Hawking's bottom line: We just don't have the answers

by Jack L.B. Gohn

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By Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
Published by Bantam Books, $28

Stephen Hawking, the great physicist, has made a great splash with his new book The Grand Design, and especially with the remark close to the end that will certainly live on in Bartlett’s Quotations: “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.” This remarkable flourish caps a book filled with subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at religious worldviews and religious faith.

As a believer, I approached the book with trepidation. Was Hawking going to light the blue touch paper and burn down my beliefs? I need not have worried. Hawking is a brilliant man, with a teacher’s gift for explaining the almost incomprehensible. Even so, The Grand Design shows him painfully unversed in philosophy -- and even logic.

Well, no surprise he’s bad at philosophy. It is to him what history was to Henry Ford: bunk. “Philosophy is dead,” Hawking decrees. “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.” So he falls into the logical trap of mistaking a methodology that excludes the hypothesis of divine agency for proof of a godless universe.

The book largely focuses on explaining in popular terms the key questions cosmologists are wrestling with. It’s impressive and illuminating, but little about the book is more impressive than the number of times Hawking says we just don’t have the answers yet: We still lack a grand theory uniting all the physical forces.

With this as background, Hawking attempts the most difficult and central task. If I properly understand it, he’s trying to show that quantum mechanics sets up a preference inside and outside the universe for there being something rather than nothing, and that given the prevalence of quantum principles, a universe can spontaneously generate. Hence there’s no work for God to do.

Given a universe, the subsequent emergence of life within it also requires an immense number of things to go right: for example the “cooking” of carbon within stars much hotter than our sun, that then explode and scatter it so that other stars like our sun can develop. Yet Hawking again rejects the notion that this apparent customizing of the world could argue a divine agency. All of the apparent tailoring of the universe is really just the result of the same experiment having been mindlessly tried billions of times in billions of ways. Once in a while, operating purely at random, the universe must “pick a winner,” and we happen to be in it.

The thing is, with all the we-don’t-know-yets, and the lack of direct observation, Hawking is by his own admission operating on a great deal of inconsistent and unintegrated theory -- and very little data.

Assuming quantum principles can fashion a world, as Hawking insists, doesn’t their prevalence at least suggest the possibility of what Aristotle called the unmoved mover, and Aquinas described as the uncreated creator? Why, after all, do we have quantum principles as opposed to their absence?

One can understand and sympathize with Hawking’s desire to announce the end game. Reports of his deteriorating health underline the note of urgency sounded by the first sentence of his book: “We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe.” Mortality means none of us gets to see the ninth inning. But that’s life (and death). And unless we’re around to the end of the game, we won’t find out who won, and it’s no good pretending we know.

[Lawyer Jack L.B. Gohn writes “The Big Picture,” a column on law and policy for the Maryland Daily Record, and reviews theater for BroadwayWorld.com. He blogs at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.]

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