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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

Stephen Hawking may be the most well-known living scientist. Confined to a wheelchair, and unable to speak, Hawking still communicates effectively. He has had an interesting life, it seems. Among other things, he has experienced free fall training with US astronauts, and had a bit role in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, playing himself. He also wrote a best-selling book. Hawking shares a birthday with Galileo, and, until his retirement, he held the professorial chair that was once held by Isaac Newton.

Here are two quotations from Hawking, on the subject of the existence of God:
In an interview with Reuters last year, Hawking said he was "not religious in the normal sense."
"I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science," he said. "The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws." "Pope sees physicist Hawking at evolution gathering," Reuters, October 31, 2008.

Diane Sawyer asked Hawking what question he would ask the universe, if given the opportunity. He responded "I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something rather than nothing."
He also 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."
Sawyer said, in commenting on the interview, that Hawking once said that "God not only plays dice with the world, but sometimes throws the dice where they can't be seen."
- ABC World News with Diane Sawyer: "Conversation with Stephen Hawking," June 7, 2010. (My original source for this has been removed by YouTube. Here is a source for the first quotation in the above paragraph.)

Hawking's thinking can be described as bold. This is obvious in his book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes . (Bantam Books, 1988, pp. 173-4)

Brief History is a discussion of the implications of quantum gravity. See the Wikipedia article on the subject, which indicates that there are several competing theories of quantum gravity. It also says (version of July 28, 2010) that all these theories ". . . face the common problem that, as yet, there is no way to put quantum gravity predictions to experimental tests. . ." Hawking's view belongs to the Sum Over Histories group of theories, according to the book, and also according to a history (as of 2000, published in 2001, but the on-line verson has a 2008 date) of theories in quantum gravity, by Rovelli. (See here.) So, although Hawking may be right, he may also be wrong, and currently there isn't any way to prove that he is right. He is understandably enthusiastic about his own approach, but does not dogmatically state that he is right.

The book is only 175 pages long, with only one equation, and minimal scholarly apparatus. It sold very well. Hawking's point is to let it be known that his theory of quantum gravity may indicate that the universe, rather than having had a definite beginning, is eternal. (I'm don't know if the other theories also do this) Hawking makes clear that he thinks such a truth would profoundly change our view of God's activity, in fact meaning that there is no God. Kitty Ferguson, author of The Fire in the Equations: Science, Religion & the Search for God. says, I believe correctly, that Hawking writes as if the possibility that his theory ". . . erases our need for a God is far more reason for celebrating than the fact that the theory makes a new part of this mysterious universe accessible to human beings." (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995. See here for my most recent post on the book. p. 76. Ferguson's title is a quotation from Brief History, and she indicates that Hawking read at least part of her manuscript before her book was published. See below.)

There have been past occasions where scientific understanding has led to a re-thinking of our role in the universe. Two of the most important are the astronomical findings that show that the earth is a small planet, orbiting a rather mediocre star, in an ordinary galaxy, and that living things on earth seem to have arisen from one, or at most a few, common ancestors, over a very long period of time. These both caused, and, to some degree are still causing, theological upheavals. But I don't think that they necessarily destroy, or even diminish, belief in an omnipotent divine Creator, and I'm not alone in such belief. In fact, these scientific revolutions make many believers more confident of God's power.

Suppose Hawking is correct about quantum gravity and the universe -- bearing in mind that we don't know that. What are the possibilities?
First, it is possible that there is no God, and there doesn't need to be one, because the universe is eternal, and did not have a beginning.
Second, God, much as Christians believe in Him, is part of the universe, co-existent, and, perhaps, playing an important creative part in its development.
Third, God created the universe at some point in time, and created it with an appearance of age, so that there is evidence that supports Hawking's ideas, but that evidence is misleading.

All of these would, of course, have profound implications for theology, and Hawking says just that, on his pages 173 and 174.

But, as indicated above, Hawking at least entertains the idea that God started things:
Science seems to have uncovered a set of laws that, within the limits set by the uncertainty principle, tell us how the universe will develop with time, if we know its state at any one time. These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in them. But how did he choose the initial state or configuration of the universe? What were the "boundary conditions" at the beginning of time?
One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. (page 122. The color used indicates a block quotation.)

On page 125, Hawking tells us that "The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron." He goes on to say that the values of these various physical constants "seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life," and indicates that values that were much different would have made life, as we know it, impossible, and, in fact, the stars, as we know them, impossible, also. He also says that, so far, there is no theory which would have predicted these particular values for these constants. This may be taken as evidence for a Creator, or as evidence for the Strong Anthropic Principle.

On pages 126-7, he writes about the initial conditions of the universe, which, he says, must have been in a narrow range of temperatures, so as to allow the cosmic background radiation to be so uniform. There must have also been a constricted rate of expansion, because if it were much different, the universe would have collapsed. "It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us." (p. 127)

On pages 136-7, Hawking says this: "I'd like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite without boundary is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle. Like any other scientific theory, it may initially be put forward for aesthetic or metaphysical reasons, but the real test is whether it makes predictions that agree with observation." (emphasis in original) He goes on to say that it will be difficult to even make predictions, let alone test them.

On page 160, the author sets forth three possibilities:
1) There really is a unified theory, which will tie all the forces of nature, the elementary particles into an explanation that ties them together, and also explains the constants referred to previously in the book.
2) No such theory exists, but we may be able to explain the phenomena indicated with better and better theories, as time passes.
3) There is no such theory, and there is an underlying randomness and unpredictability to the universe.
He goes on to say that some would argue for the 3rd possibility, because it allows God freedom to act. But, says Hawking, God is said to exist outside of time, so there is no reason that He couldn't intervene by making laws in a certain way initially, and, also act sub-atomically, operating through the events which the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle doesn't let us predict, or even measure. Hawking says that current experience seems to indicate that the second possibility is the one we are experiencing.

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him? (page 174)

Thanks for reading.

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As indicated above, I added a source to replace one that is no longer available. I did this on April 13, 2012.

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As of July 22, 2012, I am disabling comments on this post, because I have gotten dozens of spam comments on it. Feel free to comment on a different post, and refer to something in this one, not to politics, etc., if you are a real person. Thanks.

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On September 23, I made three minor editorial changes.

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