Monday, October 4, 2010

Hawking: Atheism Is Dead

The challenge posed by Hawking's M-Theory to God isn't that it assumes that God doesn't exist.  In fact, given the actualization of all possible being that is an essential component of Hawking's summation of quantum physics, a being that we'd recognize as functionally indistinguishable from God has the real possibility of existing.  Eternal.  Omnipotent.  Omniscient.  A being that manifests all those omnis, up to and including a 1980 Dodge Omni, has the likelihood of being true.

If M-Theory holds, this is necessary.

Hawking, atheistic though he may be, has scored an own goal.  Taken at face value, M-theory means the end of atheism.  Or, perhaps to be more fair, it is the point at which the...what's the word...claxonic certitude of both classical and neoatheism and the findings of theoretical physics part ways.  Into the atheistic version of theodicy, into that modern-era cry that There Is No Empirical Evidence, You Morons, there is inserted from M-Theory reasonable doubt.  Let the jury take note.

One can still, of course, be a committed agnostic.  Or one could hate the idea of God, refuting God for the sheer cussedness of it. Or one could reject the idea that God has any relevance to human life, or to our spacetime.  But if you attempt to definitively state that God does not exist, what you say is radically undercut by what M-Theory's insights into the nature of the universe tell us.

The M-theory challenge for theists ceases to be whether God exists.  It is, rather, the last of the three questions above.  What would be the relevance of God in the cosmology that Hawking proposes? Hawking clearly believes that the infinitely random and generative character of reality at a quantum level is in and of itself sufficient for existence.  Everything springs into being because it must.

From his cosmological premise, Hawking would be required to cede that among the 10500 possible permutations of physics that spring forth from singularity might be a self-contained, self-aware, and functionally infinite being that met all the checkbox criteria for God.  Heck, he and Mlodinow are willing to overtly say that somewhere, somehow, there exists a moon made of cheese.

But what he would be unlikely to cede is that such a being would be the Creator.  Even if God exists, such a God would be no more relevant to the broader swath of being than my left nipple.  Yes, it has to be part of being.  But so does everything else that might possibly be. 

This "God" would be impressive, but ultimately just another wacky bubbling output of the seemingly absurd physics that underlies all existence.  It would not be the Creator, but rather a part of the fabric of M-Theory existence, not the first cause, but part of the result.  And if this god-thing is part of the result, well, it's not really God in the way that theists or the world's religious traditions conceptualize God.

To this very logical objection, there is a solid theistic response.   The presumption of causality works just fine within the linear flow of our spacetime, but breaks down completely once we step outside of it.  If you have an Anselm 2.0 God that is eternal, unchanging, all-a-knowin' and a-doin', such a God would be aware of and part of the generative process of bringing all existence into actuality.  Even if generativity can be theoretically asserted as necessary in the quantum mechanic randomness of existence near singularity, parsing such a being out from the processes of that generativity would be meaningless.  As Hawking and Mlodinow note, time does not exist near the moment of singularity.  If a form of being is not bounded by time, then it can't be caused.  It has always been that process.  The two things cannot be said to be different.  In the beginning, both were. One was with the other, and one was the other.

That sounds oddly familiar.

Where that gets us theologically is to a being that can be described meaningfully as a Creator, arising from nothing.  But this is only a slightly larger version of the Deist creator, or the Aristotelian Unmoved Mover.   Yes, the clock is waaay more complicated and a teensy bit wackadoodle, particularly that universe made entirely of hampsters, but it's still the Clockmaker God.  Distant.  Dispassionate.  Sadly autistic, utterly unmoved by joy and unphased by suffering. 

What could such a God possibly have to do with the God asserted by Christian faith?

Further up and further in...


  1. This is really fascinating... I don't know if it's really worth a thing, but I'm privileged just to watch.

  2. @ Anonymous: Yeah, I don't know either. Sometimes, it feels amazing, like stepping outside of Plato's cave. Other times, I look at what I'm writing and feel like Arthur Fonzarelli clearing that ramp and seeing the fin in the water. Either way, it's fun. And what point is there in blogging if you're not having fun?

  3. That is a rather awesome allegory there.

  4. The title and first half of this post looks to me like just so much unsubstantiated posturing. It seems to me your whole argument can be summarized as follows: "I understand M-theory to imply that every "possible" scenario, no matter how fantastic, is actually real somewhere in the multiverse; therefore my most cherished belief, no matter how fantastic, must also be actual. Hooray! (And neener-neener for you, you claxonic atheists.)"

    But it's not clear to me that your understanding of M-theory is correct, or, (more amusingly) if it is, that you have dealt in any remotely adequate way with all the other conflicting fantasies that come along for the ride. Everyone who has a cherished fantasy gets to make the same claim as you.

    Just as an example, thinking the way you do, wouldn't there be a universe in which the fundamentalist Christians were right about everything (or near enough for government purposes)? Why not a Hubble timespace controlled by a one-off God-like being who is deluded into thinking he is the One Big One, and who plans a literal version of Revelations including a Left-Behind style Rapture, a heaven with streets of gold and a lake of fire below filled with writhing Hindus, Jews, native Americans, homosexuals, Catholics, atheists, and liberal Presbyterians? How do we know that this isn't Jack Chick's world and we're just living in it?

  5. It's not even clear to me how your Anselm 2.0 reasoning prevents the God of the Chickverse (or the Islamoverse, or Mormoverse, or the Falsemessiahjeezoverse, or the Newyorkercartoonoverse) from just being a somewhat provincial avatar of your "self-contained, self-aware, and functionally infinite being," or SCUSAFIB for short. Your speculation seems to be that if anything goes, then the early multiverse could feature a highly improbable, self-generating, causality-dodging Scusafib, but why only one? Shouldn't we get a myriad of them as well, all vying for control over various sentient-being-generating universes such as ours? Why not a multiversal polytheism with various idiosychratic Scusafibs governing as many or as few of the universes as they like? What makes think that only one of them comes out on top, and which one would it be? Why should I listen to your opinion on this question, particularly when it relies so heavily of the opinions of a bunch of backwards Bronze-age shepherds?

    One choice is to say, "Well, okay, if Stephen Hawking isn't just off his nut, then, sure, there might be an infinite variety of Chickverses out there, but they must be pretty improbable in the Grand Scheme of Things, and the probability that I find myself in one is vanishingly small, and if there is no really convincing evidence for it, the smartest thing to do is to be technically agnostic about them, but effectively atheist about them." In other words, be a Gnu Atheist. (In which case, welcome to the club.)

    But, thinking this way, what exactly makes your particular flavor of theism more probable than Jack Chick's, besides that it's just more palatable to you? Unless you are willing to admit that the only difference between you and me is that you Want To Believe, then you need a way to start getting some of those Anselmic genies back into their ontological bottle. You need to get very busy sticking your ad hoc thumbs in that very large and thoroughly perforated ontological dyke, saying "That's not possible! That's not possible! That's not possible!" You are going to need more thumbs, my friend. Or, as Sherriff Brody actually said to water-ski Fonzie as they stood on the deck of the Enterprise in some universe somewhere, "We are going to need a bigger thumb." And this will inevitably devolve into a fallback assertion that God, as you imagine him, just wouldn't let that happen. All the Gods you don't like would be "impossible" by divine fiat from the God you do like, meaning that M-theory (as you imagine it) must be false after all, and the whole Anselm 2.0 edifice cancels itself out.

    That still leaves the possibility described in your last paragraph of Deist Autistic God. (DAG, yo! I even feel a teeny bit plagiarized, which is flattering.) So I wait with great anticipation to see what you will make of that notion.

  6. @ Browning: I'm still trying to get past the possible variant meanings of your statement that I "...need to get very busy sticking your ad hoc thumbs in that very large and thoroughly perforated ontological dyke."

    Such a very delightfully amusing turn of phrase, for reasons you can surely see now that you've had a chance to step back and read yourself. My apologies for my inexorably sophomoric sense of humor. It's just the way the DAG made me, I guess.

    From our conversations, I really do struggle with your hatred for the DAG. You describe such a being...which you appear to accept as an almost viable Theistic option in an M-Theory essentially evil.

    And yet such a Jeffersonian being would be seamlessly interwoven with the Sagan Cosmos, towards which you purport to express wonder and awe bordering on the religious feeling of we theists.

    I truly can't see how that works. Logically, that is. Emotionally, it makes a bunch of sense, given the passion with which you hold your worldview. But your cursing the Evil Clockmaker simply doesn't mesh with what you've asserted you feel towards the universe you observe.

    Care to parse that?

  7. @David.

    You are having just a little too much fun that thumb in the dyke. (I'm a poet, so I usually intend all my entendres. For good or for ill. You're welcome.)

    Parsing the DAG. First, it sounds weird to say that I hate the DAG. Not only do I think the DAG is fictional. I actually think the DAG is so improbable that he may as well be impossible. It's sort of like saying "Man, I hate it when colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Even if I thought the DAG was real, I would feel that he was so alien that hating him would be a bit like hating a hurricane or an equation. But, yes, it's the superfluous sentience and intention that makes the DAG evil -- but not so much in a purely malevolent out-to-get-you way so much as in a pulling-the-wings-of-flies-out-of-boredom kind of way.

    Here's why: In a theistic complete multiverse, everyone gets to be Job. Everyone, a gazillion times over. Somewhere in a complete multiverse you and I are right now actually sobbing over the corpses of our children. And that's just for starters. All part of the plan, baby.

    In an old school classical theodicy, you could sort of make excuses about God being mysterious, and maybe the suffering had a purpose. I was never convinced, but at least it was logically possible that this was so. But in a complete multiverse, that no longer the case. The multiverse from the point of view of its creator is completely static. You have predestination without purpose. Literally everything will happen, and nothing that happens will ever change anything.

    All sentient suffering in a theistic complete multiverse is necessarily gratuitous -- that is, both meaningless and deliberate. It serves no end except to complete the DAG's set of actualized possibilities. This is necessarily true even of our sins. Every wrong choice we might make in a multiverse has been built into the system. They all happen, and our myriad doppelgangers who make them will suffer for them, and this is written in stone at the multiverse's beginning. It's old-fashioned Calvinist predestiny, with an elect and a damned, except that myriad iterations of every individual necessarily gets damned.

    Now, is this just a glass-half-empty way to see it? Isn't all the suffering mitigated and justified by the myriad joys? Doesn't it help that we all get to be Jabez as well? I don't think so. The Jobs are prisoners of their own iterations, and the fact that their Jabezian doppelgangers have it better does not make it more just. It makes it worse. It's an extreme version of haves and have-nots built into the fabric of reality. It's like saying that it's okay that the world contains the miserable poor, because it also contains the fabulously rich.

  8. @ Browning: So we've found a God Browning Porter does not hate, eh? Yeah, it's improbable, but no more so than the fact of my own being. How do you feel towards this God, who knows both good and evil, and whose love and wrath are one? Fear, perhaps? It's the root of all wisdom, you know.

    The "glass half full" meme runs far more deeply into your counterargument than I think you'd like to recognize. As my prior comment suggested, it has more to do with your response to the concept of God than with any particular reality.

    I look with my mind's eye at the infinite array of probability that M-Theory implies, and it only magnifies my sense of wonder at a creation that may be infinitely more awesome than we'd thought. I suspect you do as well.

    But where we differ, and where I'm having trouble seeing the consistency in your position, is in typifying the multiverse. If there is no God, then the multiverse for you is a dizzying marvel. Contemplating it is humbling and invokes a deep sense of reverence for life and its significance.

    But if there is intentionality behind it, then suddenly it becomes for you evil, monstrous, and hateful. In that, your view has not been even marginally modified from your view of linear spacetime. Nor, frankly, has mine, because I have always operated on the assumption of levels of reality beyond our spacetime.

    As for being prisoners within our own infinitely vast yet infinitely tiny universes, that doesn't follow, either theologically or from the physics that Hawking and Mlodinow. It is nonetheless an excellent observation and a logical progression in our conversation, albeit distorted through your God-Is-Evil-No-Matter-What lens.

    I'm getting there today, and will appreciate your vigorous efforts deconstruction as always.

  9. I never said that God is evil no matter what. I think that a God who commands genocide is evil. I think that a God who commands that a father murder his child as a test of loyalty is evil. I think a God who institutes the death penalty for gathering wood on a Saturday but tacitly approves of slavery is evil. I think an God who punishes with eternal torture is evil. I think a God who creates us to experience every possible permutation of suffering is evil in the sense that he is indifferent. But I can imagine a God who is good. I just don't see any evidence of him, in the Bible or in reality.

    Our universe is a dizzying marvel. But it is also "cruel" in its infinite indifference. There is no evidence that there is any justice besides that which we can make together. If this situation is all an accident, then there is no one to blame for the the "cruelty" and absurdity. We are just lucky to be alive. And the ways that we can love the universe in all its flawed beauty, and each other in our flawed beauty, are inspiring. It is noble to be a Open Boat style existentialist.

    If there is an agent who who intended it -- then, yes, that is a different kettle of Hubble spaces. But if the universe's indifference is deliberate, then the scare quotes come off the "cruel." In a classical linear universe, it might be make sense to say that God could intend our suffering for some greater good that we are just too limited to discern, but in a complete multiverse I don't think you can't say that anymore. There is no "greater good," because the whole spectrum of good and evil is part of the plan.

    Why is that so hard for you to understand? Is it perhaps that you just don't want to understand it because in doing so you'd have to face your doubts about God more honestly?

  10. One more thing: "Yeah, it's improbable, but no more so than the fact of my own being."

    This isn't true. Because of evolution, you are far more probable than a scusafib, an intelligent being who appears fully-formed. Just as a cheese shop is more probable than a cheese moon.

  11. @ Browning: No, of course you don't see evidence of a God that is good. It's not what you're looking for.

    And of course I'm improbable. I, the unique self that communicates with you now, is the result of an immensely and absurdly convoluted causal chain of events. Let's go beyond the cosmological requirements for life to form, which are pretty intense, according to Hawking and Mlodinow, at least.

    Take the vast variant possibilities within the ways my parent's DNA could have recombined. Or the specific events that led to the moment in which I was conceived. Or the various inputs that have formed my intellect and capacity for reason. I, this self, this soul, exist now for reasons no more absurd or improbable than a Creator.

    If you spend any time thinking about it, that is.

  12. @ David.

    "It's not what you're looking for."

    That is true, actually. It's sometimes a difficult discipline, but I try not to "look for" anything, because ideally I will see what is actually there instead of what I want to see. Practicing this, I had to give up some cherished beliefs of my own. For example, I used to believe in ghosts, and as a child I even "saw" ghosts, I think now because I wanted to see them. But as I matured I became persuaded that it was not the best way to approach the world. It's easy enough to see Jesus in the grilled cheese sandwich when you are looking everywhere for signs of Jesus. One might even say it's probable. The human tendency to see what we want to see is well-documented in science.

    But I don't look for, or find any evidence of a God that is bad either. At least in reality. I do think he looks bad in most of the Bible, and occasionally in the highly speculative theologies at my old college chums. But he also looks fictional.

    But am I (as you keep insinuating) just blind to the evidence for your version of God because I wish for the universe not to have a God? It does not seem so to me. But it is interesting to think that in a theistic complete multiverse, God in his infinite wisdom and love will have necessarily created an iteration of me who would be exactly that: utterly blind to him and incapable of knowing it. I could just be Calvinistically damned. It does not seem rational to me to be afraid of that possibility, but then it wouldn't, would it? That would be part of the plan as well. But such an arrangement does seem terribly unjust to me, and so self-refuting. But again, it would, especially if I were a glass-half-full iteration that was just incapable of seeing the justice in my own inevitable damnation.

    One could argue that I am even more obviously blind to more fundamentalist versions of theism than I am to yours. I would not disappointed to become convinced that you were right along. I could get used to heaven. But it is undeniably true that I do not wish for the Jack Chick cosmology to be real, and perhaps that is prejudicing me against all the evidence for it. Do you ever have that worry? I don't, or at least I have not since I was a child. But your insinuations would seem to imply that my prejudices towards the Chickverse could be all that stand in the way of my acceptance of it. What do you say to Jack Chick when he says to you "All the evidence is there. You just don't want to see it because you are willfully BAD"?

  13. Speaking of probability: I assume you mean that you are "no less absurd or improbable than a Creator?"

    And yeah, in a single time/space, we are each in our particularities, highly improbable. In a complete multiverse though we are sort of likely, and kind of plentiful. I assume you don't consider yourself to be just as rare in multiverse as God? With all the myriad variations of you, the ones who are identical to you in every respect except for the placement of a few electrons? My point is that in a multiverse, even life-supporting universes are plentiful, and in the quantum variations of this this universe, you are plentiful. And, yes, you are the result of a causal chain that is improbable in its particulars but not so much in its generalities.

    You are like a very long sequence of heads and tails in a functionally infinite sequence of flips. Hard to get in one try, but easy to get over and over in a multiverse. God , as you conceive him, must be improbable on another order. He just "springs into being." He is like all heads, forever, on the first try.

    I think you can accuse me of a lot of things, but not thinking about this stuff very much is not one of them.

  14. @ Browning: Once we're talking infinities, things do get peculiar. The functionally infinite different iterations of you or I are an infinitesimal fraction component of all probability. Relative to the broader scope of M-Theory being, I am highly improbable. It's a delicious fuddler.

    Actually, your observation reflects one of the problems I had with the book. Hawking/Mlodinow repeatedly asserted that conditions for life were rare in the universe posited by M-Theory. Were you struck by that?

    And that's a nice coin analogy! It makes my point about God in the multiverse exactly.

  15. I think it makes sense to say that the conditions for life are "rare" in the sense that it would be a very small fraction of universes that were stable at all, and of those a very small fraction that with conditions suitable for life to evolve. But what do I know from M-theory, honestly. It only barely makes any sense to me.

    As for my impressions of the book: I felt like it was a little too slight and dumbed down for my tastes. I thought the jokes to too frequent and too corny -- winceable groaners, all. And I wish there had been more a more in-depth discussion of the philosophical ramifications -- both leading up to and away from a multiverse model of reality. I don't think I quite understand the idea of Feynman's alternate histories -- or I became more confused by it than I had been -- and I'd like to have seen some more patient exploration of what that means exactly. I mean, it makes a kind of sense to me for a photon to have them, but does that really mean that an organism could have them? Or a planet? That is very hard for me to get my head around. Branching futures makes a kind of sense, but branching pasts is completely counter-intuitive. It's like reality is constantly being infinitely retconned? Really? (Though if Feynman himself is to be believed, my growing confusion is a good sign.)

    I was greatly annoyed by that cheesemoon line. They just throw it away without explaining how it comes about! I wanted to know: Are they saying that there are Douglas Adams universes where cheesemoons just spontaneously quantum fluctuate into an orbit around random planets and stay there, wheeling it the skies, burbling with cheese volcanoes? Or where the physics of the universe is such that stellar dust coheres into massive cheeseballs that then become panspermified by comets infested with space-hardy Penicillin roquefort to achieve that lovely blue veining? Or that advanced civilizations for their own arcane reasons (no doubt religious) devote centuries to constructing planetary satellites out of smelly, crumbly, perishable dairy products? Or all of the above? Are they saying, "No one could possibly know how there could be cheesmoons, but we are certain that there must at least one." I need answers! I am only ever so slightly kidding about this.

    I mean, honestly, they are basically saying "Science has determined that reality is just completely wackaloon like you wouldn't believe. We're almost positive that there is really a universe where its turtles all the way down. No really." And then that's it. We go back to a lot tedious talk about precisely how many dimensions string theory requires. It might be ten, or...get might be eleven!!! Oooooh! Tell me more!

    I even thought that they didn't quite make a convincing case for the unnecessariness of God. That seemed a little poorly argued and gratuitous. (I'm not the only Gnu Atheist to notice this by the way.)

    I really got a lot more out of David Deutsch's *The Fabric of Reality.* It's been a while since I read it, but I recall that Deutsch seemed to think the string theory was bunk, and that a multiverse cosmology made string theory unnecessary to begin with -- that in fact, that was one of the best things about it. Somehow his picture of it made a lot more sense to me, and he also devoted a whole section to the philosophy science necessary to take a multiverse model seriously. I'm looking forward to reading what Deutsch has to say about M-theory now that Hawking has made it famous. Also I'd interested to hear what Lee Smolin thinks, since I liked a book of his, and he also doesn't take much stock in string theory. Of course, I have no way of judging which bizarre cosmological model is closer to the truth -- not having taken a math class since 1985 -- but I enjoy thinking about them anyway.

    So I didn't like it much actually, but I also hate to ask too much of guy who has to write by twitching his cheek muscle.

  16. @ Browning: I found it simplistic as well. Cartoons? Really? In a book that intends to articulate a transformative unified theory, I'd generally look for a tick more gravitas.

    But then again, if you've just realized that quantum cosmology tells us reality is wackaloonadoodle, utterly absurd, perhaps your motivation to create a highly clinical and precise systematic work is diminished.

    That, and you want to sell books to a semi-literate culture. Which they most certainly have, bless 'em.