thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Give me a reason to be

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Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

This follows Grand Design but no Grand Designer, on reactions to Stephen Hawking’s not-yet-published book The Grand Design.

Last time I got as far as Jonathan Sacks and his apparent response that science ‘cannot tell us … how we should live’.

Now I want to respond to his ‘[science] cannot tell us why we are here’ – with the presumed implication: ‘…but religion can’.

We need to be careful around the question ‘why?’, because it can be asking at least two different things. They are connected, and they overlap in places. But they are distinct. Religionists love the connection and adore the overlap, but sometimes stumble over the distinction.

‘Why?’ can ask for a reason or a cause. Sometimes a reason can be a cause, but not all causes are reasons. And even if it is true that everything has – or must have – a cause (a big if), that doesn’t mean that everything has – or must have – a reason.

A black-hole-powered jet of sub-atomic particles streaming out from the center of the galaxy M87

A black-hole-powered jet of subatomic particles streaming out from the centre of the galaxy M87

So the question ‘why are we here?’ could be asking purely for the cause, or causes, of our being here. That cause could be to do with fortuitous collisions and aggregations of atoms and molecules, and then with the causes of that to be found in subatomic particles, quantum gravity and other marvels.

But the question ‘why are we here?’ could also be asking for the reason we are here. A reason could be, for example, that our being here was the fulfilment of an intention. But that doesn’t have to be the reason. More importantly, there may not have been a reason, even though there might have been a cause.

So when Jonathan Sacks says that science ‘cannot tell us why we are here’, we can respond in two ways. If he is saying that science ‘cannot tell us the cause of our being here’, then that is false. Science might not yet have got to the right answer, but it certainly addresses causes, and it is our best tool and methodology for doing just that.

But if he means that science ‘cannot tell us the intention behind our being here’, then he may be onto something. But not necessarily very much. For that statement to mean anything significant, we have to assume there is (or was) an intention behind our being here. Perhaps there isn’t (or wasn’t), and interestingly science can have something to say about the rationality of assuming there may – or must – have been an intention.

If the sum total of our knowledge about the causal origin of the universe points to an enormous question mark, then it could be legitimate to consider that because the origin seems so bizarre and mysterious, perhaps its causal explanation does call for speculation about a possible intention. This is where causes and reasons can connect: we are hypothesising that the cause of the universe might be related to the reason – ie intention – behind its being here. (I say ‘could be legitimate’ because it does seem a tad anthropomorphic to think that just because we have intentions, the universe must itself be the result of one.)

What I understand Stephen Hawking to be saying is that current physics does look as if we might be getting closer to erasing some of that enormous question mark. If so, that would mean we are getting further away from the need to understand a possible reason in order to understand a possible cause.

Which doesn’t look like an ‘elementary fallacy’ of logic to me.

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, seems to be on the same trail:

Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe.

…It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Again, what kind of ‘why’ is this?

But first, please allow me a little rant. Why is it (and here I’m after either a reason or a cause!) that theologians think they can lecture us on the rationality of something which they just happen to believe? They make an assumption (or assert a belief), eg ‘that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence’, and then assume that – just because they have made that assumption or asserted that belief – a proposition like ‘Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing’ then follows?

Rant over. Back to what kind of ‘why’. The ‘causal’ (ie non-intentional) ‘why’ in ‘why there is something rather than nothing’ may also contain a bit of ‘how’. So the question could be one of these three:

(i) What is the reason (ie intention) behind there being something rather than nothing?

(iia) What is the cause of there being something rather than nothing?

(iib) How is it possible that there could be something rather than nothing?

As I understand it, cosmologists like Hawking address (iia) and (iib), and the mysterious cusp between them. And of course other things.

And again, as I understand it, Hawking is saying that the current state of physics looks as if it is close to sketching possible responses to (iia) and (iib) – or at least the versions of (iia) and (iib) which make sense at the kind of altitude modern physics flies at. And that because of that, question (i) is looking less and less like the kind of question we have to consider in order to find answers to (iia) and (iib), and more and more like the kind of question which itself requires justification before anyone needs to take it seriously.

Knee-jerk reactions from theologians are therefore looking less and less like constructive contributions to debate and more and more like the protection of vested interests.

And as for Ibrahim Mogra, ‘an imam and committee chairman at the Muslim Council of Britain’:

If we look at the universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror.

Well, that’s it then.

All that remains is to say the title of this post comes from Glory Box by Portishead:

You may remember it from the film Stealing Beauty. Nearly finished

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

4 September 2010 at 4:01 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I agree with the first comment, this was an unusually good post for the WordPress community.

    I would add that neither science nor religion can provide an answer to either the reason or cause of reality. It reminds me of “How Should We Then Live?” by Schaeffer or “Understanding the Present” by Appleyard. These two different takes – one religious, one scientifically analytical but critical of science – demonstrated to me quite provocatively that neither side could or would be able to resolve this dilemma.

    Only theory can resolve the dilemma, I discovered. Oh, and BTW, I noticed you’re reading Kauffman’s book on Origins. I read that book as part of my theoretical work. It’s Ok, but not as useful or interesting as I would have liked. Many other books of that genre are much better, especially Morowitz’s “Emergence of Everything.”




    4 September 2010 at 9:11 pm

    • Thank you so much for the feedback.

      I have to say I’m really struggling with the Kauffman book – either he’s a very bad writer or I’m a very bad reader. Thanks for the Morowitz suggestion. New to me. But interestingly a few web hops got me from Morowitz to Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species – which I was very impressed with.

      Thanks again,

      Chris Lawrence

      5 September 2010 at 8:16 pm

      • Kauffman’s book does not deliver what any demanding reader wants: an explanation of the origins of order. It just ain’t there. In fact, I found the book ironically disordered and protracted.

        I read Deacon’s book too. I liked it. I contacted Deacon after I had finished my theory and – if my memory serves me right – spoke with him ever so briefly about forwarding my work for his perusal. He seemed like a nice guy in the 2-5 minutes of time he gave me.




        5 September 2010 at 8:35 pm

  2. Of course, Hawkins’ book proves nothing. There is no more hard evidence for Hawkins’ own wild fantasies than the utterly silly notion of a god. The latter idea being merely a legacy of the many superstitious myths passed down from primitive peoples.
    There is a popular notion that theoretical physics can be included in the domain of “science”.
    In actuality, it is more properly described as “science fiction” that happens to be predominantly written in the very simple language of mathematics rather than natural language.
    That is why string theory, in common with quantum loop gravity and the various other (usually mutually exclusive) “Theories of Everything” propounded by Hawking, Smolin, Suskind, Kaku and their ilk must not be taken too seriously.
    Any of these fictional models that might happen to be testable have, of course, the opportunity to one day become “science” and become part of physical theory within that domain.
    They have some value as ideas but until shown to reflect observed properties of the real world they are certainly not science.
    There is thus an important distinction to be made between theoretical physics and physical theory.
    The former is mathematical science fiction.
    The latter comprises our best understanding of the ways of our universe within an evidential framework. With regard to the “fine tuning” that we observe and which Hawkins and other try to escape by hugely extravagant hypotheses:
    presume the directionality of biological evolution is not itself in question here.
    The evolution of species is certainly not a random process.
    It is driven by random events which produce mutations.
    Most importantly these mutations are then filtered by the prevailing environment.
    This is the process of natural selection which gives the development of life its direction. Which, in a limited sense, can be equated to “purpose”
    In Paley’s example of the watch both atheists and atheists consistently fall into exactly the same trap.
    It is the trap of anthropocentrism whereby any phenomenon that exhibits what can be called “design” or “purpose” must involve a reflection of our own particular mental processes.
    As discussed further in my recent book “Unusual Perspectives” (Ch 10) this is a logical error of the “package deal” variety. Both the watch and the eye can be considered to have design or purpose within this model.
    We consider ourselves to design such things as watches. This arrogance can only be justified in a very limited sense.
    In actuality, watches have evolved! Albeit by a non-genetic mechanism.
    They are products of nature and we merely the vehicles for their evolutionary progress.
    There is absolutely no need to invoke a “designer”. Or for that matter a “creator” of what is quite conceivably a continuous automatic process.
    The “fine tuning” of the observed physical constants that critically permit the existence of biology. These have been discussed by many, a particularly exhaustive treatment having been presented by Barrow & Tipler in “The Cosmological Anthropic Principle”
    In chapter 11 of “Unusual Perspectives” this kind of analysis is extended “downstream” to provide, within the context of the unique properties and timely abundancies of the chemical elements, very compelling evidence of further “fine tuning” that not only allows, but essentially makes inevitable, the observed exponential development of technology for which our particular species has been the vehicle.
    Several ways to account for this indisputable “fine tuning” have been proposed.
    1. Creationists have seized upon the evidence to support the idea of a deity or “higher intelligence”. I suspect that anthropocentrism alone promotes this kind of interpretation. Adding any kind of “higher intelligence”, of course, makes for a very extravagant hypothesis. But it is not disprovable.
    2. The existence of a multiplicity of universes, perhaps infinite, each with a different set of physical properties. So one of them had to get lucky, right? This is favoured by many of those theoretical physicists who choose not to just stick their heads in the sand to avoid the implications of interpretation 1. Again, it can be neither proved or disproved but is even more extravagant.
    3. The “anthropic cosmological principle”, the non-superstitious version of which seems to boil down to “we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here…
    By virtue of its tautologous nature it is not disprovable.
    4. The Everett “many worlds” model, inspired by the “Schrodinger’s cat” kind of dilemma that arises from quantum mechanics. This essentially can be viewed as continual bifurcations of our universe such that, in the instance of the cat, in one of the resulting universes is is dead and in the other, alive. The bifurcations, of course, result in a multiplicity of “parallel universes. Again, very extravagant but probably not disprovable
    5. A far more economical model, derived from consideration of the gross evolutionary patterns that we observe in biology and, more recently, technology, is presented in “Unusual Perspectives” the electronic edition of which is available for free download from the eponymous website.
    To properly appreciate the reasoning therein, however, it is very important to first discard the anthropocentric mind-set that leads to problems with concepts such as “purpose” and “design”. They, like “gods”, “intelligence” and “free-will”, are merely components of our inherited mental environments that preclude objectivity.

    Peter G Kinnon

    4 September 2010 at 9:07 pm

  3. A truly excellent post. The same sort of argument can be made for all acts of “dumb” creation we see across the cosmos – e.g., volcanoes, new stars, planets – Why are they there? How is it they were created? What is the intention of its creation? We can easily address the cause of new volcano, star, and planet formation. To today’s mind, I think even the theologian would agree that asking about the intention of a new volcanic vent on the seafloor is nonsensical. It is the result of a series of geological causes, not an intentioned act. Just so, I feel like many would agree to the same assessment of new star formation, and by extension, new worlds. Gravity takes hold, conservation of angular momentum guides, and from nebula come star systems. I believe that likewise, it is only a matter of time before the idea of “universe creation” is also sensibly included as a result of an unintentioned cause, for there is no ‘need’ to intention in order for the creation to have occurred. That’s the rub, I think. Removing the need for intention undoes much of the theological rationale for, well, theology. Again, a great, thought-provoking post!


    4 September 2010 at 6:06 pm

    • Thank you!

      Interesting (and fairly non-disruptive) experiments with new-born babies have I think established that humans seem to have inbuilt & unlearned categories which they automatically and unconsciously apply to aspects of their world – eg ‘individual inanimate object which can move but only if pushed’, ‘individual inanimate object which can move autonomously’ etc. There is good survival justification for these categorizations.

      Much mythology over the centuries and millennia is informed by what Witggenstein would have called ‘seeing-as’: not just seeing a duckrabbit as a duck or a rabbit, but eg seeing a thunderstorm as the anger of a god and love as a game played by a goddess. It’s fighting a frantic rearguard action to survive as something respectable, but the residual insistence on seeing the ‘reason why there is something rather than nothing’ as the result of an intelligent volition must surely – one day?! – go the same way as Thor’s temper tantrum?

      Thanks again,

      Chris Lawrence

      5 September 2010 at 7:50 pm

  4. Nice distinction between why meaning what is the cause and what is the reason. I never thought of it quite like that before.

    We too in this household have been dismayed at the level of theological response to Hawking’s latest. It isn’t that we disagree – we do – but that the issues are so much more complex than they seem to think.

    As I am planning on saying in my own TheOtherI post today, “I don’t know the answer” has never been a particularly brilliant foundation for faith.

    Thank you for the usual stimulating read.


    Terry Sissons

    4 September 2010 at 4:57 pm

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