“New answers to the ultimate questions of life” – so declares the strap line to Stephen Hawking’s new coffee table physics book. With philosophy proclaimed dead on page one, physics is stepping up to the plate to answer not just the “hows” of life but the “whys”. It feels it has come of age and grasped not just the mechanics of the universe but the meaning of it too. I assume the ultimate questions of life are: Why do we suffer, why something is wrong, why me, where did I come from, who am I, what’s the point of living, what is love, etc etc (I guess he might just mean “what happened at the very early stages of the universe, or how do we describe what was going on ‘before’ the universe existed but it doesn’t read like that). The thesis of the book so far is that we have been looking in the wrong places. It is not to religion or philosophy, that we must turn for the answers to life’s most perplexing mysteries, but to a proposed 11 dimensional string theory called M-theory.
I’ve just been to see the film Tinkerbelle. It was surprisingly watchable and also showcased, in a charming way, our instinct to see personal agents rather than natural laws, behind the workings of our world. Fairies (who are born when a baby first laughs) create rainbows, help injured animals, paint the patterns on butterfly wings and are even responsible for changing the seasons. That’s nonsense of course, but there is a grain of truth in it. The instinctive insight of children is that the workings of the universe are not, at heart, impersonal. The beauty of a butterfly’s wing is not simply the result of a natural law, but an artist’s hand. Person hood is not a matter of matter, its origins are personal. Love is not just a high level description of a mechanism for the replication of genes but something that points to a loving creator. It is not a choice between God and order. Both can be true.
Anyway, Hawking’s starts Chapter 2 of his book with a brief history of science. Long ago, he says, people imagined that personal super-agents or gods were behind the apparently unpredictable events of nature. As people looked into these things, they gradually began to see the order in the world and wrote it down or conceptualised it as mathematic formula. The activity of gods was sidelined. There was Pythagoras, (580BC-490BC), Archimedes (287BC-212BC) Galileo etc. (Interestingly Hawkings seems to say that the Christians who succeeded the Greeks didn’t think much of the study of nature in terms of laws). Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was the first to clearly describe the universe as following laws of nature: “all physical phenomena must explained in terms of the collisions of moving masses, which are governed by three laws…precursors of Newton’s”. Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton envisaged a deist God who created the laws, set things going, then resisted the urge to tinker with them. I can see why but at the same time would question why we would think that laws can exist on their own without God’s ongoing sustaining activity. The bible speaks of a God who sustains all thing and holds everything together.
On page 29, as I’m beginning to get board, my ears prick up with the mention of miracles. They are defined as God suspending the laws of nature to accomplish something out of the ordinary. Laplace apparently pushes God aside and goes with a completely deterministic universe. There are no exceptions and no God. But what of people? Descartes says that the human mind is not physical: While our body is subject to the laws of nature, our soul is free, allowing us to escape the deterministic trap.
On page 32 freewill is suddenly tossed out the window because an “understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets.” I was surprised at that because I had thought at the quantum level Hawking’s and others had been saying that a better model is one based on probability. Oh, the other reason for jettisoning freewill is because we can effect someone’s desires and actions by electrically stimulating different parts of the brain “it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion”. Now, I don’t particularly want to defend freewill (it is a term in need of a clear definition but here seems to mean “something that is not the result of a physical law”), and maybe this is not representative of all the evidence, but I don’t think that experiments like this can be said to have ruled out the reality of free will quite yet. What we seem to have here is a presupposition. A worldview that everything is determined by natural law. With such a conviction perhaps the evidence seems stronger than it really is.
He goes on to argue that the idea of free will, and presumably personhood, love, good and evil etc are helpful rough approximations for systems too complex, or impossible, to compute. Hawkings states that “this book is rooted in the concept of scientific determinism, which implies that …there are no miracles, or exception to the laws of nature.” Ah, there it is. The root is not a scientific finding but a presupposition. I wish we could wait for philosophy to catch us so we can talk about that. No time, physics has run off again and Hawkings ends the chapter by asking if “we really have reason to believe that an objective reality exists?”. Talk about a cliff hanger!