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How did the universe begin? Some think the question has no answer–that it lies beyond the limits of human reason. Others think the question has an answer, but that the answer depends not on reason but on faith.
What almost no one believes is that there is a single, rational scientific theory that tells us how the universe emerged from the primeval nothingness. How could there be such a thing?
When Isaac Newton proposed his laws of gravity, he did so in a spirit of awe and reverence before the simplicity and beauty of the physical world. He did not doubt that so perfect a design implied a yet more perfect designer.
Immanuel Kant, who believed that Newton’s laws of gravity are not merely true but necessarily true, argued that we humans lack the ability to comprehend the universe as a whole, and thus that we can never construct a valid argument for a designer. Our thinking can take us from one point to another along the chain of events. But it cannot take us to a point outside the chain, from which we can pose the question of an original cause.
Indeed the question of how the universe began does not make sense. The concept of cause applies to the objects of experience, linking past to future through universal laws. When we ask about the universe as a whole we are attempting to go beyond possible experience into a realm where the concept of cause has no purchase, and where the writ of reason does not run.
All physicists since Kant have been influenced by this argument. Some admit the point, like Albert Einstein, Others, like Stephen Hawking, express the point in a language of their own.
But Mr. Hawking now wishes to break with this consensus and to argue that science actually does have an answer to the question of origins. We can know how the universe was created, he suggests, since the laws of physics imply that there are limiting conditions, in which universes come into being by the operation of those very laws. There is no room for the creator, since there is no need for Him. The laws of physics do it all by themselves.
Mr. Hawking, of course, dazzles us with his scientific discoveries. Einstein broke with the common-sense view of the world when he decided to treat time as a fourth dimension, on a par with the three dimensions of space. Mr. Hawking gives us dimension upon dimension, assuming that because every continuum can be squeezed into the axioms of a geometry there is no limit to the number of dimensions in which we humans find ourselves suspended. Nor is there a limit to the number of universes, even though we happen to inhabit only one of them and the others may be forever inaccessible to us.
The laws of physics are fast ceasing to be laws of the universe and are becoming laws of a “multiverse” instead. By the time people absorb all of these shifts, they have little strength left to dissent from the view that “the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing” or to question Mr. Hawking’s conclusion that therefore there is no need for God.
But what exactly has changed? Have we really moved on from the position that Kant presented? Have we really lifted ourselves outside of everything and everywhere, and achieved the view from nowhere that tells us how things began?
If Mr. Hawking is right, the answer to the question “What created the universe?” is “The laws of physics.” But what created the laws of physics? How is it that these strange and powerful laws, and these laws alone, apply to the world?
There are those who will say that the question has no answer –that it lies at or beyond the limits of human thought. And there are those who will say that the question has an answer, but that it is answered not by reason but by faith.
I say that perhaps, in the end, they are the same position. That is what Kant believed. You find out the limits of scientific understanding, he said. And beyond those limits lies the realm of morality, commitment and trust.
Kant, who destroyed all the systems of metaphysics and dug a grave for theology, was also a believer, who, as he put it, “attacked the claims of reason in order to make room for those of faith.” It seems to me that he was right.
Roger Scruton is a resident scholar at AEI.
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