Thursday, August 18, 2011

James Carroll's Review of The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was only so so, and there were two main reasons.

First, his evidence:

It simply wasn't that good. And it's not because there isn't good evidence for evolution. But the whole way through this book I kept thinking things like: "I could produce better evidence than that!" "Why didn't he mention this or that?" and, "Why is he talking about this, it's a huge digression?" etc. The evidence he provided is actually overwhelmingly convincing, the problem is that there is actually even better evidence out there that he didn't talk about (or that he only mentions in passing). I did learn about a few lines of evidence that I didn't know about before, so in that sense it was worth the time I spent. I just wish that he had done a better job, since I completely agree with him that we badly need this sort of a text today.

Second, his atheism:

Dawkins is a staunch atheist. Now, Dawkins claims that his primary purpose is to provide the evidence for evolution in order to save those who have been deluded by those he calls the "history deniers." That is his term for those creationists who deny the fact that evolution happened in order to cling to Biblical inerrancy. But if that was his goal, then he should have left his atheism on its shelf, at least for the duration of this text. In fact, in the introduction, he claims that this is what he is going to do. However, it appears that Dawkins is so enamored of his atheistic position that he is incapable of doing so, and I fear that it chased away the very people he was trying so hard to reach.

I vastly preferred "Why Evolution is True" by Jerry Coyne. That book is what this book should have been. If you are looking for a good book on the evidence for evolution, Coyne's book is the one I would suggest instead.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review, Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"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." Stephen Hawking

I couldn't agree with that statement more. Some of his other conclusions in the book from which the quote was taken "The Grand Design"... not so much.

But in what way is philosophy dead? Clearly the love of wisdom is not dead, but it may well be that the field of liberal arts philosophy may indeed be dead (or at least loosing relevance and productivity).

To attempt to discover the real truth requires more than sitting and thinking, it requires observation, and then modeling, which requires math. This means that today the mathematicians and physicists are doing the real leg work of philosophy, while the liberal arts philosophers are, for the most part, spinning their wheels.

There is a feeling that theology and philosophy should be the ones asking the questions about morality, theology, meaning, and God, while science should keep its distance. But I believe that you can't ask these questions correctly without a firm grounding in the observations of science and physics, which MUST inform any inquiry into philosophy, or even theology. As Einstein said, science without theology is lame (in the sense of not having the power to move things forward), while theology without science is blind (in the sense of moving forward, but not seeing where it is really going).

Therefore, I find that I simply can not agree with those that say that science should leave such theological matters to religion. In my view, Stephen Hawking has every right to venture into the field of theology, and to bravely see what implications his understanding of the laws of physics has on his understanding of God. This is a useful and potentially very productive undertaking.

Let us take some of Hawking's conclusions in this book as an example, and see how science can inform theology:

1. In the beginning, the universe was very small, thus the rules of Quantum Mechanics hold, and things like the universe can (and indeed will) appear out of nothing without violating the rules of quantum mechanics, so long as it eventually cancels itself out, just as virtual particles usually do.

2. The universe has an equal amount of positive and negative energy, and so is a cosmic free lunch, and can (and will) appear out of nothing (essentially, the universe cancels itself out, much like virtual particles do).

3. But the universe was also hugely massive, so it followed not only the rules of quantum mechanics, but also the rules of relativity, which says that mass bends space and time, and at the point where you have enough mass to make a black hole (as we clearly had in the early universe), time itself stops, so there IS no time before the big bang, time curves back upon itself, and comes to a single closed point, creating a beginning not only of the universe, but of time itself, and thus it creates a beginning to the chain of causation. The chain of causation (where the causes come before the results) comes to an end at the Big bang, which necessarily had no cause, because there was no time before the big bang for that cause to act in.

His conclusion? There is no God in the platonic sense of the "prime mover" or "first cause" because 1. we don't need him to explain how and why the universe could come into being, (quantum mechanics does that) and 2. there could be no creator of the universe, because there was no time before the universe was created for Him to act in. Essentially, God could not "cause" the universe, because relativity guarantees that there was no time in which he could act to initiate such a cause, and after the big bang bangs, we don't need Him to explain the progression of the universe from that point on (the laws of nature do that).

Whether or not you agree with these conclusions (which I do not), it is clear that a firm understanding of the issues surrounding quantum mechanics should indeed necessarily inform our theology. Even if his reasoning here is flawed, that is the way science works. It is necessary for someone to make these sorts of inferences, so that science can move forward and either prove or disprove this theory.

So, why don't I come to the same conclusions as Hawking? His reasoning appears rather solid at first glance. However, relativity and quantum mechanics are notorious for their inability to play nicely together, and there are a myriad of potential theories that have been proposed in an attempt to produce a good theory of quantum gravity. He is here espousing one of these theories, granted, it is the one that is (so far) the most mathematically robust, but it is by no means the only solution to this problem. For example, some theories of quantized time predict a big bounce instead of a big bang, in which case there was indeed time before the big bang. Another competing theory predicts that two of the membranes predicted by M-theory collided, producing the big bang, again, this is a theory that predicts time before the big bang. Still other theories predict that there are other dimensions of time, outside of our own. It is also unclear to some whether quantum fluctuations can create virtual particles without space or time in which to create them, which could cast doubt on whether a quantum fluctuation alone could create the universe from no-where and no-when. For example, Sean Carroll proposes that each universe is born from parent universes (see From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time), in which case, time would indeed exist before the big bang. The possibilities are nearly endless. And, most importantly, we have yet to find observations that can clearly differentiate between many of these competing theories. Essentially, we have no observationally verified theory of quantum gravity, which is necessary before we can make any real predictions of how the universe behaved in these early moments that are so essential to Hawking's arguments.

So, if we take this into consideration, we can rephrase Stephen Hawking's brilliant deduction differently. IF we accept THIS theory of quantum gravity, together with its predictions about quantum fluctuations and the beginning of time, THEN the universe necessarily had no cause within our dimension of time, and thus, there is no God that exists solely within our universe's dimension of time. I believe that this is a valid deduction, and, to some extent, it should inform our understanding of God. It is only unfortunate that he didn't state his conclusions with this level of cautiousness. Instead, he is far more confident in his conclusions than is warranted by the data, and he leaves out the many "if"s that should have preceded his conclusion. This was perhaps my only serious disagreement with the Book.

And what of my own conclusions about God? That is not really what this review is about, but to be short:

Theleologians in my chosen branch of Christianity have often said that God does not just predict the future, he quite literally sees it. For this to be the case, God must, of necessity, exist outside of our dimension of time, and likely outside of our dimensions of space as well. I find the fact that science is now predicting a universe of multiple dimensions and multiple universes (some with different laws of physics), and is finding that God cannot exist only within our dimension of time and still create the universe, to be quite faith promoting since that is in line with what I believed all along.

Stephen Hawking would likely take issue with my interpretation of his work, but hey, that is what Science is all about, and we should be grateful to Stephen Hawking for so clearly expressing this brilliant deduction.