Actually, there is a lot in this little book that I don’t really understand. For example, I don’t get quantum mechanics at all, but since Feynman said “nobody understands quantum mechanics”, I don’t feel too bad about it. Though I can follow along with Hawking’s clearly written presentation, I know that behind the curtain is a whole bunch of mysterious math, which I am grateful that he left that out. He could say pretty much anything, I would accept it. And he says some pretty outlandish stuff:
There are a number of different varieties of quarks: there are thought to be at least six “flavors”, which we call up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, and top. Each flavor comes in the three “colors”, red, green, and blue. [pg. 65]
Real [as opposed to virtual] gravitons make up what classical physicists would call gravitational waves, which are very weak — and so difficult to detect that they have never yet been observed. [pg. 70]
The fact that confinement prevents one from observing an isolated quark or gluon might seem to make the whole notion of quarks and gluons as particles somewhat metaphysical. [pg. 73]
The suggestion is that the other dimensions are curved up into a space of very small size, something like a million million million million millionth of an inch. [pg. 163]
This is science? I can imagine a Monty Python skit giving a better explanation of some of this than I could. To those of us who have not made the observations for ourselves and do not understand the underlying mathematics, this stuff is pretty close to revealed Truth. We accept it on faith, faith in the high priests of the scientific establishment, faith that if there are flaws in any of this, the experts will find them and come up with something closer to the truth.
I read Hawking’s book in part as an antidote to the Answers in Genesis website, where I had been spending far too much time since I had started this blog. For the most part, I understand what these young earth creationists are saying all too well, usually well enough to refute it. Needless to say, I am not prepared to challenge much of anything Hawking says.
My point is this: A Brief History of Time, I believe, even though I don’t really comprehend it, while Answers in Genesis, I fully understand but reject out of hand. I think the young earth creationists are ridiculous. But, is my own position not equally so? Accepting Hawking as I do, can I not understand how someone could accept Ken Ham and his reading of the Bible in the same way?
To the layman, or to the young student, science is handed down from on high. Yes, I did experiments in science lab, sometimes even getting them to work. However, if the experiment didn’t work out as it was supposed to, I assumed that I did something wrong and accepted the bad grade. Scientific theory remained intact, unaffected by my actual results.
Especially when it comes to scientific work on the fundamental properties of the universe, there is much that we who are not experts accept on trust. Fundamentalist Christians put their trust in the Bible. They have devised Young Earth Creationism in an attempt to hold fast to the religion of their forefathers and reconcile a particular reading of the Bible with the observations of modern science. Despite its sometimes tortured logic, this pseudo science is easier for some people to buy into than the abstruse concepts that Hawking describes, no matter how clear his prose. To the fundamentalist, Young Earth Creationism simply has more truthiness.
Part of what has made Hawking’s book so popular is that he deals explicitly with the theological implications of his work. Although he mentions that the Catholic Church has declared the Big Bang compatible with the Bible, he is acutely aware of that he leaves little room for the creator God of traditional Christianity.
One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. … There ought to be some principle that picks out one initial state, and hence one model, to represent our universe.
There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time ….. The universe would be self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE. [pg. 136]
Though Hawking carefully avoids ever denying the existence of a Creator, any explanation of the world that relies on the existence of such a God seems, for him, to be a failure of human understanding. It is here that I begin to be able to challenge what he says. Take, especially the final paragraph:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God. [pg. 175]
This is a beautiful sentiment and a powerful conclusion to this marvelous little book, but it is pure hubris. I believe the scientific method to be a powerful tool. With this tool, we are perhaps even capable of discovering a complete theory of the physics underlying our universe. As marvelous as that triumph would be, I do not think it will help us much with the day to day problems of life. Human reason has it’s limits, limits that fall well short of knowing whatever it is that we refer to as the Mind of God. For mere mortals like ourselves, that will remain a mystery.