Hawking’s Unbound Theory vs God

May 25, 2014

Originally posted on Such Things As:


Stephen Hawking was admitted to the hospital, April 20, 2009, with a chest infection. I hope he is recovering well. Like millions of others, Hawking first introduced me to cosmology. Health difficulties are nothing new to Hawking, he has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, and every day of life since 1963 has been a bonus for him. That year he was diagnosed with ALS and not expected to live more than a few years. During those bonus years he wrote A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes. Published in 1988, A Brief History went on to become the largest selling science book of all time. In its “Acknowledgements” Hawking says that his book discusses the basic ideas about the origin and fate of the universe in language that people without a scientific education can understand. It is necessarily from that perspective that…

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Weinberg vs a designed universe

September 24, 2009

Weinberg vs a designed universe

God knows whether Dulcinea exists on earth or not,

or whether she is fantastical or not. These are not

matters where verification can be carried out to the full.

Cervantes, Don Quixote

If religion is to be viable it cannot abandon to science natural phenomena such as quantum mechanics, as if quantum mechanics were the property of science and not the common property of us all. Nor can religion abandon philosophy as if all philosophy were vain philosophy. Logic is not hostile to faith. The truths of philosophy and mathematics and the mysteries of quantum mechanics and outer space belong to nature, and nature belongs as much to religion as it does to science. If science has arrived at a demonstrable truth, then that truth belongs to religion. If philosophy has arrived at a logical truth, that truth belongs to religion. All demonstrable truth belongs as much to religion as it does to any other discipline, and should compel religion as much as it does any other discipline. Moreover, it is the job of religion to make sure that the truth that science or philosophy arrive at are verifiable by scientific and logical methods. That means that religion can only benefit from a knowledge of science and philosophy’s methods. If religion holds science to what it can prove by physical evidence, about whether the universe is designed or not, religion will be consoled by what science finds.

Religion’s blessing and curse, however, is that it is not bound by the methods of science or of logic. This difference is at the heart of the debate between religion and science. Science is compelled to use demonstrable models, and they would compel religion to do the same if it is to be believed. But religion is not driven by physical demonstration but by faith. Unless it is bound by love for humanity in general, religion is dangerous. Few people make this point more often than the late Carl Sagan. His Demon Haunted World accurately describes the world of carnage that religions have wrought. However, it is logical that if carnage fills our world, religious people have wreaked most of it, because most people in the world, and in history, are religious. Were the world and history peopled with atheists their carnage may have equaled religions; we don’t know. But if the Stalinist, Maoist and Pol Pot eras are any indication, perhaps we are better off with the devil of religion we know rather than the atheistic devil of which these eras have given us a mere peek.

Scientific theories fail to explain why there is something rather than nothing. It is a failure shared by religious and philosophical theories as well. Religiously speaking, if there is no god, we do not know why there exists something rather than nothing. If there is a god, we don’t know why he created physical existence rather than to have left it uncreated. And as to philosophy’s pursuit of why there is something rather than nothing, logic never arrives conclusively at an original cause of which existence is the effect. Lacking such proof, how shall I, a professed Christian, demonstrate that it is more logical to conclude that the universe exists because it was created, than it is to explain that existence just is—that ours is an accidental universe as scientists describe it.

Scientist almost always confuse the parameters for this debate. They are physicists, but usually resort to non-physical moral and ethical arguments against arguments for design. To illustrate this confusion, consider Physics Nobel prize laureate, Steven Weinberg’s “A Designer Universe?” found on numerous web searches in physics and cosmology. This is an essay about whether or not the universe shows signs of having been designed. Weinberg is a physicist so I assume that he is asked to give a scientific assessment of this question. His essay, however, is hardly a scientific argument against design. It is an ethical/moral argument against a benevolent designer. As such his very frame of reference is not physical but psychological, that is, spiritual. If his argument disproves a theory that says that a spiritual force created the universe, it will have done so by spiritual means.

Weinberg’s first point is that he cannot talk about the universe as designed unless he has “some vague idea of what a designer would be like.” This is no scientific premise. One may find a humming, turning metal alloy machine—something of a giant Paley’s watch—and have no idea of its purpose or its designer and suspect that something designed this thing. The several polished and oiled parts are together by no volition of their own – metal can’t think – in an assembly of balance and complexity. Since the assembly was obviously devised, and metal cannot devise, it is logical to conclude that something other than the individual parts devised and assembled this machine. The reason for this machine’s existence, whatever it is, is not in the parts but in the parts as they function together toward some mysterious end; remove a part and the machine no longer hums and turns. These things we may know about the machine that tell us virtually nothing about what the designer is like. Should we find that this machine exists to bring pain—a torture machine—then we may ask about the morals of the designer, but that is no physics question. It is not logical therefore for a physicist to conclude that because the machine is a torture machine it can’t have been designed, because no designer this intelligent would create a torture machine. In fact, we are part of this particular machine, this world, and the most fundamental question to begin with is one we must ask ourselves: how can psychological (spiritual) questions be asked in and about a purely accidental material world? Is there, in fact, such a thing as good and evil upon which to found an ethics?

This world is often a torture machine, whatever else it may be. Any of us have a legitimate reason to ask why, Weinberg included, but we ask from a moral/ethical reference, not a scientific one. It’s a question that many Christians—but by no means all—avoid or dismiss with the story of The Garden of Eden. The art and matter of Eden itself demands interpretation. It is a story too complex to be used as a historical justification or dismissal of the question of why there is evil in the world. Surely the eating of forbidden fruit is no infraction grave enough to have brought the wrath of God down on all humans, none of whom were born at the time of the infraction, and none of whom were guilty except Adam and Eve. To insist that god was justified in condemning all humankind because of the infraction of their first parents is to make nonsense of our God given moral compass, Milton notwithstanding.

One can accept that the laws and the individual parts of the universe are so assembled that it is illogical to conclude that the parts assembled themselves or were assembled accidentally, without having to explain the moral reason for why they were assembled as they were. Existence is horrible at times, and I don’t know why. But physics compels me to believe, or at least to consider, that the universe was intelligently assembled—it turns and hums. If I accept science that tells me how unbelievably improbable our path has been from the big bang to now, I cannot logically not consider it. Once I consider that possibility, then I have an insight into Leibniz’s question—why something rather than nothing?—that physical matter alone could never ask. Once I ask this psychological question, I am compelled to ask another: why is this something designed as it is and not otherwise? Atheist should feel compelled to ask why there is something rather than nothing, and theists cannot escape asking why the something is created as it is and not otherwise. Both must realize, however, that neither answer can be perfectly satisfactory, probably because we could not understand the answer if it were told us.

Weinberg says that “the human mind remains extraordinarily difficult to understand, but so is the weather. “We can’t predict whether it will rain one month from today, but we do know the rules that govern the rain…” He sees nothing, he says, about the human mind that is beyond the hope of understanding than is the weather. Let me suggest that should Weinberg ever perceive the weather perceiving us and asking why, from moral or scientific reasons, it and we exist, then he would surely be convinced that the laws that rule the weather have suddenly taken on a complexity that the weather’s simple material cannot account for.

Weinberg follows the weather observation with the observation that “human beings are the result of natural selection acting over millions of years…” This brush stroke, prevalent among cosmologists, conceals more than it reveals. It is not significant that it took a long, circuitous rout to arrive at intelligent life—the human being. The primary significance of human beings is their intelligence, and to say that it took us a long time to gain intelligence is no explanation for what intelligence is or how we posses it. Should the weather or a plant or animal evolve to ask the questions humans ask, then unless we can give a better explanation than that they came to do so “over millions of years of breeding and eating,” we must admit that we cannot account for intelligence. We know it is there, we know that it deals with thought and logic and mathematics—which have no material existence—but how it is there and why it is there and what it is, we do not know. Here is what Roger Penrose of Oxford (under whom Stephen Hawking received his Doctorate) says:

A scientific world-view which does not profoundly come to term with the problems of conscious minds can have no serious pretensions of completeness. Consciousness is part of our universe, so any physical theory which makes no proper place for it falls fundamentally short of providing a genuine description of the world. I would maintain that there is yet no physical, biological or computational theory that comes very close to explaining our consciousness and consequent intelligence…(1)

I do however, share Weinberg’s opinion (with the exception of subjective experiences which can’t be used in an objective essay) that the fundamental principles of nature appear to be “utterly impersonal.” But I don’t agree that they are “without any special role for life.” If one considers number as special, rather than size, then the myriad life forms on earth alone, living in every drop of water and covering every speck of land with plants and animals, then life is special. The number of these complex organisms rivals the number of stars we can observe in our sky, or stars and planets that have come to exist since the big bang.

Life’s role is special if an exception to Newton’s second law of thermodynamics is special. Newton’s second law of thermodynamics declares that, as a general rule, things tend to chaos. Life, however, exists as an exception to this general rule. It stops chaos in its tracks and rearranges matter in an order more complex than the whole physical universe. That it came together repeatedly over billions of years and against virtually impossible odds makes it special if “special” has any meaning.

In his “Designer Universe?” Weinberg maintains that the universe is not so finely tuned to accommodate life as some physicists have argued. The example these physicists give is the occurrence of carbon, which is essential to life, and the narrow parameters within which carbon is produced. Weinberg shows how the parameters for carbon are not as close as these physicists suppose they are, because carbon can be produced in ways that these physicists have not taken into account. I have no idea who is right, I am no physicist, but I do know that however essential it is to life, carbon is not life, especially not conscious life. One may know that gas is necessary to make his car run and have no conception of what an internal combustion engine is. It is unlikely that Weinberg can tell how conscious life began if he cannot tell what it is.

Weinberg is right that science explains more adequately than religion what the natural laws are, and why, if they were “slightly different” we would find ourselves in “logical absurdities.” But that point only emphasizes the balance in the machine, the why of which science has no idea. He is also right that religious theories are infinitely flexible, such that they are useless in describing the laws of nature. He is wrong, however, in saying that the tuning that brought about life is not as fine tuned as some scientist claim, and religion is right to say that such fine tuning is absurd if not miraculous. Perhaps these things are not as fine tuned in some areas, but in others they are fine tuned to a mystifying degree. We can’t know how fine tuned things have to be to bring about the universe—what fine tuning is there between is and is not? It is telling that in precisely the instance when his expertise is called on, it fails him. “I have to admit that, even when physicists will have gone as far as they can go. When we have a final theory, we will not have a completely satisfying picture of the world.”

Nor will religion, at least not Christianity. Christianity knows that it cannot have a completely satisfying picture of the world until God makes the world—including Christians—more satisfactory, until He reconciles the world to himself (II Cor. 5: 18, 19; NIV). Weinberg concludes his essay with a personal note about his own reasons for not believing in a designer: his mother died of cancer, his father was destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease, and scores of his second and third cousins were murdered in the holocaust. For him, he says, “signs of a benevolent designer are pretty well hidden.” Weinberg’s reasons for atheism are good reasons. They shake me because I have no answer for why a good god would allow such misery to continue. I consider my own argument for design shallow when compared with the questions the existence of evil compels me to ask. But in hopes that there will be some reconciliation between Weinberg’s misery and my own near ecstasy at times, I must point out that Weinberg’s description of pain and death in the world is drawn from a moral/ethical framework that physics cannot account for, and upon which religion rests. Valid though his argument is as a moral/ethical observation, it does not dismiss a designer as the most probable reason for this turning, humming well organized mechanical device we call the universe.

Footnotes:

1. Penrose, Roger; Shadows of the Mind, ( Oxford University Press; New York, Oxford, 1994) pg 8.

Hawking’s Unbound Theory vs God

September 23, 2009


Stephen Hawking was admitted to the hospital, April 20, 2009, with a chest infection. I hope he is recovering well. Like millions of others, Hawking first introduced me to cosmology. Health difficulties are nothing new to Hawking, he has spent most of his life in a wheelchair, and every day of life since 1963 has been a bonus for him. That year he was diagnosed with ALS and not expected to live more than a few years. During those bonus years he wrote A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes. Published in 1988, A Brief History went on to become the largest selling science book of all time. In its “Acknowledgements” Hawking says that his book discusses the basic ideas about the origin and fate of the universe in language that people without a scientific education can understand. It is necessarily from that perspective that this essay is written, for I have no scientific education.

A Brief History of Time: From The Big Bang to Black Holes recounts that in 1929, Edwin Hubble made the observation that wherever you look, galaxies are moving rapidly away from us, just as the Russian physicist, Alexander Friedmann, had predicted they were. Friedmann took Einstein’s theory of relativity at face value and accurately described our universe as expanding evenly in every direction. Cosmologists concluded that if the universe is expanding, it must originally all have been in one place at one time, and then it banged.

There was a time, called the big bang,” says Hawking “when the universe was infinitesimally small and infinitely dense.”i This, as he goes on to say, creates a big problem for science because mathematics cannot handle infinite numbers. “This means that the general theory of relativity…predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down. Such a point is an example of what mathematicians call a singularity. In fact, all our theories of science…break down at the big bang singularity.” ii An answer to how that original “point” came into existence before time and space, and why it deployed into time and space, dissolves in a singularity for most scientists. Hawking, however, believes that if his no boundary theory—central to all his popular works—is ever worked out, it will avoid the singularity—that mysterious “point”–at the big bang and predict how the universe started off.

The breakdown of mathematics is but one of Hawkins’s theory’s problems. He says that in order to predict how the universe should have started off, one needs laws that hold at the beginning of time. The beginning of time, for Hawking, is the big bang. At the big bang, physical existence was minute, therefore Quantum mechanics—our best physical theory for describing laws for minute phenomena—would be needed to describe existence. Shortly after the big bang, as the universe became large, the theory of relativity—our best physical theory for describing laws for existence in the large—would be necessary. To be consistent the two must form a continuum such that any theory that reflects physical reality now, and predicts how it must have been at the big bang, would have to combine the theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Unfortunately these two theories are not logically compatible with each other, and no unifying theory seems to be in the offing. Hawking says that even though we do not know what could unify these theories, “We are fairly certain of some features that such a unified theory should have.”iii

In order to see what Hawking says his theory would tell us, let’s avoid the details of these features and assume that everything is resolved. What then? He says his theory would then give us a history of a particle that represents the history of the whole universe.

There would be no singularities at which the laws of science break down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. One could say: “The boundary conditions of the universe is that it has no boundary.” The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE. iv

BE WHAT?

What would this small dense particle, with which Hawking proposes to replace the singularity that gave rise to the big bang, and leave no place for a creator v be? If all other scientific theories fail at the infinite—a singularity—how is it that Hawking’s theory about an infinitely small, infinitely dense particle does not fail? Hawking never explains how his infinitely small, dense particle is less a singularity than the singularity it is intended to replace.

Moreover, he posits this particle–”point”–as existing before the big bang, therefore before the existence of time, space, and matter. But absent time, space, and matter, there could be no particle, no time for it to be in, no space for it to occupy, no matter for it to be. There would be nothing to see, no “large class of observations,” without which, according to Hawking’s own criteria, no good theory is possible. vi

For now, let’s again sidestep these problems so as to see with Hawking what he sees as the beginning of the universe, indeed, the very seed of a universe before it bangs and forms galaxies and stars that eventually house, what he calls, insignificant creatures like ourselves. “Using the no boundary condition, we find that the universe must in fact have started off with just the minimum possible nonuniformity allowed by the uncertainty principle.” vii Briefly stated, the uncertainty principle shows that a particle of the least possible size, the quantum, behaves in ways that the human mind cannot possibly understand. An example would be a single particle that seems to occupy two places at the same time. Hawking says that “Quantum mechanics … introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science.” viii This unpredictability in its lowest allowable measure is what Hawking is referring to when he says that the universe started off with the minimum possible nonuniformity allowed by the uncertainty principle. We can’t be certain of what this non-uniformity is, but Hawking assures us that without it our universe would be a thin, cold soup rather than galaxies and stars.

Here then is how Hawking’s theory describes the incipient universe: an infinitesimally small, infinitely dense particle with the smallest nonuniformity allowable under the uncertainty principle.

Hawking describes this particle as a sphere, and as a sphere, it has no singularity or edge. He uses the earth as an analogy of it, saying that he traveled round the earth without ever having run into a singularity or an edge. ix We have granted Hawking’s theory a lot of leeway, but here we must object. Because the earth is in the shape of a sphere, and one traveling around it will never run into a singularity or edge, one cannot conclude that the earth is infinite, at least not in its existence. Nothing in its shape proves that the earth cannot have had a beginning in time, and shall have an end.

Moreover, until this “infinitesimally small, infinitely dense” particle explodes, it does not exist in any physical sense of the word exist. No model can describe something beyond time and space, and time and space, as Hawking and all cosmologists have told us time and again, did not exist beyond fourteen billion years ago. Until the big bang, nothing existed. Hawking makes no sense when he describes this tiny particle as if it existed before the big bang. Nor does he make sense when he says that life and intelligence are insignificant, and that because the earth is a sphere that a person could walk forever around and never fall off, the earth is infinite. Hawking’s particle, if it is to replace the need for a creator, is going to have to make more sense than Hawking here describes it.

HAWKING’S INFINITE PARADOX

If we are not careful Hawking will roll that particle into an infinitesimally small, infinitely dense ball and sneak it by us without our seeing it and asking that haunting metaphysical question, “Where’d that come from?” If something is infinitely small, it follows that there is an infinite number of divisions that are smaller than it, and an infinite number of divisions larger. If it is infinitely dense, there are an infinite number of divisions that are denser than it and an infinite number of divisions less dense. That’s what infinite means.

No one illustrates better the breakdown of mathematics when it meets with the infinite than the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher, Zeno of Elea. Here is one of his paradoxes: Two runners are racing around a track; the second runner is gaining on the first. He halves the distance between himself and the lead runner, then halves the distance again, then halves that distance and so forth. It is mathematically impossible for the second runner to overtake the lead runner because however many times the second runner halves the distance between himself and the lead runner, there will forever be another mathematical number to halve—divide two and you get one; divide one and you get one-half; divide one-half and you get one-fourth. You can divide forever and never arrive at a last division between the two runners.

Zeno used that paradox to show some illustrious Pythagorean mathematicians of his day that their theories and formulas, divorced from the physical world, can lead to absurdities. It’s a lesson that has escaped Stephen Hawking. Laymen like me avoid the problem by simply pointing out to the Pythagoreans of Zeno’s scorn that the second runner did indeed overtake the first. The problem lies with the primacy the Pythagoreans place on mathematics. For centuries, mathematics was a religion to the Pythagoreans. They are something of an historical allegory of a tendency in humanity to put too much faith in scientific systems, the blessings of science not withstanding.

But Zeno’s paradox is less a problem than Hawking’s paradox. The failure of mathematics to describe one runner overtaking the other is not a denial that in reality the second runner overtakes the first runner, but an illustration that mathematics can neither avoid nor explain infinity. Zeno’s “infinite” is not a difficulty in reality but in mathematics. Stephen Hawking’s difficulty is not in mathematics but in reality—how does one describe something as either existing before time and space, or describe something as coming from nothing?

THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE

Remember those nonuniformities at the big bang that Hawking characterized, “as small as they could be, consistent with the uncertainty principle.”x Without these minute imbalances, he has no theory, but more importantly, he has no starry universe about which to theorize, for if the big bang were perfectly balanced, the universe would now be a thin, cold soup and Stephen Hawking would not exist.

Auto mechanics call such nearness, “clearances.” For instance, “clearance” specifies the space between a rod bearing and the crankshaft throw in an engine. Those in my 1986 Ford Ranger, four-thousands of an inch, allow a thin layer of oil to cushion the transfer of power from the up and down motion of the pistons to torque that turns the crankshaft. Too close and the bearings melt. Too wide and the rods hammer the engine to junk iron. These clearances were designed not just to convey oil, but ultimately to convey people. Designed well it seems, the old four cylinder has gone half a million miles and never had the pan pulled. It is illogical to attribute the clearances in my Ford to accident, and illogical to attribute to accident the far, far closer clearances that brought our universe to exist and persist.

Hawking says that the uncertainty principle, which I have described above as unfathomable to the human mind, “is a fundamental, inescapable property of the world,” because of which “one cannot measure the present state of the universe precisely.”xi And yet it is this very unexplainable principle that Hawking uses to explain his theory. This goes against logic. One cannot logically explain something by using in his explanation something that is unexplainable. In the case of the uncertainty principle, how the smallest particle behaves is not only unexplained, it is uncertain. And yet this uncertain particle Hawking uses to predict how the universe started off, a prediction—or theory—that he says leaves no place for a creator.

Until Hawking can predict what the quantum particle will do and why it does it he cannot justify his prediction that when it bangs it will eventuate in that just-right-billion-upon-billion-to-one imbalance that becomes stars and galaxies and his own being. A creator with a design in mind is more logical.

COCA-COLA VERSUS THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS

Another difficulty Mathematics has is in describing the big bang as the beginning of time. Mathematics cannot distinguish between the past and the future. Hawking’s theory sidesteps this impossible mathematical situation by relying on the 2nd law of thermodynamics to describe a universe that moves toward the future rather than the past. The 2nd law says that things that are hot now, if left unattended, will become cold in the future; buildings left unattended will grow dilapidated.

One can’t argue with this. In our experience time does indeed move toward the future rather than toward the past, much as Hawking describes it. The objection is with the idea that, because of the 2nd law, time inevitably will eventuate in chaos. I must warn people like me who have no scientific education: to object to the inevitability of the 2nd law is to be seen as a fool. Our consolation is that the exceptions to the 2nd law which these same scientist accept without question—and there is a world of them—appear far more foolish than our objection.

The cosmologist, Brian Greene, gives as such an exception the return of gas back into a soda bottle after it has wheezed out. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for this outcome…” says Greene, “but it can happen.”xii This means that the bottling of soda is itself an exception to the 2nd law. Here’s how: ingredients that, under the 2nd law, would go to entropy—disorder—are stopped on their trek to chaos, picked, cooked and put into a precise, orderly design and bottled. Even if only to satisfy our taste and quench our thirst, these ingredients are given meaning, a property not possible under an insentient 2nd law. In fact the Coca-Cola Bottling Company has been bottling and capping order in defiance of the 2nd law since 1886 .

When one opens a bottle of Coke, he opens order, he opens design. Experience compels us to reject any odds that say that once a Coke bottle is opened, it is possible that the ingredients, on their own or by some quirk of nature may return to the bottle in the same proportions they left. They were put in by the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and should they return by some quirk of nature we would call it miracle.

The objection to my Coke example is that in the bottling of Coke, energy is expended and adds to the total entropy of the universe. It does, but in no definable proportions. The physical act of concocting and bottling cola requires planning and calculating. And planning and calculating presupposes a living being with nonphysical intelligence (thoughts are not physical; they have no extension in time and space). The driving force responsible for creating intellect may not be physical energy at all, as we think of energy. Force itself is a mystery, but to complicate the Coke mystery, until we know what kind of force creates intelligence we can’t know the total amount of energy expended in creating a non-material intellect that can bottle soda, and thus cannot know the amount of energy expended in the bottling of soda. We cannot use that force in a one-for-one calculation with physical energy. We may be dealing with two different currencies here, one like the pre-Second World War Deutsch Mark and the other a 1956 dollar.

On earth, existence is not always on a one-way track to chaos, but often to order. That gas escapes from opened bottles and temperatures level out is no proof that overall disorder will prevail. Every living organism is an example of nature assembling itself into an orderly construction. Scientist are quick to point out that this exception to the 2nd law is only temporary and that shortly the organism will die and continue on its way to chaos. But the exceptions are so numerous—every living plant or animal—that reason makes one wonder if there is some rule at foot that the 2nd law is not accounting for, and which science is reluctant to consider.

In any other than a scientific context such claims as gas returning to soda bottles or dead matter assembling into living matter would be considered outrageous, especially if the one claiming it cannot explain why or how it can happen other than to say that it is an exception to the usual way things happen. Hawking not only accepts the 2nd law—outrageous exceptions and all—as inevitable, he basis a key component of his unbound theory on it. Were any one but a scientist to place such faith on a law with such supposed exceptions he would be considered a religious crackpot. The concept of design for the universe is not not nearly as outrageous as the exceptions to the 2nd law.

WHAT BREATHES FIRE INTO THE EQUATIONS?

I would like to trace back one of those billions of particles speeding away from the big bang, trace it back to that tiny speck in which all such specks were fused before they exploded. Then trace that speck back as gravity shrinks it ever smaller and denser until it arrives at a point that Stephen Hawking in the twentieth century would describe as “infinitesimally” small, “infinitely” dense. But I would like to go further back, because if this speck really is infinitely small and dense there are an infinite number of smallers and densers to trace back. Eventually my pursuit tires me and I finally ask the question that’s bugging me, “Does this speck get so small that it finally ceases to exist?”

If it doesn’t arrive at a point where it exists one second, and a second beyond ceases to exist, then it must have existed always. The other alternatives are that it materialized out of nothing (absurd), or that something already in existence caused it to exist. If the universe did not exist before the big bang, what was the big bang that caused it to exist, and why did it bang? If the universe somehow existed infinitely before time, I want to know that. If it exists now, in infinite space, or if it has finite dimensions as my house does, I want to know. These questions that deal with physical reality I would hope a scientific theory could answer for me. They are what philosophers call ontological questions.

Roger Penrose, under whom Hawking received his PhD, calls Hawking one of those “‘positivists’ who have no truck with ‘wishy-washy’ issues of ontology in any case, claiming to believe that they have no concern with what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real.’” He quotes Hawking: “I don’t demand that a theory correspond to reality because I don’t know what it is. Reality is not a quality you can test with a litmus paper. All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements.”xiii

Penrose asks, “What is the physical justification in allowing oneself to be carried along by the elegance of some mathematical description and then trying to regard that description as describing a ‘reality’?”xiv

Mathematics is real, but in no physical sense. “Two plus two equals four” is a formula that may describe physical reality, but it is not itself physical. Hawking’s theory, if ever proven, may give an accurate mathematical formula for how the universe began, but describe nothing that is or ever was materially real. Hawking closes his book with precisely this point: “Even if there is 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?”xv

The humility of this closing statement is absent from most of A Brief History of Time. He opens his Brief History by requiring that a theory of cosmology conform to close rules of science. He closes with a confession that mathematics does not answer the crucial question of physical existence. Between the opening and closing he claims that his mathematical model, the no boundary little ball, displaces any need for a creator, a hefty ambition for “just a set of rules and equations.” If his theory displaces a need for a creator, one would at least expect him to know what creation is, what reality is. This, however, he says he does not know.

Give Hawking his due. His Brief History of Time is precisely that—a good brief history of cosmology. His no boundary theory that attempts to displace a creator, however, remains with those that Brian Greene characterizes as valiant but non-conclusive.xvi Were it worked out it would not tell how the universe started off. It would simply affirm, mathematically, that the little ball has existed eternally. It would be our present universe, reduced to a tiny ball the why of whose existence and whose bang forever a mystery.

i Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 8.

iiIbid., 46

iiiIbid., 133.

ivIbid., 136.

vIbid., 146

viIbid., 9, 55.

viiIbid., 140.

viiiIbid., 56.

ixIbid., 135–36.

x Ibid., 149.

xi Ibid., 55.

xii Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (New York: Random House, 2004), 156.

xiiiRoger Penrose, The Road To Reality (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 785.

xivPenrose, Road, 631–32.

xvHawking, A Brief History, 174.

xviBrian Greene, The Elegant Universe (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 366.


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