I was reminded recently that we live in a Catch-22 Universe. What makes it a Catch-22 is that no one is qualified to penetrate the mystery of the cosmos without skill in advanced mathematics, and yet those who have this skill are so tied to numbers that they see reality no other way. Clearly the universe isn't a set of equations. It's the all-embracing reality that gave rise to human life. This obvious fact makes many physicists very uncomfortable.
In the last post I challenged Brian Cox, the author of Human Universe--a book, ironically enough, that rejects the concept of a human universe--to confront the current crisis in physics. For many non-scientists, this crisis only came to light thanks to an op-ed last June in the New York Times. But in the profession, especially among physicists who deal in cosmology, the crisis is well known. Cox, a physics professor at the University of Manchester and a popular science presenter on the BBC, didn't accept my challenge. Yet his book makes no mention of any real sense of crisis. To him, as to all the most orthodox physicists, every answer will be revealed as long as the public continues to trust in the current state of affairs.
This is far from true. Cosmologists as a group are well aware that a Theory of Everything--a final, neat formulation that will mathematically explain how the fundamental forces in Nature are related--is further away than ever. Some of the most basic questions have also become more, not less, mysterious, such as Where did the universe come from? What is it made of? What existed before the Big Bang? How did consciousness arise in the cosmos?
That last question is probably the most ridiculous and frustrating example of how the Catch-22 works. There is a suspicion going back at least forty years that the universe is too perfect to take at face value. Everything seems designed, almost from the first instant of creation, to construct a cosmos that would pave the way for human beings. Cox acknowledges this, but he doesn't come to terms with the total improbability that a random universe could evolve into a state where DNA arose and from DNA the infinite complexity of the human brain.
This is one reason, and a big one, why physics is in a crisis. A random universe is messy, filled with zillions of events, from colliding atoms to colliding galaxies, that splat everywhere like paint splattering when thrown against a wall. But the human universe--the one that is such a perfect fit for Homo sapiens--is the opposite of random. It is like the ultimate in a fine-tuned instrument created to reach a foregone conclusion.
Cox communicated with me on Twitter, chiding me for not reading the answer he has devised for reconciling the messy universe with the perfect universe. It involves a concept known in the field as eternal inflation. Everyone accepts that the present universe is expanding and has been for the past 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang. On the surface, this looks like a single shot to arrive at the goal of life on Earth and the evolution of the human brain. But instead of one universe inflating from a single event, the Big Bang, some theorists want more shots at the target--in fact, an almost infinite number of shots. Hence, eternal inflation.
As described by Cox in Ch. 4, "Why Are We Here?" (p. 220-26), inflationary theory says that spacetime itself can expand, and it does so faster than the speed of light. This expansion can move from the smallest scale in the newly emerging cosmos, known as the Planck scale, to a scale many powers of ten larger in just a fraction of a second. One must imagine the quantum field fluctuating constantly in this manner, exploding from bits of spacetime billions of times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence into embryonic and then full-fledged universes. Cox states this colorfully: "Empty space is never empty, but a fizzing, shifting soup of all possible quantum fields." (p. 220)
In this context, there are as many shots at creating a universe fit for human life as you may desire. In the so-called cosmic casino, Nature fizzes away with universes, and odds are it will hit upon the right one--our universe--eventually. The casino even allows for infinite changes in the rules (i.e., laws of nature) governing how a cosmos works. By formulating a mechanism that brings Einstein's General Theory of Relativity closer to quantum theory--there has been a vast distance between them for decades--eternal inflation, as Cox explains it, neatly solves certain known phenomena, such as the evenness of the microwave radiation that is in the background of the cosmos.
But his claim is much bolder, since he says that eternal inflation can tell us why we are here (p. 220) Inflationary theory has arrived at a point (p. 222) where the Big Bang pops out of the quantum vacuum as an energy "hot spot," leading to an expanding universe. Eternal inflation, however, tells us that the "fizziness" of empty space doesn't stop at the same time everywhere; this leaves open the possibility for more hot spots--in fact, an infinite number of Big Bangs (p. 224) is a likely outcome of the theory. Since a hot spot can balloon into a complete universe in the blink of an eye, there's plenty of room for rolling the dice over and over until the human universe comes out of the oven. The infinite possibility of countless universes has been popularized as the cosmic casino, and in a note of self-congratulation, human beings are the big winners in the casino, since we have an entire universe that perfectly suits the rise of human life.
Yet for all its triumphs in terms of higher mathematics and quantum theory, eternal inflation feels like sleight of hand. Contrary to what he supposes, Cox has not got us past the cosmic Catch-22 but has only gotten himself entangled in it. Human Universe, based on a 2014 BBC television series, uses no mathematics. It bases its arguments on concepts instead, and unfortunately for its author, concepts exist in the free market of ideas. Cox's concept is that randomness multiplied to infinity yields orderliness. This is like saying that if you throw enough paint spatters against a wall, eventually you will get Leonardo's Last Supper. In the abstract that's true, but as an explanation for The Last Supper, it's very roundabout and weak.
Imagine that you are in a car with a friend acting as navigator. You're in unknown country, so you ask him which way to turn at the next intersection. He replies, "There are infinite ways to turn at the next intersection, but don't worry, they lead to infinite other intersections where we can also take an infinite number of turns. Eventually we'll get to Kansas City." Physics finds itself talking this way when dealing with the multiverse, eternal inflation, and the cosmic casino. The most absurd part, besides the fact that there is no data or experimentation to show that any of their theories match reality, is that when they wave their map of infinite choices under our noses, they claim it's the best map anyone has.
Here are the chief problems with eternal inflation as an explanation for "how we got here."
- It argues backward from a foregone conclusion. Knowing that humans already exist, any theory can be jiggered to arrive where it needs to arrive. Filling in the variables poses little difficulty once you can handle the math in the first place.
- When a variable is infinite, or even close to infinite, this weakens a theory, sometimes fatally. Multiverse theories states that all the possible laws of nature unfold in infinite ways, infinite times over. Probabilities break down when the odds for and against anything are both infinite.
- Basing the probability of life on Earth on eternal inflation doesn't work in mathematical terms. Alan Guth, a major player in inflationary theory, expresses this doubt. As he puts it, here on Earth two-headed cows are rarely born, but we can compute the odds of that happening by assigning a number to specific mutations. In the multiverse, however, one-headed cows and two-headed cows are both infinite in number, so computing anything about them falls apart.
- Mathematics is a model of reality, and so is physics. A model by definition must exclude many factors in order to arrive at a workable simplification. All internal combustion engines, for example, can be modeled as the ignition of fuel to extract energy that is then turned into motion. In the same way, the human brain can be modeled as electrical activity and chemical reactions. But such a model says absolutely nothing about what a thought means. Cox, like all mainstream physicists, equates consciousness or mind with complexity and orderliness. This is a false assumption. A hemoglobin molecule contains thousands of atoms arranged with enormous complexity, but that doesn't mean it can whistle "Dixie" or go on Jeopardy.
So which is it? Is the universe perfect or a complete mess? Physics offers no definitive answer, but that wasn't my argument with Cox. My argument centered on how he turned his back on any possible answers except those that demonstrably don't work. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Galileo to be told that the Pope was the ultimate authority on truth, above and beyond anything that science might say. It's just as frustrating to have one camp of physicists--thankfully, not the entire field--toil away at mathematical conundrums and claiming that they are above and beyond the claims of reality and how things actually work.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com