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.

“y’u can n’ey change the laws of physics” (The grand design part 6)


Stephen Hawking and Lenonard Mlodinow


I am reading though Stephen Hawking’s new book “the grand design”. While the title seems to be making reference to the theological notion of “design”, in the content God is gently being elbowed out of the picture. Looking at the cover again I notice it’s co authored by Lenonard Mlodinow. While his name is not printed as big as Hawking’s (his name is bigger than the title!), he is never the less an accomplished scientist and author in his own right. He has written a number of exciting sounding books including “How randomness rules our lives”, “Feynman’s rainbow” and has also been a writer for Star Trek : the next generation.

In the original (and best) star treck Scottie used to reply to Captain Kirk’s impossible requests for more speed with the importal phrase “I can ney change the laws of physics cap’in.” Well, what exactly are those laws? I am about to find out in this chapter.

He talks about gravity, the first force to be described in mathematical language. In passing he can’t resist a poke at the Biblical testimony that the sun stood still in the sky for an hour so Joshua could carry on fighting. He notes it would have probably been the earth’s rotation that stopped which would he says, cause everything not nailed down on the surface to carry on moving. But what if God had realized that and made arrangements for that not to happen?

After gravity came models for eclectic and magnetic forces, weak nuclear forces and strong nuclear forces. Maxwell came up with some equations that unified the eclectic and magnetic ones and showed that light was an electro-magnetic field too. Einstein’s special theory of relativity said that light was constant, time relative to the observer and linked with space (space-time). General relativity included gravity and modeled space-time as distorted by mass and energy. In a graphic and timely confirmation of this (Einstein first suggested time was relative 100 years ago) scientists recently placed two very accurate clocks a foot apart in height and recorded a difference in time predicted by Einstein’s theory. This lead one scientific reporter to (Marcus Chown) comment:

” if you want to live longer, buy a bungalow!”

As Hawking has said earlier, things are different at the quantum level. Quantum versions of relativity and electromagnetism are called field theories. The one for electromagnetism is called quantum electromagnetism or QED and was developed by Richard Feynmann et al.

“the division of natural forces into four classes is probably artificial…people heave therefore sought a theory of everything that is compatible with quantum theory. This would be the holy grail of physics.”

Electromagnetism and the week force have been joined together in a quantum theory (which successfully predicted the existence of 3 particles) but not the others. There is not even a quantum theory of gravity. The “standard model” comprises of the joint electro-weak quantum model QED, a separate quantum model of the strong force QCD but no quantum model of gravity.

“it might be that to describe the universe, we have to employ different theories in different situations. Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.”

He then begins to introduce the idea of multiple universes:

The laws of M-theory …allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled (up to 10^500 different universes).

So while we can’t change the laws of physics, different universes could have different laws.

“So how did we end up we end up in this universe…and what about those other possible words?”

I will find out no doubt in the next chapter.

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!