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Posts Tagged ‘Hawking’

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.

Housekeeping:

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.

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In closing:


It is important to bear in mind, during any kind of discussion about the meeting of faith and science, that God Himself is not subject to measure, weight, or number, and, as such, he is not a subject of the physical sciences. There can be no “scientific” proof for the existence of God as long as the word “scientific” refers to the specific fields of the natural sciences, of which he is not an appropriate subject. We cannot count his parts, we cannot weigh him; we cannot observe him in a physical manner. In the larger definition of Science – reasoning from evidence to conclusions – there are several proofs for his existence, and scientific men often appreciate them and talk about them: they are not anti-scientific, but they are not “scientific” in the modern, limited, physical sense of the word, and cannot be.

On the other hand, as the story of Robert Jastrow shows, a cosmology of infinite space and eternal piling up of accident does cause within men a needlessly deep separation between the realms of the natural sciences and the philosophical sciences as well as theology. People do in fact gain and lose their faith over these things, and they do represent a genuine cultural battleground.

The pre-Copernicans thought they perceived a finite world of earthly physics and an infinite surrounding spiritual world, some portion of which was visible in the sky, it not being fully clear that light is a part of material creation. Most believed that our Earth was the center of the universe until he (Copernicus) laid it out that the Sun was in the center of Earth’s orbital motions and in this way definitively started man down the long path of verifying the minority and simplicity of our position in the universe.

Over the next 500 years, the physics of Earth reached out to encompass a steadily larger universe, in which the place of Earth is clearly not central — not to the solar system, not to the galaxy, not to the universe in any meaningful physical sense — though it is uniquely safe and beautiful.

Intermittently throughout all this history, the theme of an infinite and accidental universe, in which civilized creatures are commonplace and ephemeral, or merely ephemeral, has repeatedly been proposed, junked, and re-proposed. This theme received a body blow in the Big Bang cosmology and its verification, but is now resurrected as Hawking’s multiverse, opposed by philosophy and by Gonzalez’ recognition of non-trivial privileges in our universe situation.

Cosmology now

The true history of cosmology is the story of coming to consensus about just three things:

  • The universe is lawful and rational throughout.
  • The universe is finite in space in time.
  • The universe was designed as our home.

It is worthwhile for Christian teachers of the natural sciences to become familiar with this history as a way of laying out the reasonableness of our hope, and of providing support for their students’ rational embrace of faith in our heavenly Father.

[This is the 14th and last post serialized from a summer speech on the history of cosmology, from Copernicus to the early 21st century. The first of these posts was August 3, 2010, Full Circle from Copernicus. The rest follow day by day, with a few interruptions. A list of the posts may be found on the Cosmology page.]

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Countering this potentially theistic trend that Brownlee had placed on the table with his Rare Earth, Stephen Hawking made the desperate gambit of suggesting that there might be an infinite (really infinite, or just virtually infinite?) number of “bangs” – some Big Bangs, some Little Bangs, and just this one that we inhabit being the fortuitous size that allowed human life. In an infinite time, all possibilities can be tried. His reasoning was based on some physical considerations that are beyond the scope of this discussion; you can read about the Copenhagen Interpretation. But fundamentally, there were unrecognized philosophical issues behind this bid, as Jaki points out in his Is There a Universe? Hawking, like Hoyle before him, needed matter to arise mathematically from nothing – in this case from the probability that was believed to govern electrons. That probability could generate matter was a passing odd position; nevertheless Hawking has a vast following, and, in truth, God does not force our hands — or our minds. Belief, atheistic or not, has a certain latitude for choice; the evidence is never absolute because men and their information are never absolute. Hawking had made the case for an accidental universe: Yes, our universe is finite, but it is set within an infinite cosmic foam of other universes. It’s just the one that works for us.

But there was more evidence coming in.

The next salvo in the battle for a genuinely finite universe was the book Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez. He and several colleagues have gathered evidence that the earth is not only uniquely fitted for life, which it would have to be or we wouldn’t be talking about it, but also uniquely fitted for discovery, which is not necessary to life, even to intelligent life. Interestingly, however, they discovered that the same conditions that are essential to life area also the conditions for discovery.

For example, our Earth is the only place in the solar system from which the Sun is fully eclipsed by another body (our Moon) so that the corona is visible. This fact has been very important in the study of stars – the Sun is so bright, and the stars are so dim, that both are very difficult to study. The corona of the sun, the beautiful display that is visible for just a few minutes during a total eclipse, gives lots of information, which was otherwise unavailable until the launching of artificial satellites. It is essential to universe discovery.

At the same time, the Moon is essential to life because it stabilizes the rotation of Earth, without which the seasons would vary too strongly and life would not be possible.

That the same planet suited to life should also be suited to discovery of the nature of the stars, and therefore of the universe, deeply disturbs the accidentalist case. It makes the universe look like a home.

(The next post will be the end of the talk.)

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Hawking’s Multiverse

Besides the infinite universe, there are two other kinds of multiverse that one meets from time to time. (Probably more than two!) One is the multiverse of Stephen Hawking, which has a scientific appearance and reputation; the other is the multiverse of people like Philip Pullman, who has written some spiritually horrible fiction with a peculiar cosmological error based on a philosophical atrocity.

Hawking’s foam

Hawking’s multiverse is the assertion, without any proof or any possible proof, that our Big Bang universe is merely the statistical accident of a universe that made it into long-term existence, while innumerable others didn’t.

  1. Some were quickly followed by a collapse, a Big Crunch, so they never got to the star-making stage.
  2. Some were so explosive that they blew into a powder before they formed stars. (And where is that powder? There must be an infinite amount of it since it has been generated over eternity… )
  3. Some might have long-term existence but with a dubious relationship to our universe. The reason for this uncertainty is that there are a few basic relationships in the foundation of the universe, expressed as specific ratios and known as cosmic constants. They seem to be arbitrary but, on closer examination, turn out to be essential to the working of our universe and its hospitality to life. Other universes in Hawking’s proposal might have different starting constants. It is not clear how their matter would be related to our matter if they overlapped our universe or touched it, whatever that might mean for a different physics.

Hawking imagines a kind of cosmic foam, whose location is undefined since it is not part of any universe, from which universes leap into existence and mostly collapse back. It is a mathematical exercise, not an exercise in physics. None of the other universes can be verified; and the concept itself is curious. Think about the consequences:

My nose itches. Hmmm. Is that because I’m catching cold or have just breathed in some lily pollen, or could it be that one of those multiverses just popped in and out of existence inside my nose? It could happen anywhere, you know. It might make me itch or not. We don’t know how – or whether – these other universes would actually interact with ours. All unknown. All without any measure. All carrying the curious suggestion that odd events in our universe might be the result of interaction with other universes. Just might. You never know.

This is chaos. It is just the sort of chaos that was chased off when Christians said that the universe is our Father’s work, and we, made in his image, are meant to understand it, little by little. It’s the kind of mess that was present in ancient mythologies that presented the universe as a work of chaos. It’s the kind of belief system in which the natural sciences could not be born because these sciences depend, philosophically, on a confidence in universe order. Fr. Stanley Jaki argues that the very reason why the scientific revolution began within Christianity of the 14th century, and not within another culture, was this hearty Christian confidence in a reasonable creation by our Father. (Not earlier than the fourteenth century because the Roman Empire had to be converted and then the Saxons, before the universities could be built. Then science had a chance.)

A multiverse cannot be understood because it doesn’t have universal laws. Science does not develop in a climate of thought that disparages – or dismisses – or doubts – the reality of universal laws.

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