Monday, September 6, 2010

Hawking's The Grand Design: an epic fail (Part II)

 When we left off, we were discussing "self-creation cosmology" (SCC), which seems to be the fundamental component of Stephen Hawking's argument against God from gravity.

Going a little deeper, one of the problems of physics as an empiriometric science is that it treats physical phenomena only so far as it can be reduced to numbers that can be manipulated by field equations. Matter isn't mass; rather, mass is one property of matter. This ontological distinction is not only critical to our understanding of SCC, it exposes a fatal flaw in Hawking's argument. Simply put, the gravitational and scalar fields may interact to push matter together into bodies of greater mass, but that's not the same thing as creating matter. Given the distinction, the term "self-creation" is misleading: the theory allows the rabbit to pull itself out of the hat, but the hat's existence still precedes the rabbit's. The universe "creates" itself … but not ex nihilo.

Another flaw in Hawking's argument concerns the nature of gravity. According to general relativity, gravity is a mathematical description of the manner in which mass bends space-time. As such, it has no existence independent of space-time and matter, and thus can't pre-exist either. Again, for the rabbit to pull itself out of the hat, the hat has to be there first. If Richard Dawkins attempts to build a house by dumping the material on a piece of land and waiting for the boards to nail themselves together into a four-bedroom colonial, Hawking doesn't even provide the lumber or the building site.

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At this point, someone could with some justice accuse me of doing precisely what I accuse Doctor Hawking of: stepping outside my field of competence. Plowboys shouldn't pull on number-one guns, and there's no doubt that Hawking is one of the most brilliant and admirable people to come along since Einstein, a leader in a field that comprises a lot of the most intelligent people on earth.

However, the problems I've been looking at aren't physical or mathematical so much as they are philosophical. Hawking's book-length argument is an attempt to apply the law of parsimony to the question of God's existence: "Beings of reason should not be multiplied beyond necessity."[1] If the existence of the universe can be explained without recourse to a Creator, then He can be disposed of as irrelevant.

The introduction of the "Big Bang theory" by physicist Georges Lemaitre (ironically, a Catholic priest) and its subsequent validation by observation and experiment, created a problem for atheists who had traditionally argued that the universe had always existed. Since the observed rules by which the universe operates, when viewed backwards in time, collapse one Planck second "before" the beginning (that is, they don't appear until 5.39124(27) × 10−44 second after the matter-point started expanding), it's hard to maintain that the laws of nature are necessary and sufficient preconditions. Likewise, a universe that continually expands and collapses argues a sequential order; number our iteration Un+1, the previous iteration Un, and by simple subtraction you arrive at U1, before which there was nothing. In the same way, making our universe the "child" of a "parent universe" only reintroduces the problem (where did that universe come from?), creating a vicious infinite regress. Whatever is done, the universe—or multiverse, if you like—remains a contingent being whose existence can't be explained naturally except by the operation of other equally contingent beings.

In this light, string theory seems to be atheism's best hope to create a cosmological environment that requires no Necessary Being for its existence. Within the string theory landscape, there are a virtual infinity of possible universes, at least one—and probably more—would be friendly to life. However, string theory doesn't solve the origin problem; rather, it attempts to bury the problem under multiple cosmoi. As I said in Part I, if a working cell/DNA composite can't result from the random interplay of natural forces, then postulating a googolplex of universes doesn't make such a solution any more possible than postulating just one. And the answer to the question, "Was the first cell formed by the random interplay of natural forces?" can't be assigned a probability; rather, it's a zero-sum set: it did or it didn't.

Moreover, while string theory makes infinite universes possible, it doesn't make the existence of multiple universes necessary. The way it's usually treated, it's as if its adherents operated under a parody of Anselm's ontological argument: If multiple universes are possible, they are. Here, asking if it's possible for other universes to exist is different from asking if they do exist. The first could conceivably be answered, some day, with a probability assignment owning a fair degree of confidence; the second, however, is a zero-sum set: they do or they don't. If it's possible for just our universe to exist within the n-dimensional frame, then the other ∞-1 possible universes (life-friendly or not) are superfluous, especially since they remain inaccessible to ours and have no other impact on it; Ockham's Razor slices them away.

A good question here would be, "Why deal with probability calculations at all?" After all, quoting odds against a proposition being true doesn't prove it false. However, measures of probability aren't meant to prove a proposition false so much as they're meant to give an empirical assessment of how reasonable the proposition is. Given a binary set of mutually exclusive answers, then the less probable one explanation is, the less reasonable it is, and the more reasonable the opposite answer is. If a proposed result is impossible (P = 0), it's also unreasonable; likewise, if a proposed result is an established fact (P = 1), it's also reasonable … even if it's in some sense absurd.

Atheists operate under another parody of Anselm's ontological argument which we can cast as the Atheist Law of Natural Preference:

If it could have resulted from natural processes, even if the probability of such a result is 10-googol, then it did.
·         Corollary 1: The earth and the universe are old enough for any natural result to have happened, no matter how improbable.
·         Corollary 2: Conditions are always sufficient to guarantee even the least probable naturalistic outcome.
·         Dawkins' Postulate: P > 0.[2]

Physicist Alan Sokal once said, "Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)" According to Dawkins' Postulate, there's an as-yet-uncalculated probability that, if I took up Sokal's challenge, gravity would ignore my hubris and leave me hovering—unsuspended and unsupported—100-plus feet above the ground. If that happened, then no one should be surprised; even if we're currently at a loss to explain such counterintuitive behavior, eventually science will find an explanation that will render it perfectly natural.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the theist's answer is, "Bullshit."

If I were to demand such a preference for divine action—if there's even a small chance God could have acted, He did act—even my fellow Christians would look at me askance; why would I need God's active Will to explain (say) a bluebird landing on my car? The pagan Romans may have needed to see the portentous in mundane random events, but the vast bulk of modern Christians, even the most devout,  have no compulsion. If the Atheist Law of Natural Preference is reasonable, a Theist Law of Supernatural Preference is just as reasonable.

Hawking the astrophysicist, like Dawkins the biologist, needs such a presumption—and a cosmology which favors it—because for many phenomena a coldblooded calculation of the odds against distinctly renders a competing natural explanation highly improbable. But does such an insistence become unreasonable only when the probability has to be expressed in negative power towers for convenience? Can we just use a basic rule of thumb, such as: when the odds against are less than those of dealing a perfect hand at bridge (≈ 2.235 × 1027:1), the answer is not only unreasonable but absurd?

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In sum, then, Hawking's The Grand Design is an attempt to overwhelm God with a mudslide of alternate universes and multiple dimensions in order to make Him an unnecessary being of reason that can be excised out of intelligent discussion. As such, it's an epic fail. For as long as these alternate universes and multiple dimensions remain out of empirical verification, they too are beings of reason. Since they don't solve the problem of contingency, they're so much excess baggage best left confined to the realms of theoretical physics and science fiction.

He who lives by Ockham's Razor must perish by Ockham's Razor.

[1] The law of parsimony, also known as "Ockham's Razor", is much more subtle than the popular formula: "The simplest answer is most likely to be true."
[2] Dawkins, Richard, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, p. 159; see also The God Delusion, 373-374.


  1. In "The Grand Design" Stephen Hawking postulates that M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics...the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate, but never completed. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    E=mc², Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. Ron: Interesting, and even a little amusing. I often think that, if scientists could get rid of the presupposition that philosophical materialism is necessary for science to be true—it would remain just as true under Thomism—we might actually get physicists to work on the relationship of the immaterial plane to the material. Yes, this runs counter to what I've said elsewhere, that scientists and theologians should respect the boundaries of each others' fields. But it might open up fresh fields of discovery, as well as get rid of the absurd notion that atheists somehow "own" science.

  3. Tony,

    My "formula" is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but there is some substance to it. Dark matter is 25% and dark energy about 75% of the critical density of the Universe. Science can only study the visible 5%. That isn't too much, relatively speaking.


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