Family Science Club

Pointing to the Author of Science


Large black rings reprenting the smallest and largest submarines full-size submarines ever in the US Navy, 2008

Image: The big ring represents a nuclear-missile submarine's hull. These warships were long seen by many as a symbol of impending doom. Taken by Kevin Weaver

Something about a Ring and the End of the World...

In the recent movie version of the Fellowship of the Ring, Sam stammers about overhearing some dire portents. Do you remember recent talk about a ring and the end of the world in our real-world news?

We promised in an earlier article that we would discuss Uniformitarianism. What a big word for a simple concept! Yet, that concept is one of the bedrocks of modern science. And it relates in more than one way to predictions of the end of the world.

There are three basic views of how the universe "works." The one most widely held by most people for most of known history is that how things work could change at any moment, because things are controlled by a bunch of gods or spirits who not only change their minds about things on a regular basis, but they also tend to try to interfere with each other. It is no surprise that science did not get very far during much of human history.

The second view arose mainly in Judaism and then Christianity. The Bible describes God as creating things by miracle, then keeping things working in such a consistent manner that we could count on things being the same day after day and year after year. The Bible tells that God stills shows himself by working a miracle here and there, but even the most faithful people in the Bible were astounded (and often terrified) when God did something outside of everyday experience.

The third view grew out of the Renaissance (which grew out of Christianity). Scientists such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton discovered the world works regularly in ways that few before them could imagine. Newton developed calculus based on the movement of the planets, not as some form of mental exercise that he later discovered could be used to find details about the world around him.

This new-found regularity led a growing number of philosophers and scientists to discard the notion of the supernatural. Now there have always been some people who disliked the idea that the world is controlled by God (or gods or spirits). The Psalms described people chaffing at the idea of God's very existence almost 3,000 years ago.

Only recently, however, were scientists able to describe and predict an astounding number of  the inner workings of the world around us without any reference to the supernatural. That ability gave people an alternative explanation to the prior belief that God/gods/spirits must have created and/or ran the world. [Note 1]

This led to the philosophical position of Uniformitarianism. The short description of it is: The present is the key to the past. Put another way, what is happening now is all that ever happened or all that ever will. Not only does it reject that certain supernatural events (or miracles) have occurred, it must reject that any have occurred, ever.

In fact, to be consistent, Uniformitarianism must insist that all natural laws have always worked as we find them now, or that any changes that have occurred must have been inevitable based on what the laws were in the past. Similarly, any changes to the laws in the future must be inevitable consequences of the way the laws are today.

One must accept a limited form of uniformitarianism to do science. The chemist must assume that the ways things work will not change between when he studies a chemical and when a customer uses that chemical in the future. The engineer must assume that the way things work when she designs a bridge will continue to work the same way when a freight train crosses it twenty years later. However, modern discoveries show that uniformitarianism cannot be held absolutely.

Back in the day when people were arguing primarily about fossils and prehistoric life on earth, it seemed that everything might have worked the same way from now as back into the infinite past. Back then, scientists who rejected the supernatural could at least be consistent with their uniformitarianism.

Now people are talking about the formation of the universe itself. If the Big Bang really happened, then the way things work changed drastically during the split seconds when the primal singularity exploded. And that brings us back to our Ring and the End of the World.

The Ring is the Large Hadron Collider, a nearly 17-mile ring of super-cooled magnets that cost around $5,000,000,000 to build. Some people were (and may still be) seriously afraid that it could create a miniature black hole and destroy the Earth. Multiple lawsuits were filed around the world to prevent it ever being used.

In actuality, the energy released in an experiment in the LHC is said to be less than the energy of clapping one's hands. However, that energy is contained in a space only 1/1,000,000,000,000th the size of a mosquito. No threat to the Earth, but the collisions are stunning in its effects on sub-atomic particles. The LHC has already been used multiple times with no ill effects.

Why put so much effort (and money) into the LHC? The goal is to "recreate" the laws of physics during the first part of the Big Bang. LHC research shows evidence that in the conditions expected in the early split seconds of the Big Bang, at least some of the laws of physics would have been as predicted. Many people believe this proves the Big Bang actually happened and that God was not involved.

Remember here that big "U" Uniformitarianism only works as a philosophy of science if it is absolute. There can be no exceptions  if it is to hold the weight of proving that supernatural events never occur. And this, in the end, is where Big Bang science undermines Uniformitarianism itself.

The problem is, the predictions of Big Bang science claim there can be no way that the laws of physics during the first split seconds of the Big Bang can predetermine the details of the laws of physics of the later, settled universe. All we can do is confirm that the conditions at that time would result in a particular set of laws at that time. How we got from then to now was a roll of the dice.

This is not just a limitation of our current scientific technology, either. The Big Bang theory specifically says that the conditions at the start cannot predetermine the conditions in the settled state. An improved LHC would do no better at explaining why the laws settled into what they are today, because an explanation is impossible.

We will talk about the problem of science believing in random chance in a later article. Yet, even accepting random chance for the sake of argument does not get Uniformitarianism off the hook. Uniformitarianism's denial of God (or gods or spirits) is based on its insistence that science has proven that all events and changes can be explained and/or predicted based on what is possible (though not necessarily feasible) today.

Scientists holding to Uniformitarianism, therefore, say they have already proven what Big Bang science says can never be proven. To remain honest, they should admit that some unknown quantity of things are inherently unexplainable and unpredictable by anything inside the "known" universe.

They need not accept the existence of God (or gods or spirits) to be honest, of course. They should cease to claim that anyone who believes in God or miracles cannot be a good scientist. It is unlikely that a person who believes in capricious gods, or who expects God to be working miracles willy-nilly, could be a good scientist, but that discussion will have to wait for another article...


Note 1: There is also the viewpoint of Deism, which allows for God (or something supernatural) to have created the world, but since then to have let every single event occur without any further intervention. This has a number of philosophical variants. Even many Muslims are effectively Deists, because they believe Allah stands aloof from his creation during this age. Therefore many people, religious or not, hold to philosophical uniformitarianism. It should be noted that Deism only gained a significant following during the period of the rise of secular uniformitarianism. No one came to it naturally from within a religion. Rather, they too quickly believed that uniformitarianism had won the day, and then modified their religious beliefs to incorporate its basic tenets.