Monday, September 06, 2010

Hawking and Mlodinow say God did not create the universe

The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Grand Design. The title was “Why God Did Not Create the Universe.”

When a certain type of scientist makes this claim, their position always runs along these lines: science can explain whatever phenomena a religious person uses God to explain, and since science can explain it without requiring God or supernatural powers, it follows that God and supernatural powers don’t exist. Boiled down to its essence, the argument is that if we use parsimony (Occam’s Razor) we won’t have any reason to believe in God, at least not any reason based on our desire to explain or describe what we perceive in the universe.

The Hawking and Mlodinow argument follows this line. They point out that when people didn’t know much about science, they made up stories about gods or supernatural forces to explain their experiences. Even now, some people suppose there must be a God because there is something rather than nothing. We exist in a universe that seems to have just the right settings to allow life to evolve, and our planet seems remarkably well-suited to human evolution. This seems like a remarkable coincidence, so perhaps God designed the universe to be just right for us. Yet, science (as presented in the Hawking and Mlodinow book) has shown that there can be many universes, and universes can emerge from nothing, and if there are a nearly infinite number of universes it follows that there must be some universes such as ours where life as we know it can evolve. And since life has evolved here, this just happens to be a universe where it’s possible for life to emerge and evolve. So, we don’t need God to explain this universe, its creation, or its remarkable suitability for life.

The sort of God this argument dismisses is one who would fashion a creation in such a way that there would be gaps, cracks, holes, and incongruities within the creation so that intelligences within the creation would be able to logically discern the existence of the Creator, and understand that the Creator had intervened within the creation. It also dismisses a God who would set up a universe with two conflicting systems, one a system of physical laws and forces working according to a particular set of rules, and another a system of supernatural forces working according to an entirely different set of rules. In other words, the "God of the gaps" idea that we believe in God because only God can explain certain observed phenomena (like the existence of the universe) is refuted by science which has eliminated all gaps. This is an argument against a God who inspires belief because people need a "god hypothesis" to fill in explanations for things that aren't understood.

But really, there is no point in entering into a debate with such assertions. Occam’s Razor (the rule of parsimony) will always rule out God. Any evidence of God (defined as an all-powerful, all-knowing, Source of creation and Sustainer of reality with attributes analogous to what we experience as will and consciousness and emotion) can be explained parsimoniously as evidence for more advanced civilizations, rather than God. That is, in a universe such as ours it is quite plausible that there could be entities who belong to races or civilizations that evolved and advanced past our current technological state hundreds of thousands of years ago, or even millions or tens of millions of years ago. There could be beings in this universe that passed our present state of evolution and knowledge over a billion years ago. Such entities and their civilizations might be able to manifest all sorts of powers and technologies which would look to us like the work of an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God. But, if we apply the rule of parsimony, we must stick with the hypothesis that all indications of this “God” are in fact the manifestations of natural and scientific technologies far beyond our current understanding. Advanced alien races and technologies, rather than supernatural gods or magical powers of a deity, can always be suggested as an alternative scientific explanation for what appears to be evidence of God. Such explanations, which conform to Occam’s razor, give us questions about any god that science eventually finds. For example, from what race of beings did this god evolve, and how did the god develop powers and attributes, and by what technologies or physical laws does this god manifest seemingly miraculous powers and attributes? This is quite different from the typical religious contention that God was uncreated, and God is above questions related to causes, technologies, and so forth.

Some people come to belief in God through the teachings of Messengers of God. Unlike many other branches of human religion that follow Messengers of God whose lives and revelations are considerably obscured by historical distance and lack of solid evidence, Baha’is follow the Revelation of a Manifestation who lived from 1817-1892. There are plenty of obscuring legends and exaggerations around the life of Baha’u’llah, but we have enough physical and historic evidence, as well as original source materials, to make some factual observations about His life and message.

Yet, even these, which I take as convincing proof and a basis for faith, could never overcome a strong attachment to the rule of parsimony. Baha’u’llah revealed scriptures of high excellence and wisdom, sometimes spontaneously and rapidly. This seems like a possession by the Holy Spirit or a Revelation from God to those who have faith. But, rather than resort of supernatural explanations, one could use the rule of parsimony to point out that many people have revealed poems, stories, and other miraculous material while in trances, or under hypnosis. There have been cases of automatic writing (spirit writing) and so forth, all related to dissociative mental activity, and this isn’t so different from the way Baha’u’llah revealed Baha’i scriptures. Baha’u’llah evidently saw and heard things that others couldn’t hear, and this sort of phenomena is fairly common in people who suffer from schizophrenia, or persons who aren’t mentally ill, but who experience objectively non-real experiences such as alien or fairy abduction or conversations with dead ancestors (at least non-real to mortal observers, but I have no idea about what is going on in the brains of such people). Delusions are also widely known, and Baha’u’llah’s beliefs about His station could be explained as delusions without invoking a supernatural God to explain them. The fact that Baha’u’llah seems to have fit in with prophetic predictions about a Manifestation of God could be dismissed, if we use parsimony, as coincidence, or as stretching the facts to fit vague prophetic traditions. A person could just argue that Baha’u’llah didn’t in fact fulfill prophesies. Likewise the remarkable or miraculous events surrounding Bah’u’llah’s life or his remarkable abilities could be dismissed as untrue stories, or merely remarkable coincidences or luck. It is always more scientific to invoke Occam’s razor and explain away aspects of Baha’u’llah’s life as coincidence, false stories, or something else that doesn’t require a divine supernatural God.

Even if one did accept that something seemingly supernatural was going on in Baha’u’llah’s life and Revelation, it would be more parsimonious to suggest Baha’u’llah was merely using natural forces that science hasn’t yet detected and explored, rather than to accept that God was involved. In fact, in some of Baha’u’llah’s writings (such as the Tablet of Wisdom) it appears that Baha’u’llah was picking up some ideas current in his time and culture about history, rather than picking up direct factual information about history. This fits with an idea that natural technologies or powers were involved, rather than an all-powerful, all-knowing Divine Force.

Baha’i writings about miracles also seem to take this view, that miracles and miraculous events should not be relied upon as evidence, unless one has directly experienced the miracle or event for oneself. The supernatural stories surrounding Baha’u’llah are evidence to those who were present when the miraculous events took place, but for the rest of us, such stories are merely stories, and we should not take them as evidence for Baha’u’llah‘s status as a Messenger of God. After all, there are many people who have sometimes exhibited miraculous powers or encountered supernatural forces, and this sort of experience isn’t really all that unusual.

What frustrates me is that atheistic scientists who present these arguments that Occam’s razor and the rule of parsimony remove God from the question because science can explain everything without God are claiming that the domains of logic and empirical evidence (the sort of evidence that can be reproduced and manipulated through experiment) are sufficient domains to explain the world. In essence, they are claiming that science and logic and rational thought are sufficient for our beliefs and models of the world. This is, I believe, a mistake. There are other domains of life and other models of understanding that work quite well, and are needed, and some of these domains are outside of science. Religion is one of these domains. I think when religion makes propositions about the natural world, it is the duty of the religious person to subject their assertions to scientific investigation. But the scientific method is not an especially useful way to investigate the realms of meaning, value, ethics, theology, and so forth. There are other realms such as arts, economics, human relationships, dreams, and various other aspects of the world that may also lie mostly outside of the scientific method. That is, we use models of understanding and meaning within these realms in a way that makes science and rational thought not really very useful. Scientific methods can be applied in order to try to unify all knowledge under the umbrella of reason and rational thought and the scientific method, but I think the scientific method will not eventually capture a satisfactory understanding of all aspects of human experience and life.

The continuing attempt by certain scientists and atheists to remove superstitious belief in a God who must intervene to make things happen in this universe is usually quite unsatisfactory. They are arguing against a level of theological understanding that seems to only exist in certain fundamentalists or very conservative and traditional theologians. It seems a waste of their intellect. I suppose there are enough literally-minded religious traditionalists and fundamentalists running around in our world to keep the atheists and scientists busy, but rarely do I see anything written in a sensitive way that would really persuade a literalistic believer. Nor do I see a sophistication in the dialogue that would engage with someone who had a more sophisticated critique of scientism or a more post-modern theological belief system. Mostly, these books are intended for an audience that already accepts science and tends to have a simplistic view of religious believers, or a condescending view toward religious faith. It is of course interesting news that cosmologists have answers they find logical and scientific to questions such as why is there something instead of nothing, and how did the universe emerge out of the pre-universe, and why is it that our universe has scientific laws and constants that seem to make it such a nice place for life. But to then take answers to such questions and make a claim that this tells us something new and important about God is not very convincing.

I continue to have faith, but I see my faith as being outside of my scientific approach to the world. My faith is unscientific. That’s not a problem that needs to be resolved.


Anonymous said...

From a rational, thinking perspective, the idea that there are higher forms of life is a plausibility. Many things have happened that would indicate that there is a hereafter, and a god. The fact that miracles have happened indicates that god exists. People who have died have given eye witness accounts of other places. An earth worm does not know that a man exists, neither do much lower forms of life. If there are miracles, other places, and lower forms of life that do not know that the higher forms exist. It is plausible that there are higher forms of life.

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

Hello anonymous. Thanks for posting.

Given the vastness of the universe, I'd say the idea of higher forms of life is nearly a certainty, so we agree there. Also, like you, I think there is evidence for such things as a supernatural god and a continued existence for at least some aspects of what we consider "the self" after death, independent of the physical body (life after death). It's just that this evidence, which I think is widespread, isn't, so far as I'm aware, reproducible in laboratory settings.

So, my belief in God and at least some degree of personal survival of death is based on empirical evidence, but not based on scientific evidence. Also, there are rational and logical reasons to believe, but my understanding is that such rational and logical arguments must, necessarily, counter the parsimony principle (Occam's Razor).

Anders Branderud said...

Hello Eric!
I read your article and would like to comment.

Fact is that formal logic based on scientific premises implies the existence of a Creator [See logical proof on the website below].. Then the question remais: Which is the religion that this Creator endorses?

There are logical reasons and many prophecies that points out that this Instruction manual is found in Torah [Documentation: Link]

I wish you all the best,
Anders Branderud