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/

Living in the Depths: A Review of The Watch Below

The Watch Below (1972) by James White

Reviewed by Kevin May

The Watch Below is a tale of isolation and survival across multiple generations.  Two very different groups find themselves in remarkably similar circumstances across time and space.  One, a group of humans, is caught up in a shipwreck in the early years of WWII and is forced to find a way to survive under the surface of the sea.  Through ingenuity and a lot of luck they manage to survive and even raise children in their dark underwater home.

The other group is a race of aquatic aliens whose home star became too hot for them.  They fled their system in a cobbled together fleet, which was designed to carry the population of the alien world in suspended animation across the void of space.  Unfortunately an unforeseen malfunction occurred and some of the aliens had to stay awake passing their specialized skills down the generations.

**Minor Spoiler Alert**

Without giving away too many spoilers both groups must find a way to surmount impossible odds to ensure that their progeny will live on.  After the first few chapters the years and generations begin to slip by and we are witnesses to the development of entirely new societies under desperate conditions.  Overall, these stories of survival told back and forth across time and space are wonderfully written and work off each other very well.

By the end of the book both isolated groups of survivors became paramount to the future of our planet.  That is one of the central tenets that I find important in this work.  A small group of people (or even a single person) who for some reason are able to see (to know) the universe differently can have a huge impact on the planet and all of humanity.  As Galadriel says in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”  In this work it is the small seemingly insignificant people forgotten by history who have a powerful role in the future of the world.

James White does an excellent job of showing societies evolving under pressure and across huge spans of time.  Each isolated group begins with just a few individuals but they both expand their numbers and then correspondingly struggle over the limited resources.  In many ways this reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode that showed an entire society developing under a microscope in a laboratory.  It is a fascinating study of how simple societies adapt and change over time.  It also explores what ideals they hold sacred and what they abandon as they shape their new culture.

One convention that the human survivors develop to keep boredom and eventual insanity at bay is what they call “the Game.”  “The Game” is basically a memorization and recall activity that encourages new memorization of shared and created stories, but also full and complete recall of stories and facts from their pasts.  By developing “the Game” and spending most of their free time working on it the first generation of human survivors are able to pass down nearly all of their culture, memories, and skills to the next generation.

I found this a fascinating development and certainly within the story it is essential so that the descendants of the first survivors know who they are and why they are there.  I also think that this skill is fully possible for most people if we developed our memories earlier in life instead of watching television and using wikipedia as our external long term memory.  To me this highlights a striking deficiency in our current society.  The human mind is full of potential and can leap forward if it were not distracted all the time.  White shows that humanity is very adaptable and wants to survive above all else.  Part of that survival is not just food, water, and shelter, but also companionship and mental engagement, which the group incorporates through “the Game.”

While it is debatable whether in near perfect isolation and darkness the human mind would be in its peak form stress can do funny things and all literature requires a certain amount of disbelief.  This goes along with the crew initially surviving the wreck and living off of bean plants and canned goods for generations.  Despite how impossible it sounds I believe that White makes it work.  After the first few chapters it is easy to suspend your disbelief.  Part of the reason that it works is because White is very good at showing us the wreckage and the depths of the oceans as well as the void of outer space and the shipways of the alien fleet.

The only other flaw in the work that I found was that the character development did not hold up across the generations bouncing back and forth between Earth’s oceans and the interstellar void not to mention across numerous generations.  Many of the characters, especially the female ones just seemed to be total background characters even when they were a substantial part of the surviving crew. I realize that the individual characters were not as much of a focus for the author as he was primarily focused on the long term societies, but for me well developed individual characters are important in every book.  In this book characters came and went a little bit too quickly for my taste.

All that being said I did enjoy the descriptions of raw survival in the plot and there were several discussions focused on beliefs, morals, and religion.  Overall, The Watch Below is a very enjoyable read that juxtaposes alien and man in very different roles.  Neither has the clear upper hand in the end, and both are important for the survival of the other.  It’s quite refreshing from the predictable war of the worlds scenario.

For those of you who like numbers here’s how I see it:

Story/Plot – 4/5

A refreshing twist on an alien invasion story told in a unique way.  The end was a little predictable and some of the transitions were a bit unsettling, but overall a well structured and well planned story.

Character – 2/5

The characters were not overly developed or unique.  In each generation there were certain roles that were filled by seemingly the same type of person/character.  While this is the weakest part of the book it is not overly distracting because of the focus of the overall story.

Writing Style – 3/5

An excellent and inventive style.  Enjoyable to read for its great descriptions and the alien environments that both groups must find a way to survive in.

Theme/Ideas – 4/5

This was one of the strongest points of the book.  As with most sci-fi the circumstances of the world allow the author to explore our beliefs and our identities.  I also enjoyed the symmetry of the book and thought that only bolstered the theme.

Overall – 3.25/5

A good and fast read.  Especially enjoyable if you like to see small groups of people (and aliens) under immense pressure to adapt over many generations.  It’s a unique kind of people watching to see how social and cultural norms may change under certain circumstances.

Kevin

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

Technology

What is the most common element in all of science fiction?  Is it being set in the future or in space?  Perhaps it’s innovative plots or mind bending aliens?  While all of these are important to science fiction I would argue that the most consistent element in the genre of science fiction is technology, especially technology that pushes what is currently possible or believed.

To highlight technology in science fiction and science fact I will be authoring a series of posts on the development of technology throughout history, into the present day, and into the foreseeable and perhaps not so foreseeable future.

The etymology of the word technology comes from the greek and means the study of an art, craft, or skill.  One definition of technology is that it is a developed and refined technique or tool that increases what we can produce through an art, craft, or skill.

I would argue that while this definition is certainly true technology is also something more than that.  Especially in the modern day technology has become a set of tools that define us and not only change what we can do, but alter the very way that we live our lives and form our communities.

Some view technology as a Pandora’s box that dehumanizes our relationships and society.  From that perspective technology is artificial and against our human nature.  It can only corrupt even under the best of intentions.  Others argue that technology, like any tool or construct, is not inherently bad or good, but rather can be used by anyone for both good and bad purposes depending on their perspective and culture.  Of course there are many other views and distinctions concerning technology some of which I hope to explore as I write these posts.  I will try to post about two a week throughout the rest of the summer beginning with stone age technologies and moving through history to the modern day.

– Kevin

The Theology of Lost….well…sort of

I was going to write something on the theology of Lost, but then Sandra Miesel just published a thorough write up along those very lines.  So I will do the next best thing:  I will write about the theology of a very similar show–one involving the trials of survivors from a crash on an island.  I am speaking of course about Gilligan’s Island.  Now I am not sure if Kevin has ever seen an episode of Gilligan’s Island or not…that seven year difference in our age has made for a few hits and misses in our respective tv experiences, but here goes.  Oh, and by the way I am copying the following from elsewhere–except for the partial Dante thought which is mine!!

“If I described to you a hit television show with deep Christian underpinnings and hidden meanings about a bunch of people being stranded on a strange island which had some audience speculating that the characters were in “Hell,” what show would you say we were discussing?

Gilligan’s Island, of course.

Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of Gilligan’s Island, said he patterned the ’seven stranded castaways’ after the seven deadly sins but he didn’t admit it until years later in his book about the show.

I’m sure you can attribute the sins to the proper characters but here they are:
The Professor – Pride
Thurston Howell III – Greed
Ginger – Lust
Mary Ann – Envy (of Ginger’s looks)
Mrs. Lovey Howell – Gluttony
The Skipper – Anger or wrath
Gilligan – Sloth

Take that LOST!

Some have even speculated that the castaways were in Hell and Gilligan (who always wore red!!!!!) did everything he could to ensure they stayed there making Gilligan Satan.”

And of course, for those who have read Dante–Sloth is considered in his Purgatory to be the most damaging sin since sloth is defective and incomplete Love.  So Gilligan’s embodiment of sloth could work with his representing Satan.

[I actually cannot locate my notes from Dante’s Purgatory off hand, so I will have to add detail later]

–I’m off camping for a few days.  I hope the blog’s one reader doesn’t mind.  Enjoy the videos!

–pio

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

Not so Lost after all…Heaven is in Hawaii (I knew it all along)

Since almost every scene in Lost‘s six year run was shot in Hawaii–many were wondering where the “church” actually is that served as the “purgatory” for the characters in the “sidewise” “timeline.”

It turns out that an all girls Catholic school, The Sacred Hearts Academy (and its chapel), served as the location of heaven’s antechamber during the final episode of Lost.  Of course, as Jack and his father talked in one room there was a stained glass window behind them that had a virtual cornucopia of religious symbols represented…the fact that several of these symbols (and the faiths they represent) contradict one another is a moot point I suppose.  I wonder if this bizarre window is actually in the school or if the show’s producers added it to make all people feel included (except Ben Linus, lol).  As they said in The Incredibles–“if everyone is special, then no one is special.”  The same holds for Truth in religion, I think, if they’re all True…. 

–pio