Hawking’s idealism – it’s in the math

I think Mary Daly over at Notice the Universe rightly says Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, is oddly titled for a work claiming (as she says) “…that the universe will create itself, out of nothing, in an infinite variety of forms; and that, given an infinite variety of forms, a segment or sub-universe friendly to mankind is bound to develop,” which is the same as to say, as Mary points out, that there is “no design needed, grand or not.”

“Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given”a little like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. ‘No, no,’ says God. ‘Go get your own dirt.’

“It seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.”  Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism.  Reducing the study of physical reality to mathematics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism.

Agreed.  It’s one thing when a physicist, with an assist from the mathematician (identified by Daly as “the physicist’s alter-ego”) is able to construct a mathematical system that seems perfectly parallel to the patterns he’s seeing in the universe.  The problem arises when the system starts to imply things that are not even potentially observable and do not resemble either the visible universe or the original pattern that was seen in it – and yet the physicist has so much faith in the math that he finds such oddities to be real as well.

Daly:  “As every detective knows, having a solution that accounts for the facts is not the same as having the right answer.”

The new East Window

image by Tom Lowe, NMM 2010

It is an ancient practice to lay out a church building so that altars and great-windows are oriented to the east.  The original meaning of the word ‘orientation’ is derived I think from the architectural fact of this preference for an east-facing on the ‘business end’ of temples and churches.  There’s an obvious attempt to make the most of the morning sunlight, but there are other, more ancient associations which imply that east is the direction of divine presence and power.

Today, a higher cosmological perspective suggests (to me anyway) the need for a galactic rather than geographic orientation to divine presence and power.  The photograph above of the massive starry plane of our home galaxy shot from the White Mountains of California, might be called a view through the new East Window.  It makes no difference that the subject of the above photo may be lying to the west – the new ‘East Window’ always opens up in the direction of the galactic center.

I don’t think it idolatrous to view the galactic plane as a kind of focus for the localized universe presence of God.  Because it’s not easy to imagine how God’s existence could mean anything at all to the galaxy if no framework for sovereignty, ministry, mercy, or justice were stretched out upon it.  Moderns love to deny that God can actually be ‘out there’ somewhere – Sorry, for me this photographer captures, among the fingers of the ancient bristlecone pine, the starry path to the center of Light and Life and the eternal mansions of the God of love.

There are two primary theological orientations of ‘the eye of faith’, and this post is about only one of them – the outward, universe-oriented direction.  Augustine wrote of the other orientation in a well-known soliloquy which I will not here repeat.  And of course that second theological orientation tracks to an inward center rather than an outward center.

Various frightful and utterly spiritless depictions of the great outer centers (and the inner centers)  have been suggested by different human minds.  This is to be expected, since the measurable energies proceeding from the unseen center of our galaxy register (by definition) only a monstrous quantitative value – the instruments of choice are not made for the task of elaborating the strictly qualitative mystery of religious consciousness.

If some of our great scientific men suppose ‘a monstrous black hole’ or some other shocking thing at the center of their home galaxy, it is only their personal best in response to the quantities which dominate their analysis.  I would only expect that the theory by which they explain the numbers might sometimes resemble the featureless nightmare of a homeless child.

NOTE:  The photograph, “Blazing Bristlecone” is by Tom Lowe, the winner of the British National Maritime Museum’s 2010 competition for Astronomy Photograph of the Year in the Earth and Space category (the photo also gained him the award for best overall).  Thanks to Deskarati for the link.

Below:  The East Window of Glasgow Cathedral (for comparison)

What I wish I’d said about Stephen Hawking

I’ve been keenly aware of my lack of commentary on current events around here.  Honestly, I feel hopelessly tongue-tied by the stunning idiocy which resides at the heart of so much that is in the public eye these days.  With little surplus of time, I have been unable to raise the level of my response above ad hominem,  so I’ve taken the silent route.

Here I will at least try to compensate for my lack of prophetic power by featuring another writer’s recent post on the reductionist swagger of our contemporary physicists:

“Philosophy is dead”  – What, again? Apparently Stephen Hawking is unaware of the fact that this rhetorical strategy for winning philosophical arguments has been tried before, without notable success. It is not only a classic ploy for physicalists, who hold that reality consists entirely of whatever physicists can talk about in their professional capacity, and who hold that we know this to be true primarily because physicists tell us this, in their professional capacity. It was tried by the old Vienna Circle boys, who made the philosophical assertion that philosophical assertions are nonsense, and therefore ought not to be made, excepting, of course, this last one, which should. It has been tried by Hegel and Heidegger, who both claimed that because one could discern a kind of narrative arc in the history of philosophy thus far, that therefore the story must be over (confusing the lights coming up in a movie theater for enlightenment itself). In a different way it was tried by Russell, who suggested that philosophers continue to do philosophy, but to act like scientists in doing so, dividing the problems up and parceling them out to teams like chemists—in this case, there’s no pretense that philosophy as such is dead, …

read more at: among the Poseidonians

The author’s reference is to a recent review of Hawking’s book, The Grand Design,  in The Economist :

“The authors [Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow] rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead.” It is, allegedly, now the exclusive right of scientists to answer the three fundamental why-questions with which the authors purport to deal in their book. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?”

I only discovered the blogger today, and haven’t asked his permission to put up his material here.  But the post is quite up to my taste in terms of depth of material – my only criticism is that it’s long, and so a little uneven in spots.  But overall I’m glad to find another writer saying things I’m feeling about the lack of decent public criticism of Hawking’s magesterial pose as metaphilosopher of popular cosmology.

I know that a daily rant (tastefully done) is an important fixture in blog protocol, and a good way to build a congenial readership.  I’m sure it ought to be tried in particular by a bloke who mostly presumes to write theology without a license (which certainly nobody is obliged to care about).   For now I am content to feature a blogger like the Poseidonian, who has more of what I lack – a cool head and a taste for the words I wish I could command in regard to Hawking, Park51, Koran burners, etc. etc.   Check him out.