Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bruce L. Gordon reviews Stephen Hawking

Bruce L. Gordon,  (among other things) the research director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, has written an article about Stephen Hawking's new book The Grand Design.  Gordon is unhappy with the book; specifically, he is unhappy with Hawking's suggestion that the laws of physics are sufficient to explain the origin of the universe without resort to a Creator.  Hawking, he complains, has confused mathematical descriptions with actual explanations; in seeking to explain the origin of the universe in terms of quantum physics, he has forgotten that we don't have an explanation of why quantum physics works.  We don't know (as Gordon quotes Hawking as having said once) "what breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"

Gordon notes that Einstein insisted that quantum mechanics must be an incomplete model of the world; it didn't include a "principle of sufficient causality" (though my own impression was that Einstein disapproved of the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics more than anything else, that his interest was more in restoring cause and effect on the mundane scale of particle physics, not in establishing a cause for the laws of physics themselves).  Gordon is quite clear on what "sufficient causality" entails: there must be a mind behind the equations and behind the laws they represent.

Now, it seems to me that there are three possible (or at least vaguely conceivable; perhaps I should not be so bold as to suggest that they are all possible) situations regarding universal causality.  It might be "explanations all the way down;" for every fact about nature, there is another fact that explains that, and another fact that explains that, and beneath every seemingly fundamental explanation an explanation even more fundamental (but not of course any more final) than that.  Or there might, at the base of things, be a set of mere brute facts with no explanation beyond themselves: that's just the way things are, and there's no point to asking why as there are no more basic explanations.  Or there might be certain ontologically necessary facts: it might be possible to show that logically, the facts at the base of all other explanations are not mere brute facts but the way things absolutely have to be: if we properly understand them, we would see that they could not be otherwise.

The third possibility has interested theologians and philosophers at least since St. Anselm argued that God, the Creator, was in fact this ontologically necessary ultimate explanation.  Anselm's proof has not fared terribly well, but attempts have been made to refine and revitalize the argument.  I mention this merely for the sake of completeness; Gordon himself does not seem interested in arguing for the ontological necessity of the Mind that breathes fire into the equations.

But in that case, it seems to me that Gordon and Hawking both are content to stop at a "brute fact" level of explanation.  For Hawking, the universe can come into existence because the laws of physics just permit it: we  (well, he and other cosmologists) can describe what the laws do but not why they do it.  Gordon takes this a step further: there is a Mind that enacted these laws, and we, apparently, don't know why this Mind works the way He does or what caused Him (well, of course, the implication is surely that this Mind is eternal and uncaused, but Hawking would surely insist that in that case, we can just insist that the laws of physics are eternal and uncaused).  In either case, one ends up with a brute, unexplained fact (or Fact).

Here Gordon raises (in more sophisticated ways, of course) some arguments we've encountered before in Ray Comfort's How to Know God Exists.  If Hawking says that the universe arose from "nothing," or that "nothing" is unstable, assume that "nothing" must mean absolute ontological nullity, not that Hawking is speaking informally of, say, a pre-existent, uncreated vacuum with its own uncreated uncaused laws.   

Gordon also raises the "fine tuning" problem, though he actually confronts the "multiverse" suggestion and attempts to argue against it.  He raises the "Boltzmann brain paradox" -- the idea that if we live in a pocket of spontaneously reduced entropy in  an infinite (and mostly high-entropy) universe, then there should be far more tiny pockets just organized enough to produce a single mind:.  He turns the weak anthropic principle (as an explanation of why we happen to observe a fine-tuned universe: we couldn't exist in any other sort of universe) on its head: the majority of observers should exist in much smaller, simpler universes that they don't share with worlds or other minds!

This is far more interesting an argument than Ray ever produced (well, one should expect interesting arguments from a professional philosopher of science).   I had never considered this, or possible objections to it.  Other people have: one objection, which I shamelessly borrow from the Wikipedia article on "Boltzmann brains" is that, in fact, in an infinite universe, universes that start simple and permit minds to evolve might, in fact, be much commoner than universes that consist only of a single, spontaneously-formed mind with no evolutionary precursors and no significant environment to learn from or respond to (yet which still have ideas and speculations about the universe in which they find themselves).

In any case, the idea that the only possible solution to the fine-tuning problem is  a fine-tuner is, I think, a bit suspect: in place of terribly convenient fine-tuning, you end up with a terribly convenient Fine-Tuner: in either case, a brute fact that would seem to call for an explanation but doesn't appear to have one. 

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