Thursday, August 18, 2011

Steven Hawking Shouldn't Quit His Day Job

I watched the inaugural episode of Discovery Channel's new series, Curiosity, the other week. (Sunday August 7, 2011) In it Dr. Steven Hawking, noted theoretical physicist, postulated that the immutable laws of nature 'prove' that there is no God. I do not doubt that Hawking is a brilliant man who has contributed vast new insights in the fields of physics and cosmology, but, after watching this show, I have to conclude that he has left a lot of air in these particular postulations, and most of that air is hot.
I can't help but think that the show itself was designed to advance the notion that gods in general, and the modern concept of one, true creator God in particular, are mere fanciful concepts of ignorant people rooted in superstition and prejudice. Fully half the show was given over to demonstrating that the ancient Norse gods were invented to explain natural phenomena like solar eclipses, and that the Christian Church of Rome spent centuries frustrating the advancement of science by branding luminaries like Galileo as heretical.
While these are indisputable historical facts, presenting them in this way in this particular show did nothing to advance Hawking's cosmology, but rather served to to cast that cosmology in a light of courageous departure from conventional thinking that was likely to embroil him in controversy. And so it has, not because Hawking has advanced cosmological thinking to new frontiers, but because he has made some leaps of faith in science that would make a televangelist blush.
Hawking seems to relish the role he has scripted for himself. He claims, for instance, that when he attended a Vatican conference on cosmology in 1985 Pope John Paul II admonished the attendees not to 'ask questions about the origins of the universe because that is the work of God'. Hawking has made this claim several times before, but it turns out not to be true. The complete text of the Pope's remarks at that conference and the preceding one in 1981 contain no explicit proscription against investigating the origins of the universe. In fact he seems to welcome such inquiries on the premise that such knowledge advances our understanding of our place in the universe.
To be fair, the Pope does warn against undertaking such queries using the physical sciences alone. He asserts that such investigations without benefit of the metaphysical disciplines would be perforce limited in their usefulness. He does not forbid questions of origin, however, and he certainly does not threaten the kind of 'trouble' that Hawking intimates he will get into for undertaking to answer these questions anyway. Hawking's posturing as a scientist victimized by religious prejudice is little more than self-serving bunkum. It is Hawking's slipshod logical progression that is his undoing, not any fundamental Christian bigotry.
Notwithstanding, I am sure there is plenty of religious bigotry to go around. A lot of it has already surfaced on the Internet in response to Hawking's claims on the show. A lot of it is just as riddled with ignorance and superstition as Hawking says, although, again to be fair, so are the in-your-face celebrations of fundamental atheists worshipping at the altar of Hawking's so-called proofs. As Albert Einstein once quipped, 'The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer'.
Hawking's points are summarized below. Except where noted, these are direct quotes from the show, taken in the order in which they were presented. Brackets indicate paraphrasing by me.
  1. The universe is a machine governed by principles or laws, laws that can be understood by the human mind.
  2. The discovery of these laws is humankind's greatest achievement...for it is these laws of nature, as we now call them, that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all.
  3. Physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal.
  4. If you accept...that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn't take long to ask what role is there for God.
  5. To make a universe you need only three ingredients: matter, energy, and space.
  6. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.
  7. [Because, as Einstein discovered, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared, mass and energy are essentially the same thing, so you really only need energy and space to make a universe.]
  8. Space and energy were spontaneously created in an event we now call the Big Bang.
  9. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called negative energy.
  10. When the Big Bang produced a vast amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. [The positive and negative energy in the universe always add up to zero.]
  11. If the universe adds up to nothing, then you don't need a god to create it.
  12. [At the sub-atomic level] you enter a world where conjuring something out of nothing is possible. That's because at this scale particles such as protons behave according to the laws of nature we call quantum mechanics, and they really can appear at random, stick around, and then vanish again to reappear somewhere else. Since we know the universe itself was once very small—smaller than a proton in fact—this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the laws of nature.
  13. The laws of nature themselves tell us that, not only could the universe have popped into existence like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that nothing caused the Big Bang.
  14. At the instant of the Big Bang time itself began...because inside [a] black hole...time doesn't exist. And that's exactly what happened at the start of the universe. The role played by time at the beginning of the universe is...the final key to removing the need for a grand designer and revealing how the universe created itself.
  15. As we travel back in time toward the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller until it finally gets to a point where the whole universe is in a space so small that it is in effect a single,  infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And, just as with modern day black holes floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that, here too, time itself must come to a stop.
  16. You can't get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no 'before the Big Bang'. We have finally found something that doesn't have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in. [So] there is no possibility of a creator because there is no time for a creator to have existed.
  17. Since time itself began at the moment of the Big Bang, it was an event that could not have been caused or created by anyone or anything.
What Hawking has attempted is to explain how the universe could have come about without a creator. This much he seems to have done, at least to his own satisfaction and that of the giddy atheists who were waiting for a brilliant cosmologist to tell them they don't have to worry about judgment in a nonexistent afterlife. That is, he has succeeded if you accept that a theoretical prototypical black hole with no existing matter or energy from which to draw would behave in the same way as a proton, which can pop into existence willy-nilly in the midst of a whole universe of preexisting stuff. Personally, I think this is a leap of faith.
Beyond that is Hawking's short-shrift treatment of the laws of nature upon which he rests his case. Where did they come from? He doesn't say. I suppose you could argue that when the universe exploded onto the scene it came complete with the laws that would govern its dynamics and processes. All the matter and all the energy contained therein would just behave according to their natures, and these natures would, in essence, constitute the rules of behavior. I find this a little problematic, but then I am not a theoretical physicist. I am an unemployed accountant. What the hell do I know?
So here is my question for Dr. Hawking. If the Big Bang initially produced a single, infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense proton, which is essentially the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, complete with its own rules for being and acting, what did that hydrogen nucleus fuse with to create helium? How did helium then know how to behave? Where did gold come from? And rabbit fur, and patent leather, and Donald Trump's hair?
Ostensibly all of these things proceeded organically one from the other over billions of millennia until we end up with this immense complexity of matter and energy all behaving according to immutable laws of nature for which we have no source. How is this a more simple explanation than a creator god?
And that's another thing: the creator god, or God. Hawking asserts there couldn't have been one because there was no time for one to have acted. This is the limitation of physical sciences about which John Paul II tried to warn us. If physical science can't observe time before the Big Bang, then it must not have existed. But what if it existed someplace else? Like, for instance, a place where the prototypical proton existed before it appeared here?
Physical science also apparently requires its creator god, if in fact it can conceive of such a thing at all, to have mass and to occupy space and time. Hawking says there was no time for God to have acted. The metaphysical notion of God does not have these limitations. In fact, most of us who believe in God believe that he emphatically does not exist in time or space, nor does he have any mass. We have convenient metaphorical expressions to explain God's presence and attributes, but on the conceptual plane we think of God as timeless intellect, pure spirit, an overarching ideal containing the essential nature, the rules if you will, of everything we are able to observe and experience.
This is ancient stuff. God's own name for himself in the ancient Hebraic texts is 'I am'. He is not before or after creation. He just is. Always. This is not an observable kind of thing. This is therefore not something that can be proven or dis-proven with science. You can call bullshit if you want, and many have, but that doesn't make it so.
Hawking makes a lot out of our 'need', or more specifically the lack thereof, for a creator. His idea of God is of a construct invented to explain the otherwise unexplainable. Accordingly, as we are able to explain more and more of our physical universe, we need God less and less. Science has its own artificial constructs though. Black holes and the Big Bang are two such. They are theoretical events that were invented to explain the otherwise unexplainable.
The Big Bang especially is a theory whose purpose is to explain the existence of the universe without God, and Hawking has made good on its promise. Of course this is rather easier when the theoretical construct was constructed without any reference to God. When it comes to accepting theory as scientific fact though, in the absence of any as yet complete proof, a certain amount of faith is required.
God on the other hand, construct or reality, has always required faith. The faithful already know this—the ones who actually think about it at any rate. There will always be some theological wankers about who will quote the Bible as an authority in an argument with an atheist as if Scripture carries any weight with a non-believer. Most of us realize that this is not just an exercise in futility. It is stupid.
For the intelligent believer though, faith must necessarily contain an element of doubt else it isn't faith at all but certain knowledge. Certain knowledge does not move mountains. Certain knowledge is not spiritual, religious, holy, nor full of grace. Certain knowledge, or at least the requirement for it, is the necessary fundamental limitation of the physical sciences. Science requires proof to keep it honest. When science makes an assertion that is not backed up by proof, it is required to keep looking.
Doubt, on the other hand, is the liberating principle of faith and the ultimate foundation of metaphysics. A metaphysical philosopher must ask a question of the discipline that no self-respecting physicist ever would or could ask about physics, and that is, 'Is metaphysics even possible?' Asking this question makes metaphysics at once more honest and analytical than physics will ever be. Why? For the simple reason that it forces the philosopher to consider, with humility, that he might be wrong. I don't think this notion has entered Stephen Hawking's mind. As a man of faith I have to grant that he may be right, but I don't believe it for a minute.

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