Sunday, September 12, 2010

Nothing New in the Origin Debate

Stephen Hawking's new book "The Grand Design" is causing a fair stir among people who are unfamiliar with Hawking's earlier writings and the cosmological argument for the existence of God. A portion of the book is excerpted here. Frankly, its conclusions are only a small step from what he's been writing at least since A Brief History of Time - strong anthropic principle collapsing into the weak one, postulation of a multiverse that accounts for fine tuning, possibility of spontaneous creation - he's at least suggested all of it before. Hawking's earlier works often invoked the language of God and creation, but it always sounded to me like a very Spinozan God.

The argument itself is entirely question-begging. If there is indeed a physical law that predicts the possibility of spontaneous creation, then where did that law come from? Should it be regarded as an uncaused cause? Why is regarding it as eternal and uncaused more reasonable than placing a mindful creator in this role? These are the same questions that one should ask every time someone claims that a new variation on origin theory shows that God is redundant.

And one need only ask these questions if the theories that Hawking cites are correct, which is extremely uncertain. Hawking was, in his prime, a monster of a theoretician, who predicted the existence of several astronomical phenomena before any empirical evidence of their existence came to light. The trouble with the multiverse theory is that it doesn't seem to meet the basic scientific criterion of falsifiability - what evidence could hypothetically be produced that would show that the theory is incorrect? Moreover, are the theories that predict a multiverse uniquely capable of explaining other phenomena and physical laws? If not, then why choose these theories and carry the ontological baggage of the multiverse? Why should we think that the different components of the multiverse all have different laws if there is an overriding law for all of them that allows spontaneous creation?

Hawking probably addresses at least some of these latter questions in the book, though I'm fairly certain that we've already seen all the philosophy it contains. He's never been inclined to give more than a paragraph at a time to metaphysical considerations, and there's no reason to think that he's giving them any more thought now.

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