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The Grand Design

Despite learning a great deal from Stephen Hawking and co-author Leonard Mlodinow in their recent book The Grand Design, in the end I was disappointed.

It’s not that their book lacked clarity. In the introduction they do say that their explicit purpose is to explore “Not only how the universe behaves but why.” They posit three framing questions for their rather short book (188 pages from Bantam books for around $14.00 on Amazon): “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? and Why this particular set of laws and not some other?” (p. 9-10)

Perhaps I was simply put off by their rather glib dismissal of philosophy. On the very first page of their book they write, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.”

And yet in the final chapters they end up doing a fair bit of philosophy. Not really philosophy but, if my count is correct, in the final two chapters the words, “luck,” “coincidence,” and “serendipity,” occur at least thirteen times in ways essential to their overall argument. For authors who are, according to their own assertion, completely dedicated to “scientific determinism,” this seems a rather odd way to finish up an argument.

Once the authors set out their framing questions, they introduce the reader to their methods. One essential element is called “model-dependent realism” which sounds to me a lot like post-modernism for physics.

We develop models of the world, say the authors, by interpreting “the input from our sensory organs.” We have the tendency to attribute to these models “the quality of reality or absolute truth.” But “there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation.” (p. 7) Thus, there may be multiple, credible, models that serve us well in our day to day lives. But not just any model will do. As it turns out there are “good” models for which the authors offer some criteria. (p. 51) Of course, by implication, there are also bad models.

The challenging new model for physicists is quantum physics. Quantum physics and classical physics are “based on very different conceptions of physical reality.” (p. 6) The push of quantum physics against our well established model of classical physics is, among other things, focused on the idea that there is a single history upon which we can gaze and ponder correct interpretation. According to quantum physics, “no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history….We will see that, like a particle, the universe doesn’t have just a single history, but every possible history, each with its own probability; and our observations of its current state affect its past and determine the different histories of the universe.” (p. 82-83)

While classical physics sought to find the single theory that would serve to unify everything we know about physics, the emerging model-dependent realism that embraces both classical and quantum physics will demand we alter our goals: “We seem to be at a critical point in the history of science, in which we must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle….That may not satisfy our human desire to be special or to discover a neat package to contain all the laws of physics, but it does seem to be the way of nature.” (p 143-4).

Despite this re-imagination of our goals, the authors go on to posit the “M-theory,” as “the only model that has all the properties we think the final theory ought to have.” As it turns out, M-theory is a “whole family of different theories.” (p. 8) Although, “no one seems to know what ‘M’ stands for,” the laws of M-theory allow “for 10^500 different universes, each with its own laws.” (p. 118) And as so many media sources have noted in their hype of this book, none of these universes stands in need of a God to “light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” (p. 180)

In somewhat of an aside, I was interested in what the authors had to say about the idea of free will in humankind. They uphold their commitment to scientific determinism in declaring that free will is an “illusion” since it is our physical brain, “following the known laws of science that determines our actions.” (p. 32) But the authors introduce a rather useful tool in their bag of physics tools at this point. As it turns out something the y call “effective theory” serves to, in a sense, re-establish our free will.

Effective theory is “a framework created to model certain observed phenomena without describing in detail all of the underlying processes.” They hold that the determined nature of our behavior is so complex that we do not have the capability to actually chart it out. “We would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will — not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory.” (p. 178)

I am struck by the role this book plays in the so-called “culture wars” in our society. In this supposed war, there are believers and unbelievers who are at odds with each other about the essence of our culture and society. According to the believers’ side of the culture wars, these physicists are the bad guys trying to wrest individual and societal allegiance away from God and religious devotion to him. If one is drawn into these culture wars, which I am not, then the most pressing question to answer in the review of this book is whether or not the authors are atheists. Frankly, I couldn’t care less if they are believers or atheists. I’m interested in finding out how others answer the grand questions of life and this book was very illustrative in that regard.

I am not interested in engaging in the culture wars; not on a national basis and not on a denominational basis. It seems to me our church has observed the world and adopted its incessant need to fight. Rather than showing the world how to engage in decency and civility toward each other while focusing on important questions, we’ve apparently given up on that ideal and sunk to the level of our surrounding society; something the Apostle Paul might not be too pleased about (Romans 12). We’ve brought the culture wars from the world right into our church.

I think it is important to establish exactly what we are doing and how we want to go about it as we learn from each other. We ought to be engaged in dialogue rather than in apologetics or polemics. If the culture wars insist on using polemical attacks, I’ve no interest. For instance, why would I engage in a polemical attack on the science of physics or its practitioners in the culture wars? Why would I feel the need to offer an apologetic response to their work? I know who I am and the strengths and weaknesses of my models of reality. So I choose to engage in dialogue, seeking to truly understand the other and their model of reality.

Why would I expect anyone to be willing to listen to what I have to say if I refuse to truly engage in understanding them? Furthermore, why would I target physicists to fight with? Or geologists or biologists? As if their science is somehow more challenging to the credibility and viability of my faith?

Indeed, it seems to me that the science of psychology or sociology or even economics is as much if not more challenging than the sciences that we target in our church and national culture wars. Over the holiday season 2010 American consumers will likely spend over $440 billion dollars. This is elective, consumer spending and it is obscene! Do we not see the horrendous and corrosive effect of our consumer culture? Do we not see that our faith is taking a beating from the science of business that demands we be good consumers in order to be considered good citizens? If we are going to fight about something why don’t we fight about this?

How I go about this process of dialogue is, for me as an ethicist, even more important that what we’re doing. I posit four things that should serve to help guide how we engage the other, whether we are fighting within the confines of the church or on a national scale. We must hold respect for the other. It seems to me that the Gospel demands this (see 1 Peter 3.15-16). The people on the other side of any given issue are neither idiots nor devils. As I said above, reciprocity is essential in order to have a truly mutual dialogue. Finally, assurance (Phil. 1.2, 6) and humility (Mt. 11.29; 18.4; 23.12) are essential in how we engage in the culture wars within the church and nation. If Jesus really is our moral exemplar, if we really are supposed to model our lives after his example then these two character traits must take on more relevance than they have thus far.

And dare I say that these character traits ought to hold sway here within the Spectrum website?

Although body and soul he is an Alaskan, Mark Carr teaches at the Loma Linda University School of Religion in southern California where he led the Center for Christian Bioethics for a decade. In addition to ethics, he is interested in Islam and religion and science. After a year in France on a sabbatical, he taught LLU this past Fall in Saudi Arabia, Hawaii and Guam. Along with LLU professors Siroj Sorajjakool and Julius Nam, he is the editor of World Religions for Health Professionals (Routledge, 2009).

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