Friday, October 1, 2010

Atheism, Creationism, and Tautologies

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was back in the news this month as co-author of a new book titled: The Grand Design. He and collaborator Leonard Mlodinow set out to answer three central questions in science: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? That's an ambitious agenda for a single volume, but the newsworthiness of the book was its assertion that no creator was necessary for the universe. Hawking writes that "the universe can and will create itself from nothing."

The publicity surrounding that assertion reminded me of a famous quote from the nineteenth century French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace who also wrote a book on the laws of the universe. He presented the book to the emperor Napoleon who said to him: "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 answered: "I had no need of that hypothesis."

When Napoleon told Joseph-Louis Lagrange, another renowned mathematician of the time, what Laplace said, Lagrange replied: "Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things."

After reading The Grand Design, I can't help but think that nothing has changed in the two centuries since this back-and-forth between Napoleon and the mathematicians. Explaining the universe without God is about as futile as explaining the universe with God. To assert that the universe creates itself from nothing, Hawking and Mlodinow appear to lapse into the same kind of tautology that creationists use to defend their beliefs.

A tautology is a statement that is true by definition and therefore provides no real explanation or insight. The Christian understanding of God, in the words of the Nicene Creed, is that God is the "creator of all that there is." This statement alone provides no insight on the mechanisms or motivations for creation.

Scientists have sought to understand the mechanisms for creation, and in doing so have amassed enormous amounts of evidence that the Earth and its inhabitants did not simply come into being over a one-week time span 6000 years ago as creationists believe based on their literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. But, a creationist will argue that none of this evidence matters because God, as the omnipotent creator of all that there is, could just as well have created the "appearance" of an older Earth and evolutionary processes. This is a tautology because the creationist position is unassailable. All evidence that does not support the creationist's views can be dismissed as part of God's creation.

In Ken Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, he likens the belief that the universe was created with "the appearance of age," to a belief in God as a charlatan. Miller is a committed Christian who believes in God, not in spite of evolution, but because of evolution. In Miller's view, the process of evolution is awe-inspiring. In response to creationists, Miller writes that a God that has negated science by "rigging the universe with fiction and deception" is not a plausible divine being. To Miller, embracing the God of creationists is to "reject science and worship deception itself."

But, the model of a universe devoid of God presented in The Grand Design falls into a tautological trap akin to creationism. The "M-theory" Hawking and Mlodinow advocate allows for the existence of innumerable universes each with different laws of physics. To explain why our universe is so remarkable, they resort to a decades-old idea known as the "anthropic principle." The essential idea is that of the multitude of universes that can exist, only a tiny fraction of them have physical laws that allow us to evolve. Therefore our existence as observers means that our particular universe must appear to us as special in extraordinary ways.

Whether the alternative universes exist in parallel or sequentially is not important because other universes are inaccessible. The universe is by definition "all that there is." And this is the tautology that Hawking and Mlodinow fall into: To say that anything that could possibly happen actually does happen in alternative universes, is an unassailable position. For example, it is a tautology to say that I write this blog entry or I do not write this blog entry. To say that I write this blog entry in one universe and do not write this blog entry in another universe, explains nothing. Saying that both events happen but in different universes is wordplay, not physics.

Hawking and Mlodinow cite the implausible values for the fundamental constants in physics as evidence for their anthropic argument. It is a great mystery in physics as to what determines the values for the fundamental constants. The basic forces in nature and the elementary particles that form all matter, possess intrinsic properties that to date have no theoretical explanation. The electron, which is a fundamental particle that determines how atoms interact chemically, has an intrinsic mass, electric charge, magnetic moment, and angular momentum. These values are measurable, and essentially define the particle because electrons have no discernable size or internal structure.

What is especially striking is that all electrons are identical. Nature does not make defective electrons. Apparently every electron that there ever was, or ever will be, has the exact same physical properties. Electrons are identical to the point of being indistinguishable from each other. It is impossible to ever label or tag an electron, and the fact that no single electron can ever be distinguished from all the others in the universe, has profound consequences when formulating the physical laws that govern electrons.

The precise values for the physical attributes of an electron are among the fundamental constants in nature that can only be measured. No theory accounts for their values, but it appears that these values must be set very close to what they actually are in order for our species to have evolved. Because the "M-theory" that Hawking and Mlodinow advocate allows for many possible universes, each with different fundamental constants, they contend that all these universes exist and we just happen to be the observers in a universe with fundamental constants that allow us to observe.

In other words, M-theory doesn't explain the values of the fundamental constants. It just says that if you roll the die an infinite number of times, a universe with our fundamental constants will eventually appear. That is not a theory in the scientific sense of the word because it doesn't predict anything about the actual universe we observe.

Physicists have long hoped that a unified theory of all the forces in nature (Theory of Everything) will predict the values for the fundamental constants. In other words, the mathematics would predict the existence of particles, such as electrons, and the mathematical solutions would provide numerical results for the electron's physical attributes that would agree with what we know about electrons.

Such a theory remains elusive so let me make my own tautological statement. A future Theory of Everything will either predict the values for the fundamental constants or it will not. If it does, physicists will find the theory extraordinarily elegant, and theologians will say that God intended our existence by establishing physical laws at the moment of creation that allowed us to evolve. If the theory does not predict the values for the fundamental constants, physicists will keep puzzling on the issue and theologians will say that God intended our existence by choosing values for the fundamental constants that allowed us to evolve.

Either way scientists and theologians will agree that God is a hypothesis that cannot be tested. There comes a point in theology where you just have to believe that the universe has a higher purpose and meaning, even if that meaning is not readily discernable. There comes a point in physics where you have to say: "that is just the way things are" because explanations through causation have to stop at some point.

My own view is that humans might not be evolved enough to comprehend a Theory of Everything. There is no reason to believe that the human brain is the pinnacle of evolution because there is no reason to believe that the evolution of intelligence will not continue long into the future. On an evolutionary time scale the human species, Homo sapiens, has not been around all that long. Modern humans have only existed about 100,000 years, which is an insignificant amount time compared to the hundreds of millions of years that evolutionary processes have shaped species on the planet. What might brain structures and intelligence look like 100 million years from now?

As I write this paragraph my dog lies patiently at my feet waiting for me to get up and do something of interest to her, such as work in the garden where she can enthusiastically contribute by chasing the various critters that inhabit our yard. My endless fascination with pixilated patterns of light on a computer screen has no meaning to her. I sometimes say to her that if she could do calculus, or edit and proof my writing, she could do work that would be of real use to me. She listens to me attentively, as she does everything I say, wags her tail, and maintains her vigil.

Of course, I could talk to my dog all day about advanced calculus, unified theories of physics and their theological implications, and she would listen attentively and understand nothing. We know that this is not the fault of the dog. A dog does not possess the brain structures to process the concepts needed for language, mathematics, or theology. Nor does a dog have the life span humans require to learn advanced concepts in all these subjects.

But those facts about dogs leave open the possibility that far into the future, another species, with a more advanced brain structure, might have similar things to say about humans. Will they say that the species, Homo sapiens of the Holocene epoch, figured out many important concepts in physics, but lacked the brain structure needed to understand the math required for the Theory of Everything?

A central tenet of Christianity is that God created humans in God's image. As a result the human striving to understand the natural world (God's creation) is a quest to know God. It also follows that how humans treat other humans is a reflection of our relationship with God.

But, all around I see humans creating God in the image of humans. Much of the evil done in the name of God, that atheists cite to disparage theists, arises not from believing in God, but from anthropomorphizing God. Humans have created innumerable images of God that for most part depict God as acting and thinking like humans. But, the sheer scale and grandeur of the universe is evidence that a creator God is unimaginably extravagant and inventive. I would be careful about concluding that humans are the endpoint in the creative process.

Joseph Ganem is a physicist and author of the award-winning The Two Headed Quarter: How to See Through Deceptive Numbers and Save Money on Everything You Buy