My last article refuting Feser’s armchair metaphysical arguments for God briefly asserted that modern scientific Superstring Theory actually answers all his requirements for a godless substrate for all reality, and answers the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and explains all metaphysical phenomena (why things exist, hold together, and change), including the nature of universal properties. Rendering a god totally superfluous. Even on all his own arguments. But I couldn’t go into more detail there, so I reserved a whole digression for its own article here. Because there is an aspect of this that warrants clearer understanding.
Superstring Theory as Ontological Whatsit
Theists and atheists are really only arguing over a single question: what is the ontological “whatsit” that grounds all being? Theists say it has to be conscious. Atheists say it doesn’t have to be; and moreover, doesn’t appear to be. Asserting the latter does not require atheists to know what the ground of all being is, the “whatsit” that explains why protons exist and have the mass they do, or why gravity exists and works the way it does, or why there are different places to be, or why there is time. And all that jazz. Because all we need show is that there is no reason to believe it’s conscious. No matter what it may turn out to be. Theists are the one making the claim that bears the burden of evidence. They are the ones insisting we ought to believe it can think. And cares about our future. And will give us nice eternal homes to live in after we dissolve.
In my article on Feser I briefly commented that:
[U]nlike Feser’s silly It’s a Giant Ghost hypothesis, Superstring Theory (or ST) is actually a developed theory of physics that has a number of remarkable predictive successes. Feser’s theory has exactly none. For example, ST can predict exactly all the particles of the Standard Model and all of their peculiar fundamental features and constants. Can Feser deduce all that from his It’s a Giant Ghost hypothesis? No. He just has to Mary Sue it into existence. “Well, that’s just what God would do.” “Why?” “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Which we call the absence of a hypothesis.
An astute critic could quibble here and point out that though ST does predict all the features of the Standard Model, it does so only by tailoring up a version of it that does exactly that. There are endlessly many variants of ST that would predict a different set of observed particles and constants. And indeed, modern multiverse theory would hold that wherever those variant ST models obtain, what we have is a different universe from ours—thus explaining why different universes would have different physical constants and fundamental particles. There are also many different variants of ST that predict ours; but that’s less relevant to the present concern. For if a general theory predicts something, the fact that we have yet to narrow it down to a specific version of the theory is not an argument against it. For instance, early 20th century atomic theory, particularly of protons, could predict the whole Periodic Table; that we hadn’t yet discovered what protons were made of makes no difference to that fact.
Instead, the point I want to make here is that, one might say that Superstring Theorists are also Mary Sueing String Theory the same way theists are. “Why was our universe shaped up into one of the ST models that would generate the observed Standard Model?” “Well, it just was.” “Why?” “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” But this is actually not the same argument. This has now moved to a different question, from one of ontology, to one of cosmology. What caused our universe to be shaped up the way it is, is a separate question from why it exhibits the properties it does (quarks, gravity, and so forth). We actually do have theories of that (e.g. Inflationary Big Bang Theory), for which we have a lot more evidence than we have for “God did it.” Meanwhile, ST amazingly explains what constrains the Standard Model to what it is.
In other words, what makes ST more remarkable than theism is that ST actually explains why quarks have the mass they do and gravity has the strength it does (and so on), not in the sense of explaining how they got that way (the temporal causation question), but why they are still that way (the ontological causation question), which was the very thing Feser was trying to get at: not the ‘how things got this way’, but the ‘what keeps them that way’. For Feser, the former would be more like the Fine Tuning Argument or Kalam Cosmological Argument. Which appear nowhere in his book. He is, rather, trying to propose an ontological argument. And I am responding in kind. So I do not claim that ST predicts that our universe would have this structure (and thus predicts that its contents would match what we find), but rather that, ST predicts that if our universe does have this structure, then it would exhibit exactly the Standard Model we observe. Feser’s hypothesis doesn’t do that. Except with some unarticulated handwaving about God just wanting it that way. For no identifiable reason.
A string theorist can do this: “Hey, if all that exists is spacetime twisted up in different ways, then I can explain why quarks exist and have the mass and properties they do, as being simply the geometry of that region of spacetime.” Does the math. Gets the results. It matches. And doesn’t get any superfluous extra properties for the quark; just exactly the very properties we observe. Feser can’t do this with God.
Strings as Space
Now, conceptually, ST does not assert that the strings out of which all particles are made are simply spacetime. That’s just the simplest possible ontology of it. One could add layers of epicycles to ST and assert that spacetime is something extra, and that “strings” are something else, that float around in spacetime. And if you can prove it scientifically, then that’s just how things will be. But for now, we are just looking for the conceptually simplest theory competing with Feser’s “God Did It.” And that doesn’t add epicycles. It just has spacetime do all the work. In this model, a quark isn’t actually an “object” in the sense of some thing separate from and floating through space. It’s a ripple or bubble that moves across spacetime.
Basically just like a wave that moves across the sea: it is not a clump of the same water molecules sticking together and rolling along; it’s just the stationary water moving up and down. The water that comprises the wave doesn’t go anywhere. So the water of which the wave is made changes every single instant. The sea more or less stays put. Or like a carpet that you snap, and you see a ripple in it move from one side to the other: the threads of the carpet on this side that formed the ripple, didn’t move to the other side. Only the ripple did. Similarly, on the most reductive ST model, a quark is just a bump or knot in spacetime that rolls along. But the spacetime stays put. It just moves up and down (or in and out and so on); and the up-down-in-out motion is the quark.
Thus objects are illusions in just the same way that objects are actually mostly empty space. Indeed if all we could see were the actual particles they were made of, all objects in the universe would be invisible to us, as the amount of space actually occupied by those particles are that small. The rest is literally a vacuum. Over 99.9999999999% in fact (see the calculation for hydrogen; other atoms won’t vary in this regard by enough to matter here). What we see instead are the effects of interacting electromagnetic fields, in other words a force field, making solid objects appear solid. Likewise, in the simplest model, quarks appear to be separate particles moving through space, just as waves on the sea appear to be separate objects moving across the water. But they aren’t. They’re just ripples. They are thus made of spacetime, in the way ocean waves are made of water. A spacetime which never changes; it just remains the same, and stays in place, changing only in shape, as the ripple passes by.
This is just hypothesis. But it works far better than God. And has a lot more science backing it.
In ancient Roman times, the physicist Ptolemy wrote a book On Dimension in which he claimed to prove there could only ever be three dimensions. It would be amusing to read it. Alas it’s lost. We now know, of course, thanks to Einstein, that there are in fact four dimensions. The fourth being what we call time.
This is one of a variety of reasons why it’s almost certainly the B Theory of time that’s correct: all time exists at once (including the future), and we are just experiencing motion through time; we are not “creating” time as we go (A Theory). In Sense and Goodness without God (III.3.6, pp. 88-95) I discuss the logic of this, and why physicists agree, against the massively desperate objections of Christian apologist William Lane Craig. I’ve said more about it in The Ontology of Time. Indeed Craig is really bothered by it; because B-Theory fucks over his theology. That’s why he wrote four dense books crying against it (The Tensed Theory of Time, The Tenseless Theory of Time, Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity, and God, Time, and Eternity). Yes, I read them all. My treatment in Sense and Goodness is my refutation of him.
But I digress.
What’s important about ST is that it solves the problem of why the Standard Model looks like it does (and why Relativity Theory operates at one scale and Quantum Mechanics at another scale), by proposing there are more than four dimensions. The reason we don’t see them, is like the reason we don’t see solid objects as empty: the dimensions beyond the four have been compacted (bent in on themselves). If you went into one, dead center, and kept going straight, you’d loop back around and come out the same place you went in, never having reversed course. You could actually now be moving in and out of those dimensions all the time. But since the loop each completes is smaller than a Planck length (which is 10^20 time smaller than a proton), you will never experience that. It happens vastly below the resolution of all your senses.
Thus, on ST, “spacetime” means numerous dimensions of space, and one of time. The reason time behaves differently is in part because that’s just the one that “conscious experience” occupies, as I describe in Sense and Goodness, and in part because unlike the three open spatial dimensions, it’s asymmetrical. Whether any of the compacted dimensions are also asymmetrical is moot, since they are too small for such a distinction ever to be noticed or matter; so, yeah, you could be time-traveling all the time, moving through the entire cosmic history of an alien dimension, billions of times every second…since a compacted time dimension’s entire timeline would occupy less than a Planck time in duration, which is 10-to-the-44th-power times shorter than a second (that’s a 10 followed by 44 zeroes). You’d never notice.
The question has long troubled physicists as to why there aren’t infinitely many dimensions. After all, what stops you from floating off into a fifth or hundredth dimension? What constrains your movement to only three? Chaotic Inflation Theory would say, when combined with ST, that the number of dimensions in a particular region of spacetime (and the number that are open and the number that are compacted), is simply a random outcome of the Big Bang. The whole cosmos is just a vast random “foam” of dimensions, some regions have hundreds of dimensions, others only one or two, and others some mix. Ours is one of the smaller mixes (at least 11, possibly as many as 26; and if 11, 6 dimensions would be compact, and thus invisible). And that may be because those are the only regions life could arise in—for the same reason Fine Tuning advocates argue: increase the open or compacted dimension count too much further, and the resulting geometry can never produce complex chemistry, or would always collapse in on itself.
For example, the reason the gravitational force radiates according to the inverse square law is that it is spreading through three dimensions of space. As described on Wikipedia (which increasingly gets science right):
Since the surface area of a sphere…is proportional to the square of the radius, as the emitted radiation gets farther from the source, it is spread out over an area that is increasing in proportion to the square of the distance from the source. Hence, the intensity of radiation passing through any unit area (directly facing the point source) is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the point source.
But if there were four open dimensions of space, the force would be spread out over the surface of a hypersphere, and thus be divided by the cube of the radius, not the square. The force would rapidly dwindle off. Thus geometry limits what kinds of universes can exist. Or at least, what kinds can produce enough complexity to churn up life. In 1983, J.D. Barrow showed that any manifold with more than three open dimensions of space (and one of time), would never produce physical phenomena requisite for life (“Dimensionality,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences 310, pp. 337-46). This was confirmed by Max Tegmark in 1997 (“On the Dimensionality of Spacetime,” Classical and Quantum Gravity 14, pp. 69-75).
Meanwhile, the number (and perhaps size) of compacted dimensions accessible, would affect the number and kinds of particles (and thus forces) that would manifest. Which is why ST cannot predict the Standard Model with fewer than six of those dimensions: because with fewer dimensions, fewer particles and particle properties can manifest, not enough to generate the complex chemistry needed to make a life form possible. We are less certain what the effect would be of there being more dimensions. There might be upper limits that by geometrical necessity constrain the options; for instance, at six dimensions, hypersphere surface areas max out. So the effect just noted on force strength from adding dimensions would no longer get worse. This could explain why we can construct the entire Standard Model with six compact dimensions: there may be infinitely many compact dimensions in our universe, but no more than six can produce visible effects at our scale. It would be logically impossible.
These multidimensional regions are called Calabi-Yau spaces. One important feature of them is that they have all collapsed to at least a Planck length (and along the time dimension, a Planck time). In fact, a Planck length and time is simply a description of the diameter of the compactified dimensions. You might realize this entails natural units (a smallest unit of time and space, that aligns the two dimensions together: a Planck time is just a Planck length in the time dimension, it’s the same amount—because anything smaller than that disappears into the Calabi-Yau space and thus becomes unmeasurable to us). And if you replace our human units (feet, seconds) with these natural units (Planck lengths, Planck times), the Gravitational constant disappears from all our equations. It turns out, it never existed. It was just a unit converter (converting our “seconds” into the naturally equal length of “feet”). So we’ve explained two of the most important and fundamental physical constants (the Planck constant and the Gravitational constant) as simply the inevitable consequence of the local geometry of spacetime.
You might be starting to see now how understanding all physics as really about geometry, and thus all laws and constants are simply the logically necessary consequence of complex geometries, begins to make a hell of a lot more sense of why the universe is the way it is, than Gods. One wonders if the fine-structure constant (the third most fundamental and important of all), which is unitless—simply a number, 1/137 (or thereabouts)—is just another geometric fact of the structure of our local spacetime. Also notice, for example, how the geometry of ripples and bubbles can actually reproduce quantum phenomena at macro-scales (drops of oil acting like electrons or photons; sound waves acting like electrons or photons). You can see the potential. There is more to support this line of inquiry, than any theology.
It could be something else. Or it could all just be the geometry of spacetime. Physicists often prefer to think that fields are fundamental, and spacetime is incidental, sort of a product of the fields. Quantum loop theory is another competitor. String theorists tend to prefer their strings to be separate from the spacetime they move in, and not knots and ripples of spacetime. And so on. Any of these things could be true. But they would just end up being more convoluted versions of the same overall concept of what the ground of all being is, the thing that explains why things retain their properties, why they have those properties, why things change (and change the ways they do), and that in turn requires no further explanation of itself and why it does those things. But until we know, spacetime is a really simple solution within the grasp of our comprehension. And as I noted in my article of Feser, it’s far better than his God, explaining far more, with far fewer suppositions, and fully answering the demands of every one of his metaphysical arguments. So if some other metaphysical substrate turns out to be the case (loops, fields, “strings”), Feser’s God theory ends up just as useless and unlikely.
Indeed, they might even turn out to all be the same thing. Quantum loops, look a lot like looped strings. Fields are still made up of quanta one way or another. Like, say, loops or strings? And if you imagine a “cross section” of the multidimensional universe, what would an oscillation of a compactified dimension look like? That’s right. A loop. A string. Could every particle be a whole universe, a vibration of its own dimension, moving through the other eleven? Being compacted, there isn’t anywhere an oscillation of it could “go” to run away from our open four dimensions…it would just roll right back around into ours, in an immeasurably small fraction of a second. We’d never notice it ever left. And if distinctions beyond six compacted dimensions become invisible at our scale (owing to the geometry of hyperdimensional volumes), we’d never be able to tell that we are actually living in an infinite number of dimensions. But who knows. Maybe not.
It’s similar in a way to my use of Smolin’s Cosmological Selection Theory in Sense and Goodness without God (III.3.3, pp. 77-81). Even then I conceded Chaotic Inflation Theory was more likely to be true, insofar as it had more scientific support, and required fewer unevidenced assumptions (ibid., pp. 75-76). But I chose to focus on describing Smolin Selection because it was far simpler and easier for a lay thinker to follow and understand. It was excellent for illustrating the point I wanted to make: even when we don’t know the answer, science has several and far better theories than “God did it.” In the now near 15 years since I wrote that, it’s become increasingly evident that Smolin selection theory isn’t likely to be true; chaotic inflation has only been more confirmed, while more science has cast further doubt on Smolin’s model. And yet, Smolin’s theory is still far more plausible, simple, scientifically grounded, and confirmed by the observed evidence than any theological creation theory. For all the reasons I outlined in Sense and Goodness. Thus, even as a false theory, it refutes theism. Because any more likely theory, will only be more sciency and atheological. As the example of Chaotic Inflation illustrates. That may well be true here, for the “fundamental ground of all being.”
From all that science has shown and discovered so far, if it’s not spacetime, it’s certainly not going to turn out to be God.