Recently Stephen Hawking
finished a video series
with the Discovery Channel which, in his paralyzed state, took him 3 years to finish. According to the news releases
, he insisted on rewriting large sections of the script. One wonders how long it took a man who communicates to his computer through eye-blinks to write a new script. But however long it took, we are now blessed with yet another "science for the common man" video.
My college-aged children all have a "Great American Video" waiting for them to make. When I was in school, everyone wanted to be the "Great American Garage Band". And as far as I can tell, the previous generation all had a "Great American Novel" that was going to make them the next J. D. Salinger
. So perhaps Stephen Hawking is merely reflecting the current age, after writing the surprise best-seller "A Brief History of Time
", he now wants to finish with a video. Will it be a best seller? I'm not sure, but it certainly is even more speculative than his book, if not downright sci-fi. Which is not to denigrate the truly innovative "brain-storming" that makes a good sci-fi book work, such as Arthur C. Clarke
of "geostationary" satellites, or Star Trek's invention of the telescoping sliding door. But what makes for good sci-fi rarely makes for good science, namely, selling copies of your video. Avatar not only broke the record for theater sales
, but apparently has broken the record for DVD
sales as well, but clearly not because of the "science" in the movie. The science of "unobtainium
" is, well, unobtainable.
In the same way, Hawking brings up several "unobtainium" solutions in his video, which are rooted deeply in his materialist metaphysics, his atheist religion. Am I saying that atheism can be a religion? Most certainly, because belief in a god is not a requirement of religion, merely the firmly held belief in some metaphysical absolutes. And for the atheist, the metaphysical absolute is that there be no gods. The materialist goes even further, and believes that there cannot exist any immaterial stuff that could be fashioned into gods, or to put it more colloquially, metaphysical absolutes absolutely cannot exist. (Yes, you're right, but the answer to _that_ observation is the Emerson condescension, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds
What makes the Hawking position more poignant is that he did not start out a materialist atheist, but Anglican. But as his Lou Gehrig's disease progressed, he became increasingly atheistic and belligerent. One can see the development from an agnosticism in "A Brief History of Time
" to the more militant atheism of the video. Suffering, as I have said before, is neither cause nor consequence of sin, but should rather be seen as the currency of heaven. For those who see heaven as their destination, suffering purifies the soul and reveals an inner reality. But for those who see the grave as their destination, suffering is the removal of meaning, the victory of entropy, the destruction of life. For one, suffering refines, while for the other, suffering corrupts. Hawking, despite his four decade longevity in the face of a disease that normally kills in 5 years, has followed a long, protracted appointment with the grave.
Facing his inevitable dissolution, Hawking has made a religious movie, a documentary of his religion
. In every religious myth there are unchanging subjects: Creation, Fall, Salvation, the End. Joseph Campbell
made a career talking about these topics, and Hawking does not disappoint. He invokes "unobtainium" solutions to the problems of Creation, Salvation, and the End as he explains his religion.
The most widespread creation myth of materialism, is that order can arise spontaneously out of disorder, that life can spontaneously begin from non-life. Now nearly all the physicists who have cared to calculate this probability are in agreement that it is spectacularly improbable. The late astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle
refused to believe in the Big Bang
because he could not believe that even 15 billion years were enough time to make OOL likely. In his mind, it was more likely that the science of the Big Bang was wrong and the universe was eternal, than that life should spontaneously begin. Unlike Hoyle, Hawking is an advocate of the Big Bang, and therefore must disagree about the likelihood of spontaneous generation
. It had to be likely, both to dismiss the need for a creator, and to explain the existence of life on Earth.
But if it is likely, then why isn't it happening all the time? Why are Louis Pasteur
full of nutrient broth bug-free? Hawking's answer, like fellow physicist Paul Davies'
, isn't so much a rational calculation as a statement of belief that the laws of physics must have a secret organization, a mysterious drive to impose order on chaos, a hidden vitality that "breathes fire in the equations". So if we live in a universe with such vitalism, other planets must be teeming with spontaneous life forms, which he imagines for us on the moons of Jupiter in his video. (Prediction: the moon Europa will have life, but it will look nothing like Hawking's imagination. Why? It will look amazingly like the "pond scum
" seen at Earth, since it will have travelled to both places in identical fashion.) So his first "unobtainium" is the belief that laws of physics necessitate life--a metaphysical vitalism
added to his materialism.
His second Campbell topic, Salvation, looks a little bit different than the standard Carl Sagan
approach. Sagan famously wanted the big radio telescope at Arecibo
extraterrestrial intelligence and find from them how to avoid nuclear holocaust. Arthur C Clarke, in sci-fi classic "Childhood's End
" suggested that while ET might be benign, we may not get what we want. Hawking thinks that ET is far less likely to be benign, and more like the marines in Avatar, only interested in exploitation. Hawking suggests that if we find aliens we refuse to communicate
with them, since they are more likely to be Darwinian predators than Darwinian altruists. (I just love these "social Darwinism" debates when they go cosmic!)
To restate the positions, Sagan sees the Fall as the discovery of nuclear bombs, and Salvation as the civilizational skills to advance beyond nuclear holocaust. (In defense of Sagan, he was merely stating a very common 60's worldview in a country where people built bomb shelters in their backyards and schoolkids practiced air-raid drills in the hallway.) Hawking no longer fears nuclear holocaust, but he does fear "global warming", so for him, the Fall is the capability of man's disruption of "spaceship Earth" through ecological exploitation. (See Avatar.) This exploitation is precisely what Darwinian survival is postulated on. So paradoxically, Salvation lies in the rational avoidance of Darwinian pitfalls by choosing a better future reward than an ephemeral present success. Why Hawking doesn't see this anti-Darwinism as applying to other inimical lifeforms is a bit of mystery, unless it is just to differentiate himself from Sagan, who wrote the foreword to Hawking's bestseller. The unobtainium that Hawking offers here is the possibility to outsmart the Darwinian Fates and survive a brutal future.
This brings up the third of Campbell's myths, the End of History, or the Mankind's Destiny, or suchlike. Hawking, I suppose, wants to avoid Clarke's quasi-religious "Childhood's End", he wants to provide a picture of rational success but without the hubris of a Sagan. He wants a rosy future, but at the same time, a believable future. This is akin to the problem of telling a future employer how both humble and intelligent you are, or the problem of selling gold as a rational alternative to stocks: if you over- or under-do it, the opposite effect is obtained.
Hawking solves this problem by first saying how humans can outsmart their galactic competitors, and then by saying that humans are still humbly in trying to figure out the science. To sell this humble second point, he makes the absurd claim that life may exist in the center of stars. Now this clearly goes against the dictum that liquid water is essential to life, because this is pure sci-fi, straight from Clarke's "Out of the Sun"
short story. To defend Hawking, the idea was given a boost in the 1920's when Irving Langmuir looked through a microscope at the glowing gas of a fluorescent lightbulb, and thought it was remarkably similar to biology, so he confusingly named it "plasma". The physics of charged particle physics (tokomaks and magnetic fusion) has been cursed ever after by "long-range interactions" so that a blob of glowing gas behaves in very "non-materialist", non-ideal-gas manner. All this leads sci-fi writers and Hawking to suppose that some of the complications of plasma physics may permit the sort of information seen in the watery environment of biology.
And while I sympathize with their awe and wonder of plasma physics, they only say this because they haven't looked at biochemistry recently. A bacterial flagellum is still many many orders of magnitude more complicated than the worst three-component dusty plasma which so
baffles physicists. I hate to say it, but when it comes to information content, biology trumps physics without even trying. Hawking may not realize it, but he's just engaging in "biology envy". So the unobtainium of a limitless science, of lifeforms inhabiting not just the lucky watery planet around some fortunate G-sequence star, but beating in the hearts of the billions of stars in the billions of galaxies is but a green light, the
orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us
then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch
out our arms farther … And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current,
borne back ceaselessly into the past."
But of all Hawking's unobtainia, the one that is most unphysicalium is also the most widespread, the idea that life is sprouting up all over the galaxy. We have samples of life from all over the galaxy, known as carbonaceous chondrites
, or CI meteorites. These are thought to be extinct comets, because they are composed of black, crumbly and wet materials. They are called "chondrites" because of their "graininess", thought to be the soot from Wolf-Rayet
stars, or the dust of red-giant stars in their death throes, now collected into a comet. And every one of the dozen or so C-I meteorites collected at Earth have shown evidence of "micro-fossils
", physical fossils of microbial life. Each has also contained amino acids, the building blocks of life. And every amino acid residue
has shown left-handed optical activity, the "homochirality" characteristic of all life on Earth. (Amino acids left-handed, sugars right-handed, sort of like batters and pitchers.)
So if life is spontaneously erupting in the cosmos, why is it uniformly left-handed, why don't we see some right-handed amino acids occasionally? Why are the 400+My fossils indistinguishable from microbes on Earth? And how is this "spontaneity" of OOL a required outcome of highly improbable random processes? I would like to think that Hawking is merely unaware of the data, but from his sci-fi discussions, it would seem he is instead increasingly unconcerned with data.
The fate of all who would make their creation an absolute, is the fate of idolators throughout history, the eventual inability to create at all. When we distort language to equivocate, we eventually cannot speak at all. When we manipulate data to fit a theory, we soon are incapable of incorporating any data at all. When we call war peace, or peace war, we soon lose the ability to separate either.
When materialism invokes unobtainium, it has essentially become what it abhors: a metaphysical religion.