Monday, December 29, 2014

Theory of Everything

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking is perhaps the most famous living scientist, famous not only for his brilliance but also for his decades long battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. What's less well-known, perhaps, is that Hawking, an atheist, had been married until the mid-nineties to a woman named Jane who is a devout Christian.

A movie based on his life has just been released titled A Theory of Everything which is a reference to the holy grail of cosmologists: a single equation that would tie together both relativity and quantum mechanics and unite the four fundamental forces in a single force. Fr. Robert Barron at Real Clear Religion has some interesting things to say about the movie which he describes as "God-haunted."
In one of the opening scenes, the young Hawking meets Jane, his future wife, in a bar and tells her that he is a cosmologist. "What's cosmology?" she asks, and he responds, "Religion for intelligent atheists." "What do cosmologists worship?" she persists. And he replies, "A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe." Later on, Stephen brings Jane to his family's home for dinner and she challenges him, "You've never said why you don't believe in God." He says, "A physicist can't allow his calculations to be muddled by belief in a supernatural creator," to which she deliciously responds, "Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists."

This spirited back and forth continues throughout the film, as Hawking settles more and more into a secularist view and Jane persists in her religious belief. As Hawking's physical condition deteriorates, Jane gives herself to his care with truly remarkable devotion, and it becomes clear that her dedication is born of her religious conviction.
Their relationship is reminiscent of that between Charles Darwin, who was an agnostic, and his wife Emma who was devout, and is interesting on its own, but the more important part of Barron's piece is what he has to say about how the science Hawking (and Darwin) loved so deeply was actually the product of a Christian worldview:
[I]t is by no means accidental that the modern physical sciences emerged when and where they did, namely, in a culture shaped by Christian belief. Two suppositions were required for the sciences to flourish, and they are both theological in nature, namely, that the world is not divine and that nature is marked, through and through, by intelligibility.

As long as the natural world is worshiped as sacred - as it was in many ancient cultures - it cannot become the subject of analysis, investigation, and experimentation. And unless one has confidence that the world one seeks to analyze and investigate has an intelligible structure, one will never bother with the exercise. Now both of these convictions are corollaries of the more fundamental doctrine of creation. If the world has been created by God, then it is not divine, but it is indeed marked, in every nook and cranny, by the intelligence of the Creator who made it.
Hawking's pursuit of what scientist's call the TOE (Theory of Everything) serves to illustrate Barron's point:
In light of these clarifications, let us look again at the central preoccupation of A Theory of Everything, namely, Hawking's quest to find the one great unifying equation that would explain all of reality.... Why in the world would a scientist blithely assume that there is or is even likely to be one unifying rational form to all things, unless he assumed that there is a singular, overarching intelligence that has placed it there? Why shouldn't the world be chaotic, utterly random, meaningless? Why should one presume that something as orderly and rational as an equation would describe the universe's structure?
Why, indeed, is the universe the sort of place that discloses its secrets to reason and logic? Why is it intelligible? Barron and many other scientists and philosophers, both past and present, have argued that the intelligibility of the universe is much more probable given the belief that the universe was created by an intelligent agent than on the assumption that it's the product of sheer chance. Moreover, since reason instructs us to always believe what is more likely than what is less likely the rational position is to incline toward the view that the universe is the product of an intelligent creator.

It seems remarkable, at least to me, that so many people, brilliant people like Stephen Hawking, accept that principle in every precinct of their personal philosophy and professional endeavors except when it comes to God. In that one sector of their intellectual life they for some reason set the principle aside.

I wonder how they'd explain that.