from a few years ago? Russell Crow played John Nash, a highly intelligent person who could almost see mathematical formulae as he looked at the world. Well – in his book The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene has laid out the fascinating ideas behind String Theory and its bigger cousin M-Theory. He’s no John Nash – he’s fun and engaging. He explains complex ideas in such a compelling and interesting way! This sure isn’t a dull and boring physics book. It is a joy to read, and only gets tough to chew on in the latter portions of the book.

Greene starts with Einstein and the Special Theory of Relativity. Light speed is constant (Han Solo did know that…it was his navi-computer that made the Falcon fast), and space and time are interwoven, motion is relative between observer and observed. Even more bizarrely, as we speed up, our clock ticks slower from the perspective of a stationary observer. The General Theory of Relativity builds on this and Newton’s law of gravity. Now, Greene points out that Newton only described what gravity did. Einstein’s genius is that he manged to work out how it may work! Mass warps space. Imagine a bowling ball placed on a rubber sheet pulled tight. The sheet dips around the ball, right? Well that is kinda what mass does to space and time. So when planets move into the vicinity, their motion is affected, as they dip into the valley, they orbit the bowling ball. The sun. Greene explains all these mind expanding ideas in such an accessible way.

Well – what about the small stuff? What happens when we look at the universe really closely? Well – weirdness abounds and Greene describes all this in an interesting way. Quantum Mechanics describes the probabilistic nature of electrons, protons and neutrons. You cant predict exactly where these tiny particles will be – they are unpredictable and – tend to suddenly tunnel from one side to another unexpectedly. Weird! Greene points out that its worse than weird. Relativity is incompatible with Quantum Mechanics. So – what are physicists going to do? They don’t like it when their two best theories contradict each other.

Enter Superstring Theory! Spoiler alert – but the theory is named that way because it proposes that elemental particles in nature (electrons, etc) aren’t particles at all. Rather, they are tiny one dimensional strings vibrating at different frequencies. The thing is – when physicists view nature this way, they seem to be able to understand and predict what nature will do. From black holes to the big bang – String Theory is very descriptive of nature.

But – there’s a problem. There seems to be no experimental way to prove String Theory. Further, they don’t really understand the equations that define it, and it seems to need 6 additional spatial dimensions. Yikes. Now, Greene is most comfortable when he tells you how wonderful the theory is. He is less confident pointing out the fast that – unfortunately – its just a theory and has not been evidentially confirmed…yet. Greene’s book came out 15 years ago or so…before the CERN Large Hadron Collider LHC particle accelerator was switched on. It’s the biggest in the world. He had high hopes it would prove String Theory. I’m not sure the Higgs Boson has verified Superstring theory.

Greene’s brilliant description of all these things – leaves me with some questions.

1. Is it Provable?

Einstein’s theories are beautifully supported by evidence from nature. So, we would expect any additional theory to have evidence too. The problem is the strings themselves are so small, they are not directly detectable. Greene observes that we would need a particle accelerator “the size of the galaxy to see individual strings,”[1] which are “17 orders of magnitude smaller than we can currently access.”[2] We aren’t going to directly prove Superstring Theory any time soon.

 

2. Is It Science?

Greene admits that only approximations to the ST equations are known, and even those have not been fully solved.[3] Also, the theory did not come from a scientific inference to the best explanation of a natural observation. Rather, a two hundred year old mathematical formula was accidently found to describe the interactions between particles. When the particles were replaced with the idea of tiny vibrating strings, nuclear force was also described. This seems like serendipity combined with creativity rather than rigorous and methodical scientific method?

 

3. Might it Point to God?

Are Superstring physicists guided by the beauty of the theory more than its scientific merit, and does this have theistic implications? Greene concedes the math is so complex that approximations are substituted. Couple this with a lack of experimental confirmation, and it seems they are driven by a theory with “elegance and beauty of structure on par with the world we experience.”[4]

But doesn’t our expectation of beauty in nature, and our experience of and appreciation of natural beauty, challenge a purely naturalistic understanding to nature? How odd that a purely natural, randomly formed system with no guiding intelligence has formed beings who love to find beauty in the randomly formed universe they inhabit?

I wonder whether the scope of science and our love of the beautiful point to the activity of a divine creator?

[1] Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe Superstrings, Hidden dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003), 215.

[2] Ibid

[3] Greene, 19.

[4] Greene, 167.

Challenging the “Dark Ages”

Science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson, like Carl Sagan before him, makes much of the claim that Christianity held back science in the Middle Ages, marking it a dark time for enlightened and critical thinking.

“Ancient Greece – inferred the Earth’s shadow during Lunar Eclipses. But it was lost to the Dark Ages.”[1]

“Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend non-existent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centred on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition.”[2]

The problem with all this is – these claims are evidentially false. The notion that Christianity held back science, causing a time of darkness for humanity, does not square with the evidence from history. The Dark Ages is simply a recent myth, suggested in the last hundred years or so.

Going all the way back to the first few centuries, the early Christians happily accepted elements of the Greek natural philosophy and built upon it. They realised all truth was God’s truth, and so natural observations were seen as a “handmaiden” to observations about God.

Tertullian (155 – 220) harmonised natural philosophy with Christian theology and promoted the science of medicine.

Boethius (477 – 524) identified the laws of nature in poetry, which are foundational to science.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said that “knowledge of nature acquires value in so far as it serves a higher purpose.”[3] In his commentary on Genesis, he applied Greek thinking about cosmology and nature in his understanding of the meaning of the Bible text. His influence on later medieval scholars was massive, and Augustine transmitted a “rich source of cosmological, physical and biblical knowledge,”[4] about the earth, its shape, its relation to the cosmos and so much more.

Development of the Academy

Critical to the development of science were the first universities. They started with Bologna in 1088 and by 1450, over fifty universities existed. The Catholic church resourced and supported the formation of the academy, giving those who worked there special privileges. The church didn’t oppose learning, it cherished it. “If the medieval church had intended to … suppress science, it made a mistake … supporting the university … [where] science found a home.”[5] The universities were self-governing and set their own syllabus. Greek and Arabic science texts were translated into Latin and taught. The church supported the development of the sciences financially, giving “more financial and social support to the study of astronomy [and the other scientific fields] for six centuries … more than any other medieval institution.”[6]

Medieval Flat Earthers?

But what about Columbus? Didn’t he prove to the narrow minded church that the earth was round and not flat? No – the spherical shape of the earth was argued by the Greeks long before the church, and the first Christian scholars carried this argumentation forward. It was not seriously challenged by anyone, taught consistently, and part of common literature from the 13th century. Medieval Christianity did not teach a flat earth. The issue for Columbus wasn’t battling narrow minded Christian theologians. And it’s a myth that the crew feared falling off the edge of the earth. Rather, they were concerned about how large the earth was, and the size of the ocean in comparison to the land.

Conclusion

The assumption that Christianity held back the development of science during the supposed Dark Ages is – a modern mis-retelling of history. Probably propagated to mischaracterise modern Christian believers as anti-intellectual. The truth is the opposite.

 

 

 

[1] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/692939759593865216.

[2] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 332, quoted in Michael Newton Keas, “Unbelievable 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion,” (Wilmington: ISI Booke, 2019), 27.

[3] Gary B. Fengren, editor, Science & Religion A Historical Introduction, second edition, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 41.

[4] Fengren, 42.

[5] Keas, 37.

[6] Keas, 38.

Is it “Special Pleading” to Propose an Eternal God?

The Twitter conversation was a fun and polite exchange of opposing views.

We had been talking about “fine-tuning,” the observation that many coincidences have occurred to set the initial conditions and the subsequent nature of the universe to allow life to exist. I pointed out that there are three options to understand this observation. Either, the universe simply HAS to be this way by necessity, or we just lucked out by chance, or it was designed to be this way intentionally. As he homed in on his own explanation for fine-tuning, my friend seemed to like the idea of a multiverse. I think he was saying this:

“An increasing number of universe would give the probabilistic resources to allow our particular universe to eventually appear. We just happen to live in a life permitting universe. We know the universe exists, things happen by chance and the idea of a multiverse is rational. A God that we cannot prove either way is just not a good explanation of the universe.”

I pointed out a problem with this idea. In the same way that cosmologists tell us that our universe required precise initial conditions to form, a multiverse would also require its own set of precise initial conditions. And so the fine-tuning problem returns. Who or what fine-tuned the multiverse to eventually form a life permitting universe? The idea that the cosmos created itself from nothing is just an incoherent idea. “Not if the multiverse is eternal,” he replied. “In that case, it has always existed and so there are no initial conditions to be concerned with. The universe never had any.”

I replied. “But you are suggesting the existence of an actual infinite in nature. The problem is, natural infinities cannot exist.” He shot back. “But Stuart, you have claimed God created the universe and he is eternal. Your God would therefore be infinite. You have just claimed that actual infinities do not exist! You are therefore engaged in a special pleading fallacy, Stuart. So, I don’t find your argument convincing at all.” I explained why God must be a special case in this discussion, and then we parted on good terms. As I reflected, a few things occurred to me about our exchange of views.

First – what actually is this informal fallacy that he leveled at me – special pleading? We are at risk of this type of fallacy when we apply principles or rules to other people, yet refuse to also apply them to an area of interest to ourselves. But there’s a big caveat to this statement. If we provide sufficient reason to support the exception we are making, we aren’t guilty of the special pleading fallacy.[1] Usually people who fall into special pleading have simply got a blind spot when it comes to themselves, and they don’t even attempt to formulate an argument for a special case to be made! It’s laziness. As I thought about our conversation, it occurred to me that I had tried very hard indeed to explain my understanding of God and why he can be eternal while natural infinities do not exist. I sure wasn’t being lazy as we spoke.

So – I would ask the question – who is it that may be guilty of special pleading in our discussion?

Second – there is abundant evidence that the Universe is not eternal, but rather has a finite age. I summarise some of this evidence in this blog. While for many centuries human’s have assumed the universe is eternally existing, evidence was gathered in the 20th century that point to the conclusion that this is not the case. It is generally inferred from the data that the age of the universe is around 14 billion years old. The universe is not eternally existing. It had a beginning called the big bang.

Third – it is generally agreed among cosmologists that any universe, or multiverse, which is expanding must therefore have a beginning. We infer that the universe is expanding based on the cosmological data we gather. The multiverse is simply a theory at this point, but the working theories around bubble universes would suppose an expanding multiverse and so the same rule would apply. The multiverse would not be eternal, it would also have a beginning.

Fourth – my friend seems to assume that God’s nature is comparable to the nature of objects and beings that we find within nature. And so, when I say natural infinities do not exist, I am inconsistent by failing to applying these arguments to an eternal God who I claim is infinite. But this seems a very odd thing for my friend to claim! It makes me think that his view of God is more akin to the mythical Greek gods, Thor, Zeus and Apollo, than the Christian conception of God I’ve been talking about.

A powerful being who inhabits the universe like we do is not the Christian conception of God at all. Because God created the universe, he is therefore immaterial, timeless and space-less. He would by definition exist outside of nature, and so he is not subject to the constraints within nature. That is, unless he chose to enter nature and visit with people as a human being. Also – as he is eternal, then unlike the universe which does have a starting point, by definition God does not have a point of creation.

 

Conclusion

SO – is it special pleading to appeal to God as the eternal/infinite designer?

No, because God is by definition the ultimate exception to all the rules that operate within the universe he caused. He defined and set these rules in motion. To suggest that he is constrained by these rules himself is to misunderstand the Christian conception of God. I’m not dealing in double standards here. Rather, I’m saying you cannot compare apples and oranges. They are two very different things. God is necessarily a special case in our discussion of nature.

 

Of course, my friend may disagree that this is a sufficient reason for treating God as a special case, so I am special pleading. But in doing so, he seems to be stuck with the idea of an eternal multiverse. Were he to stay there, he would distance himself from the most reasonable inferences made by most scientists today. Namely, that the universe had a beginning, and therefore it is not eternal. But then he is making an exception of his idea.  Does he have a sufficient reason for doing so? If not, it may just be his thinking that is logically fallacious.

[1] T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, 3rd edition, 122-123, summarised.

 

Does the Multiverse Theorem Solve “Fine-Tuning”?

I have have been exploring the observations around cosmic fine tuning, and I’ve explained the possible explanations for it are either:

  • Natural necessity
  • Chance or
  • Design

Given the incredible coincidences that Sir Fred Hoyle observed that makes nature life permitting, seems like an incredible assumption to say either that the universe HAS to be this way, or it just happened to be this way by chance.

To increase the odds for a finely tuned universe by chance, some have suggested that perhaps there are an infinite number of parallel universes, all with slightly different configurations of cosmological constants. If that is how things are, then there are just a few life permitting parallel universes in existence, and we happen to inhabit one of them.

SO – the universe is not designed by a designer (God). Rather, we just happen to inhabit a parallel (or bubble) universe that is life permitting. It was bound to happen some time, given the infinite number of parallel universes that exist.

I love Star Trek as much as the next guy. But – I don’t buy this idea. There are problems.

First – it seems to violate Occam’s Razor. William of Occam was a Franciscan Friar who observed an important problem solving principle. “Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” In other words, when we look at the WHOLE problem, to identify the correct solution we should not make it more complicated than necessary. We should go with the simplest possible answer that meets the conditions reflected by the whole problem.

When we posit the multiverse, we are ignoring three simple solutions (chance, natural necessity and design) and positing a much much more complex solution. An infinite number of universes, and a mechanism for generating each one.

The multiverse theory would not violate Occam’s Razor if I can show that none of these simpler options work. But I’ve heard no one prove to me that a universe designed for life is impossible. So – until that happens, I’m going to be sceptical of a solution that’s just too complicated (the Multiverse theory).

Second – the multiverse theory requires that an impossible, infinite series of events has and will occur. An infinite number of universes will pop into existence. The problem here is another philosophical one. You cannot have an actually infinite number of events in the real world, although you can have the idea of an infinite number of events in your mind. Why?

Imagine you have laid out a line of dominoes and you start them dropping, one at a time. Each one knocks the next one over until you reach domino 1, which then knocks over the final domino 0. You can actually do this experiment if the number of dominoes is an absolute number (say N). You start at N, and drop the dominoes till you reach 0. But if N is infinite, then there are an infinite number of dominoes in the line. You will never reach dominoes 1 and then finally 0, because you cannot step through an infinite number of events one at a time in nature.

The multiverse theory posits the idea that an infinite number of universes have existed, and then another one pops into existence, and then another. Like dominoes 1 and 0. This does not make sense.

If there is a multiverse, then it must have had an absolute beginning, an ultimate origin, and a particular number of parallel universes have appeared. This idea has been confirmed by the Borde-Guthrie-Vilenkin theorem which requires an absolute beginning to an expanding universe. This would apply to one universe, or a parallel set of universes.

An infinite multiverse is logically and naturally incoherent.

Third – there is absolutely no empirical evidence that a multiverse exists. It’s a very cool idea that allows the rebooting of beloved franchises (Star Trek) in the real world. But nothing more. Worse, scientific methods cannot prove or disprove it. Therefore to try to solve the fine tuning problem by appealing to a baseless assumption sounds like a really bad idea!

Fourth – a universe generator still needs to be fine tuned. Right? Because there has to be an absolute starting point for a finite number of parallel universes, there has to be something that causes these universes to come into existence. This therefore pushes us back to the original problem. Why is the multiverse generator finely tuned to produce multiple universes?

Fifth – chance and natural necessity seem unlikely explanations for the multiverse generator. But a cosmic designer seems a much better explanation. And so we are back to God as the inference to the best explanation for the existence of the universes.

Summary

I don’t buy multiverse as a solution to the fine tuning problem, though I do accept it as a solution to the cinema, TV and literature problem…how do we keep this story moving forward?

Can We Avoid a Beginning to the Universe?

Can you prove the universe is eternal, and never had a beginning? Some scientists think so. But this is a very old idea they are working on.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument was first formulated by a Muslim philosopher in the 12th century to combat ancient Greek ideas about an eternal universe. The Kalam does not function as a proof of Christianity – or indeed Islam – but it clearly gives us ground for a cause that we can deduce as personal, powerful, immaterial, beginning less and timeless. Why? Because time, space, matter and energy were all created with the universe, so the cause cannot be of the same stuff as what it caused. So, it took will and choice to cause the universe to exist. This cause of the universe fits with how mono-theistic religions describe God.

The basic Kalam argument says:

1 – Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2 – The universe began to exist.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause.

 

I’ve discussed some of the scientific support for premise 2 – the universe began to exist. But not everyone agrees that the universe began to exist. There are various attempts to argue for an eternal universe. This blog looks at them.[1]

1 – Oscillating Universes

Imagine universes coming into existence and then dying out one after another. A bit like a pendulum swinging to and fro into eternity.

The problem with this theory is that our universe has thermodynamic properties, and we know that entropy (the degree of disorder in a system) grows over time. So, on each oscillation, the degree of entropy increases. This means that each oscillation cycle gets longer and longer. So if that is the case, then working backward, the earlier oscillations were shorter.

Where’s this leading? You guessed it. We are back at the universe having a beginning. The first oscillation had to be initiated by a cause.

2 – Bubble Universes

The idea behind this theory, also known as the multiverse, is that each bubble contains a different universe and the second law of thermodynamics only applies inside each different bubble.

The problem is that you still need a beginning, even to the multiverse. The Borde Guth Vilenkin theory from 2003 discovers that any expanding universe cannot be infinite into the past. It must have a starting point, a space time boundary.

Bubble Universes still need a first cause and a beginning.

3 – Baby Universes

In this theory, energy is thought to travel through worm holes in space and exit from black holes, spawning baby universes as it does so. The problem here is that subatomic physics has shown that whatever goes into a black hole stays in our universe. So, the second law of thermodynamics still applies. And – we are left with needing a space time boundary condition again.

4 – The Universe Caused Itself

This idea is incoherent and worse than magic. At least in magic you have a magician and a hat for him to draw the rabbit out of. With this idea, the rabbit just pops into existence all by itself! No – this is an illogical idea. The universe would have to first exist to cause itself. Do you see the problem? It’s a logically incoherent idea.

 

5 – The Big Bang is Logically Incoherent

Because the laws of physics break down at the big bang, it is said that this is a logically contradictory state of affairs.[2] Why is it logically contradictory? Presumably because the person making the claim is a naturalist. And you will often find the naturalist making assumptions about the universe that are very similar to the theists assumptions about God. So – the naturalist needs the universe to be eternal to satisfy their naturalistic worldview. A supernatural creation event does not fit well with naturalism.

This is not an issue of logic at all. It is a worldview issue, and what the naturalistic worldview will permit.

Yet at what cost? This attempt seems to ignore all the scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning to the contrary. For example, Einstein’s model for General Relativity predicted a finitely old universe before this was a fashionable idea. He underplayed this prediction until further theories and observations (that I’ve discussed here) confirmed a finite universe.

Basically, you have to ignore a lot of data to cling to the ancient Greek idea of an eternal universe and to avoid challenging your own worldview assumptions.

 

Conclusion

If the universe began to exist, then it has a cause. To admit that, and to stop there and not consider what that cause is, seems to me to be really very strange. We are all about making scientific discoveries…right? So why would we stop at the thought of making metaphysical discoveries, and looking seriously at why we are here in the first place?

If we take the Kalam’s conclusion – which logically deduces a personal first cause – then the question becomes, what is that creator like? To answer that question, the best place to start is Christianity. If you can disprove Christianity, then you can really work out what the truth is – right?

[1] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Lee Vance View: David C. Cook, 2010), kindle edition, loc 1131 – 1649, synthesised and summarised.

[2]Big Bang Vanishes” – Quantum Theory Describes an Eternal Universe, The Daily Galaxy, posted 17th June, 2019, https://dailygalaxy.com/2019/06/big-bang-vanishes-quantum-theory-describes-an-eternal-universe/.

 

Two Ways Scientists Justify the Big Bang + Why this Matters

An important philosophical argument for God’s existence is called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. It is deceptively simple to describe:

1 – Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2 – The universe began to exist.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause.

When you explore the candidates for the cause of the universe, you find that only God meets the necessary criteria (timeless, spaceless, immaterial, powerful, personal, transcendent).

One of the fascinating things about this argument is that modern science and cosmology give solid support to premise 2 – “The universe began to exist.”

The ancient Greeks supposed that matter was eternal, ordered by the gods, and so the universe was eternal too. Hebrew thought introduced the idea that the universe was created ex nihilo (from nothing). It was a Muslim philosopher, Al Ghazili, who first posited the Kalam in the 12th century to challenge lingering Greek influences around the nature of the universe.

Today, while there are cool philosophical arguments that support both premises of the Kalam, I’m going to highlight some cool scientific supporting evidences in this blog.[1]

 

Premise 2 of the Kalam says that “The universe began to exist.” Do we know that scientifically?

 

1 – The Expansion of the Universe

Einstein discovered when forming his General Theory of Relativity that the universe behaves either like it is expanding, like on the surface of an expanding balloon, or contracting as if someone was letting the air out of it. Friedman and Lematre confirmed this with their own theory.

And then – Edwin Hubble made a fascinating discovery. Thru his telescope, as he looked into the sky, he began to notice something. Light waves from the distant galaxies had a red shift. What does this mean?

What happens when you hear an Ambulance in the distance…and it gets closer and closer to you? The sound of the siren changes. What does it do? The pitch gets higher. That’s because the sound waves emanating from the siren that hit your ear are getting squeezed closer together. And when the ambulance passes you…what happens then? The pitch drops again, because the sound waves are extending again.

Well, light also has properties that cause it to behave like a wave. And the red shift is the equivalent to the ambulance passing you and driving away. The red shift is extending of the light waves. And this is evidence that the galaxies are moving away from us. It’s almost as if we are at the centre of a cosmic explosion – but we’re not. If space is like an inflating balloon, and all the galaxies sit on the surface, then from the point of any one of those galaxies, everything is moving away as the balloon inflates. If space is expanding, then there must have been a point when this expansion started.

Scientists refer to the initial cosmological singularity, the boundary when both space and time started. Energy and matter were created at that point – the Big Bang. It’s not that something exploded in space at the Big Bang. Rather – at that event, everything came into existence.

Scientists appeal to the red shift evidence to support this theory. And the expansion rate of the universe might be variable too. But none of those negates premise 2 of the Kalam. It supports it. They also observe cosmic background radiation, which seems to be a residue from the Big Bang event. The universe observably had a beginning.

In 2003, Borde Guth and Vilenkin added to this understanding when they observed that any universe that has been expending (such as ours) cannot be infinite in the past. Rather, it must have an initial space time boundary.

 

2 – The Thermodynamic Properties of the Universe

The second law of thermodynamics states that unless energy is being fed into a system, that system will become increasingly disorderly. You can think of this a little turning on the hot tap in a warm bath. The hot water enters the system and the hot water gradually dissipates, until the temperature is consistent everywhere. When it comes to the universe, the second law suggests that at the initial cosmic singularity, energy was created. And since that point, energy has been dissipating throughout the universe. Eventually, like the water in the bath, the temperature in the universe will reach equilibrium, being consistent everywhere. And at that point, it is believed the heat death of the universe will have occurred.

The question then becomes, “If that’s the case, and the universe is infinitely old, why hasn’t it already reached its inevitable heat death state?” Think of the universe as a bit like a car. You put fuel in there and it will run for a finite time until it runs out of fuel and must then stop. Because our universe is still running, this suggests that we still have fuel in our tank. So – not only is the universe therefore not infinitely old, but in a few billion years, presumably the universe will die.

 

Conclusion

1 – Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2 – The universe began to exist.

3 – Therefore the universe has a cause.

 

Scientific observation supports the claims of the Kalam, particularly premise 2.

There are some interesting ways to object to this evidence and try to refute the Kalam. And – I will summarise some of those in another blog. But – a very common objection might be this. If I am claiming that God created the universe, and God is timeless, then why isn’t the universe eternal and timeless as well? If the universe is clearly NOT timeless, then does that undermine belief in God as creator?

No. To explain how a timeless cause (God) can produce a temporal effect (the universe) requires God to be a personal being with free will. The universe was not brought about by some kind of supernatural, immaterial timeless mechanism. Rather, the immaterial personal and incredibly powerful person God chose spontaneously to create a new thing, the universe. And everything within it. Isn’t it interesting that this basically describes the opening statements in the Bible?

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”[2]

[1] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Lee Vance View: David C. Cook, 2010), kindle edition, loc 1131 – 1649, synthesised and summarised.

[2] Genesis 1:1, NIV.

Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.