September 8, 2010
Stephen Hawking’s Leap of Faith
Stephen Hawking is one of the most remarkable of living human beings. Afflicted by neuro-muscular dystrophy (Lou Gehring’s Disease), today he has the use of only his cheek and a finger. And yet despite his affliction, this man has become one of the giants of the scientific world, producing books, movies, maintaining a rigorous schedule of speaking (through a vocoder) and even flying into space as history’s first quadriplegic astronaut.
Many have turned to Hawking to determine his views of the interaction between science and religion. And as one of the most significant proponents of Big Bang theory, his views on ultimate cause have naturally generated intense curiosity.
For the main, the 68 -year-old scientist has remained fairly equivocal about his views on God. In an interview with Reuter’s News Service in 2007 he said :
“I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”
Where “Nothing” ends and “God” begins has never been made clear by Hawking.
Until now. In his new book, The Grand Design, written with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking gives great comfort to atheists everywhere when he proclaims that it is not necessary to have a God of the Universe to explain the origins and development of the universe.
On September 3rd inthe Wall Street Jounal, he explained:
“As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
In The Grand Design he explains why, according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence, or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. The authors question the conventional concept of reality, posing instead a “model-dependent” theory of reality. They discuss how the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence, and show why quantum theory predicts the multiverse—the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. M-Theory, they offer, is an explanation of the laws governing the multiverse, and the only viable candidate for a complete “theory of everything.”
The central question that arises out of reading Hawking’s book is not the theory of everything, but the nature of ” nothing.” What are the constituents of “nothing” because for something to come from nothing, there has to be matter or energy available to combine.
M-theory, which forms the core of the book, is an attempt to explain the basic substance of the universe and provide an understanding of ” nothing”. It attempts to unify the five existing string theories about the nature of matter by examining certain identifications and dualities. Thus each of the five string theories become special cases of M-theory.
But M- Theory has one huge problem. For unlike the Theory of Relativity, which was demonstrated and proven in a variety of places and locations in the early 20th Century, M- Theory cannot be shown to be demonstrably true. That is because M- Theory relies on the existence of other dimensions ( 11 to be exact), six of which we can intuit but never experience. Unfortunately, until we can find some way to observe these higher dimensions, M-Theory has a very difficult time making predictions which can be tested in a laboratory. Technologically, it may never be possible for it to be proven at all.
That essentially leads science back to the same essential starting block as religion. Unable to prove the validity of M-theory, science is rendered helpless by the need to express faith in it - until, such time that is, as we develop either the technology or human capacities to establish its essential truth.
No quantum physicist would want to be labeled a practitioner of a faith, but that is exactly, in this field at least, what they are. Empirical research into quantum physics can only take you so far. Everything after that is achieved only through leaps of belief and imagination.
Sounds familiar? It should. All religion is based on exactly the same philosophical premise.
At the beginning of their book, Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim philosophy (aka religion) dead in that it has failed to adequately explain the origins of the universe. Only science, they declare, is now equipped to assume such a task.
Yet as long as human beings can think they will continue to wonder about the extraordinary symmetry of our world and the way the forces of nature appear perfectly aligned to produce life. They will gaze at the night sky and ponder how all those stars appeared and where the forces that caused them to be, came from. If M-theory demonstrates anything, it is that the human mind is only capable of understanding so much about the nature of creation. Everything else may well exist in a sphere well beyond human comprehension.
So for the time being, we humble non-scientists are left guessing. And in this relativistic world, frankly Professor Hawking, your guess is as good as mine.