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Does Science Make God Unnecessary? Comments on Grand Design

The recent book, Grand Design by S. Hawking and L. Mlodinow has triggered much discussion inthe scientific and religious worlds. The media, too, have had a field day portraying the most famous scientist of this age announcing that “It was gravity and not God that created theuniverse.”

On the religious side, there have been sound-bites claiming that Hawking is illogical and has become a crackpot. This approach, I think, is not helpful. Therefore, in an attempt to present some understanding for the common layman, I am attempting a rational, short commentary on the bottom-line issues regarding God and creation as relates to Hawking’s book. It took Hawking-Mlodinow (afterwards referred to as HM) 181 pages to build up to their conclusion. Thus we dare not readily agree, or refute, or dismiss them lightly.

The Why of the Universe

Ever since Aristotle’s Metaphysics, there has been in the Western world the idea of a cosmological argument for first cause—that is, to answer the question of why the universe cameinto existence, and who caused it to happen. In previous centuries, great scientists like Galileo, Newton, and Maxwell simply acknowledged the belief in God who was thought to have started the whole thing. Then for some time in the 20th century this question was considered in the realm of metaphysics and thus could be safely ignored in the physical sciences. If a physical scientist choseto be a theist or atheist, that was his private philosophy and had nothing to do with science.

Then came the Big Bang theory in the 1960s, when scientists discovered the Cosmic Background Radiation, which supported the BB theory. Suddenly science had to confront the issue of a “beginning” of the universe. Some prominent scientists, as Christians and Jews, could now talk about the relation of this “beginning” to God. One such scientist, Jastrow, lively and humorously expressed this sentiment on the metaphysical “fall-out” of the Big Bang:

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the “highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

No Need for God

In Grand Design, HM set out to tackle the issue of “beginning,” and they obviously are not satisfied with a simplistic answer that “God created and caused it all.” They voiced their objections on several fronts. At the logical front, they feel that invoking God is a kind of cop-out, because there will be a next question of “Who created God?” At the intellectual front, they feel that the many creation myths from various religions sound far-fetched. At the emotional front, they feel angst against the Catholic Church which had a history of interfering with science. They arealso concerned that the American educational system may be tempered by religion under the guise of intelligent design.

All in all, HM are clearly on the mission to provide a kind of atheist manifesto, “We don’t need to invoke God to explain the universe.” As Mlodinow was quoted in USA Today, “We’re not saying there is no God, just no need to invoke God to explain the universe.” This may sound like spin on weasel words. But it is truthful admission that even if gravity were to explain the universe,the ultimate ontological question is one level beyond their answer, i.e., who or what put gravity and multiverse there?

A Bold Wager

So, what are the key ingredients HM need or have to make for the ultimate claim of Grand Design? First and foremost, M-theory.

In the 1970s a number of physicists came up with the notion of a string theory, further drilling down fundamental material toward patterns of vibrating strings. This theory went through a couple of revolutions over three decades, with a family of superstring theories, called M-theory, emerging. The superstring physicists thought at one point to use M for vibrating membranes. Later the mainarchitect, Edward Witten, thought that membrane may not have the generalizing power once hoped for, so opted to use M in a less specified way. HM suggested that it be taken to mean any variety of M words such as miracle or mystery.

This family of theories, string, superstring and M, do not enjoy unanimous support of the physicscommunity. Glashow, who shared the Nobel prize for a unified theory, is a harsh critic. In fact, to put his money where his mouth was, when Harvard decided to support string theory research, he gave up his lifetime tenure position in protest. His problem with these theories is that not only have they not been tested in experiment or observation, they probably can never be tested becauseof the infinitesimal dimensions of strings. So he would label this as a branch of mathematics and philosophy, in the same sense that symbolic logic is.

However, HM have great faith in this path. In fact, they believe that the Holy Grail has been found. It just remains to be confirmed by experiment or observation. They are putting a bold wager on the ultimate triumph of M. But by all accounts, M has a long way to go before we know if it is right or wrong. Some might say that we’ll never know—which makes this a good wager on their part.

But what if some day M-theory is proven right? Then HM’s claim is that this will lead to a model of many, many universes, in fact, a huge number (one followed by 500 zeros) i.e., a trillion trillion…trillion (41 times) of universes, forming a multiverse. Again, there is no hope to verify by observation if this theory is right or wrong, thus putting it into the realm of metaphysics.

If one is willing to accept all this, then the universe is understood to have existed always, because HM would argue that the concept of “beginning” has no meaning in the early universe:

“In the early universe there were effectively four dimensions ofspace, and none of time... We must accept that our usual idea of space and time do not apply to the very early universe. Thatis beyond our experience, but not beyond our imagination, or our mathematics. To ask whathappened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question.”

They use the analogy of the South Pole, and degrees of latitude as playing the role of time. The so-called “beginning” would be like the South Pole: there is nothing further south, and yet the point at the Pole is just like any other point on the globe. But then, who or what put gravity there?HM don’t feel obliged to answer, because they can punt the question to some random initial conditions which just happened. As in the Glashow critique, we see no hope of ever verifying this, putting HM into the safe zone of metaphysics.

Faith and the Limitations of the Human Mind

So, does this book convince us that we don’t need God to explain the universe? Well, it depends if one is willing to take the authors’ several leaps of faith. For my very small mind, I’d rather take the traditional smaller leap of faith to God, which requires some honest appraisal of the limitation of human mind. The humility in recognizing this limitation as been expressed by some far greater minds than mine.

In the scientific world there have always been the debates as to the epistemological pedigree of mathematical elegance, especially as applied in natural sciences. As far as we know, Galileo was the first scientist who expressed the belief that God was a mathematician, among other attributes, and that mathematics was a language to study and describe nature. In subsequent centuries thiskind of idea had broadened toward the question of whether mathematics was invented or discovered. The implication was that if nature was designed, then the scientist’s job is to discover this design, whereas if nature came at random, his job is to invent mathematical elegance to extract patterns out of this randomness.

Nobel physicist Eugene Wigner expressed great humility in this epistemological discussion: “The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.” Notice his use of the words “miracle” and “gift,” which may defy the explanation by any superstring theory and gravity. He also admitted that we could not understand certain “why” aspect of science, and left it at that.

Einstein also expressed a similar kind of humility when confronted with the question of God and creation:

“I’m not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.”

When Aristotle wrote his tomes on philosophy, he organized as logic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics, the last being “beyond physics.” At times physics can reach a philosophical boundary and spills over toward metaphysics. In such cases the physics community is split in its adherents.

This topic finds a precedent in an old debate which pitched top-rated Nobel physicists against each other. In 1927, at the International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry symposium a topic touched on the uncertainty principle in Quantum Mechanics (QM) that would lead to a “theorydependent reality.” Two physicists, Bohr and Heisenberg, asserted that because of measurement uncertainty inherent in QM, the reality would depend on the observer. Einstein and Schroedinger, on the other hand, asserted that reality has to be objective and detached. That prompted Einstein’s famous saying, “God does not play dice with the Universe,” and Bohr’s rebuttal, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”

What HM espouses in Grand Design is a déjà vu of this debate, where they are comfortable to put their eggs in the basket of M-theory. Thus, it is fair to say that HM are pushing the envelope of physics into metaphysics, with some claims that are not yet proved, and at least one claim—that it was gravity and not God that created the universe—that can never be proved right or wrong.

(Edward W. Ng is an American Applied mathematician who has also held the positions of senior scientist, senior engineer and technical manager in the U.S. Space Program. He is noted for his broad variety of mathematical applications in space science and engineering. He has also contributed conscientiously in the spin-off of technology from the space program, with pplications in such diverse subjects as Bose-Einstein distributionin mathematical physics, symbolic and algebraic computation, computational physics and biomedical research.)

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To reuse online, please credit Challenger, Apr-Jun 2011. CCMUSA.