CUSTOM UNIVERSE and the scope of science


A Comment on the Scope of Science

Prof Brian V. Hill

On Thursday 29 August the ABC ran a Catalyst program entitled “Custom Universe – Finetuned for Us?”[i] Clear and informative, it was also a classic example of the epistemological arroganceof atheistic scientism. It canvassed the latest thinking among physicists (students of the physical world) about the origin of the visible universe. It built its story-line around the thesis, popularised by (but not originating with) Stephen Hawking in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, that in many essential respects our universe is uniquely fine-tuned for the evolu­tion of intelligence – and human habitation.

Quote: Narration (Dr Graham Phillips)
 Some take fine-tuning as evidence that God created the universe. You can imagine physicists’ horror at the thought. But what other explanation could there be? Well, we’ve hit the road to find some answers from some of the top physicists in the world.

Why “horror”? If God were non-physical and therefore unseen, it would be a category mistake to make him a subject of hypothesising in physics. Or perhaps the mood of the program was to avoid implying that physicists (or anyone else) might reasonably believe in God on grounds other than physical data. Certainly the program featured no physicists in that category!

Instead, the program flashed up occasional images of religious icons to imply how dated and unscientific the God idea is. That was sheer propaganda. There was no engagement with the question of the limitations of science when it comes to dealing with non-physical matters, no encouragement to look seriously at the God-hypothesis for other reasons. The program assumed that “top physicists” were the appropriate people to consult for answers to this question.

In Hawking’s History of Time, some ambivalent references were made to God. Whether or not that was out of deference to his first wife, a committed Christian, Hawking has since become more radical­ised in his thinking to the point of saying in 2011 that concepts of God and an afterlife are a "fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

In this reflection, I offer some comment on a few quotes from the transcript of the program in question, and conclude with a few further comments on the significance of “what is not seen.”

Accounting for Fine Tunings

Quote: Professor Leonard Susskind 
There’s all sorts of fine-tunings that have to be matched in order for us to be here.

Quote: Susskind
 The only explanation that I know… and – I think it’s fair to say – the only explanation that’s out there is that there are many, many possibilities . . . 

 I have not the vaguest idea of whether the universe was created by an intelligence.

Susskind’s more measured response to the problem of fine-tuning is to endorse the speculation that there is an infinite number of universes, leading to the conclusion that there had to be at least one that evolved like ours. There’s nothing illogical about this claim, but, if “universe” means all there is, the claim is entirely made-up and so far as we would ever be able to tell, unprovable. In postulating such unseen entities – other universes – Susskind and Hawking are embracing an article of faith popular among people who do not want to admit another unseen – God – into their thinking.

Is it unfair of me to suggest that this eminent scientist and this eminent mathematician have smuggled in a faith statement to avoid the God-hypothesis? Isn’t Susskind just being a good physicist? No. He’s also qualifying to be, at the leasr, an agnostic. Hawking for his part purported to buttress the multiple universe hypothesis with mathematical deductions, but the Catalyst program is honest enough to admit that many find his mathematical line of argument flawed.

Brief mention is made early in the program of Fred Hoyle’s reluctant comment that “’It looks like a superintellect has monkeyed with physics.” That came after he had made efforts to discount the hypothesis advanced by Edwin Hubble in 1925 that our universe was expanding outwards. The implication of Hubble’s thesis was that, extrapolating backwards, there must have been a begin­ning to this expansion.

Theists have sometimes näively welcomed this as scientific confirmation of the belief that God did the creating, but whether he did or not is beyond scientific probing. Such a belief requires a different kind of epistemological probe. God, if he exists, being unseen, would actually have to tell us himself.

Hoyle’s “steady state” theory was driven more by a desire to avoid this conclusion than any prior evidence, but he eventually had to concede both that his theory had been disproved by the fact discovered by Hubble, and that the additional evidence of fine-tuning increased the likelihood of an intelligence behind it all. Hoyle ceased to be an atheist, but his new theism appears to have been very grudging – conceding intelligent design but denying any belief in the Christian God.

Quote: Professor Lawrence Krauss 
It’s certainly fine-tuned so we can exist. It’s also incredibly inhospit­able. If you were designing a universe for life, I suspect you might design it differently. There is no evidence of design or purpose to our universe.

Now it’s out in the open. Krauss is a leading atheist who might even have been able to correct God, had God existed. It’s not enough to imply that “intelligent design” theorists have not made a strong enough case. He declares as fact what can only be a matter of faith. He is determined not to read an “intelligent mind” into the proven fine-tuning of our universe.

Krauss, that is, is committed to a world-view that excludes the God-hypothesis. In the circum­stances, that’s an act of faith. Krauss has crossed the line and come out as a man of atheist faith reading his faith back into his physics.

Quote: Professor John Webb
 The physical equations that we’ve been using for many years now all make the assumption that physics is the same everywhere and always has been the same, but it is an assumption.

This lets the cat out of the bag. All the amazing discoveries in physics so far, including in astronomy, have been based on the assumption that the laws of physics apply uniformly through the universe. The engine of the scientific revolution of the 17th century was the Judaeo-Christian conviction that God created an ordered world. This assumption has stood the test of time, implicitly undergirding the confidence with which physicists and other scholars assume that these laws remain constant and are therefore worth our efforts to discover them because they will not suddenly change when we get up tomorrow.

But Webb’s purpose in making this statement is to preface his claim that his research is finding that physical laws can vary from place to place, from which he deduces that there are other universes out there operating on different physical principles. That’s a big jump. He doesn’t call them “galaxies’, which would give the game away, but insists that they could all be universes co-existing in the same infinitely vast “space.”

The Catalyst program went on at this point to acknowledge that there are continuing difficulties with the idea of a multiple universes – when it comes to seeing how such a claim could be verified.. And the program then suggests instead – wait for it – that the solution might lie with the phenomenon of minds.

Instead of trying to explain away the fine-tuning with a multiverse, Paul Davies says we could accept that the universe has been fine-tuned to produce intelligent minds. After all, there is reason to think our brains are special, he says.

. . . Maybe minds play a big role in the universe, even having a hand in designing it.

How interesting. Minds are unseen. Brains are visible, minds are detected only through the personal experience of being an entity with mind. Is Davies drawing us towards the conclusion that an original Great Mind lies behind the universe we see? Well, no. According to the Catalyst program, Davies is postulating that minds in the future may have learnt to loop back in time to influence the original Big Bang, resulting in the evolution of intelligent minds.

No need in this closed loop for God. Reality just is this way. But there is no scientific way of proving the idea is anything other than a science-fiction-style fairy-tale. But at least it keeps the personal God at bay. Why do they struggle so hard?

From the Seen to the Unseen

Phillips (at the end of the program) For the moment, the fine-tuning question remains unresolved.

“For the moment . . .”! Implicit in this way of signing off on the discussion is the assumption that in principle it is only a matter of time before physics will get it right. No mention of the possibility that one must step outside the bounded discourse of physics to answer some crucial questions about Creation and human existence.

What philosophers call “the fallacy of reductionism” is at play here. Clearly everything visible is composed of matter affected by energy transformations. Animals are made up of cells, and cells of quanta. So ultimately, a reductionist might say, biology is “nothing but”[ii] a subset of physics, the discipline which deals with matter and energy at quantum level (why stop there – maybe it only stops at “string theory”!).

The appropriate response to this claim is to say that as levels of organisation in an individual (plant or animal) or group become more complex, more levels of explanation have to be developed, accommodating more complex forms of organisation, ultimately including factors of free choice that have to be fed into the equation as well.

Another example of reductionism is where some social scientists claim that all human behaviour is ultimately explained by genetics and culturally conditioning, requiring us to view the experience of free will, whether in humans or other parts of the animal kingdom, as an illusion. Human choice is re-interpreted as a deterministic inevitability. This is a rather illogical leap of faith, but presumably also pre-determined!

The final nail in the coffin of reductionism is indeed mind: the capacity to comprehend the laws of physics, to create novel structures, to choose how we shall live. Neuroscientists tell us that the neural pathways and connections available in the brain dwarf in number the stars we can see in the sky. Even if true, this fact neither describes nor explains mind.

To repeat, mind is unseen. So is “the self” – the organising function which gives us a sense of enduring identity. The lifework of an enduring identity labelled “Daniel Dennett” has been devoted to arguing that there is no such entity as himself, only a lively electonic web of diverse binary connections in which sub-routines compete with each other to rise to the executive top end of the program controlling the human animal! [iii]

This too is science fiction masquerading as philosophy. We need kinds of explanation that stand above the laws of physics, or even of computer programming: explanatory theories which help us us to understand what is happening on the level of mind and self-consciousness.

It is at this level too that the question arises whether there is a Great Mind that is responsible for all the levels of organisation previously mentioned. It is quite reasonable to ask this question – even though it’s not one that Physics is equipped to answer. Not surprisingly, it is human minds that tend naturally to raise this question and to develop speculations about the likelihood of God’s existence. In the end, the best they can do unaided is make a reasonable bet. Everyone bets on the answer, one way or another.

It’s a cop-out to claim agnosticism, as do Professors Susskind (“I have not the vaguest idea of whether the universe was created by an intelligence”), and Greene (“I’m just going to live it as if it were real, and in some sense it doesn’t matter where it came from”).

 For belief or unbelief in an unseen personal God has direct effects on our world-view and chosen lifestyle. To claim to be an agnostic is to live as though, for all practical purposes, God does not exist. That position is therefore, for all practical purposes, atheism.

In the meantime, the fine-tuning of the universe does, as the Catalyst program admitted, suggest to some scientists that ultimately Mind is and has been at work. Hence the “intelligent design” argument which some theistic scientists put forward. But this ultimately remains a hypothesis beyond the scope of scientific verification. As noted earlier, firm proof of a scientific kind could only come if the cosmic Mind communicated information of its existence intelligibly to our minds, bounded as they are by space-time.

That is, it is something that would have to occur in our history.[iv] And we would have to process such data using forms of disciplined thinking other than physics (though not less rigorous in their demands for logical reasoning and visible evidence): typically history, philosophy and theology.

Religions (including atheism) have various ways of addressing this problem. But Christianity claims that a certain sequence of historical events, strongly confirmed by triangulating several pieces of data, points to the conclusion that there is a personal God, and that he has indeed communicated to us information about himself. Christianity is not based on superstition frozen in stained-glass windows, but on a reasonable bet that this is what in fact has happened.

Most physicists currently see the Big Bang of Creation as a “singularity” outside the uniformity of nature. If one’s personal bet is that God was behind this event, the probability of his being behind the Resurrection of Jesus is then also quite reasonable. But it is still a bet – a faith-presupposition; and some, like the scientists appearing in the Catalyst program, have put their faith in the alternative belief that God does not exist or does not account for anything “seen.”

In short, the tone of the program was to suggest that physical science edges out superstition and is the only valid source of true knowledge. Is it beyond Catalyst’s scope to take seriously the possibility that there are highly intelligent scholars, using different epistemological tools, who can offer grounds for taking the God-hypothesis seriously? And to admit that physicists are probably not the people to look to for answers at this level?

August 2013.


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