It Strangely Points Where Materialists Dare Not Boldly Go
In the age of disenchantment it is unthinkable to imagine the universe as anything but a physical product of unintelligent processes. The person who suggests otherwise will find himself disqualified from the smart set for committing the unpardonable sin of invoking the "God of the Gaps." Yet those who snub him as a benighted fundamentalist trapped in the "demon-haunted world" of superstition are themselves fundamentalists trapped in their "skyless" world of materialism.
In materialism there is no supernatural—no spirit, no soul, no angels, no heaven, no God. There is only nature: the cosmic matrix of matter and energy operating according to physical laws. On the surface of things, this would seem to be correct.
Matter and energy are the stuff of everyday experience: we fiddle on iPads, plant gardens, drive cars, and marvel at stars; we struggle against an unseen force as we climb the stairs; we are stung by a hidden power after touching a light switch with cold, dry hands; and an invisible, intangible force guides our compass needle to true north.
But what are these things, really? These things of matter and energy? What do we even mean by a "material" world?
As I write this, I am sitting at a desk that supports the weight of a computer, a printer, some peripheral gadgets, and a pile of reference books. The desk is made of composite wood, with an appearance and feel that lead me to believe it is solid. After all, wood is composed of chemical compounds, which are made up of atoms, which are rock-solid, right? Well.
Consider one of the carbon atoms in the wood of my desk. It has a compact nucleus of six protons and six neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of six electrons. Although the physical size of the atom is infinitesimal, the relative distance between the nucleus and the outer edge of the electron cloud is enormous—think of our Solar System, but on a microcosmic scale.
The Solar System contains a huge amount of material in the sun, planets, and interplanetary media, yet physical matter makes up less than one part in a trillion of its volume. With all of that empty space, we could characterize the Solar System as a gigantic vacuum that contains a few impurities.
Similarly, each of the gazillion atoms in my desk is a tiny "impure" vacuum that mysteriously gives rise to our perceptions of color, texture, and hardness. Yet that is only the tip of material world weirdness.
The Not So "Clockwork" Universe
In 1689 Isaac Newton provided both a physical explanation of and a predictive tool for planetary motion. His brilliant formulations enabled investigators to determine the precise movements of everything from falling apples to rotating galaxies. They triggered belief in the "clockwork universe," in which the outcome of any physical event could be determined once all the initial conditions and forces involved were ascertained.
Centuries later, researchers peered deep into the clock's interior and found that its mechanisms were not as well-defined as Newton had led them to believe. In fact, they were downright fuzzy.
For instance, if I try to determine the movement of one of the electrons in my wooden desk, I will find that I can measure either the electron's position or its velocity, but not both. Unlike the Earth's orbit, which can be precisely determined, the flight path of an electron, as well as its whereabouts between any two measurements, is unknowable. While it may be tempting to say that this indeterminableness is merely due to the limitations of my experimental equipment and method, it turns out to be a fundamental feature of the subatomic world. But there's more.
The Quantum Potential
We know from experience that when an object, like a car, absorbs energy by crashing into another object, it suffers damage. If I want my car repaired, I don't just let it sit and expect it to return to its original condition by itself. Rather, I take it to a body shop, where it will be restored by the skillful hands of trained technicians. And yet, when one of my desk's atoms gets damaged from bumping into one of its neighbors, it quickly returns to its original condition, all on its own. This is very strange.
Equally strange is the phenomenon of the electrons' "orbit." Unlike the Earth, whose orbit is slowly spiraling toward the sun, the electrons in an atom are held in fixed regions. But the real mystery is why, given its positively charged nucleus and negatively charged electrons, the atom doesn't quickly self-destruct. In fact, according to the laws of electrodynamics, atomic annihilation should occur in less than a microsecond.
The stability—indeed, the very existence—of the atom suggests something supra-natural. But since the materialistic worldview does not allow for that, its adherents were challenged to discover a mechanism by which atomic stability could be maintained. However, instead of making a discovery, they settled for coming up with a term, "quantum confinement," which is a scientific label describing, rather than explaining, the phenomenon.
What they did discover, albeit reluctantly, is that quantum weirdness arises because subatomic particles do not even exist in any objective sense. Rather, they are observer-dependent products resulting from our disturbance of—another descriptive construct, giving the impression of explanation—the "quantum potential."
But get this: the quantum potential is neither matter nor energy; rather, as its name implies, it is "potentiality"—an invisible substrate that permeates the whole cosmos and provides the potential for being. Thus, when physicists talk about an electron, what they are really talking about is an existential abstraction described by mathematical formulae and probability functions. As quantum theory pioneer Werner Heisenberg once wrote, "elementary particles . . . form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things and facts."1
So despite all appearances, my desk is a vacuous object that materializes into the sensible properties of color, rigidity, texture, and mass from physical perturbations of the quantum potential—the materialistic mysterium credited with everything from keeping the atoms of my desk intact to Creation itself.
According to the current models of cosmogenesis, the entire contents of the universe popped into being from a freakish fluctuation of the quantum potential, making it the source of all things. But it is the end of all things as well.
As some theories suggest, gravitational attraction will eventually overcome cosmic expansion until the whole universe is squashed back down to a quantum-sized nugget of pure potential—an Alpha and Omega, as it were.
Let's see; the quantum potential is immaterial, omnipresent, omnipotent, eternal, and the ground of all being. It sounds a lot like the One who announced, "I AM," from a flaming bush on an ancient mountain.
The Problem of Cosmic Authority
Over 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Anaximander posited an eternal, ubiquitous substance he called the "apeiron." Like the quantum potential, this apeiron was thought to be the fount of all reality.
In the 25 centuries since Anaximander, we have come no closer than he did to gaining a fundamental understanding of this mysterious substance. Now, as then, questions remain as to where it came from, what fuels it, and why its creative ability is limitless. Is the quantum potential even a "something" in the materialistic sense?
Those under the spell of materialism will answer yes, because any gap in their understanding of nature must be plugged with physical mortar. But since their "mortar" is neither matter nor energy, it is not physical. And because of its numinous nature, it cannot be observed. Rather, it must be inferred from its influence on what is observable.
For the materialist, the quantum potential functions like God, except that it neither communicates nor obligates moral duty. And that is the point. For if God—the non-contingent, personal Creator of the universe—exists, the materialist is not the morally autonomous happenstance he imagines himself to be; he's a special creation, a being who will one day stand before his Maker. And that, as NYU law professor and self-described atheist Thomas Nagel puts it, is the "cosmic authority problem":
It isn't just that I don't believe in God. . . . I hope there is no God. . . . I don't want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and is responsible for . . . the overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.2
Nagel, who himself is not a strict materialist, lets on that materialism is a belief system grounded, not in a rational examination of how the world is, but in a non-rational sensibility of how a person feels the world should be. The conflict arises because, as Heisenberg explained, "The ontology of materialism rest[s] on the illusion that . . . existence, the direct 'actuality' of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range"3 (emphasis added).
That leaves materialists to explain the unexplainable, absent the Cosmic Authority, with a stranger-than-fiction narrative in which everything comes from nothing through lofty labels and clever constructs.Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and physicist, a Colson Center fellow, and a Christian commentator on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters, available at Amazon.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #44, Spring 2018 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo44/the-unthinkable-universe