Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Guy in the Wheelchair

Excerpts from a long but fascinating article: "The Guy in the Wheelchair: God & Stephen Hawking" by Karl W. Giberson in Books and Culture...

Giberson opens with a brief history of Steven Hawking, cosmology and "the making of a legend"...

Hawking is the best-known physicist since Albert Einstein and one of the scientific community's rare celebrities. His signature work of science popularization, A Brief History of Time, has sold one copy for every 750 people on earth—an astonishing record; it has been translated into 40 languages and has turned its author into a major public figure, capable of filling large lecture halls and even getting multiple guest spots on The Simpsons, the ultimate measure of cultural cachet.

Hawking's extraordinary scientific mind resides in a tragically withered body rarely seen away from his ubiquitous high-tech wheelchair. When he appeared on The Simpsons his wheelchair was outfitted with a propeller that allowed him to fly away at will and a boxing glove on a spring enabling him to mechanically punch people....

The t = 0 "appearance" of the universe has occasioned much cosmological head-scratching. In the early days of the Big Bang theory, when the evidence was less than compelling, many cosmologists rejected the idea of a beginning. The Belgian cleric/physicist Georges Lemaître, who first proposed it, was accused of smuggling a suspiciously biblical "creation" into science. The enthusiastic agnostic Fred Hoyle developed an alternative "steady state" model, hopefully doing away with what Sir Arthur Eddington had called an "unaesthetically abrupt" beginning to the universe.

The discovery of the predicted background radiation in 1965 dramatically confirmed the Big Bang. Modern cosmology was born. Since then extrapolations have tried to deal with the beginning of the universe, sometimes "explaining" it, other times "explaining it away." Maybe our universe is the daughter of a previous universe or a bubble in a meta-universe or a sibling of many contemporary universes. Or, suggests Hawking, maybe there simply is no beginning.

The most exasperating feature of the Big Bang theory is its increasing vagueness as one approaches the point t = 0 on the cosmic timeline. As a description of today's universe the theory works well; there is ample evidence that the universe is expanding in the way the theory says it should; the radiation left over from the initial "explosion" is spread uniformly throughout space, as we would expect. And, when we look billions of light years "out" into space and see things as they were long ago, they are different in ways that fit with the Big Bang. All of this is comforting, for those who take comfort from such things.

But the picture grows murky as we approach the beginning. On the observational side, we simply cannot look out far enough to see light from 14 billion years ago. We can't even get close, so we are very much in the dark, so to speak, when it comes to observation of this critical point in the history of the universe.

There is, however, a glimmer of light on the theoretical side. Mathematical models of the early universe predict, in a rather straightforward way, astonishingly great densities of matter and very high temperatures. Microcosmic versions of such extreme environments can be created in the laboratory and tested against theoretical models. And the match is excellent for those early stages of the universe that come after the moment of origination.

But what about the actual point t = 0? This cannot be reproduced in the laboratory. Nor does there exist a compelling, generally accepted theory of exactly what this stage would look like.

Absent both observational data and compelling theoretical models, we have an explanatory vacuum—and cosmologists, like nature, abhor vacuums. This particular vacuum is filled with ingenious speculations, including those of Hawking....

Giberson continues at length before wrapping up...

And what of Hawking's claim that knowledge of the profoundly misnamed "Theory of Everything" would be like entering into the mind of God? Really? Is this what God thinks about? What God is this? Is there actually a church somewhere that puts equations on a big screen and invites worshippers to view them as a prelude to worship? Is this the same God whose existence Hawking disproved a few pages earlier?

All this would indeed be humorous if it were not in a book that has sold ten million copies. Hawking has done a great disservice to those purchasers of his book who have actually read it. He has misled them about the religious implications of science and the apparent motivations of scientists; he has made bogus claims about theology; he has juxtaposed science and theology as if they compete to explain the same things. Hawking's enthusiasm about doing away with God does not reflect the views of the scientific community, where there is widespread belief in God, and widespread disinterest in using science against religion.

Hawking is a major public intellectual, a leading scientist with a flair for popular exposition and a platform from which to explain science to an educated populace. He and his scientific allies—Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, Peter Atkins, the late Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Pinker and so on—shape public perceptions of science through their popular presentations, in books, articles, and public appearances. Their collective message—drilled home in many different ways—is that science is hostile to religion, scientists don't believe in God, and science competes with religion to explain natural phenomena.

None of these statements is true.

Hawking's iconic wheelchair has been crisscrossing the world's stage for some time now. And his stature as an ambassador for science has grown steadily, even as his physical frame has withered. He is, to be sure, a hero. But we must avoid the temptation to gloss his philosophical ideas with the mythological heroism of his personal life. He is, when all is said and done, a great scientist who knows nothing about theology, but loves to talk about God.

As C.S. Lewis noted, everyone is a theologian; the question is how good of a theologian one is. (We could add that everyone is an economist...) It is a common problem that those who are brilliant-- and learned in particular fields-- tend to breezily pontificate in areas where their learning is remarkably lean.


At November 6, 2007 at 8:13 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric: It is a common problem that those who are brilliant-- and learned in particular fields-- tend to breezily pontificate in areas where their learning is remarkably lean.

All too true. An egregious example is Richard Dawkins, whose book God Delusion has received critical reviews even from reviewers who share his skepticism about religion. Unfortunately, it is also the case that evangelicals and other religious people pontificate tendentiously on scientific topics they have little understanding of. Misunderstandings of biology are particularly common.

The underlying problem is perhaps that science is not so much a specific body of knowledge, but is a means of understanding the world: scientists advance testable hypotheses which are then verified through observation or experiment. Religion typically does not offer doctrines that can be tested in the same manner (Lee Strobel notwithstanding). (For example: we cannot prove that Jesus rose from the dead, because the only first century writings that say he did were written by Christians. We can, however, establish that Christians started believing this very soon after the death of Jesus, within several years if not immediately.) So scientists sometimes feel free to speculate freely about religious or theological implications of their work. Or worse, they feel free to dismiss or ridicule beliefs. Perhaps only when the religious make tendentious pronouncements about science that are clearly in error, to support a religious doctrine, should scientists directly address religion as scientists.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home