First Things RSS Feed - Stephen M. Barr
en-usCopyright 2016 First Things. All Rights Reserved.firstname.lastname@example.org (The Editors)email@example.com (The Editors)Sun, 23 Oct 2016 13:59:00 -0400https://d25wp47b6tla3u.cloudfront.net/img/favicon-196.pngFirst Things RSS Feed Image
60A New Erahttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/06/a-new-era
Mon, 01 Jun 2015 00:00:00 -0400God’s Planet by owen gingerich harvard, 192 pages, $19.95
Thu, 06 Feb 2014 09:20:00 -0500
I think Matt Franck is being too
on Charles Krauthammer on the ensoulment point.
]]>The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends)https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/06/the-large-hadron-collider-the-multiverse-and-me-and-my-friends
Tue, 04 Jun 2013 10:13:13 -0400
]]>Chance, by Designhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/12/chance-by-design
Sat, 01 Dec 2012 00:00:00 -0500 Christians who accept Darwinian evolution are, it is sometimes said, trying to have it both ways. If evolution is driven by random mutations, we cannot be part of a divine plan. How, the critics ask, can we possibly exist by chance and by design, by accident and by intention?
]]>Fr. Klein on Forgiveness, Justice, Terrorism, and Warhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/09/fr-klein-on-forgiveness-justice-terrorism-and-war
Mon, 12 Sep 2011 10:59:37 -0400
Fri, 01 Oct 2010 00:00:00 -0400 Since the time of Newton, science has advanced by a strategy rightly called “reductionism.” This method, which explains things by analyzing them into smaller and simpler parts, has yielded a rich harvest of discoveries about the natural world. As a means of analysis, then, reductionism has certainly proven its value. But many wonder whether science is reductive in a more radical and disturbing way—by flattening, collapsing, and trivializing the world. For all its intellectual accomplishments, does science end up taking our sense of reality down several notches? One could well get that impression from perusing the writings of certain scientists. Francis Crick famously asserted that human life is “no more than the behavior of . . . nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, once described people as “machines made of meat.” Neuroscientist Giulio Giorelli announced that “we have a soul, but it is made up of many tiny robots.” And biologist Charles Zuker has concluded that “in essence, we are nothing but a big fly.”
]]>Hawking Put in His Placehttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/09/hawking-put-in-his-place
Tue, 28 Sep 2010 11:15:35 -0400
]]>Much Ado About “Nothing”: Stephen Hawking and the Self-Creating Universehttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2010/09/much-ado-about-ldquonothingrdquo-stephen-hawking-and-the-self-creating-universe
Fri, 10 Sep 2010 00:27:00 -0400 Has physics done away with God? A newly release book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow says, Yes.
What is a Jewish or Christian believer to make of this? Is the Creator now out of a job? The short answer is (unsurprisingly)
: the ideas propounded in Hawkings book constitute no threat whatever to the Jewish and Christian doctrine of Creation.
The idea that Hawking is now touting is not new”in fact, within the fast-moving world of modern physics it is fairly old. My first introduction to it was reading a very elegant theoretical paper entitled Creation of Universes from Nothing, written in 1982 by the noted cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, who argued that our universe might have arisen by a quantum fluctuation.
This idea is sometimes referred to as the quantum creation of the universe. There are different variants, but the basic idea is well-known among particle physicists and cosmologists.
Right up front, it must be noted that this idea is extremely speculative, has not yet been formulated in a mathematically rigorous way, and is unable at this point to make any testable predictions. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine how it could ever be tested. It would be more accurate to call these scenarios than theories. It would be a mistake, however, for religious believers to dismiss these scenarios as mere fanciful conjecture or as motivated merely by atheist ideology. Based on a plausible analogy with the experimentally observed and well-understood phenomenon of the quantum creation of particles, the idea of quantum creation of universes is not without merit.
The salient point has to do with how quantum mechanics works. In quantum mechanics one always considers some physical system, which has various possible quantum states, and which is governed by certain well-defined dynamical laws. These dynamical laws that govern the particular system and the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics allow one to calculate the probability that the system will make a transition from one of its states to another. To take a simple example, the system might be an atom of hydrogen, and its states would be the different energy levels of the atom.
The highly speculative idea is that these ways of thinking can be applied to entire universes
, which is what Hawking (and many others) have tried to do. For physicists (as opposed to theologians and metaphysicians) the concept of the universe does not refer to all there is or the totality of things. It refers to a single, self-contained physical structure, comprising a spacetime manifold and particles and other things moving around in that spacetime.
If one thinks of a universe as a particular structure, then one can imagine a multiplicity of universes, with universes coming into and going out of existence in various ways. For example, a new universe might split off from an already existing universe in a manner analogous to the way a small balloon can be pinched off from a larger balloon. Or one can imagine a universe starting off as a point of zero size (which is, in effect, no universe at all) and then growing continuously to some finite size.
By such processes, the number of universes can change. However, we need to keep in mind the special way in which physicists use the concept of universe, for these various universes are really features of a
overarching physical system”call it a system of universes. When the number of universes changes, it is because that single overarching system has undergone a transition from one of its quantum states to another. Such transitions are precisely governed by dynamical laws (assumed to include the laws of quantum mechanics). These laws would govern not only how many universes there were, but the characteristics of these universes, such as how many dimensions of space they could have and what kinds of matter and forces they could contain.
Some states of the system of universes would correspond to just one universe being in existence; others to two universes, and so on. And there would also be a state with no universe in existence. The dramatic possibility Hawking is considering (and many others before him) is that such a system might make a transition from its no-universe state to a state with one or more universes.
Would this be creation in the sense that theologians mean it? And in particular, would it be creation
, creation from nothing?
The answer is no. First of all, one isnt starting from nothing. The no-universe state as meant in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. This no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.
An analogy may help here.
A checking account is a system that has many possible states: the zero-dollar state, the thousand-dollar state, the negative-thousand-dollar state (if one is overdrawn), the million-dollar state, etc. And this system can make transitions from one state to another. For instance, by a finance charge or by accruing interest. Even if your checking account happens to be in the zero-dollar state one day, the checking account is nevertheless still something definite and real”not nothing. It presupposes a bank, a monetary system, a contract between you and that bank”all being governed by various systems of rules.
Imagine the day on which your bank account balance is zero. Then imagine a deposit the next day that raises it to one thousand dollars. A quantum theory of the creation of a universe (in Hawkings version, or Vilenkins, or anyone elses) is akin to this transition from an empty account to one full of money. Obviously, therefore, the nothing that Hawking makes part of his theory of the creation of our universe is not nothing in a metaphysical sense. The no-universe of his speculations is like the no-dollars in my account. It exists within the framework of a complex overarching system with specific rules. So we can see that, if true, the way of thinking put forward by Hawking does not threaten the classical doctrine of creation out of nothing.
Perhaps my explanations are not really necessary. Even the most casual readers recognize that the cosmological theories put forward by Hawking do not bear upon larger questions that motivate classical views of creation out of nothing. Non-scientists are quick to ask the obvious questions. Why a system obeying quantum mechanics, M-theory, superstring theory, or whatever laws of physics that make scientific speculations possible in the first place? Why not no system at all, with no laws at all, no anything, just blank non-being?
Physics, by its very nature, cannot answer these questions. And the funny thing is that Hawking himself is perfectly aware of this. Indeed, he said it himself in a previous book! In
A Brief History of Time
, Hawking observed”quite correctly”that any theory of physics is just a set of rules and equations. And he asked, What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. (Here he was using the word universe to mean what I called the system of universes: the entirety of physical reality described by the laws of physics.
Physics scenarios and theories are merely mathematical stories.
They may be fictional or describe some reality. And just as the words of a book by themselves cant tell you whether its fact or fiction”let alone have the power to make the world they describe real”so with the equations of a physics scenario. As Hawking once understood, equations may turn out to be an accurate description of some reality, but cannot not
reality on the things they describe.
What Hawking called in his previous book the usual approach of science is in fact the
genuinely scientific approach. From the time Hawking wrote that earlier book until now, nothing has changed in this regard: theories of physics are still just sets of rules and equations.
There are two answers to the question: Why does anything exist rather than nothing at all? The atheist answers, There is no explanation. The theist replies, God. An intelligent case can be made for either answer. But to say that the laws of physics alone answer it is the purest nonsense”as Hawking himself once realized.
Stephen M. Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith.