Saturday, September 10, 2011

Show: Curiosity episode 01 pt. 1

Also known as The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education pt. 1
Discovery channel’s new show Curiosity explores some fundamental questions about human life. In the first episode, aired Sunday August 7th at 8 pm, Stephen Hawking set out to answer the question, Did God Create the Universe? As a cosmologist who has been investigating the origins of the universe for the majority of his life, Hawking is certainly the right person to explain the current scientific theories about how the universe began. Over the course of the 48 minute long program, he gives an excellent, easy to understand explanation of his perspective on how the universe works. He begins by making the argument that the universe is governed by the laws of nature, such as gravity and other laws that dictate motion and force which are exerted on all matter universally. After explaining some of these fundamental laws of nature he then goes on to explain the big bang theory, and the idea of the singularity, from which the universe began. The singularity, infinitesimally small and infinitesimally dense, a primordial black hole, spontaneously generated (the way protons can according to quantum mechanics) and spontaneously exploded to create the universe. Hawking argues that according to the laws of nature, there did not need to be a creator because the laws of nature allow for the spontaneous generation of matter and that all of the matter (positive energy) and space (negative energy) in the universe adds up to zero, and thus cancels itself out to a perfect balance. Furthermore, Hawking argues that time, which stops in a black hole, was simultaneously created along with space and matter, and thus there could be no time before the singularity. If there was no time before the singularity, then there was no time within which a creator god could have created the universe.
Having watched the episode again, listening much more carefully, I can find no fault with any of Hawking’s logic. I grew up in a household with two organic chemists and have maintained a passion for science ever since, so I am able to understand what Hawking is saying and follow him to the appropriate conclusions. The big bang theory makes a lot of sense as an explanation of how the universe began. However, I do have a problem with Hawking’s assertion that his explanation of how the universe began is scientific fact.
In my understanding, science is supposed to be the quantifiable, measurable study of something. There are the soft sciences, such as anthropology and sociology, which struggle with the ability to meet scientific standards of quantifying and measuring human behavior, and then there are the hard sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics, which are almost entirely numerically based. In order to be considered a true scientist by today’s standards, there are many procedures that must be followed and carefully detailed records written that chronicle all observations of any scientific study. The whole point behind such careful record keeping is that all scientific experiments are supposed to be repeatable by other scientists, and it is only when they have been repeated enough times that the conclusions drawn from the data can be considered fact, or scientific truth.
When it comes to explaining the origins of the universe, there has to come a point when the science stops being science. By its very nature, the origin of the universe is not something that can be observed or repeated; thus, it cannot be quantified in terms of science. I will not argue that by observing the laws of nature and through careful calculations, conjectures can be made about how matter behaved long before the earth was formed. But even if all of the scientists repeat the same calculations based on the same data, it still remains that the big bang theory is just that, a theory. Until the spontaneous generation of a universe can be observed today, there is simply not enough data to conclusively prove how our universe started.
This raises the question then, can science study god? My answer, which I think many spiritual people will agree with, is that no, science cannot study god because god is not measurable and quantifiable. Hawking’s assertion that there is no god because there was no time for god to exist within prior to the big bang, rests on the assumption that god is subject to the laws of nature. However, for most people that I know who believe in some kind of higher power, the whole point of believing in god is believing in an entity that exists outside of the laws of nature. If god is not subject to the laws of nature, then god does not have to work in ways that can be measured according to our current understanding of nature and science.
If what Hawking describes within the program is thus not considered to be science, because it is not observable and quantifiable, then what is? The entire episode is, in my opinion, a prime example of storytelling. It is the creation myth for the scientific age, beautifully explained and endlessly engaging. It is amazing to listen to the language that Hawking uses to explain his theory, because it sounds remarkably similar to the language that is often used to describe religious beliefs and other creation myths from around the world. In place of “god,” the “laws of nature” is repeated often enough as the ultimate explanation. For Hawking, science has become his religion and nature is his god.

To be continued.

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