Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cosmic Symmetry

Fundamentalists instinctively distrust scientific symmetry.

Christian Fundamentalists, by definition, believe they have a very direct connection with the Divine. Consequently they are very sure of their respective spiritual positions, positions which will be based on some blend of gnosis and Biblical legalism. Convinced of the divine authority of their own opinions they will presume to speak in the name of the Almighty, readily condemning those they perceive to be heretics. They are likely to feel uncomfortable with Harries Formula “Meaning = Text + Context”, because for them divine meaning is unambiguous and clear, demanding little in the way of interpretative context, a context which in any case they will probably identify as a corrupting influence. (And yet they themselves must make use of contextual resources in order to interpret texts!) For fundamentalists “compromise” is a dirty word and consequently when fundamentalists holding conflicting versions of “revelation” meet it is a meeting of the irresistible force and the immoveable object; the subsequent contention can be short, sharp and acrimonious.

The kind of altercation I speak of is exemplified in my “Fundamentalist Argument Clinic” series which I showcased on my Views, News and Pews blog (see here, here and here). However, fascinating as it is, this classic meeting of opposing fundamentalist minds is not what I want to focus on here. I actually would like to draw attention to the following comments by one of the contributors, “Geocentric Believer” (=GB). Viz:

Copernicanism is as evil as Darwinism. In fact Darwinism is just another type of Copernicanism applied to the animal Kingdom, making man insignificant, just like Copernicanism does. Copernicanism came before Darwinism and is the thin end of the wedge that takes us away from the Word of God. If you believe in Copernicanism you are compromising the clear Word of God.
As I keep trying to tell you g.s. Darwinism is linked to Copernicanism. In belittling God's created Earth Copernicanism paved the way for Darwinism.
Copernicanism came first. It demoted God's place for the Earth by removing it from the spatial origin of His Creation, just as the claimed billions of years removed the Earth from the temporal origin of Creation. Copernicanism paved the way for an Old Earth and Darwinism.
Copernicanism set us up for all this rot about us being just an accident in a remote and obscure corner of the universe with no special status to protect us from apocalyptic meteor impacts. And g.s. foolishly thinks it's unimportant.

There is a theme here that leads us into very deep waters indeed.

The advance of science has been marked by the progressive discovery of what may be referred to as “symmetries”. The symmetry I have in mind is of the mathematical kind; that is, the sort of object where operations like rotation, motion, displacement, and reflection etc. leave the object unchanged. For example, if you rotate a perfect circle by any number of degrees it remains exactly the same; it is infinitely symmetrical with respect to rotation. Roughly speaking I suppose “symmetry” translates as “sameness”. It is this concept of “sameness” that, I think, is at the bottom of GB’s deep theological misgivings about Copernicus.

You see, when Galileo famously and abrasively argued for Copernicanism he was endorsing a form of symmetry - the Earth now became “symmetrical” with respect to the other planets; it lost its special central place and became “just another planet”. Moreover, by the days of Newton gone was the planetary quintessence and the music of the spheres, to be replaced by a solar system described using very Earthy laws. Copernicanism, then, could be thought of as the thin end of the wedge of what is now the accepted history of intellectual progress: The Earth became just another planet. The Sun became just another star. The Solar System became just another solar system. The Galaxy become just another galaxy. And so on right up to the “Perfect Cosmological Principle” touted by Fred Hoyle, a principle stating that the universe looks everywhere the same in space and time. Hoyle’s ideas seemed at first to conflict with Big Bang Theory, but the essential concept behind the Perfect Cosmological Principle has since been revived in the eternal chaotic inflation theory, a theory I mentioned in my last blog post on middlebrow atheism. (see here) Moreover, what GB refers to as “Darwinism” can be construed as yet another theoretical imposition of a bland symmetry on the universe: In the evolutionary context Man is no longer seen as a vitalistic being but just another evolved configuration of matter, and who knows what other evolutions have taken place on other planets, thus making Earth just another pretty nondescript location even from a biological stand point. It is this progressive demotion of the once pinnacle of creation which, I submit, worries GB, a demotion which he expresses as “… making man insignificant, belittling God's created Earth with no special status

In my last Middlebrow Atheism post I mentioned an even more extreme form of symmetry – that is, the disposing of all laws of physics and assigning probability as uniformly (in other words, symetrically) as possible over the whole configurational domain; in this cosmos of maximum disorder the laws of physics are purely a chance effect. This comprehensive super-universe is only topped by Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis: As the MUH Wiki page says: Tegmark has… formulated the 'Ultimate ensemble theory of everything', whose only postulate is that 'all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically' . Tegmark’s proposal is an attempt to get away from any idea that only one platonic construction (namely, our own cosmos) has been specially singled out amongst all the platonic possibilities and selected for reification by an unknown choosing agent, an agent that theists readily identify with deity. In Tegmark's super-universe, no mathematical structure has a preferred status; that is, they all have the same ontological status.

Science’s Law and Disorder paradigm cannot provide an answer to the age old question of why there is something rather than nothing, and without getting into a “turtles all the way down” regress, science ultimately goes little deeper than succinct description. A theist therefore might find the sheer existence of the universe meaningful, whatever its scientifically described configuration may be. On other hand, for atheists, brute existence is a poor proof of God and the ultimate meaninglessness of the cosmos is likely to be argued for using one these hyper-symmetric cosmic models where the probability spectrum is as uniform and bland as possible, with no outcomes appearing to be specially weighted. Our theological intuitions tells us that deity is unlikely to create an apparently meaningless universe like this. Those intuitions prefer the idea that a very particular cosmic configuration, amongst all the possible configurations, has been singled out by God, thus giving our cosmos special meaning. Set against the hyper-symmetric super-universes there seems to be an implicit theological expectation that God would create a highly asymmetrical universe, and especially a very singular universe that favours life. To GB’s instincts, then, the Copernican cosmos was the start of the slippery slope leading down to the symmetrical trivialisation of God’s pinnacle of creation of man and his immediate setting.

The fundamentalist finds himself fighting a rearguard action against science’s progress toward symmetry. GB and geocentrists like him are attempting to go back to a time before they see things starting to go wrong; back to pre-Copernicanism, in other words. There is, in fact, overwhelming evidence that our universe is fundamentally highly asymmetrical: In a universe where probabilities are symmetrically distributed, the persistence of order that we see in our own very particular cosmos is extremely improbable. Therefore it follows that our kind of ordered universe does have a special weighting. But this abstruse point is unlikely to cut much ice with the no-nonsense Christian fundamentalist who much prefers a cosmos more obviously punctuated with the asymmetries of an unambiguous creative fiat closer to home; so close to home, in fact, that according to GB it is right under our feet as we stand at the centre of a universe that rotates around the Earth in a single day!

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