Light Summer Reading

September 2, 2010

Update:  In one of life’s little coincidences, this article was posted about six hours after I posted my blog: http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/09/02/hawking.god.universe/index.html?eref=mrss_igoogle_cnn

After having finished the massive tomes that are Lincoln and Jefferson Davis I decided to take a bit of a break from the Presidents before heading into the Reconstruction era, which fortunately, are largely downhill until you get to Roosevelt.  I decided to shift my focus back to science-themed books, so I went to Amazon and bought a bunch of books on theoretical physics and quantum mechanics.  The first one, A Hole in Texas by Herman Wouk, is a fictional story about the search for the Higgs Boson, which theoretically is an elementary particle that bestows mass upon other particles.  They didn’t find it but they had a jolly good time looking for it.  All in all, a very enjoyable read.  The second one, Absolutely Small by Michael Fayer, was a sort of dummies guide to quantum mechanics.  It started off strong but then became more of a book on quantum chemistry, which is a bit more into the weeds than I cared to go, but it pulled it out near the end.  The third, which I just finished, is the one I want to focus on because I thought it to be near-complete crap.  It’s called, A Purpose Guided Universe:  Believing in Einstein, Darwin, and God by Bernard Haisch.

The purpose of the book (aside from advertising for his other book, The God Theory) is to show that you can believe in a divine entity and still buy into evolution and physics, that rather than being separate and competing ideas, they are all connected and together reveal the true nature of our existence.  First, a couple points of clarification:

1.  When the author says ‘God’ he does not mean the God of any organized religion, all of which he flat out rejects as political organizations that claim divine status to justify their actions.

2.  While all organized religions are inherently flawed, there are certain aspects to them that are common and that together make up what is referred to as the ‘Perennial Philosophy.’

I’m not going to go into an explanation of all the points he brings up (because there are a lot and I’m not getting paid for this review).  Instead, I’ll focus on the two that I thought to be the most glaring.  Here are my main points of contention:

1.  Reality must be observed in order to exist; therefore, there is an underlying consciousness to the universe that ‘observed us into existence.’

2.  The Universe must have purpose, because if the Universe has no purpose, then we have no purpose.

Before we begin, just to be clear, my stating that I think the author is nearly full of crap does not mean I don’t believe in any sort of divine aspects to life, I’m simply saying I don’t buy the theory he puts forth.

1.  Reality must be observed in order to exist; therefore, there is an underlying consciousness to the universe that ‘observed us into existence.’

As evidence of the claim that the Universe requires conscious thought in order to exist the author points to various quantum experiments, which I will very likely fail to adequately explain, as proof that consciousness is required for reality to be created.  The basic gist is this:  At the quantum level, particles are so small that any attempt to measure (observing counts as measuring) inherently changes the fundamental nature of that particle.  This is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle:  You can never know both the position and velocity of a particle because the act of observing one fundamentally changes the other.  To steal an analogy from another book called The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (I think, it’s been awhile) imagine trying to measure the temperature of a turkey:  You take the metal thermometer and stick it in the turkey, but the act of introducing the thermometer inherently changes the temperature of the turkey by absorbing some of the turkey’s heat.  However, because the turkey is a large object the resulting temperature change is so negligible that no one cares.  Now imagine trying to ‘take the temperature’ of a particle:  The particle is so small (How small is it?  Absolutely small!) that it is impossible to get an accurate measurement without disturbing the thing you are trying to measure to the point where it completely throws off the measurement.  Imagine putting a thermometer into the turkey and the result is the turkey becomes frozen again.  To put this in quantum terms, the act of observing the position of a particle fundamentally changes the velocity, and the act of measuring the velocity fundamentally changes the position.  As a result, you can either know the position or the velocity of a particle, but never both.

The second underlying quantum rule behind premise one is the idea of the superpositional state.  A superpositional state is a purely quantum phenomena that has no correlation in the macro world.  A superpositional state is where a particle exists in every possible state that it can exist in all at once.  It’s as if you were driving and came to a fork in the road where you could go left or right.  In the macro world, you can only choose to go one direction, left or right, but in the quantum world you actually can choose to go both left and right at the exact same time.  You are not becoming two different people, you are not doing one then the other, you are doing both at the exact same time.  As I said, there is no macro level example of a superpositional state.  Here’s the kicker:  A particle will exist in a superpositional state, that is, it is all possible things at once, until it is observed.  Once a superpositional particle is observed, it ceases to exist in a superpositional state and now is forced into one of it’s possible states.  Going back to the driving analogy, if someone where to observe you approaching the fork in the road, you would have no choice but to go left or right as the act of being observed forces you out of a superpositional state and into a single one.  To paraphrase Haisch, the act of observing creates reality.  Strangely enough, neither the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle nor the idea of a superpositional state is challenged, as both are central tenants of quantum theory and have been demonstrated via experiments.  (Google Schrödinger’s Cat or the photon interference pattern)  It’s what Haisch infers from these experiments that forces me to throw the red flag.

Haisch uses the idea that observing a particle in a superpositional state forces that particle to choose a single existence as evidence that there is a guiding consciousness to the universe, because, without someone to observe things at the quantum level, the actions of which serve as the foundation for all events at the macro level, the entire universe would exist in a superpositional state and life as we know it would not exist.  This observer is what Haisch refers to as God.  To put it mildly (and with a bit of pop humor) this is a huge quantum leap.  It’s one thing to cite experiments demonstrating that the act of observing quantum particles forces those particles to exist, and that therefore free will exists and is a fundamental requirement for life, but it’s another to claim that the whole universe started because it was ‘observed’ into existence, and that that observer is god.  For one thing, it assumes that the observer is empirical, that is, self-evident, and is in essence the real world manifestation of Aristotle’s unmoving mover:  The observer has always existed and always will, otherwise one can simply ask, ‘who observed the observer.’  This is a very old philosophical question and Haisch tries to get around it by simply claiming that the observer has always existed and is not bound by the laws of time and space that govern our universe.  The only problem?  There is no evidence, and it becomes a matter of faith, which is where Haisch looses me.  For a man who claims to believe in the validity of evolution and quantum theory, to simply accept that the universe was observed into being by an empirical observer is a huge leap of faith, which is ultimately his point:  That one can accept the validity of science and also have faith, but only in the type of god he proposes.  Without any evidence to support this view, there is no more reason to believe in Haisch’s faith than any other, and in fact he becomes victim to the same logic he uses to attack other religions:  That because of the competing claims and lack of evidence, no one religion is right, and therefore they are all wrong.  Haisch, despite the evidence he presents through quantum experiments, has no proof to demonstrate the validity of the leap he makes from quantum theory to a conscious universe that was observed into being by an empirical observer, and therefore his faith is no more valid than those of any other religion.

2.  The Universe must have purpose, because if the Universe has no purpose, then we have no purpose.

While logically this may be valid, there is no reason to accept that if the universe has no purpose that we have no purpose.  Perhaps the ability to create purpose out of nothing is what makes us human and is evidence that the only divine aspects to life are the ones we create within ourselves.  Perhaps the idea of caring for others despite the lack of a fundamental reason is what truly constitutes altruism.  Which do you respect more:  A person who helps others in hopes of divine reward or out of fear of divine punishment, or the person who helps others out of the goodness of their own heart?  Perhaps accepting that the Universe is without purpose but treating others fairly nonetheless is how we, as products of a cold, purposeless, dark universe, can create our own light, and in doing so, achieve a higher state of being.

As I said, there’s a lot going on in Haisch’s book, most of which I take issue with not because I flat out reject any effort to explain the divine, but because there is no evidence to support the fundamental premises that underpin the rest of his theory.  Perhaps the fourth book I purchased, The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion, also by Herman Wouk, will offer a more satisfying explanation of our existence.  We’ll find out soon enough!


One comment

  1. Morality. Find the source and you’ll find God. (I’ll start looking for it as soon as I find El Dorado.)

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