Friday, September 3, 2010

Stephen Hawking on God!

So, apparently "God did it" was a scientific idea but now isn't, because Hawking thinks the laws of the universe will do the job reserved for God.

I suppose I should get all charged up and incensed over a scientist utterly mishandling the God question once again, but really, at this point my response is more one of "Man, not this shit again." Arguing that God is not necessary to explain this or that because your theoretical "physical" explanation can describe the event/phenomena in question without talk of God is like arguing that giving a complete physical description of a computer and software renders talk of a programmer redundant.

My main question is wondering if, like Vilenkin, Hawking is suggesting that the universe did have a beginning (it seems so), that this beginning was one of complete and utter nothingness and marked the beginning of time (it seems so), but that what seems to have happened is that the "laws of physics" existed even when there was nothing - not even a quantum vacuum - and thus 'made' the universe spring out of utter nothingness. I'd written before about how thinking about the laws of physics in that way rewrites what is typically meant by the "laws of physics" or "laws of nature" or such.

However, a little more pre-emptive digging indicates that, oddly, Hawking may be making an even stranger move:

This multiplicity of distinct theories prompts the authors to declare that the only way to understand reality is to employ a philosophy called "model-dependent realism". Having declared that "philosophy is dead", the authors unwittingly develop a theory familiar to philosophers since the 1980s, namely "perspectivalism". This radical theory holds that there doesn't exist, even in principle, a single comprehensive theory of the universe. Instead, science offers many incomplete windows onto a common reality, one no more "true" than another. In the authors' hands this position bleeds into an alarming anti-realism: not only does science fail to provide a single description of reality, they say, there is no theory-independent reality at all. If either stance is correct, one shouldn't expect to find a final unifying theory like M-theory - only a bunch of separate and sometimes overlapping windows.

So I was surprised when the authors began to advocate M-theory. But it turns out they were unconventionally referring to the patchwork of string theories as "M-theory" too, in addition to the hypothetical ultimate theory about which they remain agnostic.


So, if this reviewer is correct, Hawking's move is to deny that there is a Theory of Everything - and he seems to also be going for an instrumentalist picture of science. All while, of course, claiming that philosophy is dead. To me, this seems shockingly close to saying that science has shown that God is not necessary to explain anything, in part because science never tries to explain anything anyway - instead science is restricted to utterly pragmatic, predictive theories which don't even have to mesh with each other in some ultimate sense, and since "God did it" is never pragmatic and can never be confirmed/denied by science besides, God is unnecessary.

Like I said, "Man, not this shit again."

So not much interesting seems to be in play here. At least, not the way it's being spun or understood by most - "Science has figured out something and has shown God is unnecessary as an explanation!" Instead, something close to the opposite seems to be in play: Science is starting to hit some limitations, so much so that loosening up the definition of "science" is now becoming required to offer "explanations". I really look forward to seeing if Hawking really does do what the quoted reviewer suggests he does - rejecting a TOE seems explicit, but if Hawking really is taking an instrumentalist or "perspectivalist" view of science, I'd say the game is over for scientism, and possibly science as we know it. Maybe what we're seeing out of Hawking isn't misplaced triumphalism, but a little bit of panic.

11 comments:

Ilíon said...

It's amazing, isn't it, the straws these 'Science!' fetishists will grasp at?

Ilíon said...

"So, if this reviewer is correct, Hawking's move is to deny that there is a Theory of Everything - and he seems to also be going for an instrumentalist picture of science. All while, of course, claiming that philosophy is dead. To me, this seems shockingly close to saying that science has shown that God is not necessary to explain anything, in part because science never tries to explain anything anyway - instead science is restricted to utterly pragmatic, predictive theories which don't even have to mesh with each other in some ultimate sense, and since "God did it" is never pragmatic and can never be confirmed/denied by science besides, God is unnecessary."

Well, that is the state to which 'modern science' has been reduced since the positivists (and the later logical positivists) got control of it, and redefined it.

But, even aside from the corrupting influence of the positivists, since 'modern science' strongly relies upon induction from assumptions, rather than strictly deduction from known truths, the pronouncements of 'modern science' can never be counted upon to be true.

Crude said...

Well, I'm just speculating based on what others have said of the book so far. Though this interview isn't encouraging:

A few hundred years ago we developed this thing called the scientific method, where we come up with theories phrased in mathematics, and we require that they not only describe what we're looking to describe but also make further predictions that can be tested. Then we do experiments, and if we find that the predictions are not right, if they're not verified, then we alter or discard the theory.

In the book, we argue that this is a better method. It's led to the modern society that we have today – to vaccinations, computers, electricity, television, telephones, everything else. When you understand nature to that extent, you can apply it. Since you really understand what's going on, you can create all this technology, which you don't create based on mythology, philosophy and religious explanations.

As far as God goes, we describe our theory of where the universe came from, and why the laws of nature are as they are. And we show that with this theory, there's no need for a God to create the universe or to create the laws of physics as they are. All of this can come purely from physics, from science, from nature.


So, it seems like philosophy isn't dead because of this or that prediction or discovery, but because 'science has given us great technology, and religion / philosophy hasn't'. There are problems with even that claim, and of course it more and more seems that this "we don't need philosophy!" line really means "we only need this philosophy we want, no others, and we don't want to even call it philosophy!"

Worse, I'm getting the whiff here that what Hawking and company really mean is that "we can imagine a model of existence that excludes God. Sure, we can't really test it and whatever tests we could do would not demonstrate God doesn't exist or that God had no hand in creation, but that's okay. All we want is that model." Which is shockingly close to saying, "God is unnecessary because in my fanfic there is no God, so that proves it."

I wish I could read this book without giving Hawking a dime, because this is just seeming more and more foul.

Crude said...

I should add that one thing I find odd about all this is that the idea of "something coming into existence out of nothing" isn't exactly foreign to Christian understanding: It's ex nihilo creation. The main difference is that atheists are saying that these things do happen - but they assert that they happen without God.

So ideas such as Hawking's honestly strike me as a partial vindication of theism in general, and Christianity in particular. In fact, I'm surprised more Christians aren't saying "Oh, something can be created out of nothing? Not exactly a surprise to us. That it happens utterly without cause, or the cause is by something other than - ultimately - God? That's where we disagree. And that's precisely where your trouble pops in."

Ilíon said...

"So, it seems like philosophy isn't dead because of this or that prediction or discovery, but because 'science has given us great technology, and religion / philosophy hasn't'. There are problems with even that claim ..."

Among the problems are that:
1) 'scientific' "explanations" are not required to be true, and rarely can be tested, scientifically, for being true, in any case (as I discussed, and illustrated with an analogy, here).
2) it isn't actually true as presented -- in most cases, the 'science' was an after-the-fact "explanation" of the already-invented technology. The 'science' may certainly help improve the technology, but generally, it did not invent it.
3) it's just yet another iteration of the long discredited logical positivism -- the 'Science!' fetishists will never give up on scientism.


Consider a statement from the quote you gave: "Then we do experiments, and if we find that the predictions are not right, if they're not verified, ..."

That, as a description of "the scientific method," is naive-to-the-point of being false; and the implication the statement makes is directly false. Now, I don't doubt that scientists -- being human -- generally tend to look for "confirmatory" "evidence," rather than actively looking for evidence which will falsify their theory (and, in fact, this is a common complaint of scientists about scientists) ... and there is nothing easier in the world than finding what you want to find. But, because of the way that 'modern science' is set up and done, one cannot in truth say that one's theory has been verified; the strongest statement one can make about a theory of 'modern science' is that it has not yet been falsified.


"... and of course it more and more seems that this "we don't need philosophy!" line really means "we only need this philosophy we want, no others, and we don't want to even call it philosophy!""

There is no escape from "doing" metaphysics. The question is never whether one shall take metaphysical stances, but whether one shall hold to sound metaphysical claims -- and whether one shall recognize/admit what one is doing.


"Worse, I'm getting the whiff here that what Hawking and company really mean is that "we can imagine a model of existence that excludes God. Sure, we can't really test it and whatever tests we could do would not demonstrate God doesn't exist or that God had no hand in creation, but that's okay. All we want is that model." Which is shockingly close to saying, "God is unnecessary because in my fanfic there is no God, so that proves it.""

Indeed. You're touching on one of the points I was getting at in my digression in the "Conversation with David" on my blog -- the map is not the territory; the model is not the reality. And the "fanfic" almost always seeks to impose a false pre-conception on the reality, rather than seeking to model some aspects of it.


"I wish I could read this book without giving Hawking a dime, because this is just seeming more and more foul."

Public library?

Ilíon said...

"I should add that one thing I find odd about all this is that the idea of "something coming into existence out of nothing" isn't exactly foreign to Christian understanding: It's ex nihilo creation. The main difference is that atheists are saying that these things do happen - but they assert that they happen without God.

So ideas such as Hawking's honestly strike me as a partial vindication of theism in general, and Christianity in particular. In fact, I'm surprised more Christians aren't saying "Oh, something can be created out of nothing? Not exactly a surprise to us. That it happens utterly without cause, or the cause is by something other than - ultimately - God? That's where we disagree. And that's precisely where your trouble pops in."
"

Yet, the Christian doctrine of creation/origins does not *begin* with literally nothing, for God is not nothing. The Christian doctrine of creation/origins is that there existed nothing material from which God created the material; it is that God created, rather than re-worked.

On the other hand, Hawking's "scientific" "theory" of origins proposes that literally nothing existed -- and then, *POOF!* everything (*) existed ... without cause.

(*) That is, that everything, and/or the ultimate cause(s) of those items which presently exist, poofed into existence from non-existence, without cause. And certainly without reason.

Crude said...

Yet, the Christian doctrine of creation/origins does not *begin* with literally nothing, for God is not nothing. The Christian doctrine of creation/origins is that there existed nothing material from which God created the material; it is that God created, rather than re-worked.

Of course. Then again - and here's where I think this gets interesting - is the "law of gravity" or any "natural law" physical? As Craig said, even under platonism things like "laws" are abstracts that have no causal power.

That's part of the reason I want to see if Hawking is making the same move as Vilenkin. If he's saying that absolutely nothing, not even quantum vacua, existed - and yet the "law of gravity" caused something to spring into existence out of that nothing - then what the hell Hawking means by a "law of gravity" is going to have to be examined.

But the previews so far seem to me like the end of science, with the talk of "models" and "top-down cosmology" (no unique histories) and so on. By end of science I mean a headlong jump into metaphysics while pretending it's science. He even, apparently, rejects the idea of a TOE. I almost get the whiff of "We better start spinning NOW, because we've hit a wall and this wall won't be going away".

Allen said...

Paul Davies had a good article on Hawkings book.

Though the whole discussion is reminiscent of this brouhaha in the New York Times a couple of years ago.

In that case, Davies use of the unqualified term "science" instead of a more specific term like "scientific materialism" or "metaphysical naturalism" gave several physicists an excuse to go after him. Unfairly I think.

Crude said...

The Davies article stood out to me. Very good, but not perfect.

One thing is, Hawking is - I think, first and foremost - a publicity seeker. He did it with A Brief History of Time, he's doing it now. The problem is that when scientists abuse science (and philosophy) to get notice, too often they get a pass. Unless it's the wrong kind of science, and the wrong kind of philosophy.

Davies, while too conservative for my tastes, at least is willing to point out some glaring problems with these attempts at philosophy. (And philosophy is exactly what Hawking is engaging in, no matter how much he dislikes it.)

The Phantom Blogger said...

When I heard about this Hawking book and story the first thing I thought of was your post on Vilenkin. It appears as if he is making the exact same mistake, except at least Vilenkin was aware of the problem.

Crude said...

I honestly wonder whether or not Hawking is aware of the problem. It's rather like how all reviews I've seen so far has Hawking opening his book up with "Philosophy is dead" and claims that science now settles all problems... and then he proceeds to engage in philosophy while redefining science to cover whatever he wants. Really, Hawking's "model-dependent realism" - if it's what I think it is - isn't the triumph of science. It's the death knell.

I'll have to get ahold of the book, but something just seems foul here.