Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot

So Stephen Hawking by some accounts is the new heir apparent to the French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace. For those who don't recognize the name, here is a reported exchange between Napoleon and himself regarding one of Laplace's propositions:

Napoleon: "M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator."

Laplace: "I had no need of that hypothesis."
LaPlace felt previous ideas regarding the nature of God and its relationship to the mechanics of the universe were unnecessary.  Indeed, the idea of making God into a puppeteer pulling the strings of the universe developed in response to the rise of empiricism and science under the belief it would allow for the kind of "proof" of God that had previously been unavailable, largely irrelevant, and in some cases blasphemous. It was based on the idea of God's necessity to explain the currently unexplainable in the workings of the material world.  

As explanations for such puzzles became available without explicitly referring to God, the apparent "need" for God as defined by such a system shrank.  And as "proof" of God had been tied to such "need", the rise of science seemed to be connected with the decline of God.  This phenomena is known in modern parlance as (the shrinking) God-of-the-gaps, where the gaps are lacunae in our knowledge of the workings of the material world.

Ideas about God long before, during and after the period leading up to the Enlightenment have not relied on the proof or reality of God being bound up with the perceived need of God for such mundane causal explanations.  However, the historical weight of the decisions of those who placed all of their theological eggs in such a basket continues to shape how people in the West (and those to whom we have exported our worldviews) think and talk about the Divine.  Movements such Young Earth Creationism, an American product originating in the 1800s, reinforce such perceptions and conceptions, so much so that those not buying into the God of empirical need may be accused of being outside of tradition!

Other consequences include a dumbing down of the (mis-)interpretation of what philosophers and theologians had said about God prior to the rise of the God-of-the-gaps as well as contemporary discussion of the similar questions.  This lens has greatly distorted how people tend to address questions such as "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  If one suggests the answer is God, then immediately the answer conjures the image of some cosmic super-being "waving a hand" and the universe subsequently popping into existence.  If you had described that to the early church fathers, they would likely have been confused and disturbed by such an idea.

Enter the new book co-authored by Stephen Hawking and some of the quotes which have made the press:

Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes.

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing...

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.
So basically Hawking is demonstrating what others, including many theologians, have been saying for a long time -- invoking God isn't necessary to explain or study causal systems within material existence.  To this end he is doing a great service to God and theology.  But it really doesn't explain why there is something rather than nothing.  Invoking gravity or the quantum field or the idea of a multi-verse is at best a description of "how" the universe could have arisen.  This is not trivial, but it doesn't address why.  Why is there anything?  Why is there gravity or energy or a quantum field?  This isn't asking "What caused them?" because that would only lead to asking what caused that which caused them and the problem of infinite causal regress.

Just taking the quotes above, we can get some useful ideas -- what Hawking describes as the source of existence appears to us to be "nothing" and unbound by space or time.  Keep in mind that a source doesn't have to be a cause, so again we aren't talking about the "cause" of existence.  Yet these causes might tell us something about their source.  Here is where theological and historical ignorance or insight plays a role in what this might actually mean in terms of God.  Reading the works of theologians such as Paul Tillich, Martin Buber and others, or the history of how people have understood God (which is presented in a basic overview by authors like Karen Armstrong), one finds that indeed there has been and continues to be an understanding of God that is not only consistent with the findings of theoreticians and researchers such as Hawking but which anticipates them.

Here are some theological notions that often don't make it into popular conversation:

God as transcendent in terms of being beyond any categories and in terms of not being (limited to) any particular phenomena or thing, yet being immanent in terms of being the raw potentiality of which phenomena arise and of which they are composed.

God as not being "a person" or "a mind" but rather the ground of a universal person-ness and non-localized consciousness which can through reflection be recognized and communed with by localized, finite manifestation of consciousness (i.e. sentient beings).

God when experienced in the purest way possible for sentient beings is revealed through a sense of boundless love and wisdom, an ineffable experience of complete fulfillment.

descriptions of God as imperfect metaphors fitting different needs and levels of realization rather than fixed or limiting identities (which is the basis of the most insidious forms of idolatry).
In these views God is not "a thing", a specimen or example alongside others in a category of phenomena, even the most superlative representative of such a category.  This kind of theology views God therefore as "no thing".  Note that contrary to the logical conclusion reached by the theology responsible for God-of-the-gaps, these ideas do not make God either "irrelevant" or "impersonal".  As I've written previously:

 God is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, God is ineffable an beyond complete rational, logical comprehension. God is, as Tillich and others have suggested, not a "thing", even a super-duper thing, alongside other things. God is the ground of all being and existence, the ultimate source and reality, the raw potential out which all form (or phenomena) arise and return as well as their substance. God in this sense "doesn't exist". God is existence itself. This is what is apprehended by panentheism and expressed by apophatic theology.

Yet there is also the immanence of God, which comes in since we are in every sense "of God". This recalls oft-quoted opening lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: "To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour." But it pays to read the rest, as some additional lines attest:
"Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine Runs a joy with silken twine... We are led to believe a lie When we see not thro' the eye, Which was born in a night to perish in a night, When the soul slept in beams of light. God appears, and God is light, To those poor souls who dwell in night; but does a human form display To those who dwell in realms of day."
Thus the paradox. God is on the one hand incomprehensibly transcendent, yet on the other hand the fullness of God is contained in a single flower, whose true depth and mystery are boundless.

I am not going to go into a more detailed description or explanation of such views of God here.  I have been looking into them for a while, so additional glimpses of my take on matters concerning theology are available elsewhere in various forms on this site.  Yet they are glimpses only and described by an amateur.  They may not be enough for a curious reader to develop an appreciation for the lack of depth that too often informs public discussions such as the relationship between science and religion, but for anyone who seeks such a depth I hope they will point you in the right direction.

[A follow-up to this essay can be found here.  A brief addendum follows below.] 


To clarify, I am not suggesting that the idea of God being an explanation for the unknown is a historically recent invention.  People frequently invoked God, or gods, or powers, or angels, or spirits, etc as explanations for things that had no clear answer, whether it was a matter of "how" or "why"?  Invoking the metaphor of God as a creator has a long history.  But we cannot just pull such language and imagery out of historical and cultural context in which they originated for which they were aimed and apply modern assumptions in understanding it without greatly distorting the intent of the people using such descriptions.  Many things we may find out of place or incongruent today would have been assumed be default by the original audience, and hence not as central to the stories being told as we might make them today.

The issue at hand is when people decided to invoke necessity for causal mechanisms of the physical world as evidence for God.  It is one thing to think of God as a source or creator in broad terms, and such language still can be useful today.  It is another reduce God to a link in a causal chain, to make God dependent on and dwell in the spaces of our ignorance and hence create a God-of-the-gaps.  This leads to the charge on the part of skeptics of "moving the goal posts" of the definition of or evidence for God because God becomes dependent on our knowledge or lack thereof.  What is suggested here is that God contains the goal posts, the field, the kicker and the ball, so moving them around isn't pertinent to the issue of God's existence.
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  1. The problem I have with modern Atheism is that they don’t seem to study Theology who belong to it as a movement. Richard Dawkins even prides himself on not having studied Theology and declares it a Non-Field. Hawkings, while not quiet so brazen, is still ultimately ignorant of what Theology teaches, and likely simply repeats the Caricatures of what God is suppose to be he picks up from Culture, and often form Atheistic Caricature form the 18th and 19th Century that seem to pervade society.

    But you are right, much of Theology past and present simply doesn’t contradict Modern Physics. But its hard to convince people of this if they refuse to even see what Theology teaches in Favour of that Caricature of the Magical Sky Wizard.

    An example is when I spoke to an Atheist who basically quoted Dawkins in saying that God is more complex than he Universe he created, so had o have evolved by natural processes, and thus is illogical because he’s suppose to be the first being. If this Universe is so complex it needed a designer, the designer has to be more complex still and thus need a designer. Skipping how this contradicts what he had said earlier about God being Supernatural by definition, I simply said that God is not, in fact, Complex. God is simple.

    He mocked me.

    I’ve had that happen several times, in fact, when I say God is simple. Its as if I’m making this up on the spot, or am oblivious to anything in Theology, and am must crazy or stupid or some mix of both. Yet Divine Simplicity has been a Theological Staple for a very, very long time. The fact that I could reference it means I have studied Theology at least a little, and the fact that they didn’t know it means they haven’t, as it’s a standard concept in the formal field of Theology.

    The problem with modern Thinkers who, like Hawking, postulate that God is not needed is that they really don’t know what God is suppose to be in the first place.

    Much of modern Physics confirms much of the Theology we’ve seen over the last 2000 years in Christendom, but many Physicists, indoctrinated by Academia into a sort of Atheistic view, tend not to realise this. They dismiss, ignore, and sometimes attack that which mot compliments their own work.

  2. Worse, they also fall victim to the “Finally right” Syndrome. We always believe we now know the answer o the problems of our existence. In the past, we knew God was not needed to understand the Universe and how it came about because the Universe was always here. We se change but tis always balanced perfectly, and the Universe itself goes on ad infinitum forever, in a Steady State. This was proven wrong, just as the Ether was proven wrong, and how several other Theories once thought sound and true have fallen by the wayside. A perfect example of this is Newtonian principles, which for about 300 years were not even remotely Questioned. They were proven fact. Time was constant for the whole Universe. Matter and Energy were basically separate things. The atom was the smallest possible unit of matter. The speed of light would increase if you move the lantern producing the light. If you had two lanterns, and picked one up and began to walk towards me, the light in the lantern in your band would be moving faster than the lamp you left behind. It was an obvious fact, to question it showed you were insane. But now, after Einstein, we know that Newtonian Principles weren’t right. Light speed is not changeable, it is constant. Time is not constant, but Changeable. Matter and energy are the same thing. The Atom is itself composed of smaller particles still.

    But, now, at last, Hallelujah, we have the Truth. The Multiverse exists and new Universes are springing into existence all the time, and Gravity alone produces them. The Universe we live in came about as a Spontaneous result of Gravity, and just is. It is self producing. No need for God at all.

    But, as you said, what made Gravity? And why is it constant?

    Worse, what I the above Scenario by Dr. Hawking is itself wrong? Its not like we’ve travelled to another Universe to confirm they even exist, much less what causes them. We have no actual evidence that our Universe came about due to a Spontaneous, and undirected, generation by Gravitational Collapse. In some ways this Theory sounds like a massive Steady State theory which postulates that the Actual Multiverse is stable and has a constant among of energy in the Balance, even if one Universe doesn’t and gradually dies. And it may end up just as False.

    I’m not saying it is wrong, but how do we know its right?

    In he year 2112, this Theory may be looked upon a Quaint Nonsense, discredited Theory form a long time ago. Knowing the nature of man, I’d say that whatever Theory they hold to will then be “The Truth” and “The Final Answer” in which we just need a few more details but we have it all pretty well worked out.

  3. PT readers,

    Some folks choose to discuss these blog entries elsewhere, so you can find additional comments on this particular essay by clicking here.

  4. Sorry then, I had simply posted it here as a reply. Sorry if offended by it.

  5. No, I like having comments here! But I just wanted people to know there was additional conversation going on somewhere else.

  6. Well if so, as Fleet seems to have stolen the show, what do you think of my observations above?

  7. To some degree, we can blame some Christians for the view of God atheist's use, including Fleetmouse. Atheism is a rejection of (a particular understanding or set of views concerning) God, so naturally they criticize what see.

    That doesn't mean atheist's who want to be actively involved in criticizing ideas about God are excused from taking the time to learn something more than a superficial understanding theology, as this is to be desired and expected when criticizing any set of ideas.

    The other issue you allude to that plagues people of all religious and irreligious stripes is the quest for certainty, for the final single answer to everything. A good instruction in epistemology would do wonders for this.

  8. Excet no one want ot take any sort of ocurs ein funny sounding words, they want Truizsms that fit on Bumper Stickers.

    Now, Where's the Birth Certificate?


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