A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Hermeneutics of Stephen Hawking

This is the true quill, because I got it neu from Hermen himself. 

Physicists, when they are off the reservation, say the cutest things.  Many of them hold philosophy in contempt because "there are never any final answers" in philosophy.  Unlike physics, where the phlogiston...  I mean, the impetus....  Well, you know what I mean.  But as Mary Midgley said, "People who refuse to have anything to do with philosophy have become enslaved to outdated forms of it." 

Actually, final answers only come from mathematics.  Physics, appears final to the extent it appears mathematical.  That was Descartes' original programme: could we but reduce science to mathematics, we could reach scientific conclusions with all the certainty of mathematical ones.  Well, Popper put a stop to that nonsense.  It gave us new nonsenses, but that is another matter. 

But physics is the most mathematical of the natural sciences.  In the sense of the Scientific Revolution, that makes it the most scientific of the sciences and recently, carried away by a fit of mathematical certainty, the estimable Dr. Stephen Hawking wrote:

"As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously 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."

One is initially struck by several points.

1. A Matter of Some Gravity.  Gravity is a property of matter, so if matter did not exist there would be no "gravity," and hence no "law" of gravity.  But if the laws of gravity did not exist, they could not cause anything to be, since "nothing begets nothing."

2. Zero versus Nothing.  He also says that these "laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing." But he postulates that the universe comes from laws of physics, and the laws of physics are not nothing.  

Now, Stephen M. Barr, a physicist at U.Delaware, writes that there is nothing new about Dr. Hawking's epiphany

My first introduction to it was reading a very elegant theoretical paper entitled "Creation of Universes from Nothing," written in 1982 by the noted cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin, who argued that our universe might have arisen by a "quantum fluctuation."

Barr notes that this idea "is extremely speculative, has not yet been formulated in a mathematically rigorous way, and is unable at this point to make any testable predictions. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine how it could ever be tested."  Calling Karl Popper! 

That doesn't make it a dumb idea; it only makes it, in Popperian terms, a non-scientific one.  This leads to the third point:

3. The Inflationary Universe. 
No, not Alan Guth's Big Bang with Inflation.  The inflation of terms.  At one time the term "world" meant the universe.  Then "world" was restricted to "planet" and the universe was called the "universe."  Now Hawking [and others] is not talking about the universe, that is, the collection of all things that exist.  He is talking about

a single, self-contained physical structure, comprising a “spacetime manifold” and particles and other things moving around in that spacetime.
IOW, the term "universe" is now being restricted to a "space-time continuum" within a structure of many such manifolds.  Call the larger structure "a system of universes."  These manifolds can come into existence or pass out of existence, as Barr describes.  They mark various quantum states of the "system of 'universes'" (system of manifolds).  Since space-time continua come only in integral quantities, the transition from k manifolds to k+1 manifolds is necessarily a quantum shift.  So if a space-time manifold comes into existence, the "system of universes" has experienced a discontinuous state change.  Writes Barr:

Such transitions are precisely governed by dynamical laws (assumed to include the laws of quantum mechanics). These laws would govern not only how many universes there were, but the characteristics of these universes, such as how many dimensions of space they could have and what kinds of matter and forces they could contain.

So Hawking is considering the state transition from k=0 to k=1+

This is Kinda Kool, and we pause here in sheer admiration of the concept, despite the lack of any (or any possible) physical evidence for it.  Are there SF possibilities?  Perhaps if SF stood for Science Fantasy; for by their very nature, you cannot get from here to there.  But still.... 

In any case, to say that a space-time manifold came from "nothing" is a stretch.  The “no-universe state” is not nothing.  It is a particular quantum state in "an intricate rule-governed system" and has "specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws."  IOW, there is a whole pre-existing system of quantum physics from which it comes.  And this is why Hawking can talk about physical laws before there is anything physical to obey them.  See item 2, above.  IOW, he has not conceived of Nothing.  There is always Something pre-existing. 

Barr draws an analogy to the banking system budding off savings accounts.  There is a difference between an account with no balance and no account at all.  And even when there is no account, there is an "intricate rule-governed system" of banking laws that allows an account to come into existence.  That isn't nothing. 

But a system of laws is at least immaterial, right?  So suppose we give Hawking the benefit of the doubt. He claims that the universe comes into being "from nothing." Yet he also says there is something prior to this nothing, which he calls "the laws of gravity and quantum theory." Since they exist, they have being.  But they are, however, themselves immaterial.  So Hawking postulates that the universe was created by an immaterial being t. 

Does he mean that the laws of gravity and quantum theory are two distinct principles? Gravity is that principle which draws all things to itself, and quantum mechanics is that principle that brings things into being. If they are distinct, then there must be something prior to them which "begets" them. If not, then a certain sense, they are one, despite the appearance of being different.  This is a great mystery. 

Let's assume that he wasn't serious when he said, "from nothing," but that he meant only "from no matter." (This is "nothing" only in the sense of "absence.") So Hawking says that once upon a time the universe [space-time manifold] did not exist. There is a "beginning" or "finiteness" to time," and therefore an "outside" to time. And the laws of physics somehow exist outside of time.  He is flirting with Platonism here.  I wonder if he knows it. 

So he equates the "creation of the universe" with the "becoming of matter."  And logically prior to this "becoming" stands a principle, a set of laws described by quantum theory. (This is logically prior, not prior in time. Time commences with the becoming of matter.)

IOW: Law precedes Matter and is the cause of it.

This makes the Law the formal cause - i.e., "the form-specifying principle" - of that which would otherwise be formless. This is also Kool, since the Scientific Revolution deliberately rejected formal causes. 

But since every thing that exists exists in some form, formless matter must be (in some way) non-existent. By bringing form to "formless matter" the Law brings matter as we know it into being. And we're back to Aristotle, again!  There's no escaping that old Stagerite.  Like American Express, he's everywhere you want to be.
Πρώτη ὕληIf we abstract [in thought] all characters and determinations from body, we arrive at a concept of characterless, undetermined matter, aka "prime matter."  Formless matter, the πρώτη ὕλη (prote hyle), is pure potency and not actually anything.  In particular, while it potentially exists, it does not actually exist.  (It "lacks the act of existence.")  Thus it is incorporeal because it is no actual body -- though it is the necessary underlying condition for bodies.  So the prime matter is formless or chaotic and because it has no physical existence we can call it a "void." 

So according to Hawking, there was a beginning; and in the beginning was the Law and the Law was all there was; and without the Law nothing came to be.  And the Law was an immaterial being that was pure λογοϛ.  And this Law gave form to the void of pure potency, prime matter. 

Wait a minute.....

Something about that sounds awfully familiar.  Didn't someone say all that and say it more poetically a long time ago?
"In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was *with God,
and the Word *was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
And without him nothing came to be."


  1. Physicists, when they are off the reservation, say the cutest things. Many of them hold philosophy in contempt because "there are never any final answers" in philosophy. Unlike physics, where the phlogiston... I mean, the impetus.... Well, you know what I mean. But as Mary Midgley said, "People who refuse to have anything to do with philosophy have become enslaved to outdated forms of it."

    Another amusement is that often, the very same individuals who will fault philosophy or metaphysics with respect to "science" on those grounds will then go on to fault "religion" (which is to say, Christianity) with respect to "science" on the grounds that "religion" does claim to have some "final answers," whereas "science is more modest in its claims."


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