Friday, September 3, 2010

Newton's Bike-Universe and the Infinite Descent

Think of the universe as a bicycle...how are the planets in continual and seemingly permanent motion, always gliding downhill without seeming to pedal? How is this possible, since no mountain descent lasts forever?

This is Newton's theory: the universe lurched into being when some cosmically massive explosion of energy topped out the universe's Powertap and set the cosmic bicycle coasting for billions of years. Sadly, it will eventually run out of energy and the long downhill of the universe-bicycle we've been riding will end. In Newton's world, the great first P-tap buster, first cause, the clock winder, the projectionist who started the film--this is called "God."

I bring this up because this morning, Stephen Hawking is the most talked-about trend on Twitter.

People are talking about Hawking because, in his new book, he argues against Newton's bicycle-gliding-downhill-universe theory. "The universe," he writes, "can and will create itself from nothing...It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going."

Hawking's a scientist, not a theologian, and his statement is not theological; that is, he doesn't argue that God doesn't exist, rather that God is not a necessary explanation for our existence.

Bring up God and suddenly people get touchy, because 90% of us believe in God. We require him in our lives as a psychologically and philosophically calming explanation and friend. If God, as Hawking states, was not really necessary to start the universe, then is he really necessary to keep me winning on the gridiron?

This frightens people--a fear, I think, which is rational.

The idea of God is a way to deal with uncertainty, and life is full of uncertainties. What we're really saying when we say "insha'llah" or "God willing" is "...we'll see." A statistician would simply say, "we lack insufficient data." In other words, God (or chance, whatever words suits you) works in mysterious ways.

In a way, including the will of God in any explanation of events is an admission of agnosticism, because it's an insertion of skepticism into a belief. It's mental humility, admission of the unforeseen black swan. Reaction to Hawking is, therefore, not necessarily anti-science (as the Christopher Hitchens / Richard Dawkins crowd sees it) but skepticism, and what is skepticism but science?

The developing world is far more religious than the developed world; what but the uncertainty of poverty explains this greater religiosity? People trust in the supernatural because nothing on this natural world makes any sense. And their trust is not necessarily belief, but hope. When they posit God, they posit hope and ultimate explanation.

This was Newton's great contribution to us, in the end: confidence that the natural world can be understood. We no longer need to be skeptics, but can trust in a cosmic order as regular and predictable as a bicycle.

Bicycle races, far from being predictable, inspire profound uncertainty. "There are no races," said Anquetil, "only lotteries." If only winning were as easy as coasting down an endless slope. But it is not.

The universe? God only knows.

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