September 14, 2008
CERN Probes Big Bang
At the moment there has been a lot on the news about CERN and how it will shed light on the origin of the universe. I've heard various atheists getting excited about how it might do everything from prove the parallel universe theory to show how the universe popped out of nowhere and was wondering what impact CERN might have on theism?
That atheists should get all excited about the theological implications of the experiments which will be conducted at CERN's new Large Hadron Collider, which was successfully activated last Wednesday, reveals, I think, how desperate they are to wish away the evidence of current cosmology for the beginning and fine-tuning of the universe. For although the experiments which the collider will make feasible will expand the horizons of physics, since we have never been able to re-create such high energy conditions before, it is very hard to see how anything of theological significance could ensue, except to confirm the evidence we already have for the beginning and fine-tuning of the universe.
The new LHC will enable researchers to re-create the conditions existing less than a millionth of a second after the Big Bang at energies higher by a factor of four than previously possible, a great advance but nothing compared to the energies prior to the Planck time 10-43 second after the Big Bang, where General Relativity breaks down. We'll probably never be able to re-create energy levels high enough to probe that era.
The LHC should enable physicists to test for the existence of certain partners for sub-atomic particles, like the photino for the photon or the gravitino for the graviton, which are predicted by supersymmetric theories of particle physics. Scientists hope to be able to discover the Higgs boson, a particle thought to be responsible for the field that imparts mass to various sub-atomic particles. The Higgs boson is frequently called "the God Particle," not because it has any theological significance but because, like God, it is everywhere but is mysteriously hidden. The LHC could provide experimental evidence for string theory and therefore additional spatial dimensions and help to discover the nature of the dark energy that pervades the universe. Of course, it could disconfirm these theories if the predictions fail.
But whatever turns up, I don't see anything here that should cause atheists to get their hopes up. For the evidence for the beginning and fine-tuning of the universe already factors in the possibility that these discoveries might someday be made. In 2003 Arvind Borde, Alexander Vilenkin, and Alan Guth were able to demonstrate a theorem which proved that any universe which has on average been globally expanding at a positive rate has a past boundary and therefore cannot be infinite in the past. This theorem applies equally to inflationary theories of the multiverse and to higher dimensional cosmologies based on string theory. Theorists intent on avoiding the absolute beginning of the universe could previously always take refuge in the period prior to the Planck time, an era so poorly understood that it has been compared to the regions on the maps of ancient cartographers marked "Here there be dragons!"—it can be filled with all sorts of fantasies. But the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem does not depend upon any particular physical description of the universe prior to the Planck time, but is based on deceptively simple physical reasoning which will hold regardless of our uncertainty concerning that era—not to speak of the much later era probed by the new LHC.
As for fine-tuning, the discussion has for some time now considered the hypothesis that our universe is but a relatively tiny part of a World Ensemble of universes. I can't imagine any sort of evidence emerging from the LHC that would show that we are but a random member of a World Ensemble of an infinite number of randomly ordered universes. Moreover, the fact that these multiverse theories all have a beginning in the finite past implies that the mechanism which generates new universes has been working away for only a finite amount of time, which may well be insufficient to guarantee by chance alone the appearance of a finely-tuned universe like ours. Indeed, as I explain in Reasonable Faith, if our universe were but a random member of such a world ensemble, it is fantastically more probable that we should be observing a much different universe. That suggests that the fine-tuning cannot be explained away by easy appeals to parallel worlds.
The real shame about the LHC is that decades ago the U.S. had a chance to build our own supercollider in Texas, but a short-sighted Congress cut off the federal funding and so scuttled the project. The other scandal is the hysterical reactions in some quarters by people harboring groundless fears that the LHC will wind up creating a black hole that will annihilate us. Both of these spectacles say something about the weak state of science education and appreciation in the U.S.