Saturday, September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking's New Copernician Revolution.

When news of Professor Stephen Hawking’s new book (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow) , The Grand Design , hit the news headlines, all hell broke loose. Well, that’s not technically correct, as it was more like all heaven breaking loose (see my explanation below). Reuters reported: God did not create the universe, says Hawking . Strictly speaking, that isn’t what Hawking said. He said, "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." Call me on semantics if you like, but this was no dogmatic statement stating definitely that “God did not create the universe”, only that it is “not necessary to invoke God”. I’m not defending the God-idea. I’m an agnostic-theist, which basically means while I’m very fond of the God-idea, it would be no skin off my nose if Nietzsche was right about the death of God. Some days I feel more agnostic than theist, and other days I feel more theist than agnostic, so it would be no big deal to me to walk across a cemetery and see the tombstone of Jehovah. In some ways I’d be relieved if it was the same God of the Old Testament, as I’d consider his karma due for murdering or ordering the murders of so many people. Perhaps no greater mass murderer ever lived.

And yes, heaven broke loose, well, at least those who feel they belong to heaven, or that “heaven smiles upon them”. Jason Boyett from the Washington Post

You don't expect to see "Stephen Hawking" as a trending topic on Twitter. That designation is usually reserved for the birthdays of Jonas brothers or 140-character punchlines about #liesguystell.

But Thursday, the acclaimed physicist and mathematician shot to the top of the list--and not because of another hilarious wheelchair-bound appearance on The Simpsons. Hawking hit the news cycle because The Times of London excerpted his new book, The Grand Design, on Thursday. In the book, which releases this week from Bantam Press (and which, admittedly, I haven't read), Hawking concludes that a Creator is unnecessary for the universe to exist.

Is this news? Not really. Hawking has made it clear in the past that he's not religious, and his ex-wife, Jane, outed him as an atheist in her biography about their marriage. But Hawking has always been careful to delineate between religion and science, and his past writings seemed to have left open a window allowing for a God-like creator. In A Brief History of Time, he wrote of man's steps toward figuring out the universe as attempts to "know the mind of God."
But the new book appears to have taken that religious neutrality off the table. Due to laws like gravity, noted last week's excerpt, Hawking writes that it is entirely possible that the universe "can and will create itself from nothing." That's why we exist. That's why there's something rather than nothing. We don't need God….

And then the backlash began.

On Twitter, mentions of Hawking and his pronouncement followed three distinct tracks. A third were users passing on a news item without comment. A third were nontheists cheerfully affirming what they already suspected to be true. And the last third were my fellow Christians, who took ugliness to a new level…..
Like dogs backed into a corner, my religious brethren went on the attack, escalating the culture war between science and faith….
Jesus taught slowness to anger, compassion for the sick, and love for our enemies. But even accounting for the simplicity of Twitter, and the troll-like culture of the Internet in general, we still come across as a bunch of petty, rage-filled monsters eager to discount the life work of one of the world's greatest scientists.
A genius with a debilitating disease says something we disagree with, so we make fun of his wheelchair and laugh at his impending death. Great.
This is why people have trouble taking us seriously….

So I want to apologize to Stephen Hawking on behalf of religious people everywhere. As believers in a God of justice and mercy, we're not supposed to be heartless, ignorant jerks. But sometimes we are. I hope you'll forgive us.

So how does Hawking’s “Modern Copernician revolution” come into this? Let me first hark back to two scientific reformers of thought, Copernicus himself, and Galileo. New scientific ideas are seldom accepted by the populace at large.

"There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth."

That was Martin Luther.

And here is a summary of Galileo.

Galileo was placed under house arrest at his villa in Arcetri near Florence until his death in 1642.
Despite this, in 1636 he finished "The Two New Sciences" describing his experiments in mechanics.
Unable to get published due to his conviction, the manuscript was smuggled out of Italy and published in Protestant Leyden in 1638.
This book helped lay the foundations of classical physics.

Professor of Physics, James Trefil, wrote this in a review:

With that background, Hawking and Mlodinow get to the real meat of their book: the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape our understanding of how our universe (and possibly others) formed out of nothing. Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called "M-theories," which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It's a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution.

The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.

I've waited a long time for this book. It gets into the deepest questions of modern cosmology without a single equation. The reader will be able to get through it without bogging down in a lot of technical detail and will, I hope, have his or her appetite whetted for books with a deeper technical content. And who knows? Maybe in the end the whole multiverse idea will actually turn out to be right!

Stephen Hawking is just lucky he didn’t live in medieval times, or he could have faced a stake and flames, as Giordano Bruno did.

So what are the implications for the existence of God, in Hawking’s “New Copernician Revolution?”

No more than Copernicus himself influenced an unbelief in God among the masses. The restructuring of scientific paradigms will only, in the eyes of believers, bring us to a greater understanding of what it means to believe in God. And his “domains” only seem to be getting greater and greater with new scientific theories. The “idea of God” is just ingrained into human consciousness, and it seems that science will never explain it away. When the universe was born, and the stars created, it seems almost as if the “idea of God” was implanted into the genes of its inhabitants from the very beginning.

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