In the midst of our ongoing discussion of the origin of the universe and the role that agent causal explanations might play in accounting for it, Joseph Palazzo (in his amiable, diplomatic way) made the following comment:
“BTW, do you understand what a singularity [is]? From the context of your post, it doesn’t look like [it]: all the matter of the universe squeezed into a single mathematical point with an infinite density is hardly something anyone with a sane mind would want to believe in.”
Ahh, yes. The final decisive retreat to what “sane minds” believe in. Why does Joseph think I don’t understand what a singularity is? Because I believe that the universe began in a singularity and nobody “with a sane mind” would believe such a thing.
Before proceeding to reflect on this revelation, let’s not miss the backhanded compliment. Joseph is predisposed to think I’m sane and thus that I must be misunderstanding something. Given my “glass is half full” approach to life, I’m inclined to begin with that fact.
However, I do understand what a singularity is, and I’m not insane (at least not for that fact). How could this be?
The problem lies not with me but rather with the deep irony of Joseph’s position. He has already explained that he is wearing the hat of a physicist in this conversation. And as a physicist he finds a singularity “insane”? Talk about ironic. For a physicist to refuse to consider a theory because it seems fantastical is like an ultimate fighter refusing to see a new movie because the MPAA rating warns of “scenes of violence”. Physics offers an endless parade of the fantastical. Crude makes the same point when he replied to Joseph:
“if there’s one thing physics in the past 100 years has told us, it’s that ideas which seem mind-boggling should be dismissed out of hand because that means they’re probably wrong!”
In fact, a journey back to the seventeenth century will find “Joseph incredulity” extended to Newton’s theory of gravity which trampled the good sense of sane minds that there is no action at a distance. And consider this find description of the fantastical law of the conservation of energy from David Bodanis:
“It’s as if when God created the universe, He had said, I’m going to put X amount of energy in this universe of mine. I will let stars grow and explode, and planets move in their orbits, and I will have people create great cities, and there will be battles that destroy those cities, and then I’ll let the survivors create new civilizations. There will be fires and horses and oxen pulling carts; there will be coal and steam engines and factories and even mighty locomotives. Yet throughout the whole sequence, even though the types of energy that people see will change, even though sometimes the energy will appear as the heat of human or animal muscle, and sometimes it will appear as the gushing of waterfalls or the explosions of volcanoes: despite all those variations, the total amount of energy will remain the same. The amount I created at the beginning will not change. There will not be one millionth part less than what was there at the start.
Expressed like this it sounds like the sheerest mumbo jumbo—Faraday’s religious vision of a single universe, with just one single force spreading all throughout it. It’s something like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description in Star Wars: “The Force is the energy field created by all living things; it binds the galaxy together.”
Yet it’s true! When you swing closed a cupboard door, even if it’s in the stillness of your home at night, energy will appear in the gliding movement of the door, but exactly that much energy was removed from your muscles. When the cupboard door finally closes, the energy of its movement won’t disappear, but will simply be relocated to the shuddering bump of the door against the cupboard, and to the heat produced by the grinding friction of the hinge. If you had to dig your feet slightly against the floor to keep from slipping when slowly closing the door, the earth will shift in its orbit and rebound upward by exactly the amount needed to balance that.” (E=MC2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, 19-20.)
Fastforward into the twentieth century and one finds an endless parade of the fantastical. Special and general relativity? Wave/particle duality? Quantum indeterminacy and quantum entanglement? Black holes? Worm holes with ten dimensions? Had Lewis Carroll based Wonderland on our world his publisher would have rejected the manuscript for being too crazy. So pardon me for being underwhelmed when Joseph avers that no sane mind would accept a singularity.
But this is not simply a matter of Joseph’s tendentious identification of what is, for him, inexcusably fantastic. It is also a manifestation of a difference in worldview. It is understandable that you could consider as many fantastical claims about things within the universe as you like and yet remain highly resistant to the notion that the universe as a whole might have begun in a singular event because singular events naturally suggest causes external to themselves. But what cause is external to the universe? As a Christian theist my metaphysic is not exhausted by the universe. I already accept the existence of an agent who can act volitionally to bring a universe into being so I do not have a prior plausibility structure in place that classifies a singularity as inadmissible.
Of course physicists who are not anxious to consider an agent cause of the universe are at work proposing other explanations. We have already noted one of them in this blog: the universe as an uncaused quantum fluctuation. This may strike me as grossly implausible, but I’m not ready to say no sane mind would countenance it. What a sane mind is prepared to countenance is shaped to a significant degree by what a sane mind already accepts.