How Grand a Design?
You may have noticed that Stephen Hawking has a new book out, The Grand Design, and the world is full of comment on the cosmic assertions therein. He and his co-author have apparently stated that you don’t need God to create the universe, because the laws of gravity and a certain version of quantum physics suffice to make it inevitable (!) that the universe will create itself, out of nothing, in an infinite variety of forms; and given an infinite variety of forms, a segment or sub-universe friendly to mankind is bound to develop, no design needed, grand or not.
Odd title, then.
In one way, this is like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. “No, no,” says God. “Go get your own dirt.” Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given.” It doesn’t seem like much because it’s invisible and immaterial, but that doesn’t actually make it a given.
In fact, it’s not necessarily even a “given” in this universe. The laws of quantum physics are in the hypothesis stage. They answer a lot of questions, but they leave a lot of new questions open, so it is not certain that they are “the truth” about physics.
You might ask: how could they not be?
The fundamental problem is this: the physicist sees certain things in the world. He can’t understand them because they are a bit counter-intuitive, but of course the world is full of counter-intuitive stuff. There was a time when the flight of the bumble-bee seemed physically impossible, but of course it was taking place. So things can be counter-intuitive even when they are correctly observed. Still, it’s confusing, so the physicist is mulling it over, and along comes a mathematician (maybe just the physicist’s alter-ego) who says, “Wow! What an interesting pattern!”
“Interesting!” says the physicist. “To me, it’s just confusing. I can’t figure out what’s next.”
“Oh, well,” says the mathematician, “I can construct a mathematical system that perfectly parallels the patterns you are seeing. Maybe that will help.”
So the mathematician does his job, and suddenly they both notice that the pattern implies certain things that were not obvious in the physical world, but sure enough, the physicist finds them when he looks. Or at least, he doesn’t see anything that falls outside the pattern, and the nice thing about the pattern is that everything that looked so confusing and impossible now has a certain order to it, with names for all the patterns and paths of activity.
But as every detective knows, having a solution that accounts for the facts is not the same as having the right answer. There might be three suspects whose character and actions suggest they could have committed the crime; but at most, only one of them did it and maybe someone else after all.
Quantum physics is like that. It’s a hypothesis that has been very helpful in offering a pattern that brings order to many observations, but it remains unproved. Furthermore, it is so profoundly counter-intuitive that the connection between the quantum world and the world as we experience it – full of bumblebees and clouds and elephants and things — is seriously problematic. Why should it look so much like an elephant if it’s “really” just an accidental conglomeration of random quanta?
This leads to a consideration of the deeper problem: it seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.” An elephant, on the other hand, is real. Get out of the way or you won’t have any thoughts at all.
Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things are just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism. Plato thought that the patterns were the reality and the things we bump into were just odd and distorted shadows of those patterns. He was an idealist, and he was very smart; nevertheless, other smart people were not idealists, for example Plato’s most famous pupil, Aristotle.
If your Mom had been a Platonist, attending to the ideals and ignoring physical realities, you wouldn’t have survived; and if the Trinity had been a Platonist association, Jesus would not have become incarnate. So there is a lot at stake in philosophical idealism, and there’s a big hoopla about Hawking right now.
In case you’re not a mom or a Catholic, however, there is something else to consider about philosophical idealism: it’s really schizophrenic. If you were standing in front of a charging elephant, you would not consider that it was a random conglomeration of quanta that might do anything, you would step behind a large tree. What we want from philosophers is a way of looking at the world that takes all our experience into account, not a way that urges us to ignore philosophically what we certainly will not ignore practically. Nobody standing in front of a charging elephant is an idealist, so why should anyone else be?
Math is not physics. That’s the point. It’s Jaki’s point, again and again. Calling math physics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism and knowing its name helps you to see it more clearly.
A few readers have told me that links on my pages were not working. They were being directed to an edit function instead of a link from which they could comment. I have spent a few days fixing all the links on the pages, and many (hopefully all!) of the links on the blogs. I hope everything works properly now, but if not, let me know. Thanks for your interest.
If you disagree with me and wish to comment, that’s fine, but you need to be informative and polite.
I’ve also been traveling and leaving my camera behind or my computer cord and stuff like that so that things are never quite in order to blog. I thought the travel would just be an interlude, but it will probably continue for a while. I’ll get better organized next trip.