Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hawking and God

"There's so much I don't know about astrophysics. I wish I read that book by that wheelchair guy." (Homer Simpson).

Good news for Anglican priests! Generally regarded as a metaphysically deluded collection of harmless buffoons, these men of God have today been press-ganged into various TV and radio studios across the country, and invited by unimaginative news editors to step through the familiar rhetorical choreography of the science vs. religion debate, in tango with an equally surprised, but delighted, collection of media-savvy physicists.

And the cause of this unholy ecclesiastical flood? Stephen Hawking's latest contribution to the philosophically ill-informed interpretation of science, and in particular his headline pronouncement in The Times that God did not create the universe. Coming in the same week as Tony Blair's revelation that he didn't like Gordon Brown, it seems that we are to be disabused of all our delusions in one fell swoop.

The Times are serialising Hawking's new book, The Grand Design (co-written presumably with Kevin McCloud), and in this momentous tome Hawking argues that the existence of the universe can be explained as a spontaneous creation from nothing, in accordance with known physics, and that this is why there is something rather than nothing. This claim is based upon an interpretation of some speculative quantum cosmology, and the interested reader is referred to a paper published a few years ago in Studies in the History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, which critically analysed such theories and interpretations in detail.

The other 'news' is that Hawking appears to have abandoned the notion that there will actually be a theory of everything, yet at the same time he waxes lyrical about M-theory. This is slightly odd, because M-theory, the theory which was supposed to unify the various superstring theories, has still to be defined, fifteen years after it was first hypothesised. The philosopher of physics Craig Callendar picks up on this:

"I was surprised when the authors began to advocate M-theory. But it turns out they were unconventionally referring to the patchwork set of string theories as 'M-theory' too, in addition to the hypothetical unified theory about which they remain agnostic."

And herein lies the fundamental philosophical contradiction in Hawking's position. He seems to advocate what might be called an instrumentalistic approach to the philosophy of science. In other words, he thinks science is no more than a tool for generating reliable predictions, controlling the world, and organising observational and measurement data. Hawking doesn't believe that science actually represents the objective structure of the world; as such, this is an anti-realist position in the philosophy of science. Thus, we have Hawking's acceptance of a patchwork of different theories, in lieu of a single theory of everything.

However, if Hawking is arguing that science can solve fundamental metaphysical questions, such as the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then he needs to adopt a realist philosophy of science. Under an instrumentalistic approach, there's no reason to believe what any particular cosmological theory happens to say about the ontology of the early universe, for such theories are, ex hypothesi, merely tools for organising measurement data and making reliable predictions. If physics cannot capture the objective ontology of the world, then physics cannot derive metaphysical conclusions about the world.

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