May 10, 2020

Cliff's Edge -- The Past Hypothesis

For decades I have been reading popularized books on quantum physics, relativity (special and general), and cosmology by young men brilliant enough to get doctoral degrees in mathematical physics or theoretical physics or theoretical mathematical physics or whatever, and also to write accessible books that sell in numbers I drool over.

However, as the years roll by (or whatever their physics teaches that time does), it’s finally dawning on these wunderkinds what the philosophical premises of their science mean for them, their families, their life’s work. After all, according to these premises, the universe that they have so deeply studied is (depending on the math in their equations) either going to tear apart, collapse in on itself, or just flat out burn out.

Enough to make even these demigods wonder, What’s it all about? Or if it’s about anything at all? Or is it all just as meaningless as their premises imply?

Take, for example, Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and renowned for “groundbreaking” discoveries in string theory. Greene has also authored such bestsellers as The Elegant Universe (1999) The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), The Hidden Reality (2011), and his latest, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (2020).

A plug for Until the End of Time says that “through a series of nested stories that explain distinct but interwoven layers of reality–from quantum mechanics to consciousness to black holes–Greene provides us with a clearer sense of how we came to be, a finer picture of where we are now, and a firmer understanding of where we are headed.”


Sure, Brian Greene has his conjectures, his speculations, some no doubt greatly influenced by his unchallenged expertise in mathematical physics. But that’s all that they are, speculations and conjectures, which are also (I’m afraid) exceedingly limited by his unproven philosophical claim that “without intent or design, without forethought or judgment, without planning or deliberation, the cosmos yields meticulously ordered configurations of particles from atoms to stars to life.”

How this happened, of course, is the big question; what it all means, the bigger one. Nevertheless, he claims that entropy and gravity together are “at the heart of how a universe heading toward ever-greater disorder can nevertheless yield and support ordered structures like stars, planets, and people.” He writes that “by the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws,” that is, through gravity and entropy—the universe, life, human consciousness all came into existence. (Grace—that’s the word he used!)

Everyone’s familiar with gravity, and with entropy, too, though it needs a bit of explaining. Entropy is a statistical principle that describes why cars rust, why our bodies fall apart, and why all things, if left alone, move toward disorder.  (Don’t put thought or energy into keeping up your abode, and see what happens to it.) Entropy (also known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is the measure of that disorder: low entropy, order; high entropy, disorder, and our universe is moving, inexorably, toward higher entropy, higher disorder.

To use an image that Greene uses, imagine 100 pennies all heads up on a table. “By comparison” he writes, “if we consider even a slightly different outcome, say in which we have a single tail (and the other 99 pennies are still all heads), there are a hundred different ways this can happen: the lone tail could be the first coin, or it could be the second coin, or the third, and so on up to the hundredth coin. Getting 99 heads is thus a hundred times easier—a hundred times more likely—than getting all heads.”

If you keep going, the ways of getting more tails amid heads keep rising. There are 4,950 ways to get two tails; 161,700 ways to three tails; 4,000,004 ways for four tails, and so forth until the numbers peak at 50 heads and 50 tails. Green writes that at this point, “there are about a hundred billion billion billion possible combinations (well, 100, 891, 344, 545, 564, 193, 334, 812, 497, 256 combinations).”

Now, let’s move from coins to atoms, the stuff of existence (at least as stuff appears to us when we look at it). A bunch of random atoms are much more likely to remain a bunch of random atoms than to form, say, a cat or a copy of The Iliad, just as 100 random coins on a table are more likely to be in disarray than to be all heads (or tails) up, or even to get real close to either configuration. Things go from order to disorder simply because there are a whole lot more ways to be disordered than ordered.

Fine, but how does this law-like tendency for all things toward disorder, toward higher entropy, lead to all the ordered and organized structures that exist, everything from stars to human consciousness? Greene answers: it’s gravity. “When there’s enough gravity—enough sufficiently concentrated stuff—ordered structures can form,” he claims, then he spends a hunk of his book explaining how it happened.

How successfully Greene make his case, readers of Until the End of Time can decide for themselves. I want, instead, to look at something he wrote about entropy that, I humbly suggest, presents a major flaw in his thinking. It’s what’s known as “The Past Hypothesis.”

Let’s go back to the 100 coins on the table, but now in a high entropy state, a state of high disorder. Suppose, as you were studying why the coins were like that, you developed a theory which required that at first these coins were in a low entropy state, all heads up, say. Fine. But this leaves open the simple question: How did they get that way? The answer’s obvious: some intelligence deliberately arranged the coins into that low-entropy state. How else?

But suppose that an unproven philosophical premise behind the science investigating the coins is that their existence, however it began, did so “without intent or design, without forethought or judgment, without planning or deliberation.” You, therefore, would need another explanation for this hypothetical low-entropy, highly ordered state of 100 heads up coins as an initial condition. (In fact, you probably would have never theorized an intelligence behind it because your philosophical presupposition, from the start, forbade it.)

Let’s again move from coins to atoms, the atoms in our universe, which are in a high entropy state, and getting higher. The problem comes from The Past Hypothesis, which teaches that the universe started out in a state of low entropy.

“A hundred pennies with all heads,” writes Greene, “has low entropy and yet admits an immediate explanation—instead of dumping the coins on the table, someone carefully arranged them. But what or who arranged the special low-entropy configuration of the early universe? Without a complete theory of cosmic origins, science can’t provide an answer.”

Who (perhaps a Freudian slip of the computer keys?) or what “arranged the special low-entropy configuration of the universe?” If 100 coins heads up, a fairly simple configuration no matter how unlikely, needed someone to arrange them, then what about the early conditions of our universe, which must have been much more complex than a mere 100 heads up coins? To paraphrase Greene, Who or what arranged it that way?

In a line from his book (the line that prompted this column), Greene just shrugged his shoulders at this question and said: “For now, we will simply assume that one way or another, the early universe transitioned into this low-entropy, highly ordered configuration, sparking the bang and allowing us to declare that the rest is history.”

way or another
the early universe just happened to be highly ordered? If, in seeking to understand the origins and nature of the 100 coins on the table, you just shrugged off their low-entropy beginnings with, “Well, let’s just assume that, somehow, the 100 coins all got heads up,” you’d be sneered at. Yet Greene does that with something astronomically more complicated than 100 heads up coins, the low-entropy state of the early universe.

Too bad Greene, echoing Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, can’t say something like: Look, I am a scientist. I study only natural phenomena, which means that even though, obviously, some intelligence must have created the low-entropy state of the early universe, I don’t deal with that but only with what comes after, or the like. Of course, even if inclined to say that, he would be derided, ridiculed, and tarred-and-feathered as the intellectual equivalent of a flat-earther or Holocaust-denier.

There’s a tragic irony, however, in not acknowledging the obvious. Until the End of Time reflects Greene’s attempt to come to terms with the fact that, according to his science, every memory of him and of everything that he accomplished, along with the memory of everyone else and of everything that they accomplished, are all going to vanish into eternal oblivion as if never existing or happening to begin with. Yet he wrote about how, in a Starbucks, it hit him that when you realize the universe will be “bereft of stars and planets and things that think, your regard for our era can appreciate toward reverence.”

It can? For most people, every conscious moment “in our era” is overshadowed by the certainty that—because they unfold in a universe that one day will be “bereft of stars and planets and things that think”—these moments ultimately mean nothing. So how much reverence does nothing deserve? The Hebrew Scripture says that God has put olam (eternity) in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11), and as long as we can envision an olam that steamrolls every memory of us into the dirt as it moves on without us, we are left to flail about in a search for meaning amid a universe that, according to Greene’s unproven presuppositions, offers none.

It’s painful, because the low entropy state of the early cosmos points to the only logical “past hypothesis”—a Creator. This Creator and His grace—not “the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws,” which, after supposedly creating us, destroy us (some grace)—His grace promises, for those who accept it, “eternal life” (John 17:3) in the same olam that the Creator has, yes, put in our hearts.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.