Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

The Bill Arrives for Cosmology’s Free Lunch

sternwaiter.jpgID theorists say that information is the foundation of the universe. Others say matter is. Our choice of who to believe will shape our future. First, suppose the materialists are right. If materialism (naturalism) is simply true, because everything comes down to matter in the end, what future might we expect?
Stephen Hawking insists in a recent interview that “Science will win.” If we take his current non-realist views seriously, science as we have known it is finished and there is nothing to win. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everything shuts down. Some projects will continue as if immortal whereas others will change beyond recognition.
SETI will do just fine. Supporters know “They’re still out there.” Cut loose from NASA, the organization languished for a while, but now gets by on local and private funding. Raising emergency funds in 2011, it exhorted the faithful (July 17):

What if an alien intelligence is calling us from a distant planet and we have the phone off the hook? What if one (or more!) of the Kepler worlds recently discovered are emitting signals RIGHT NOW and we aren’t listening?

Would such an intelligence not think to leave a message or call back?
If so, it will be much reassured. UFO seekers assailed the White House earlier that very year, demanding disclosure of the United States’s government’s hidden aliens. On being informed that there aren’t any, they vowed to continue campaigning. A top Russian astronomer claims we may expect to encounter alien civilizations within twenty years. Why? Because “The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms.”
But in a telling irony, SETI’s search is ultimately superfluous. As we have seen, the Copernican Principle asserts by fiat that the aliens are out there, both in this and other universes. Not only is resistance useless but, as the White House has discovered, denials are futile.
NASA, by contrast, is on “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.” Exploration budgets have taken a hit. Neil Armstrong died in 2012, aged 82. Some propose a National Park on the Moon, to protect the artifacts of that bygone era. But as science fiction writer Terry L. Mirll notes, we haven’t been to the moon in forty years.
The agency has been directed instead by the White House to reach out to Muslims and make them feel good about their historic contributions to science. But making history, not recounting history, is the core NASA competency. No surprise, space veterans complain of “lack of any coherent leadership from Washington.” And astronaut commanders have warned of “a long downhill slide to mediocrity,” insisting that “America must decide if it wishes to remain a leader in space.” Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin believes the space agency has lost its way.
Has it lost its way? Or has it simply been redirected to the new way? NASA’s historic exploration of conventional “space” made sense in an age when the astronauts read Genesis while floating out there. But the agency could be a liability if its research continues to support the Big Bang or fine-tuning. We now live in an age when grand cosmic speculation about unresearchable multiverses satisfies our thinkers — and not only makes NASA’s real-world exploits look quaint but even renders Star Trek‘s “Boldly go.” pointless. Not to worry, China and India, hardly energetic contributors to new atheist cosmologies, are picking up the slack anyway, with China aiming for a manned moon mission …
At this point, a waiter discreetly approaches, carrying a narrow, classy black folder with a single piece of paper inside. It seems there has been a mistake. There is a bill for Alan Guth’s free lunch.
But must we all pay it? New Scientist‘s Amanda Gefter, perceiving something amiss, asks a question, “How can physical laws exist outside of space and time and without a cause of their own?” As it happens, the question is deeper than any answer she receives from the materialist cosmologists she consults.
Now let us suppose that the ID theorists are right, that the underlying substance of the universe is information. Just as information is measured in different ways from matter or energy (bits and bytes vs. kilograms and joules), information theory is a different way of thinking. It prompts different queries.
For example, the very nature of Gefter’s question changes. In a mindless, material universe, she seeks to explain laws away. However, if information underlies the universe, the physical laws are most likely information that need not and probably cannot be explained away.
Information-based explanations are not reductive. One seeks the right level of information to answer a question, not the lowest level as a matter of principle (because the needed information might not even be at the lowest level). If an information approach is adopted, our way of looking at key questions in cosmology undergoes a radical shift. As such shifts are apt to do, it may well shape a different future.
Editor’s note: Here is the “Science Fictions” series to date at your fingertips.
Photo source: MyTangerineDreams/Flickr.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.