Stephen Hawking made worldwide news with his sound bite about how the universe was created. Specifically, he said that a Creator is not needed to explain how the universe began. Behind the sound bite was a deeper insight, which is that one law of nature, gravity, transcends space and time. Therefore, as long as gravity exists, multiple universes can unfold out of nothing. Among scientists this proposition has raised eyebrows and no doubt will be discussed for a long time. But let’s look at the larger picture. The discussion about creation has grown stale. On one side science sticks by its basic principles: the laws of nature govern the universe, randomness prevails over any possible pattern or design, and all phenomena, including the human mind, can be reduced to physical properties. On the other side religion sticks to its basic principles: God or the gods created the universe, the hand of the creator can be seen everywhere in nature, and human beings are connected to the divine, giving us a privileged position in the cosmos.
To resolve this opposition, dozens of books have attempted to reconcile science and faith. Yet without a doubt science has the upper hand. The modern world is willing to throw out any number of beliefs about God if the facts don’t fit. Science isn’t willing to throw out a single piece of data, however, to satisfy an article of faith. The net result is that science has become bolder. The old position was that physics is separate from metaphysics. But Hawking’s statement that a Creator is unnecessary is nothing less than a metaphysical statement. In fact, it points the way to abolishing metaphysics altogether. Why bother with God when science is on the verge of delivering a Theory of Everything?
The problem is that just at the moment when science is poised to strike the last blow, it has gotten stuck. Metaphysics hasn’t been defeated; rather, physics has been forced to peer into the domain of God with no way forward. Hawking himself has been forced to concede that there is no Theory of Everything. There is only a patchwork of smaller theories, each competent to explain a specific aspect of nature, but with no unifying principle. This statement isn’t going down well among cosmologists. They want a unified model based on mathematical certainty, not a shrug of the shoulders. They already know that time and space emerged from the quantum void, but this nothingness has to be explained. Otherwise, it could contain absolutely anything. Hawking states quite firmly that it cannot be explained. He clings to gravity as a substitute for God, since without gravity, creation falls apart.
Some scientists refuse to be shocked; others refuse to give up. Cosmologists earn their paycheck by winning grants based on the latest mathematical model for how the universe came to be. But to an outside observer, Hawking’s basic insight, that the human mind will never be able to pierce the quantum vacuum, feels like a direct challenge to science’s story of creation. It doesn’t support religion’s creation myths, not by a long shot. But Hawking has deeply considered the big picture of cosmology and declared the game over, if the game is a perfect model that will unify all the laws of nature. An outside observer would also conclude that it might be too early to give up. Perhaps we can move forward if creation depends on basic principles that neither science nor religion has accepted so far.
Which is exactly what is happening in the forefront of speculative thinking. Religionists are trying to rethink God in light of quantum mechanics; scientists are looking to spiritual traditions for glimpses into the realm that transcends the five senses. A new creation story is trying to be born, and although nobody knows the outcome yet, here are the new founding principles that currently vie for acceptance:
1. Just as matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, neither can information. Beyond the display of physical processes, information fields may be the key to how the universe became organized from apparent chaos.
2. The universe may contain more than information. It could be imbued with proto-consciousness. That is, the raw ingredients of mind may be inherent in Nature at the quantum level.
3. God could be a constant presence in evolution. Instead of creating the universe and then standing back from his (or her) creation, the deity may exist in every atom and molecule as the tendency to evolve.
4. Human values may be imprinted in creation. Plato first declared that our sense of love, truth, and beauty derived from perfect love, truth, and beauty that exists beyond the physical world. Today, these so-called Platonic values may be provable in a new way, as universal consciousness that orders and patterns the forms of nature.
5. Mathematics may be the key to nature’s organizing power. If mathematical laws are the true building blocks of creation, then we don’t need a creator. We have symmetry, order, complexity, and harmony embedded in abstract form through a higher order of mathematics that transcends time and space.
6. The observer is also a participant in creation. The universe we look upon is a perfect home for human beings because our minds are entangled with the laws and processes that create mind. To explain how the universe came about, you first must explain what the mind is. The two cannot be separated. There is no reality “out there” independent of the observer.
7. Design dominates over randomness in Nature. Although we see apparent chaos at the quantum level as particles collide and interact, an invisible force urges these processes into more complex forms, eventually resulting in the most complex form of all, DNA. Candidates for such a shaping force are evolution, intelligence, creativity, and even a God who likes to experiment.
One way or another, a new creation story will emerge from one or more of these basic principles. To win the day, it must conform to the data being collected about the universe; it must also not contradict quantum physics, which to date is the most successful scientific theory every propounded. Yet it is evident that quantum physics has probably reached its theoretical limit, even though not every physicist — or most physicists — realize it. The limit to any system occurs when its accepted foundation comes into question. In this case, advanced thinkers are asking questions that were unheard of in the past: what is mathematics? What is gravity? What is a natural law? Instead of being metaphysical questions, these have turned practical. Until they are answered, the nothingness that Hawking has peered into remains dark, inert, and empty. Yet we know it cannot be empty. Our brains are the product of DNA. DNA is the product of information arranged in a chemical code. Chemicals are the result of quantum interactions at the subatomic level. Quantum interactions wink in and out of the quantum vacuum. Moving backwards, that’s as far as the modern creation story goes. Whatever step it takes next will have to be a step into the void. Will we discover the mind of God there? Without using religious terminology, we must discover something that allows us to go back up the ladder from a void to the human brain. Otherwise, creation will have accidentally hit upon mind. Physics, including Stephen Hawking, continue to bet on the latter proposition, but more and more it faces impossible odds.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle