Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Before the Big Bang: "ex nihilo" or eternal, cyclical Void?

John Milton opposed the "ex nihilo" theory; recently two cosmologists advance an "ekpyrotic" or cyclical model of our universe that's always been imploding and expanding. No Creator, no anthropic principle that sets us up as evolved by the Divine to marvel at His Universe, and no worries about how time or space began. Believers, such as Milton then or a few now, may find such a theory more compatible with assumptions that nothing could emanate from nothing, even by an Almighty, and that perhaps rather than a God who made us so we could praise His Creation and find our fulfillment within this "ex nihilo" universe, we may be living and dying in an endless circle that every few trillion years also ends and begins, eternally. Akin, of course, more to conventionally Eastern swirls rather than Western linear directives.

I find such speculations fascinating, and while no physicist, I've long struggled through studies on the topic of origins. I also find here intersections with theology instructive; Gerald Schroeder plotted in his 1991 "Genesis & the Big Bang" a secular six-days-as-stages over eons equivalent overlay for the six-day creation. He combined the biblical languages and Torah with science in a way that I suspect few scholars since, say, Milton, may have been able to do, and Milton for all his erudition never saw the Hubble Space Telescope or quantum theory. Still, as Milton found himself in trouble once again for his refusal to accept "ex nihilo," and many skeptics as well as most scientists presumably by definition would eschew the miraculous allied with even the Omnipotent Prime Mover and First Cause, methods that try to align our soul's yearnings with our mind's cautions seem scarce when it comes to outlasting passing fancies, theological explanations ignorant of pre-Copernican let alone Planck constructs, uncertainty principles, and cosmological advances.

Contrarily, the neo-atheists Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins dutifully deny any marriage of science to its former queen of knowledge, theology. They often dismiss any good religious adherents have accomplished; they insist that secular ideals could inspire similar ethics free of guilt, oppression, or coercion. Having dethroned theology after the Middle Ages, rationalists refuse to reconcile cosmological models with "sky-god" origin myths.

The Talmud claims: "God roams among 18,000 worlds." I know Kabbalah interpreters have dabbled with such reconciliations now, with the Ein Sof and the unknowable essence beyond divine emanations, and talk of light and shattered vessels and recovered fragments of glimmer providing tantalizing hints. Hints that make me wonder if even scientifically ignorant shepherds and desert-dwelling scribes (much derided by Hitchens and Dawkins) inherited Wordsworthian or Neo-Platonic types of yearnings that point, as with Eden and Eve, back tens of thousands of years to some fundamental insight instilled in humans at the dawn of self-consciousness that tells, somehow, where we came from and how our world burst into being. Yet, you can see by such imagination, that I fall here from empiricism back into supposition.

Yet, these ambitious explanations trying to reconcile heartfelt yearnings of divine reunion for a fallen creation or a sundered humanity with the constants of numbers may seem, as always in our standoff between the Enlightenment of Reason and the Enlightenment of the Soul, doomed to be apart. We find in the tension between Collins and Dawkins our own split selves. It's a psychomachia. We're divided within our psyche, two partners as ornery and as yoked as our body and spirit, our heart vs. our mind. I note in passing: Stephen Unwin's book "The Probability of God" uses five Bayesian mathematical models to arrive at apparently 67%!

I reviewed Francis Collins' "The Language of God," on Amazon US along with those four neo-atheists, and found his assertion that in DNA coils a divine plan far less persuasive than the latter quartet's rejoinders; I've kept a very open mind towards all in this perpetual disputation. Atheists who remind us how in God's plan we have "kluges" or jerry-built inelegant solutions to biological problems a half-baked rather than gourmet level of care raise objections that I have not found matched by compelling deist rejoinders. "Mysterious Ways" may work for a U2 title, but for a theodicy, I find the tune grates on my own jutting, whorlish, curiously evolved ears.

I find the anthropic fallback that we cannot have been created with love and wonder unless a Creator meant us to share His qualities with a grateful and co-dependent congregation of us as believers inspiring, but not persuasive. Much as I sympathize with Teilhard de Chardin's mystical culmination of a singularity that brings into the noosphere the union of created with Creator, even that Jesuit paleontologist's splendid vision may not nudge me logically towards a position closer to theologians. My heart may still move in the direction of the faithful, eager for proof of belief, but my brain, as predictably, follows my training to not take the Bible as a history book, or a scriptural story as proof-text for a scientific quest for elusive truth.

Tony Bailie's ""Zen & the Art of Astrophysics" post June 2, 2009 alerted me to "Endless Universe: Beyond the Big Bang" by Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok. (I saw in upcoming summer books another from Brian Clegg, "Before the Big Bang," which excites me!) Bailie and I agree that in such encounters of the spirit and the concrete, the mathematical and the speculative, we may be groping towards a Unified Theory That Explains It All, or sort of, given our obtuseness and ignorance about what Beckett belittled as "always the big questions," and our tiresome "big answers." Perhaps we are meant to languish in culpable ignorance, but those who insist that prelapsarian myths need not keep us away from the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge appear, in science if not always in schools or houses of the holy, to prove otherwise.

Steinhardt and Turok propose the cyclical model as an alternative that may solve what the Big Bang paradigm accepted for the last half-century has not been able to figure out. By removing the problem of accounting for a start or finish, they sidestep the Big Bang expanding forever[***] or collapsing into One Big Crunch. Rather, in a flash, literally, every few eons, it ends and begins again. Their cyclical model may also account better for what's been elaborated since the acceptance of the Big Bang-- such as gravitational fields, dispersion of even material in less than a nanosecond after the Bang across the universe all at once, string theory, and why dark matter and dark energy seem to make up most of our universe.

From the nineteen reviewers at Amazon US, Steve Koss (1/3/08) sums up this 2007 book best:
In a book that challenges its readers' scientific capacity while remaining within a layman's grasp, Steinhardt and Turok eschew the Big Bang singularity for what they term an ekpyrotic or cyclic model. Derived from underlying principles of advanced string theory, they posit our universe as a three-dimensional brane that co-exists with another, mostly parallel brane of more or less equal size. The two branes are separated along an unseen fourth dimension, although the distance of this separation is small and alone among all known physical forces, only gravity can travel this fourth dimension and exert an attractive force between the branes. The authors use this model to posit a trillion-year process in which the branes collide and then separate to their maximum distance apart. During the collision, a birth process for both universes takes place in a manner that looks like the Big Bang. Radiation gradually gives way to matter, allowing stars and galaxies to form, until finally dark matter exerts itself and accelerates the universes' growth and spreads out the galaxies. The branes then become increasingly flat and parallel (as opposed to having been wrinkled but not intersecting as a result of their last collision), allowing the interbrane (gravitational) force between them to begin pulling them back together for another collision.
I've been making a very slow progress in a work similar to Tony's immersion in "Endless Universe" alongside a book on Zen by a pioneering popularizer of Buddhism in Britain, Christmas Humphreys. With a few dense pages at a time when I have no distractions, almost as if I meditate, I'm facing "Beckett & Zen" by Paul Foster, a formidably challenging work on two immensely difficult conceptions, one from that fearlessly inquisitive but honestly unbelieving writer, one from millennia of authors known and unknown also distinguished for their refusal to speak but of the ultimately Unnam[e]able, of our fragile place in this enigmatically silent universe.

Foster borrows the image employed by the once-fashionable other British pioneering popularizer of Buddhism, Alan Watts, who suggests that we are like two faces on opposite sides of a coin, subject-object attempting to figure each other out. Stuck in this binary opposition, the "coin's faces" wind up failing to realize the thickness, the whatness, the "quidditas" of the coin's hidden dimension. (This term, borrowed from Aristotle's Greek, was employed by Scholastic philosophers in the Middle Ages. A salutary reminder to even the neo-atheists that we cherish knowledge wherever it rests, under whatever guise, on whichever shelf.)

This third, unseen dimension for Watts (if not Beckett's searcher, dim-bulb as we all are "Watt") equally runs in both-- and permeates all-- directions inside the coin to unite its two sides. The two sides do not know of another way out; locked side-by-side but on opposite ends, they lack understanding of unseen unity. A new perspective extends the coin's definition beyond obverse-reverse dichotomies. This awakening may then truly join us to what we live within but we mistake as without.

Foster tackles the definition of the Void, and corrects earlier Beckett critics who misunderstood this notionless notion as if synonymous with nihilism. A Zen practitioner, Foster argues that the Void nears more Nirvana or better, what's beyond that extinguishment of categories or oppositions that we can conjure up from our Cartesian dilemma, this subject-object divide that traps us in "samsara" and prevents us from attaining awakening into "samadhi" that in Buddhist philosophy will eventually pull the disciplined and undeluded seeker into realization of release from our body-mind problem. Liberation that allows neither God nor universe, self nor soul. Perhaps an indescribable realm, but we are scared because we stay ignorant, small, and frail. Beckett's terrain crawls with stammering, cowed figures.

I wonder, then how the Void that Foster finds Beckett and his characters wrestling with-- Jacob in an endless night battle with his assailant angel, dawn breaking not with deliverance but death-- fits into this cyclical universal model? The place that we may "know" or posit that we cannot grasp. It's in this seeking that a Buddhist tries to reach the breakthrough beyond time and space, mind or body. Perhaps this can be an analogy dimly echoing this Big Splat, this spiralling and colliding universal, eternal dance of not the spheres but these ethereal planes, these branes?

The other universe, the other brane near our own universe that by "quidditas" or whatness lies nearly at our own point of entry but which has been pulled apart from us by our own incomprehension or inarticulation to utter it and to frame in words what cannot be perceived let alone conceived within language. Out of this encounter we cannot witness for in it lies our own formation and annihilation, we can't help but look back and wonder where we came from. This irreconciliable search for our meaning, our purpose, our existence fits neatly with Beckett's own bold if quixotic quest, to explore what we cannot explain but what we're compelled to attain. That is, what makes us human inside impels us to try to escape our human limitations.

Photo: Only 450 light years away, this planetary nebula is known as NGC 7293, or the "Helix Nebula." This 'eye in the sky' provides an anthropomorphic, or perhaps theomorphic, image to gaze back at. Meister Eckhardt mystically mused over a century before Copernicus: "The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love."-- Sermon IV

[***]P.S. For the Big Fade, see Dennis Overbye, 6/3/08, NY Times. "Dark, Perhaps Forever."

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