Belmont Club

Children of the Weaker God

When Stephen Hawking suggested in 1988 that he could construct a complete theory of physical laws one way, he interpreted it as a way to establish the possibility of an impersonal God by construction. “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.” That is, we would have a God explainable entirely in terms of physical laws. Recently, the British mathematician claims he has done just that.

He now suggests that the search for this particular Holy Grail is over, now that scientists have come up with a type of theory, known as M-theory, that may describe the behaviour of all the fundamental particles and force, and even account for the very birth of the universe. If this theory is backed up by experiment, it might perhaps replace all religious accounts of creation – in Hawking’s capacious mind, it already has.

But what you would then have, as Hawking himself said, is not “no God” but a kind of god, yet not the necessarily the kind of God that religious people normally seek. It would be a god of mathematical and physical laws without the absolute need for recourse to a Being who cared anything for the universe.

“The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God’, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.”

A personal God might still exist as a superset to Hawking’s construction, but would be superfluous when an impersonal God will suffice. That physical theory, he claims, would be sufficient to explain all that we can observe, insofar as the questions can be cast in scientific terms. M-theory would not tell you what the meaning of your life was because that lies outside the area of observation.

Graham Farmelo writes: “One problem with the theory is that it looks as though it will be extremely difficult to test, unless physicists can build a particle accelerator the size of a galaxy.” That is an empirical problem, but in principle, is Farmelo correct to say that “even if the experimenters find a way round this and M-theory passes all their tests, the reasons for the mathematical order at the heart of the universe’s order would remain an unsolvable mystery”?

That question is a very difficult one to answer. But it does provide an illustration of Tarski and Godel’s observations that any sufficiently strong formal system will contain propositions whose truth cannot be decided within the system itself. You can always ask questions of Hawking’s God as it is formulated that it can never answer, and will require a stronger system to resolve. And doubtless as new observations posed by both physical observation and formal argument come to hand, Hawking’s system will either be extended, rebuilt, trashed or contradicted. It would be too unlikely to think that in all of future time it will stand as the final word, even if it could be tested.

And we may be surprised either way. Dick Lipton, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech, has a fascinating discussion about famous conjectures which looked plausible yet some of which after thousands of years were proved to be false. The God Conjecture, if you can call it that, can be propounded at so many different levels and in such varied ways that it will be a real chore to formally state it. In fact, one way to read Hawking’s result is as an establishment of God as “the laws of science,” one which the post-modernists cannot escape. It is the ultimate refutation of Derrida’s assertion that “there is no outside-the-text.” If M-theory is true, then Derrida is surely wrong and there is always something outside the text. At the very least we are children of the Weaker God.

But what of the Stronger God, the one which men desire? The God that loves each and every one of us? For most people in the world, Hawking’s announcement of the M-theory will be accepted or rejected on the basis of that least scientific of grounds, authority. The great majority of atheists and deists will have no clue to the mathematics or physics involved. Most of those who argue there is no love and meaning will stand on the great and prestigious academic credentials of Dr. Hawking, not upon their own logic. Those who reject it will doubtless quote other authorities. Very few will bother to notice that Hawking’s theory says nothing about meaning or love, other than that he does not need it in his equations.

Much of humanity has a great hunger for answers to questions to which Hawking does not concern himself. They will not be rigorously banished by claims they are illegitimate concerns or forbidden terms. Men will keep asking them and that is a sort of proof, by a sort of construction, that they have some existence.

At the last we are left exactly where we were: on the shores of a great ocean whose extent we do not know, condemned to live out our lives partly on the basis of things we can only guess. Some will decide that for purely arbitrary reasons we have been granted a glimpse into a mighty, soulless and uncaring mechanism and leave it at that. Some will strike out on another path. They will not watch, but live on the shores of this great sea. There they will build their homes, care for their children and sacrifice their lives for things that have meaning, yet which others will regard as not only meaningless but as incapable of meaning. The argument is probably unsettleable and the two tribes are doomed to live side by side for whatever amounts to forever. Blaise Pascal believed that you could never know which of these points of view was correct. He advised everyone to make his wager and live life accordingly. Being the gambler, Pascal decided that if he wagered, he would bet to win.

But what is the prize? John Henry Cardinal Newman argued that we could not know exactly; that all a follower of the Stronger God could do was live out his life within this mystery and trust to the intuition of what he followed; he would trust to love and that it would bring all that was like it into its embrace. Strictly speaking our life could be its own reward. But Newman did not think so. Regardless of whether consciousness went on he believed it was part of something greater. Newman wrote:

I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.

So place your bets gentlemen. For my part, the game seems most interesting if I accept Newman’s guess: what we do cannot be thrown away. Otherwise the chips aren’t real.

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