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Stephen Barr, Particle Physics, and the (Dis)proof of God

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Late yesterday, my good friend Nick Rischiotto—an itinerant Italian, equal parts Rocky and Romeo—passed along a refreshingly informative piece that he’d just come across. Writing in the June/July 2001 issue of First Things magazine, Stephen M. Barr, professor of particle physics at the University of Delaware, discusses “anthropic coincidences,” the myriad scientific factors that culminated in the universe, world, and life we know. The coincidences run from the telling waver of the strong nuclear force—”Had the strong nuclear force been weaker by even as little as 10 percent, it would not have been able to fuse two hydrogens together to make deuterium … Had the strong nuclear force been only a few percent stronger than it is, an opposite disaster would have occurred”—to the near-impossibility of the three-alpha process, formed in “a hundredth of a millionth of a billionth of a second.” The smallest tweak, the least shunt of magnitude, and the Mariners would not only still be without a World Series, but they’d be without an existence.

Barr’s essay was, in short, a paean to Intelligent Design, and one of the most compelling pieces of teleological science that I have ever read. (Seriously, take 20 minutes, and stimulate something other than Hulu.com’s hits.) He doesn’t offer this piece as proof, but part of mere discussion and alignment:

…However, absolute certainty may be beside the point. We might still be left with strong indications that the cosmos was made with us in mind, even if those indications do not add up to a proof. After all, the reasons that scientists like Weinberg, Dawkins, and Gould give for reaching the opposite conclusion are also not subject to proof.

Having just finished the article, trying to tune out the wailings of NCAA 2011 just outside my room, I’ve not fully digested Barr’s salience. But as I’ll have little free time throughout the remainder of the week—throughout the rest of my time in the States, actually—I’d be remiss not to shuffle out my reaction. (A couple of notes: I cite God throughout, but don’t take this to be some assertion of its* existence—I use it simply as a character that finds repetition throughout culture and cultures. Also, I don’t know string theory from string quartets, so my basis for discussion of particle physics comes from a combination of this article, Bill Nye, and the few times Neil deGrasse Tyson has been on The Daily Show.)

*I never understood why God received gender-based pronouns. God is neither male nor female, and it is certainly not a person—yet those who worship it subsequently brand It, denigrate it, with human character. You don’t do that for non-living entities, so why would a gender-neutral Creator need it?

Firstly, I credit Barr for his clear prose. Like Gould or Sakharov before him—or Bill Nye, for that matter—Barr has written quickly and cogently, explaining without condescending. And while, in the end, he falters, he does convincingly discredit (some of) those who would discredit him. For example, Barr saliently shows that the physicists who suspect God’s “hands were completely tied” in the creation of this life flub the basic understanding of God. As is inherent in its nature, God’s All Being would have simply worked another set of creation such that we would still be here, somehow, some way. God would have found a way.

As it is written with the scientific method in mind, I knew that the piece would follow a grand tradition of grating the line where scientists and deists have met since man first shouted “Eureka!”—the line Galileo trod, that Dawkins and his ilk now flout. It is the notion and the presence of the “God of the gaps,” the omnipresence that exists just beyond the grips of our scientific understanding. It began with weather: Rain, famine, drumming thunder all served as God’s communication, until we learned that they weren’t. God then moved on to and into geographic oddities, solar organization, material wealth, and, for some, America’s perceived providence. (In an odd nod to our ancestors, Bill O’Reilly recently claimed that we don’t know where the Moon came from, and thus that our “special place of being” was proven all the further.) These notions eventually—well, mostly—decomposed under the modes of science, and the God of the gap was pushed just a bit further into the ether.

In this piece, the suggestion of God—not proof, as Barr goes out of his way to illustrate—resides in the peculiarities and necessities of the sub-atomic world, which, extrapolated, end with your eyes, my feet, Ichiro’s swing, and Dubya’s smirk. Our existence, our recipe, requires very precise measurements—measurements with which we just so happened to have been endowed. The years are necessary. The deuterium is necessary. The proteins, and the Moon, and the troposphere were all necessary. Everything created us, says Barr. Everything was necessary. And it was, I suppose. Action, reaction, and all that—the slightest change, and this moment would be starkly different, if existent at all. Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is us. So it would seem.

But his article, cogent as it is, eventually cracks, buckling under the weight of … I dunno, reality? certitude? inevitability? Again, to his credit, Barr meticulously details the anchors of opposition, one of which is the theory of multiple universes—that ours is but one in a series of universes, either concurrent or serial. (This notion, five years after Barr’s piece, would gain increased credence in the scientific community.) While discussing the many-universes possibility that could account for (and enhance) the unlikeliness of our existence, Barr rightly points that we can’t know the laws or life-likelihoods of each universe, as we are, as yet, unable to study, understand, or comprehend them—or acknowledge their existence at all. Good so far. But then Barr makes a leap:

If some kinds of universe exist while others do not, it would seem to suggest that Someone has made choices.

For some reason, Barr has decided it necessary for the multi-universe theory to contain every type of universe—perhaps the largest conjecture of infinity man could posit. Barr says that if every kind of universe does not exist, God must have eliminated certain types or traits in the express desire to create this, that, and the other thing. That is, the lack of universal possibilities within the multi-universe theory somehow connotes a sense of choice.

But this point is factually unsound, and debilitates his argument. There’s no reason—at least, there’s no scientifically-certified reason—that a multi-universe system must contain every potential permutation, offering a fair shake to the gamut of possibilities. All does not exist within our universe; why must everything exist within the totality of existing universes? The theory is not named “universe-universe”—it is “multi-universe.” Just as our physics contains certain laws that are a localized phenomenon—electromagnetism, flatness, etc.—there is little (nothing?) to disprove a set of macro-principles that govern the creation of universes, laws to which each universe must ascribe as it goes about its tinkering and fine-tuning of its subjects. Laws that would otherwise prevent the creation of every single type of universe, conceivable or otherwise.

From this turn, the rest of the article loses face. And it’s to my own chagrin—for the first time in quite a while, I’d found myself rapt by a proof of religiosity. There was a scratch of hope buzzing through my ears as I read through the first few paragraphs, through the miraculous sub-atomic alignments, through the disproofs of each possible explanation. I was nearly convinced. And then it fell. I was—and I apologize for my crassness—spiritually blue-balled.

Barr’s suggestions eventually collapse, but unlike so many, he doesn’t carry the hubris of proof with his argument. For this reason alone, I’d like to read more. However, he doesn’t dovetail his arguments with invalidation of all possibilities—the set of multi-universes can still exist within theory, and until the theory runs into a ditch of disproof, this God will only exist within the gaps, or beyond the boundaries, of our scientific knowledge. Only when we have entire knowledge of the universe’s—or this existence’s—gestalt will we know whether or not this God can or does exist.

I thank Nick for passing it along—for giving me the opportunity to write, to him and to you—and I would love to hear your reaction. And I’d like to take this moment to remind you that even if God does not exist, there’s no reason not to be thankful at every juncture that the cosmos have aligned to set you here, in this place, in this time, in this life.

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About Casey Michel

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    “We might still be left with strong indications that the cosmos was made with us in mind, even if those indications do not add up to a proof. After all, the reasons that scientists like Weinberg, Dawkins, and Gould give for reaching the opposite conclusion are also not subject to proof.”

    And, yet, when someone presents a theory, the burden of proof falls on their shoulders NOT the skeptic’s.

    Seriously, how do know it wasn’t The Flying Spaghetti Monster that created the cosmos in his image. I mean, we do have String Theory now & Spaghetti is rather “stringy”, right? Hmmm….

  • Like this article. And I was given to wool gathering this week as it was Ken Wilber’s BD and so I mused aloud about my connection with him and David Lane and philosophy. Lately Wilber has tried to answer a similar question without much success.

    I like your conclusion too. You know what I think: the laws of the universe exist…it is we humans who do not exist. The laws are there minding their own business whether or not man can read the supernatural writing on the cosmic wall.


  • Barr’s article was an interesting read especially with the strong start. It is a shame, as Michel notes, that Barr lost it there in the end. Alas, those citing perfections in the universe and/or strings of activity that brought humans about as proof of a divine creator conveniently forget to mention or even attempt to explain birth defects, pedophilia and Saved By The Bell DVDs.

  • ray hewett

    The ‘God of the gaps’ argument is made and succeeds only because people don’t take account of the idea of God being in all things, using all things, ie both what we understand and what we don’t understand, to operate the cosmos.

  • Mike

    Barr is yet another in a long line of people who refuse to give up the notion of God. They are so emotionally attached to it that they ignore evidence, lack of evidence, and common sense in order to keep looking for reasons to support it.

    Does a tree choose to drop a branch on a passing rodent? Do the Leonid meteors choose to attack Earth every year?

    We are part of the universe. The only reason people think it was created for us is because we are here. Do they also believe lotteries are specifically designed for the few winners?

  • duane

    One of the best written science articles I have read in a long time. Very well executed. Educational and entertaining at the same time, without the usual lame analogies and implied “winks” at the nerdiness of it all. It’s a fascinating subject, this fine-tuning. Although known and discussed for hundreds of years, more and more of the just-so aspects of the Universe are coming to light as research advances — such as the Moon and its effects on evolution.

    Muchos kudos to you for recognizing that not ALL possibilities need exist. There’s a mathematical analogy: there is an infinite number of integers, but between each integer there is an infinite number of rational numbers not included in the set of integers. Between any two rational numbers there is an infinite number of irrational numbers. Uncountable infinities vs. countable infinities. In practice, countable means you can assign a unique label (or name) to each set member. People tend to think an infinite Universe, or an infinite number of finite universes, correspond(s) to the uncountable infinity — that every possibility a la Twilight Zone exists. But maybe our existence consists of a finite number of finite Universes. It’s hard to grasp.