The Science Behind Belief (Vayikra 03/17/18)
The Science Behind Belief
This past Wednesday, Stephen Hawking, the most famous theoretical physicist of our time, died at age 76. Hawking wrote so lucidly of the mysteries of space, time, and black holes that his book, “A Brief History of Time,” became an international best-seller and he became the “rock star” of the scientific community.
Since the advances of science beginning with the Renaissance, many have questioned their religious beliefs. Some speculated that science would replace religion while others dropped their belief in a Creator, substituting it for belief in evolution. Albert Einstein was not a religious man but it was clear that he did believe in a Creator. He supposedly said, “The more I study science, the more I believe in God.” Einstein was well known for saying, “I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.” His statements about God were clear.
Hawking’s beliefs, on the other hand, seem contradictory in his writing and speeches: In A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), p. 8, Hawkings writes:
“One can imagine that God created the universe at literally any time in the past. On the other hand, if the universe is expanding, there may be physical reasons why there had to be a beginning. An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!”
The book concludes
“However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”
Hawking’s words here seem to signal a belief in a Creator. However, in a later work, “Black Holes and Baby Universes and other Essays”, Hawking commented that “A Brief History of Time” had been on The Sunday Times bestseller list for 205 weeks and has been translated into 33 languages. He attributes a marked increase in sales to his final sentence about knowing the mind of God. “In the proof stage I nearly cut the last sentence in the book… Had I done so, the sales might have been halved.” In truth, he meant it as nothing more than a metaphor indicative of an understanding of the universe which was complete and objective.
His real belief is evident in this quote of his: “We are each free to believe what we want and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is, there is no god. No one created our universe, and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization, there is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.”
Now, Hawking was a great scientist, and I’m sure he didn’t say these words lightly, but they should not be taken as the only scientific perspective.
Murray Levine, a regular attendee of our Maariv service, heard Mo Gawdat speak at a Google conference in New York. Mo wrote a book called “Solve for Happy”, that Murray recommended I read.
Mo Gawdat is the Chief Business Officer at Google’s [X]. In the last ten years he has made happiness his primary topic of research, diving deeply into literature and conversing on the topic with thousands of people in more than a hundred countries. He is also a serial entrepreneur who has cofounded more than twenty businesses. He speaks Arabic, English, and German. In 2014, motivated by the tragic loss of his son, Ali, Mo began pouring his findings into his first book, “Solve for Happy”.
In the last chapter of this book, which address happiness from an engineer’s solution-based perspective, he discusses the idea of God within the purview of happiness.
“Is “God” an idea we created, or are we the creation of “God”?”
“This topic kept coming up because the concept of the grand design played a pivotal role in enabling me to face the loss of Ali and sustain my state of joy. Indeed, my model for joy would’ve been missing a critical pillar if I believed that my loss was just a random roll of the dice.”
By “believing in the existence of a designer—believing that we are part of something bigger than this physical world and that therefore Ali is okay—is for me a more comforting story, regardless of its scientific validity, than believing that he just vanished into nothing. Believing in such a “fairy tale” helps ease my pain a bit. But what helps me even more is my strong conviction that it’s not just a fairy tale.”
The Creator question is as follows: Is life and our universe the product of randomness or design?
Gawdat answers, “As an agnostic, I found it easier to take the atheist side of the debate and pose the question this way: How can you prove that there is a designer? However, a balanced, agnostic question should ask for proof that there isn’t a designer as well.
However, there’s no scientific way to prove that something does not exist! (It could be someplace one hasn’t searched). Furthermore, absence of a proof that something exists does not prove that it doesn’t.
No one can prove conclusively for or against either view. In the absence of conclusive answers, we should turn to a simple matter of probability, a question of which side is more likely to be true.
If we are to say that random occurrences brought about the creation of the first self-replicating amino acids, we need to know the probability of this happening.
Relying on chance gives very low odds when the there are many factors involved. If we just take the random occurrence of a monkey typing one legible sentence, we’ll see the probability is very low.
Have the monkey type: “This short sentence can be produced by random keystrokes”
Assuming the monkey is the fastest typist on earth, typing 220 words per minute, how long do you think it will be until randomness produces a satisfactory result? There are 11.4 trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion possible sentences that would be produced randomly, only one of which is correct. This could take up to 2.5 billion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion multiples of the age of our planet Earth!
When we see the numbers, our minds refuse to accept that a simple sentence can be written by random occurrences. Yet some of us are willing to accept that our complex world could be created by random reactions.
In 1969, Cyrus Levinthal noted that the protein molecule has an astronomical number of possible folds leading to its final structure. The Nobel Laureate Christian B. Anfinsen calculated that it would take years for a single simple protein to form by randomly sampling all possible folds until it arrives at a stable structure. This is more than a trillion times longer than the age of the universe! What would be the only way for that protein to fold correctly within the time it had for the task? You know the answer by now: intervention! The protein would have needed to know the primary sequence before it started to fold. Knowing how something is bound to be before it starts to be is what we call design! Like a documented origami work, the protein strand needed to be preprogrammed with the exact steps to follow to get the job done in time.
Although Hawking is to be respected for his amazing research and advancements towards a Unified Field Theory, his scientific basis of disbelief in G-d is flawed. Since logically one can neither prove nor disprove G-d, one should follow the rules of probability. Without information and design built into organic matter, there’s not enough time in the universe for proteins, even simple amino acids, to form randomly and be able to replicate themselves. “Solve for Happy” has a thorough explication of this argument.
Judaism has always believed in a Creator and it’s one of the few things that all rabbis and all denominations agree upon. It’s also a part of our faith that can be backed up with science.