Atheistic Science Searches for Meaning in the Universe

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Theorizing about the origins of the universe doesn’t sound like a bad job. Nor is appearing on Science Channel’s Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, the History Channel’s The Universe, TedTalk, and Comedy Central’s former The Colbert Report. Meet Dr. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech and a cosmologist. Much like Neil Degrasse Tyson, with his uncanny ability to explain difficult physics, Dr. Carroll shares the same adaptability to engage people in the digital age. He has a silky radio voice, and ebullient passion for his work that is very captivating.

BTRtoday (BTR): Tell me about your work.

Dr. Sean Carroll (SC): I am theoretical physicist at CAL Tech. Mostly, I sit in front of my desk scribbling down equations and pictures trying to figure out the basic laws of physics and how they apply to our universe.Things like gravity, dark matter, the Big Bang, etc.

BTR: You make it sound simple, yet it’s not a small mission. What inspired you to publish the paper “Why Almost All Cosmologist Are Atheists?”

SC: I was invited to give a talk at a meeting on science and religion and I wrote the paper then.

BTR: In the paper you argue for a materialist viewpoint. What would you say to critics who’d argue it not fair to do away with beliefs derived from other non-scientific methods?

SC: That paper is a bit old. I recently wrote a whole book, “The Big Picture,” where I elaborate on these ideas, among many other things. In the book, I try to explain why things we associate with science–the techniques or living things–helps us in answering questions about the existence of God or the supernatural. Of course, it depends what you mean by supernatural; it could be so many things. But to the extent that we try to use God to help us understand parts of the universe we observe, that overlaps with what scientists try to do. And therefore in that regime the same techniques makes perfect sense to use.

BTR: Yourself and Jennifer Chen have published work that suggests the Big Bang did not originate in a singularity, but instead was one of many cosmic events.

SC: Our idea was that the Big Bang was not unique and instead a part of many such events. You could call it “many many bangs” so to speak. It’s an attempt to understand why the conditions near our Big Bang are so special. Many cosmologists are trying to face up to the fact that the conditions near our universe are not at all random. We proposed a model that our universe nucleates (pops out of) a preexisting universe and goes on its on way. It is our  attempt to explain why the universe started off small, dense, and rapidly expanding.

BTR: How can this model be tested?

SC: We have no strong way of knowing if this is true or not. It’s very speculative.There are many models on the market that investigate this idea. We build models that seem plausible and then we try to make them more respectable.

In our model, we are the first to suggest that there are guesses, conjectures and things we think might be true, but that we don’t know. The state of the theory itself is not nearly developed enough to put it through an experimental test. Making a prediction is a good first step.

BTR: Let’s go back to the discussion on religion. Why are there many scientists, outside of cosmology, who are religious?

SC: There are many reasons people are religions and they differ vastly. I wouldn’t want to speculate about the psychology behind it. It is true that religion is less common among cosmologists, mathematicians, and physicists than the average person in the country.

BTR: Stephen Hawking’s wave function law obviously contradicts the idea of supernatural causation, and thus a God. Despite his popularity, why don’t his ideas take hold in larger society?

SC: These ideas are actually taking hold, but very slowly. In general, atheists aren’t very trusted. In the U.S., for example, it’s very hard to get elected president if you’re an atheist. I think it takes time and discussions for people to get used to an idea. Parts of Europe, for example, are becoming atheist. I was in Austria at a public school and there were crosses hanging on the wall. I asked the students about the crosses and they had no idea what it meant, it was simply a part of their culture and not their lifestyles.

BTR: The fine tuning of the universe, the idea that if anything were slightly out of order, there wouldn’t be a possibility for life on earth, is a big argument for supernatural causation. What are your thoughts?

SC: I actually did a lecture on fine tuning and I have so many thoughts on the subject. First, we don’t know that life can’t exist in our universe if the conditions were different, because we only know the universe that we see. In theism, God wouldn’t need a physical body for life to exists, only in naturalism would there be a need for certain physical restraints for life.

BTR: Tell me about your book, ”The Big Picture.”

SC: The subtitle is “On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and The Universe Itself.” The idea behind the book is to connect our best understanding of the underlying laws of nature to the world we experience in our everyday lives. I discuss the laws of physics, but also the origin of life, biology, consciousness, etc. I conclude the book with what it all means and if science gives us any guidance in these areas. When it comes to how to be a good person, I concluded it doesn’t.

BTR: Did you learn anything new while writing the book?

SC: I had the cosmology and physics part covered myself, but in areas like neuroscience and philosophy, I enlisted experts’ inputs. And they were very generous with their time. It was quite fascinating to see the particles in my brain moving around and generating a magnetic field, or to trace how the energy and sunlight ultimately comes into our bodies in the form of sugar and helps us bend our muscles. This is all fascinating stuff that I had the pleasure of learning about.

BTR: But quantum mechanism deals in randomness? And you’ve claimed the universe isn’t random?

SC: There’s no doubt when you have a quant mechanical system, like an atom or electron, and you predict what you will see when you look at it, that the answer is often given to you in a probability. For example, the atom is over here and the electron is over there. But is that randomness real and fundamental or is it just apparent? We don’t have the answer to it. I think it’s just apparent. If we knew what the universe as a whole is doing–there wouldn’t be randomness.

BTR: What are you most excited about in current cosmology?

SC: I am almost taking a step back from cosmology. The more I do in cosmology, the more convinced I am that we need to understand quantum mechanics. We’ve had it for a long time, but it’s just kind of embarrassing, because we don’t claim to understand it.

We simply don’t understand our own theory, which is weird in the history of physics. And we’ve been OK with it, and I don’t think we should be. However, we are making progress and before quantum mechanics gets to be 100 years old I’d like us to understand it.