Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stephen Hawking Challenges God


(This essay was posted to the Zoo Torah mailing list. To subscribe to this list send an e-mail to essays-subscribe@zootorah.com.)

The relationship of science to religion is always a hot topic, but it became especially fiery in the last few days with the announcement of a new book co-authored by legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. “Stephen Hawking Says God Did Not Create The Universe” is the incendiary headline in many news outlets. His new work, The Grand Design, co-authored with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, seeks to give a scientific explanation for our remarkable universe which writes God out of the picture.

Although always an atheist, Hawking had previously given more room for those who believe in a Creator. In his bestselling (albeit usually unread) A Brief History of Time, Hawking acknowledged that even if an all-encompassing set of scientific equations for the universe is discovered, it does not necessarily account for the universe’s existence: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”

But in his latest book, Hawking strikes a different note. In a September 3rd adapted extract that appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the title “Why God Did Not Create the Universe,” Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” They further argue that many theories in modern cosmology predict the multiverse model—that “our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws.” A small number of this multitude of universes allow for the formation of life, and we inhabit one of them. Accordingly, there is no need to look for a bigger explanation for our universe. Is this true?

There are several ways in which science is employed to give rational support for belief in a Creator. (I will not be including the anti-evolution arguments of the Intelligent Design movement, to which I object on both theological and scientific grounds.) These do not automatically direct us to the God of the Jewish faith, for they do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the designer possesses the attributes that we ascribe to God (as opposed to those ascribed to God by Aristotle and others). Nevertheless, they certainly greatly enhance religious belief and help ground it in a rational foundation.

One way in which science supports belief in God is that the laws of science themselves require a lawmaker. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out, it is “a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered… It is not at all natural that ‘laws of nature’ exist, much less that man is able to discover them.” Einstein, no believer in a conscious God, nevertheless often expressed amazement at the comprehensibility of the universe. As historians of science have shown, the idea of looking for such regularities in nature was an outgrowth of monotheism, which proposed an underlying unity to creation. When the scientific revolution picked up momentum, many forgot its roots. But as science advanced, discovering relatively simple equations that govern phenomena across the universe, many physicists have begun to ask where these laws came from. Even if Hawking is correct that the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing, that they somehow breathe fire into themselves, he has not explained how these laws themselves came to be legislated.

The second way in which science is employed to give rational support for faith is that were the laws of nature to be different in the slightest way, our universe would not be possible. Some famous atheists such as Douglas Adams dismissed this argument, claiming that it is like a puddle marveling that its hole in the ground is exactly the right shape for it. But this entirely misses the fact that our universe is not any old universe, but rather an amazing universe that allows for the formation of such complex phenomena as matter, planetary systems, life, and intelligence.

Hawking attempts to address this with the multiverse model, claiming that since there is a multitude of universes, of course some of them will be of an extraordinary nature. In response to this, it is first important to note that the multiverse model is entirely speculative, with no actual evidence whatsoever. In an article appropriately entitled “Outrageous Fortune,” which marveled at the unlikely and fortuitous nature of our universe, the leading scientific journal Nature pointed out that “there are no apparent measurements that would confirm whether we exist within a cosmic landscape of multiple universes, or if ours is the only one.”

But let us suppose that it is indeed the case that there are an infinite or very large number of universes, which would mean that some of them possess remarkable characteristics. Would this mean that Hawking has successfully made his case? Others point out that it means no such thing. As renowned physicist Paul Davies once wrote in The New York Times, “The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.”

As we enter Rosh HaShanah, the festival marking the new year and the creation of the universe, we still have reason to marvel at our universe—at its nature, and at the laws and possibly meta-laws governing its nature. In the words of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: “Each discovery in the natural sciences only confirms the fundamental truth first set forth by Judaism: There can be no thought without a thinker, no order without a regulator, no law without a lawgiver, no culture without a creative spirit, no world without God and no man without the gift of free-willed morality.” Shanah tovah!

(For extensive further discussion of all these ideas, see my book The Challenge Of Creation, available in Jewish bookstores worldwide and online at www.zootorah.com)

25 comments:

  1. R. Sacks's response to Hawking:

    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/509875-even-great-science-tells-us-nothing-about-god

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  2. R. Slifkin, I'm not sure if you realize this, but by being one of the few people out there actually responding to these issues in a meaningful way, you're turning yourself into an authority. The next generation will look to you for real guidance - especially on these matters, but if there's a serious Halakhic dispute about something twenty years from now, the side you take will be may heavily weigh which side "God paskens like" through history.

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  3. Very well. We exist. How did we get here? We call that answer, that Creator, G-d.

    This leaves unanswered the ancient question of how that Creator, the Unmoved Mover, came to exist. The best I can do is that it is beyond our (or at least my) understanding, which is something of a handwave.

    Pascal's Wager may be sufficient to perform actions which aren't particularly distasteful, but it seems to be a weak foundation for fundamental belief.

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  4. > One way in which science supports belief in God is that the laws of science themselves require a lawmaker.…

    Why? Firstly, isn’t that playing with words a bit? The laws of the universe aren’t a legal code handed down from on high, they’re the rules we’ve discovered about the way the universe happens to work.

    Secondly, that we’re able to discover some of the rules for understanding the universe doesn’t mean that Someone put them there. This seems like those who argue that the Earth must have been designed for people, because it’s so perfect for us. It puts the cart before the horse. The Earth wasn’t designed for us; we evolved to fit conditions on Earth. That the universe functions according to a relatively simple set of laws doesn’t necessarily mean someone put them there. Instead we, as pattern-seekers, have structured our discoveries about the universe into neat patterns.

    > were the laws of nature to be different in the slightest way, our universe would not be possible

    The Anthropic Principle. First, according to Hawking and other theoretical physicists, our universe isn’t the only possible universe and there are others with natural laws not just slightly, but radically different than our own. Second, that we observe a universe which allows for us to exist is hardly an amazing thing. As you say, if things were different, we wouldn’t be here to marvel at it! It’s only if you assume that people, and not just any people, but us exactly as we are, are the point of and necessary to the universe that it becomes amazing. If were just something that happened to evolve here BECAUSE of the preexisting conditions, so what?

    It is exactly like Adams says, a puddle marveling at how well its hole fits. It’s the wrong way around.

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  5. G*3, you are incorrect all the way through.

    That the universe functions according to a relatively simple set of laws doesn’t necessarily mean someone put them there. Instead we, as pattern-seekers, have structured our discoveries about the universe into neat patterns.

    No. That is the formalist position, which is false. The regularities of the universe are real. You can choose a different explanation for them, but there is a real, strange phenomena that requires an explanation.

    First, according to Hawking and other theoretical physicists, our universe isn’t the only possible universe and there are others with natural laws not just slightly, but radically different than our own.

    Um, did you read my article?

    Second, that we observe a universe which allows for us to exist is hardly an amazing thing. As you say, if things were different, we wouldn’t be here to marvel at it! ...It is exactly like Adams says, a puddle marveling at how well its hole fits.

    This universe is much more special that virtually every other universe was can conceive of - the vast majority of which would not allow for matter, let alone planetary systems or life. To say, "Well, but if we didn't exist, then we wouldn't marvel at it" is pointless. If there was no person who won every single lottery then there would be no such phenomenon to marvel at, but if there was, then some explanation would indeed be called for.

    Why don't you read my book? I explain all this at much more length there.

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  6. This is the argument I try to make with people. I agree with you 100% here. The uniqueness of our universe is so statistically impossible that it is considered an impossibility without some guiding hand.

    Have a good Raosh Hashana.

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  7. A recent convert to non-theism myself, I found this post quite cogent and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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  8. Regarding the amazing fine-tuning of our universe I highly, highly recommend the first half of the book Universes by John Leslie, first published in 1989. The man has a full grasp of the physics and his philosophical reasoning tears the issues to shreds. Even the people who disagree with it endorse it, unusual for this kind of book. Inspiring stuff.

    Also, in your book you cite Hawking's opinion in A Brief History of Time that a multiverse can't explain fine-tuning. It looks like he's changed his mind since then.

    I also think that it may be possible to produce positive evidence of a multiverse. For example, study of the CMB may confirm chaotic inflation which, as I understand it, depends on our universe being a bubble in a region of metastable vacuum. It would then be very reasonable to assume the vacuum has lots of bubbles. There's a lot more nuance to flesh out, of course, and I recommend Leslie again. The bottom line for me is that a multiverse would only push Creation back a step.

    וְיֵדַע כָּל פָּעוּל כִּי אַתָּה פְעַלְתוֹ. וְיָבִין כָּל יְצוּר כִּי אַתָּה יְצַרְתּוֹ.

    Shana Tova rabbi, may you have much hatzlacha with your career.

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  9. The main problem with Hawking's current thesis, aside from the fact that it's an unprovable assertion, is that it eliminates the sense of awe and mystery surrounding the universe and its origin. Einstein would have disdained such a viewpoint as pedestrian and a disincentive to truly creative thinking. One relevant Einsteinian aphorism is, "religion without science is blind; science without religion is lame".

    The world is filled with wonders, not the least among them is the susceptibility of natural phenomena to rationalization by elegant - even if sophisticated, mathematical analyses. One of those possibly minor wonders is how one man, Stephen Hawking, has survived a progressive and fatal neurological disease, ALS, for so many decades. That survival enabled him to create significant advances in our understanding of black-hole physics and quantum gravity. Now he appears reduced to atheistic posturing. Hopefully, he will have second thoughts on the matter.

    Greetings to all on the eve of the holiday celebrating the creation of the world and man, and their often hidden governance by their compassionate Creator.

    Have a good year.

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  10. This universe is much more special that virtually every other universe was can conceive of - the vast majority of which would not allow for matter, let alone planetary systems or life. To say, "Well, but if we didn't exist, then we wouldn't marvel at it" is pointless. If there was no person who won every single lottery then there would be no such phenomenon to marvel at, but if there was, then some explanation would indeed be called for.

    No - not at all.

    To defend against possible ad hominem and related attacks: I read your books.

    What you are falling far is what is called the "poker players fallacy".
    Just because you were randomly dealt a royal flush doesn't mean you were "meant" to have. At least one hand must have come up and well, it did.

    Of all the possible planets and universes you find yourself on one of the billions of "tries" that has just the right conditions for life. For more information you may want to look at the Drake equation.


    """No. That is the formalist position, which is false. The regularities of the universe are real. You can choose a different explanation for them, but there is a real, strange phenomena that requires an explanation."""

    You are absolutely right. We do have to look for an explanation - based on the evidence. The ultimate explanation would be "the theory of everything" (a unification of all the forces)
    not godditit - because you then have to ask - what caused god and how does she work?

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  11. You need to read my book again, because I specifically addressed this. The poker analogy is flawed. There are millions of poker games taking place, and of course in a certain number of these, the players will get good cards. So this would be a good analogy if there is a multiverse. But, as of now, there is no evidence for a multiverse. There are no billions of "tries."

    Look, there's a reason why there is such a desperate attempt to argue for a multiverse, and in my book I quoted an article from New Scientist which was quite explicit about it - because otherwise, it's just too awkward to account for the extraordinary nature of our universe.

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  12. The poker analogy is right on target. There are millions of planet-like-objects out there. Earth is but one try.

    Also please see the Drake equation for the existence of other life forms. Based on the speed of light it would be impossible for us to test - and thus no scientist will say they "know" its true. But statistically there are probably other life forms out there.

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  13. I'm not sure that Hawking was "always an atheist". I believe his wife left him because he became one.

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  14. "There are millions of planet-like-objects out there."

    Heh. What you don't realize is how incredible it is to have a universe that allows for planet-like-objects in the first place. You really need to read my book (and some others).

    "But statistically there are probably other life forms out there."

    Could be. Makes no difference.

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  15. The drake equation:

    http://xkcd.com/384/

    I'm curious if Hawkings knows what the latest book written in his name says.

    Multiverse, or no multiverse, it still doesn't explain "What breathes fire into the equations." And I find it hard to believe that someone would do a 180 on such a position without proper explanation.

    Because, if he answered that question, it would be much more fascinating and interesting than his personal beliefs.

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  16. I haven't read Hawking's new book (Although I have read similar books such as The Fabric of the Cosmos by Greene, and The Cosmic Blueprint by Paul Davies), but based on what I have read about it, it fails to achieve its lofty goals of explaining away G-d.

    To my (lay) understanding, the Multiverse still has to explain "The Big Bang", the creation of the Universe from absolutely nothing. The multiverse "hypothesis" is employed as a mathematical result of certain quantum phenomena, to explain interference, for example, and is leaped since it also "explains away" such delicate fine controls the Universe such as Plank's constant, without which the universe could not exist as a stable life bearing entity.

    However, as a scientific theory, it fails as a "science". It is not falsifiable, I simply cannot test that the other universes exist. It's most crucial empirical observation, interference, has now been shown to be explained by more "conventional" quantum methods (the particle passes through both slits) and it increases complexity, rather than reducing it (now we must explain the origin of a infinite number of universes, each, apparently, with their own "Standard Model" rather than just one).

    Cosmologist remain highly embarrassed by the question where did the Big Bang come from (as Greene pointed out in his book, asking what came before the Big Bang is a senseless question as time was created a finite time after the Big Bang), and other, less complicated and tangible models do exist that explain observations in our universe, without having to employ a multiverse model. Cosmologist are cluching at straws to hide these embarrassing questions at the limits of what science can possibly explain

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  17. Baruch Mordechai Cohen asks, can a reader please direct me to a book page of R. Slifkin or blog entry where a critique of intelligent design is explained? Thanks.

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  18. Even if Hawking is correct that the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing, that they somehow breathe fire into themselves, he has not explained how these laws themselves came to be legislated.

    Isn't this just putting "the God of the Gaps" to a new level?
    The scientist should respond that we will eventually explain the origin of laws without having to posit Divine intervention. Just like we have successfully explained the origin of everything else in the universe without invoking a Creator.

    I think other commentors alluded to this problem as well.

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  19. The scientist should respond that we will eventually explain the origin of laws without having to posit Divine intervention.

    No (s)he wont. The laws of physics only came into existance some finite period of time after the Big Bang. Scientist simply do not have the tools to investigate "what caused the Big Bang" since everything we experience to make any observation are a consequence of the Big Bang

    Although your god of the gaps comment is well noted. Interestingly, RAMBAN writes that only one act of creation occurred, and everything else that happened was a natural consequence of that creative moment.

    Ramban writes:
    “Know that the heavens and all that is in them consist of one substance and everything consists of one substance. HaShem created these two substances from nothing; they alone were created, and everything else was constructed from them.” (Chavel page 23)

    Sorta like the Higgs bosun.

    Yossi

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  20. "The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse."

    Wow, that is indeed a fascinating point (with a succinct formulation).

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  21. Couldn't it mean that these meta laws of the multiverse or gravity which i think hawking says is at the essence of it is eternal and constantly producing why believe in an eternal G-d if one can simply believe in a simpler explanation of gravity as the thing that is and always was. (This question is not meant to be antagonistic but something I would find very personally helpful.

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  22. A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME by Stephen W. Hawking - "The Tortoise" of the Old Lady is a Hinduism symbol for WAVE (energy). It is analog with DRAGON (Taoism) or MAGEN DAVID (Judaism). "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is the metaphor, which is similar with allegory of rituals Thawaf circling the Ka'bah (7 x) and Sa'i oscillating along "the sinus" Marwah-Shafa (7 x) during the Hajj pilgrimage (Abraham).
    PARADOX - Although Hawking is a non believer, but his book is a "genuine bridge stone" for comprehensive study of Theology.
    It is an "ordinary people" poit of view, so would you mind to verify, please.

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  23. Dear friends. From a Human point of view Universe is Classified into two Major Directions:
    First one is with the Scope of Ultimate Perfection (God)which can be the source of all Hope,Positive thinking and feelings Love for grate and good things acting and trusting for the same or more and more and further more...
    The Second one is Ultimate Imperfection(Evil) the source of all negatives; feeling of emptiness, no true love, hopelessness, lack of trustworthiness, where no light but darkness and source of Darkness The Bad Hole which is Hell according to Bible( Book of Wisdom 7: 30)and Black Hole for Stephen,a Rich Negative Thinker of So called modern physicist.
    Now Mankind is in Between these two realities First one is Positive Realities which is led by Divine Spirits and Wisdom of God and selfless life style...Second one is Negative realities Led by mere materialistic and selfish life style for self glory and led by the evil spirits.
    Now what all you need ...?
    Claims of Jesus Christ ( Now He is called Emmanuel by certain Chosen People of God ) ...."The ever Expanding Universe which is INFINITIVE and Never Ending Universe That is ETERNAL = Heaven which is Infinitive in Space and Eternal in Time.
    OR
    The Claims of Mr Stephen Hawkins A dying Universe which is Shrinking and No Space and No Time...
    Do You want Jesus or Barabbas ? An Olden Question to be answered by Jews and Christians all the People....
    Now the modern Question evolved in Such a Way that,
    Do You want the Claims Jesus Christ...!!! or Claims of Mr Stephen Hawking...?

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