Saturday, September 4, 2010

"Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot" spurs additional questions

I am grateful to those who have taken the time to respond to Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot. Sometimes comments about such topic whether mentioned here or elsewhere simply draw out particular ideologues who want to do some rhetorical chest thumping without any real reflection, so your thoughtful replies are appreciated.

There is a question which is tangential to the point of the aforementioned essay, but I do think it is worth exploring on its own. The question asks what basis there is for connecting the force which created the universe to the mystical experience of love. Now, in the previous essay I made it clear I do not believe that one needs to invoke God as a match lighter for the Big Bang, so we can replace "force which created the universe" with "the source of universe". To appreciate this essay you really do need to read the one which led us here, especially where I write:

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.

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.

[W]hat 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.

There is no mention here of how some perceive the experience of God, which was the other element of the question with which we are dealing. That comes from list I provided of some ideas which too frequently make it into popular discussions of theology:

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).

Let us keep in mind we are only discussing the implications of a limited number of selected quotes from a book that as of yet hasn't been published. With that said, one interpretation made by a bright person who is an atheist and scientist is that gravity has taken the place of the Creator-God.  If we take that seriously, then to those who accept such a reading of Hawking now place gravity as the "uncaused cause" -- basically Creation Ex Nihilo via gravity. That is just re-writing an old theological script with scientific terms substituted into it. It is assuming a God-of-the-gaps theology of a puppeteer of the universe and replacing that "God" with a "law" of nature.  Any kind of grand cosmology, even when scientifically referenced, will still end getting very close to religion and can end up sounding a lot like the axiomatic theological assumptions of the individual and her or his culture. 

Thus the importance of my exposition on how people treat questions "Why is there something rather than nothing?" (which would include gravity), especially the part where I distinguish between source and cause.  Clearly I posit God as the source of gravity, not as the strict "cause" of gravity nor as merely being reduced to gravity (or the quantum field, or matter and energy, etc).  The subtlety of the distinction I am making here may be a bit difficult because we are used to thinking about such ideas in terms of A leads to B leads to C in a linear fashion of causality.  But as Hawking and others point out (and I concur), these conventions of time and space break down when we talk about the origin of the universe.  Thus the ineffable nature of the source, which by our usual standards is truly "no thing".  Instead, the source is the potential which makes existence possible, including the existence of ultimate causes such gravity.

The question of why anyone would consider a meaningful connection between this mysterious source and the experience of existence as unlimited compassion and wisdom or some similar description requires a very brief examination of how and we come to know and understand the world around us.  We each walk around with a cognitive map in our head based on what we expect the world to be like and the interpretation of our experiences based on these expectations.  Given the limits of our sense organs, we can speculate that we detect a small fraction of the universe, even with the aid of technology.  Biological filters block out what our brains perceive as "noise" and focus on patterns that evolution and our personal experiences have determined are useful and interesting, and what is left also passes through a cultural filter as well while being placed in a basic ontological category determining its basic properties, value and meaning.  So much for an objective, unbiased view of reality!

Hence we make stories.  These stories outline and reinforce our understanding of the world and how it works.  These stories are subject to alteration when necessary, either in the telling or the interpretation, and we come to believe in them not only because others do but because they are congruent with our own experiences of life and what we value.  In the West, when these stories have to do with fundamental questions of "Why?" pertaining to our existence, we tend classify them as part of religion; when they have to do with "How?" such as the mechanics of our world, we tend to classify them as science.  For example, even if a scientist asks "Why does this species have horns?" the answer will involve the mechanics of development and evolution.  And if said person wanted to turn this into an existential question, they would not be using science to answer it in that new frame.

Of course, one is free to reject attempting to address the world in an existential fashion.  Approaches to different kinds of knowledge have their own assumptions and methods as well as limitations, yet validation by values, experience, and consensus are common to both.  Some may reject any notion of God in which "people are sent to hell" or a philosophy rooted in solipsism or a metaphysics which doesn't allow for the concept of free will, not because they can demonstrate these positions are wrong, but rather because they challenge some inviolable value.  The sense of the truth contained in idea is also validated by its accuracy, involving not only the experience on which a belief is based but a sense that others have had similar experiences and understand them in a similar fashion.  This isn't simply argumentum ad populum -- consider that repeatability of experimental design is a hallmark of science. 

If we want to explore the source and fundamental character of existence, we can do this with various metaphysical programs available to us such science.  This is the route that brilliant and distinguished minds such as Hawking have taken, and all of humanity benefits from the insights offered by such labors.  Yet such efforts inevitably lead to the problem that we cannot out-think our own brains and their mental limits in perceiving and pondering existence.  We trace causes and effects and necessary conditions as far as we can, but it would be foolish to think that reaching this limit is the same as having a complete and final answer.  Some people may not care what else there may be to know or some may simply reject any other way of knowing.  That is their choice.

If that is the case, we simply have our mysterious source of phenomena like gravity (the same source as any cause that is found for gravity, and for the cause of that cause, and the cause of that cause).  Again, in the theology we are discussing, however many causes you add, they are contained within and an aspect of the Divine.  God isn't simply a link in the causal chain, even the hypothetical first link.  God is the steel of the chain and the shape of the steel and that in which the chain exists.  Again, this leaves some of us wondering about the relevance of such a remote God, while others may also be asking whether there isn't another avenue to discover more about the fundamental nature of existence.

That is what we will explore in the next part of this essay.


  1. Issac Newton believed that gravity was an occult force. His private explanation for how it produced action at a distance (worked without touching things) differed greatly from his public explanation. In Public he said what basically amounts to "It's a hidden force." In private he said "the universe is the sensorium of God." In other words, the universe is in the mind of God and gravity is God's thought.

  2. Oh come on, that has to be totally irrelevant to his inspiration and the work he did in establishing the discipline of physics. Bah! Humbug.


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