Physics, Cosmology, Astronomy
Physics is the branch of science that applies scientific methodologies to understand the most fundamental principles of nature: matter and energy and how they interact. A brief description of the scientific method is in order here. Science manages ideas about our world with theories, hypotheses, and observation. Predictions are tested by experiment and observation. Any theory strong enough to make verifiable predictions can be tested. If the predictions are correct, the theory survives. Laws of physics do not control, command, nor restrict how nature behaves.
Astronomy is the study of everything outside the earth and the planetary aspects of the earth. Cosmologists study the universe at the largest scale, such as the earth’s structure, formation, future. Astrophysics and cosmology are the application of scientific method and theories to the study of stellar structure, evolution, and the origin of the solar system. Astronomy and cosmology are the two branches of science that have the responsibility of trying to unravel life’s questions: the nature, past and future of supernovas, black holes, the birth of stars, the history and future of the Universe.
Modern physics reinforces atheists in their belief that no god created the universe. As will be seen later in this Preface, however, theists have seized on one theory, that of the so-called Big Bang, in order to claim that a creator god was the genesis of the universe. Modern physicists have refuted such false claims definitively, and the current thinking of most working physicists today is that the beginning of the universe did not depend on a singularity.
There are several theories proposed for the beginning of the universe, with the most trusted one being“The Big Bang. (However, the Preface and Book List both discuss alternative theories, along with the concepts of some eminent physicists who do not think the Big Bang Theory is robust any longer.) The name was coined by Fred Hoyle, who did not accept the theory, and was originally a term of ridicule. The Big Bang states that the universe began with a singularity about 13.7 billion years ago. A singularity is a zone of infinite density. There was an explosion and the universe began inflating faster than the speed of light. Eventually, after billions of years, the universe formed. The universe is still expanding and the distance between galaxies grows ever further. Big Bang has been subjected to much revision by scientists today, including Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, who discussed the idea from Einstein’s theory of general relativity and published their thinking in 1970. Hawking and Penrose later changed their minds by their encounter with quantum theory and because their calculations had not included quantum mechanics. This preface will explain current thinking about the beginning of the universe below, after theistic arguments have been examined.
Other theories are the Big Bounce, The Cyclic Universe Theory, and the Steady State Theory. They are each possible explanations for the order of the cosmos. But the Big Bang has had the most currency. Unfortunately it has also been a magnet for theists and Christian fundamentalists who seize the concept of the universe and time itself beginning with a singularity to make a false case for a cosmos brought into being by a creator. (It is important to keep in mind that a singularity is a point of zero volume, but very high mass, which makes the density infinite.)
The Big Bang temporarily gave theists a big bang of their own. An explosion some fifteen billion years ago offered them some hope, as they faultily reasoned that the universe could not have existed uncaused. William Lane Craig, a well known American evangelical and philosopher, has stated in his 1994 book, Reason and Faith, that (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause; (2) The universe begins to exist; (3) Therefore the universe has a cause. Students of atheism will recognize this old chestnut. See Arguments for and against the Existence of god.)
Austin Smith points out that all we have are observations of changes in things- of something changing from one state to another. All the causes we are aware of are changes in pre-existing materials. Smith states that what Craig and other theists mean by causal change means something entirely different- creating material from nothingness. The principle of ex nihilo, from nothing, has been dragged out once again, as atheist students will be aware, in the cosmological argument for the existence of god. This argument is based on faulty reasoning. If one follows the first cause argument, one can arrive at two different points from theists. The first is that if god is the cause of everything, then what caused god? The second is that if the first mover has always existed, then why cannot the same be true for the raw materials that make up the universe?
Here is a preeminent atheist physicist on the universe and its possible beginnings without god:
“…the claim that the universe began with the big bang has no basis in current physical and cosmological knowledge. The observations confirming the big bang do not rule out the possibility of a prior universe. Theoretical models have been published suggesting mechanisms by which our current universe appeared from a pre-existing one, for example, by a process called quantum tunneling or so-called “quantum fluctuations.” The equations of cosmology that describe the early universe apply equally for the other side of the time axis, so we have no reason to assume that the universe began with the big bang.
We have already seen that no miracle is evident in the big bang. It follows that its appearance could have been natural. Indeed, this is the more rational conclusion based on the absence of any violation of known physical principles. Prominent physicists and cosmologists have published, in reputable scientific journals, a number of proposals for how the universe could have come about “from nothing” naturally. These are speculative, to be sure, but they are speculations based on established knowledge. None violate any known laws of physics. These authors do not claim to “prove” that this is how it all happened. The burden of proof is on those who wish to claim these scenarios are impossible.
In short, empirical data and the theories that successfully describe those data indicate that the universe did not come about by a purposeful creation. Based on our best current scientific knowledge, we conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God who is the highly intelligent and powerful supernatural creator of the physical universe does not exist.” (Victor J. Stenger. “The Scientific Case Against A God Who Created the Universe.” Feb. 13, 2007.) (Link)
The second most popular argument for theists (and some physicists) is the idea of the fine-tuning of the universe. This is known as the anthropic cosmological principal, that the universe is fine-tuned for the emergence of human life. The constants were laid out in Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers in 1999.
· N = ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to that of gravity;
· Epsilon (ε) = strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei;
· Omega (ω) = relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe;
· Lambda (λ) = cosmological constant;
· Q = ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass;
· D = number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.
The fine-tuning principle does not hold up when looked at closely. The argument is that the probability of a planet having so many stable elements necessary for life is so low that it shows there was design involved. However planet hospitality and human survival on it can be seen to be very contingent. Most of the earth is unfit for survival. 98% of Species that at one time populated the earth have since died out. It is more likely that humans have evolved to fit the environment and not vice versa. One can perceive that our planet was hardly designed for life. Hawking’s Grand Design (2010) makes this point in a humorous manner: “Obviously when the beings on a planet that supports life examine the world around them, they are bound to find that their environment satisfies the conditions they require to exist. Hawking asserts that “…our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the outside world. We form mental concepts of our home, trees, other people, and the electricity that flows from wall sockets, atoms, molecules, and other universes. These mental concepts are the only reality we can know. There is no model-independent test of reality.” The fine-tuned universe principle has the appearance of illusion rather than sound science.
Hawking and Mlodinow have arrived at some refinements about the question of the beginning of the universe. In The Grand Design, Hawking proposes that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously, that there is not a single existence. He now embraces the idea of a multiverse, that ours is just one universe out of many, that each has its own natural laws and all appeared spontaneously out of nothing. He puts forward M-theory, which predicts that each universe came from nothing, that none of these “creations” needed a supernatural being or a god. Hawking explains that at one point in distant time, the universe was small enough to be governed by both general relativity and quantum theory, and that there were effectively four dimensions of space and none of time. Our ideas of space and time cannot be applied to the early universe. Time behaves like space, which, claims Hawking, “removed the age-old objection to the Universe having a beginning, but also means that the beginning of the Universe was governed by the laws of Science and doesn’t need to be set in motion by some god.”
In Atheist Universe (2006,) David Mills explains the philosophical concept of Ockham’s Razor. Ockham’s Razor seems appropriate for non religious thinkers vis-à-vis leaving god out of the theory of the beginning of the universe and also for rejecting the anthropocentric fallacy of the fine-tuned universe of the theists. Ockham’s Razor means that the simplest reasonable explanation is usually the accurate one. It asks the thinker “to slice off” unnecessary ideas from our explanations. “If the Cosmos can be explained reasonably and thoroughly by natural processes, the addition of a Miracle God Creator is arbitrary and unnecessary.”
It is time to snip the concept of god from our exploration of the beauty, cruelty and astounding complexity of the Universe.
1 Sanciement, Anna. “Origins of the Universe: Theories of How the Cosmos Began.” Suite 101. Suite101.com/contents/origins-of-the-universe- all6868.
2 Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1994.
3 Smith, Austin. “Why the Big Bang is No Help to Theists.” Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol.18,no.2.
4 Rees, Martin. “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe.” London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999.
5 Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. NY: Bantam, 2010. 153.
6 ______. Grand Design, 178.
8 Mills, David. Atheist Universe. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2006. 93.
The following books have been chosen because critics and readers consider them some of the strongest texts for the study of physics and how that study is applied to atheism. Some are for the beginning and general reader. Some are for the graduate student or teacher of physics. The volumes that have been included are known for their style, their grasp of the topics covered and their ability to convey explanations, theories and principles to the reader.
Feynman, Richard P. The Feynman Lectures in Physics, including Feynman’s Tips on Physics: The Definitive and Extended Edition. 4 Volumes. San Francisco: Addison-Wesley, 2006.
Feynman was known as a remarkable educator as well as a renowned physicist who garnered many top awards in his field. His published lectures have been for years considered an excellent guide for students and teachers both. This extended edition contains his previously unpublished notes given to students for exams at the end of his courses. Feynman was the solo creator of quantum electro dynamics. Many readers as well as reviewers are in agreement that the lectures make the various equations and developments in physics understandable.
There is some disagreement as to whether Feynman’s lectures are the best go-to set to learn physics, but the work is considered a classic by general expert consensus, and is a must have starter set for learning and understanding classical physics.
Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. NY: Bantam, 2010.
Hawking, one of the grand masters of physics, and Leonard Mlodinow, a Cal Tech physicist, set out to answer some of the following questions in their very readable, enjoyable and short book, written for the armchair philosopher: Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? Why is there something rather than nothing? A reader has described it as close to Lucretius’ Nature of Things, but the style is down to earth and conversational rather than poetic. Hawking not only explains why the cosmos does not have a single existence, but informs readers that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. He and his co-author discuss why quantum theory allows for multiverses, universes that appeared out of nothing, spontaneously, and each having different laws of nature. Grand Design introduces M-theory, laws governing the multiple universes, and the authors’ belief that M-theory is the only viable candidate for a "Theory of Everything."
Hawking states definitively that no divine force was needed to explain why the universe was formed. Here are his own words on the subject. “Because there is such a law as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something other 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.”
The Grand Design is written as though the authors were having a chat in the reader’s study and there is a minimum of professional jargon. Recommended for non believers and people interested in string and M-theory. ( See the citation for Steven Weinberg’s critique of Grand Design in Works Consulted Below.)
Mills, David. Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2006.
Mills’ book is a general and excellent introduction to atheism, covering in accessible language, religious and spiritual topics such as Jesus’ resurrection, “near death” experiences, and the meaning of life without god. Atheist Universe is also recommended for readers interested in an introduction to principles of science that are not too technical.
For non-religious readers who want a one- book- on- the- topic approach, Atheist Universe is recommended for its discussions on Does the Universe Show Evidence of Design? (Chapter Three) and The Miracle of Planetary Clockwork (Chapter Four.) Without reference to complex charts, mathematics or formulas, Mills explains complex ideas in a very compelling and understandable manner. Highly recommended for beginning and intermediate readers.
Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. NY: A.A. Knopf, 2005.
Road to Reality is considered by many critics, reviewers and readers who enjoy and understand physics, to be the one book that should be read for a comprehensive view of physics. Penrose, an Oxford physicist, states his purpose to be the description of the search for the underlying principles that govern the behavior of our universe. This is not a book for the average beginner. The first half takes the reader through huge areas of mathematics. Penrose does not condescend to his readers with analogies, but for those interested in physics, and willing to read the entire huge volume with no skimming or skipping(if points are lost, later chapters may not be intelligible) there is a large pay off by the second half. Once the determined scholar has mastered the first half of the text, the second part is the reward, as classical physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, string and twister theories and much more information forward understanding of the current ideas concerning the universe.
Penrose clearly does not believe that string theory or loop quantum gravity will be the theories still necessary to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity. Road to Reality is a very rewarding text for the reader who has a background in mathematics and physics.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. NY: Random House, 1980.
Cosmos, while somewhat dated, is still considered a worthwhile volume to read. It was a companion piece to Sagan’s thirteen-part television series of the same name. Cosmos tells the story of how science and civilization grew together through the centuries, the space missions, the research library in ancient Alexandria, the brain, the origin of life, the sun’s future death, the evolution of galaxies and more. Sagan, a brilliant astrophysicist, astronomer and cosmologist, conveys his boundless enthusiasm and shares his knowledge with general readers, who respond to this day with appreciation and interest in humans’ connection to the Universe. The book contains over 250 color illustrations which are very well done.
Cosmos, the text, and the television series, were the initial science blockbusters. The series had been seen by around half a billion people at Sagan’s death in 1996.
There are certain difficulties with the text, however, that must be mentioned. Chapter seven contains a sort of stream of consciousness musing about primitive life. Unfortunately, this musing is not scientific and some readers find it annoying. The second difficulty pointed out by some past readers is also unscientific and is sometimes seen as more science fiction than science. Sagan assumes that alien civilizations will be more advanced than we on the earth and benevolent. Stephen Hawking today points out that this will not necessarily be the case. He muses that on our planet, when a more advanced civilization came into contact with a more primitive one, the result was disastrous for the less advanced people.
While some atheists are not impressed by what they call Sagan’s passive anti-Christianity in Cosmos, many others will be delighted.
Singh, Simon. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. NY: Fourth Estate, 2004.
Singh’s book is considered an outstanding text for the student and non professional reader, using a conversational, leisurely style of writing to cover the history of the Big Bang from the earliest thinking up to the present day. Singh explains how modern scientists are building on the knowledge of the past. Readers report being fascinated with Singh’s account of the early history of astronomy. Many relate that they finally understand what the Big Bang is and why it is true, and why the scientific community accepts it. Singh, a former BBC producer and now a science writer, educated himself on the topic of the Big Bang for a lengthy amount of time before completing this volume. Big Bang is highly recommended for the interested beginning reader of the history and physics of cosmology.
Smolin, Lee. The Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. NY: Basic Books, 2001.
Smolin, a professor at Penn State, explains in Three Roads a key resolution of theories in an area that was unfinished in the 20th Century: the theory of large, general relativity, with that of small quantum mechanics. Smolin assumes his readers have a background in these subjects and does not spend a great deal of time on long explanations of either relativity or quantum mechanics. He quickly moves to the three “roads” of the title, spending rather more time (as reported by critics) on quantum gravity. The other two “roads” discussed are string theory, and the path from fundamental principles. Readers with a special interest in M-theory will find Three Roads particularly rewarding.
From a philosophical point of view, some readers find this volume a failure, while others consider Smolin’s comparison of space/time nature to “conventional macro existentialist properties of the human condition” tantalizing and cogent. This is not a book for readers unacquainted with relativity or quantum theory.
Stenger, Victor J. God:The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.
Stenger, a renowned particle physicist, atheist, and philosopher, has of late devoted many of his works to“debunking” fundamentalist claims concerning the nature of the universe, its origins and the idea that god was the first cause, bringing about the Big Bang. God: The Failed Hypothesis is valuable for its many fine points concerning the lack of evidence for a creator god. But for the purposes of this science/physics Preface, Cosmic Evidence, (Chapter Four) and The Uncongenial Universe, (Chapter Five,)are of the most interest. Stenger is a brilliant physicist and a master at making complex ideas accessible. He takes the theist William Lane Craig to task for Craig’s insistence on cause, and makes short work of Craig’s arguments on pages 122-125. On page 164 of Chapter Four, The Uncongenial Universe, Stenger states: “The Observed Universe and the laws and parameters of Physics look just as they can be expected to look if there is no god. From this we can conclude, beyond reasonable doubt, that such a god does not exist.” Page 133 contains another statement that will be encouraging to atheists: “The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if we had no god.”
This is an excellent book for non religious readers who are either beginners or have an intermediate knowledge of physics. Stenger’s books are highly recommended for the grasp of their subject and for their discussions of a material universe, governed by natural law. Of particular interest to atheists is Stenger’s volume: The Fallacy of Fine Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed. (April, 2011.)
Susskind, Leonard. String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. NY: Little Brown, 2006.
Susskind, one of the founders of string theory and now a professor at Stanford University, has written a book that not only discusses string theory, but segues into a highly controversial area of great interest to atheists: the claims that the laws of physics are fine-tuned for the benefit of life.
There are certain claims for fine-tuning that have been discussed and dispensed with in regard to design ideas, such as the fact that nuclear reactions in stars produce carbon, which life is dependent on. Carbon production is often called “the tuning of carbon.” The principle does not hold up under examination. However, one particular idea does seem to point to fine-tuning at first, giving thrust to the arguments of theists and some scientists. This idea is that the cosmological constant (energy level which infuses empty space) is quite small, which is an excellent thing, because if it were too large, stars, galaxies and planets would not have formed.
String theory (tiny vibrating strands of energy) and M-theory (not only strands but wider membranes) are able to present a compelling argument that does away with the need for a “Designer Theory.” Susskind launches into a full explanation, which is that we live in a multiverse, which is populated. He states that “other pockets or parts of a larger cosmos would exhibit highly diverse conditions and still produce some type of life or even a small cosmological constant similar to ours.” It must be pointed out, however that string theory has yet to produce a concise theory, such as Einstein’s E=mc 2 to explain why the universe is as it is.
Weinberg, Steven. Cosmology. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Weinberg’s book on cosmology is considered by both critics and readers as one of the most complete volumes on the topic. Weinberg, a physicist, atheist and Nobel Laureate, is known not only for his great knowledge of modern physics, but for an incomparable style. Since his earlier text on gravitation and cosmology, there has been a revolution in both theory and observation. Cosmology has been divided into parts, each of which is considered perfect for a one semester graduate course.
Part One deals with the expansion of the universe, with chapter headings as Spacetime Geometry, The Cosmological Redshift, Distances at small Redshift: The Hubble Constant, and so on. Part Two covers the cosmic microwave radiation background, with chapter headings such as Expectations and Discovery of the Microwave Background, Recombinations and last scattering, etc. Cosmology deals expertly with the cosmic acceleration observed with supernovae, the structure of the cosmic microwave background and the evidence for dark matter. Unfortunately there is not a section on the cosmic anthropic principle, presumably because he considers it speculation and he has stated that he does not want to cover speculative topics. Weinberg’s important volume is for graduate students and readers with a solid background in Physics. It contains calculus and deals with many complicated topics. A beginner would most likely have to turn to supplemental material.
Weinberg has also written a critical review of Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design. See Works Consulted, below.
(Some other exceptional volumes for study are: Brian Greene. The Elegant Universe: Three Roads to Quantum Gravity (1999;) David Bohn, Quantum Theory (1951;)Victor Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos (2006;) Stenger, Not By Design(1988;) Lawrence Krauss. A Universe From Nothing.(2012.)
In addition to the books listed above, The Teaching Company offers a nice range of courses in audio or DVD for the student of physics and cosmology. Some of the offered classes are: Great Ideas of Classical Physics; New Frontiers: Modern Perspectives on Our Solar System; Chaos; Impossible: Physics Beyond the Edge; and Physics in Your Life. The courses generally consist of 12 or 24 Lectures, each around 30 minutes long, taught by Professors who are some of the best in their respective fields. 1-800-832-2412 or (www.teach12.com/greatcourses.)
Neil De Grasse Tyson
Please take the 2 minutes, and some seconds, to view this video and share it with your children or friends. You will find many excerpts from his public appearances on You Tube.
Does the Universe Have A Purpose? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pL5vzIMAhs&feature=g-all
Jerry Coyne. Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America. WEIT blog. 24 May 2012. Pre-published in the journal "Evolution" on May 17, 2012.
“American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution.”
To read more click here… http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01664.x/pdf
Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1994.
Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. NY: Bantam, 2010.
Mills, David. Atheist Universe. Berkeley, CA:Ulysses Press, 2006.
Rees, Martin. Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe. London: Weidenfeld an Nicholson, 1999.
Sanciement, Anna. “Origins of the Universe: Theories of How The Cosmos Began.” Suite 101. Suite101.com/contents/origins-of-the-universe- all6868. Web.
Smith, Austin. “Why the Big Bang is No Help to Theists.”
Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol.18, no.2.
Stenger, Victor J. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY:Prometheus Books, 2008.
_____________. “Did the Universe Come From Nothing?” Huffington Post. Religion
Column. 27 Sept. 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/victor-stenger/did-the-universe-come-fro-b- 739909.html. Web.
Weinberg, Stephen. “The Universes We Still Don’t Know.” Rev. of Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. The New York Review of Books. 10 Feb. 2011. Web.