by Peter Mills
from Signs of the Times No. 40 - Jan 2011

The headline on the front page of The Times for 2 September 2010 could not have been clearer: "Hawking: God did not create Universe".

Immediately below the headline came the explanatory words, "The Big Bang was inevitable consequence of laws of physics, says Britain's most eminent scientist". Unsurprisingly, Professor Richards Dawkins wasted no time in expressing his enthusiastic support for Hawking. Equally swift was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who penned an abrupt rebuttal. After this initial flurry, comments have quietened a little, but almost certainly the argument initiated by "Britain's most eminent scientist" is going to run and run.

I want to offer two points, one minor one major. Taking the minor point first, no one can build an argument without having some kind of basis or framework. In reaching his conclusions - there are a number of them, and the Times simply picked out the most dramatic - Hawking made use of a whole series of assumptions. In addition, the particular branch of mathematical physics that he applied, M theory, is exceptional in that validation of its assumptions and ideas by experiment is extraordinarily difficult. To some extent, Hawking's approach can be thought of  as a return to the ways of classical Greece, where hypotheses and theories were constructed with little concern for experiments to justify the assumptions or test the results. This is bound to create difficulties for Hawking's scientific contemporaries. Some of the ideas of M theory - existence involving eleven dimensions and bodies characterised by strings so extraordinarily small that they make an electron appear vast - will struggle hard for common acceptance. Given such uncertainties, there is a case for theologians to stand back from the argument, at least in the short term, to allow members of the scientific community to form their own assessment. This would allow religious commentators to base their own later remarks on a more balanced scientific view of Hawking's various assumptions and methods.

Of greater significance, however, is the question of scientific outreach. It is our common experience that the physical universe exhibits patterns and regularities, and the basic assumption underpinning the entire scientific enterprise is that this characteristic applies everywhere. Within this common understanding, the function of specific branches of science is to record, codify and explain the different patterns and regularities, seeking to do so with at least sufficient rigour to provide for accurate prediction. With the exception of Biblical fundamentalists, this is an idea that commands broad assent among the general public as well as the scientific community.

But is the whole of reality scientific in this broad and general sense? What of ourselves? What of mental or spiritual life? More precisely, what of free will, responsibility, decision making and moral choice? Are these susceptible to scientific explanation? My contention is that they are not - indeed cannot be - although this is a point that often passes unremarked.

In explanation, the regularities of the physical world are normally accounted  for by laws that are either deterministic (Newtonian) or probabilistic  (belonging to Quantum Theory). Broadly speaking, deterministic laws apply in the common scale of observation, probabilistic laws in the sub-atomic world of minute particles. In situations where determinism applies, scientific law permits only a single course of action to stem from a given starting point. It follows that a decision, implying as it does a choice between at least two distinct courses of action, is unable to be accounted for by scientific law./p>

This is quite straightforward, yet in large measure it is simply overlooked. When it is considered, it is often dismissed by asserting that what appears to an individual to be a decision is actually an inevitable response to a particular stimulus and brain state. Upon that argument, free will and decision making are simply myths we tell to each other in order to account for the unseen physical and chemical activities of our brains. (Upon this argument, none of us has any choice about the myth making, of course!)

A subtler argument appeals to Quantum Theory to explain decisions. What an individual regards as his decision (between two possibilities, say) is actually the chance outcome of two quantum probabilities. But a simple example indicates the failure of this approach. If I spin a coin, there is in a one in two chance of its landing 'heads'. But if I choose to place it 'heads', no chance is involved. Chance and choice are not the same thing, although sometimes they appear indistinguishable after the event. Ultimately, persisting with the attempt to subsume choice into chance can only lead one back to the assertion that free will and decision making are myths. It is claimed that quantum probabilities apply, but we are not aware of them, and continue to believe that we are acting out of free will.

Neither as individuals nor as members of society will many of us be prepared to accept this line of argument. We are personally aware that we do have the power to make decisions, and we hold that we are spiritual beings with the capacity for moral choice. We are not willing to be told that our behaviour is just the inevitable consequence of our brain structure, or that good and evil acts are no more than inescapable responses to different arrangements of atoms. We recognise from our own introspection and experience a fundamental distinction between a person who makes decisions and an object that can only obeys physical laws.

To return to the original issue, it must follow that whilst physical science is of great importance in human affairs, it is not without its boundaries. Within our nature as human beings there is a further and greater reality that is beyond the reach of scientific regularity and law.

With regard to the claims of Professor Hawking, I submit that it would be best at present simply to leave the scientific community to argue in its own domain, whilst recognising and declaring the greater reality that lies beyond its span.


Peter Mills is retired Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth  with degrees in mathematics and engineering, a Board Member and Trustee of Amnesty International,  and a Modern Church Vice-President.