John S Wilkins’ “Evolving Thoughts”

A year and a half ago, in September 2010, blogger John S. Wilkins posted something I meant to remark on here.  A response to the public discussion going on at the time about Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design, it was titled “Stephen Hawking and the Creation of the Universe.”  Mr Wilkins’ point was that, while some presented Professor Hawking’s book as presenting an argument against the existence of God, the argument Professor Hawking actually presents tells only against a theology that was discredited in the nineteenth century.  Once mathematicians demonstrated that simple processes could yield complex and stable systems, the Enlightenment theory of the universe as a grand machine and of God as the grand machinist, a view expressed in, among other movements, deism, lost its logical warrant.  Mr Wilkins closing paragraphs read thus:

Can we come up with a deist god that is consistent with the modern physics? One way is called “block universe” theory, and I have discussed this before. Any deity that is not themselves bounded by ordinary causal relations and time is able to set up a universe that does things causally even if that universe is unpredictable within spacetime. But this is rather more like the traditional theist God, only without all the intervention. In losing the Laplacean deist god we find ourselves back with the Augustinian-Thomist deity. If you think it matters. I’m a block theorist for other reasons than theology, but the option is there if you need it.

A universe that can “create” itself is a state of affairs that is actualised, and may very well be actualised by a deity that desired it. The notion of cause has been so stretched and modified that it is almost unrecognisable, but there is nothing I can see that is self-contradictory about it, and so I conclude that Hawking, if he’s being reported correctly, has disproven a view of God that had currency solely among scientists and philosophers who were still Enlightenment thinkers.

Now somebody will tell me that the book is more subtle and interesting than that. Which is what these posts are for…

I bring this up now because Mr Wilkins has announced that both his blog and his Twitter account are likely to be dormant for a time, since he’s out of work and short of funds.  If you have profited from his temperate and learned posts on biology, the philosophy of science, and the case for agnosticism, you might consider donating money to him.  If you haven’t read him and are interested in the natural world, philosophy, science, or religion, or if you simply enjoy hearing a calm and rational voice, you should have a look.  Even if you don’t decide to help him financially, I’m sure your reading of his blog would bring both satisfaction to him and fresh intellectual stimulation to you.

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:

(more…)