the grand finale (The grand design part 9)

I have come to the last chapter in Stephen Hawking’s new book “the Grand Design”. It starts with the story of how we gradually worked out how the big stuff in the universe behaved and came to

“the idea of scientific determinism: There must be a complete set of laws that, given a state of the universe at a specific time, would specify how the universe would develop from that time forward. These always hold everywhere and at all times; otherwise they wouldn’t be laws. There could be no exceptions or miracles. God’s or demons couldn’t intervene in the running of the universe.” p171

The fact still stands that, particularly stated in the way it is here, “scientific determinism” is a presupposition. It is not arrived at by scientific investigation, it is assumed in order to do scientific investigation. It says “consciousness, intelligence, love, morality, freewill, etc etc are all explained by scientific laws, A->B->C->D etc“. This is a philosophical assumption making up a particular world view. It rules out miracles ahead of time. It would miss one should one occur because it would say “that can’t be a miracle, we just don’t know exactly how it happened yet“. It can be a very helpful world view if you want to build TV’s,  do life saving operations, investigate crimes etc, but a very bad one if, in fact, miracles do occur in among all the well ordered running of the universe, and those miracles are supposed to point to something beyond the material realm. What if the order in the universe was supposed to provide a contrast or background from which information carrying miracles stood out? What if the answers to the “why” questions were found in the exceptions rather than the rules.

“The laws of nature tell us how the universe behaves but they don’t tell us why. The question that we posed at the start of this books is why there is something rather than nothing, why do we exist, why this particular set of laws and not some other”.

Hawking says Christians and others have answered these questions with “God made things this way“. I would maintain that’s still a very “how” response. It’s only when you know more about God through his self revelation that you can answer the “why”. We need to know his plans and motives to know not just how he made the universe but why he made it. Anyway, Hawking then rightly says that people who say “God did it“, “accept that some entities exist that need no creator”. He then claims that science can answer these questions purely within the realm of science and without invoking a divine being. Maybe we just differ in what we mean by “how” and “why” but I don’t see it.

He then mentions Model Dependent Reality (MDR) again and states that all we can know of the world is from the mental models in our brain formed from outside events stimulating our senses. “there is no model independent test of reality“. I have a different worldview and understanding of truth and knowledge  so perhaps I will say something of that in the epilogue to this blog series.

In Hawking’s world view where do the “we” and the “us” come from? What is the “I” in the scientific world view? I still don’t get that bit. It reads like we are stuck in our brain somewhere making these models from the data that comes in but surely we are part of the system that is determined. Where does that leave rationality, truth, thought? There is nowhere for an observer to stand in this strong determinism.

A glider gun in the game of life (click picture for great demo)

Now he moves onto “the game of life“. I feel like I am on more familiar ground now as I used to write computer programs to implement this in my coding days…blinkers, gliders…glider guns, etc etc. (look it up on wiki if you want know more) Basically it’s just a visual illustration of how very simple rules can lead to interesting and complex behavior. (Benoit Mandelbrot, who died recently (14th Oct 2010) at the age of 85, discovered a similar thing with his fractal geometry, see also Langton’s ant).

Hawking’s says the game of life could compute anything and can be arbitrarily complex, then asks the fascinating question “could it be self conscious? or have free will?” He seems to say that it could only in the sense that we would see its behaviour and use an “effective theory” of free will because we would not be able to do the computations necessary to predict its behaviour in any other way. (If I understand it correctly MDR would say that what is really going on is unimportant or at least unknowable.)  His argument seems to be that simple laws can produce such complex behaviour that our brains can no longer process the simple laws effectively and have to use other approximations. Therefore, as we are complex, we must be governed by simple laws. It seems to me less of an argument and more of an illustration of determinism.

Grand Moff Tarkin (for those who spotted the Star wars reference)

Nietzsche coined the phrase “God is dead“. Hawking’s “Philosophy is dead” must be some kind of reference to that. It says that to know truth, to understand the world and our place in it, we must walk away from religion, ethics, philosophy of science, and embrace M-theory. The essence of morality, conciseness, free will, and even time as objectively real  must be cast aside on the basis that all things are reducible to mathematical laws. It seems to me though that the tighter physicists like Hawking close their fists the more truths slips through their fingers. I for one am not prepared to let morality and personhood fall to the floor from the eleven fingered fist of M-theory (or at least Hawking’s interpretation of it).

Another thing occures to me. In this new multi dimensional empire most of us will only have a dim understanding of the laws that govern everything. We must look therefore to a new order of super intelligent high priests to tell us how things really are, and enlighten us out of our silly notions of morality, free will, single past etc.

God is dead lead to nihilism, and “life has no meaning“. M-theory seems to me to be saying the same thing. Or rather not M-theory but the philosophy that is being coupled to it. The same thing happened with the theory of evolution. Someone has a great idea, its powerful and helpful but some make it everything and it is not. I want to stress that I am not at all against M-theory or indeed the scientific enterprise that lead to it. It may in time prove to be a very powerful way of understanding much about the universe. What I do take issue with is the philosophies that it spawns.

So why has Hawking used some interesting physics to attack philosophy, morality and religion? A cynic would say “well, you brought the book didn’t you. You got realed in with the strap line about answers to the big questions of life“. In a short debate/discussion about this book Alistair McGrath said:

“A publisher said to me recently if you are going to publish a book A) make sure it mentions God and B) make sure it rubbishes God”.

Alistair McGrath

But surely money was not the sole purpose behind Hawking’s arguments, was it? I can’t quite buy that as the full reason for taking perfectly good, exciting physics and using it to argue for a particular philosophical worldview. Maybe  he is doing what many of us do and that is take what we know, and see in it, or seek in it, a justification for our own deeply held presuppositions; presuppositions that took root in us for a much broader range of reasons than the purely rational or scientific. The things a role model or authority figure or the crowd says can be very persuasive. Ideas that come to mind or crystallise for us out of intense emotions or terrible tragedy can embed deeply into our heart.

Anyway, “No need for God to light the blue touch paper”? “No objective reality”?, “No single past history“?, “No free will“? I just don’t buy it. I would rather throw out strong determinism than deny morality and my existence of personhood. I have to admit though, it was a very interesting read but I wish I saw more, or got more, of the arguments. It’s given me plenty to think about and I look forward to re-reading the book some time.

At the heart of the book is the statement that:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

But if there is gravity there is not nothing! There is a force. Even the other physicists seem to see that:

“even if you have a consistent model of how the universe works and where it comes from you still need to ask the question where did the rules come from. Whether you label that God or some form of pre M-theory quantum vacuum or something doesn’t really have much impact on my understanding of the universe or much impact on my life as far as I can see. ….making reference to some pre-existent supernatural being begs more questions than it answers to be honest” Professor Butterworth.

I agree that what we call something doesn’t change much. As Shakespeare said “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Simply saying that the rules come from God makes no difference to our lives in and of itself. In fact there is very little fragrance at all in a God that is simply the ‘thing’ that got everything going. It’s the other things we know about God that comprise the sweetness of his aroma. It’s the fact that he is personal, loving, powerful, good, just etc combine together like notes in a heavenly perfume. Some of these things are pointed too by our existence and observations but ultimately we need God to reveal himself to us.

M-Theory may turn out to be the best way of describing and predicting many things in our universe but its early days yet. Professor Butterworth goes on:

Professor Jon Butterworth

“I don’t really think we are that close to a fully consistent scientific picture that is validated by experiment. Every time we think that science is finished it turns out its not and there is a lot more we didn’t know about. M-theory is a candidate but it may be wrong. It’s not even fully consistent as a theory yet.” Professor Butterworth

(see  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nE5KzmVL7X0&feature=related for good discussion between McGrath and Professor Butterworth)

The strap line to Stephen Hawking’s new book is “new answers to the ultimate questions of life”. I have only read it through once but at this point I do not think it delivers on that promise. M-theory may have some helpful insights into the universe in which we live, but, in my humble opinion I would not recommend looking to it for the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

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