Infinite universe


Is it problematic that biologists will reject ideas in biology because they “might open too broad an avenue to the supporters of intelligent design”? I think it is. The worry is that “sociological pressures can impose a form of self-censorship in Academia”, as Mike Gene argues in this fascinating post.

Gene starts out by talking about me, but the post gets really interesting once he starts talking about Eric Bapteste’s critical review of Eugene Koonin’s model for the origin of life by chance. Both Koonin’s piece and Bapteste’s review are available on Biology Direct. Here is an example of what Bapteste says:

Koonin bravely tries to tackle such a deep conceptual issue, using metaphysics where, according to him, science does not seem to work, but I am afraid his present (and arguable) solution, although fairly underlining one of the limits of traditional evolutionary thinking, could open a huge door to the tenants of intelligent design.

Bapteste goes on to call Koonin “very naive”, and says that Koonin should make his own views on intelligent design “clearer in a revised version of this manuscript”. 

Koonin, in his response to Bapteste, writes this:

The possibility that the ID crowd interprets this paper as support for their cause is one of Bapteste’s main concerns. Will they, actually? No doubt they will! However, the only way to prevent them from doing so is to stop publishing research on any hard problem in evolutionary biology and somehow declare these problems solved. 

Koonin, to his credit, stands up to Bapteste’s pressure not to open the door to supporters of intelligent design; what’s interesting is that Bapteste was putting that pressure on Koonin in the first place.

PS — I have written a paper that’s related to Koonin’s, called “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”.

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Over at Telic Thoughts, they’re discussing a paper of mine that I’m quite proud of, “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”. I’ve discussed this paper before on my blog, here and here

One line of critique at Telic Thoughts is that I haven’t established that the universe is spatially infinite. As I tried to make clear in my paper, that’s not my goal; I’m just taking up the conditional issue: if we came to believe that the universe is spatially infinite, what consequences would that have for our inferences to design? However, I do say:

While this isn’t strictly speaking necessary for my argument, it’s worth pointing out that the best current evidence from physics suggests that the universe is spatially infinite.

and then I briefly present some evidence (which, I’ll be the first to admit, isn’t conclusive). 

This has led someone to wonder how the universe being spatially infinite is compatible with there being a big bang. I address this point in my forthcoming book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, so I’m just going to copy-and-paste from my book. 

Because there is frequent ignorance of this point, it’s worth noting that the big bang hypothesis does not include the hypothesis that the universe started out very small, and has been expanding ever since. This is one possibility for how our universe has evolved, but another possibility is that the universe is spatially infinite, and has been spatially infinite ever since the big bang (assuming that the big bang hypothesis is true). In fact the latest empirical evidence suggests that the universe is spatially infinite.

And here’s the footnote:

 See C. L. Bennett, et al. (2003), “First-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Preliminary Maps and Basic Results,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 148: 1-27, and D. N. Spergel, et al. (2003), “First-year Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Observations: Determination of Cosmological Parameters,” Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series 148: 175-94. See also “Is the Universe Infinite?” at http://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_shape.html, archived at http://www.webcitation.org/5bnkjQefh.

I was happy to see this positive press (well, a positive blog mention) of my article “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”. The author of the blog summarizes my paper as follows:

So what has Monton done? He’s shown how the IDers’ main arguments fall flat while still allowing for the possibility of God.

At first, I thought that this summary oversold what I accomplish in my paper, but upon further reflection, I think the author has it right. I don’t show that all the IDers’ arguments fall flat (I think some are somewhat plausible), and I don’t show that arguments for ID can’t be successful (it’s possible that they could be), but I do show that the main arguments that IDers have actually given are flawed. 

“Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, by the way, is forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume II.

UPDATE: Another positive blog mention of my paper is available here.

In my paper “Design Inferences in an Infinite Universe”, I explore the status of design inferences under the assumption that the universe is spatially infinite. From a philosopher’s standpoint, this project has interest regardless of whether the universe is actually spatially infinite. But I do hold that whether the universe is spatially infinite can affect the strength of some design arguments for the existence of God, and hence, if one wants to know whether God actually exists in this universe, it could be relevant to establish whether the universe is spatially infinite. 

I didn’t try to establish that in my paper — to look at the evidence for and against the hypothesis that the universe is spatially infinite would take at least a whole paper, and would quickly get into some sophisticated physics. But I did provide two paragraphs of support for the hypothesis that the universe is spatially infinite, just to show that it is a live possibility amongst physicists. I got the following email in reply:

I have read your preprint with great interest. But,
allow me to say, you assume an infinite universe,
which is far from proven or accepted:

“The next question about the shape of the Universe is
to know whether space is finite or infinite –
equivalent to know whether space contains a finite or
an infinite amount of matter–energy, since the usual
assumption of homogeneity implies a uniform
distribution of matter and energy through space. From
a purely geometrical point of view, all positively
curved spaces are finite whatever their topology, but
the converse is not true : flat or negatively
curved spaces can have finite or infinite volumes,
depending on their degree of connectedness (Ellis,
1971 ; Lachièze-Rey & Luminet, 1995).”

Also,

“The new release of WMAP data (Spergel et al., 2006),
integrating two additional years of observation with
reduced uncertainty, strengthened the evidence for an
abnormally low quadrupole and other features which do
not match with the infinite flat space model (this
explains the unexpected delay in the delivery of this
second release, originally announced for February
2004).”

See:

http://xyz.lanl.gov/ftp/arxiv/papers/0704/0704.3374.pdf

I would be happy to see those alternatives integrated
in your excellent paper.

I mostly agree with this email (especially the part about my paper being excellent) — a flat space (i.e. a space with no global curvature) can have a finite volume, as a result of having a certain topology, and there is some evidence for connected topologies in the WMAP data. As far as I can tell, though, most physicists who pay attention to this sort of thing still think that the WMAP data is providing evidence for the hypothesis that the universe is spatially infinite. See, for example, this:

If the density just equals the critical density, the universe is flat, but still presumably infinite. The value of the critical density is very small: it corresponds to roughly 6 hydrogen atoms per cubic meter, an astonishingly good vacuum by terrestrial standards! One of the key scientific questions in cosmology today is: what is the average density of matter in our universe? While the answer is not yet known for certain, it appears to be tantalizingly close to the critical density.

Anyway, going back to the email, I’m surprised by the claim that the second release of WMAP data was unexpectedly delayed because it’s providing evidence for features that don’t match the infinite flat space model. This sounds like a strange sociological/conspiracy-theory type claim (I’m not sure exactly how to categorize it). I haven’t found anything definitive online, but I did find this:

Conspiracy theories abound on the delay in releasing WMAP year 2 results. The WMAP people are simply not talking, so take anything you see on the web with a healthy dose of salt. 

The fact that the author of that paper the email quotes from was willing to definitely state the reason that the data was delayed, with no support to back up that claim, makes me somewhat worried about the intellectual quality and the objectivity of the rest of the paper. 

Anyway the data are out now. They don’t seem to have anything especially definitively new to say about whether the universe is spatially infinite.