Showing my hand (the grand design part 10)

Well, I have made a lot of comments on Hawking’s book. I have really enjoyed reading it and interacting with it but I am aware it is very easy to question someone else’s worldview without declaring your own. I had a bracketed bit in the last post where I stated my world view but it ended up too long so I thought I would make it a separate post, a sort of post script to the stuff on the book as it’s not really about the book per say.

The view that seems to come through in the book is that everything is determined by natural laws and that we need look no further for an explanation of the “hows” and “whys” than these natural laws. They simply exist and everything from magpies to morals, quails to quarks, penguins to persons can be reduced to the outworking of these laws. Somehow (in a way I do not understand) “we” can observe the universe and realise that behind it is a system of natural laws. That said, we can never know what is really there as all we can experience is sensory input that leads us to make mental models of a supposed reality.

So what do I think?

I think that God has always existed and is the ground of all personhood and truth and everything else. He made and ordered the universe and he made us in it as personal agents, in his image, able to comprehend and understand it. The beauty of Mathematics, including number theory and string theory, stem from the fact that they are from him, his nature and his mind. Rules both moral and material exist in a mind and are meaningful and comprehensible because of that. God has given us the intrinsic ability to investigate and understand but he also reveals truth to us. In one sense everything we know is by his revelation. He helps us see and understand gravity and he helps us see and understand morality. There is much I can know but as I turn away from God shutting my heart to his revelation of himself, my thinking becomes faulty. It may take a few generations before the full force of this is felt but it must come.

I accept God’s self disclosure in the trinity. That he is at heart relational, and loving, not alone and isolated. For this reason I see love, as well as person hood, to be even more fundamental than the laws of physics and certainly not reducible to them. I see God as perfectly good and so morality is not to be defined simply in terms of evolutionary theory but as a revelation of his God’s. I see death as being linked to our moral failure and relational break down with God. Life is not purely physical, but spiritual and relational. In the person of Jesus Christ I see a God who loves us so much that he deals with our sin and separation, making a way through death for us to eternal life, complete with a new body that will last forever.

Life is not just DNA dancing or fundamental forces interacting. Death is not simply part of the carbon cycle. Life is about a relationship with God and death of the body can be a doorway to an unending life in his presence or a dreadful eternity without him. Each person will have their day in court. The beauty of a sunset, prime numbers and romance, are but tinny shafts of glory from the unsurpassed excellence of the God who sacrificed himself for me, saving me from my sin and shame and adopting me into his family forever.

A theistic world view saves me from ultra skepticism. I spent most of my university years working through the idea that we cannot know objective reality and that we only have models of models of models in our head. I didn’t know the label “Model Dependent Reality” but I thought through and experienced its ideas. The belief that we are separated from truth and can never know it leads to a very dark place indeed. How could I even know my own thought process were valid? Or my thoughts about my thought? Even my own existence was not something that I could know for certain. Thankfully I no longer believe that to be a correct or a healthy worldview.

I guess my world view could be summed up in two words. “Christ Jesus”. Nothing makes much sense to me without him. Everything was made by him and through him and for him. Take him out of the equation (or only think in terms of equations) and there is no beginning, no end and nothing in-between. Since Christ is the Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”, I guess I do believe in M-theory after all.

“is time an illusion?” (The grand design part 7)

I’m feeling very much out of my depth now as I start chapter 7 of professor Hawking’s new book. He has promised much and I  don’t want to miss it. I take a deep breath and start reading. The chapter begins by talking about various creation myths. After looking at what the people of Boshongo believe the Christian young earth view comes under fire:

“According to the Old Testament” God created Adam and Eve only 6 days into the creation. Bishop Ussher…placed the origin of the world even more precisely, at nine in the morning on October 27, 4004 BC. We take a different view: that humans are a recent creation but that the universe itself began much earlier, about 13.7 billion years ago.”

I would have preferred him to say “according to some interpretations of the Old testament” but it’s true a literal six (24 hour) day creation is an obvious immediate interpretation of what the opening chapters say.

“Creation myths all attempt to answer the questions we address in this book: why is there a universe, and why is the universe the way it is?”

Ok here is the “why”. Where has this jump been made from how to why? The “myths” make that jump by looking to a mind or minds. A God or gods decided something, planned something, or did something for a purpose. But anyway, what’s next:

Edwin Hubble

Fred Hoyle

Hubble “saw” that the universe was expanding (although the forces keep objects in it the same size). In 1949 the term “big bang” was coined by Fred Hoyle to describe the theoretical singularity at the start. But models like Einstein’s theory of relativity break down there and so may not provide “a true picture of the origin of the universe”.

Interestingly enough the expansion of the universe is not limited by the speed of light. It can expand much much faster and there is evidence that in fact it did. Anyway, now we get to the heart of the matter. He says when you combine quantum theory with general relativity (has that been done?) time acts as the other three dimensions of space. Just like water does not fall off the edges of the earth because the earth is spherical, and just like there is no point south of the south pole, there is no beginning of time and no need for God to start the ball rolling or to “light the blue touch paper”.

I’m reading the paragraphs many times now and not getting it. Either there is not enough information here to process this or my brain can’t get round it. How did he just magic time away? Where does the directional aspect of time come from? Is it just subjective? Are we sure enough of this to dismiss our moment by moment experience that time is in fact real and uni-directional?

He gives an analogy of bubbles being formed in a liquid, each bubble representing a different universe with its own constants, numbers of large dimensions (the others get curled up) and lifetime before disappearing. We have observed that ours has three large dimensions, so those universes with more or less need no longer be considered when doing the Feynman sum. (You have to think back to the single particle going through either of the two slits and impacting on a screen the other side. The interference pattern produced is explained by considering all the paths that the particle might have taken. Observe which slit the particle actually goes through and you can ignore the effect of the other slit. Observe something in our universe and we no longer need to consider all the other possibilities. Observation changes past and future reality in that sense….I think!)

As I finish this chapter I feel frustrated. I have not understood it. There was one paragraph that claimed to say why we don’t need God to start things off but I have too many questions to engage with it in a meaningful way.

There are two chapters to go. Maybe I’ll just read on and see if things get clearer. If not I’ll come back and read this all again!

The source of gold


a supernova


The metal in my gold wedding ring was made in a blinding flash of light billions of years ago in a supernova – an exploding star. That’s the line that pulled me into a TV program where Stephen Hawking explains his theory of everything. Having read his latest book I was hungry for more! Plus, hearing an idea in different ways is really helpful in understanding it better. I’ve read it, now I’m going to hear and see it. I wonder if there is a song about string theory or even a musical!

Anyway, back to the source of my ring. In the early universe hydrogen was pulled together under gravity and in the burning furnace of the star other elements like carbon, oxygen and sodium were made. The process stops at iron as making heavier elements requires rather than releases energy. As more of the matter turns to iron the star compresses in on itself, which makes it hotter and hotter (10 times our own sun) and eventually it explodes in a supernova. The shock wave of the explosion causes heavy elements like gold to be formed. All these newly formed particles explode out into the universe creating a beautiful nebula. Gravity then begins to pull it all back together to form new stars and planets.  Apparently our sun sent out a huge blast of solar wind which cleared the dust and debris away to the outer edge of our solar system.

Some stars are big enough to make a black hole when they collapse. Although they explode the central core continues to crush in on itself even pulling in light. If you crushed the earth to the size of a pea it would be dense enough to form its own black hole. These things (black holes not peas) are really useful to have around. There is one in the centre of each galaxy holding the swirling mass of stars together.

Hawkins also talks about life:

“Life is one of the strangest phenomena known. In my opinion it shows that the universe is capable of almost anything. Yet is amazes me that we can know so much about how the universe began many millions of years ago but we have yet to discover how life itself began. The most likely explanation is probably that we are an accident. Just by chance some molecules bumped into each other at random until finally one formed that could copy itself.”

I wonder what makes it the most likely explanation (I won’t comment on the ‘molecules bumping into each other’ as I’m sure he is simplifying it for us).

Then began the slow process of evolution that lead to all the extraordinary diversity of life on earth. Life seems to be simply what emerges given the right conditions and enough time. I think that life is probably very common throughout the universe… “

Based on what I wonder? We have one example of life forming. A sample of one tell us nothing about the chances of it happening.

“One thing sometimes troubles people when they hear this story. How could such an astonishing chain of events which resulted in us be an accident. Perhaps Science has revealed that there is some authority at work setting the laws of nature such that we can exist. On the face of it life does seem to be too unlikely to be just a coincidence. The earth is the right distance from the sun…. the sun lasts long enough for life to get going….the solar system is littered with all the right elements for life….these elements are only possible because of older stars that burnt out. These older stars only existed because of a tiny unevenness in the early primordial gas that was itself produced by a 1 in a billion imbalance in the sea of particles that came from the big bang. So is there a grand designer who lined up all this good fortune? In my opinion. Not necessarily.

What if there were other universes not a lucky as our own, each coming into existence from its own big bang and hand having different laws. Some without gravity or without hydrogen that fused and so no stars could form…In these dead dark universes there can be nobody to wonder how lucky they are to exist. So perhaps we should not be too surprised to find ourselves in a perfect universe, on a perfect planet orbiting a perfect sun because that’s the only place that life can exist.”

But that only pushes the issue further back doesn’t it? Why is there something that produces multiple universes? The proposed multi-universe system seems set up to produce life. Where did that come from?

He goes on to talk about the possible demise of our planet and eventually the universe.

“Physicists can also tell us what mankind will face in the future and even the fate of the universe itself.”

In 2020 a large rock will pass so near to the earth that it might pass beneath the satellites that orbit our planet and broadcast sky TV to us. It should miss us but there are other really large rocks out there, some the size of Manhattan! In fact one hits the earth every 100 million years or so. Queue some cool CGI sequences. The last one probably wiped out the dinosaurs.  Maybe it’s us next time! Or maybe well blow ourselves up sooner with a nuclear bomb. Or maybe a gamma ray bust from a nearby sun will strip away our protective atmosphere in dazzling light show that will put the northern lights in the shade. His advice is basically that we have got to get out of here as quickly as possible!

“in my opinion the launch of Apollo 11 is probably the most important moment in human history. It was a turning point for the universe too. Life in the form of us escaped its home plant and stepped onto another surface. The astronauts footprints stand persevered to this day, a testament to the beginning of what I think could be the next chapter in the story of the cosmos; the spread of life to other parts of the universe”.

The next stepping stone he says is Mars. But sooner or later our solar system will cease to exist when the sun heats up and expands. By then we would have to have made it over 20 light years away to somewhere like “Gliese 581 d”, a planet that might support life. That will be tricky and expensive and the journey would take a lifetime. We would need to extend our lives. Genetic engineering he says will help us do this as well as increase our abilities. In 3 billions years our galaxy will merge with another neighboring galaxy which would probably make it hard for anyone who was around then. Then there might be a big crunch when the universe goes back to a tinny point (our universe has at least 30 billion years left so don’t panic) but Hawking’s puts his money on a big Chill when the universe gets ever bigger and colder.

And that’s the end of the program. I think it was more based on his first book so didn’t talk much about string theory. Oh well. Interesting anyway. I am still amazed as I look at my ring to think that it came out of a supernova.

A corollary of all this is that we are made of star dust. That might sound special but actually it gives us no value what so ever. A worm is made of star dust too and when you think about it being made of something does not impute intrinsic value. People put a price on gold. It’s only worth something to someone. Value is assigned by people, it is not a product of particles. The bible tells me we were fashioned out of dust by God to be in his image and in relationship with him. Our value and purpose and reason for living comes from our creator.

Can physics tell us why? (The Grand Design part 2)

I’m on page two of Stephen Hawkings book “The grand Design”. It was launched with the following sound bites:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself 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. The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph.

Statements such as these are fighting talk and have already drawn out responses from various theological heavy weights.

Rowan Williams:

“Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe”

J John:

“It is worth making the point that an enormous problem still remains for Stephen Hawking and his followers. One of the most fundamental of all questions is ‘Where did the universe come from?’ The Christian answer is to simply state that God made it out of nothing. Hawking’s answer to such a question is to say that nothing made the universe: that this greatest possible something came, of its own accord, out of absolutely nothing. Both views require faith but I know which of the two I find it easier to believe in!”

John Lennox:

“Contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.

While others have already read and responded to the book I’m still only on page two! It’s exhilarating and exasperating at the same time. It’s exhilarating because I am spending time with one of the brightest thinkers in the country (world?). (Intellectually I feel like an ant looking up at an elephant. Hawking can work with 11 dimensional formula in his head while  I never really got the hang of all those squiggly d’s in fluid dynamics). It’s exasperating because God is being ruled out of the equation. On page one he signed philosophy’s death certificate, now and on page two it seems he did it using the ideas of a man who played the bongos in a strip club! Actually, of course, this guy, Richard Feynman, was also phenomenally intelligent and highly regarded. In a recent Guardian interview ( Richard Dawkins and David Attenborough were asked which living scientist they most admired, and why? Dawkins replied “David Attenborough” but David’s answer was Richard Feynman…. I admire this man who could not only deal with string theory but also plays the bongos!”. I am genuinely intrigued to follow through the ideas presented in this book as best as I can. Hold on to your seats. Here’s some highlights from the rest of chapter 1:

“The universe has no single history, nor even an independent existence…..[there are] a great many universes that were created out of nothing….their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or God. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law…only a very few worlds allow creatures like us to exist….Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us, in a sense, the lords of creation.”

He then asks some questions. Not the traditional “How” questions of science, but the “Why” questions of the wheezing, can’t run for toffee, philosophy that physics has recently left for dead.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? This is the Ultimate Question of Life, the universe and Everything. We shall attempt to answer it in this book.

This is a massive jump, from mechanism to agency. From description and predication to purpose and reason. How has this feet been performed? I have no idea but it’s hard to imagine a more exciting, provocative and bold start to a book. I know I am going to learn tonnes by ready it and be really stretched.

“Philosophy is dead” (The grand design part 1)

My copy of Stephen Hawking’s new book has just arrived. It is printed on high quality paper in top quality ink. It feels and smells wonderful. As I read the first page I was both excited and disappointed at the same time. He asks some very important questions but seems to set off boldly in the wrong direction. Yet I am a little curious too. Does he know something I don’t? Well obviously, yes he does – quite a lot of things actually! An understanding of 11 dimensional string theory for one, but do the answers to the big question of life lie hidden in such knowledge?

Here are the opening words of “The Grand Design”:

We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in that vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: how can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.

Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances. They lead us to a new picture of the universe and our place in it that is very different from the traditional one, and different from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago.

As well as being a brilliant physicist, Hawkings is also a great writer. He knows how to communicate in a very vivid and provocative way but can it really be that “philosophy is dead?“.  The statement conjures up images in my mind of physics metamorphasising into a massive monster. Drunk with power it strangles its foolish and puny master who gave it life. With the other hand it tears off its moral leash. Head tilted back it opens its mouth in a deep, spine chilling laugh. Beholden to no one, it’s feet begin to crush those dissenters who cry out in silly squeaky voices “stop this madness, there is more to life than can be written in an equation or measured in a beaker! Please – think about it!”

I’m probably  going over the top there, or misunderstanding him, but I have always thought of philosophy as “thinking about thinking”. It’s one of the best things we can do with this amazing mind of ours. Literally the word means “love of wisdom” so what are we to say if “philosophy is dead”? – “long live foolishness”?

What could physicists have possibly discovered and what eureka moment have they secretly enjoyed, that has lead them to burst forth from their lab and declare as obsolete all previous thinking about matter, morality, life, death, consciousness, love, personhood, epistemology (the study of knowledge – how we can come to know things and what that means etc…). I shall read on and find out.

I am only on page one and already it’s a crackingly good read!