What is empirical physicalism in the Deplosion Series?
Empirical physicalism is a pragmatic, evidence-based philosophy of the universe. It asserts that the physical universe of matter and energy is the sum total of existence. The philosophy is ultimately pragmatic; hypotheses must be tested by evidence and reasoned about logically. For more see the Rational wiki entries for Materialism and Empiricism.
In the Deplosion series, Darian explains an expanded view of physicalism that has close ties to the Standard Model of particle physics, virtual particles, and superstring theory. This model is meant to answer one question: Where did it all come from?
The main challenge to a rational, scientific, physical basis for the universe comes from a variety of theological and philosophical perspectives. Many of the challenges boil down to “god-of-the-gaps” type arguments or arguments from incredulity.
A “god-of-the-gaps” argument goes something like this: “You scientists don’t understand how the universe just came into existence. If there was a Big Bang, what exploded? What was there before that? How could something have come from nothing? If science can’t answer that, then the idea that God created everything is just as valid an idea.”
The argument from incredulity is shorter: “I simply look around at the majestic universe, the marvel of life and consciousness, and I just can’t believe it all happened randomly. There must be an intelligent (omniscient), intentional (willful), and all-powerful (omnipotent) Creator of everything. That’s the only way it makes sense to me.”
When I began thinking about the Deplosion series, I was pretty comfortable with scientific explanations for everything except the ultimate question of Creation. My PhD is in molecular biology and genetics; I have engineered organisms from bacteria to small nematodes and experienced how life is essentially very complex chemistry. I have a BSc in computing science, with an interest in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence. I am certain that we are on the verge of developing solid theories of cognitive models that will permit the development of self-conscious artificial intelligences. That leaves only the question of the origin of matter and energy in the universe as the final bastion of Faith. If the universe demands a Creator, one must exist.
In The Reality Assertion Field (Deplosion Series 1), Darian says:
“Scientific investigations have steadily pushed back the need for godly explanations. At first, we thought God moved the planets and put the stars in their place in the sky. Then Newton and Einstein helped us to see that astronomy was explained by gravity, and our magical explanations of the universe retreated to the realm of biology.
“We used to invoke godly ‘vital spirits’ to explain the animation of life and inheritance. But Darwin showed that inheritance along with competition to survive and reproduce could explain the development of new species. Then Watson, Crick and Franklin, among others, showed that DNA was the basis of inheritance, and soon it became obvious that biology was really just complex chemistry. Finally, Barholt showed, just a few years ago, how life can originate and develop from wet, salty puddles, with no other explanation than chemistry. [PA- Note, Barholt is fiction, so far. But we’re close to developing good theories on abiogenesis too.]
“Our God-based rationalizations have steadily retreated as scientific theories of natural phenomena have advanced. Today, God is only invoked within the scientific community to explain the existence of the human soul and the creation of the universe, if at all.”
So, if everything is physical (matter and energy) and something can’t come from nothing, then where did it all come from? In his book, “A Universe From Nothing” physicist Lawrence Krauss explains how the best modern scientific theories address this question. In the end, the explanations are lacking a little, but that is representative of the state of our present knowledge. The best theory seems to be that the multiverse (a large number of universes, possibly infinite) has always existed in some form and that our universe is just one of all the possible universes.
I will be honest; I found the multiverse unsatisfying. So I tried to think up a plausible alternative theory. Once I had something, I wanted to push both the scientific and sociological ramifications as far as I could and see how that might make an engaging story.
Deplosion is fiction, so I won’t pretend this is a rigorous scientific theory. Nevertheless, I worked hard to come up with something plausible. I began with an investigation into the nature of “nothing” as Krauss explains. The nothing of quantum physics is different from the absolute nothing of creationists (I discuss the difference here). The nothing of quantum physics is called the quantum vacuum and it is devoid of stuff (matter and energy).
Nonetheless, within the nothing of the quantum vacuum, virtual particles arise and disappear at random all the time. Now that’s “something”, though just barely. Virtual particles don’t really exist (they’re neither matter nor energy) as Darian explains, but he proposes (well, I propose actually) a way in which virtual particles might interact to form real particles. From nothing, something.
This is all based on resonance effects between virtual particles, overlapping incomplete waves in the quantum fields. This is where the book takes off from known science into speculation. Darian conjectures that our universe of real matter and energy arose through evolution of interactions between virtual particles trying to form stable relationships. Not only can virtual matter give rise to real matter, but stable real matter can spread by resonance, and can recruit (the word in physics is “entrain”) adjacent virtual matter into forming more real matter. Darian calls the eventual blossoming of real matter and energy from a stable core, “The Big Bloom.”
So far, that really might not sound any better than the Faith-based approach to understanding the universe. Make up some story and promote it as truth. However (and this is a BIG however), Darian is a scientist. Even though his hypothesis sounds highly speculative (to say the least), he proposes a way in which it might be tested. Darian proposes that a generator be constructed to produce a “Reality Assertion Field (RAF)” to induce resonance in virtual particles where they wouldn’t normally find any. The ultimate test of any empirical hypothesis is to compare it to reality. Truth is more important than Faith in the empiricist philosophy.
The development of the RAF generator leads to the creation of small regions where the laws of nature differ from those in the known universe. And the story takes off from there.
Note how this answers both the god-of-the-gaps and the incredulity arguments against a natural, physicalist perspective of the universe. First, it removes the last possible gaps in the creationist arguments. It talks about how a universe from something might have arisen from the eternal, virtual chaos that preceded it. Secondly, it provides a way to verify the theory of an evolutionary real universe. Even if someone still says, “It doesn’t make sense to me,” the theory can gain enough evidence to demonstrate its validity. With evidence, incredulity can only persist in the face of willful ignorance, an inability to understand the evidence and follow the logical reasoning, rather than a lack of desire to accept.
One of my main goals in writing the series (besides making a good story) was to show how physicists in our universe might develop theories to push back this last bastion, the ultimate hiding place of the God of creationism. If everything we see about us has a natural explanation and requires no mysticism, then we can start to deal with the universe on its terms rather than on the basis of our hopes and superstitions.
One might simplistically think that the physicalist view of the universe denies the existence of things like beauty, truth, thought, or love. If all that exists is the physical, how can we make room for such “spiritual” concepts? This is a gross misunderstanding of physicalism. These concepts are considered to be emergent phenomena, just like the computational power of your laptop or tablet are emergent properties of the electrons moving around in semiconductor transistors. You can never point to a transistor and say, “The math is there.” It’s not; the math is inherent in the structural relationship among the transistors. That’s what emergent phenomena look like.
Empirical physicalism is also evolutionary, probabilistic, and humanistic (though I love to stretch what we think of as “human”). I hope to devote future blogs to all of these ideas and concepts as well.
In the blogs to come, I plan to expand on the actual science behind Deplosion and to talk about how we might think to extend the facts and theories beyond their current state. Deplosion also raises many modern philosophical, religious, economic and social issues; I plan to discuss these as well in the blogs. I wrote the books to challenge you and to engage you. I hope you enjoy the story and the ideas, and that you feel free to comment, discuss, and share your ideas. The universe, and humanity’s role within it, is as marvelous a topic as ever there was and I look forward to exploring it with you.