Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Stephen Hawking vs God

Of course I'm a fan of Stephen Hawking. How could you not love a man who not only solved the great mysteries of the universe, but was a guest voice on the Simpsons?

Hawking has gone through two marriages. By the time he hooked up with his nurse in the mid 90s, neuro-muscular dystrophy had left him able to move only his cheek and one finger. Amazing how he pulled off that seduction. Genius indeed.

And the divorces. When he gave each wife the "Honey... it's... over... between... us..." speech, it must have been particularly bizarre, delivered over several minutes by that computer-generated voice.

Hawking's latest book was published yesterday. An excerpt from The Grand Design appears in the Wall Street Journal article Why God Did Not Create the Universe:
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. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
"Create itself from nothing" sounds a lot like Buddhist teaching. All things appear out of emptiness; exist for a limited time; then return to emptiness. Zero becomes One, then One becomes Zero, over and over. That's all.

Emptiness and zero are names, just words. In Buddhist teaching, what do these words mean? They point to the source of all phenomena as being before words, ideas, and thinking. "Everything arises from emptiness" means that we don't know where it all came from, or why.

Imagine meeting someone on the street, and asking him, "Where were you before you came to town?" He answers "Don't know." You ask him where he'll go afterwards, why he came, and who he is. Each time, he says, "Don't know." That'd be odd... yet it's precisely the situation we find ourselves in, when we get born into this world.

Our very survival depends on knowing stuff, so we've evolved this tendency to seek solid explanations. Yet when it comes to the really big questions, we don't have a clue. The heart of Zen practice is to sit unflinchingly with the simple experience of not knowing.

Religious people may say, "God made everything," but what's "God"? If it's a name for the mystery, another way of saying "I don't know who or what made everything," then OK. But to claim anything about what this "God" is... is to pretend to know what we really don't.

Is it so different to say it all comes from nothing? That's an OK name -- no worse than Emptiness or God -- but is it just another way of saying we don't know?

What is this nothing anyway? Whatever we think when we hear the word "nothing," it's an idea, which is something. Hawking's "nothing" can't be anything like the common sense of the word. If I have a wallet filled with nothing, it never spontaneously creates cash. Let alone Existence.

And Stephen, Mr Genius, can "spontaneous creation" really be called a reason? Does that phrase explain anything?

Example: someone asks why high-tech companies have thrived in San Francisco. You say, "Because the educational and cultural institutions in the area attract the type of workers who make the companies succeed." That's at least a coherent reason. It may have practical meaning; you could test if the explanation holds true in other cities. But if your answer was, "it happened spontaneously," have you communicated anything beyond "I don't know why"?

Is it possible that scientific ideas, like religious ideas, can be used to avoid the discomfort of not knowing? Could we discard these ideas and face the concrete reality, the great don't know, right in front of us, just now?