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
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 520 pp.