In the Presence of Mystery

‘Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe’
A fish-eye mosaic of the Milky Way arching at a high inclination across the night sky, shot from a dark-sky location in Chile (European Southern Observatory)

As Jim and Huck float down the Big River at night, they lie on their backs and look up at the night sky.  “It’s lovely to live on a raft,” Huck recalls, telling the story. “We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim allowed they was made, but I allowed they just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.”

The basic question Twain puts in the mouths of his characters—were the stars made, or did they just happen?—is a question still discussed today, though not often with Jim and Huck’s quiet friendliness in the presence of such beauty and mystery. Jim’s position is a supernatural one, reflecting the belief that some power separate from the natural world created that world. Huck, on the other hand, takes a purely natural view, seeing no need for recourse to any creative force outside of nature. In today’s debate, Jim’s is the religious view, promoted by creationist Christians who have gained notoriety by arguing that their view should be included in high-school science courses. Opposed to them are the scientists who hold that the world we see and experience is a strictly natural phenomenon, one that came into being in a Big Bang without direction or purpose, and who oppose introducing supernatural forces into science classrooms.   

Roger Penrose

A Nobel Prize–winning mathematician and physicist Roger Penrose challenges the confidence his fellow scientists have in Huck’s theory that the stars came into being through chance alone, that they “just happened”—and manages to do so without turning to Jim’s supernatural theory. Indeed, his reason for dismissing much of current thinking in physics is that it is too much like religious thinking, based more on faith than on observation. And faith, in Penrose’s view, is “at odds with the procedures normally considered appropriate when applied to a search for the deep principles that underlie the behavior of our universe at its most basic levels.” Yet though faith—like the fashion and fantasy of his book’s lengthy title—is inimical to the scientific spirit, Penrose shows that all three are at work in contemporary scientific thought about the universe.

Perhaps the most contentious issue argued between creationists and physicists today is the anthropic principle. That principle declares that the universe must be exactly as it is for intelligent life to exist. But how did such a finely tuned universe come to be? For creationists, the answer is simple: God created it for us. For natural scientists, though, the problem is more challenging. What are the odds that such a universe “just happened”? Perhaps, as one currently fashionable theory proposes, our universe is just one of many, and given enough universes it becomes probable that one would turn out like ours. But how many universes would be enough? Just what are the odds that our universe came to exist simply by random chance? Penrose calculates them as one in 10123. By comparison, the number of molecules in our universe is thought to be in the neighborhood of 1080. Even one universe for each molecule in ours, in other words, would not significantly improve the odds of our universe coming into being. Believing in such an abundance as could truly produce our universe by chance is, Penrose declares, “a very sorry place for such a grand theory to have finally stranded us.” Rather than ignoring the math and keeping faith in an all-but-infinite number of unseen universes, or else believing in some post–Big Bang event such as the oft-proposed cosmic inflation—itself also unseen—Penrose argues that another explanation must be sought. And it must be one that is testable by observation, as science requires.

The problem is just the opposite with another fashionable theory Penrose challenges: string theory. String theory seeks to describe a single basic element of the universe, a one-dimensional object out of which every component of the universe is built. Unlike the proponents of the multiple-universes theory, who ignore the math that makes their theory unlikely beyond all reason, string theorists cavalierly dismiss the observation fundamental to physics in favor of their mathematical models. For string theory’s mathematics to work, our universe is required to be not four-dimensional—three spatial dimensions plus time—but ten-dimensional. Yet no observation substantiates the existence of these other six dimensions. With no evidence of their existence other than the need for their existence, string theory hardly differs from religion, whose God exists because he must exist in order for it to be true.

Quantum physics is the third scientific field Penrose examines. Quantum theory came into being partly with the observation that not only do elements sometimes behave as waves and sometimes as particles, but that they appear to change from waves to particles just by being observed. When elementary particles are made to pass through two slits in a barrier, they produce a pattern consistent with waves unless the two slits are watched, in which case they produce a pattern consistent with particles. Penrose doesn’t question this duality, which is both experimentally well established and mathematically consistent, but he does question the role assigned to observation. In the original “Copenhagen Interpretation” of this phenomenon, Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg proposed that the wave is actually a function—not a physical wave, but a packet of possibilities that, upon being observed, collapses into the single particle that is observed. Why should this be so? Penrose asks. Why should merely observing something cause such an extraordinary event? For that matter, if the world at the quantum level is continuous with the macro-level world we live in, are we to think that the universe of particles we live in exists merely because it is observed? What would this even mean? And how are we to test such a theory through observation—as science requires—if it is a theory about observation itself? If the Copenhagen Interpretation, along with other theories subsequently proposed to explain wave/ particle duality, can’t be tested, is it a scientific theory at all? Or is it just a fashionable theory, accepted on faith but really little more than fantasy?   

If the Copenhagen Interpretation, along with other theories subsequently proposed to explain wave/ particle duality, can’t be tested, is it a scientific theory at all?

Having rejected the place of both fashion and faith in scientific thought, Penrose turns to fantasy. Here he proves more receptive. The universe, he asserts, is “in various ways...something quite fantastical,” and thus perhaps we are in need of fantastical ideas to comprehend it. In his view, the problem with cosmic-inflation theory, many-worlds theory, or other current theories—for instance, that the universe itself must be conscious in order to observe itself into being—is that they aren’t fantastical enough. In a short final section, Penrose turns to a “new physics for the universe,” whose centerpiece is something he calls twistor theory. His presentation of twistor theory, like much of Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy, is beyond the comprehension of the non-specialist. But his theory does have one thing in common with all of the hypotheses he rejects: it seeks to account for the world and all it contains, including us and our conscious minds, without recourse to supernatural explanation.


THIS is a crucial point. Unseen universes, unseen dimensions, observation that creates what it sees—all these may be unscientific, but they are not supernatural. Proponents of multi-universe theories adamantly reject comparisons between their debates over the number of hidden universes and the apocryphal debates of medieval scholastics over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Though both debate unseeable entities, the unseeable entities of the physicist are nevertheless completely natural and material entities. Any hypothesis proper for a science classroom must be natural and material, not supernatural. Natural-science classrooms unimpeded by supernatural religion have an essential place in human society; they assist us in understanding both what we can do for our material benefit and how what we do affects both ourselves and the world. While religion can inform our thinking about what is beneficial and what is detrimental, it does so in a wholly different manner, and so belongs in a different classroom—as well as at home and in church.

Nevertheless, scientific materialism does have one thing in common with the creationism it rightly seeks to keep out of the science classroom: both begin with the assumption that certainty about the deep principles underlying our universe—certainty about how we and the stars came to be—is both possible and desirable. In this sense, creationism ironically proves incompatible with religion, since to be religious is to dwell in the presence of mystery. Jim and Huck embrace opposite sides of the explanatory choices available—the superstitious Jim propounding the supernatural explanation, and the rationalist Huck the natural explanation. But finally neither explanation truly suffices; and Twain, himself hostile to Christians and their Bible, was enough of an artist to let the matter remain unresolved, leaving Huck and Jim to float down the river, marveling at the stars in all their beauty and mystery.

Those today who wish to remain with Jim and Huck, floating in the presence of that beauty and mystery, might well be more at home with Penrose and his fellow physicists than with the creationists. Even though those physicists resist religious explanations, Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy shows that they continue to live in the presence of mystery. To be sure, they believe that the universe can finally be demystified, and that a satisfactory theory of everything will eventually be found. Penrose concludes with the idea, shared by a growing number of physicists, that our universe will eventually peter out into near-nothingness, until some tiny event starts the process again: world not only without end but also without beginning, only the vast cycles taught by many non-Abrahamic religions. But in a certain fundamental sense, either hypothesis—that the universe came into being out of nothing, by divine fiat or not, or that it has always existed in some form—is equally impossible, and thus equally mysterious. For those today who seek not certainty but a truer relationship with the mystery of existence, following scientists as they work toward their elusive goal may be the better choice, deepening our sense of wonder and humility as we float with Jim and Huck on their raft, looking up  at the stars in the night sky, pondering how they, and we, came to be.


Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe
Roger Penrose
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 520 pp.

Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: 

Paul Johnston teaches literature at the State University of New York, Plattsburg.

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