The question of our Universe’s origin is not just an intellectual debate says physicist Sarah Salviander reflecting on The Big Conversation between Luke Barnes & Sabine Hossenfelder. It has deep existential implications.
What makes a successful scientist?
Stephen Hawking was one of the first scientists who succeeded in popularizing science. His book, A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, was a tremendous success, because people knew Hawking’s incredible life story. The way he overcame a terrible disease through courage and effort somehow made his scientific views credible and relevant to non-scientific people. He didn’t have to compromise or dumb the science down to gain a wide audience, because he was able to connect with people through the power of his story.
Fortunately, most of us scientists don’t need to beat incredible odds in order to be successful in our scientific careers. However, if we want non-scientists to take a real interest in our work and our ideas, we do need to connect with them on a personal level.
Two people I respect as scientists – Luke Barnes, a Christian astrophysicist, and Sabine Hossenfelder, an agnostic theoretical physicist – recently squared off on the issue of whether the universe has been fine-tuned for intelligent life. Barnes is well-known for his belief that fine-tuning is a scientific fact that also happens to support his Christian worldview. Hossenfelder, in stark contrast, took the position that fine-tuning is not even an issue, because it’s beyond the reach of science to settle one way or the other.
Connecting with the heart
As a scientist, I followed the debate with interest, because I enjoy a good technical discussion. But I wonder how much a wider audience of non-scientists gained from it. I asked my father, who is intelligent and quite interested in science, to watch the debate with me. He understood most of what was discussed, but said the debate left him unmoved. I think an opportunity was missed with these two intelligent and interesting people to connect with those outside the scientific community.
The scientific basics of the finely-tuned universe argument are readily available to anyone who is interested. Hossenfelder’s counter-argument that fine-tuning is not scientific, because it can’t be physically tested, is legitimate and requires little explanation. So, the science of both sides of the debate can be presented in just a few minutes. Any attempt to extend the scientific debate for an entire hour has little chance of adding anything to what most people already know.
What my father wanted was something that appealed not only to the mind, but also to the heart and spirit. If scientists want to reach a wider audience, rather than just talk amongst themselves, they need to be part of a wider discussion that includes not just the technical details of a topic like fine-tuning, but also the human aspects of the question of how our universe is constructed and came about.
There’s a reason that one of the first questions we ask someone we’ve just met is, “What do you do for a living?” That’s because we want to get an immediate sense of the kind of person we’re interacting with.
It wasn’t enough for my father to know that the two individuals in this presentation had advanced degrees or held positions in the academic community. To make real sense out of what was said, he wanted to know who these two individuals were as people – things like, why they became scientists, what the transformative events in their lives were, and how their professional opinions of fine-tuning affect how they live and what they value. It’s hard for us scientists to understand sometimes, because we’ve mostly trained ourselves to divorce ideas from personalities, but for the average person to process what they’re hearing about science, they need to have a good sense of who the speakers are.
The ‘Hawking Effect’ vs the ‘Everett Effect’
This is why Hawking’s books, which are dense with difficult ideas, are nevertheless so popular. In the words of Homer Simpson, everyone knows who “that wheelchair guy” is, and what he’s about.
But there’s also the opposite of this positive “Hawking effect,” as the tragic story of physicist Hugh Everett III demonstrates. Everett was an atheist who didn’t believe in a universe deliberately fine-tuned to allow for human life. His Many Worlds interpretation for quantum mechanics – a version of the multiverse – offers an alternate explanation for our universe that includes what Everett considered to be a naturalistic form of human immortality. In his hypothesis, a perhaps infinite number of Hugh Everetts live out every possibility in an infinite number of universes. When he dies in this universe, he’ll somehow go on in some of the other ones.
The effect this belief had on Hugh Everett’s life has to be part of the discussion. Rather than inspiring him to live his best possible life in this universe, he ate, drank, and smoked himself to death at the age of 51, leaving behind a wife and two emotionally-scarred children. His final instructions to his wife were to throw his cremated remains in the trash, which she eventually did. When his daughter later committed suicide, she asked that her remains likewise be dumped in the garbage in the tragically irrational hope that she might end up in the same universe as her father.
You might very well ask what any of this has to do with science. Well, a lot as it turns out, if we want people in the general public to take an interest in and continue to support our work. If we scientists try to keep ourselves separate from the non-scientific results of our work, we’ll never reach a bigger audience. The real-life results of scientific beliefs need to be understood just as much as the scientific justifications for those beliefs.
But we scientists can become so constrained in our role as scientists, we forget how to relate to the rest of humankind. We know how to write papers and present lectures for other scientists, but a lot of us seem to have lost the ability to connect in ways that make a difference in normal people’s lives. Which was a bit odd for the debate between Barnes and Hossenfelder, as both of them are known for presenting difficult scientific concepts to a lay audience through other media. But even in a debate, I think we need to relate to audiences as complete people. As my father said, that means we have to deal with feelings and aspirations as well as ideas.
Science has much to offer in these confusing times, but only if we scientists can inform a much wider audience. Yes, we have to take emotions out of the scientific process as much as possible, because human passions are often destructive to science. But once we’ve faithfully followed the scientific method and accomplished our task of advancing knowledge, there’s no good reason we scientists shouldn’t unwind and join the rest of the world in lively and meaningful discussions about the implications of our scientific efforts. Otherwise we’re just talking to ourselves and not having any real impact on the world.
Re-framing the discussion
I would like to see a different format for discussions about the relationship between science and human life. Before two scientists debate an issue like fine-tuning, I would like the participants to talk in a way that helps the audience get to know them as people. How might that play out?
For the theistic scientist who believes in the God of the Bible, the implications of fine-tuning appear to be straightforward – there is a world that operates by natural laws that people can understand, a reality outside of his own mind, one moral system that all people should follow, meaning to each person’s life, and a chance for eternal life outside of our universe. But are these beliefs consistent with science or is he corrupting the science to fit what he wants to believe? Viewers need to have a chance to get to know him as a person in order to determine if he’s authentic.
The implications of the other side of the finely-tuned universe paradigm are not as apparent. Does an agnostic scientist believe in universal morality, that human life has meaning, and in some form of immortality? If so, why?
When I get into it with non-religious people on social media, I often ask them how their scientific beliefs play out in their personal lives. For those who believe in the multiverse instead of a finely-tuned universe, I ask them if they still believe in things like justice, morality, and reality. I especially want to know if they’re bothered by the multiverse implication that they’re not unique or special in any way. Partly this is out of curiosity, but mostly it’s to see how seriously they take their own scientifically-professed ideas.
Ultimately, here’s what this is all about. It’s important for us to know if a scientific belief leads to a functional and logically consistent view of life. Hossenfelder may be right that all of this is beyond the realm of strict science. But as human beings who have to make sense out of their lives or risk ending up as nothing more than ashes in the garbage, we must also discuss how our scientific beliefs can influence or even determine many of our other beliefs about ourselves and our world.
I discovered this when I became a professor and began teaching my students that we are a small part of a vast universe. Just a nifty scientific fact, right? Well, I discovered, to my surprise, that many of my students were depressed by this knowledge, because it made them feel as if they didn’t have much inherent worth. If having depressed students concerns us, then we have to think about the context in which we present scientific ideas. For Christians, that’s not so difficult. How atheists or agnostics might approach this, I don’t have the faintest idea.
I’m not implying that we shouldn’t teach that the universe is vast, or that we should avoid topics of research that might lead to uncomfortable conclusions. But my heart aches every time I think of Hugh Everett and his family, or the countless students who feel they don’t amount to much in such an enormous universe. I think this means, when engaging in the public sphere, we need to have more complete conversations about science and its effects on our lives.
Dr. Sarah Salviander is an astrophysicist and Christian apologist. She was a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin for sixteen years, where she studied quasars and the evolutionary relationship between supermassive black holes and galaxies. Dr. Salviander converted from atheism to Christianity while studying for her doctorate, in large part because of the compelling evidence for God she observed through her scientific work. Her website is sarahsalviander.com.