Science and Religion

Stephen Hawking Asking the Big Questions [and his Answers] –2nd entry posted on December 27, 2011

As you might know, Stephen Hawking is one of the most celebrated and well known Physicists of our time.  His thoughts, I think, represent the dominant scientific understanding of the universe at the present time.  I invite you to watch and/or read his brief, 8 minute TED Talk.  In this talk he pushes the limits of evolutionary understanding to the origin of the universe. Let me know what your observations, comments, questions are that they might form the beginning of a dialogue.

TEDTalk: Stephen Hawking: Asking big questions about the universe, given on April 4, 2008.  I viewed it on December 19, 2011 at which time it had been viewed more than 2,261,673 times.  I have transcribed to the best of my ability his talk which can be viewed  Sentence and paragraph structure is my own.


There is nothing bigger or older than the universe.  The questions I would like to talk about are:

  1. Where did we come from?
  2. How did the universe come into being?
  3. Are we alone in the universe?
  4. Is there alien life out there?
  5. What is the future of the human race?

Up until the 1920s everyone thought the universe was essentially static and unchanging in time.  Then it was discovered that the universe was expanding.  Distant galaxies were moving away from us.  This meant they must have been closer together in the past.  If we extrapolate back we find they must have all been on top of each other about fifteen billion years ago.  This was the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe.  But was there anything before the Big Bang? If not, what created the universe?  Why did the universe emerge from the Big Bang the way it did?

We used to think that the theory of the universe could be divided into two parts.  First there were the laws like Maxwell’s equations and General Relativity that determined the evolution of the universe given its state over all space at one time.  And second there was the question of the initial state of the universe.  We have made good progress on the first part.  And now have the knowledge of the laws of evolution in all but the most extreme conditions.  But until recently we have had little idea about the initial conditions for the universe.  However, this division into laws of evolution and initial conditions depends on time and space being separate and distinct.  Under extreme conditions General Relativity and Quantum Theory allow time to behave like another dimension of space.  This removes the distinction between time and space and means the laws of evolution can also determine the initial state.

The universe can spontaneously create itself out of nothing.  Moreover, we can calculate the probabilities that the universe has created in different states.  These predictions are in excellent agreement with observations by the WMAP satellite of the cosmic microwave background which is an imprint of the very early universe.  We think we have solved the mystery of creation.  Maybe we should patent the universe and charge everyone royalties for their existence.

I now turn to the second big question; Are we alone or are there other life in the universe? We believe that life arose spontaneously on the earth, so it must be possible for life to appear on other suitable planets of which there seems to be a large number in the galaxy.  But we don’t know how life first appeared.  We have two theses of observational evidence on the probabilities of life appearing.  The first is that we have fossil [savality – unclear] from 3.4 billions years ago.  The earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago and was probably too hot for about the first half a billion years.  So life appeared on earth within a half billion years of it being possible which is short compared to the ten billion year life time of the planet of earth type.  This suggests that the probability of life appearing is reasonably high.  If it was very low one would have expected it to take most of the ten billion years available.

On the other hand, we don’t seem to have been visited by aliens.  I am discounting reports of UFOs.  Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdoes?  If there is a government conspiracy to suppress the reports and keep for itself the scientific knowledge alien bring, it seems to have been a singularly ineffective policy so far.  Furthermore, despite an extensive search by the SETI project we haven’t heard any alien television quiz shows.  This probably indicates that there are no alien civilizations at our stage of development within the radius of a few hundred light years.  Issuing an insurance policy against abduction by aliens seems a pretty safe bet.

This brings me to the last of the big questions; the future of the human race.  If we are the only intelligent being in the galaxy, we should make sure we survive and continue.  But we are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history.  Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet earth are growing exponentially along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill.  But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past.  It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.  Our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet earth but to spread out into space.  The answers to these big questions show that we have remarkable progress in the last hundred years.  But if we want to continue the next hundred years, our future is in space.  That is why I am in favor of manned or should I say personed space flight.

All my life I have sought to understand the universe and find answers to these questions.  I have been very lucky that my disability has not been a serious handicap.  Indeed, it has probably given me more time than most people to pursue the quest for knowledge.  The ultimate goal is the complete theory of the universe and we are making good progress.  Thank you for listening.


Evolutionary Biology and Religion – 1st Entry

Why add a section on Science and Religion?  Concretely the topic arose within our scripture study group.  It is obvious to everyone, hopefully, that books, in fact libraries, have been written on this topic.  What can be different on this website is giving responsible participants a chance to say what the issues are for them, the questions and answers that they have formed within themselves, and to engage others who may or may not agree.

I have decided that one way to begin is with a specific issue in which I will attempt to frame the discussion.  The specific issue is religion and evolutionary biology.  To put all my cards on the table from the very beginning, I am a person of faith who thinks that essentially evolutionary biology is the best opinion of the day with the caveat that it needs to be shorn of any extra scientific statements. I think there are real conflicts between persons and communities of faith and of science but I don’t thing that ultimately there are conflicts between faith and science.

To begin the discussion I have selected a statement that is part of the social dialogue which runs something like this, Evolution is only a theory with the connotation that evolution is merely a matter of opinion, it could be true but equally it could be false.  To stay focused, evolutionary biology is a theory, in fact, all science is theory.  But “theory” in the world of science has a very different meaning than that implied by those who think that “theory” means mere opinion and therefore not substantially correct.  The theory of evolutionary biology is, in fact, the best possible opinion that we have.  The issues arise from the extra scientific statements that fly under the banner of evolutionary biology. As a theory it has continued to undergo changes; however, each change that has occurred subsumes all that was explained before and explains more.  This ongoing process is what gives science it’s enormous power and range.

To get at the issues which are always concrete, we have to ask, What does evolutionary biology explain?  That is the question.  Evolutionary biology explains the immanent intelligibility of life as we know it on earth.  The key notion to grasp is expressed in a single word, immanent.  For an evolutionary biologist [not evolutionary biology] to say anything about the existence of God is either to say something that is an extra scientific statement or to speak as any other ordinary person but not as a trained scientist.  For a scientist to espouse a theory of “intelligent design” is to espouse a theory that is not scientific as I have used the term.  “Design” is not about immanent intelligibility and science is limited to immanent intelligibility; otherwise it is not science.  On the other hand, there is no immediate data on God.  God is not a datum to be explained but the explanation of all data.

I have expressed a few thought, there is much more that can be written, and there are a host of frames of reference out of which whatever is written frames what is written.  I invite others to respond in comment, question, observation; this is meant to be the beginning of a dialogue even though I have expressed myself in declarative sentences.

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