12 September 2010

Balking Hawking Part 2

Stephen Hawking (see previous post for a more or less complete bio) has a new book called The Grand Design out in which he lays claim to an idea he didn't come up with, namely that the universe created itself from nothing by some sort of quantum fluctuation wizardry.

Stephen M. Barr, physics professor from the University of Delaware, writes in an article from First Things: "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." He then cautions theists that just because the idea that a wizard did it isn't testable or has no mathematics doesn't mean it can be rejected outright. In order to reject it, Mr. Barr has more to say on what he feels are good reasons why Hawking's idea doesn't hold water.

First, Hawking and his ilk define the universe as a physical structure, like a bubble (at least pop science writers in Scientific American and Michio Kaku on his Science Channel program use the analogy of bubbles). This bubble universe is floating in some sort of plenum with many many other bubble universes that are also just physical structures. Also, these bubble universes are constantly popping into and out of existence due to quantum fluctuations in the soapy water plenum of all that is (which, if you want to be pickey would really be the universe and the so called "universe" bubble would be just a region within the real universe; hardley seems worth calling this bubble a universe, but some people want to blow some things way out of proportion).

Andrei Linde had an idea called eternal inflation about bubble universes branching off one-another forever within a false vacuum. When a new "universe" branches off, a big bang happens, but all that's really happening is the whole system is branching, nothing is really being created. That's why it's called eternal. The whole system has always existed, and so needs no explanation (at least Linde believes it's eternal in the past, most cosmologists don't think so*).

*Dr. Bruce Gordon says in an interview, The Argument for Design in Cosmology, that: "At first it was thought that it might be eternal into the past too, thus obviating the need for a universal beginning, but it was shown conclusively in 2003 that universes having an expansion rate of greater than zero over their history, universes like ours, must have a begining.... even if the string multiverse existed it would have an absolute beginning in the finite past." He continues to say that even if one were to postulate that quantum laws always existed, even before the multiverse, or plenum as is referred to above, such abstract mathematical laws are causally inert and cannot force anything to happen on their own.

For Hawking and Linde and others the universe wasn't created out of nothing, because nothing has no positive atributes, even if Hawking may misappropriate the word "nothing" to mean something completely else. The universe also didn't "create itself." What happened was the damn thing inflated. This reduced definition of the universe requires the preexistence of the plenum itself, inflaton fields, and quantum laws, but everyone has to assume the preexistence of something, so that itself doesn't toss this idea out. I would say it gets messy having to assume 10^500 random universes just to explain away the fine tuning of the laws of the universe, but parsimony only counts when the most parsimonious option isn't God.

Barr seems to think that Hawking has really goofed the flute with his new book, since in his A Brief History of Time (which I do have and wasn't all that great), Hawking acknowledged that the equations of physics are just numbers and can't cause anything to happen on their own and that physics can't address the issue of why something exists instead of nothing. Now Hawking proposes a new old story for how the universe always existed and so no explanation is necessary. I bet Hawking will rename this "theory" after himself like he does with every idea he steals. Barr concludes: "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."

And with that we leave the Sad Sad Tale of Stephen Hawking, a man so consumed by egoism that he no longer is the respected physicist of yesterday, but instead is now spouting nonsense.