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.

23 comments:

Carl Youngblood said...

James, thanks for this post. But I must confess that you haven't yet convinced me that you're sufficiently aware of the state of the art in philosophy to know whether or not it is out of touch. I can assure you that the field is alive and well and that many very relevant and useful philosophical work is currently being done, and plenty of it is informed by the other fields you mention. The same can be said for theology.

James Carroll said...

I think you may well be right Carl, in the sense that I over stated my point. I do still hold to the principle idea that philosophy must now be informed by science (which was what I was trying to get at). In that sense, it ceases to be philosophy in the traditional sense, and becomes statistical inference about the nature of the world, just like everything else.

I will admit that there may well be philosophers that understand this fact.

James Carroll said...

Part of my facebook discussion about this review deserves to be posted here:

A friend asked: ‎"do you agree with the first one, i.e. that God is not necessary as an explanation for the universe coming into being?"

How about we put it formally... given quantum mechanics allows things that are very small to "pop" into existence, do I believe that God had to do nothing else (beyond ordering the laws of quantum mechanics) in order to create the universe?

If that is the question, then my answer has to be a resounding "I have no idea, but I don't think that Hawking has proved the point beyond any reasonable doubt."

I think that we don't have enough data to be sure of this proposition. If I understand this right (which I admit that I might not) the reason virtual particles form is because fields act like particles in terms of quantum uncertainty. So the uncertainty principle says that fields in a given quantity of space can't be exactly 0, or that would violate the uncertainty principle, so instead we get a seething mass of virtual particles in every vacuum, popping into and out of existence, existing in a sort of super position between existence and non existence. At least that is my current (limited) understanding of what goes on.

Does that explain all of the creation of the universe? Somehow I doubt it, and that doubt has nothing to do with my religious faith. It has to do with a doubt about whether quantum fluctuations actually happen without space and time for them to happen in. For example, you can't exactly know both the value and change (over time) of a field at the same time. But notice how often the word "time" showed up in that description of the reason for virtual particles. Without time, then what would the "change over time" actually MEAN in the first place? What would "at the same time" mean? It would appear to me that something fundamental in our understanding really is broken here on some level. I would be surprised (but not shocked) if quantum fluctuations didn't play SOME role in the big bang, but it would appear to me that something else really is missing. And there ARE other alternatives, such as the colliding m-branes theory, which would imply that quantum fluctuations weren't the cause of the creation of the universe at all. And then we have to wonder about why the universe expanded beyond simply creating a big black hole. Why would a quantum fluctuation allow the universe to expand beyond the singularity at all? There may be answers to these questions, but they weren't made clear to me in the book.

I did actually express something of this issue in my review, but perhaps I wasn't explicit enough. I wrote: "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."

That is my critique of his quantum fluctuation theory of the creation of the universe. Interesting, but not conclusive.

Uchitrakar said...

The God-believers say:
When there was nothing, there was God. When there will be nothing again, there will still be God.
Whereas atheistic cosmologists say: When there was nothing, there were quantum laws. When there will be nothing again, there will still be quantum laws.
These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless, changeless, immortal, all-pervading, unborn, uncreated and immaterial. Only that these laws lack consciousness.
These quantum laws are spaceless, timeless and immaterial, because when there was no space, no time and no matter, there were still these quantum laws. (Vilenkin’s model)
These quantum laws are all-pervading, because these laws act equally everywhere.
Quantum laws are scientists' God.

James Carroll said...

@Uchitrakar: Insightful. But as I see it, I just can't see any need for quantum uncertainty without space or time for it to act in. The formulas that we have that require quantum uncertainty don't make any sense once you remove space and time from the equations (at least as far as I understand them).

Uchitrakar said...

In vacuum fluctuation model there will be a void (space), in which energy will not be just zero, but fluctuating, due to uncertainty principle. Against this model Alexander Vilenkin proposed another model where even this void will not be there. So he discarded in his model space, time, everything. But then there was quantum tunnelling in his model, so here again appear the quantum laws. Keeping his model in mind I have written that when there was no space, no time and no matter, there were still quantum laws.
Actually no cosmological model has been offered so far that can be called satisfactory. Most of them are simply speculations, and therefore, not science.

Uchitrakar said...

Some more points can be raised against Hawking's treatment of the beginning of our universe. Quantum laws and laws of gravity are the two laws of this universe. So when the universe has not yet begun, it cannot be said that it was having any laws in it. Only after it came into exitence, then only these two laws appeared in it. So these two laws cannot be applied to study the beginning of the universe, because where were those laws when the universe has not yet begun? Or, if these two laws can be applied, then it will have to be presumed that these two laws were already there even when the universe has not yet come into existence. That means that these two laws are eternal.

James Carroll said...

Of course, being "already there" itself already implies the existence of time for them to be "there" in.

Uchitrakar said...

So scientists will have to answer this question now: Who created these two laws? And thus there will be an infinite regression here.
This question is of the same type as their question to us: Who created God?

Uchitrakar said...

When Hawking's book was out, Dawkins commented something like this: Hawking has kicked God out of physics the way that Darwin kicked God out of biology. So scientists' only aim is not to acquire knowledge, in addition to that they are having other aim also. And that aim is kicking God out of physics. Another reviewer on Hawking's book has written about ousting God from science. Now it can be seen how God has been kicked out, or ousted. They have already taken it for granted that the void artificially created by them is a real void, and that therefore virtual particles are appearing practically from nowhere. We who are God-believers will try to say here that it is not yet an established fact that the void is a real void, because our God is everywhere. In reply to that they will perhaps say that there is no evidence for God so far, and therefore they do not find any reason as to why they will have to think otherwise. So they start with a premise that contains the following: God does not exist, or God has been ousted/kicked out. Yes, if they do not admit that God has already been kicked out/ousted, they cannot come to such a conclusion that the void is nothing but a void. So the premise with which they start for ousting God already contains the conclusion they want to arrive at, that God has been successfully ousted/kicked out. Is it a logically sound procedure?

James Carroll said...

Dawkins certainly does have ulterior motives. But my impression is that Stephen Hawking is an honest broker who is just trying to follow the data wherever it leads. I don't think that his motive was to try and "kick God out of Physics" rather, I believe that he simply followed the data and found that it was leading him to the conclusion that there was most likely no God. In this case, I don't agree with his conclusion about where the data leads, but that's part of the give and take of science.

By pointing out his conclusions and reasoning we are forced to refine our answers, and produce more valid explanations for the theory of God. I find this to be a valuable process which forces both sides to produce increasingly more valid arguments, and forces each side to produce a model that more accurately models reality as we observe it.

Uchitrakar said...

Hawking is not that innocent as you think him so. It was he who first raised the now-famous question in his earlier book "A Brief History of Time": What place, then, for a creator? On the basis of his no-boundary model Karl Sagan wrote in the preface of that book: ...a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a creator to do. There are many ways to establish that there is no God, and one of them is to show that there is nothing in this universe for a creator to do. God is not needed for explaining anything, not even for explaining the origin of our universe. Most of the physicists are just doing that and Hawking is no exception. That is why he can write that it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
So even if you are prepared to show mercy to Hawking, I am not. I will rather demand that if God is to be eliminated from the scheme of things, then let Him be eliminated in a properly logical way, not by hook or crook.

Uchitrakar said...

“Theologians 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.”
Let us tackle the matter of God’s existence in this way. Let us suppose that initially there was only God, and there was nothing else other than God, no space, no time, no matter. As there will be no space and no time, so God will be neither in space nor in time. He will also have no space and no time. So in every respect He will be spaceless and timeless, and He will be so simply by default. By default He will also be changeless, because not being in time He will have no ‘before’, no ‘after’. So we can never say of Him that He was ‘this’ earlier and that He has become ‘that’ later on. For the same reason He will be deathless also, because death is also some sort of change. And He will be immobile too, because no space will be there for Him to make any movement. And He will have no mass, because not being in any space He will not occupy any space. A thing that does not occupy any space cannot have mass, because science has shown that mass always occupies some space. Therefore we see that by default He will have the following six properties: spacelessness, timelessness, changelessness, deathlessness, immobility and masslessness. Nothing else in this universe can have these six properties by default or by any natural means, because God will be having these properties being neither in space nor in time, whereas everything else in this universe will be either in space and in time or in space-time. Now if you can find anything in this universe having any one, or more than one, of the above six properties of God, then you can be rest assured that it has received its property/properties only from God, and you will also know that God has given it His own property/properties in order to make His presence known to us through it. You will have then found your God.

James Carroll said...

Perhaps. But outside of OUR dimension of time and space does not necessarily mean outside of ALL time and space, especially in a multiverse. He may well exist within space and time outside of that of our own space and time.

Uchitrakar said...

I think it is well-known to you that in almost all major religions (excepting Buddhism, of course) on earth God has been described as spaceless, timeless and changeless. Perhaps you do also know that almost fifteen century earlier Saint Augustine has written about God that in God there is no 'before', no 'after', but only an eternal 'present'. Many mystics who had direct experience of God had also repeatedly said that time is unreal. All these are possible if only God is not in time.
Multiverse theory and other theories like it have been invented by some scientists who want to kick God out of physics. They cannot give any evidence that multiverse theory is true. It is simply based on faith. Similar thing can be said about parallel universe theory, brane theory, string theory, M-theory. These are all speculations without any evidential support of their truth so far. Even it is said about string theory that its truth of falsehood can never be verified because for that we will require a collider whose size will have to be as big as our galaxy.
If mathematics shows that there can be an infinite number of universes, then that does not in any way mean that there is in reality an infinite number of universes. Before coming to such a conclusion evidence must be given.

James Carroll said...

I have never felt comfortable with this philosophical unchaining God without body parts or passions. I am much more comfortable with the idea that he exists within time, just a dimension of time other than our own. In my view, this fits with many of the eternal inflation, or m-theory multiverse possibilities.

Yes, they have yet to be proven, but it is my hope that this will change. Noe does it mean that they aren't true, just that we currently aren't sure that they are. To date, they simply seem like the most likely theory.

Uchitrakar said...

God will be in space and in time means God is placed in a universe that is bigger than Him, and He is only a part of that universe. In that case God will be subject to the laws of that universe in which He is placed. But we cannot conceive of a God who is not absolutely free. God is in time means God has a beginning in time, i.e., God is not eternal. God has a beginning in time means God has been created. which means there is a super-God who has created our God. That means there will be an infinite regression of Gods.

James Carroll said...

Yup. I don't have a problem with any of that.

Madellen said...

1)Philosophy, literature, the arts, religions; they are not quests for knowledge but for meaning. They represent the spectrum of humanity's highest and lowest aspirations for ourselves and for each other.
2)Science stands precarious on a slippery slope when it dismisses other disciplines from humanity's field of inquiry. Most of us could never have enough expertise in science to fully discern what science purports to know. If scientists wish to lead our moral, aesthetic and interpretive world view,then we would have to accept their knowledge claims to truth, in blind 'faith'.. Postmodern philosophy (which scientists love to hate) warns us that expert claims to knowing the truth equates with power(Foucault). To invest science with such power, or for them to invest themselves with it, is a dangerous move for human affairs.
3) Political and moral ideologies stand or fall on their formulations and resolution of human suffering. I have heard nothing from evolutionary biologists or cosmologists to address humanity's social condition or future. I have seen no evidence of any unified social action or moral direction from the field in general- and that is unlikely.
I suggest we carefully consider the implications of metaphorical book burning by the new age scientist, the arbitrary dismissal of questions science cannot answer. Be concerned when science mocks and marginalises a dissenting voice. Be concerned about which social groups will mimic the science gurus, and to what ends.

uchitrakar said...

Multiverse Theory is probably not true


Scientists have shown that total mass of our universe is zero. If this data can be relied upon, then on the basis of this data we can say that probably multiverse theory is not true.

Scientists have also shown that anything having a mass will occupy some space. So it will also be true if we say that anything that does not have a mass does not occupy any space. Conversely it will also be true that anything that does not occupy any space cannot have any mass. So if our universe does not have any mass, then it cannot be said that our universe as a whole occupies any space. But this can be true if, and only if, our universe is the only universe, and if there is nothing else outside our universe, no space, no time, no matter and no other universes. In that case as there will be no space outside our universe, so it cannot be said that this universe as a whole occupies any space at all, because there will be no space at all for it to occupy. So universe as a whole not occupying any space will not have any mass.

But if our universe is only a member universe in a multiverse with billions of other universes in it, then it cannot be said that it does not occupy any space, because in that case it will share/occupy some space in the superspace, or hyperspace, with other universes of that multiverse, and so its mass cannot be zero. Multiverse as a whole will not occupy any space, because when we consider the multiverse as one whole unit, there cannot be any space outside the multiverse. So multiverse as a whole not occupying any space will have no mass. But each and every member universe of that multiverse will have some mass, because each and every one of them will occupy some space within the multiverse. So if multiverse theory is true, then total mass of our universe cannot be exactly zero. And therefore if total mass of our universe is not exactly zero, then neither can we say that its total energy is exactly zero.

Thus now we are in a dilemma. If multiverse theory is true, then total energy of our universe is not exactly zero. And so in that case scientists will have to modify all the existing theories of cosmology, because none of them will be valid any more. Based on the fact that total energy of the universe is exactly zero, scientists have repeatedly said that “universe can and will create itself from nothing”, and that “the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” As total energy of the universe can no longer be taken to be zero, so the story of our universe originating from nothing will also come to an end here.

But scientists might claim here that they have made no mistake while calculating total energy of the universe, and that they can say with full confidence that its energy cannot have any value other than zero. If that is the case, then they will have to admit that multiverse theory is not true, and that our universe is the only universe that is there, and that there is not even a single more universe other than our universe. But in that case how will they explain the fine tuning of certain parameters in our universe that are absolutely necessary for bringing us here on earth, if they do not believe in the existence of any creator God?

James Carroll said...

@Madellen: I recommend you read http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Landscape-Science-Determine-Values/dp/1439171211/ref=wl_it_dp_o_npd?ie=UTF8&coliid=I35SMH8LGFGTKM&colid=2BU4YSKIE39YL

@Uchitrakar: I am not convinced that the preposition that the universe does not reside "in space" (even if it were true, which I don't think we actually know) means that there isn't a multiverse existing outside of any space dimension.

"But in that case how will they explain the fine tuning of certain parameters in our universe that are absolutely necessary for bringing us here on earth,"

Stephen Hawking does this through the "multi world" interpretation of quantum mechanics. That isn't quite the same as the multiverse theory. He is claiming that decoherence simply de-entangles multiple potentials in the quantum state equations, and that both possibilities still "exist" even though we are now de-entangled from them. Then life evolves within the portions of the state equations that are friendly to life, and not in the others.

If you are going to disagree with someone, you have to do it in a logical and consistent manner.

uchitrakar said...

Scientists have shown that anything having mass will fail to attain the speed of light. If it is the case that anything and everything having mass or no mass can attain the speed of light, then there is no necessity of specifically mentioning that anything having mass will fail to attain light speed. But as this has been specifically mentioned, so from this we can logically conclude that only something having no mass can and will attain light speed. Similarly it has been specifically mentioned that something having a mass will always occupy some space. If this was not specifically mentioned, then that would have meant that anything and everything having mass or no mass would always occupy some space. But as this has been specifically mentioned, so that will simply imply that something having no mass will not occupy any space. So from the scientific statement that "something having a mass will occupy some space" (A) we can legitimately conclude that "something having no mass will occupy no space" (B). And there will be nothing illogical in it.

Now science has shown that total mass of the universe is zero. Although we know very well that all knowledge provided by science are provisional, still we will have to accept the above finding of science as true so long there is no contrary evidence. So if it is true that total mass of the universe is zero, then from (B) it follows that universe as a whole does not occupy any space.

Here scientists will perhaps retort that (A) and (B) are laws of nature. Laws of nature govern the behaviour of things in nature, that is, these laws apply to the things within the universe, and as such cannot be applied to the universe as a whole. Or they can simply say that they do not know. If they say they do not know, then it is all right. But if they say that natural laws do not apply to the universe itself, then it can be asked: If it is a rule that natural laws cannot be applied to the universe as a whole, then is this rule general? Or, is there any exception to it? Does this rule apply to all the known laws of nature? If this rule applies in general to all the known laws of nature, then we will say that this rule has already been violated by none other than Stephen Hawking himself, who has applied quantum theory and laws of gravity, that are the two laws of nature, to the universe as a whole, to study its behaviour at its beginning. And nobody has said that he has done anything scientifically incorrect. As there is already a precedence that laws of nature can be applied to the universe as a whole, then why will there be an exception in our case?

James Carroll said...

I am not sure that all your conclusions follow. Especially when you start talking about the possibility of other dimensions of space and or of time.

But as I said before, even if they do follow, this says nothing about the many worlds theory of quantum mechanics, which isn't about universes separated from each other by space, but is instead about a single universe simultaneously existing in many quantum states at the same time. And it is this theory that Stephen Hawking uses to solve the Goldilocks problem.