Thursday, March 31, 2011

Do You Cheat On Your Taxes?

By Eric Von Salzen

Income taxes are due on April 18th this year, so this is a timely question.

According to a survey by DDB Worldwide Communications Group , 15% of Americans admitted cheating on their returns. Moreover, the tax cheats were more likely than non-cheaters to cheat in other ways: to keep the wrong change given by a cashier, to solicit a phony job reference, to lie to obtain a government benefit, even to steal money from a child.

And yet, these cheaters disproportionately believe that they are “overall better people”, who are “special and deserve to be treated that way”. So perhaps I asked the wrong question.

Perhaps I should have asked: “Are you special?”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spontaneous Generation

By Eric Von Salzen

I’ve just read “The Grand Design”, the new book by the great mathematician Stephen Hawking (and the less-famous physicist Leonard Mlodinow). When the book was announced a few months ago, I wrote on this site:

I’m looking forward to reading Stephen Hawking’s new book, in which he argues that we do not need to believe in God to explain the existence of the universe. Instead, we are to believe in “M-theory”, which involves 11 space-time dimensions, “vibrating strings, ... point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space.” Boy, that’s a relief! Just good old common sense, and none of that religious mumbo-jumbo!

I repeat those words now, not because I’m proud of my rhetoric (although I am), but to alert you to my bias.

To a substantial extent, the claim that Hawking's book proves that there’s no need to assume a role for God in creation is publisher’s hype. It's a good way to generate buzz, but that's not really what the book is primarily about. The book is primarily a summary, for the intelligent lay reader, of current scientific thinking about the origin and nature of the universe in light of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, a sort of “Cosmology for Dummies.”

“Dummies” is a relative term, of course. Although Hawking (I’m going to refer to the author as Hawking, and not Hawking and Mlodinow because Hawking’s the famous name; sorry Leonard) – although Hawking makes these subjects as accessible to the intelligent lay reader as possible, it's pretty deep stuff. At some point along the way, even if you are much smarter than I am (you probably are), you’re likely to find you just can't grasp what Hawking is saying. At best, you'll be able to figure out what the subject matter under discussion is, but not the substance of the discussion. It's like someone who just finished a second year college German class eavesdropping on a discussion between Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche: you can't understand what they're saying, but you might be able to figure out the topic. If you’re as interested in the science that Hawking discusses as I am, you should enjoy this book.

But for purposes of this blog, what is of interest in this book is what Hawking claims regarding religion. These claims are found primarily in the second chapter, which discusses the origins of religious belief, and then later toward the end of the book, where Hawking discusses design in creation.

In Chapter 2, Hawking portrays religion as the invention of primitive peoples who were ignorant of science, but wanted to understand how and why the physical world worked the way it did. In their ignorance they invented gods “to lord it over every aspect of human life.” Once science came along to explain the mysteries of the physical world, there was no further need for religion. As a wise man (not Hawking) said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child”, etc. Yet, religion stubbornly hangs on like some cultural vermiform appendix; most humans haven’t yet “put away childish things”.

There are two things wrong with Hawking’s argument. First, there’s no evidence that religion was invented primarily to explain the physical world. Second, even if that were the original purpose of religion, that doesn’t mean that religion today has no broader and deeper purposes that science has not rendered obsolete.

I’ll take Hawking’s word on matters of math or physics, because he’s clearly an expert, but on the origin of religion, Hawking can claim no special expertise. He's obviously a very smart man, but he offers no evidence that he’s studied comparative religion, cultural anthropology, paleontology, or any of the other disciplines that would be implicated in a serious investigation of the origin of religion. To support his proposition that religion arose to explain the physical world, Hawking cites creation myths from Viking and Amerindian cultures, the former around 1,000-years old, the latter about 6,600 years older than that. Yet, cave paintings, burial practices, devotional objects, etc., found by archeologists suggest that human beings have had some sense of the divine for several tens of thousands of years. The origins of religion are lost in the mists of time.

It’s undoubtedly true that some primitive religions we know about used stories about gods to explain aspects of the physical world, but that doesn't mean that this was the primary purpose for which religion was “invented”. It could just as well be the case that ancient peoples, having become conscious of the divine, then attributed to divinity responsibility for aspects of the physical world. Let’s take a modern-day example. Today some Christians believe in the concept of "intelligent design", the notion that God is responsible for characteristics of plants and animals, such as the cilium of the eye, that (supposedly) cannot be adequately explained by contemporary science, i.e., by evolution. But the adherents to intelligent design did not invent God to explain the development of the eye. It works the other way around: their belief in God came first, and that belief led them to invent the idea of intelligent design. There is no reason to suppose that ancient or primitive peoples could not have developed their ideas about religion in the same way. Thus, the ancient Klamath Indians might not have invented gods to explain the existence of Crater Lake, as Hawking assumes; they might have regarded the lake as confirmation of the gods in whom they already believed for other reasons.

The mythologies that I know a little about, ancient Greek, the Norse, the Irish, do include stories that use gods or other supernatural characters to explain aspects of the physical universe, but they do a great deal more. When Poseidon wrecks the ships on which Odysseus seeks to return home from Troy, the story is not just an explanation for storms at sea. That’s why we still read the Odyssey.

This is certainly true of the Old Testament. The ancient Hebrew stories do explain various aspects of the physical world, but that isn’t their primary purpose. The principal lesson of Genesis 1 is not about the mechanics of creation (pace my creationist friends), but about the relationship between God and the creation. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah may have its origins in some ancient volcanic eruption, but that’s not why the story is read today.

Moreover, whatever may have been the motivation for the “invention” of early religions, today modern religions have very little to do with explaining the mysteries of the physical world that science now promises to reveal. If Hawking thinks that many modern Christians would abandon their religion if they understood what a quark is, he lives in a different world than I do. Some Christians, it is true, have difficulty accepting the fact that science tells us that some Bible stories are not literally true: that the universe was not created in seven days, but in less than a microsecond, that the sun only seemed to stop in the sky while the Lord gave the Israelites victory over the Amorites, and so on. But this doesn’t prove that these Christians believe in God in order to explain the physical world. On the contrary, their belief in God takes precedence over explanations of the physical world that these believers feel are inconsistent with their faith. I’m not a Biblical literalist myself, and I personally hope that the day will come that creationists and other literalists, or their children, will finally come to accept that the teachings of science about evolution, the Big Bang, and other issues are fully reconcilable with Christian faith. When they do, that will not keep them away from church on Sundays.

Hawking returns to religion toward the end of the book, where he addresses scientific findings that some people think support the existence of a creator God. The fundamental laws of physics seem to be “fine-tuned” to create a universe that supports the existence of human beings. For example, human and all other life that we know about depends on the element carbon. Carbon is created in the heart of dying stars and is dispersed into space when the star explodes, whence it can become a constituent of a life-supporting planet. If the laws of nuclear physics were only slightly different, little or no carbon (or oxygen, for that matter) would be created in stars, and life as we know it would be impossible. Every other fundamental force in nature within this universe falls in a narrow range that is suitable for creating an environment in which life is possible.

At one time scientists thought that these fundamental laws of nature represented the only way that things could be. The science that Hawking describes however, shows that these fundamental laws came into existence in the earliest moments of the Big Bang that created our universe, and it was entirely possible that different physical laws, with different values, could have come into being in that process. Indeed, the odds seem to be overwhelmingly against the existence of a universe compatible with human life.

Thus, science poses a question – why is our universe designed to be friendly to us? – for which religion may provide the answer: God. Indeed, some astronomers and cosmologists embrace a belief in God, at least a kind of Deism, for this reason.

Hawking acknowledges this challenge to the pretensions of science to answer every question without reference to God. His response is that equations that underlie the theory of the universe called M-theory show that a huge number of universes are possible. Indeed, the theory implies that in some sense all these alternate universes exist. The number of universes predicted by M Theory is not, technically, infinite, but it is huge: 10 to the 500th power, or a one followed by 500 zeros. You'll excuse me, I hope, if I don't set it out here. Out of that huge number of universes, virtually any set of physical laws must exist in one of them, so our life-friendly universe could come about without any divine intervention. Human life, of course, could only have arisen in this one particular universe.

The other creation problem, which exists for any universe that is supposed to have a beginning, is how the beginning began. If our universe (or all the 10 to the 500th power universes) began in a Big Bang, where did the stuff that went bang come from? Religions can answer that question, although perhaps not every religion’s answer is satisfactory to everyone. The oft-told story (including told by Hawking himself) is that in some religion the world was thought to rest on the back of a giant turtle; and what did the turtle stand on? Another turtle, and that one on yet another: It’s turtles all the way down. In Christian and Jewish scripture, the answer to the ex nihilo problem is that in the beginning God created the universe from nothing. Genesis explains how he did it: “God said let there be light, and there was light", etc. It is nonsense to ask what happened before the beginning.

What is the Big Bang theory’s answer to this problem? If we run the movie of the expanding universe backward, eventually all the matter and all the energy is compressed into an infinitely small space. And then what? Hawking’s answer is that entire universe (and all 10 to the 500th power universes?) simply created itself from nothing. This is possible, he says, because, in a sense, a universe is nothing. The total energy of the universe it seems is zero, because gravity represents negative energy that exactly balances out the positive energy of all the matter in the universe; the net energy is zero. Thus:

Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . . . 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.

Hawking seems to be quite comfortable with his answers to the question how our universe, so apparently fine-tuned for life like ours, came into being. He may, for all I know, be right. I don't begin to understand the math, and he's one of the smartest (if not the smartest) mathematician in the world.

As it happens, at the same time I was reading “The Grand Design” I was reading another book, “Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer” by C. S. Lewis. We have a discussion group at our church that is reading “Letters to Malcolm” together. I found this passage in Lewis’s book:

[T]he sciences are always pushing further back the realm of mere “brute fact.” But no scientist, I suppose, believes that the process could ever reach completion. At the very least, there must always remain the utterly “brute” fact, the completely opaque datum, that a universe – or, rather, this universe, with its determinate character – exists . . . .

What would Lewis make of Hawking? Lewis thought no scientist could imagine claiming that he had reached a complete understanding of how it is that this universe exists. Jack, meet Steve. Steve, meet Jack.

So, as I say, Hawking’s math may all check out, but still, I’m troubled. Is it really more sensible to assume that a gazillion universes, all but one of which is unknown (and presumably unknowable) to us, created themselves from nothing, rather than to believe that God created this one universe in a way that made life possible? I think Occam's razor favors the second hypothesis, but maybe that's just me.

Let me make one thing clear. My own religious faith does not depend on the inability of science to explain where the universe came from or why its physical laws are the way they are. I’m perfectly happy to assume that someday science will answer all these questions (although I remain skeptical about Hawking’s claim that science has already done so). My faith is based on the resurrection of a Jewish carpenter almost 2,000 years ago and the promises he made to mankind.

So, read “The Grand Design” if you’re interested in the science. It’s short, only 181 pages, and easy reading. Or, if you’d like a greater challenge, read “Letters to Malcolm”. It’s even shorter (124 pages), but you’ll work harder at it, and get more from it, I believe.