Today’s our very first Science Friday column, warmly dedicated to the British theoretical physicist, cosmologist and ALS sufferer Stephen William Hawking, who celebrates his 68th birthday this very day.
Professor Hawking, a Fellow of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College, was until recently the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Like his US counterpart, the late Carl Sagan, he did much to popularize science, most notably with his best-selling A Brief History of Time
In a way, the choice of Hawking is an apt one: like Charles Darwin, he denies being an atheist (though his ex-wife attributed such views to him). Both men’s work — Darwin on natural selection, Hawking on cosmology — could be perceived to be anti-religious, although I will argue that they only repudiate literalist interpretations of many faiths’ holy books.
Hawking is a prolific author, and I would be doing him a disservice if I were to attempt to summarize his work. I’d instead point you to his archive of public lectures and academic publications. His works on singularity and on the origin of the universe are well known, so today I would just highlight a more esoteric part: what Hawking has to say on multiverses.
The battle between religion and science has for centuries revolve, partly, around the particularity of human existence. Copernicus and Galileo encountered stiff opposition from the Roman church for promoting a cosmology in which the earth is not the center of the universe; likewise, modern astronomy seemed to suggest, until quite recently, that our star is a rather pedestrian one, in a provincial corner of a fairly typical galaxy.
Balanced against that is the discovery that support for life is actually quite tenuous: if the key physical constants were to differ by small amounts, life as we know it would not have been able to develop. Recent work has shown that more drastic modifications might actually yield a life-supporting universe, but at the same time affirm that a key constant, the Hubble constant, still appears to be peculiarly finely tuned.
If our universe is the only one that exists, the very fact that we are here to observe it might suggest that it was put in place so that intelligent life might evolve, and depending on how unique our solar system is in the universe, us humans potentially occupy a lofty, if indeed lonely, position.
The many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, however, points to the existence of multiple worlds, indeed, multiverses. In this interpretation, every possible outcome of every event exists in its own “world”. And here’s where the Hawking connection comes in: he stated that if we assume that quantum theory applies to all reality, then the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is trivially true.
And if our current universe branches off into virtually endless universes, depending on the outcomes of quantum events, then it certainly makes the idea of other universes with altogether different physical laws less exotic, in fact, quite plausible.
But what’s the religious significance of all this, especially for us Christians? Modern cosmogony is quite speculative up to 10^-12 seconds after the Big Bang, and certainly quiet on what took place before that. A God that is outside of space and time, preexisting before our universe was created, certainly is not incompatible with science, and if such Divinity were to set up the ground rules in such a way as to give rise to humanity, then (S)He is worthy of worship indeed. Even divine intervention after the early phase of the universe, by subtly influencing key people, is possible; I tend towards a non-Hegelian view of history, in which things do not unfold through historical necessity, but that the right person at the right time could influence its course. We cannot disprove the existence of a Creator; we cannot prove it either, but that is why it’s called faith, not fact.
The MWI is actually more troubling: if everything that could happen, actually happens, then where does it leave free will? We are simply pawns, then, having the illusion of making choices in our lives whereas it might just be that we experience making the choice that led to the subset of the multiverse in which we experienced the effect of the choice.
Would the more deterministic Copenhagen interpretation, infamously criticized by Einstein “I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice”, be more reconcilable? After all, perhaps God does not actually throw dice, but subtly guide a probabilistic universe so that at key moments, the dice is actually loaded? Such a universe, familiar to readers of Asimov’s Foundation series, could indeed preserve room for maneuver.
That being said, one lesson we ought to learn, after millennia of religious people putting faith-based theory before scientific evidence, and thus hindering our common scientific progress, is not to interfere as experts in their field continue to improve our understanding of our earth, and indeed our universe. The bible is not a science textbook, and the Church is changed for the better overtime it adjusts itself to scientific discovery instead of fighting it.
Evolution vs Creationism: Anecdotes
One only needs a bare minimum acquaintance with modern cosmology to realize that the cosmology of any faith in the world — at least, faiths that predate modern science — cannot be taken literally. The order of creation according to Genesis certainly does not correspond with our modern understanding — it was very geocentric, with the world *and* plants created before the sun and the stars. This, as opposed to what we know from science, that the elements we find on earth are the byproducts of nuclear fusion in the first generation of stars; that planets are formed from the leftovers of stellar formation; and that the early earth is hot and dry, with water only deposited later, from comets.
And then there is the matter of age; According to Young Earth creationists, for instance, the world is not older than 10,000 years (The error bar between different creationists’ posited age of the earth is much larger than the difference between various predictions made by physicists, which, over time, converge happily to a rather tight range). Their literalist reading of the Old Testament led them to attempt to subvert the scientific process: because they insist on the literal truth of the Bible’s materialist claims, thus inserting the Divine into our everyday space and time, they have to discredit scientific methodology that threaten their precarious position.
Barely a month after Copenhagen, I cannot help but note that attempts by YECs to “prove” the existence of a global Biblical Flood actually ended up demonstrating, in stark terms, the runaway effect of pumping the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases (as we are doing now, and as big agro and big oil want us to continue doing).