God = Singularity? Good luck with that

There has been an argument in theological/cosmological circles for a while now that I’ve seen from time to time but haven’t addressed, surrounding the existence of a singularity at the beginning of the Universe. Why?

For some reason that I honestly can’t fathom beyond some possible act of desperation, from time to time I’ve seen the singularity being called “God”. I want to have this post in place for the next time I see an example because I think it’s a really problematic argument.

Personally, I think that Coca Cola would make a better deity; the drink not the corporation. It has about the same capacity to give moral and spiritual guidance as a singularity, but with the added benefit of empirical evidence to buttress any ontological assertions. Although maybe a Coke bottle isn’t enough to hang The Infinite off of.

Yes, yes. Very clever. Grow up. Etc. Blah, blah, blah… It’s a reductio. Give a counter argument to show why it’s invalid, or live with it. I suspect most readers here will do the latter.

In case some of you reading this don’t know, there is no empirical evidence that singularities actually exist. They are simply inferred by our current, limited understanding of the Universe. Particularly the general theory of relativity.

Singularities are inferred in general in two (or more) places – in black holes and at the beginning of the Universe (and at the end in some inflationary models, and at the bounce points of some rebounding Universe models).

Get enough mass in a small enough area, and gravitational collapse will, according to the general theory of relativity, become intractable – down to a single, finite point of infinite density and zero width, height or depth. Time comes to an end (or a boundary) as well.

Why is this a problem? Why are singularities a bad thing to hang God (or anything else) off of?

General relativity, a theory which makes a host of testable predictions (including black holes),  provides an extremely accurate account of the way gravity works in the Universe. Quantum mechanics, which deals with the very small in a similarly successful way, doesn’t deal with gravity at all (at least not yet); gravity which is a very weak force, at the scale of the extremely small, isn’t particularly amenable to study. It’s like trying to study the smallest volume of the most diffuse gas – you don’t have enough to work with.

There is of course one glaring exception where gravity is significant on a quantum scale – the alleged singularity, or at least, the confined conditions at the heart of a runaway gravitational collapse. So what if it’s a weak force? Under these conditions you’ve got a lot of it, so much so that in a black hole, it should dominate the other, stronger forces.

The singularity should ideally be the place for general relativity and quantum mechanics to cross over. Indeed, necessarily if the two theories were to maintain logical self-consistency; by definition, both theories have the singularity within their domain and hence both need to explain it seamlessly.

But this isn’t the case. The situation is far from ideal. All those infinites get in the way of being able to tie one theory to the other. The math doesn’t work. The two theories as they stand, are irreconcilable. One or both has to change. And that’s before considering the fact that quantum mechanics normally deals with matter, while general relativity deals with space-time.

Hence the singularity isn’t something that can be reasonably asserted as actually existing. The singularity is a mathematical product of our current deficient understanding of the Universe, at precisely the point that our understanding fails. The part of theory that predicts singularities is the part that is broken. The singularity isn’t a thing, it’s a place-holder for a gap in our knowlege.

I use the word “gap” advisedly. As in “God of the gaps“.

Although maybe it’s even worse than that.

Traditionally, a God-of-the-gaps argument states that “where there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, God did it”. But this singularity mumbo-jumbo is different. This is a case of “there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, and God is it”.

God of the gaps theology traditionally reduce God’s role in the Universe as human understanding advances. God’s agency being squeezed out like the cream in a Monte Carlo.

However, if the singularity is ever done away with, if a theory of quantum gravity is developed that reconciles general relativity with quantum mechanics and doesn’t posit a singularity as a mathematical product, then that gap is gone. But instead of God’s agency being the cream in the Monte Carlo being squeezed out, it’s God itself.

It should be obvious that the rejection of the concept of the cosmological singularity is a possible, reasonable outcome of honest scientific conduct. Or even just a part of responsible speculation in an attempt to develop the first hint of a solution to a very difficult scientific problem.

The Hartle-Hawking theory is just such a speculation (see Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for an in-depth explanation). At least in as far as the Big Bang is concerned. By applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle to space-time, specifically to the state of a given dimension (uncertainty of space-or-time) – Hartle and Hawking demonstrated in theory that it is possible that space time as we know it emerged from a region of uncertain space-time on the Planck scale.

Which is to say a region of space-time that is very, very small, but not infinitesimal.

Singularities are discrete, infinitesimal points (or rings in the case of a rotating black hole) of infinite density and zero volume, but when space-time is itself subject to the Uncertainty Principle as in the Hartle-Hawking theory, there aren’t any discrete, singular points in space-time in order for singularities to be possible. I’ll avoid using the phrase “impossible initial conditions” because even “initial” is in this scheme is by definition impossible.

At such a small scale, according to the Hartle-Hawking theory, quantum effects would hold sway allowing for time to emerge from a fourth dimension of space, and thus allowing the Universe as we know it to follow.

Still, it’s a speculative theory; testable predictions haven’t emerged from it.

It is useful speculation all the same, because it provides logical refutation against assumptions held to be a priori truths that restrict the way the Universe is theorised about. For example, the assumption that a finite Universe must have a beginning (a reoccurring theme in cosmological arguments for the existence of God) is ruined by the logical possibility of the Hartle-Hawking theory.

It may not cure our ignorance about what may actually lay at the heart of a black hole, but what this reasonable speculation and speculation like it does tell us, is that the singularity (and the “first cause” in general) is an ambiguous and unsafe place to park your cherished ideas!

Maybe somebody should put up a sign.

~ Bruce

Afterword: Aside from being a pre-prepared rebuttal, I’m writing this in anticipation of singularity-dogma, and the casting of singularity-rebuttals as alleged atheist propaganda, rather than responsible inquiry.

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Virtuous hedonism

If I were the kind of guy to worship a God, I’d worship Bacchus. Sundays wouldn’t be spent drinking the communion wine, just wine-wine.

I spent a dollar or two on wine in the second half of the nineties, when my hedonistic streak hit in 1996. More wine that I’ve drunk since the nineties.

I also like a good beer. Brewed more in the nineties than I have since the nineties as well.

Now I average less than a standard drink a day and I don’t think I’ve passed four in a day more than five times in the last ten years. But this isn’t some creeping conservatism on my part. No.

I genuinely don’t enjoy getting plastered. What I enjoy is the slightest, initial hint of alcohol in the system and what the beverage can bring to a social or gastronomic event.

Well considered hedonism wasn’t something I really had at the time. Ad hoc, faux-considered hedonism was. I reached the conclusion first and then engaged in some pretty superficial, instrumental reasoning to distract my executive functions from cock-blocking me.

However, persistent critical faculties and an increase in the myelin sheathing in my frontal lobe (something that finishes developing in the mid-twenties) gradually put an end to this self-deception. There was more to hedonism that just screwing everything in sight and drinking yourself into a stupor and if I wanted to get my head around it, I’d have to start conserving a few braincells.

You’ve been lucky, or living on another planet, or both, if you haven’t noticed that quite a large number of religious people frown on this kind of behaviour. In as far as rampant hedonism can cause harm, I’m sympathetic. The categorical objections, hellfire and brimstone however can go and take a flying leap.

I’ve never been an egoist, it should be said. It’s usually at this point in the discussion, that you’ll (if you are an atheist) have the occasional religionist associate your ethics with that of Ayn Rand. Even if you have more in common with say, John Stuart Mill (a utilitarian and dare I say, an actual philosopher.)

Whenever my pleasure, or the pleasure of my group has been at the expense of others, it’s been as a result of thoughtlessness. This was more a problem in my youth than it is now. That harmful externalities (loud noise past the neighbour’s bedtime and the like) weren’t good things wasn’t in dispute – they just went un-noticed. I suspect that this is the case for a lot of young yahoos.

I’m not selfish with my pleasure. I cook for people, for example. I share creativity in general with the aim of maximising pleasure. Nowadays, I do so with the aim of first avoiding the afore mentioned harmful externalities.

I think a few of Nietzsche’s assessments of the human condition are flawed in these respects. The things that he asserted were life-affirming on a primal level, I’ve never found life-affirming. And I think I’ve been a tad more primal that Nietzsche.

I don’t gain pleasure in subjugating people. I don’t see pleasure in others in being subjugated and I have a visceral objection to seeing other people subjugated – it’s not just slave morality that sees me looking out for others. Not that I deny what Nietzsche felt, rationally I object to it and the animal in me objects to it.

What I think Nietzsche’s error was, was to generalize his own imperatives the way Freud generalized his own sexual peculiarities to the entire human condition. The primal imperatives of the human condition are far more diverse, subjective and elusive than that.

Sexuality is a great example. Some people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, others to people of the same sex and some people aren’t particularly sexual beings at all. And within these divisions (and others) there are a multitude of other preferences for various sources of pleasure. A virtuous hedonism, as opposed to a self-deluded one, takes all of this into account.

When I worked at a deli in Norwood during the early years of this decade, there was this repeat customer who really got on my nerves. She was the stereotypical pretty girl that supposedly all the guys like. While she was in some respects a nice young lady (she was also at times a very noisy neighbour) and capable of eliciting quite a bit of sympathy from me, I actually found her quite sexually repugnant.

Aside from not being attracted to her that way (I find living stereotypes of all sorts rather unappealing), she quite unwittingly had the body language of someone who took entitlement (to men) for granted – cornering me rather aggressively a few times and otherwise not giving me my space, this annoying, incessant crotch-staring habit and the occasional but rather obvious barging in between me and other females. So when eventually I objected (which in terms of workplace sexual harassment I felt I was rather entitled to do – the crotch-staring was a bit much), she couldn’t quite get her head around the notion that I didn’t find her attractive and had to (self-deludedly) contort things to fit her narrative of men finding her attractive.

Suffice to say it ended with acrimony*. Reminds me of how Ayn Rand went off the deep end when she found out that her lover Nathaniel Branden, found the younger Patrecia Scott more attractive.

Sometimes people just don’t find you sufficiently attractive. It doesn’t matter to them that you find you attractive.

It’s like that with food and drink, music and the visual arts (and more.) A virtuous hedonism is permissive of peculiarity while seeing suffering as the only true perversion of the human condition.

Unaffected atheists clearly have an advantage over theists in accessing this virtuous hedonism, not carrying the same metaphysical baggage (i.e. sin.) Not that a theist necessarily can’t, nor do so easily – at best they fall superficially short of the same ease atheists can achieve the more superficial the differences in ethics become.

The same may not be true for a number of ex-fundamentalist theist, atheists. Not that I’ve ever had the experience of a religious enculturation, but I’m convinced by the tales of people who are still influenced by the spectre of hell even after refuting its existence.

All I’ve ever been able to rebel against in religion is the socio-political privilege it seeks and often attains (which I suspect is more obvious the less your religious enculturation), religion has never had that kind of control over me. I suspect though, that rebellion is still the answer.

Conservative Catholicism is particularly guilty of reducing atheism to rebellion against God, while at the same time finding their imaginary hell insufficiently harmful, venturing to create it on Earth through all sorts of insane sexual restrictions. Atheism isn’t rebellion, but rebellion against religiously motivated suffering is probably quite healthy behaviour for affected ex-theist atheists (and probably for newly moderate theists as well.)

Really, you are coming from a pretty sick place if you can find fault in people wanting to keep the Pope’s (or anyone else’s) liver-spotted hands off their genitals.

A virtuous, life-affirming quest to find and give pleasure is one of those things I think atheists need to give serious consideration before they check out of this fleeting existence.

~ Bruce

* In all fairness though, I think through my creative, generous and then mutating bakkheia, more than a couple of women (and at least one guy) got the impression that I was attracted to them when I wasn’t. This and a fair amount of beating around the bush not wanting to tell people the straight-out awful truth that I don’t actually like them that much, probably served to confuse the situation.

So what is the education philosophy of the Howard Government?

You can’t run an education system without a philosophy of education. To be for education, one has to be for some kind of education; be it democratic and integrated curriculum, theocratic indoctrination, skills based industry induction or administratively convenient rote education. We know the Howard Government, by means of the disinformation it has been pushing, is against education philosophies that make use of integrated curriculum.

Wrongly claiming or at least inferring that integrated curriculum does away with disciplines such as history and results in a “post-modern stew”, we can assume that the Howard Government is also anti-homework (hint Julie Bishop; read your Beane.) Heck, Bishop’s Maoist-Elitist bungle shows that at least she is opposed to doing homework, if not opposed to the use of facts.

It is clear from the campaigning that the Howard Government want’s to supplant existing teaching philosophies, BUT WHAT DO THEY INTEND TO REPLACE THEM WITH? It’s not enough to be just “anti-education-philosophy-x”, one needs to also be “pro-education-philosophy-y” otherwise you are just anti-education. What is their philosophy, if they have one and is it supported by their premises?

It’s a serious question that needs to be asked and answered before the next federal election, that is if you value education. This question is going to be a bit of a theme on this blog in the lead-up to the next federal election. Consider it on the agenda!