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Posts Tagged ‘einstein

more on Einstein, black holes and other cosmic stuff

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Einstein in 1931 staring at a wee bit of the universe, with Edwin Hubble

Einstein at Mount Wilson in 1931, staring at a wee bit of the universe, with Edwin Hubble

Jacinta: Well Canto I’d like to get back to Einstein and space and time and the cosmos, just because it’s such a fascinating field to inhabit and explore.

Canto: Rather a big one.

Jacinta: I’ve read, or heard, that Einstein’s theory, or one of them, predicted black holes, though he didn’t necessarily think that such entities really existed, but now black holes are at the centre of everything, it seems.

Canto: Including our own galaxy, and most others.

Jacinta: Yes, and there appears to be a correlation between the mass of these supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies and the mass of the galaxies themselves, indicating that they appear to be the generators of galaxies. Can you expand on that?

Canto: Well the universe seems to be able to expand on that better than I can, but I’ll try. Black holes were first so named in the 1960s, but Einstein’s theory of general relativity recast gravity as a distortion of space and time rather than as a Newtonian force, with the distortion being caused by massive objects. The greater the mass, the greater the distortion, or the ‘geodetic effect’, as it’s called. The more massive a particular object, given a fixed radius, the greater is the velocity required for an orbiting object to escape its orbit, what we call its escape velocity. That escape velocity will of course, approacher closer and closer to the speed of light, as the object being orbited becomes more massive. So what happens when it reaches the speed of light? Then there’s no escape, and that’s where we enter black hole territory.

Jacinta: So, let me get this. Einstein’s theory is about distortions of space-time (and I’m not going to pretend that I understand this), or geodetic effects, and so it has to account for extreme geodetic effects, where the distortion is so great that nothing, not even light, can escape, and everything kind of gets sucked in… But how do these massive, or super-massive objects come into being, and won’t they eventually swallow all matter, so that all is just one ginormous black hole?

Canto: Okay I don’t really get this either but shortly after Einstein published his theory it was worked out by an ingenious astrophysicist, Karl Schwarzschild – as a result of sorting out Einstein’s complex field equations –  that if matter is severely compressed it will have weird effects on gravity and energy. I was talking a minute ago about increasing the mass, but think instead of decreasing the radius while maintaining the mass as a constant…

Jacinta: The same effect?

Karl Schwarzschild

Karl Schwarzschild

Canto: Well, maybe, but you’ll again reach a point where there’s zero escape, so to speak. In fact, what you have is a singularity. Nothing can escape from the object’s surface, whether matter or radiation, but also you’ll have a kind of internal collapse, in which the forces that keep atoms and sub-atomic particles apart are overcome. It collapses into an infinitesimal point – a singularity. It was Schwarzschild too who described the ‘event horizon’, and provided a formula for it.

Jacinta: That’s a kind of boundary layer, isn’t it? A point of no return?

Canto: Yes, a spherical boundary that sort of defines the black hole.

Jacinta: So why haven’t I heard of this Schwarzschild guy?

Canto: He died in 1916, shortly after writing a paper which solved Einstein’s equations and considered the idea of ‘point mass’ – what we today would call a singularity. But both he and Einstein, together with anyone else in the know, would’ve considered this stuff entirely theoretical. It has only become significant, and very significant, in the last few decades.

Jacinta: And doesnt this pose a problem for Einstein’s theory? I recall reading that this issue of ‘point mass’, or a situation where gravity is kind of absolute, like with black holes and the big bang, or the ‘pre-big bang’ if that makes sense, is where everything breaks down, because it seems to bring in the mathematical impossibility of infinity, something that just can’t be dealt with mathematically. And Einstein wasn’t worried about it in his time because black holes were purely theoretical, and the universe was thought to be constant, not expanding or contracting, just there.

Canto: Well I’ve read – and I dont know if it’s true – that Einstein believed, at least for a time, that black holes couldn’t actually exist because of an upper limit imposed on the gravitational energy any mass can produce – preventing any kind of ‘infinity’ or singularity.

Jacinta: Well if that’s true he was surely wrong, as the existence of black holes has been thoroughly confirmed, as has the big bang, right?

Canto: Well of course knowledge was building about that in Einstein’s lifetime, as Edwin Hubble and others provided conclusive evidence that the universe was expanding in 1929, so if this expansion was uniform and extended back in time, it points to an early much-contracted universe, and ultimately a singularity. And in fact Einstein’s general relativity equations were telling him that the universe wasn’t static, but he chose to ignore them, apparently being influenced by the overwhelming thinking of the time – this was 1917 – and he introduced his infamous or famous cosmological constant, aka lambda.

Jacinta: And of course 1917 was an early day in the history of modern astronomy, we hardly knew anything beyond our own galaxy.

Canto: Or within it. One of the great astrophysicists of the era, Sir Arthur Eddington, believed at the time that the sun was at the centre of the universe, while admitting his calculations were ‘subject to large uncertainties’.

Jacinta: Reminds me of Lord Kelvin on the age of the Earth only a few generations before.

Canto: Yes, how quickly our best speculations can become obsolete, but that’s one of the thrills of science. And it’s worth noting that the work of Hubble and others on the expansion of the universe depended entirely on improved technology, namely the 100-inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson, California.

Jacinta: Just as the age of the Earth problem was solved through radiometric dating, which depended on all the early twentieth century work on molecular structure and isotopes and such.

Canto: Right, but now this lambda (λ) – which Einstein saw as a description of some binding force in gravity to counteract the expansion predicted by his equations – is very much back in the astrophysical frame. The surprising discovery made in 1998 that the universe’s expansion is accelerating rather than slowing has, for reasons I can’t possibly explain, brought Einstein’s lambda in from the cold as an explanatory factor in that discovery, which is also somehow linked to dark energy.

Jacinta: So his concept, which he simply invented as a ‘fix-it’ sort of thing, might’ve had more utility than he knew?

Canto: Well the argument goes, among some, that Einstein was a scientist of such uncanny insight that even his mistakes have proved more fruitful than others’ discoveries. Maybe that’s hero worship, maybe not.

Jacinta: So how does lambda relate to dark energy, and how does dark energy relate to dark matter, if you please?

Canto: Well the standard model of cosmology (which is currently under great pressure, but let’s leave that aside) has been unsuccessful in trying to iron out inconsistent observations and finding with regard to the energy density of the universe, and so dark energy and what they call cold dark matter (CDM) have been posited as intellectual placeholders, so to speak, to make the observations and equations come out right.

Jacinta: Sounds a bit dodgy.

Canto: Well, time will tell how dodgy it is but I don’t think anyone’s trying to be dodgy, there’s a great deal of intense calculation and measurement involved, with so many astrophysicists looking at the issue from many angles and with different methods. Anyway, to quickly summarise CDM and dark energy, they together make up some 96% of the mass-energy density of our universe according to the most currently accepted calculations, with dark energy accounting for some 69% and CDM accounting for about 27%.

Jacinta: Duhh, that does sound like a headachey problem for the standard model. I mean, I know I’m only a dilettanty lay-person, but a model of universal mass-energy that only accounts for about 4% of the stuff, that doesn’t sound like much of a model.

Canto: Well I can assure they’re working on it…

Jacinta: Or working to replace it.

Canto: That too, but let me try to explain the difference between CDM and dark energy. Dark energy is associated with lambda, because it’s the ‘missing energy’ that accounts for the expansion of the universe, against the binding effects of gravity. As it happens, Einstein’s cosmological constant pretty well perfectly counters this expansive energy, so that if he hadn’t added it to his equations he would’ve been found to have predicted an expanding universe decades before this was confirmed by observation. That’s why it was only in the thirties that he came to regret what he called the greatest mistake of his career. Cold dark matter, on the other hand, has been introduced to account for a range of gravitational effects which require lots more matter than we find in the observed (rather than observable) universe. These effects include the flat shapes of galaxies, gravitational lensing and the tight clustering of galaxies. It’s described as cold because its velocity is considerably less than light-speed.


the lambda- cold dark matter model

Jacinta: Okay, so far so bad, but let’s get back to black holes. Why are they so central?

Canto: Well, that’s perhaps the story of supermassive black holes in particular, but I suppose I should try to tell the story of how astronomers found black holes to be real. As I’ve said, the term was first used in the sixties, 1967 to be precise, by John Wheeler, at a time when their actual existence was being considered increasingly likely, and the first more or less confirmed discovery was made in 1971 with Cygnus x-1. You can read all about it here. It’s very much a story of developing technology leading to increasingly precise observational data, largely in the detecting and measuring of X-ray emissions, stuff that was undetectable to us with just optical instruments.

Jacinta: Okay, go no further, I accept that there’s been a lot of data from a variety of sources that have pretty well thoroughly confirmed their existence, but what about these supermassive black holes? Could they actually be the creators of matter in the galaxies they’re central to? That’s what I’ve heard, but my reception was likely faulty.

Canto: Well astrophysicists have been struggling with the question of this relationship – there clearly is a relationship between supermassive black holes and their galaxies, but which came first? Now supermassive black holes can vary a lot – our own ‘local’ one is about 4 million solar masses, but we’ve discovered some with billions of solar masses. But it was found almost a decade ago that there is correlation between the mass of these beasties and the mass of the inner part of the galaxies that host them – what they call the galactic bulge. The ratio is always about 1 to 700. Obviously this is highly suggestive, but it requires more research. There are some very interesting examples of active super-feeding black holes emitting vast amounts of energy and radiation, which is both destructive and productive in a sense, creating an active galaxy. Our own Milky Way, or the black hole at its centre, is currently quiescent, which is just as well.

Jacinta: You mean if it starts suddenly feeding, we’re all gonna die?

Canto: No probably not, the hole’s effects are quite localised, relatively speaking, and we’re a long way from the centre.

Jacinta: Okay thanks for that, that’s about as much about black holes as I can stand for now.

Canto: Well I’m hoping that in some future posts we can focus on the technology, the ground-based and space-based telescopes and instruments like Hubble and Kepler and James Webb and so many others that have been enhancing our knowledge of black holes, other galaxies, exoplanets, all the stuff that makes astrophysics so rewarding these days.

Jacinta: You’re never out of work if you’re an astrophysicist nowadays, so I’ve heard. Halcyon days.

an x-ray burst from a supermassive black hole - artist's impression

an x-ray burst from a supermassive black hole – artist’s impression

Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

Einstein, science and the natural world: a rabid discourse

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Einstein around 1915

Einstein around 1915

Canto: Well, we’re celebrating this month what is surely the greatest achievement by a single person in the history of science, the general theory of relativity. I thought it might be a good time to reflect on that achievement, on science generally, and on the impetus that drives us to explore and understand as fully as possible the world around us.

Jacinta: The world that made us.

Canto: Précisément.

Jacinta: Well, first can I speak of Einstein as a political animal, because that has influenced me, or rather, his political views seem to chime with mine. He’s been described as a supra-nationalist, which to me is a kind of political humanism. We’re moving very gradually towards this supra-nationalism, with the European Union, the African Union, and various intergovernmental and international organisations whose goals are largely political. Einstein also saw the intellectual venture that is science as an international community venture, science as an international language, and an international community undertaking. And with the development of nuclear weapons, which clearly troubled him very deeply, he recognised more forcefully than ever the need for us to take international responsibility for our rapidly developing and potentially world-threatening technology. In his day it was nuclear weapons. Today, they’re still a threat – you’ll never get that genie back in the bottle – but there are so many other threats posed by a whole range of technologies, and we need to recognise them, inform ourselves about them, and co-operate to reduce the harm, and where possible find less destructive but still effective alternatives.

Canto: A great little speech Jas, suitable for the UN general assembly…

Jacinta: That great sinkhole of fine and fruitless speeches. So let’s get back to general relativity, what marks it off from special relativity?

Canto: Well I’m not a physicist, and I’m certainly no mathematician, but broadly speaking, general relativity is a theory of gravity. Basically, after developing special relativity, which dealt with the concepts of space and time, in 1905, he felt that he needed a more comprehensive relativistic theory incorporating gravity.

Jacinta: But hang on, was there really anything wrong with space and time before he got his hands on them? Why couldn’t he leave them alone?

Canto: OMG, you’re taking me right back to basics, aren’t you? If I had world enough, and time…

Jacinta: Actually the special theory was essentially an attempt – monumentally successful – to square Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations with the laws of Newton, a squaring up which involved enormous consequences for our understanding of space and time, which have ever since been connected in the concept – well, more than a concept, since it has been verified to the utmost – of the fourth, spacetime, dimension.

Canto: Well done, and there were other vital implications too, as expressed in E = mc², equivalating mass and energy.

Jacinta: Is that a word?

Canto: It is now.

Jacinta: So when can we stop pretending that we understand any of this shite?

Canto: Not for a while yet. The relevance of relativity goes back to Galileo and Newton. It all has to do with frames of reference. At the turn of the century, when Einstein was starting to really focus on this stuff, there was a lot of controversy about whether ‘ether’ existed – a postulated quasi-magical invisible medium through which electromagnetic and light waves propagated. This ether was supposed to provide an absolute frame of reference, but it had some contradictory properties, and seemed designed to explain away some intractable problems of physics. In any case, some important experimental work effectively quashed the ether hypothesis, and Einstein sought to reconcile the problems by deriving special relativity from two essential postulates, constant light speed and a ‘principle of relativity’, under which physical laws are the same regardless of the inertial frame of reference.

the general theory - get it?

the general theory – get it?

Jacinta: What do you mean, ‘the initial frame of reference’?

Canto: No, I said ‘the inertial frame of reference’. That’s one that describes all parameters homogenously, in such a way that any such frame is in a constant motion with respect to other such frames. But I won’t go into the mathematics of it all here.

Jacinta: As if you could.

Canto: Okay. Okay. I won’t go any further in trying to elucidate Einstein’s work, to myself, you or anyone else. At the end of it all I wanted to celebrate the heart of Einstein’s genius, which I think represents the best and most exciting element in our civilisation.

Jacinta: Drumroll. Now, expose this heart to us.

Canto: Well we’ve barely touched on the general theory, but what Einstein’s work on gravity teaches us is that by not leaving things well alone, as you put it, we can make enormous strides. Of course it took insight, hard work, and a full and deep understanding of the issues at stake, and of the work that had already been done to resolve those issues. And I don’t think Einstein was intending to be a revolutionary. He was simply exercised by the problems posed in trying to understand, dare I say, the very nature of reality. And he rose to that challenge and transformed our understanding of reality more than any other person in human history. It’s unlikely that anything so transformative will ever come again – from the mind of a single human being.

Jacinta: Yes it’s an interesting point, and it takes a particular development of culture to allow that kind of transformative thinking. It took Europe centuries to emerge from a sort of hegemony of dogmatism and orthodoxy. During the so-called dark ages, when warfare was an everyday phenomenon, and later too, right through to the Thirty Years War and beyond, one thing that could never be disputed amongst all that disputation was that the Bible was the word of God. Nowadays, few people believe that, and that’s a positive development in the evolution of culture. It frees us to look at morality from a broader, richer, extra-Biblical perspective..

Canto: Yes we no longer have to even pretend that our morality comes from such sources.

Jacinta: Yes and I’m thinking of other parts of the world that are locked in to this submissive way of thinking. A teaching colleague, an otherwise very liberal Moslem, told me the other day that he didn’t believe in gay marriage, because the Qu-ran laid down the law on homosexuals, and the Qu-ran, because written by God, is perfect. Of course I had to call BS on that, which made me quite sad, because I get on very well with him, on a professional and personal basis. It just highlights to me the crushing nature of culture, how it blinds even the best people to the nature of reality.

Canto: Not being capable of questioning, not even being aware of that incapability, that seems to me the most horrible blight, and yet as you say, it wasn’t so long ago that our forebears weren’t capable of questioning the legitimacy of Christianity’s ‘sacred texts’, in spite of interpreting those remarkably fluid texts in myriad ways.

Jacinta: And yet out of that bound-in world, modern science had its birth. Some modern atheists might claim the likes of Galileo and Francis Bacon as one of their own, but none of our scientific pioneers were atheists in the modern sense. Yet the principles they laid down led inevitably to the questioning of sacred texts and the gods described in them.

Canto: Of course, and the phenomenal success of the tightened epistemology that has produced the scientific and technological revolution we’re enjoying now, with exoplanets abounding, and the revelations of Homo floresiensis, Homo naledi and the Denisovan hominin, and our unique microbiome, and recent work on the interoreceptive tract leading to to the anterior insular cortex, and so on and on and on, and the constant shaking up of old certainties and opening up of new pathways, all happening at a giddying accelerating rate, all of this leaves the ‘certainty of faith’ looking embarrassingly silly and feeble.

Jacinta: And you know why ‘I fucking love science’, to steal someone else’s great line? It’s not because of science itself, that’s only a means. It’s what it reveals about our world that’s amazing. It’s the world of stuff – animate and inanimate – that’s amazing. The fact that this solid table we’re sitting at is made of mostly empty space – a solidity consisting entirely of electrochemical bonds, if that’s the right term, between particles we can’t see but whose existence has been proven a zillion times over, and the fact that as we sit here on a still, springtime day, with a slight breeze tickling our faces, we’re completely oblivious of the fact that we hurtling around on the surface of this earth, making a full circle every 24 hours, at a speed of nearly 1700 kms per hour. And at the same time we’re revolving around the sun at a far greater speed, 100,000 kms per hour. And not only that, we’re in a solar system that’s spinning around in the outer regions of our galaxy at around 800,000 kilometres an hour. And not only that… well, we don’t feel an effing thing. It’s the counter-intuitive facts about the natural world that our current methods of investigation reveal – these are just mind-blowing. And if your mind doesn’t get blown by it, then you haven’t a mind worth blowing.

Canto: And we have two metres of DNA packed into each nucleus of the trillions of cells in our body. Who’d’ve thunkit?



Written by stewart henderson

November 23, 2015 at 11:33 pm

why are our days getting longer?

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I’ve just finished reading a book by the Welsh biologist and science communicator Steve Jones entitled Coral; a pessimist in paradise, which covers a helluva lot of ground and makes me feel inadequate as most science writers do, but one of the many things he has taught me about – something I didn’t know that I didn’t know – is that the days are getting longer, in an inexorable process of rotational slowing. This fact, and the reasons behind it, were further confirmed for me today in an episode of an elegant little podcast out of the University of Houston, called The engines of our ingenuity. I just happened to be browsing through the science and scepticism podcasts on my TV, and I sampled a few curiously titled ones…

Let me backtrack a bit. I’m very very poor (from an affluent western perspective of course) but I received a HD TV from my neighbour recently as part of a complicated deal, and now I can watch free-to-air channels I didn’t have access to before, and what’s more I’ve managed to buy a device which I’m sure many people out there know all about, called an Apple TV, which is so cheap that even I can afford it without too much suffering (what’s a few days without food? it’ll probably extend my lifespan). So now I can explore an almost endless variety of podcasts, vodcasts and classic film noir movies on youtube. That reminds me, one of the podcasts I’ve listened to, the Brain Science Podcast, was all about brain fitness – at least the episode I tuned into was – and inter alia the interviewee informed us that just about the worst thing for the brain was sitting around all day watching TV – Apple or no Apple, presumably…

Anyway I listened to this informative and also charmingly poetic three-minute episode of The engines of our ingenuity, entitled ‘How far the moon?’, narrated and presumably written by Dr John Lienhard. So I’ll share the info, if not the poetry, here.

Our earth spins at a pretty well constant rate because of the forces that set it in motion in the first place and because of Newton’s first law of motion which, put simply, states that an object will stay in the same state (resting or in motion) unless an external force acts on it. A ball spinning in the air will slow down because of air friction, but the earth is spinning in a vacuum, essentially – there’s nothing to slow it down.

Well, not quite. The earth is slowing down, and all in accordance with Newtonian physics. And it’s all due to the moon. Each day is about a twelfth of a second longer than it was when the Egyptians built the pyramids. Doesn’t sound that much, but 4000 years is a mere blip in geological and cosmological time. The moon drags at the earth gravitationally, creating high tides and low tides at a regular rate, and slowing our rate of rotation. But our earth has a much greater influence on the moon than vice versa, the moon having only an eightieth of earth’s mass. This gravitational effect slowed down the moon’s spin until it was in synch with the earth, and locked into the earth’s movement like a dancer being swung around by its partner. And so the moon faces us always. The slowing down of the earth due to the moon’s influence had the effect of loosening the embrace – the moon is slowly moving away from us. Just as a spinning dancer or skater extends her arms out to slow down or pulls her limbs in to speed up.  The moon moves away from us so that our combined rotational inertia remains constant. The distance between earth and moon, and the speed at which the moon moves away from us, is being measured thanks to an instrument, placed on the moon by Apollo astronauts, which reflects laser beams from earth. Through measuring the time taken for the beam to return, we know that the moon is moving away from us at a little under 4 cms a year. Back in the dim distant past, days lasted only 12 hours, and the moon was half of today’s distance from us. This has affected the shape of the earth, which is gradually becoming more spherical. The earth’s diameter is at its greatest at the equator and at its smallest at the poles, because of centrifugal forces operating against the force of gravity…

Okay, let me get clearer on this, with the help of this source, among others. Isaac Newton accepted the mathematics and the accuracy of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, but the great unanswered question was why planets – and moons – traced out these orbits. Newton’s own first law stated that an object will continue in its trajectory (that is, in a straight line) or in its resting state, unless some external force acted upon it to speed it up or slow it down. This state is called a state of inertia. Clearly planets and moons were being acted upon by some force, which could only be exerted by the object being orbited. This force might be called a centripetal force, though that doesn’t explain it in this case. If you swing a stone around on the end of a string, you apply a force to the stone to keep it going, but the string, and your hand holding the string, exerts a force on the string to keep it ‘in orbit’. Its motion will be circular, providing you keep your hand still, because the length of the string is constant. But there’s nothing obvious attaching the moon to the earth. Newton pondered this for some time, until one day the apple dropped.

I’m thinking that, if the moon is moving away from us, its orbit can’t be entirely circular, it must be spiralling outwards, ever so slightly. In any case, the moon pulls the earth out of shape, and that is due to a centrifugal force that balances the centripetal force exerted by the earth on the moon. The moon is moving away due to a reduction in both these forces, and a slowing of the earth’s rotation, and hence of the moon’s orbit.

But sadly, it gets more complicated than that! This is the Newtonian explanation of how these forces operate, but it doesn’t really answer the why question. I’m not going to go deeply into that here – as if I could – but I’ll end with a quote from an astronomer’s explanation, not so much about the earth’s slowing, but about the moon’s behaviour, in terms of Newtonian and then Einsteinian physics:

First case: – Why does the Moon orbit the Earth? It just does. And you can understand how it does by analyzing the forces on the Moon caused by its orbit and finding the forces pushing in and out are equal.

Second case: – Why does the Moon orbit the Earth? Because the Earth distorts spacetime in the vicinity of the Moon, and causes it to orbit the Earth the way it does and the balance of forces to come out the way it does.

So why do massive objects distort space-time? Apparently they just do?

Written by stewart henderson

September 28, 2013 at 8:25 am

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part two, in which LFS begins to warm to the topic

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the most convenient term in the language

the most convenient term in the language

So here we have, in toto, Luigi Funesti-Sordido’s response to the challenge thrown down by William Lane Craig. It will be rather lengthy, so I’ve broken it up into parts in the hope of making the whole more easily digestible. I’m hoping too, to present the video of LFS’s response in the near future, but at the moment it’s tied up in a beautiful red ribbon of legal and contractual wrangling and other such wishful thinking. We shall see.

Luigi Funesti-Sordido: Well g’day ladies and gents and others, believers and unbelievers, agnostics and sceptics, the notionally curious and the curiously indifferent. Dr Craig has urged upon me a particular and onerous task, to refute his eight arguments for the existence of his pet monotheistic being, within the next twenty minutes. That’s about one refutation every two minutes or so, which considering that he didn’t click me an email about what exactly he was going to say, seems a bit rich. But, as the bishop said to the actress, I’m sure I can rise to the occasion. However, I’ve got some news for you. Forget the time limit, I’ll take as much time as I damn-well please, and you will all sit down and shut up, and take your medicine. The point being that putting forward a few points for the existence of Dr Craig’s weird little being doesn’t take long, while pointing out all the weaknesses or unlikelihoods of the arguments can take quite a while – even just to untangle what it is that Dr Craig’s on about. That’s not to say that it’ll take hours to demolish each of Dr Craig’s points, because some can be dealt with much more quickly than others, but I certainly don’t intend to make this a rushed job, for the simple reason that I want it to be comprehensive and as final as it can be. You will note, by the way, that the doors to this auditorium are locked from the outside, and there is no escape. You will note also that if you try to rise from your chairs, you will receive an electric shock, mild at first but gaining in strength as you seek to widen the distance between your buttocks or other body parts and the comfortable upholstery provided for your viewing and listening pleasure. I wish no-one any harm so if you have any heart problems I’d strongly advise you to keep still and keep comfortable, and above all, don’t panic.

So, to the issues. I want first to make some general comments. Of Dr Craig’s eight arguments, five of them involve what appears to be up to date knowledge about the world, in terms of physics, cosmology, mathematics and the field of consciousness. This suggests that Dr Craig is a thoroughly modern and with-it, forward thinking philosopher. However, nothing could be further from the case. Anybody who has observed Dr Craig’s activities over the past several years, would, I think, be right to form the judgement that this is a man obsessed. In fact, I would go further and say, fanatically obsessed. It seems to me that Dr Craig’s sole purpose, his life’s work, his raison d’etre, is to pedal and promote his particular, peculiar and parochial brand of monotheism. Everything else he talks about, whether it be mathematics or morality, cosmology or consciousness, everything has to be bent and shaped and shoe-horned to fit with this peculiar, fanatical obsession. It follows from this, that nothing Dr Craig has to say about these various fields of activity and inquiry can be trusted. If you ask any expert in any of these fields how best to make a contribution, one thing you’re always likely to be told is to rid yourself, as far as you can, of preconceived notions. Keep an open mind. The two principals that drive science, to my mind, are curiosity and scepticism. Is that really the case? And what is the case? Does that argument really stack up? Can we find a better argument to fit the facts? Wow, here’s some new data, we’re going to have to rethink our basic assumptions, isn’t that exciting.

But these principles do not drive Dr Craig. He already knows the answers, all that remains for him is to convince the rest of the world. Students out there, be very wary of such individuals. Dr Craig doesn’t have the intellectual ingredients to make a good scientist. For a start, he doesn’t have a sceptical bone in his body. Imagine if Dr Craig’s dream came true, imagine if every debater capitulated before his watertight arguments, and not only that, after every debate, the whole audience ‘saw the light’ and converted in their thousands, and eventually millions, to his peculiar deity, with its father-part and its son-part and god knows what else? Where would science go then? What would happen to open and relentless questioning? I ask you to ponder that.

Dr Craig does seem to do well in these debates, and a lot of people try to put their finger on the reasons. They say he’s an ‘expert debater’ and that’s partly true, but I think the principal reason is his lack of scepticism, his absolute certainty about his position. This gives his talks something of a steamroller effect, a relentlessness which sceptics, accustomed to dealing with other sceptics, find difficult to handle. There’s also the fact of Dr Craig’s single-minded obsessionalism. This is his one and only topic, whereas his opponents – writers, academic philosophers and scientists in the main, have a much greater variety of interests and don’t, in general, spend a great deal of time thinking about their atheism.

The situation in this respect reminds me of that in Christine Garwood’s fascinating book ‘Flat Earth’. At the height of the Flat Earth belief in the nineteenth century, lecture halls in the US were regularly filled with people from all levels of society who had come to be discombobulated and entertained by the likes of flat-earth proponent ‘Prof’ Joe Holden, holding forth on the imbecilities of ‘global earth theory’, and using the language and theorems of mathematics, physics and astronomy to prove his point. In Britain at the same time, the notorious Parallax, another flat-earther, was challenging prominent scientists, including the Astronomer Royal, to debates on the matter. Another flat-earther of the time challenged no less a scientist than Alfred Russell Wallace to a test of the flat earth view against the global earth view, and according to a great many observers, actually won the contest. Of course, this is a footnote to history now, and I think the real test of Dr Craig’s position will also be how he is seen by posterity. For the fact is that Christianity is in retreat, in some places more rapidly than in others, but certainly in every western country on the planet. And this can hardly be attributed to ignorance.

Now to the first argument, and fortunately I have the gift of perfect recall, so I remember every detail of it. The best explanation of why something exists, rather than nothing, is a supernatural being. But what is a supernatural being? Not being bound by any rules of evidence, it could of course be anything you like. However, a lot of work done by anthropologists and psychologists into the supernatural beings worshipped and loved and feared and placated throughout the many cultures in the world and throughout history, and there have been many thousands of these beings, has found a number of traits in common. In particular, supernatural beings tend to be rather obsessed with us. In fact it almost seems to be that their very purpose is to protect us or punish us. This is clearly the case with Dr Craig’s god, and that should be seen as a big red flag.

To return to Dr Craig’s argument, he asks ‘What is the explanation of the universe?’ Take note of that question. It’s not ‘What is the cause of the universe?’ There’s quite a sizeable difference between those two questions, and I’ll come back to that. If you asked a bunch  of cosmologists ‘What caused the universe?’ they might say- and I can only speculate of course – ‘you mean what caused the big bang’ and then they might, perhaps, find some consensus in saying, ‘well nothing caused the big bang, because causes always exist in time before their effects and time actually began with the big bang, so it makes no sense to speak of an antecedent cause, and if you think that’s a satisfying answer to us, you’re wrong, but that’s the best we can do, for now.’ Probably though, I’m underestimating these cosmologists, who would likely come out with something much more sophisticated-sounding. What none of them would say, I’m quite sure, is that the cause must be ‘a transcendent reality, beyond the material universe, whose existence is metaphysically necessary,’ which is what Dr Craig says. This reminds me of what Daniel Dennett says about Dr Craig, that he is able, with absolute equanimity, to pass from the most mundane to the most preposterous assertions in a heartbeat. So what is a transcendent reality, and why should it be metaphysically necessary? I think it’s an artifact of Dr Craig’s imagination, and it’s metaphysically necessary because that’s what Dr Craig desperately wants it to be.

Now let me return to the difference between ’cause’ and ‘explanation’, a word Dr Craig is fond of using. He says at the outset that his ‘god’, a metaphysically necessary transcendent being, is the best explanation of the universe’s existence, and he uses the analogy of the explanation for a ball found by the roadside. Now, the difference between an explanation and a cause seems to me to be that an explanation already assumes the existence of an agent, an ‘explainer’. Somebody, in this case maybe the owner of the ball, who can tell the story of how the ball came to be there. So, Dr Craig, argues, because the whole universe is just as much of a contingent object as a ball, it, too, must have a cosmic owner who can explain its being there. (This is of course why Dr Craig chose as his example a ball, and not, say, a large rock). Only, according to Dr Craig,  whereas the ball’s owner/explainer is a contingent entity, like the ball itself, the universe’s owner/explainer must be a ‘transcendent, metaphysically necessary entity.’ To which one might be inclined to say ‘What the…? Where did that idea come from?’ Were I one of those blunt Aussie types, I might be tempted to reply ‘from out of the good doctor’s capacious arsehole’, but being much more civilized I should say that it reminds me of the old cartoon with the equations on the blackboard and the line ‘here a miracle happens’. I think Dr Craig needs to be a great deal more specific in that area.

In short, using the word ‘explanation’ to conjure up a transcendent, necessary explainer is nothing more than a semantic cheat. But I’m not finished with argument one yet. Let’s look more carefully at the argument form he presents:

1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.

3. The universe is a contingent thing.

4 Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1,3).

5. Therefore the explanation of the universe is a transcendent, personal being (from 2,4).

Now, this is a version of the age-old cosmological argument, which goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and which can be described in the briefest and most mocking terms as, something can’t come from nothing, therefore god. Arguments on both sides have been heaped up over the centuries, by Aquinas, by Leibniz, by Hume, by Kant, and by innumerable modern  philosophers, and it’s unlikely any headway will ever be made, because it’s entirely speculative, or theological, and non-evidence based. The version of it presented here seems particularly weak and tenuous, because there just seems to be an almighty leap from the need for an explanation, supposing such a need is real, and the claim about a transcendent, personal being. In other words, the major problem lies in the conditional claim (2). I don’t find it at all reasonable, or even comprehensible to me, that the universe can be explained by a ‘transcendent’, that’s to say, non-material, personal being. Does this mean personal to me? That seems self-serving and egotistical. What else can be meant by personal? Personal to herself? (Let’s call her she – I’m really sick of male gods, please, please no more of them, please). That makes little sense. It seems to me that Dr Craig has thrown in the ‘personal’ term precisely to make the god our own little personal father-figure and protector. And let’s face it, Dr Craig’s god is very male. My response to that is in line with what Albert Einstein said many times. In his view, and in mine, belief in a personal god is simply a form of childishness.

I could say more, but it’s time to move on to argument two.

Written by stewart henderson

March 15, 2013 at 8:40 am

the ever-fascinating herr einstein

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‘I am truly a “lone traveller” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost the sense of distance and a need for solitude – feelings which increase with the years. No doubt, such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of opinions, habits, and judgements of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.

Albert Einstein, 1931


Currently reading a book called Einstein & Oppenheimer: the meaning of genius, a slightly grandiloquent title, and the book is at times rather dourly ponderous, but fascinating, especially about that remarkably self-contained solitary, Einstein. Solitary but not too solitary, for the list of his correspondents is daunting. My own correspondence, even with the whole internet to assist me, is paltry by comparison, and I know that comparing myself in any way to Einstein is – well, cheeky to say the least. But since I compare myself with everyone else, why not with him?

This book treats of the theoretical work of Einstein in some detail and with apparently great proficiency [I’m in no position to judge], but though I really do try to get my head around the idea of a unified field theory, quantized general relativity and the whole concept of a gauge theory, I’m more interested in his temperament, his basic nature, and the associations I keep making with my own.

One interesting association was Schopenhauer. I read a collection of his writings in my early twenties. Probably the first philosopher I read after Nietzsche, and before the more tamed, academic philosophers of the Anglo-American tradition. Schopenhauer was a dour, dignified pessimist, a kind of modern Stoic, whose writings could nevertheless provide much consolation for solitary types, as for example this passage, which much influenced Einstein:

What a person is for himself, what abides with him in his loneliness and isolation, and what no one can give or take away from him, this is obviously more essential for him than everything that he possesses or what may be in the eyes of others… for one’s happiness in this life, that which one is, one’s personality is absolutely the first and most essential thing.

Reading passages like this, when you’re young but yet not so young that you haven’t already experienced years of solitude, is of course only partially consoling. It’s also hard, very hard. We don’t want to face the reality of our own nature, even when that nature – its cogitations, its imaginings, its memories – has given us such pleasure and sustenance over the years. We constantly hope for some kind of self-transformation, a hope deferred that makes the heart sick. But to return to Einstein, he obviously had other consolations, a brilliance and a focus well beyond the best of my imaginings and application. And the extraordinary results of that brilliance and focus were surely enough to allow him to feel well satisfied with his solitary self.

Clearly, in his quiet way, Einstein was a man of enormous self-confidence. Of course, being recognized, from 1915 until his death, as by far the most transformative scientist of the twentieth century will have had some effect upon his ego, but in fact his self-confidence was manifest well before he presented his theory of general relativity. Silvan Schweber, the author of the book I’m reading, illustrates this in ingenious fashion.

Einstein, under the early influence of Schopenhauer, went on to read various Hindu philosophico-religious texts [another association: after reading Schopenhauer, I went out and bought copies of The Upanishads and The Bhagavad-Gita, but I didn’t get very far with them]. It was apparently under the influence of Vedic philosophy that Einstein developed a curious habit of holding his thumb and forefinger together, in what is called the vitarka gesture, especially when he posed for photographs. This gesture, often presented in images of Vishnu and Buddha, is a sign for compassionate teaching, and in a later Buddhist teaching it symbolized the union of method and wisdom. There are at least four extant pictures of Einstein using this gesture, shown below. It might seem pretentious almost, but I find it powerful in its quiet assertion.

Solvay, 1911. Einstein second from left

Solvay 1913. Einstein standing, centre

Solvay 1927. Einstein is now the central figure


Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2012 at 11:46 pm