Some of My Favorites

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Stephen Hawking Solves the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Well, he's apparently done it. Stephen Hawking, the smartest guy on the planet, has apparently determined how the Universe came into being by using such advanced concepts as gravitic theory, multiple dimensions, "vibrating strings, ... point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space." You know... science. It's all laid out in his new book, The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, due in bookstores this Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, the religious crowd is incensed that Hawking's explanation of spontaneous creation leaves out the hand of God. To them, in spite of all physical evidence, the Earth and everything in it was magically created in six days, just like it says in the Bible. Because if you can't trust a 2,000 year old book of fairy tales, written on a level that a four-year-old could understand, who can you trust?

Hawking, of course, is the theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose bestselling book, A Brief History of Time, broke new ground with its exploration of black holes, the Big Bang, and other complicated concepts, all written for a lay reader. Like Carl Sagan before him, Hawking has a talent for making the inaccessible accessible, and presenting difficult concepts in a way that a non-scientific reader can grasp and comprehend. In some circles, his theories are, to say the least, controversial.

Critics of Hawking have noted his use of the word "God" in his writings, but Hawking himself claims that his use of the term is merely rhetorical, and does not allude to a personal belief in a Supreme Being. In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Hawking said,
"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."
He's right, and the unthinking drones who deride his newly-issued conclusions do so without any actual, reliable platform upon which to stand, and merely seek to perpetuate a system of belief based on superstition and mythology, a faith that relies on incredible, unsupportable leaps of logic that we would find unacceptable in any other context.

Consider, for example, someone who claimed they could walk on water. Even if we were shown video proof of someone accomplishing this - even if we saw it with our own eyes - we would discount it as a trick, a stunt. Our sophisticated, rational minds would look for physical explanations, such as a Plexiglas sheet placed just below the water upon which the charlatan actually walked. Even worse, if we heard about this feat second-hand, if it was reported to us by someone we did not know, we'd assume that they were wrong, that they were deluded, or that they were in on the gag, and spreading tall tales for a specific purpose, like publicity for an upcoming magic show.

And yet, the faithful read about Jesus supposedly walking on water in the Bible, and they fall to their knees in prayer. Not only do they abandon any trace of critical thinking skills - the same skills they would no doubt bring to bear if they were discussing car repairs with their mechanic - but they accept the "facts"of the account without question, praising it as the unchanging and eternal word of God. And in this unthinking, unquestioning belief, they find value, praising each other and themselves for the bravery of their blind faith.

But let someone like Hawking come along and threaten to disrupt their precariously-balanced apple cart, and these believers panic. Apparently, their faith is only strong when it's unquestioned and unchallenged.

In discussing the formation of the universe, and his conclusion that belief in God is unnecessary to explain the formation of everything, Hawking says:
"Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. In this view it is accepted that some entity exists that needs no creator, and that entity is called God. This is known as the first-cause argument for the existence of God. We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings."
He points out the intellectual fallacy of the "Prime Mover" argument: that God is beyond the principles of science and physics, and is beyond the constraints of time and creation. They insist that science is wrong because it cannot provide a solid, observable, and measurable "first cause" for its theory of the origins of existence, but then smugly lean back and proclaim that their God, the origin and creator of all that exists, is eternal and without beginning or end, thereby invoking the "magic clause" that seems to track through all their arguments. According to them, science is bad because it doesn't have all the answers, but religion is good because it doesn't need all the answers. In science, facts build upon more facts; in religion, "facts" build upon magic, folklore, and superstition.

Not surprisingly, the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, disagrees with Hawking's conclusions, as his response to the physicist's dismissal of God from the origin of the universe was:
"...physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing."
Well, that's sort of Hawking's point, isn't it? His whole book seems to be addressing the issue of how something comes out of nothing, based on the observable and demonstrable laws of physics. Whether or not you agree with him, the Archbishop's response seems more than just a little dismissive and anti-intellectual. Just saying something isn't true doesn't make it so, any more than the church's unwavering insistence that something is true will somehow magically bring it into existence. But Hawking doesn't rely on simple insistence. He's backed up by years and years of research and observation. To simply dismiss his arguments with the wave of an ecclessiastical hand misses the point entirely, and merely serves to reinforce the belief that the Church is close-minded and rooted in the failed ideas and philosophies of the distant past.

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in Great Britain, echoed the thoughts of his C of E colleague when he added:
"Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation ... The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being."
But that's not even remotely true, and I suspect the Rabbi knows better than that. Actually, the Bible begins with an explanation of how the Universe came into being, in a mere six days at the hand of God. In point of fact, the first two chapters of the book of Genesis - a book shared by both the Christian and Jewish faiths - focus exclusively on this issue. Perhaps Rabbi Sacks doesn't subscribe to such a literal interpretation of Biblical cosmology, but there are plenty of folks who do. Just like the archbishop, Rabbi Sacks is trying to deflect the importance of Hawking's breakthrough work by minimizing its effect on dogmatic belief.

Hawking's work was also criticized by Ibrahim Mogra, an Imam associated with the Muslim Council of Britain, who stated:
"If we look at the universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror."
Only if you value the unquestioned testament of faith over the observations of science. There's nothing that exists in the universe to "indicate" the presence of some kind of supernatural creator; there's no signature in the corner of the canvas. The only "proof" such believers offer when asked why they believe a Supreme Being created the universe is that: 1) it says so in whatever holy book they subscribe to, or 2) the universe is more complex than they can possibly imagine, and therefore had to be the work of a Guiding Presence. There is, no doubt, a great deal of complexity in this system that has developed over countless eons, complexity that few of us untrained in astrophysics, cosmology, higher dimensional theory, and other advanced sciences, can understand. Faced with such a vast panorama of existence, we insist on boiling the facts down to something we can reasonably comprehend. Enter religion.

Religion provides easy answers to complex questions, answers that we, as humans, can consume and digest easily, without too much thought, and with little education or insight. It's much like the way children learn about the world. In backyard games, kids play "Cops and Robbers," complete with "bad guys" and "good guys." At the age of five, such hard-line distinctions work well: the five-year-old believes that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, classes divided by a solid and uncrossable line. As those children get older, however, they begin to realize that life is made up of shades of gray. What about the man who steals - a classic "bad guy" - in order to provide food for his starving family - a recognizably "good" act? Where does he fall on the "good guy/bad guy" continuum? As we grow up, we shed the childish insistence on black and white answers to all questions, and learn to evaluate the shadings inherent in everything. No one wants to go through life with a five-year-old's understanding of the way the world works, so why does religion treat us as if we're perpetually stuck at infancy, unable to understand more complex concepts? It's time to grow up and adopt an adult view of the universe, free from the black-and-white constraints of religion.

This, then, is the heart of the Church's consternation over Hawking's latest findings, the fact that he, by publishing this book, is challenging believers to grow up in their faith and really deal with adult questions. Like spoiled five-year-olds, however, they insist on throwing a temper tantrum, taking their ball and going home.

We're no longer a pre-literate, pre-industrial society. We understand genetics and geology and cosmology and physics and much more. We no longer need the reassurances of mythology to explain our place in the world and how it came about. That's not to say that there is no value in faith. There's no way, for example, for science to explain what happens to our consciousness, if anything, after death. That is, and will likely remain, the Great Unknown, and faith can provide comforting answers in that regard to the often terrifying prospect of dying.

But things like the Big Bang, the life-cycle of the Earth, the creation of the Universe, etc., these are, more and more, things we can know and understand. We do not need to rely on dusty fairytales and outrageous fables to provide these explanations. If we approach the subject with an open mind, we will discover all kinds of wonderful things, such as traces of the oldest light in existence - more than 14 billion years old - light that was released just after the Big Bang and captured by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in 2006. This astounding find provides direct evidence of the theory of rapid expansion, in which the universe expanded from the size of a marble to its current proportions, all in a trillion-trillionth of a second following the Big Bang. Now that scientists have recovered this data, they can begin searching for the reasons for, and mechanisms of, rapid expansion, all of which will increase our understandings of the origins of the universe even more.

It's findings like these that cause Church leaders to wet themselves. They know that if the faithful ever start to actually question the fantastic dogma they've been force-fed since time immemorial, the clergy's gravy train will be instantly derailed. Once people start questioning one aspect of Biblical mythology - like the cozy yet improbable Creation story - they'll start questioning other parts, like the miracles of Jesus and the existence of Hell. And that, for a clergy grown fat on the backs of their followers, is a terrifying proposition.

One argument that believers use is the "you can't disprove it" stand. It goes something like this:
"My belief in Creationism is every bit as valid as your belief in Evolution/the Big Bang because you can't definitively prove or disprove either." This argument is the very essence of blatant stupidity dressed up, like a cheap transvestite, in the clothes of pseudo-intellectualism.

Consider this argument for a moment. It says, simply, that in the absence of physical, objective proof, any theory is as valid as any other theory. OK, let's test that out.

We observe that when I flip a light switch, the light goes on. Untrained in electrical engineering or physics, I wonder why. My friend says that it's because when I flip the switch, I make a connection between a power source and the light, allowing electricity to flow between the two and cause the bulb to achieve a state of incandescence. Ignoring his big words -words that I don't understand anyway, so they must be meaningless - I decide that, when I flip the switch, it sends a pre-prepared prayer up to Heaven, where it is received by God, who grants me the gift of light. If the bulb burns out, or if it, somehow, does not light, it is clearly the work of Satan trying to thwart God's will that I be able to see.

After hearing my theory, my friend laughs in my face and calls me a moron. "Maybe so," I say, "but my theory is every bit as valid as yours, since you can't definitively prove or disprove either."

"But," my friend counters, "I can show you a textbook on electrical engineering that explains just how such a light switch works."

"And I," I say, smugly triumphant, "can show you THE BIBLE, a book that has sold far more copies than your puny textbook, that supports my theory of God being the creator of light and the provider of all things. Besides, your textbook is written by someone with a pro-science, anti-Christian agenda, and is therefore worthless."

"But countless scientists have tested and confirmed the principles upon which your light switch works," my friend says, feeling his brain melt into a miasma of madness simply for engaging in this brain cell-destroying discussion. "They understand the fundamental concepts of electricity."

"But they can't absolutely prove where electricity comes from," I say, "and scientists have been known to be wrong before, so my theory is every bit as good as yours. Therefore, children must be taught that each time they flip a light switch, a miracle occurs and a prayer is answered."

With that, my friend leaves in search of a very large drink with which to quiet the voices that are now screaming in his head.

The real irony of this whole argument is that Hawking's book hasn't even entered general release yet. In the US, it won't hit the bookstores until Tuesday. The Times of London published an excerpt, and it's this brief fragment that has caused all the uproar. God only knows what the reaction will be when we all get to read the actual book! If this were four hundred years ago, I'm sure the Church would already be preparing the stake upon which to burn the heretic Stephen Hawking, tossing as many copies of his book on the blaze as they can get their hands on.

Today, however, they'll settle for the next best thing: mindlessly and ignorantly smearing and trashing his work without ever reading it. Because who needs such inconvenient things as facts when you have faith instead?


  1. Interesting post, John. I enjoyed this one very much. Nicely referenced and thought provoking. I remember in 8th grade (unfortunately, not well enough) how a substitute Science teacher explained so very well how that belief in scientific maxim's and hypotheses, was not at the same time an outright dismissal of faith or religious belief in creationism and other religious doctrine. It was so fantastic a discussion (where he, of course, did most of the talking), that when our regular Science teacher returned after a brief illness, he was besieged by the class as we sang this man's praises. We finally had a cogent and rational explanation that allowed the these two (generally disparate) world philosophies to peacefully and intelligently coexist. I am terribly embarrassed to say that I just don't remember it well enough to expound further. All I know, is that I really was presented with a fine exegesis.

  2. Thanks, Dave. I enjoyed writing this one.

    In terms of reconciling religious dogma with scientific data, I'll never forget a conversation I had over dinner with Neil Malickey (Neil was a Methodist minister and the President of the college that David and I attended). When asked whether he believed in Creation or Evolution, he replied, "I believe that God created the process of evolution."

    Neil was a very wise man.

  3. This is excellent, John, and I shall enjoy very much getting to know you better. The only thing I know for sure is that there is a God and he/she/it is not me. I accept Pascal's wager, because it's logical. Where I would differ with people like Hawkings or Sagan is in the realm of creativity, for it, logically, must exist outside science's box. Religion has turned everything into magic, including historical figures and events. I think Genesis chapter six is the most fascinating piece of historical literature ever written. It truly boggles the mind. I look forward to our conversations.

  4. Hi Terry: thanks for stopping by. I think the thing about Hawking (and Sagan and Robert Bakker, for that matter) is that they have, using their gifts of creativity, stretched the boundaries of science to new and fascinating places. What's exciting about quantum physics (what little I can grasp of it) is that finally there's a realm where magic and science overlap. I think that, as we move forward, we're coming closer and closer to that exciting and fascinating place that you're looking for.