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Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

Why are so many scientists atheists? Part I: The multiverse

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A PERSONAL INTRODUCTION

Let me state at the outset that I am not a rabbi, a talmid chacham [religious scholar], or a Jewish studies educator. I am just a baal teshuvah physicist who is troubled by the fact that so many scientists are actively hostile to religion. The following is an example: Many years after allowing my subscription to Scientific American to lapse, about a decade ago I decided to take it up again. Imagine my surprise when I found that the periodical that had been strictly about science in the 1970s, and whose one monthly column was Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Recreations, had become highly politicized on one side of the spectrum. Even worse, it had added several regular columns toward the front of the issue that essentially took turns bashing religion. In particular, one of their columnists, a prominent scientist of Jewish heritage, in a magazine interview described Judaism as “ridiculous.” Furthermore, in the pages of Scientific American I learned that the world’s most famous physicist, Dr. Steven Hawking, had pronounced that the Universe had created itself.

Outraged, I sent an email to the editors entitled “Why I’m not renewing my subscription to Scientific American” which brought up the aforementioned points and suggested that Dr. Hawking contemplate why he had lived for such an extraordinarily long time with a form of ALS. The end result: Some days later I received an email message that my letter had been deleted without being read.

“SCIENTIFIC” ATHEISM

While this was admittedly one minor incident, I don’t believe it’s unfair to posit that many scientists apparently have a vested interest in denying the existence of G-d, just as Marxists have a vested belief in scientific socialism. (Not all scientists are irreligious, by any means; consider the members of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.)

We begin with some historical perspective, starting with the Enlightenment, which led so many people, including all too many Jews, to abandon religion. Louis Pollack, in his book Fingerprints on the Universe, summarized that era as follows: “The main doctrines upon which the Enlightenment rested were the beliefs that human reason could solve all problems and that the rights of the individual were supreme. Medieval society’s mainstay, the belief in an omnipotent God, was replaced by belief in the innate goodness of man. The most eminent of the Enlightenment philosophers, Immanuel Kant, proclaimed in his famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason, that man is endowed with an inner ‘moral law.’ This, Kant asserted, enabled man to do what is inherently good and to bring meaning to his life from ‘within himself,’ without reliance upon any ‘outside’ teaching or belief.” [p.22]

At about the same time, scientific disciplines emerged, which Mr. Pollack enumerated as:

Astronomy– to explain how the universe came into being

Evolution—to explain how man came into being

Psychology—to explain how man’s inner self functions

Physics—to explain how both the huge and the minute aspects of the universe operate.

Each branch of science claimed it could eventually explain reality and predict the future, which failed because it sought a physical reality, which is only a portion of total reality, and ignored spiritual reality. [pp. 23-24]

THE ROAD TO THE MULTIVERSE

The Greek philosopher Aristotle posited a static universe without beginning or end. His cosmology also asserted that the Earth was the center of the universe, which was eventually overturned by Copernicus in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, the concept of an eternally unchanging universe persisted into the twentieth century, as represented by Sir Fred Hoyle’s “steady state” model. On the other hand, the great physicist Sir Isaac believed in a Creator, specifically the “God of the Jews,” though he was himself an Anglican, based partly on his lifelong reliance on studying Maimonides’ interpretations of Judaism’s sacred writings. Other scientists and mathematicians, including Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes, also saw no contradiction in being religious believers.

Even in the 1930s, it was not uncommon for physicists such as the great astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington and Nobel Laureate Max Planck to speak of religion and spirituality. Nevertheless, when astronomer Edwin Hubble published evidence that the universe, far from being static, was expanding at more than one hundred million miles per hour in all directions, and the farther away the galaxies, the greater their speed, many physicists and astronomers reacted negatively because Hubble’s discovery established that the universe, space, and time originated in a white-hot explosion of unimaginable force and energy in a single instant of time, hence all celestial bodies had a common source.  Further support for Hubble’s discovery came in 1965, when Bell Laboratories’ radio-astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson found constant, uniform background radiation throughout the universe which they interpreted as radiation left over from the initial “Big Bang.”

Professor Robert Jastrow, in his book God and the Astronomers, notes that many astrophysicists opposed the Big Bang because it was consistent with the Biblical account of Creation. To concede that the universe was created in a single instant of time would be, as Lois Pollack described it, “… tantamount to scientific apostasy.” [Pollack, p.28]

Mr. Pollack’s use of the term “apostasy” was remarkably prescient. For many members of the educated elite, faith in science has developed into an alternative religion.

Meanwhile, evidence supporting creation increased. Soon after the Big Bang theory became widely accepted, scientists found that if any of the basic physical constants were changed, ever so slightly, life could not exist. Writing in Discovery, Tim Folger explained: “The idea that the universe was made just for us—known as the anthropic principle—debuted in 1973 when Brandon Carter, then a physicist at Cambridge University…proposed that a purely random assortment of laws would have left the universe dead and dark, and that life limits the values that physical constants can have. …Carter proposed two interpretations of the anthropic principle. The ‘weak’ anthropic principle simply says that we are living in a special time and place in the universe where life is possible. Life couldn’t have survived in the very early universe before stars formed, so the universe had to have reached a certain age and stage of evolution before life could arise.

“The ‘strong’ anthropic principle makes a much bolder statement. It asserts that the laws of physics themselves are biased toward life. To quote Freeman Dyson, a renowned physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the strong anthropic principle implies that ‘the universe knew we were coming.’”

Many scientists were able to live with the weak version, but the strong version smacked too much of Divine Creation. How could they get around it?

The answer came from pondering a question about the Big Bang: “How could different regions of the universe, separated by such enormous distances, all have the same temperature?” In 1980 Alan Guth and Andre Linde proposed that the universe expanded enormously in the first instants after the Big Bang, a phenomenon called inflation, which became widely accepted as the standard version of the Big Bang theory. In this theory, regions of the universe that are currently separated by many billions of light-years were once close enough to each other that they could exchange heat and reach the same temperature before the expansion.

The larger question was to find a physical mechanism by which the Big Bang produced the universe. It came from an unlikely source. Quantum theory holds that the vacuum can produce matter from quantum fluctuations, though anything larger than elementary particles is unlikely. Nevertheless, in 1973 an assistant professor at Columbia University named Edward Tryon, in a paper titled “Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?” proposed that our universe came into being as a massive random fluctuation. Initially physicists scoffed at the idea that such a fluctuation above the quantum level could occur, until a Russian émigré physicist at Tufts University, Alexander Vilenkin, proposed that an entire universe comprising matter and energy, space and time, really could spring from nothing. He then speculated that there could be many proto-universes could be popping into existence all the time. The great majority of these universes would instantly annihilate themselves out, as virtual particles do. Eventually one of those universes would have sufficient energy to survive long enough to instantly expand by a big bang.

Guth and Vilenkin then concluded that the positive energy of all matter in the universe could be precisely counterbalanced by the negative energy of all the gravity in the universe. (Einstein’s theory of general relativity entails the gravitational field having negative energy.) In fact, calculations based on the observable universe arrive at the result that all matter plus all gravity equals zero. So the universe could come from nothing because it is, fundamentally, nothing.” [Italics mine]

The foregoing model, if true, provides justification for Stephen Hawking’s statement that the Universe created itself. What a remarkable combination – affirming both creation ex nihilo and ultimate nihilism in the same sentence!

From there Linde and Vilenkin speculated that some universes could continue expanding and creating other universes, giving rise to what they call “the eternally existing, self-reproducing inflationary universe.” Linde has subsequently refined that idea, showing that each new universe is likely to have laws of physics that are completely different from our own, thus supporting the [weak] anthropic principle. With such vast numbers of other universes, all with different properties, by chance at least one of them should have the right combination of conditions to bring forth stars, planets, and living things.”

In essence, Linde applied the randomness inherent in Darwinism to the entire universe, producing a theory that fits the Enlightenment doctrine.

So now we come to the crux of the matter, whether the existence of the universe requires the existence of G-d. The late Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg observed that while the multiverse theory isn’t definitive, in his view it negates one of the arguments for Divine creation. On the other hand, if there is no multiverse, where does that leave physicists? Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University of London, responded, “You might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.” [Italics mine]

So there we have it. The multiverse theory gives scientific atheists a way around the agreement of the Big Bang model with Biblical creation. Or does it? In part II of this post, we will explore the Jewish response to the multiverse.

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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