Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Grand Design: No God Required

Recently, I read with great interest excerpts from Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design. In his book Hawking posits that God is not necessary in order to account for the creation of the universe. Let me say right up front that my grasp of physics and mathematics is rudimentary at best. In addition, my intellect is quite obviously not even a pale shade of what Hawking possesses. Given my severe limitations, when compared to Hawking, it may seem an incredible act of hubris to question the conclusions of such a genius. However, in this book Hawking writes at a relatively accessible popular level and goes beyond the limits of physics and mathematics in order to draw metaphysical conclusions. So in this case, it seems that even a lay person might be able to point out a few leaps of faith in reaching his conclusions.

In ruling out God as the force behind the formation of the universe, Hawking appeals rather to gravitation as a sufficient force for creation. While his conclusion is tied to complex string theory, it seems to lead to other problems on a more basic level. Hawking is placing a good deal of faith in something that is, as of yet, not fully explained by anyone, including himself. It has been demonstrated that Newtonian physics alone cannot explain gravity. Most theories today use principles of general relativity to explain gravitation. In these models space-time is curved by matter which helps to explain the attraction between objects of mass. However, general relativity does not play nicely with the growing science of quantum mechanics where the force of gravity must be explained quite differently. In quantum mechanics, gravity is related to the attraction and exchange of virtual gravitons. At this point, no one can truly tie Newtonian physics, general relativity, and quantum theories of gravity together.

If I understand Hawking’s approach, he is proposing string theory as a possible future unifying solution, but it appears that string theory is really being used as a Trojan horse to sneak in the concept of nearly infinite parallel universes. This construct is necessary in order to explain the mind blowing degree of fine tuning observed in this particular universe. If there are nearly infinite universes, then surely one is highly fine tuned for life. Never mind that this owes more to sci-fi then it does to actual hard evidence.  These are all fascinating theories, but when it comes right down to it, we’re still no closer to really understanding why gravity actually exists as opposed to nothing existing at all. Basically we can describe the effects and facts of gravity, but cannot truly define a root cause for gravity that would bind all the various observations and theories together in a coherent way. In short, Hawking is appealing to an incredibly complex force he does not fully understand and cannot completely explain, and yet he has great faith that this force is sufficient to rule out God's involvement. To depend on this unexplained force as the sole "creator" and shaper of the universe seems like a leap of faith to me.

Hawking has an even larger problem than this. All of the most accepted cosmological models point back to a point when time-space (as well as matter, energy, and gravity) must have first come into being. Hawking says that God was not necessary to spark the existence of something from nothing, but does not adequately explain just what could other than simply resorting to his nearly infinite universes theory. Suggesting more than one universe, even universes nearing infinity, brings us no closer to an original cause. Whatever the cause, it would have to be independent of time-space, matter, energy, and gravity. Or to put it another way, the cause would have to pre-exist time-space, matter, energy, and gravity. The cause would also have to be greater than or equal to the effect, i.e. the cause would have to be greater than or equal to the observable time-space universe and all forces within it. We should also point out that we cannot logically have an infinite regression of causes, so at some point there must be an uncaused first cause which meets these criteria. Hawking doesn't explain what this might be. There is no point in appealing to gravity if you can't explain gravity, its cause, or why it exists as opposed to nothing existing. Hawking wants to tie the various theories of gravity together, which of necessity must involve matter, but we’re still left with the problem of matter coming from nothing. Whether we focus on gravity, matter, or both, we still have to deal with an uncaused first cause.

All this is to say, it takes faith to believe there is no God. Those of us involved in apologetic endeavors should be prepared to reason with those who have real questions about origins. We, unfortunately, have sometimes projected an almost anti-intellectual image of the Church, as if faith and reason are not compatible or reason somehow is antithetical to faith. There is no dichotomy here. Hawking mixes his faith in the ability of science to eventually explain everything into his reasoning and conclusions. We too take some things on faith, but that does not mean that Christianity is incompatible with reason. Rather, we believe that Christianity corresponds to reality. If that’s true, then Christianity is reasonable and can stand up to scrutiny. Belief is not dependent on blind leaps of faith, but on faith grounded in evidence. Each of us needs to grapple with the question of origins and decide whether gravity alone is a sufficient explanation for why there is something rather than nothing or if logically there must be an uncaused first caused. In his book Hawking hails the death philosophy. Let us hope that in saying philosophy is dead he is not also abandoning the underlying logic required to reach reasonable conclusions.