Friday, September 3, 2010


I know it's not wise to talk about a book one hasn't read, but after seeing this article about Stephen Hawking's new book I'm afraid I can't help it. I hope Hawking answers a few questions in his book that the article elides. Here's what the AOL News piece said:
Entering the ongoing debate between faith and science, renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking claims that modern physics has now proved that God played no role in the creation of the universe.
"Proved?" How can anyone, no matter how brilliant, prove that God was not involved in the birth of the cosmos? Moreover, there's no ongoing debate between "faith and science." There's only a debate about which interpretation of the empirical evidence best explains the data. Is it best explained by intelligent agency or is it best explained in terms of blind, impersonal forces?

The article goes on:
In a new book -- "The Grand Design," co-written with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow -- the theoretical physicist sets out to demolish Sir Isaac Newton's claim that an "intelligent and powerful Being" must have shaped the universe, which he believed could not have emerged from chaos. Hawking and Mlodinow rule out the possibility of divine intervention, saying that new theories have made the idea of a supernatural creator redundant.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," the pair write, in an extract published in today's London Times. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."
Upon reading this my friend Mike wrote to ask me my thoughts. He said:
I feel as if I must be missing something, because it doesn't seem right that a mind as astute as Hawking's could make such an obvious and elementary mistake, but am I wrong in perceiving a gaping hole in his point: He argues "Because there is a law such as gravity" the universe can create itself from nothing, and yet if a pre-existing law of gravity is necessary for the universe to create itself out of nothing, then the universe can not create itself out of nothing because it requires a law of gravity, the existence of which would constitute more than nothing.

The Hawking quote strikes me as remarkably stupid, but given that my brain and body of scientific knowledge is so much smaller than his, I feel as if I must be missing something. Maybe the article just gave a snippet that's better clarified in the book?
This is a very insightful observation on Mike's part. If there was indeed a force like gravity prior to the creation of the universe then surely the universe didn't create itself from nothing. In addition, there seems to be a chicken and egg problem. Gravity is a property of matter, so how did gravity exist before matter did?

Not only might one wonder where, in Hawking's theory, gravity comes from, one might also wonder how gravity actually creates matter and how matter comes to possess just the right properties, and organize itself in just the right way, to allow for the emergence of creatures capable of wondering about these things. If it can do all of these marvelous things it would seem that gravity is God.

I'm sure, or at least I hope, that Hawking addresses these questions in his book which is due to be released next week.


The other day I mentioned Jesse Bering's article in Scientific American in the post "Morality and Atheism". Today I'd like to look at another piece of that essay. Bering discusses the work of anthropologist Helen Fisher who studies the biology of broken relationships. I thought this was pretty interesting, having seen people I know go through almost exactly this progression on several occasions over the years.

Bering writes:
Drawing largely from work by psychiatrists, Fisher surmises that there are two main stages associated with a dead and dying romantic relationship, which is of course often preceded by a partner’s infidelities. During the “protest” stage that occurs in the immediate aftermath of rejection:
"Abandoned lovers are generally dedicated to winning their sweetheart back. They obsessively dissect the relationship, trying to establish what went wrong; and they doggedly strategize about how to rekindle the romance. Disappointed lovers often make dramatic, humiliating, or even dangerous entrances into a beloved’s home or place of work, then storm out, only to return and plead anew. They visit mutual haunts and shared friends. And they phone, e-mail and write letters, pleading, accusing and/or trying to seduce their abandoner.
"At the neurobiological level, the protest stage is characterized by unusually heightened, even frantic activity of dopamine and norepinephrine receptors in the brain, which has the effect of pronounced alertness similar to what is found in young animals abandoned by their mothers. This impassioned protest stage—if it proves unsuccessful in re-establishing the romantic relationship—slowly disintegrates into the second stage of heartbreak, what Fisher refers to as “resignation/despair”:
"With time the spurned individual gives up pursuit of the abandoning partner. Then he or she must deal with intensified feelings of helplessness, resignation and despair. Drugged by sorrow, most cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink too much, or hole up and watch TV. Feelings of protest and anger resurface intermittently, but rejected lovers mostly just feel profound melancholy … Some people in the despair phase of rejection kill themselves. Some die of a broken heart. Broken-hearted lovers expire from heart attacks or strokes caused by their depression … As the abandoned partner realizes that [reunion] will never come, dopamine-making cells in the midbrain decrease their activity [causing] lethargy, despondency and depression."
Eventually, most people get over their heartbreak, the dopamine cells regain their vigor, and the person gets on with his or her life. In the meantime, however, some people experiencing this rejection act as if they've gone insane, which, in a way, I suppose they have. It's very sad.

A Gore Disciple?

How long will it be before the media blames Al Gore for the violence that could have cost lives in the Maryland Discovery hostage crisis? The man, one James Lee, apparently was motivated to take serious action to save the planet after having read Gore's book An Inconvenient Truth.

It would of course be silly to blame Gore for this deranged man's behavior, but what do you suppose would have been the media reaction had the unstable, intoxicated individual who recently stabbed a Muslim cab driver in New York acknowledged that he was angry with Muslims after reading a book by some conservative talk show host? I'm pretty sure that admission would be exhibit A in an indictment of how awful conservative talk radio is and how the FCC needs to rein it in.

If we were to blame Gore for inspiring this man's actions it would mean that any writer of any book on almost any topic could be held at least morally responsible for almost anything. Yet that's the logic of blaming the attack on the Muslim cabbie on opponents of the Ground Zero mosque as many have already done. It's also the logic that lay behind blaming Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing on Rush Limbaugh's conservative opinions.

The absurdity notwithstanding, the left continues to attempt to refute its opposition, not by addressing their arguments, but by trying to convince the public that there's a nexus between those arguments and the actions of sundry lunatics and morons. It's a tactic the left only employs, however, when the people "at fault" are on the right. We can be assured that there'll be no such connections made in the case of a disciple of Al Gore.

In fact, we'll probably hear that any attempts to blame Gore are nonsensical ideological partisanship, which they are, but nonsensical ideological partisanship is a two-way street. It's funny how differently things look when people have to confront the logic of their own tactics.