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Review of The Hidden Face of God (2007)

Scott Oser and Niall Shanks

 

 Review: Gerald L. Schroeder. 2001. The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals The Ultimate Truth. New York: The Free Press. 224 pp.

Introduction (by Scott Oser)
Schroeder's Arguments from Physics and Cosmology (by Scott Oser)
     The Argument for a Metaphysical Cause of the Big Bang
     The Quantum Mechanical Argument for a Metaphysical Awareness in the Universe
     The Argument from Fine Tuning
Schroeder's Arguments from Biochemistry and Neuroscience (by Niall Shanks)
 

Introduction (by Scott Oser)

Gerald Schroeder's The Hidden Face of God is an intriguing book that claims to find scientific support for theism. Such books can run a whole gamut from young-earth creationism, which rejects most of modern biology and cosmology, to refined versions of intelligent design that accept the bulk of scientific research and indeed claim support for theism from these results. The Hidden Face of God (henceforth THFOG) definitely falls into the latter camp, and at times can read more like a popular science text than a theological tract.

Schroeder's background itself is partly responsible for the thoughtful tone and attitude that this book puts across, giving it more plausibility than other books on science and religion. This background is unusual both in its scientific and theological orientation. Unlike some authors of books on the subject of science and religion, Gerald Schroeder does possess a PhD in the physical sciences--namely, a degree in earth science from MIT. Indeed, his PhD thesis "Effect of applied pressures on the radon characteristics of an underground mine environment" and his MSc thesis "Determination of sodium in silicate minerals by neutron activation analysis" are available from the MIT library.

I was motivated to look up these theses by Schroeder's claim in THFOG to possess a PhD in "earth sciences and nuclear physics." This is an unusual combination, since earth sciences and nuclear physics are very disparate fields, and are generally funded through different agencies and reside in different academic departments. Having seen Schroeder's thesis topics, I think that what he means is that his degree is in earth science, but that he has applied some tools of radiochemistry in the course of his research. Personally, I would distinguish this sort of work sharply from "nuclear physics," which generally refers to the study of the properties of nuclei themselves. It's rather like the difference between a doctor who uses radioisotopes to diagnose or treat a disease, and a researcher who studies the properties of radioisotopes themselves.

The relevance here is that none of Schroeder's arguments in THFOG come from the earth sciences, and the few discussions of nuclear physics are far removed from the applications of nuclear physics that would be relevant for Schroeder's thesis work. In this sense throughout the book Schroeder is dealing with material and concepts from outside his field of academic training. While in many cases he speaks intelligently and correctly on these issues, as a well-informed scientist should, he cannot be said to be speaking as an expert, at least on the physics and astronomy content of THFOG, and as we shall see he makes a number of mistakes, especially in the interpretation of theory. (However, I must also add that Schroeder seems to claim some postgraduate training in biology and neuroscience that may be relevant to certain chapters in THFOG, although I could not determine the nature of this training or examine his credentials in these areas.)

The other aspect of Schroeder's viewpoint is his theological perspective. Schroeder never clearly states his religious affiliation in THFOG, but the strong preponderance of Old Testament quotations, repeated references to Jewish Kabala, and his family's current residence in Israel all strongly suggest that Schroeder is coming from a Jewish and not a Christian viewpoint. Although there were a couple of references to New Testament texts, this book is in no way a specifically Christian text, nor is it sectarian in any particular sense. It is possible that Schroeder is a Christian pitching his arguments to the "common ground" of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The generally nonsectarian nature of the arguments presented for theism makes for a stronger book than would have resulted from a more specific religious agenda. Nonetheless, Schroeder's theology strikes this nontheologian as somewhat unorthodox, and may be objectionable to some religious readers. You get a sense of this right in the Prologue when Schroeder places the blame for many conflicts between science and religion not on science, but on childlike naïve theology!

Even more disarming is Schroeder's up-front preemption of one objection to intelligent design, namely the problem of imperfect design. This problem asks why so many biological systems have seemingly flawed designs, if their designer was omnipotent and omniscient. (The poor muscular support of the human back is one notorious example.) Evolution avoids this problem, since solutions hit upon by evolution have no necessity of being perfect. Schroeder's tack is to point out that an "intelligent" design is not the same as a "perfect" design, and then to argue that the biblical god in fact makes and admits to plenty of mistakes! He starts out with:

Genesis claims that a single, eternal, omnipotent and incorporeal God created the universe. This would imply intelligent design on the level of the Divine, and yet from the Bible's view, the universe is far from perfect (p. 10).

Schroeder then describes how in the book of Genesis all of God's plans go awry, and in the end God regrets making man, floods the planet, and shortens the human lifespan from 900 to 90 years. He then goes on to note

What is important here is the biblical message being presented: that the original Divine design of the world was flawed, required Divine retuning, and the Tuner acknowledged this need (p. 10).

And finally:

If your image of God is based on a simplistic model of the Divine, don't expect that image to rest easily with the Bible's concept of God or with the real world (p. 11).

In Schroeder's view, God makes and admits to mistakes, but is still God. Therefore, in his view design flaws in biological systems could be the result of God's actions, and do not argue against intelligent design. While this atheist will be the first to agree that the character of God as portrayed in the Old Testament makes plenty of mistakes, this is honestly the first time that I have heard a theist make that case, and frankly I'm shocked. Unfortunately, Schroeder doesn't address whether this biblical view of an omnipotent God making design flaws is self-consistent. It would seem to be self-contradictory to me, and I strongly suspect that most theists would have a very hard time following Schroeder here. Clearly this is not your typical apologetic!
 

Schroeder's Arguments from Physics and Cosmology
(by Scott Oser)

In THFOG, Schroeder presents two main arguments from physics and cosmology for the truth of theism: a cosmological argument for a metaphysical cause of the Big Bang, and a quantum mechanical argument for a nonphysical awareness underlying the physical world. Also appearing is an implicit and not fully developed argument for the fine-tuning of the laws of physics by a creator. Let's explore these arguments in some detail.

The Argument for a Metaphysical Cause of the Big Bang

Schroeder doesn't beat around the bush in introducing an argument that the Big Bang had a metaphysical cause, for right on page 1 we hear:

The very fact and nature of existence, the finite aspects of the physical world we view about us, the limited nature of time, space, and matter from which we and all the universe are constructed, force upon us the unsettling reality that at some level there is the metaphysical. Some undefined whatever, transcendent of the physical, produced the physical? Atheist, agnostic, skeptic, and 'believer' all share the understanding that some metaphysical non-thing, metaphysical in the sense of being above or outside of the physical, must have preceded our universe or have our universe embedded in it. That much is a certainty (p. 1).

Before even bothering to defend this proposition, Schroeder ups the ante in the very next paragraph:

Just what are the expectations of how an infinite, incorporeal metaphysical creating force would be made manifest within the finite corporeality of the universe? (p. 2).

There is a certain sleight of hand here that should be brought into the daylight. Even if one agrees that 'some metaphysical nonbeing' must have preceded our universe (and I will argue that the science does not support this, nor do many atheists or agnostics accept this, in spite of what Schroeder says), there is no reason to conclude that this entity should be infinite. Later in the book we are encouraged to apply further predicates such as "spiritual," "conscious," and "wisdom" to this entity. This kind of "bait and switch" is common in many theistic apologetics. Very seldom if ever will a "scientific" argument directly point to a God of the biblical type. Instead, an argument is presented for some much more modest conclusion, such as "some metaphysical non-thing." Then, having supposedly established such a conclusion, traditional attributes of God, such as "infinite" or "wise," are grafted onto the argument as an afterthought with little justification.

Leaving behind such considerations, is Schroeder even correct in asserting that some metaphysical nonthing must have preceded our universe? His argument proceeds from the correct assertion that in the theory of general relativity, the Big Bang is not merely the beginning of the universe, but also the beginning of time:

The further philosophical problem of there having been a beginning arises with the idea that the beginning of our universe marks the beginning of time, space, and matter. Before our universe came into being, there is every scientific indication that time did not exist. Whatever brought the universe into existence must of course predate the universe, which in turn means that whatever brought the universe into existence must predate time. That which predates time is not bound by time. Not inside of time. In other words, it is eternal. If the laws of physics, or at least some aspect of the laws of physics, did the job of creation, those laws by necessity are eternal (p. 45).

In plainer language, the argument is that if time began with the Big Bang itself, as general relativity says it did, then whatever caused the Big Bang must exist outside of time. Clearly something that exists outside of time can't be physical--it can only be metaphysical. Hence there must be "some metaphysical non-thing," as Schroeder puts it, that caused the Big Bang.

There are several objections to this line of argument. One is implicit in Schroeder's own formulation, and it is puzzling that he doesn't seem to recognize any problem. The problem is that the very use of the phrase "predate time" is seemingly self-contradictory. If time itself starts with the Big Bang at t=0, then what does even mean to speak of something "predating" the Big Bang? For some event A to predate another event B, it must be the case that A occurred at some time t1, while B occurred at another time t2, with t1 < t2. Quite simply, the concept of "predate," and even the concept of "cause," makes no sense outside of the concept of time itself. For this reason, Schroeder's argument is incoherent as stated.

There are a couple of ways to get around this problem. One path is to deny that time started at the Big Bang. This requires some modification of general relativity, and we'll discuss this in more detail in a moment. The other way is to suppose that there was some precursor universe, with its own timeline and possibly different laws of physics, that gave rise to our current universe. At some time in the timeline of the precursor universe, our universe came into being, and our own time dimension began. Of course, this idea in no way forbids the possibility of a creator. (I sometimes find it amusing to imagine that our universe was created as the PhD thesis project of some physics graduate student in a precursor universe!) But it does undermine Schroeder's idea that the universe was caused by an eternal metaphysical thing outside of time. (Indeed, maybe in the timeline of the precursor universe my hypothetical graduate student who created our world has since graduated, grown old, and died--eternal indeed!) At some point it becomes a question of semantics whether the actions of a creating force in a different timeline than our own counts as "metaphysical" or not. I'd prefer to describe this kind of scenario in terms of the possibly different laws of physics operating in the precursor universe. What I hope is clear, however, is that phrases like "predate," "cause," and "action of a creator" presuppose the existence of some timelike dimension in order to be even meaningful. Schroeder's argument goes badly astray here.

So what do most physicists actually believe happened "before" the Big Bang? A whole variety of things, actually. Those who are also theists very well could believe with Schroeder that an infinite, eternal, metaphysical creator caused the Big Bang in some sense (although to meaningfully talk of causation one probably has to suppose that this creator exists in its own timelike dimension). (Anecdotally, the percentage of physicists who are theists seems to be around 20%, although this percentage depends a lot on how you ask the question and who you count as a physicist.) Some physicists will reply very simply that they don't know what came before the Big Bang. Others may seize upon the Big Bang as the start of time itself, and argue that it's not even meaningful to ask what came before the Big Bang.

However, the most common view (again, anecdotally) seems to be that the Big Bang picture of the birth of our universe is incomplete, and that the idea that there was no time before the Big Bang may not be quite correct. This viewpoint is strongly motivated by the well-known inconsistency of the theory of general relativity with the principles of quantum mechanics. Quite simply, physicists have been struggling for most of a century to figure out how to incorporate quantum mechanics into a theory of gravity. While there are some promising leads, notably string theory, we are still far from understanding how gravity works at the quantum scale. This is directly relevant to the conditions in the universe near the Big Bang. At these very early times the universe was still microscopically small, and quantum mechanics is expected to have severely altered the behavior of gravity. If and when physics develops a worked-out theory of quantum gravity, we may well be able to answer the question of what happened before the Big Bang. Until that point, any insistence that the universe was preceded by "some metaphysical non-thing" is resting on a dubious and uncertain scientific basis.

The net result is that we cannot confidently say what happened right at the moment of the Big Bang. It is entirely possible, for example, that time itself did not start at the Big Bang, but that universe developed according to still-uncertain physical laws from a previous physical state. There are a variety of versions of this. Some suppose that our present universe extends backwards in time towards infinity, and that the Big Bang is merely the start of the latest cycle of expansion. Another idea that is growing increasingly popular is that our universe formed from some previous universe by a kind of "budding" process.

In fact, Schroeder does not completely ignore these kinds of conjectures. For example, on p. 45 he introduces the idea of "bubble universes"--the idea that there could be multiple universes with different properties, and that we just happen to be inside one that supports life. But Schroeder fails to recognize the consequences of this conjecture:

What all of these conjectures have in common is that something, or more accurately stated some non-thing, an eternal whatever, predates our universe. This whatever-it-is has no bodily parts, is totally nonmaterial, is eternal, and though being absolutely nothing physically has the infinite potential to produce vast universes. Sounds familiar. Kind of like the biblical description of God. In fact it IS the biblical description of God with one significant difference. A 'potential field' doesn't give a hoot about the universes it spins off. The Bible, however, claims that the Creator is intimately interested and involved in its creations (p. 46).

The first part of this statement is just wrong. Many of these conjectures explicitly assume that universes develop from prior universes in an infinite sequence. There is nothing eternal in such a picture, except for the "multiverse" of universes itself, and nothing in the least nonphysical. Nor is it true that this hypothesized nonmaterial eternal potential that produces vast universes is at all identical with the biblical description of God, for here we have another bait-and-switch. We're asked to concede a nonphysical cause for the universe, and then in the next sentence we're asked to assign to it all of the biblical properties of God (including personhood, consciousness, intelligence, and omnipotence!) with the sole exception of whether or not this "creator" cares about the universe. The physics simply doesn't support the conclusion that "some non-thing, an eternal whatever, predates our universe," and absolutely nothing justifies assuming that if such a nonthing did exist, it would possess the attributes of the biblical description of God. That's simply bait-and-switch.

Just as on page one Schroeder asserts his iron-clad certainty that the universe had a nonphysical cause, he chooses this same note to close with in the Epilogue:

The very knowledge of the big bang provides proof otherwise. The physical system we refer to as our universe is not closed to the nonphysical. It cannot be closed. Its total beginning required a nonphysical act. Call it the big bang. Call it creation. Let the creating force be a potential field if the idea of God is bothersome to you, but realize the fact that the nonphysical gave rise to the physical. Unless the vast amounts of scientific data and conclusions drawn by atheistic as well as devout scientists are in extreme error, our universe had a metaphysical beginning. The existence--if the word existence applies to that which precedes our universe--of the eternal metaphysical is a scientific reality. That single exotic fact changes the rules of the game. In fact, it establishes the rules of the game. The metaphysical has as least once interacted with the physical. Our universe is not a closed system (p. 186).

Unfortunately for Schroeder these conclusions just don't follow from the physics. The argument for a metaphysical cause of the Big Bang is not convincing.

I cannot help but reference Sean Carroll's excellent essay Why (Almost All) Cosmologists are Atheists, which provides the perspective of one practicing cosmologist towards these sorts of issues.

The Quantum Mechanical Argument for a Metaphysical Awareness in the Universe

Besides arguing for a metaphysical cause of the Big Bang, Schroeder presents an unusual argument for a metaphysical aspect to the universe we see and interact with today. This argument is one from quantum mechanics, and basically claims that at their most fundamental level, subatomic particles are not physically real, but instead consist of information, awareness, and even consciousness. These quotes from THFOG give the flavor of the argument:

That all existence may be the expression of information, an idea, a quantum wave function, is not fantasy and it is not some flaky idea. It's mainstream science coming from such universities as Princeton and M.I.T. (p. 4).

Could the consciousness we perceive as the mind be as fundamental as, let's say, the phenomenon of gravity generated by mass, or the electrical charge generated by a proton? (p. 6).

Might consciousness also be an intrinsic, all-present part of nature, of the universe? In that case every particle would have some aspect of consciousness within. The more complex the entity, the greater would be its awareness of the consciousness housed within (p. 6).

Every particle, every body, each aspect of existence appears to be an expression of information, information that via our brains or our minds, we interpret as the physical world (p. 7).

Is Schroeder correct? Is the physical basis for our universe ultimately metaphysical? Is consciousness an intrinsic feature of the universe at all levels? Before examining the reasons given for these claims, I have to point out that these kinds of arguments may strike some readers as being somewhat familiar. Indeed, in many respects what Schroeder is arguing for is not much different from the kind of reasoning found in The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra, or The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. These books argue that quantum mechanics and modern physics ultimately are a mathematical restatement of the mystical claims of Eastern religions. The attempt to draw connections between quantum mechanics and Eastern mysticism has a very long pedigree, and may even go back to the founders of quantum mechanics themselves. (Schrödinger, for example, was a convinced philosophical Vedantist.) Schroeder's novelty is his attempt to enlist these arguments in the service of Western theism. Without debating whether his theology is in accord with traditional Western theism, I do have to admit that at some points Schroeder's line of reasoning strikes me as being more appropriate for a book on physics and Buddhism than suited for the purpose he intends.

What arguments are there for a metaphysical underpinning of quantum mechanics? Schroeder's first line of argument is that what we call "particles" don't have any physical reality of their own:

Ask a scientist, a physicist, what an electron or the quarks of a proton are made of. She or he will have no answer (p. 4).

In his own effort to provide an answer for this question, Schroeder first introduces an idea from the theory of special relativity. As almost anyone who has come across the formula E=mc^2 knows, in the theory of relativity matter may be freely converted into energy, and vice versa. Schroeder wishes to use this fact to argue that matter really reduces to energy, which is in his view more ephemeral than matter, and then to argue that energy itself reduces to information:

And below the energy lies information, a totally nonmaterial basis for existence. While not calling this information spiritual, science has significantly closed the gap between the material and the spiritual (p. 17).

In Chapter 3 of THFOG, Schroeder interprets this principle of relativity to mean that matter is just a form of condensed energy. It's clear from Schroeder's interpretation that he views energy as being more fundamental than matter, and would therefore like to reduce all discussion of matter to energy concepts. However, what he fails to recognize is that the theory of relativity does not teach that energy is a more fundamental substance than matter. Rather, relativity puts both matter and energy at an equivalence.

While Schroeder can poetically interpret matter an a condensed form of energy, he could just as well have argued that matter is more fundamental, and that energy is just one property of matter. Physics simply doesn't draw a clear dividing line between matter and energy. For example, there's no reason we can't consider the photons that carry the electric force between a proton and an electron in a hydrogen atom to be a form of matter, rather than just as an energy field, and indeed the whole concept of a "photon" as a discrete particulate object with its own position, momentum, and spin does exactly that. Physicists just do not tend to think of energy as being more fundamental than matter, and don't use these terms in the way that Schroeder does. Indeed, in particle physics it is far more common to regard energy as being just one of the properties of a material particle--namely, the timelike component of the particle's 4-momentum. From this viewpoint the equivalence of matter and energy is what allows us to convert one kind of matter to another kind, recognizing that the mass of a particle also contributes to its energy, but in fact energy becomes a secondary property of a particle, along with other properties such as its charge, spatial momentum, or spin. Schroeder's desire to paint "energy" as more fundamental than "matter" appears to stem from his wish to make the physical world seem as ethereal as he can in order to ultimately reduce it to metaphysicality:

We can't handle a piece of energy. We can store energy in a battery, but that's chemistry. The actual essence of energy remains elusive. Does that move energy closer to the information it may represent than to the matter it can form? (p. 30).

This kind of argument is not convincing, for Schroeder's usage doesn't correspond to how physicists understand and use these terms.

Thus far we have not touched upon quantum mechanics itself. Schroeder introduces this in Chapter 1 with a quotation from Freeman Dyson:

Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension (p. 7).

Schroeder positively gushes, "These are the words of one of today's leader in physics!" (p. 7) While I certainly cannot disagree that Freeman Dyson is a star of physics, let me say right away that Dyson's statement that "mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom" is not one that the vast majority physicists will agree with. It's also important to look at the context of Dyson's remarks. The quoted passage in question comes from Dyson's acceptance speech of May 16, 2000 upon accepting the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. It reflects Dyson's personal religious viewpoint in the context of a speech to a religious audience. It cannot be taken as representative of what physicists in general believe. While Freeman Dyson is certainly an authority, the problem with appeals to authority is that one can usually find other authorities, equally prestigious, who will disagree. We must brush aside appeals to authority, and look at what is actually being claimed.

What Dyson is referring to in this passage is something known as "quantum indeterminacy." Simply put, this is the fact that in most circumstances the theory of quantum mechanics does not yield absolute predictions for what will happen in a given situation, but only gives probabilities for different outcomes. The inability of quantum mechanics to calculate with certainty the outcome of a process is a fact. What this inability actually represents is a question of interpretation, and of these there are dozens. Some are quite famous. One possibility is that quantum events are actually random in some absolute sense--unpredictable because they are uncaused. A second explanation comes from the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics--whenever two outcomes are possible for a process, the universe separates into two parallel universes, and each outcome occurs in one of the resulting universes. A third possibility is a strict determinism which holds that the outcome of any quantum process is determined in advance by the initial conditions, and that only quantum limitations on our ability to measure the initial conditions with sufficient accuracy prevent us from making exact predictions. This is often called a "hidden variables" theory, since it supposes that there are hidden conditions that control the outcome of the process, even if we can't measure those conditions even in principle. It is sometimes thought that quantum determinism has been ruled out. This is not quite true. What have been ruled out are so-called "local" hidden variables theories--those in which the outcome of a measurement depends only on the local conditions at the measurement site and not, for example, the conditions at some other spatially separated location in the universe. "Nonlocal" hidden variables theories are still perfectly viable, although the need to give up the principle of locality strikes many physicists as too high a price to pay.

Dyson's suggestion that atoms have some kind of awareness and actually choose what outcome will result from a quantum process is yet another interpretation of what quantum indeterminacy might mean. I think it's probably safe to say that this interpretation has even less support in the physics community than all of the possibilities I presented in the preceding paragraph. As a matter of fact, outside of Dyson and one or two others, I can hardly think of anyone who maintains this position. While I suppose that there is nothing in the laws of physics that rules out Dyson's idea, there is likewise nothing in physics that requires it or that even suggests that it is more likely than other alternatives. However, the idea that atoms have awareness and "choose" the results of quantum processes has severe philosophical issues. We don't normally even conceive of plants or bacteria as having awareness, and usually would associate awareness only with complex neurological systems with the ability to manipulate sensory data. Yet Dyson's interpretation would attribute awareness to the smallest constituents in the universe! Even Schroeder concedes that most human choices result from information processing in the neurons of our brains; exactly how would an atom make a "choice"? Is there any possible way that we could test the idea that electrons are conscious? This idea ultimately is a form of panpsychism, and I will leave the question of whether it can be reconciled with traditional Western monotheism to the theologians. What it most certainly isn't, however, is mainstream science.

Despite these missteps, what Schroeder really wants to argue is that information, a nonphysical thing, underlies quantum mechanics and provides a nonphysical basis for reality. It's a little difficult to understand what Schroeder means by this, for his arguments are not clearly formulated, and I'm more or less left guessing as to what he means. What he seems to be arguing, however, is that certain properties of quantum mechanics are so weird and counterintuitive that they can't be physical in origin, but instead must reflect something metaphysical. A couple of examples are adduced.

The first example is what is known in quantum mechanics as the EPR paradox. In an EPR experiment, a quantum system with zero net spin is prepared, and then allowed to decay into two particles moving away from each other. Each particle may have the direction of its angular momentum oriented either "up" or "down." Since the total angular momentum of the two particles must sum to the original angular momentum of zero, if one particle is spin up, the other particle must be spin down. Quantum mechanics cannot predict which particle will have which spin. Instead, the spin of each particle is described by what is known as an "entangled state"--a linear combination of up and down. Until the point where an experimenter attempts to measure the spin of one of the particles, the language of quantum mechanics does not permit us to talk about either particle being "up" or "down." Instead, it describes both particles' spins as being linear superpositions of the up and down states. (This superposition of "both-up-and-down" is very similar to the well-known story of Schrödinger's Cat--this poor hypothetical creature supposedly being simultaneously alive and dead!)

When an experimenter then measures the spin of one particle, a phenomenon sometimes known as "collapse of the wave function" happens. At the moment of measurement, the particle seemingly randomly falls into either the up or the down state, and a definite measurement result is obtained. Once that happens, then by conservation of angular momentum the other particle is instantly known to be in the opposite spin state. This happens even if the particles are separated by large distances. This phenomenon is real, and has been measured in multiple experiments.

The controversy is what interpretation to give to this effect. Taken one way, quantum mechanics seemingly says that until we measure the spin of one of the particles, neither of them have definite spins. That is, neither particle is really spin up or spin down, but they really are in an indeterminate state. In other words, the spins have no definite values until you measure them. Once you measure one, the other one must simultaneously "collapse" into the opposite spin state. "Spooky" is the standard word for this behavior.

Einstein thought that this situation was so weird that it must mean that quantum mechanics itself was wrong. His solution was to propose that each particle really was either spin up or spin down the entire time, but that quantum mechanics must be an incomplete theory that simply wasn't powerful enough to predict the respective spins of the two particles. This was an example of a "hidden variables theory"--there must be some unobservable variable describing the particle that would allow us to predict which particle has spin up and which has spin down, if only we knew the value of that variable.

The difference between these two interpretations seemed irresolvable until John Bell later showed that Einstein's model actually would give different predictions from standard quantum mechanics for certain measurements. The measurements were done, and a remarkable result was found--Einstein was wrong. Measuring one particle's spin does seem to have an instantaneous effect on the other particle's spin in spite of any distance between the particles. The nature of this effect is controversial. One interpretation is that the spin of the particle actually is indeterminate until a measurement happens, which then collapses both particles' spins to definite but opposite values. Another is to assert that the particles may in fact have definite spins (no "collapse" of the quantum state), but unlike Einstein's formulation, Bell's result demands that measurements on one particle can have an instantaneous effect on the second particle.

This instantaneous influence of a measurement at one location on a particle at a separate location is certainly surprising. Classical physics forbids this kind of thing, and Einstein's theory of relativity prevents any information from being communicated faster than the speed of light. Remarkably, the EPR effect doesn't actually violate the theory of relativity--through a very subtle loophole in the problem, the random nature of which particle gets which spin would prevent the use of two entangled particles to send a message of any sort from one point to another faster than light. What does seem to happen, though, is that correlations between the particles' properties can get propagated instantly in a way that is consistent with the letter, if not the spirit, of relativity. It's enough to give any physicist pause.

However, Schroeder carries this one step further, interpreting the EPR effect as "an instantaneous mutual awareness among all particles, regardless of the distance of separation." The objectionable words here are "mutual awareness." Amidst all the strange features of the EPR paradox, there isn't a single one that touches on "awareness." Even if one accepts the surprising idea that correlations between spatially separated particles can propagate faster than light so long as cause-and-effect itself obeys the speed of light, awareness has nothing to do with it. Schroeder would like to assert a role for some kind of nonphysical consciousness in the EPR problem, which he can then connect to the concept of a god. From a physicist's standpoint, however, all he's doing is slapping his ideology on an unusual physics situation that has nothing to say one way or other about awareness or God, while trying to shoehorn his religion into it.

Schroeder does almost exactly the same thing in his discussion of another quantum mechanical problem, that of the "two-slit problem." In this setup, a beam of particles is sprayed at a screen with two slits in it. If a second screen is placed behind the first, one finds a surprising result when looking at the distribution of particles that hit the second screen. The particles, acting like waves going through the two slits, interfere, and produce an interference pattern of crests and troughs on the far screen. But if the experimenter then sets up a sensor at the two slits that registers which slit each particle goes through, the interference pattern is destroyed, and the particles act just like particles, illuminating just the two patches on the second screen behind the slits.

Both the interference effect, and its disappearance if one measures which slit each particle went through, are real and well-verified effects. Placing a sensor at either slit A or slit B will destroy the interference pattern on the far screen. Schroeder concludes: "Among those variable conditions at B is whether or not a conscious observer is present. These data carry a hint that perhaps--just perhaps--consciousness affects the physical manifestations of existence." Well, perhaps not. What Schroeder fails to point out is that the pattern is destroyed even if an unconscious, or completely inanimate, "observer" is present. Merely the physical act of a sensor registering the particle is enough to destroy the interference, whether a conscious scientist is there to be aware of the output of the sensor or not. Indeed, if the data from the sensor is printed out, thrown in the trash, and never ever seen by any conscious observer, the pattern is still destroyed. Consciousness is not the key feature of the two-slit problem. What counts is the physical act of registering the path of the particle, which in itself can prevent an interference pattern.

Ultimately, all of Schroeder's arguments from quantum mechanics are unsatisfying. Essentially, he would like to argue that, because quantum mechanics is so weird and contrary to our everyday physics intuitions, there must be something nonphysical or even spiritual about the whole thing. A far more sensible approach, and one taken by the majority of physicists, is simply to recognize that the laws of physics are not what Newton thought they were. Nonetheless, it's still physics, and a student of quantum mechanics can readily make the same statement that Laplace reputedly made when asked about the role of God in classical mechanics: "Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis."

The Argument from Fine-Tuning

Schroeder dances around, but does not formally present, a third argument for the existence of a god often called the "fine-tuning argument." The fine-tuning argument starts by pointing out that if the laws of physics were even slightly different from what they actually are, then the universe would be a very different place, perhaps even completely inhospitable for life. Since it's very unlikely that such laws of physics would just happen to have the exact forms that they do just by chance, it can't be a coincidence that the universe is hospitable to life. Rather, some deity must have arranged the laws of physics to be just so.

I find it somewhat surprising that Schroeder doesn't try to develop this argument fully. It is a classic and still common argument for theism, and is really the physicist's equivalent of the argument from design invoked in the context of biology until Darwin's theory of evolution provided a scientific alternative. Though Schroeder doesn't directly present a fine-tuning argument, this doesn't prevent him from alluding to this line of argumentation repeatedly. For example:

The four basic forces--gravity, the electrostatic force, and the so-called strong and weak nuclear bonds--have no logical explanation for their existence, but because of them we have a user-friendly universe filled with order and stability, and in at least one location, life conscious of its own experience (p. 31).

Actually, physicists are making great progress towards providing logical explanations for the existence of all of these fundamental forces. Einstein showed back in the early 20th century that gravity is the logical result of a symmetry called the "equivalence principle," and indeed showed that gravity was equivalent to a curvature of space-time. The other three forces of nature are also now known to be the result of mathematical symmetries in the laws of physics. Even more exciting is that electromagnetism and the weak force have been shown to be the joint results of a unified "electroweak" symmetry that explains them both. Now I am not suggesting that these explanations are in any sense complete. Knowing that the four forces of nature each result from a symmetry in the laws of physics is not the same as knowing why those particular symmetries should apply. On the other hand, the discovery of these symmetries is a significant achievement, and the success that physicists have had in formulating them is a big step towards ultimately explaining why the four forces exist as they do. (Incidentally, the discussion that follows Schroeder's passage above is the occasion for one of Schroeder's grossest factual blunders. After introducing the four basic forces, he describes the weak force as being one thousand times weaker than the strong force. This is terribly far of the mark: the weak force is in fact roughly one hundred trillion times weaker than the strong force. And this is not the sort of thing that a real expert in nuclear physics would get wrong!)

Schroeder continues in this vein. For example, a few pages later Schroeder remarks that if Pauli's exclusion principle didn't hold, then atoms would not be stable and chemistry could not happen. "Why this should be an inherent part of our universe is anyone's guess" (p. 34). Schroeder is seemingly unfamiliar with an important result from quantum field theory (the theory that combines quantum mechanics with special relativity), which in fact demonstrates that Pauli's exclusion principle is a feature of any theory that combines quantum mechanics with relativity. No God required.

Cosmology provides Schroeder with another implied argument from fine-tuning:

Accepting the big bang that brought with it these life-friendly laws and the space and energy upon which they act, there'd be no simple logic that would predict that some of this energy would change into stable, lasting matter. We'd know that energy can change into matter. Einstein discovered this aspect of nature and made it famous in his equation E=mc^2. But that transition of E into m always produces a pair of particles, matter and antimatter, which then mutually self-annihilate, reverting back to their constituent energy. So in theory the universe should be an expanding ball of ever more dilute (cooler) radiation and no particles of matter. Since we are here, we can surmise that some of the matter, about one part in ten billion, somehow survived the annihilation to form the basic particles, protons, neutrons, electrons, and several others (p. 56).

This passage invites the reader to conclude that the laws of physics by themselves could not result in a universe like ours, but that instead God must have stepped in and arranged for there to be slightly more matter than antimatter. Of course, Schroeder completely forgets to mention that a scientific explanation to this problem also exists! In the 1960's the renowned Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov showed that the Big Bang could result in a slight excess of matter over antimatter if three conditions hold: that the laws of physics themselves distinguish between matter and antimatter, that baryon number can be violated, and that the process be out of thermal equilibrium. The resulting process is called baryogenesis. Exploring the conditions for baryogenesis has been a major field of research in particle physics and cosmology for the past forty years. I will freely admit that not all of the details are worked out yet. Physicists have not yet observed baryon number violation, although they predict (for theoretical reasons) that it should occur, and much remains to be learned about how matter and antimatter differ. Still, what Schroeder considers a major mystery that invites a "god of the gaps" is actually a fascinating and at least partially understood phenomenon under active investigation!

I can't resist quoting just one more example from THFOG:

Why should matter attract matter? Why doesn't matter repel matter? Why should protons and electrons have their equal and opposite charges, even though their masses differ by a factor of over one thousand eight hundred, and a neutron has no charge even though it has a mass quite similar to that of a proton? Why the Pauli exclusion principle and the quantized characteristics of orbital electrons? All these realities are humanly illogical and totally arbitrary, but without them there'd be no molecules, no rocks and water, no brain, no mind (pp. 149-150).

Far from being arbitrary and "humanly illogical" (whatever that may mean), there are known explanations to almost all of these questions! That matter attracts matter (through gravitation) is a consequence of Einstein's equivalence principle. That protons and electrons should have equal but opposite charges is predicted by some grand unified theories that await confirmation, while the fact the protons and neutrons have different charges but almost identical masses is easily explained by the quark model of the nucleon. As noted above, the Pauli exclusion principle is hardly mysterious, but rather is predicted by quantum field theory.

These examples indicate two major flaws in Schroeder's appeals to fine-tuning. First of all, in each case at least a partial explanation of the supposedly problematic quandary exists! If Schroeder is looking to supply a "god of the gaps" to explain what physics cannot, he ought to at least be aware of how wide (or narrow) the explanatory gap really is. Secondly, the very nature of the fine-tuning argument invites us to abandon all hope of providing a naturalistic explanation, even if it exists! If Sakharov had attributed the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe to the agency of God, as THFOG seemingly does, would he ever have even come up with the idea of baryogenesis? If we follow Schroeder in attributing the four forces of nature to the will of God, do we risk missing out on a more satisfying explanation?

A related problem with fine-tuning arguments is that today's mystery, which invites a theistic explanation, is often tomorrow's solved problem. One particular statement from Schroeder brought this home to me: "But there is no way we could predict, from first principles, a universe with the life-nurturing laws of nature by which we function" (p. 55). As written, there is just one thing wrong with this statement. If Schroeder changes "could" to "can," I'd agree with it wholeheartedly, since today what he says is true. But by saying that "there is no way we could predict" (emphasis mine), Schroeder goes beyond what can be known, and verges on a perverse sort of hubris.

There are, however, two more fundamental problems with any argument from fine-tuning. Recall that this argument advances the claim that it is very improbable for the laws of physics to be just as they are without a god to make them so. For example, if the proton were just a little heavier, then hydrogen atoms would decay and life as we know it certainly wouldn't exist. A theist advancing a fine-tuning argument may claim that it can't be coincidence that protons have just the right mass, but not too much, and that it's very unlikely that this just happened without God tuning the proton mass to be just right. The problem here is the phrase "very unlikely." How do we know what's likely and what's not? In order to argue that it's unlikely for the proton mass to have its measured value, we would have to have some way of calculating the probability that the proton mass would have any particular value. And this is a calculation that no one knows how to do! If you ask a physicist "what are the chances that a proton would have been 1% heavier?," he or she will likely look at you in confusion. There's simply no way to calculate such a thing, and it's not even obvious that the proton mass could have been different. Given the present state of physics, any statement that it is improbable for any physical constant to have such-and-such a value is completely unjustifiable. We simply do not know. While the whole fine-tuning argument relies on an appeal that our current universe is too improbable to have arisen by chance, there is in fact no way to know what is improbable and what isn't.

The second problem with any fine-tuning argument is that it doesn't address the possibility that there could be multiple universes, each with somewhat different laws of physics. Some universes might be lifeless, some may have life like ours, and yet others could have new forms of life unlike anything we've ever imagined. Such a scenario is of course untestable, yet many cosmological theories imply that there could in fact be multiple universes, perhaps infinitely many. If so, then maybe it is just chance that this particular universe has life in it. An analogy with a lottery is helpful here. In any given lottery drawing, perhaps millions of tickets are sold, yet there may only be one winner. Nonetheless, if I happen to be holding the sole winning ticket, it wouldn't be reasonable for me to think "Wow! It was really, really unlikely that I would win the lottery! This couldn't have happened by chance--someone must have rigged the lottery so that I won." Put this way, the idea seems silly. Yet if it is even possible that other universes could exist, then this scenario is no different than the fine-tuning argument's scenario that God somehow "rigged" the universe to turn out as it has.
 

Schroeder's Arguments from Biochemistry and Neuroscience
(by Niall Shanks)

If you believe in God or some other "species" of higher power, you will no doubt be very entertained by this volume. Schroeder's universe is one that is teeming with information. He is puzzled, however, because "There is no hint of it in the laws of nature.... The information just appears as given, with no causal agent evident, as if it were an intrinsic facet of nature" (p. xi). If Schroeder is right, the laws of nature must have missed something important. On the other hand, as a practicing scientist he must also be aware that people, sometimes scientists themselves, often "see" things that are not there. Rene Blondot thought that he had seen N-rays (he hadn't), Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman thought that they had observed cold fusion (they hadn't), and many folk that thought that they had seen a face carved in a giant rock on Mars (they hadn't). Schroeder writes with conviction. He thinks he has seen something important. It behooves us to examine his case carefully. In this review I will confine myself to his commentary on the results of modern biology.

Schroeder's discussion of biology begins in chapter 4 with a discussion of the nature of cells. Like such noted intelligent design theorists as Michael Behe and William Dembski (who see the hand of a higher power in the intricate workings of cells--actually the tails of germs, though this is not germane to the present review), Schroeder appeals to the wonder and complexity that can be seen in the fruits of molecular biology and biochemistry.

He tells us that "The human body acts as a finely tuned machine" (p. 49). Like intelligent design theorists before him, Schroeder runs the risk of being bewitched by mechanical metaphors. The intelligent design fallacy occurs when the use of such metaphors shifts from being a mere way of speaking to something more literal. For then machines, as noted by proponents of intelligent design, must have designers and makers, and this usually turns out to be an undersigned designer (a God of some stripe or other).

Schroeder is certainly puzzled about the origins of life--so are most thinking people--and to be blunt, science at present can only speculate about such matters. Indeed we may never know how life originally came to be. But this means we are currently ignorant. There is a gap in our knowledge. The temptation is to fill that gap with God. But God has been inserted into many such gaps, only to be chased out at a later date as new knowledge came along. From our ignorance of the details of the origins of life, one may only conclude that we do not know how it happened. It is a gross and egregious fallacy to conclude that such ignorance mandates the postulation of some nonphysical being with supernatural powers. Schroeder is aware of this danger (p. 59). This is why he shifts attention away from issues of origins of life to the details of cell biology.

Concerning eukaryotic cells, Schroeder tells us, "If we could see within ... every aspect of existence would be an unfolding encounter with awe; almost a religious experience even for a secular spectator" (p. 60). Schroeder is amazed by the intricate structures that lurk within the cell and the complexity of its biochemistry--the ultimate components of that "finely tuned machine." There is less mystery here than meets the eye.

A careful examination of basic biochemistry reveals not an intelligently designed, fine-tuned machine, but rather something that has evidently been put together as part of a mindless, tinkering trial-and-error process of the kind that evolutionary biologists are all too familiar with--evidence indeed of unintelligent design (see Behrman, E. J., G. A. Marzluf, and R. Bentley [2004] "Evidence from Biochemical Pathways in Favor of Unfinished Evolution," Journal of Chemical Education 81: 1051-1052). Other investigators have shown how trial-and-error mechanisms actually operate inside of the cell to produce those intricate structures that have Schroeder in awe. Self-organization, for which there is good scientific evidence--unlike supernatural magic, for which there is currently none--seems to be at work inside of the cell (see Ch. 4 of Gerhart, J., and M. Kirschner [1997] Cells, Embryos and Evolution, Blackwell Science: Malden, MA).

Chapter 5 shifts the focus to an analysis of meiosis and human development: How do those mysterious cells come together to make a human being? And Schroeder sees more unsolved mysteries. Why would a cell altruistically give up half of its genetic information in the course of meiosis? We learn that this is "Not a very selfish way for a potentially selfish gene to act" (p. 73). Schroeder then tells us that this puzzling altruism has a payoff for the species: variation--the fruit of the mixing of genes when sperm and egg fuse--aids in species survival (p. 73). But Schroeder points out that evolution occurs at the level of the individual, not the species. "The origin of sex thus remains an unsolved puzzle" (p. 73). There are indeed unanswered questions here, but there is less mystery than meets the eye, and we can focus on selfish genes. Sex might be advantageous for selfish genes by allowing the combination of multiple beneficial mutations--some from mom and some from pop! Alternatively, it could work by freeing a beneficial mutation from the baggage of bad mutations at other loci (see also Ch. 7 of Maynard Smith, J., and E. Szathmary [1999] The Origins of Life, Oxford University Press: Oxford). The reader interested in Schroeder's characterizations of the "mysteries" of human development is welcome to read the rest of chapter 5.

Chapter 6 takes us on a tour of the nervous system and Chapter 7 takes us on a tour of the brain itself. More and more complexity is revealed. Schroeder does not think that the complexity of life "proves" that there is a God active in our world (p. 93). He does, however, observe that "the final leap of faith for or against the concept that the metaphysical is active within the physical universe that it created (for both the skeptic and the believer require a final leap of faith) is best made from a position of knowledge" (p. 93). It would have been helpful here if Schroeder had differentiated between the atheist (who is convinced that there is no God) and the skeptic (who withholds final judgment). The skeptic makes no leap of faith, and the atheist may be an atheist not because of a leap of faith but because the right kind of evidence has not yet been presented.

Much of Schroeder's case for the hidden face of God consists of observations of the wonders of nature (though some are mischaracterized and others are much less mysterious than he thinks--partly because of a lack of familiarity with relevant research literature). And there are indeed many matters concerning which we are currently ignorant, and many questions whose current answers are unsatisfying. But ignorance, even when coupled with a genuine and sincere sense of awe at the greatness of it all, does not point in the direction of the existence of supernatural beings and other metaphysical exotica. The history of science shows that questions once unanswered can come to be answered in the fullness of time, and that answers that are unsatisfying may be replaced by better answers.

Schroeder tells us, "For most of my life I've felt a transcendence within nature, some spiritual rumbling" (p. 123). I have no doubt that Schroeder is genuinely sincere in his faith (he is certainly not the sort of creationist rascal all too well-known in the US), but what he has in the end is faith--faith backed by a sense of awe. His case is not rationally convincing. Perhaps, though, that is not the point. Schroeder takes his reader on an interesting tour of his own spiritual journey. You may take it or leave it as you will.


Copyright ©2007 Scott Oser and Niall Shanks. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Scott Oser and Niall Shanks. All rights reserved.

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