Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is the Source of Energy for the Universe?

After a couple of years or so of struggling with personal matters, I am ready to revive the conversation.  Two new ideas (new to me anyway) have been brought to my attention while watching a series called "The Truth Project."  The first is this.  Assuming that one makes the leap of faith that the universe was created from nothing or from some very small compact bundle of matter and energy that exploded at the Big Bang, what source of energy is sustaining what was started?  Or will the universe wind down at some point?  If in fact the universe has been around for millions or billions of years, how is it possible that this massive amount of energy came into being?  Or is there some as yet undetermined energy production furnace that is refueling all of the billion star systems to keep them all in place and spinning and such?

I guess Hawking thinks that the Universe always existed.  If that is the case, one would pretty much have to assume that there is a generator somewhere producing an endless supply of energy.  Amazing to think about.


Bernardo said...
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Anonymous said...
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Bernardo said...
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Bernardo said...

Okay, after some technical issues with the comments (Lesson learned: Don’t try to write or post anything too fancy this early on a weekend morning), let me try this again:

Part One of my reply: the Physics.

You don't need an endless energy fountain to keep the universe going. One reason for this is that energy is never destroyed. It just changes from one form to another.

However, because of entropy, the universe is effectively mortal. (Isn't that a cheerful thought for Sunday morning?). How will it end? Depends on the universe's Density parameter Ω:

Over time, energy does tend to change from forms that are more "useful" or "available" (i.e. can easily change from those forms into many others), such as motion and nuclear energy and gravitational potential energy, into forms that are less "useful" or "available" (i.e. harder to change into other forms) like heat. So yes, things are "winding down" in the sense that motion, nuclear energy, etc, are all gradually becoming heat and getting "stuck" in that form.

On the other hand, the universe could be such that the expansion could slow down and then things could fall into each other again; a Big Crunch. If the Big Bang exploded everything apart, then the gravity of everything in the universe must slow down this expansion (if you ignore dark matter... which is increasingly impractical, I must admit) and things could eventually fall into each other again. Just as when you throw something upwards, it and the earth move away for a little while before gravity pulls them back together again: This could happen to the whole universe. If everything falls BACK into everything else, the pressure and density of this Big Crunch could effectively "reset" entropy (i.e. change energy back into more useful/available forms) and give the universe another "life". And the Bang-Crunch cycles could keep going indefinitely. Again, while philosophically the Big Crunch idea is very neat and tidy, scientifically it's on its way out: There's more and more evidence for the universe containing enough dark matter to keep everything from ever falling back into itself. It's as if the universe has reached escape velocity: that's like when you throw something upwards so fast, it escapes the earth's gravitational field faster than the decreasing field could slow it down, as happens with probes that go to other planets and so on. Things move apart, out of each other's pull, faster than that pull could bring them together. This seems to be the situation with the universe.

So, yeah, the universe is effectively mortal, and science doesn't really know how to frame this "birth to death" life of the universe in any kind of bigger context. (There are some theories...

... but they're really just wild guesses, only marginally more grounded in reality than the creation myths you like).

Isaac Asimov was probably the greatest sci-fi writer of all time (he’s definitely my personal favorite). Even though he was an atheist, his favorite piece of writing is a beautiful short story that tackles this mind-blowing question in a surprisingly theistic-like way. The "answer"... well, read the whole thing, it's worth a few minutes:

Which is a good segue into...

Bernardo said...

Part two: The theology.

You seem to have trouble with the idea that the universe has always existed, and was never created. But then you propose that its origins lie with a being that always existed, and was never created. Is that really more elegant?

It really seems to me that explaining everything as the creation of an unexplainable being is far less explanatory, far less satisfying, and has far less potential for understanding and harnessing the universe, than explaining everything as some kind of stand-alone mechanical system.

Bottom line: Either there’s an eternal mechanical system (and intelligence & consciousness & intentionality is one of the phenomena within that system) or there’s an eternal intelligence (and mechanical systems are one of its creations or thoughts). Which one encompasses the other? Either the universe at its widest level has intentionality, or it doesn't. Which is it? (Or I could be missing a third option, such as "Intentionality at that level is so different from human intentionality that it's not worth phrasing in these terms", but that sounds to me like a vague and meaningless spiritual cop-out).

Why does it feel better to you if the eternal intelligence encompasses any mechanical systems? Why does it feel better to me if the mechanical system encompasses any intelligences? I don’t know. All I know is: At a gut level, I like the mechanical system better, and you like the eternal intelligence better. This is probably what leads me to like the physics better while you like theistic theology better. But I could be wrong.

I like the idea that there is an infinite possibility space for all the universes that could possibly be, and they all exist (since you have to admit that, at the very least, the idea of this infinite possibility space exists, to the extent that any idea "exists"). So all questions that go "Why is the universe this way?" can be answered by "Some universes aren't; We just happened to be born into a universe that is like that. Don't make too much of it".

And one last thing: When writing about this kind of thing, it’s easy to say things like “Well, either this is the case, or that is the case; There is no other conceivable possibility”, or “Scientists like to say [blah], and that would require you to assume that [such and such]; There’s no other conceivable way to get to that conclusion”. You have done this in yesterday’s posts (and I admit I do it sometimes too. I try not to but I’m not perfect). Just because you can’t think of an alternative, doesn’t mean that your “required assumptions” or your “either-or dichotomies” are right: It just means that YOU can’t conceive of another option, or of another way to get to that conclusion/model. Whenever a naturalist reads something written by a theist that includes this idea of “There’s just no other way”, our reaction is always “No, you arrogant unimaginative theist, YOU can’t think of any other way. Allow me to explain…”. The history of scientific progress (and of philosophy, for that matter) is all about the people who went beyond this “There’s just no other possibility” kind of thinking.

Randy Kirk said...

As to part 1 ... You have basically said "we don't know" in about 1000 words. We have theories and those theories have changed about 4 times in my lifetime. The theories of dark matter require a massive amount of faith, and could be accused of being just so theories that explain what they was missing, but for which we may never be able to confirm.

Randy Kirk said...

As to part 2 ... I am very happy that you are interested in people who go beyond "there's no other possibility" kind of thinking. Why then is not a possibility God made it all?

Now I understand that you just see that explanation as less satisfying, but whether or not it satisfies you has nothing to do with whether it is true or false.

The reason that the God view is more elegant is that it provides a foundational TRUTH which can then be measured against itself. If there is only a material "mind" then this mind has not revealed itself or provided us with any kind of understanding of how we should act or why we should exist or care.

Bernardo said...

It's not fair to say "You have basically said 'we don't know' in about 1000 words".

We know that the universe does not need "refueling" in order to keep going after the Big Bang. We know that it's winding down, and that it won't keep going for ever. These answer your question directly. And little faith is required: Dark matter is only one of the pieces of evidence that point towards a dying universe. Entropy and "heat death" are dead obvious, and have been for many generations.

What we don't know is what the state of things was that caused the Big Bang, i.e. where it came "from". I like the multiverse hypotheses, which differ in their details but all propose an environment that is infinite in every conceivable parameter, a medium in which our universe is one "pop" among many. Yes, it is a just-so story, but it helps me keep my sanity, because a dying universe is kinda depressing ;]

As for Part 2;

There IS a possibility that God made it all. But such an explanation just adds a lot of complications without addressing the questions that I am curious about. And it cannot be measured against itself, and offers no truth. "How we should act and why we should care" are much better addressed by trying to optimize human well-being in the world (by understanding what makes people happy and how to increase that in society) than by assuming that the universe was deliberately created by an intelligence with a plan, then guessing what that plan might be, then deciding we wish to further this imaginary plan. It can, and should, be enough to decide on our own that we wish to make the world's people happier. That decision can be made without assuming a creator and a plan (but I will grant that it can be made more easily if you do assume a celestial dictator that will punish you eternally if you go against what he wants).

Randy Kirk said...

You state that we know entropy is true for the entire universe. How do you account for various theories that now state the outward expansion is speeding up? Certainly we don't know that entropy is universal. We are having a huge debate over global warming and it is close to home. But to imagine that energy is being created now is hardly any more troubling than trying to assert that it was created or released at the big bang. Release from what, or from what?

And isn't all of scientific inquiry dependent upon laws that are consistent? What keeps them consistent? Good luck?

Randy Kirk said...

"How we should act and why we should care" are much better addressed by trying to optimize human well-being in the world (by understanding what makes people happy and how to increase that in society

We've done such a fine job of that!?! The last 100 years is the worst ever for mass slaughter. The age of science and reason???? And the mass slaughter came from the hands of those who believed in man's ability to create a better place.

Randy Kirk said...

assuming that the universe was deliberately created by an intelligence with a plan, then guessing what that plan might be

We certainly don't have to guess what the plan might be. It is clearly laid out for us in the Bible. And it has had the same words, ideas, and approaches for 2000 years, and vast numbers of folks have had much success and happiness by following its direction.

What scientific approach to life has been tested and found to provide replicable results of happiness or well being?

Bernardo said...

"Certainly we don't know that entropy is universal [...] And isn't all of scientific inquiry dependent upon laws that are consistent? What keeps them consistent?"

Science ASSUMES that the laws are consistent. This is for the sake of practicality. In another post, you said so yourself: "If the rules change, we can't study it". Any local variations (in the speed of light, the strength of a gravitational field, whatever) just leads people to ask what more GENERAL law could lead to this value of a physical property here, and this other value of a physical property there. The only way to hope to understand something, the only way to hope to make sense of data taken in the past or in another location, is to assume that the system you're studying works pretty much the same way everywhere and all the time.

And this assumption has served us pretty well. (Again, whether or not it's "true", you have to admit that it works). The best early evidence of heliocentrism (before Newton even formulated gravity) was Galileo's observations of how Jupiter's four big moons orbit the planet. The timescale of geological events can be best guessed by assuming that the effects of certain phenomena have always worked at a similar rate to the current rate. You can only extrapolate from the specific things you observed to the universe in general if you assume consistent rules.

"How do you account for various theories that now state the outward expansion is speeding up?"

The energy was there, latent in some other form, and is now being converted into the expansion. Or, the rate of expansion of space itself might be a function of the density of stuff in that space: Less density could lead to space itself "stretching" more easily. Maybe space itself is like a spring that's pushing out. I don't know what the answer is, but there are many possible answers (many of them testable by observation) that all basically say "The energy was there all along".

"it [energy] was created or released at the big bang. Release from what, or from what?"

From whatever previous state the universe was in. Or, if there isn't one, then from whatever system causes a new universe to form.

Just because I don't know the answer, doesn't mean that humanity never have one. We don't know YET. Assuming that "If we don't know, then we'll never know" is the worst thing you could possibly do if you value discovery and learning! Another very bad thing to do when you encounter a phenomenon you can't explain is to shout "God did it!". That's almost certain to prevent you from understanding the mechanism that's actually driving what you're observing.

"We are having a huge debate over global warming and it is close to home."

As important as that debate is, what does it have to do with any of this?

Bernardo said...

"The last 100 years is the worst ever for mass slaughter"

No, the world has been getting more civilized and peaceful over time:

"And the mass slaughter came from the hands of those who believed in man's ability to create a better place."

It is certainly comparable to the slaughter from the hands of those who believed that God gave them a divine duty to kill infidels. Hello! Crusades? 9-11?

"What scientific approach to life has been tested and found to provide replicable results of happiness or well being?"

Modern secular democracies. Rulers who must aim to serve their people (or at least pretend well) otherwise they're voted out. Laws that are constantly being optimized and changed as we learn the lessons of their implementation. Governments that ask the question "If we do this, what's the harm? What would be the benefit? Have other governments tried it, and if so, how well did they do? If they ran into problems, are these problems avoidable or are they fundamental?". This kind of pragmatism, found in liberal societies that value justice more highly than order, is the scientific method applied to politics. You don't just assume that you know best; You try stuff out (as long as you judge it to not be too risky). The main difference between religious morals/politics and humanist morals/politics is that humanists don't pretend that they already know all the answers.

Sure, religious morals/politics supply a system that works fairly well. But it is optimized for order and not for justice. We can optimize morals and politics for justice. Not doing so will unfairly cause suffering to a lot of people.

Please please please watch the following. Please. Since you invited me to be an admin of this blog, I will probably write a post about this:

Bernardo said...

"We certainly don't have to guess what the plan might be. It is clearly laid out for us in the Bible."

The Bible is a compilation, edited by power-hungry committees, collecting stories exaggerated over time, and rules that were observed on a small scale to improve well-being within a certain ancient context. It has some great ideas. It has some terrible ideas. It's not consistent, some of what it says is flat-out wrong... If it's divine, it's certainly not clear. And while you may like a God that gives you his word in such a messy package for you to unwrap, I say that it has enough room for interpretation that I can't trust what you extract from it any more than I can trust what you see in a Rorschach blob. The Bible is a human creation. Just because it claims to be the infallible word of God, doesn't mean I have to buy that claim.

Randy Kirk said...

The general thread is that somehow we are creating a better society using scientific principles. 40,000,000 unborn babies slaughtered in 40 years in most cases because they were inconvenient to the parents.

You can't honestly think that the slaughters in Germany, Poland, Russia, China, Cambodia, etc., were comparable to the Crusades. The massive killing of innocents without weapons is unbelievable. And all were done in the name of science.

The one child per couple mess in China is also the result of science (overpopulation scare).

We now let the lunatics out of the asylum in the name of mainstreaming, then drug the brilliant into zombies with pain killers, recreational drugs, and drugs with unexpected consequences.

We've turned self esteem into a God, and now science tells us those with the most self esteem are the criminal population.

We have science creating genetically "better" people. Who says what is better. We kill the mutants in the womb. Maybe we needed those mutations to create the really better humans.

All of these things raise massive ethical and moral issues, but what are the sources of morals and ethics. If we are just animals, why are your morals and ethics any better than mine?

Only through trusting in God and believing that Scripture is the source of morals and ethics can we have a foundation to build society upon. One that can be distorted, sure. ONe that can be used for ill. Sure. But it is still an immovable touchstone that laid out the foundation for the very justice you describe above. Otherwise whose justice are we using? Yours or mine?

Randy Kirk said...

I think you should post on Pinker. It is too hard to debate without others knowing the basics. However, while I agree with some of the comments to his video that the stats are weak in places, the mass killings in the 20th Century were at the hand or came from the wisdom of science and from the hubris of scientists who believed that they had the solution.

It continues until today with abortion, and I will not be surprised to see a return in the future when someone picks up the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest again. I already hear the rumblings.

Bernardo said...

I don't see how these killings "were at the hand or came from the wisdom of science and from the hubris of scientists who believed that they had the solution".

Sure, science allows for the technology of weaponry, from catapults to cruise missiles. But I don't think that's what you mean.

Whenever ANYONE tries to change ANYTHING to make the world better (i.e. not being selfish), it's because they think "If I change A to B, then this will change X to Y and people will be better off". How did they come to this conclusion? It might have been scientifically. It might have been pseudo-scientifically (i.e. they stretch science beyond the validity of its actual conclusions). It might have been due to some internal conviction (e.g. Jews are evil). It might have been because of religion.

The recommendations for improving the world made by each of these things (science, pseudoscience, internal convictions, religion) could be wrong. Or they could be right. When any of them are wrong and are applied, the results are disastrous.

But which of those is self-correcting? Only science. So it will make mistakes. But the cost of the risks are, I insist, lower than the cost of not trying to improve things at all. Especially when many observations all point to the conclusion that "If I change A to B, then this will change X to Y and people will be better off". When people work as hard as they can to try and find out whether such a statement is true, trying to remove confounding factors, etc, and the statement holds up... I'd say, "Worth a shot!".

Besides, the alternatives to science are

1) Ignorance: "We could try and find out how things work, what causes what, what leads to greater happiness and justice... but we're not gonna bother".

2) Inaction: "From everything we observe, it seems that making this change would cause this and that to change, and people would really like that... but we're not gonna bother".

Science is just Guess and Check and Apply. If you dislike science, then you must not believe in checking your guesses, or in applying the discoveries that seem to check out.

And nothing is ever set in stone. All scientific "knowledge" is provisional and could be overturned when evidence shows that the intended consequences aren't happening or some unintended consequences are even worse. "Knowledge" from religion, pseudoscience, or internal convictions, is not as pragmatic.

Bernardo said...

Abortion is just a personal, and arguably selfish, choice to not have a child. All that science did there is create pretty good tools and methods for this to be done with minimal risk to the mother. Blaming science for abortions would be like blaming science for a Muslim suicide bomber: Science only gave them the tools to do what they wanted to do, not the desire to do it or the belief that doing it is the best thing to do.

And the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest is TRUE for wild animals and other creatures. We then just have to ask ourselves whether we want to live like wild animals and be ruthlessly/uncaringly competitive, or whether we want to try and extend our empathy and be a little more cooperative. For the most part, in terms of optimizing human happiness, we have decided that cooperating is good and being too competitive is bad.

(Well, I do head the rumblings of people who prefer a Darwinian competitive arena. It comes from proponents of unregulated free markets, and from opponents of government-funded health care. It is they who want to go back to survival of the fittest, when I (and much of the rest of the world) thought that humanity in general should know better by now).

Randy Kirk said...

How, under naturalism, do we have a "choice" of how we want to act. The choices are made for us by a systematic cause and effect that triggers results that we have zero control over.

Only in God's economy do we have a free choice to exercise our will. Only in God's economy do we acknowledge that we are different from the animals in being able to exercise this choice.

Anonymous said...


On that last point about freewill, if God is the only answer to "choice" than God must be understood as existing. Unless the human mind makes decisions at a quantum level, and the jury is still out on how deterministic it really is, there are no known physical laws that can give humans free choice. Why should we expect that those laws would cause us to see the truth of reality objectively? We would only be what nature vomited out. Of course this in no way assumes the Christian God, but it does allow a cerain place for the existence of some sort of 'soul' or consciousness. The consequences of belief in a deterministic universe, if wrong, are too great. The consequences of belief in God-given freewill, if wrong, would be impossible to resist since I was determined to write this anyway. The athiest that asks for us to choose reason over superstition or faith is asking for the impossible. It is meaningless under their world-view.