Making claims on questionable evidence

I'm back from written examination land, so it's time for some pop-religion fun -- serious, but not on anyone's syllabus. And what pops up on my radar, but the new Hawking/Mlodinow book. So, alright, Hawking has been on the GUT/ToE (Grand Unified Theory, or Theory of Everything) hunt for a very long time. This isn't his first "disproving God" moment, but every time he does this, I find myself wishing that the former occupant of the Lucasian Chair would stick to his professional competencies, and not spout off like a two-bit crank on philosophy and theology.

I don't doubt that Hawking knows his math, or his astrophysics. And better than I do! But this isn't a professional paper. This isn't the math or the astrophysics. It's lay populism, and Michio Kaku does it much better. Which is to say, it's evangelism, and I prefer catechesis.

This time, apparently creation ex nihil is something the fabric of the universe is naturally capable of. And I get quite enough of M-theory and the nature of the 11D universe to understand why and how. As a professional theologian and a long-time amateur reader of high-level physics, I have no problem with this particular model of the universe. But this isn't a book championing a breakthrough in the underlying science of modeling the universe, it's a book selling metaphysics. And if the science isn't exactly new, the targets of its polemical evangelism are really old. The straw is mouldering.

Part of the problem is that these straw men are walking around quite a lot today. Creationism and Intelligent Design have been keeping them animated. Both sides might be seen as children of the Scopes trial, but the real lineage isn't science on one side and Christianity on the other. If I had to put a common name to their common ancestor, it's Deism. Old, but not older than the 17th century. Leibniz-Wolff-Kant line, mixed with German-American pietism. One side is maximizing, and one minimizing, the minimum-necessary-deity, constituted by the past-perfect act of universal creation. A "god of the gaps".

There are bits here that I don't totally mind, like the extension of Marx's dictum that we only develop questions for which we have answers -- our questions tend to match the state of our science. Metaphysics tells physics where to go and what to do. That is an interesting way to look at it, and it's not wrong, but it doesn't have to go where the authors take it. And then there's this whole intentional-confusion bit with the "multiverse" and our "pluralistic age".

"Multiverse" is an interesting term, sci-fi/fantasy derived as it is, for the string/membrane-theory universe and its understanding of the quantum probability matrix. Stuff really does just pop out of nowhere, and most of the time it pops back into nowhere. As I say, the science isn't new, even if it's not intuitive to brains conditioned on Cartesian coordinates and Newtonian physics as "good enough" models. But to say that this is the end of philosophy and theology, because we've discovered a mechanism of spontaneous generation of matter from probability, is a ploy to sell books. It is a claim made without evidence, in two fields in which the authors have no professional credentials, and for which they have not tried sincerely to engage the best minds and consensus work on the other sides.

"Pluralism" really gets me here. We're conflating two things, and hoping that popular misunderstandings will carry it off. The first is the irreducible plurality of religious, political, and sociological realities. The second is the reducible plurality of scientific models. The authors seem to hope that playing on the anti-relativism sentiment from the former with the objective universality of the latter will carry the field.

I'm sorry, that's a category error, plain and simple. Metabasis eis allo genos. But, as category errors go, it seems remarkably useful for sketching out the core confusion. In science, there are always multiple coherent models for describing the universe, coexisting -- some would say competing, but that has to to with who's getting paid what for which of them -- until some observation produces data that contradicts some of them. It's a situation like Heisenberg uncertainty, or Schrödinger's cat. While the box is closed, and we haven't observed any facts that contradict our knowledge of the universe, all the models that work with that knowledge are equally valid, but equally likely to be true or false. When we open the box, and observe some fact that changes our knowledge of the universe, some collapse to false, and others collapse to true. We then modify old models and generate new ones for the new set of facts, and repeat the process. It's a rolling system that we like to call "modern science". It is predicated on falsifiability, which is the root of the present problem. Scientific plurality is essentially reducible -- ideally to one model that best reflects the observed state of the universe.

Religious and political and sociological pluralities are not like this. Folks in the human sciences know this. Their positions are essentially irreducible. Comparable when talking about the same subjects, but not reducible to objective truth. (Whatever John Hick tells you ...) To the extent that multiple religions are oriented to the same God, such as the variety of Christian theologies, they do not necessarily reflect the same human truths about it. Again, comparable, but not reducible. Humanity is plural, and God is not epistemologically available outside of self-revelation. You cannot objectively say (we know, we've been trying for as long as we've been here) that one group is right and the others wrong. You can say that one theory is better than another, and you can reject theories that have tenuous relationships with the facts, but then you have to construct your set of facts, too. This is why ecumenical and interreligious dialogues are no longer aimed at objective truth and denunciation. (And to the extent that they are still, we denounce them.) The goal is understanding positions and differences.

In other words, religion is not subject to scientific falsification. Theological systems (or their equivalents for those who don't use the word "theology") may be debated, but rarely conclusively. Such debates tend to be over acceptance of a position within a group. They don't map singular objective realities in ways that make them factually falsifiable. But the move to call religion a thing susceptible to falsification, in its classical Enlightenment form, doesn't work with a fully-fleshed religious position. Too much to work with. Church history is too long and contradictory over its span to be convenient for that purpose. It doesn't look like a falsifiable model of the world, because it isn't. So we (well, not me - my job is dogmatics) make it into falsifiable models for the purpose. Which means false models, but they work better that way. Deism is the perennial favorite. The minimum necessary god to fill in the non-rational bits of the universe. A god whose action is creation, a fait accompli which we can talk about without having to ask the god any questions. Impersonal and objective and accessible on our own terms.

The trouble is, we don't believe in God because of the act of creation. Biblical creation theologies are posterior to belief in God. We ascribe creation to the God in whom we have come to believe for far stronger reasons. We believe in God because of actions of a personal sort, actions for which story is the only available proof, told by the people who are in relationship with that God. Evidence accessible only on their terms, for a God accessible only on its own terms. The action constitutive of the Christian God is salvation. Covenant relationship. Utterly subjective effects, which makes it no wonder the early 20th century went to psychology for it. Anthropological, not physical or chemical -- and only half anthropological! Hawking cannot disprove such a God by expanding physics into previously-unfilled gaps in our rational grasp of the cosmos.

There are other big problems, but the one I find worth hitting, I've hit before. The authors ask, "If nature is governed by laws, then three questions arise: 1) What is the nature of those laws? 2) Are there exceptions to the laws (for example, miracles)? 3) Is there only one set of possible laws?" To the extent that it is a legitimate question for Hawking and Mlodinow, they should be talking about the balance of physical "laws", mathematically describable relationships of factors that make the universe work the way it does. They're going to answer "no" to #3, given the spontaneous generation of universes with differently-tuned "laws" made rationally acceptable by the science. Within a universe, I'm guessing the answer to #2 is also "no", especially since Hawking is a traditionalist. The new math always describes the old universe. Which is actually good for him, because when the math says that things happen that the world doesn't evidence, you should check your math. But you should also check your world.

Here's some sci-fi theology for you: it has never seemed to me that quantum mechanics should contradict the deity, because at its bottom, everything becomes probability. And not deterministic probability, either; we describe what collapses out of the "quantum foam," but we do not predict it. What better tool for God to make the world from, every moment? Most of its activity is static, by which I mean line-noise in a communications channel. Particle pairs blink into and out of existence all the time. But we believe in a God who calls into existence that which is not. If you want to rule out "miracles," because they seem non-rational, that's a metaphysical choice. But I see no reason to believe in the "watchmaker," and every reason to believe that the world is made with handles everywhere for influencing outcomes. Can you really disprove an agent because you've found a mechanism? Or is it that you'd rather claim that the mechanism works sui generis because you don't see an agent?

And if, in 20 years, this looks like Pannenberg's speculations on field theory, that's because it's simple apologetics. It is not core dogmatics, but rather a translation tool for the moment. Call it an extension of my work on gospel and law into the language of particle physics.