Author Clinton Smith reviews why we know nothing at all.
WHAT DO WE KNOW?
Little. Because our minds are too limited to understand what there is — or what, where and why we are.
Then, ask yourself, why is there anything at all? It's a question posed down the centuries by scientists and philosophers alike. Why, for instance, is there not simply nothing? Surely that would make more sense?
But I see and feel that I exist.
Can I trust that?
My perception is far less acute than many other animals possess. For example, I cannot see the infra-red range like some insects. My eyesight is not as sharp as an eagle's. My sense of smell is hopelessly inferior to a dog's. Despite these limitations, I appear to be here, standing on this planet and have the impression that I, and everything around me, is physically real.
Still, where did this everything originate?
Religious minds believe the world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god. If so, where did he/she/it come from? Does she have a daddy? And where then did he come from? It is a conundrum as unlikely and unanswerable as the ancient assumption that the world is supported on the back of an elephant standing on a great turtle. And what supports the turtle? Easy. There are turtles all the way down.
Einstein tells us that mass is equivalent to energy and warps space. And that light and gravity are quantum states. And that, if we travel fast enough, we will be shorter and time will slow down. All this is exceedingly strange but demonstrable. We can fathom its implications, intellectually at least.
Then we are assured that we live in an expanding universe that started with a bang.
Started with a bang?
Either something came from nothing. Or something was eternally there. Because both are impossible, this is clearly beyond our capacity to process.
The current thought experiment represents the universe as a dotted balloon. The dots represent galaxies. As the balloon expands, the dots widen and become further apart. This model, by the way postulates that the universe is all there is. In other words, outside the balloon there is nothing. The balloon is all — and therefore all of space is expanding. So before the balloon arrived, there was nothing. No time. No space.
But the universe is not merely expanding. Its galaxies are flying apart with greater and greater velocity. Why? Surely, after the bang, they should be slowing down?
No. The further they are from an observer on earth, the faster they recede. Eventually they will travel so fast that their light will no longer reach us.
So what makes them accelerate? Possibly dark energy. Dark energy of roughly the expected magnitude was detected in astronomical observations in the late 1990s. Apparently 96% of the universe is missing and contains dark matter we cannot see at all.
So as the galaxies fly apart forever into endless space, where are they expanding to? Infinity?
Surely space must end somewhere? But, if it does, what is beyond or enclosing it? Infinity is as illogical as a finite universe. Our minds cannot grasp either alternative.
Similarly, time must have a stop. And if it does, what happens then?
Another theory says that if we could fly fast enough away from our galaxy in a straight line, we would arrive back where we started. This model of the universe loops back on itself like a donut. Then what is outside the donut? Impossible again.
Back to the expanding balloon.
It was a singularity, we are told. An instant explosion from nothing.
But how can something come from nothing?
Enter the 'multiverse'. This is pictured as a series of soap bubbles. Bubbles forming from bubbles. And our universe is just one of these bubbles. Where, then, did the other bubbles come from? This explanation simply moves the process back one step. In other words, it is as sophisticated as 'turtles all the way down'.
An alternative is the 'many worlds' theory which considers the branching possibilities of all actions. It's where every possible outcome of a quantum event exists in its own universe. You may therefore exist in many duplicate worlds all superimposed in the same physical space but evolving independently. In some you will be successful and rich. In others, destitute and ailing.
By the way, parallel universes are not a theory but predictions of other theories. For some theorists, then, they are inevitable — the only conclusion that makes sense.
The universe is impossible. We live in a miracle and think it normal.
Then there is the riddle of life. Where did it come from and how is it supported?
Let's tackle the second question first. The Strong Anthropic argument says that we live in a Goldilocks zone fine-tuned for life. It raises a question. Why is our universe so well suited to us? Because if any of the fundamental constants of it changed slightly, we wouldn't be here. Which brings us to 'supersymmetry', which proposes that every particle in the Standard Model has a massive 'shadow' partner with properties vastly different from the particles we have found. And that these particles are possibly the source of dark matter. Supersymmetry suggests that universes with a low degree of supersymmetry contain atoms, molecules and complex life. So, many universes might be habitable. And that absolves us from being so special. Of course, in the scale of time that comprises the lifetime of the sun, the entire duration of life on earth is an event as brief as a passing bird. On the smaller scale of our planet, we are invisible, immaterial nonentities with lifetimes a hundred times shorter than a spark.
But how did life appear? How did something living erupt from barren rocks, sands and chemicals? Biologists have puzzled over this for centuries. As cells are too complex to have formed all at once, it must have begun with just one component. So researchers have spent decades trying to get RNA to assemble or copy itself in the lab. It is like assembling a load of bricks and expecting them to morph into a house.
Did life emerge, then, fully formed? This seems even more unlikely but some are now reluctantly admitting that this explanation is increasingly more credible. It suggests that life didn't begin on earth at all but was delivered by meteorite from elsewhere in the universe. This still doesn’t explain its genesis — how it first appeared.
And what are we in all this mystery?
A person standing vertically on the earth?
Hold that thought for a moment. What is this 'person' composed of? We are a miniature universe, inhabited by ten times more bacteria than we have cells. And our billions of cells comprise trillions of molecules and a staggering number of atoms. An atom itself is primarily empty space because between its particles are huge distances. So, on the quantum level, we do not even exist. Then there are quarks, leptons, hadrons and a zoo of other unlikely entities with existences so brief that our instruments can barely measure them.
On the quantum scale, matter does not subsist in a deterministic form but rather as a collection of uncertainties. The Copenhagen Interpretation asserts that quantum systems exist in a probabilistic limbo until observed. And only when observed do they attain a definite state. This is termed 'superposition'.
Superposition is now challenged by 'quantum entanglement' or particles related at a distance. If you have one entangled photon or electron on earth and its equivalent on the moon, their spin factors switch instantaneously. In other words, faster than light speed — which, incidentally, is 186,000 miles per second. But as nothing travels faster than light, this is clearly impossible.
How could two such particles, separated by 250,000 miles instantly communicate? But they do. It's called the EPR Paradox, and will become the basis of quantum cryptography.
This demonstrates the non-locality of the physical world. It means that the universe is interconnected, interdependent and inseparable. Take this illogical statement just a little further and you have 'moment eternity'. Everything that ever was, and will be, exists and is connected in this present moment.
A parallel here in scripture: 'Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.'
Then there is String Theory which calculates that the universe has ten dimensions of space and one of time and allows for a number of possible universes, each with different physical laws. Why time? Because space and time, according to the Special Theory Of Relativity, dissolve into one entity. One physicist equates mass to the fifth dimension. This makes the big bang an illusion. But string theory is the neatest mathematical paradigm for uniting general relativity with quantum mechanics. It is an attempt at a 'theory of everything' and suggests that all possible universes actually exist.
And will they exist for ever. Or will a big crunch collapse them back into the void?
Curiouser and curiouser!
We are less than nothing and know nothing. And live in a gigantic miracle that is incomprehensible, inexplicable, unfathomable.
The strangest thing of all?
Most of us don't even think about it.
A last word on the subject from Hui-neng: 'From the first, not a thing is.'