Boltzmann Brains and the Mind of God
Readers familiar with Jonathan Swift's satirical tale Gulliver's Travels may remember Laputa, the third country visited by the adventurous Gulliver. A perfectly circular island measuring close to five miles in diameter, floating above the earth with the use of magnetism and navigated via Newtonian mechanics, Laputa is ruled not by small-minded, short-sighted politicians, as in the kingdom of Lilliput, but by astronomers and mathematicians obsessed with natural science. A secular prophet of sorts, Swift vividly portrayed the myopic (and often morally indifferent) visions of certain scientific intellectuals in his day, and in our own. Allan Bloom describes a preoccupation with all things abstract and theoretical among the Laputians, along with a herd-like groupthink, which together restrict their understanding of the everyday world: "The men have no contact with ordinary sense experiences. This is what permits them to remain content with their science. Communication with others outside their circle is unnecessary."
These men are science purists who have tapped into the power of knowledge in order to live in a world above their intellectually inferior neighbors. But as a result of living in this detached, self-elevated state, they miss some important aspects of reality. They don't seem to notice or care that their clothes don't fit, for example, nor even that their wives are committing adultery. The parallels between Laputa and certain sectors of the twenty-first century scientific establishment are not difficult to see. Many scientists today indeed hold their science high above all other intellectual endeavors, and in some cases seem to proffer it as the basis for a new and superior morality. Steven Pinker, for example, pronounces that science has emerged triumphant over all other forms of explanation for all observable phenomena:
We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are.
Notice how Pinker presents the second statement as if it somehow followed from the first – when of course it doesn't. Pinker's argument holds only if it is true that "the laws governing the physical world" operate not only without any goals or purposes, but that they operate uniformly at all times, places and circumstances. If it cannot be demonstrated that natural laws are necessarily uniform, or universally binding (and Hume of all people demonstrated exactly the opposite), then clearly there is nothing to prevent the actions of providence, or divine retribution or answered prayer. He continues:
And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today…. In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.
Here Pinker suggests not only that science alone can inform "moral and spiritual values," but that beloved moral and spiritual convictions (such as my belief that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and now calls me to serve and honor him) are subject to decisive falsification – though I notice he doesn't mention how or when I can expect this falsification to actually occur. But what of his own convictions? Are his beliefs not also time- and culture-bound? I don't doubt that Pinker and his colleagues are brilliant theorists, capable of discoursing on topics and deriving mathematical theorems that people like me can scarcely begin to understand. But it seems as if these promoters of "hard science" have forgotten all the difficult lessons of the logical positivism movement from the previous century, or the long history of failed scientific theories underlying the theory of pessimistic meta-induction. At any rate, a monk-like detachment from the world of everyday life – work, responsibilities, interactions with ordinary people, economic transactions and so forth – and immersion into the theoretical world of, say, quantum cosmology, can evidently lead even brilliant theorists to embrace some wildly speculative, even irrational notions.
Consider "Boltzmann Brains," the product of a thought experiment first postulated by the nineteenth-century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. According to Boltzmann, the universe is in the low probability, low entropy state that it is because, well, only in such a state can a brain exist to observe the universe in the first place. He considered further that a stand-alone disembodied observer would be far more likely to emerge from any given thermodynamic state far more often than would an embodied brain from a much more structured environment. Because even in equilibrium (or thereabouts), fluctuations may occur which give rise to any number of highly improbable configurations, an infinitely old universe would give rise to a vast number of fully functioning (if short lived) brains, perhaps complete with apparent memories. Some have suggested that the Boltzmann Brain hypothesis escapes the implications of fine-tuning, that our universe has been constructed precisely as it is so that living, self-aware observers can thrive within it. After all, Boltzmann observers would be expected to emerge often – at least relative to an infinitely old universe – from a virtually featureless thermodynamic soup. Cosmologist Sean Carroll elaborates on some of the disturbing implications of Boltzmann's random quantum fluctuations:
If we wait long enough, some region of the universe will fluctuate into absolutely any configuration of matter compatible with the local laws of physics. Atoms, viruses, people, dragons, what have you. The room you are in right now (or the atmosphere, if you’re outside) will be reconstructed, down to the slightest detail, an infinite number of times in the future. In the overwhelming majority of times that your local environment does get created, the rest of the universe will look like a high-entropy equilibrium state (in this case, empty space with a tiny temperature). All of those copies of you will think they have reliable memories of the past and an accurate picture of what the external world looks like — but they would be wrong. And you could be one of them.
Bizarre. Now as Carroll himself points out, actually believing this is epistemically problematic. We cannot know the Boltzmann Brain scenario to be true because a theory dependent on random fluctuations is, as he says, "cognitively unstable. You can't simultaneously believe in it, and be justified in believing it." But others argue that because it hasn't been falsified, it remains a viable hypothesis that potentially lends credibility to a multiverse or eternal-inflationary universe scenario, which in turn may help explain fine-tuning of our own universe apart from divine intervention. Of course Boltzmann was only able to concoct his theory under a huge set of finely-tuned conditions necessary for his own brain to function and thereby observe the universe. To devise an unfalsifiable theory which suggests that those same conditions may in fact not be necessary for a brain to observe a universe seems self-defeating from a scientific-empirical standpoint. And that's the standpoint which most atheists assume before ever attempting to defeat the argument from fine-tuning.
Moreover, regions of low entropy could just as easily generate other wildly improbable entities. In addition to disembodied brains Carroll mentions dragons, but he may as well have included invisible pink unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, and various other fantastic beings subjected to ridicule by atheists in every other context. And as mentioned, a disembodied brain cannot be more likely to spontaneously emerge from a temporarily low entropy region than an embodied brain complete with a life-supporting environment, because a brain requires a host of quite specific physical-environmental conditions (a functioning host body, for example) in order to function, even if for only a few moments. The mere fact, then, that a disembodied (functional) brain appears "simpler" than an embodied (functional) brain does not somehow make it less improbable.
All this brings us full circle, back to the strong implications of fine-tuning for theology. Minds in physical universes require brains, which require bodies living in a finely-tuned, life-conducive environment, which requires the careful planning and execution of an unimaginably intelligent and powerful Creator. Our observation of the universe, in short, requires the mind of God.
 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 294.
 Steven Pinker, "Science is Not Your Enemy," The New Republic, August 6, 2013. https://newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities.
 Sean Carroll, "The Higgs Boson vs. Boltzmann Brains," August 22, 2013, http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/08/22/the-higgs-boson-vs-boltzmann-brains/.