Friday, September 03, 2010

Stephen Hawking's New Book Attacks the Fine-Tuning Argument

The Big Bang was the inevitable consequence of physics, claims Stephen Hawking in his new book The Grand Design. Science thus renders redundant the role of God as creator. That is, according to Hawking, God is not needed to explain the origin of the fine-tuned universe.

I picked up this story yesterday and, for $2, purchased a 24-hour subscription to The London Times which initially reported it. Here is the London Times article.

Modern physics leaves no place for God in the creation of the Universe, Stephen Hawking has concluded.

Just as Darwinism removed the need for a creator in the sphere of biology, Britain’s most eminent scientist argues that a new series of theories have rendered redundant the role of a creator for the Universe.

In his forthcoming book, an extract from which is published exclusively in Eureka, published today with The Times, Professor Hawking sets out to answer the question: “Did the Universe need a creator?” The answer he gives is a resounding “no”.

Far from being a once-in-a-million event that could only be accounted for by extraordinary serendipity or a divine hand, the Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, Hawking says.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist,” he writes.

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going,” he finds.

Professor Hawking’s book is a significant breakaway from previous views he has published on religion. In A Brief History of Time, he was accommodating of religious beliefs, suggesting that God as Creator was not incompatible with a scientific understanding of the Universe. “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God,” he wrote in the 1988 bestseller.

In his new book, The Grand Design, published on September 9, a week before the Pope’s visit to Britain, he sets out a comprehensive thesis that the scientific framework leaves no room for a deity.

In the book, co-authored by the American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking deconstructs Sir Isaac Newton’s belief that the Universe could not have arisen out of chaos due to the mere laws of Nature, but must have been created by God.

Hawking writes that the first blow was the confirmed observation in 1992 of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. “That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions — the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass — far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings,” he writes.

Not only other planets, but whole other universes, known collectively as the multiverse, are likely to exist, according to Professor Hawking, who until he retired last year held the same post as Newton, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. If God’s intention was to create mankind, then these many untouchable worlds would surely be redundant, he suggests.

Richard Dawkins, a biologist and fierce proponent of atheism, welcomed the book, describing it as Darwinism for the very fabric of Nature, not just the creatures living within it. “That’s exactly what he’s saying,” said Professor Dawkins. “I know nothing of the details of the physics but I had always assumed the same thing.”

However others, such as Professor George Ellis, an emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town and President of the International Society for Science and Religion, were less impressed. “My biggest problem with this is that it’s presenting the public with a choice: science or religion. A lot of people will say, ‘OK, I choose religion, then’ and it is science that will lose out,” he said.

In the book, Professor Hawking also suggests that philosophy as a science is dead but intriguingly leaves open the prospect of life in other universes.

He predicts that physics is on the brink of writing a theory of everything, a single framework that can entirely explain the properties of Nature. Such a theory has been the holy grail for physicists since the time of Einstein but until now it has been impossible to reconcile quantum theory, which explains the sub-atomic world, with gravity, which explains how objects interact on the cosmological scale.

Professor Hawking suggests that M-theory, a form of string theory, will achieve this goal. He writes: “M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings — who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature — have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph.”

While agreeing that advances in theoretical physics were impressive, others argue they had little to contribute to a debate about the possible existence of God.

Frank Close, a theoretical physicist at the University of Oxford, said: “Given the vast numbers of stars in our known Universe, God’s efficiency may already be called into question: if the sole aim was to create you, me and Stephen Hawking, would not one solar system have been enough? I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God debate, either pro or con,”

Rather than being a single master equation, Professor Hawking suggests that M-theory will be a “whole family” of theories existing within a consistent theoretical framework. Much like the way different maps — political, geographical, topological — can map a single region without contradicting each other, M-theory will map different aspects of the material world.

The Times also published a rebuttal article by Jewis Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here it is.
Stephen Hawking is wrong about the existence of God. He has simply refuted his own earlier mistaken theology

What would we do for entertainment without scientists telling us, with breathless excitement, that “God did not create the Universe”, as if they were the first to discover this astonishing proposition? Stephen Hawking is the latest, but certainly not the first. When Napoleon asked Laplace, two hundred years ago, where was God in his scientific system, the mathematician replied, Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse. “I do not need God to explain the Universe.” We never did. That is what scientists do not understand.

There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual enterprises. They even occupy different hemispheres of the brain. Science — linear, atomistic, analytical — is a typical left-brain activity. Religion — integrative, holistic, relational — is supremely a work of the right brain.

It is important for us to understand the misinterpretation Professor Hawking has made, because the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age, and is damaging to religion and science in equal measure.

The best way of approaching it is through the autobiography of Charles Darwin. Darwin tells us that as a young man he had been impressed with the case for God as set out by William Paley in his Natural Theology of 1802. Paley updated the classic “argument from design” to the state of scientific knowledge as it existed in his day.

Find a stone on a heath, says Paley, and you won’t ask who designed it. It doesn’t look as if it was designed. But find a watch and you will think differently. A watch looks as if it was designed. Therefore it had a designer. The Universe looks more like a watch than a stone. It is intricate, interlocking, complex. Therefore, it too had a designer, whose name is God.

Darwin, in a simple yet world-transforming idea, showed how the appearance of design does not require a designer at all. It can emerge over a long period of time by, as we would put it today, an iterated process of genetic mutation and natural selection. So the Universe is not like a watch, or if it is, the watchmaker was blind. QED.

But whoever thought the Universe was like a watch in the first place? The scientists and philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries: Newton, Leibniz, Laplace, Auguste Comte. What was wrong about Paley’s argument was not the theology but the science on which it was based. Good science refutes bad science. It tells us nothing at all about God.

Professor Hawking has done something very similar, except that this time he plays both parts. He is both Paley and Darwin and, with great legerdemain and panache, Hawking II, the good scientist, has brilliantly refuted Hawking I, the poor theologian.

Hawking I was the person who wrote, at the end of A Brief History of Time, that if we found science’s holy grail, a theory-of-everything, we would know “why it is that we and the Universe exist”. We would “know the mind of God”.

This is so elementary a fallacy that it is hard to believe that Professor Hawking meant it. We would know how we and the Universe came into being — not why. Nor, in any but the most trivial sense, would we “know the mind of God”. The Bible is relatively uninterested in how the Universe came into being. It devotes a mere 34 verses to the subject. It takes 15 times as much space to describe how the Israelites constructed a sanctuary in the desert.

The Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science. It is interested in other questions entirely. Who are we? Why are we here? How then shall we live? It is to answer those questions, not scientific ones, that we seek to know the mind of God.

Hawking II has now refuted Hawking I. The Universe, according to the new theory, created itself. (This reminds me of a joke I heard as an undergraduate about a smug business tycoon: “He is a self-made man, thereby relieving God of a grave responsibility.”) Should you reply that the Universe must be astonishingly intelligent to have fine-tuned itself so precisely for the emergence of stars, planets, life and us, all of which are massively improbable, then the answer is that there is an infinity of universes in which all the possibilities and permutations are played out. We struck lucky. We found the universe that contained us.

I first heard this theory from that brilliant and wise scientist, Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society. He too, as he explains in his book Just Six Numbers, was puzzled by the precision of the six mathematical constants that define the shape of the Universe. So unlikely is it that the Universe just happened by chance to fit those parameters that he, too, was forced to suggest the parallel universes hypothesis. If you hold an infinity of lottery tickets, one of them is going to win.

That is true, but not elegant. The principle of Occam’s razor says don’t multiply unnecessary entities. Given a choice between a single intelligent creator and an infinity of self-creating universes, the former wins hands down.

But let us hail a scientific genius. Professor Hawking is one of the truly great minds of our time. Two thousand years ago the rabbis coined a blessing — you can find it in any Jewish prayer book — on seeing a great scientist, regardless of his or her religious beliefs. That seems to me the right attitude of religion to science: admiration and thankfulness.

But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science. I will continue to believe that God who created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive.

Lord Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

Here's another Times response, from Sept. 2.
When it comes to religion, Stephen Hawking is the voice of reason. Not for him the polemical style that has propelled Richard Dawkins to the fore of national consciousness in the God debates. His argument is likely in the long term to be more dangerous to religion because it is more measured than The God Delusion.

His book A Brief History of Time was on bestseller lists for four years, one reason being his agnosticism on the possibility of a creator God.

He wrote: “However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”

He later confessed that he had almost cut the last sentence. He has now moved to a point where far from wondering whether science might one day reveal the mind of God, he believes that science and religion are irreconcilable. He 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.”

Later this month, the Anglican convert to Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman, will be beatified by the Pope in Birmingham. This is a ceremony made possible thanks to a miracle of healing for which no scientific explanation could be found. Another miracle is needed if Newman is to take the final step towards sainthood.

Hawking would consider this miracle wishful thinking. “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.”

Hawking has a rare ability to make us believe that we can understand difficult ideas, with or without a God.

Religious belief systems, in which people attempt to shape God into a mould of their own design, will be threatened by this book. But faith will continue beyond the day that a scientist explains the root of Hawking’s “spontaneous creation”.

At the atheist summer camps supported by Dawkins, children try to show that unicorns do not exist. They learn the difficulty of finding proof for the non-existence of being.

People of faith the world over will read this book and marvel. Then they will pray, not because faith is logical, but because it works.

In today's London Times there are more articles and responses.

What do I think?
  • I just broke down and ordered the book, to be released Sept. 7. ($15.40)
  • Hawking claims that, given the existence of gravity, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." (quoted here) What's odd about this idea is that if gravity exists prior to the universe then the universe is not, literally, created out of "nothing."
  • If Hawking is reneging on his intimation of "the mind of God" in A Brief History of Time then, as Sacks suggests, "Hawking II has merely refuted Hawking I."
  •  Re. the Sacks idea above, physicist Paul Davies is quoted in today London Times as saying:
    ‘The idea that before the Big Bang there was some big supernatural beast ready to light the touch paper? Nobody believed that anyway’. (The "touch paper" being "gravity.")
  • Richard Dawkins is claiming yet another victory in the God debate. He states (in the London Times):  “Darwinism kicked God out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace.” But note that Dawkins has not yet administered the first blow, if by that one means the philosophically ignorant God Delusion.
  • I'll be teaching the Fine-Tuning Argument for God's existence in a few weeks in my Philosophy of Religion class at MCCC. Hopefully I'll have Hawking's book in hand and will have reviewed it. I am assured that many responses from a number of scholars are forthcoming.
  • Issues of what "science" can pronounce and what it cannot pronounce remain. So the "limits of science" discussion will be relevant here.