Thursday, February 24, 2011

Will science find the final answer?

The Tribune
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life
By Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow.
Bantam Press.
Pages 200. Rs 599.

AS you are reading this review, an exact copy of yours could be going to war in a galaxy far away, and yet another copy doing household chores in another universe, and yet another having dinner in a restaurant hundreds of light years away. This idea is not of science fiction but an inference from the equations of theoretical physics. Physics has come a long way from Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and others, so much so that if these great minds from the past were to visit us today, they would be totally confounded by the latest work that is being carried out by theorists like Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and others.

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, is a book that tries to explain the latest in physics to the non-specialist with the help of lively prose and excellent illustrations.

But what do theoretical physicists do? In the past, scientists conducted experiments in the lab or in nature and formulated theories to explain the laws of nature so that predictions could be made. Today, theories are so complex and elaborate that a lone scientist cannot conduct experiments to test a theory. Collaboration of several colleagues and huge financial and infrastructural resources are required. Some of the theories are so abstract that by the time experimental confirmation is made, most theoreticians will not be around. This is well reflected in a cartoon by Sydney Harris in the book. A woman is introducing a theoretical physicist to another theoretical physicist by saying: "You both have something in common. Dr. Davis has discovered a particle which nobody has seen, and Prof. Higbe has discovered a galaxy which nobody has seen."

In the past three of 400 years older theories have been constantly replaced with newer ones, and at this rate we might wonder if scientists might reach a stage when someone might formulate a theory that explains everything, in other words a theory which cannot be improved upon. The authors suggest that M-theory is the only one that a final theory ought to have. The book is about this theory. But why do we need such a theory?

About a century ago, Maxwell and Einstein united the theories of electricity, magnetism and light, and following that a standard model was created in the 1970s in the form of a single theory of the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the electromagnetic force. In order to include gravity, string theory and M-theory were formulated. M-Theory is not yet complete, but it has passed several tests.

But why do we need theories? After Newton gave his famous laws of motion and gravity, scientists have wondered how do laws originate, are there any exceptions to the laws, and if there is only one set of laws. Hawking and Mlodinow show us that laws are formulated by observing regularities in nature, and they are mathematically described. Secondly, there can be no exception to the laws, i.e., there is no room for miracles. This is called scientific determinism.

If the world is determined by the laws of science, you might ask if we have a free will. According to the authors, we are made of so many particles and processes and there are so many variables, that to make any prediction about human behaviour is impossible. As Richard Dawkins, the famous theorist and writer of The Selfish Gene has argued that the brain process is so complicated that it is better to assume we have a free will.

Furthermore, is there only one set of possible laws? In the chapter Alternative Histories, the authors show us how particles of matter fired at a screen with two slits in it could exhibit interference patterns just as water waves do. This happens because a particle does not have a unique history. In other words, as a particle moves from point ‘A’ to ‘B’, it does not take one definite path as our everyday experience would expect, but rather simultaneously takes every possible path connecting the two points. In such a scenario a particle could travel through both slits at the same time and interfere with itself. This was first showed by Richard Feynman who suggested that to calculate the probability of any particular endpoint, we need to consider all the possible histories that the particle might follow from its starting point to that endpoint. The authors say that we could also use Feynman’s methods to calculate the quantum probabilities for observations of the universe.

"In this view, the universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. Most of these correspond to other universes. While some of these correspond to other universes. While some of those universes are similar to ours, most are very different. They aren’t just different in details, such as whether Elvis really did die young or whether turnips are desert food, but rather they differ even in their apparent laws of nature."

The usual assumption in cosmology is that the universe has a single definite history. Hawking and Mlodinow hold that we could use the laws of physics to calculate how this history develops with time. This is known as the "bottom-up" approach to cosmology. But since we must take into account the quantum nature of the universe, the probability amplitude that the universe is now in a particular state is arrived at by adding up the contributions from all the histories. Instead of the bottom-up approach, one should trace the histories from the top down, backwards from the present time.

As for the books title The Grand Design, it is argued that just as Darwin and Wallace explained how living forms could evolve through natural selection without the help of God, "the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit".

Hawking and Mlodinow are great physicists, but they seem to have a very poor grasp of philosophy when they say that philosophy is dead as it has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. It is true that most philosophers have knowledge of physics that is over a century old, but that does not apply to all philosophers. When scientists say science ought to be done with a certain methodology, and when they talk about space, time, etc., they are giving us a framework of the scientific method, and they are formulating concepts. If this is not philosophy, then what is? It is a different matter that such a framework might be formulated by scientists themselves. But when they do so, they are doing philosophy, however, what they do with this framework and methodology is science. The antipathy towards philosophy is, perhaps, a hangover of the idea of elimination of metaphysics as suggested by some thinkers at the beginning of the 20th century. Philosophy is more than metaphysics; it includes ontology, epistemology, ethics, arts, religion, politics and logic. Without logic, science would be dead. When you say a thing "ought" to be done in a certain way, you are giving a philosophy; when you talk about space, time, matter, etc., you are formulating concepts, this is philosophy, and it is at the bottom of any discipline of knowledge.

Back to the question of free will, we might recall that when Hawking was working on his PhD thesis in the early 1960s, he was diagnosed with ALS, and he was told that he would not survive for too long. Nearly 46 years have gone by, Hawking is not only alive but is grappling with some of the most stubborn problems of theoretical physics. One wonders if this is because of his strong will, or it is the result of the position and spin of the trillions and trillions of atoms that are tossing around in his body.


Ron Krumpos said...

In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same "eternal" event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the "seeing" which differs.

In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from my ebook on comparative mysticism]

Uchitrakar said...

Hawking's unconscious God

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist."
- Stephen Hawking in “The Grand Design”
“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.”
- Stephen Hawking, Ibid

Here three questions can be asked:
1) Which one came first, universe, or laws of gravity and quantum theory?
2) If the universe came first, then how was there spontaneous creation without the laws of gravity and quantum theory?
3) If the laws of gravity and quantum theory came first, then Hawking has merely substituted God with quantum theory and laws of gravity. These two together can be called Hawking's "Unconscious God". Therefore we can legitimately ask the question: Who, or what, created Hawking's unconscious God?
Not only this, but there are other problems also. If the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes spontaneously appearing from nothing, then initially there was nothing. Then wherefrom appear those laws of gravity and quantum theory to allow universes appearing spontaneously from nothing? In which container were those two laws of nature?
Now regarding the M-theory: I have already written something on multiverse theory (not yet published anywhere). There I have come to the conclusion that if there are an infinite number of universes, then only within that infinite number of universes there will certainly be at least one universe in which life will emerge. If the number of universes is only 10 to the power 500, then it is very much unlikely that any one of them will support life, because no universe will know which set of values the other universes have already taken, and if everything is left on chance, then there is every probability that all the universes will take only those set of values that will not support life. There will be no mechanism that will prevent any universe from taking the same set of values that have already been taken by other universes. There will be no mechanism that will take an overview of all the universes already generated, and seeing that in none of them life has actually emerged will move the things in such a way that at least one universe going to be generated afterwards will definitely get the value of the parameters just right for the emergence of life. Only in case of an infinite number of universes this problem will not be there. This is because if we subtract 10 to the power 500 from infinity, then also we will get infinity. If we subtract infinity from infinity, still then we will be left with infinity. So we are always left with an infinite number of universes out of which in at least one universe life will definitely emerge. Therefore if M-theory shows that it can possibly have 10 to the power 500 number of solutions, and that thus there might be 10 to the power 500 number of universes in each of which physical laws would be different, then it is really a poor theory, because it cannot give us any assurance that life will certainly emerge in at least one universe. So instead of M-theory we need another theory that will actually have an infinite number of solutions.

Uchitrakar said...

Philosophy is dead. Is Logic dead also?

How did the scientists come to know that an entire universe could come out of nothing? Or, how did they come to know that anything at all could come out of nothing? Were they present at that moment when the universe was being born? As that was not the case at all, therefore they did not get that idea being present at the creation event. Rather they got this idea being present here on this very earth. They have created a vacuum artificially, and then they have observed that virtual particles (electron-positron pairs) are still appearing spontaneously out of that vacuum and then disappearing again. From that observation they have first speculated, and then ultimately theorized, that an entire universe could also come out of nothing. But here their entire logic is flawed. These scientists are all born and brought up within the Christian tradition. Maybe they have downright rejected the Christian world-view, but they cannot say that they are all ignorant of that world-view. According to that world-view God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. So as per Christian belief-system, and not only as per Christian belief-system, but as per other belief-systems also, God is everywhere. So when these scientists are saying that the void is a real void, God is already dead and non-existent for them. But these scientists know very well that non-existence of God will not be finally established until and unless it is shown that the origin of the universe can also be explained without invoking God. Creation event is the ultimate event where God will have to be made redundant, and if that can be done successfully then that will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that God does not exist. So how have they accomplished that job, the job of making God redundant in case of creation event? These were the steps:
1) God is non-existent, and so, the void is a real void. Without the pre-supposition that God does not exist, it cannot be concluded that the void is a real void.
2) As virtual particles can come out of the void, so also the entire universe. Our universe has actually originated from the void due to a quantum fluctuation in it.
3) This shows that God was not necessary to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going, as because there was no creation event.
4) This further shows that God does not exist.
So here what is to be proved has been proved based on the assumption that it has already been proved. Philosophy is already dead for these scientists. Is it that logic is also dead for them?