A Created Universe: A Reflection on Stephen Hawking’s A Grand Design

This is not a review of Stephen Hawking’s A Grand Design, which I have not read in full yet, but rather a reflection on the crossroads of belief and fact.  One theme prevalent throughout much of science fiction is the conflict over differing views of the universe between believers and scientists.  Unfortunately, this contrast is often shown as part of a dichotomy as if it were an either/or choice and not a natural blending of the spiritual and the physical.  Stephen Hawking’s recent work lines up with this oppositional perspective using the tools of science to probe into the questions of God, faith, and creation as if they can be answered with experiments and mathematics.

From Hawking’s perspective it seems that the entire validity of God and thousands of years of religious belief rest on whether our current scientific understanding of the creation of the universe has any room, or rather, any need for God.  Ignoring for now the obvious scientific problem of trying to understand a transcendent God ultimately outside of space and time Hawking also relegates God to the unknown parts of our universe as if our further understanding pushes God away instead of revealing his handiwork in all its grandeur and beauty.  This understanding ultimately casts God solely in the role of a watchmaker creating the universe and then letting it run on its own.

In his new book Hawking has come to the conclusion, based on new theories and equations that describe the first moments of the universe, that the universe no longer needs a creator to have been created.  Hawking writes, “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.”  I cannot hope nor do I wish to challenge Hawking’s mastery of physics and mathematics, but I do challenge his interpretation of his findings.  He may be able to explain through physics how our universe may have come into being, but he has not answered why we are here.  Science is fundamentally blind to the moment before creation.  From our current understanding of the moment of creation anything before it would have existed outside of our perspective of space and time and is pure conjecture based not on science but on faith.

The other main point that Hawking uses to challenge the existence of God is that because planets orbiting other stars have been discovered the Earth and humanity are far less special on a cosmic scale than we previously thought.  Here Hawking seems to be operating under the belief that since the Copernican Model of our solar system, which correctly placed the sun at the center of our stellar system, was published in 1543 the ignorance of living in God and faith has been slowly whittled away by fact and reason.  However, this is also a matter of belief and interpretation.  While some Atheists, and unfortunately some Christians too, believe that scientific discoveries about our world are victories for reason and defeats for religion I have never understood this view.

While we must always be careful of the few scientists out there who are actively trying to interpret their findings to disprove God, they are I believe not the majority of scientists, and science at its core is a tool to understand our universe and our place in it.  It is a twisted faith that can be eroded away simply because true science brings us closer to understanding our universe and the laws that govern its workings.   It is not fundamental to Christianity that the Earth be the center of the universe, nor does Christianity hinge on the size or age of the universe.  Frankly, to an infinite God any size universe is small in comparison.  It is short sited to reject observation and true science and to confuse true revelation and belief in God with an incorrect understanding of the world.  For instance, Georges Lemaître, an astronomer and catholic priest, first proposed what became known as the big bang theory.  Before this theory many physicists rejected the idea of the universe having a beginning in time, but now this theory is very widely excepted by most scientists and believers.  Contrary to popular belief the Catholic Church and many other denominations and religious institutions were quick to accept the big bang theory based on both the scientific evidence and their faith.

Throughout his work Hawking explores and then counters the Rare Earth theory, which fundamentally says that since we seem to be on a planet that is perfect for us therefore God must have created it for us.  Everything from the laws of physics to the age of the universe to our physical location in our universe, galaxy, and solar system is imperative to our ability to live here.  This is an interesting argument for God and is very attractive just because of the incredible odds of our universe being able to sustain life.  For instance, if even one of the fundamental forces were tweaked just the smallest fraction in their relative power our universe would be completely inhospitable to our kind of life.  However, this is ultimately a dangerous theological argument as a foundation to faith because as Hawking shows it can be partially explained away by showing other Earth-like planets.

Furthermore, Hawking goes even deeper and posits that our life bearing universe was inevitable anyway due to the multiverse theory, which predicts an infinite number of parallel universes.  In most of these universes life would never develop due to differing laws of physics which would create, among many other variations, a universe that would be too spread out so that carbon atoms would never be created or gathered together for us as the basic foundation of all physical life.  However, even though an astronomical number of universes would remain eternally dead, in some universes life would be certain and therefore our being here is inevitable.  All of this circular reasoning really doesn’t get us anywhere and I don’t think it will change too many minds about the existence of God.

I believe that the existence of other earth-like planets and stars similar to ours makes perfect sense in a God created universe.  While I do not pretend to understand the numerous potential reasons for such a large universe I do know that in order for us to exist we need at least a 10 billion year history of stars creating carbon in their cores and depositing stardust, the very essence of physical life, across the universe.  Now because this process takes billions of years across intergalactic distances planets and earth-like stars must crop up in many other places other than right here.  It would be a strange and chaotic universe if all of the heavier elements created in the supernovas of our past were exclusively brought here for our use.  Now as I said I do not plan to speculate here on possible alien life or planets with earth-like environments, (we’ll save that for another time) but the apparent fact that there are other earth-like planets in the universe makes sense to me as both a part of God’s design and the workings of the fundamental forces of nature.

Here is the central reason why Hawking’s creatorless creation doesn’t ring true to me:  For me religion at its heart is a leap of faith.  Pure reason cannot arrive at an answer concerning God.  In my mind all of nature and our place in it suggests the existence of God, but obviously that is only my perspective of nature.  Many scientists and rational thinkers now and in the past have looked at the same evidence and arrived at an atheistic solution.  When it comes down to it we must look within ourselves and at our world with our hearts.  We must avoid the many distractions of the modern world and seek silence to find our God who Nathan Mitchell describes in Worship as, “elusive yet explosive, hidden yet revealed, absent yet accessible.”  No matter how hard we look if we don’t believe, or more accurately won’t believe, we will never find God under a microscope or in a starry night.  But if we take that small yet giant leap of faith then we will begin to see God all around us and within us.

The answer to faith is not science, rather the opposite is true: the answer to science is faith.  In a reenactment of a famous debate, between G.K. Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, Chesterton is quoted as saying: “All thinking begins with assumptions that cannot be proved.  In logic we call these axioms.  The real skeptic has nowhere to begin because he must doubt everything and so he sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe.  Reason can only be built on faith and that faith is the foundation of our civilization.”  I choose not to live in a bottomless universe and I make the choice every day to found my reason and experience of the world on faith.

In closing I do not mean to attack Hawking in this article and I respect him both as an individual and as a scientist.  I simply wish to point out the incongruity in a scientist “disproving” the existence of the transcendent infinite God that we worship simply by observing and understanding the laws of the universe.  The beauty of the universe and God’s continuing work should be understood through physics and math not destroyed by them.  I hope and pray for a time when faith and science are again correctly viewed as harmonious and not opposing methods of viewing the world.

Kevin

P.S. Numerous other articles about Hawking’s new book can be found on the Internet.  The articles I quoted from are here:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100902/lf_nm_life/us_britain_hawking
http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2010/09/06/the-elusive-presence-of-god/

One Small Step…

To begin the first of many posts on the development of technology we will travel back in time to the very first days of humanity.  In fact, we might just go a little bit further.  In 1968, the year before the moon landing, Stanley Kubrick and Arther C. Clarke created the iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The beginning of the film features over 3 minutes of a black screen with atmospheric music that eventually overwhelms the viewer (quite an experience in a movie theater as I always just fast-forwarded at home without realizing the movie had started.)  Suddenly the image cuts to the moon, earth, and sun in perfect alignment.  It’s quite a moment of creation suddenly switching from a screen devoid of light to our entire local universe of earth, moon, and sun.  Coincidentally as I write these words we are having a solar eclipse, which unfortunately is not visible from the northern hemisphere, but is still very exciting.

The Ultimate Tool

Next we watch a tribe of apes, who seem strangely human, forage for food.  They are beset upon by a leopard and then an aggressive neighboring tribe and seem on the verge of being wiped out when suddenly the Monolith appears the next morning.  After spending time with the Monolith one member realizes his ability to use an old discarded thigh bone as a club…using a tool to manipulate his environment.  Soon afterwards he teaches this new skill to his tribe and they come to dominate the area using their new technology of bone tools.

Let me show you this new tool

While this depiction of the first tool use among humanity’s ancestors is purely fictionalized, and the myth of man as tool maker has been debunked with numerous examples of animal tool use, I do think that it shows an important connection.  It was not simply having a hand that allowed the ape to use the tool.  A cognitive development in his mind allowed him to realize the potential he had in manipulating his environment.  Two previously unlinked parts of his brain connected and concept consciously became reality.  When our ancestors picked up their first tools of bone, stone, and wood, and perhaps other materials that did not survive the ages, it truly was a revolution of the mind and a defining moment in history.  These first technologies allowed our ancestors to gather and hunt more food, to protect themselves, and eventually to build ever more complex tools taking more and more control of their environments.

In the biblical story of creation I think it is worth mentioning that tools were first indirectly mentioned just after the Fall.  In the Garden of Eden there was no need for tools, but soon after eating the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil Adam and Eve: “knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” and after the LORD God had discovered them He “sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. (GEN 3:7, 23).

Why did we eat the fruit?

While this is pretty advanced technology compared to the bone club of 2001 I think it highlights a potential link between fallen humanity and the need/use of technology.  The world we live in is far from perfect and the vast majority of us depend on multiple technologies for our survival and comfort.  However, I would also argue that many of us in the modern world, in addition to using technology to survive, in some way see technological development as an effort to return to paradise.  This is paradoxical because the Garden of Eden was a place devoid of technology, and yet we are trying to recreate it by using technology.  I am not saying that technology is evil by any means, but I think this begs many interesting questions.

To further highlight that link lets go back to 2001. After the apes devastate the neighboring tribe using their new bone weapons their leader, Moon-Watcher, tosses his bone club into the air and the film cuts to an image of an orbiting nuclear weapons platform matching it to the movement of the bone.  This perfectly juxtaposes the strong link between tools and weapons, and technological advances and war.  Most technological developments, even if meant to aid humanity as a whole, are used to instead bolster a specific group’s interests.  Of course technology is also hard to keep secret and the use of bone clubs, clothing, fire and other developments would have spread quickly among prehistoric man.

Once we began using tools, for good or bad we could no longer view ourselves as simply a part of nature; instead we began slowly at first and ever faster to manipulate and control our environment.  From the first bone tools to the most advanced rockets and computers humanity began its long journey with, as always, one small step…

One Small Step...

-Kevin

A Storm is Coming

Sun Idol

In the past the sun has been revered as a god and an idol.  During the middle ages and into the renaissance it moved from orbiting our plant to being the center of the Earth’s orbit.  For many Christians the sun is still seen as divine, or rather, as a sign or symbol of God’s grace and power.  From a scientific perspective the sun is the source of nearly all of the energy that flows within the life on Earth and it is the origin of our weather patterns and the seasons.  The sun is central to our solar system, our existence, and our future.

Scientists have shown that solar storm activity peaks every 11 years and we should enter the next high point sometime around 2012.  Past solar storms have had devastating effects on the Earth and society.  It is believed that an 1859 solar storm disrupted telegraph lines and caused fires throughout Europe and North America.  In 1989 the power grid was knocked out in Quebec, Canada, and in 2003 2 satellites and a Martian probe’s systems were affected by solar activity.

Solar Flare

Now our modern technology is more sensitive, far more wide spread, and central to our every day life and a severe solar storm could cause cataclysmic destruction across the world.  One powerful storm could affect water, communication, refrigeration, and refueling systems just to name a few essentials to our way of life.  While I am not a believer in a prophesied Armageddon in 2012 I do believe that we should be cautious and aware of the dangers that accompany our modern society.  It will take money and research to begin to understand and eventually predict space weather patterns, but this is something we must be more aware of.

In the end we would not be here without the sun.  It is essential to so many parts of our world and our existence, but as with many parts of the natural world we must treat it with the respect and awe that it deserves.  In order for our balanced world to exist we must often weather extremes in our environment.  We have survived these trials in the past and we will weather them in the future, but we must be prepared for them.  Part of being prepared for these storms is limiting our dependence on our technology, and reaffirming local human connections in our communities.  These connections are essential to our future as they were to our past and in the end they are more dependable and reliant than all the technology in the world

-KEM

What is science fiction–that we are mindful of it?

Hugo Greensback once observed that science fiction is…whatever science fiction editors buy.  An observation that does much to demonstrate the broad variety of themes, plots, settings, and characters that make-up stories within the science fiction genre.  Tom Shippey refers to science fiction stories as being best described as “fabril” fiction [fabril=a smith/technician].  That is, fiction that is concerned with the implications of technolgy and/or life in industrial and post-industrial settings.  Science fiction is thus seen as literature that stands in opposition to pastoral literature.  Science fiction puts characters, the human character, in settings that challenge us to define the scope of our humanity, the limits of our humanity and indeed even the nature of our humanity in view of scientific advances and the accompanying social changes that surround post-industrial mankind.

So I view science fiction as the definitive modern genre.  A genre that allows humanity to express the eternal questions (who are we, why are we here, what is our eternal destiny?) in a post-industrial, post-modern world (some would even claim that, with the advances in AI and the manipulation of the human genome, we will soon be living in a post-human world).  Science fiction is often able to communicate ideas to the modern mind through symbolism, allegory, and metaphor that the more traditional genres of literature/film are able to do now. 

Soon I will write a post describing what science itself is, and to what extent the modern world is defined by and saturated with science, and why science fiction does so well to speak to humanity living in this modern scientific context.

–pio