Book Review: God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse

By Gabriel Callaghan.

Image from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center: simulation of a supermassive black hole

Books discussing gravity and multiverses are renowned for their bewildering mathematics or complex theological/philosophical terminology. This book contained neither. I studied a physics degree, but my speciality is certainly not in cosmology or astrophysics, it’s in nanoscale electronics, the opposite end of the physics length scales. I found that the book contains an accessible introduction to the science without mandatory mathematics.

A black hole warping space time.

The main premise of this book is to discuss the work of Stephen Hawking in relation to quantised gravity, and finding a theory which merges general relativity and quantum mechanics. Gravity is probably the force in which you are the most familiar, but it’s the least understood. Aristotle explained gravity in terms of four elements, however this was not correct. The most promising theory of gravity is general relativity in which a mass bends space and time. Near a black hole, time slows down. This is how we can also get time travel and teleportation, when wormholes emerge between different regions of space time (although not practically feasible!). 

Do we understand gravity and how it fits the universe? Most certainly not. We have a standard model of which fundamental quarks (what makes up a proton or neutron), fermions (electrons) and bosons (force transmitters) are described by, however this model fails to incorporate gravity. Many attempts have been made such as string theory, but these models require 12 dimensions to work. However, theoretical work has made several conclusions which are beyond the domain of science to explain. The mathematics of general relativity leads to several infinities and singularities. However, what is a singularity? Is this proof that God made the universe since the universe had to start somewhere, and there must be a first cause for this singularity. Or, if you subscribe to the Hartle-Hawking view of the no boundary proposal which states that at first, there is only space and no time so it makes no sense to ask what happened before the big bang as there was no time and that the universe has always existed?

Image Description: A photo of the book, ‘God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse’ by David Hutchings and David Wilkinson

Chapter 3 of the book starts with an anecdote about Anne Darwin and the John Darwin canoe disappearance case. Anne Darwin was convicted of fraud for a life insurance scam in which she proposed that her husband had died in a canoeing accident, despite her husband still being alive. The assumption made in the judgement of the Court was that no one can be both dead and alive at the same time, otherwise there would have been no conviction as no dishonesty would have occurred. However, this is exactly how Quantum Mechanics works. In Quantum Mechanics, it’s a probabilistic view of the universe, there’s a probability of a particle being in the state described by a wavefunction; however, once you observe something, the wavefunction collapses and a particle is always in the state that you have observed it in. Sounds counterintuitive? Fenyman once said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand it. However, an important philosophical question arises from Quantum Mechanics. It’s probabilistic, or here by a mere ‘happy accident’? There is also an uncertainty principle which states that it is impossible to know the momentum and position of a particle simultaneously. Does this imply that there certain things that we are unable to know and observe- such that we have to have faith in God? If so, is life a test? These questions are beyond science and this is the basis for the second half of the book.

My favourite anecdote in the book is about ‘Pudzianowski’- the world’s strongest man who repurposed into a MMA fighter and lost 6 fights in a row causing his ranking to suffer. This evolved into an argument about Stephen Hawking who was an accomplished scientist, but found entering the theological arena tough. Polkinghorne (an Anglican Priest) sets out the position; ‘science and religion ask different questions of reality’ in the sense that the purpose of science is to find out how things happen and is very pragmatic, and theology addresses questions differently: is there meaning and purpose?

But, where is the interface between the two subject areas? I am often told that Science and Religion are mutually exclusive domains. 

In my opinion, there comes a point in which Science has to work with Religion to obtain answers when we reduce a phenomenon down to its most basic form. An example would be the use of imaginary numbers to solve the equations of general relativity from which imaginary time arises. What does imaginary time mean- is it a figure of convenience for mathematicians, or does it represent something deeper? To give an example of ‘imaginary numbers’ being a figure of convenience, they are the only way we can describe attenuation of magnetic fields, but we don’t consider what they mean on a reductionist basis, only the utility of them. 

There is one final part of the title of this book, ‘multiverses’, a collection of multiple parallel universes. Clearly, our particular universe is very finely tuned. If some of the physical constants were different, such as the temperature at which water is the most dense, life couldn’t exist. Another argument is found in the anthropic principle in which for the world to be observable, conscious life must observe it. So, there could be other universes, only that no one has observed them.

Genesis 1:27 states that God created humans in his image. However, if we believe in multiverses, does this discount the possibility of believing in God? I don’t think that it does because, as a Catholic, I believe that God is Omniscient, Omnipotent and Omnibenevolent, and that God has chosen this particular universe to make humans in his image. I certainly think that this book has changed my perceptions on the topic. Initially, I was very sceptical of multiverses and thought that it dismissed God as the creator of Earth, and the special place of humans in ‘all that is seen or unseen’. Due to the accessibility of the science in this book, I would recommend it even if you’re not a science student. Of course some of the concepts are difficult, but that’s the reason why no one has figured them out!

God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse, by David Hutchings and David Wilkinson. Description: “Hutchings and Wilkinson explain the key elements of Stephen Hawking’s physical and mathematical theories, consider their philosophical and religious implications, and relate his ideas to traditional Judaeo-Christian concepts of God”

Link to buy: https://www.waterstones.com/book/god-stephen-hawking-and-the-multiverse/david-wilkinson/dave-hutchings/9780281081912

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