Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Beginning

For the first post on this blog, it might be fitting to start at the beginning.

In Physics, the idea that there was a beginning came about in a hard fight in the field of cosmology. After Einstein admitted that the universe is not static, calling his modification of the equations of general relativity his greatest blunder, there are 2 main schools of thoughts.

First is the steady state theory, which says that the observation that the universe is expanding can be explained away by matter spontaneously coming into existence so that the universe is always in this state, and therefore have no beginning.

Second is the now familiar big bang theory. It says that if the universe is expanding now, then it must have been in a state of very high density. Extrapolating back in time, we get the beginning of the universe when the density goes to infinity. The universe is of zero size. Now the figure is 13.7 billion years ago. And the moment of the big bang is called the singularity. The ridiculous state of the universe where most laws of physics break down.

Now if this blog, or dialogue between Buddhism and physics were to occur at that time, then Buddhists most likely predict that further observations will eventually support the steady state theory. After all, the Buddha himself said that there is no way to conceive of a beginning.

From SN15:3 and SN 15:13:
From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. 

The Buddhist point of view towards the beginning is that if there is a effect, there must be a cause. And tracing back to the cause, it is an effect of another cause. Repeating this formula, how could we have a first cause without something causing it to happen? [1]

In almost the same sense, this is the physics dilemma too with the big bang theory. Once you are at the singularity, what caused it to expand in the first place? What guarantees that all the laws of physics that comes after is conducive for a life bearing universe? [2]

Now back to the debate between steady state theory and the big bang theory. Those of Abrahamic religion with an open mind will most likely root for the big bang theory. The big bang is the moment when God created the universe, they would say, so no one can see it or understand it. Hence it is not surprising that the laws of physics breaks down there.

I for one am glad I wasn't an active engaged physicists Buddhist at that time. Or else I would have a great punch in the face to my faith when experimental evidence supports the big bang theory and the steady state theory has died down.

This story above tells us of the danger of trying to mix up science and religion, using science to support or to disprove religion.

It is in the nature of all things to be impermanent, including our best knowledge of how the universe works. So science as a discipline is ever changing. While I would have said that the words of religions which shows the ultimate and absolute truths will never change, that would be naive and attaching too much to the fingers that are pointing towards the moon. The words are there, but the way to interpret them is renewed with each generation.

It is for this very reason, the constant need to renew our understanding of those words, that the attitude that Buddhist use towards these things is:
Most if not all of what the Buddha said is to help us gain enlightenment, not necessary to be interpreted literally, like the case of the beginning above. Do read SN15:3 and SN 15:13 and see for yourself.
So do not be attached to the fingers, but rather look beyond and see the moon.

Well, we can certainly adopt this view, and drop this blog all together. But, there's always a but, then there might be other benefits from this dialogue between Buddhism and physics that we'll miss out completely. What are these? The very fact that it occupies a very active thinking mind and distracts it from playing games would be a start.

Now back to the story.

When the big bang theory won out, physicists have been working on the details of almost every part of the evolution of the cosmos. Even up to now, the large Hadron Collider at CERN is recreating the conditions near to the big bang and exploring the new physics there. The largest problem so far is the combination of the 2 main pillars of modern physics: General relativity and Quantum physics near the singularity. Both theories disagree with one another and seems to predict that the laws of physics breaks down near to the singularity.

Hence the great effort now to search for or develop or think of the ultimate theory of everything that can combine those two and explain away how did the big bang happen? Then maybe we can ask why the big bang happened. Meanwhile, there are other approaches from the cosmology side.

There were proposals of how the universe will end and the natural combination of one of the most symmetrical way for it to end is the big crunch plus the big bang, producing a big bounce. It requires that the universe is dense enough so that gravity will pull everything back together again in the reverse of the big bang into a big crunch. Then by some magic of string or M theory, after passing through the Plank scale, getting smaller is equal to getting bigger, hence the cause of a big bang can be explained, and there can be no beginning to the universe, or series of multiverses.

It's a beautiful theory that can fit right into Buddhism. And if Buddhist happens to cling on to this idea, they will soon be disappointed as well. It turns out yet again that the universe is not showing signs that it is slowing down, but rather it is accelerating out at an increasing rate. (From the datas of 1998) Eventually our universe most probably will die by the big rip, where everything expands out faster than the speed of light. Even if the observational data happen to be wrong, the theory of the infinite big bounce has a theoretical flaw.

Entropy does not get reversed during the phase of the big crunch. The arrow of time is still toward disorder.and eventually, with each new universe, the entropy will increase and makes the next cycles longer and bigger and more unlikely to harbor any life, for a long long time. Ok maybe not so bad, so let's drop this idea because of the observation data then.

Next is to consider the scenario if the universe is flat or open. A big freeze and heat death will happen as the entropy of the universe maximize itself and for a long long time, nothing will ever change. Until this moment of extreme unlikeliness that eventually happens when you have an eternity to wait. At this moment, the universe by chance became ordered again and the next big bang happened. Just like how a box of white and black marbles will eventually reorder itself to their halves of the box that is shaken for a long enough time, so does entropy eventually gets reversed at a local scale in a long enough time. Thus no beginning. (As inspired by Asimov's story: the last question)

Not so bad for a theory of creation and destruction cycles like what the Buddhist texts say. Again, the big freeze is unlikely to happen now that we know the big rip is going to happen. Back to the drawing board again.

Now it's been a long roller coaster ride, and still there is no satisfying way of finding a beginingless universe in physics. Yet there's still hope. The inflationary universe theory is required to explain why is the cosmic background radiation so smooth and why don't we find monopoles amongst other stuffs. According to it, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light for a while near the singularity and then stopped and expanded at the slower than the speed of light rate.

So the trick here is to think why did every part of the universe stopped at the same time? Did some parts kept on expanding? Thus creating new spaces, parallel universes, and these universes kept on expanding producing their own child universe. If this is true, why should we be so egotistical and claim that we are near the singularity? Might not everything that the big bang theory predicted would happen happened in the infinite past? In fact why should it happen at all? Why not just let there be inflation traced back to inflation in a never ending cycle? This would fit in nicely with the beginningless philosophy of Buddhism.

One question I would like to ask of this infinite inflation through. Where did all the energy come from?

And so at the beginning of this article, I had still clung on to the infinite inflation view. But now, I learned not to be attached to a theory of Physics just because it seems to point towards the same object as Buddhism. Many fingers point to a moon, do not attach to the fingers, so that when the fingers change, we still see the moon.

Do you see the moon that both Physics and Buddhism are pointing towards?

Also interesting read:
[1]. The Universe in a single atom by the 14th Dalai Lama, Chapter 4: The Big Bang and the Buddhist Beginningless Universe.
[2]. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard MlodinowBecause there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going

P.S. I did an presentation on this: Feel free to download and to understand it. I won't be updating this for a while yet.

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