February 3, 2011

The Godlessness of the Gaps

Justin Katz

Philosophy Professor John Haldane adds his own commentary to the list addressing Stephen Hawking's lately released The Grand Design. If the subject catches your interest, you should certainly read the whole essay, but one point attracted my attention in particular:

[The authors] then go on to note, however, that "it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire Universe, and that is much more difficult to explain." The forces of nature had to allow the production of carbon and other heavy elements, and allow them to exist stably; they had to facilitate the formation of stars and galaxies but also the periodic explosion of stars to distribute the elements needed for life more widely, permitting the formation of planets suitably composed for the evolution of life; and the strengths of the forces themselves and the masses of the fundamental particles on which they operate had to be of the correct orders of magnitude, and these lie within very small ranges. ...

In short, and sparing the detail, ours is but one of an indefinite number of universes with different laws and forces, each universe being a spontaneous creation out of nothing: "Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe [that is, ours] can and will create itself from nothing."

What's striking is that the philosophy that emerges from Hawking's work is almost a precise mirror image of the accusation of last resort for secularists belittling believers. They say that we are always seeking a "God of the gaps" — a divine force that explains the shrinking list of natural phenomena that mankind has yet to decipher. While protesting that such theology is hardly the most sophisticated available for debate (let alone universal), I'll concede that some folks do take that short cut.

But even so, what Hawking produces is an assumption of ever larger schemes of chaos and chance to explain all of that which appears ordered. That, ultimately, is no less a matter of faith, and it shares with the "gaps" religiosity the attribute of wholly missing the point: That we understand the method of the artist's craft does not disprove the artist, and we shouldn't allow it to suck the wonder right out of the work.

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I think that hypothesizing a possible answer while holding it with logical skepticism is different from claiming that one has found the correct answer based on nothing more than faith.

I'll stick the the skeptical, faithless, but intellectually honest "we don't know yet but we keep working on it" answer to the origin of the universe.

Posted by: BobN at February 3, 2011 7:57 PM

I think that scientists indulge in the same sort of philosophy that they object to. Let us take the "primordial ooze" that life sprang from. No one can duplicate that "ooze" in order to prove it, they cannot state with specificity what it contained. They simply hypothesize the explanation. Hence, the "primordial ooze" is not a provable "fact". Then, without apology, they take their evidence of evolution and simply posit the "primordial ooze" as a "fact". So, how does proposing the ooze as a "fact" differ from observing creation and accepting God as a "fact"? Some will say observable science will someday alter this, but not yet.

I have always liked the analogy that accepting the present theories of evolution is rather like believing that a tornado could hit a junkyard and produce a 747. The counter argument is that if God created all things, why did he do it in such a disorderly fashion?

Posted by: warrington Faust at February 3, 2011 10:28 PM

"ours is but one of an indefinite number of universes with different laws and forces"

Proof, please?

Heinlein's "Time Enough For Love" was a fun and absorbing novel, not the least because the plot was predicated upon the existence of an infinite "number of universese with different laws and forces".

But a novelist does not have the burden of proof that is conferred upon a scientist.

Posted by: Monique at February 4, 2011 8:44 AM

Right, Monique. Neither does a Pope, an Archbishop, or an Ayatollah.

Posted by: BobN at February 4, 2011 8:57 AM

Warrington... The 'primordial ooze' just means a bunch of dissolved salts in water that can form the building blocks of DNA (shown to be totally viable in the Miller-Urey experiment).

The cool thing about DNA is that you can take the raw ingredients (the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs), subject it to warming and cooling cycles, and any combined pairs will replicate themselves over and over. That's how they get enough DNA evidence to test with from a tiny sample. PCR. I do some work for a place that builds hybridization ovens that do this.

It's a bit more tricky to figure out how that simple process ends up becoming pre-cellular 'life-like' stuff, but friends of mine who work with DNA and cellular life say the things are pretty remarkable, just through inherent and understood chemical properties.

Your tornado-into-a-747 theory is missing a few things:

A single test tube full of these ingredients is the equivalent of trillions of tornadoes hitting trillions of warehouses every minute... There are millions of years and trillions of gallons from which life could have arisen.

Also, there's no reason to start with a 747, just like life probably didn't start with anything that resembled a cell. It's more like 'A tornado hitting a 747 and creating something that resembled a tricycle, inasmuch as you could ride it'. It's not likely, but given a few trillion-billion tornadoes, you're likely to find something that works well enough.

Posted by: mangeek at February 4, 2011 12:07 PM


My analogy may be poor, but I am neither a biologist or mathematician. Evolutionary theory seems to follow the old saw that "if you put enough monkeys in a room with typewriters, eventually one will write Shakespeare".

I have seen mathematical discourses on the monkeys which tend to show that if the monkeys had been at it since the beginning of time, the period would be insufficient.

Sufficiency of time seems to be the chief stumbling block of evolution. How many trillions and trillions of collisions would be necessary before a strand of DNA became an optic nerve, not to say an eyeball? Then think of the number of different eyeballs. If only mammals had eyes, it would be easier to follow. But flies have them, very different from our own.

Still, science progresses at an amazing rate. Perhaps the answer is around the corner. I am simply ruminanting.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 4, 2011 1:10 PM

"How many trillions and trillions of collisions would be necessary before a strand of DNA became an optic nerve, not to say an eyeball?"

It's likely that 'eyes' evolved from simple light-detecting mechanisms (a VERY simple thing to build, photosensors that apply varying electrical resistance based on varying light input are super-easy to make). Plants exhibit phototropism, leaning and turning towards light just using chemical reactions. Apply billions of years of mutation, speciation, and natural selection, and you end up with all the different kinds of 'eyes'.

And I'll bet all the 'eyes' out there in the world, from deep-sea animals that can only detect the presence of light, to fruit flies, to the marvel of a hawk's optics share most of their underlying genetic code.

I for one don't see anything that indicates an all-powerful creator with an agenda involving day-to-day activities on our particular ball of rock. I'd be amazed if we didn't find all sorts of places off-planet teeming with different forms of life.

Posted by: mangeek at February 4, 2011 2:57 PM
"ours is but one of an indefinite number of universes with different laws and forces"

Proof, please?

I continue to be amazed at how little some seem to understand the nature of scientific inquiry (and yet continue to opine as if an expert on all things scientific). Gravity is a theory, but I don't suggest jumping off tall buildings because scientists can't prove it.

Here's Hawking from "A Brief History of Time:"

In order to talk about the nature of the universe and to discuss questions such as whether it has a beginning or an end, you have to be clear about what a scientific theory is. I shall take the simpleminded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean). A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements. It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations. For example, Aristotle believed Empedocles’s theory that everything was made out of four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. This was simple enough, but did not make any definite predictions. On the other hand, Newton’s theory of gravity was based on an even simpler model, in which bodies attracted each other with a force that was proportional to a quantity called their mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Yet it predicts the motions of the sun, the moon, and the planets to a high degree of accuracy.

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory.

The question should be: "disproof, please?"

Posted by: Russ at February 9, 2011 11:37 AM
But even so, what Hawking produces is an assumption of ever larger schemes of chaos and chance to explain all of that which appears ordered...

I get the feeling Justin hasn't read any Hawking, because that's not the case at all. Again, from "A Brief History of Time" (haven't read his new book, although maybe I should):

If Euclidean space-time stretches back to infinite imaginary time, or else starts at a singularity in imaginary time, we have the same problem as in the classical theory of specifying the initial state of the universe: God may know how the universe began, but we cannot give any particular reason for thinking it began one way rather than another. On the other hand, the quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behavior at the boundary. 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. One could say: “The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.” The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed, It would just BE...

I’d like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite “without boundary” is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle. Like any other scientific theory, it may initially be put forward for aesthetic or metaphysical reasons, but the real test is whether it makes predictions that agree with observation.
Posted by: Russ at February 9, 2011 12:42 PM

This may speak even better to why Justin is wrong about Hawking assuming "ever larger schemes of chaos." Quite the contrary:

The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that describes the whole universe. However, the approach most scientists actually follow is to separate the problem into two parts. First, there are the laws that tell us how the universe changes with time. (If we know what the universe is like at any one time, these physical laws tell us how it will look at any later time.) Second, there is the question of the initial state of the universe. Some people feel that science should be concerned with only the first part; they regard the question of the initial situation as a matter for metaphysics or religion. They would say that God, being omnipotent, could have started the universe off any way he wanted. That may be so, but in that case he also could have made it develop in a completely arbitrary way. Yet it appears that he chose to make it evolve in a very regular way according to certain laws. It therefore seems equally reasonable to suppose that there are also laws governing the initial state.
Posted by: Russ at February 9, 2011 12:49 PM
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