I think you should be more explicit here in step two

Recently I took a lot of books to the nearest used book store.  My main goal was to free up space in the apartment, but since the guy doesn’t pay cash for books and I’m not inclined to give him books for free I had to take store credit.  That meant picking up a few books.  What he had that I could imagine myself reading were popular science books about cosmology written in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s.  It’s been fun looking through those.  It’s as if I’ve been mentally reenacting the development of grand scale physical theory as it has played out over the last 60 years.  So I started with The Nature of the Universe,  a series of lectures delivered in 1950 by Fred Hoyle, who coined the phrase “Big Bang” as a silly name for what he regarded as a ludicrous hypothesis.  Then I moved on to a somewhat later book suggesting that the hypothesis might not be so ludicrous, to a still later book that explains it as a settled fact, and then to a relatively recent book which shows impatience with people who still talk about the Big Bang when the the real questions are all about the period of extremely rapid cosmic inflation that followed immediately after the Big Bang.

Seeing how dramatically cosmology has changed in the last 60 years and how much more powerful its arguments have become, it’s easy to think that physics must have reached maturity in that time.  One might think that physicists are done making great discoveries, and that in the next few years they will tidy up the few remaining problems facing their discipline.  Looking more closely, a different picture emerges.  So, reading one of the more recent books I came upon a reference to proton decay, including the casual remark that in the distant future, several trillion years from now, there won’t be any protons left.  I was curious as to how long it takes a proton to decay and what happens to the little fellow while he is decaying.  So I googled “how long does it take a proton to decay?”  That brought up some articles saying that we don’t know how long it takes protons to decay, and that as a matter of fact we have no proof that they decay at all.  No one has ever seen a proton decay, and since we know virtually nothing about the internal structure of the proton we cannot very well describe the process by which that structure would dissolve.  Knowing so little about the proton, we are in the dark not only about the origin and future of the proton, but we are also in the rather embarrassing position of not being able to explain why objects have mass.  The Large Hadron Collider is supposed to inform this ignorance, but at the moment physics is left with an enormous blank space.  This blank space suggests, not a mature science with only a few loose ends left to tie up, but a young science whose greatest discoveries are very likely still to be made.

Perhaps I will cap off my read-through of old popularizations of cosmology with a look at Stephen Hawking‘s forthcoming book. This book has already received a great deal of commentary, most of in response to this quote:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

I haven’t yet seen the book, and these two sentences are not included in this excerpt from it published in Time magazine, or this one from the Wall Street Journal.   So I don’t know what Hawking is driving at with this line.  Since the book only became available on the 7th of this month, few in the armies of commenters can have seen it either.  Not even philosopher Ervin Laszlo quotes any part of the book aside from these 35 words.

It would therefore be both unfair to Hawking and superfluous for me to become yet another person who has reacted to these two sentences without reading the book from which they are taken.  So I will confine myself to mentioning some ideas of which this line has reminded me, ideas which I do not attribute to Hawking.

The discussion surrounding Hawking’s two sentences tends to be summed up in headlines like “Stephen Hawking: God Was Not Needed to Create the Universe,” “”Hawking’s Rejection of God Unpersuasive, Say Faith Leaders,” and “God Has No Role in the Universe, Says Stephen Hawking.”  The idea that the existence of the physical universe in some way or other proves the existence of a supernatural being who created and governs that universe is known as “the argument from design.”  To the extent that the 35 words quoted above summarize Hawking’s project fairly, that project would represent an attempt to refute the argument from design.  Over the centuries, other arguments have been advanced to prove that God exists; I very much doubt that an attempt to refute the ontological proof or the transcendental argument would inspire the furious reaction these 35 words have elicited in so many quarters.  Many people who are quite willing to see the other arguments as exercises for logic students to work through seem to be passionately attached to the argument from design, even to equate acceptance of its soundness with religious belief.

This state of affairs puzzles me.  As a teacher in a university classics program, I often talk with students about the mythological ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In these ideas, we see a culture which showed an intense concern with the birth of the gods, and an equally intense concern with the origins of various human populations.  The ancients usually worshipped their gods, not one at a time, but in groups.  Therefore, they needed stories that included descriptions of the primordial cosmos to explain what the kinship relations were among the gods.  Only with that knowledge could they properly appease the unseen forces that they believed to hold great power over their lives.  Most of the ancients lived, not as atomized individuals, but as members of close-knit kinship groups.  Therefore, they needed stories that included descriptions of the origins of the human race to know who their relatives were, and which groups were offshoots of other groups.  What pagan Greeks and Romans did not seek to find in myth was an account of the origin and basic governance of the physical universe.  Greek and Latin mythological texts simply take it for granted that “there is something rather than nothing,” that “the universe exists.”

To give just one example, the most famous Greek mythological text treating of the world before humans was Hesiod’s Theogony.  Not only does Hesiod say that the first cosmic entities emerged spontaneously from the void; this idea doesn’t even strike him as something needing explanation.  The gods did not create the physical world, as they were all descended from the entities formed in that first moment of spontaneous generation.  Hesiod does not appeal even obliquely to any process that might have produced the Earth.  “At first there was a gaping void, and then came into being deep-breasted Earth, the unshaken foundation of all the immortal gods who occupy the snowy peaks of Olympus, and shadowy Tartarus deep in the Earth’s wide ways, and Eros, most lovely of the immortals, who undoes the strength of minds and limbs and counsels both human and divine .”  And that’s it- from there on out we’re on to the interesting part, the cosmic family tree.

This blasé disregard for the origin of the physical world did not set the Greeks and Romans apart from their neighbors in the ancient Mediterranean world.  The ancient Hebrews, for example, were so bored by the topic that they placed two contradictory accounts of the origin of the world side by side in chapters one and two of Genesis, and then spent a good many centuries producing sacred texts that barely mention either account.  Having established that they were not an subgroup of any other existing nation, the Hebrews could go on to other subjects.

It has only been in the modern world that the idea has taken hold that the physical world operates like a machine, and that if there are gods who govern it they must be machinists.  With the prevalence of this idea, the “argument from design” became vitally important to believers of many stripes.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is often cited as the father of the argument from design, but it is worth pointing out that he in fact rejected the forms of the argument that are familiar today.  In Question 2, Article 3 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas pairs the following objection and response:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

The objection rests on the idea that natural laws can explain each observable phenomenon without appeal to miraculous intervention.  The reply does not challenges this idea, but appeals to an ontological doctrine that what is imperfect must always depend upon a source that is perfect.  Between this objection and reply, the body of the Article includes Thomas’ famous “Five Ways,” five arguments for the existence of God.  Of these, only the fifth can be called an argument from design, and it is quite different from the versions of the theory that have gained influence over so many minds in the 750 years since Thomas wrote:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

It is not the scale, or durability, or aesthetic quality of the universe to which Thomas appeals here, nor is it the mere fact of order.  Instead, Thomas conflates teleology- the doctrine that processes have characteristic results- with his ontological doctrine that what is imperfect must depend upon a perfect source. Neither this conflation nor the idea that the perfect source of a process which is characterized by a particular result must be a consciousness that intends that result is implied in Thomas’ premises.  Thomas’ statements in this passage are in fact so confused that they hardly represent an argument at all, but they certainly do not fit the usual profile of arguments from design.

I suspect that most of the religious believers until modern times would have been close to the priestly characters in one of Graham Greene’s novels (I think it’s The End of the Affair, but I can’t track the quote down at the moment) who chat about the mysterious fact that there are people who believe in God.  What convinces them?  It can’t be the arguments; these, they say, any schoolboy can refute.

When we think of a schoolboy refuting the argument from design, we may think of little John Stuart Mill, who recounts in his Autobiography that his father taught him:

[T]hat the manner in which the world came into existence was a subject on which nothing was known; that the question “Who made me?” cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it; and that any answer only throws the difficulty a step further back, since the question immediately presents itself, “Who made God”?

In fairness to Thomas, he was aware of the danger of throwing the difficulty a step further back, and strove to overcome it in crafting his Five Ways; one may not believe he succeeded, but it is clear that he was alive to that hazard.  Perhaps his influence was at work when these learned Jesuits earnestly claimed that when one says that gravity made the physical universe, the question immediately presents itself, “Who made gravity”?  To that question, the clerics assert, God is a satisfactory answer.

Not having read Hawking’s book, I don’t know whether he is really so naïve as the Jesuits think.  I do suspect that attributing the physical universe to Gods act of creation is equivalent to saying that while there is an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, that answer is inside a black box that no one can open.  It’s true that gravity is today the least understood of all natural forces; crediting the existence of the universe to gravity is therefore also a black box explanation.  But that situation may be temporary, and such claims may someday be tested in ways that claims about God can never be.

Many critics have pounced on Hawking’s use of the word “nothing,” pointing out that the law of gravity, whatever it may be, is not “nothing.”  The God in the black box wouldn’t be “nothing,” either; that’s why Thomas Aquinas rejected Augustine of Hippo’s argument that God created the universe from nothing, saying that God’s acts were the stuff from which everything we perceive was made.  Hawking may be speaking loosely here, and may mean something quite different from what Augustine or Thomas meant, though the words suggest very similar lines of thought.  Frankly, I would be much readier to trust that Hawking avoided fallacies that Thomas exploded 750 years ago if the second most widely quoted line from the forthcoming book were not a bumptious dismissal of philosophy.

Even before I began my classical training, questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?”  had never struck me as particularly urgent.  Perhaps this shows a failure of imagination on my part, or perhaps it shows another vice.  Physicist Konrad Rudnicki discusses the Perfect Cosmological Principle, the idea that the universe looks roughly the same observed from every point, in every direction, and at every time.  This idea underlies the Steady State Theory of the universe that Fred Hoyle developed; indeed, the main reason I picked up those cosmology titles at the used book store was that Hoyle’s book was on top of the stack, and Hoyle’s long-discredited idea had always attracted me.  The Perfect Cosmological Principle does not fit the observed phenomena; for example, if we look 13,000,000,000 light years into the distance we see quasars and other phenomena that don’t exist now, so that the universe does not look roughly the same observed at every time.  And it now seems that at least one of the laws of physics differs from one end of the universe to the other, so the universe does not look roughly the same observed in every direction.

If the theory doesn’t fit the facts, why do I still seek out books about it?  Perhaps because of one of the points Rudnicki makes.  If we accept that the universe has changed radically over time and varies radically across space, then there must be absolute limits to our ability to understand its workings.  If the Perfect Cosmological Principle were true, then there might not be any such limits.  Studying Greek and Latin may have reinforced my humanistic tendency to believe that our minds are capable of understanding whatever exists, but it was in part because I already had such a tendency that I began studying Greek and Latin in the first place.

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