M-Theory and Creation
There is much todo in some circles about Stephen Hawking’s latest book, “The Grand Design”. Co-written by Leonard Mlodinow, but it’s Hawking’s name in science and sheer genius that gives the book its gravitas, not Moldonow’s explanatory abilities.
Here’s one sample review from The Washington Post. A snippet:
[They] have taken on that ultimate question in a somewhat more rigorous form by asking three related ones:
Why is there something instead of nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why does this particular set of laws govern our universe and not some other set?
With that background, Hawking and Mlodinow get to the real meat of their book: the way theories about quantum mechanics and relativity came together to shape our understanding of how our universe (and possibly others) formed out of nothing. Our current best description of the physics of this event, they explain, is the so-called “M-theories,” which predict that there is not a single universe (the one we live in) but a huge number of universes. In other words, not only is the Earth just one of several planets in our solar system and the Milky Way one of billions of galaxies, but our known universe itself is just one among uncounted billions of universes. It’s a startling replay of the Copernican Revolution. The conclusions that follow are groundbreaking. Of all the possible universes, some must have laws that allow the appearance of life. The fact that we are here already tells us that we are in that corner of the multiverse. In this way, all origin questions are answered by pointing to the huge number of possible universes and saying that some of them have the properties that allow the existence of life, just by chance.
If there is a logical reason for there to be an infinite number of different laws of physics all coexisting in different places, then there is no surprise that some of them support life, produced life, and that that life reached sentience. The numbers allow one to apply evolution-like arguments to the laws of physics. Something is unlikely, but if you roll the dice enough times, even the unlikely will happen.
As USA Today quotes from the book:
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.
Before I make my primary point, two smaller issues:
First, M-theory is not all that compelling. For that matter, the book came out at a time when the popularity of String Theory, upon which M-Theory is based, is starting to wane. See Roger Penrose’s review of the book in the Financial Times. Penrose is another major physicist who made a name for himself writing popularizations.
Second, while Hawking and Mlodnow write “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing”, they only shift the question to the meta-level. Given a multiverse that conforms to M-Theory, the existence of some universe that supports beings capable of wondering why we’re here does not require further invocation of the concept of a Designer. This answer gives Hawking a way to explain why the physical constants are tuned to such perfect values. But not why there are constants to begin with, nor why it involves these constants, these forces, these symmetries, etc…
Now, for the more fundamental issue. Two parts:
M-theory is not a theory. Here they more accurately describe it as a set of theories — but that set is open. There is as of yet no testable prediction that can be experimentally verified as showing that the actual physics of the world conforms to M-Theory or falsified by proving it doesn’t. And thus, M-theory still stands outside of the domain of science. (It’s the continued inability to limit the range of possible candidates for String or M-Theory so that they could find an experiment that could confirm or deny them that is largely fueling the defection of some scientists from researching in that area.) So, the book isn’t really about a scientific explanation.
Second, the whole explanatory power of M-theory is not the features of the M-dimensional branes (from the word “membrane”) that it involves. Rather, it’s from the concept of a multiverse — the notion that our universe is just one “corner” of a far grander idea. An infinity, or should I say “Infinity”, that can not be reached empirically, but still posited to exist for explanatory reasons.
Look at those two points (one in each of the previous paragraphs): both epistomologically and topically, Stephen Hawking is talking religion. Hawking didn’t so much replace the need for G-d in the argument by design as posit his own kind of deity. One that lacks purpose and values, and thus poses no demands on the individual.