Stanley Grove, Ph.D., is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Music at Wyoming Catholic College. I first met Dr. Grove a few years ago when he was teaching at a Catholic high school in Alaska and working on his doctoral dissertation for Catholic University of America. I recently sent him some questions about the discussions regarding Dr. Stephen Hawking's remarks about creation and God, and he was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule at WCC to send the following responses and thoughts.
Ignatius Insight: What is your educational background and what was the focus of your doctoral dissertation at Catholic University of America?
Dr. Grove: My graduate degrees are in philosophy, and I wrote my dissertation on the role of potentiality as the primary aspect of matter, with particular attention to the implications of this for quantum physics.
Ignatius Insight: Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and other noted scientists are rather dismissive of philosophy, especially scholastic philosophy. What does a philosopher from the thirteenth century have to teach us about quantum physics? Isn't an appeal to Aquinas just a way (so it is often said) of avoiding the scientific evidence?
Dr. Grove: The reason why philosophical conclusions drawn a thousand or two thousand years ago can remain perennially valid is that they were inferred from aspects of being common to all material things, and based on kinds of experience accessible to all observers. In other words, the root principles of Aristotelian physics are derived from a broad consideration of motion as such, and are not restricted to any particular quantitative description of motion. In this philosophical approach, principles of motion are reduced to underlying causes.
With Galileo the investigations of mathematical physics turned from a “vertical” consideration of underlying causes to a “horizontal” description of the more obvious aspect of material things. Both of these disciplines – and they are entirely complementary – are concerned with beings that exist in space and time, but the older science paid scant attention to the quantitative, while the post-Galilean version restricts its purview to quantifiable aspects.What philosophical physics lacked in precision it gained in certainty, and what modern mathematical physics gains in precision it is apt to lose in certainty, the hubris of a Hawking notwithstanding. Nowhere is this more obvious than in quantum physics, where the Newtonian paradigm, involving as it does a near-total rejection of causality in the true sense, must yield to a renewed Aristotelian awareness of potentiality in nature – a potentiality that resists spatial and temporal, i.e., mathematical, description (whence the celebrated Heisenberg uncertainty).
Ignatius Insight: What is the difference between physics and metaphysics? Where do they meet and intersect, and where are they most distinct from one another?
Dr. Grove: Physics, broadly understood, is the science of beings that are material (or able to undergo change, which amounts to the same thing). Metaphysics is based on deeper principles, and encompasses additionally those beings that are immaterial. So physics deals with things in time and space, while metaphysics deals with things that can transcend time and space – being, existence, goodness, truth, and so on.
No less pertinent to a discussion of Hawking’s fallacies is the distinction between physics taken in the older philosophical sense, and physics in today’s narrower understanding. Owing to the difference in focus between these disciplines, the older physicist could establish the existence of a first principle that grounds all orders of physical explanation, while modern physics has absolutely nothing to say on the topic of God, since it has, from the outset, restricted its methodology to what is measurable and quantifiable.
Ignatius Insight: Hawking's new book states, "As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." How can you or anyone else dispute that?
Dr. Grove: Hawking is airing a very old and tired fallacy. Thomas Aquinas presented essentially the same argument in the 1260s, as one of two main objections to the existence of God, and Augustine had sounded it 800 years before that, in the course of his own wrestling with the idea of God’s existence. Man is eager for final answers, and the idea that materialistic or scientific descriptions might terminate our inquiries, forestalling any need to go deeper into causal explanation, is somehow perennially attractive.
But its attraction never survives serious consideration. The inevitable question, always, is this: why does the universe that is so well described by science (in Hawking's expression, "the laws of gravity and quantum theory") exist at all? Just because the mathematics of modern cosmology – whether elegantly simple or frightfully complex is beside the point – entails some kind of zero point or singularity or complete absence of transcendental causality, does not logically entail that there is no transcendental Principle – one altogether real, and altogether outside the realm of mathematical formulation. In this regard there is nothing to add to the critique made centuries ago by an Augustine or an Aquinas: scientific description, however holistic and comprehensive in its own order, is confined to that order, to one narrow aspect of cosmic being, and if science has now come up against sheer nothingness at some point in its formulations (formulations which are scarcely infallible in any event), this only proves, at most, that science is limited in its purview.
Mathematical physics describes quantitative aspects of already existing things. “Nothing,” in the language of physics, can only mean “nothing quantitatively described.” It is a quite meaningless term with respect to the more radical fact of existence. It would be foolish to say that a piano sonata by Beethoven has no reality in the emotional order, no existence precisely as a work of art, or even no causes extrinsic to itself (i.e., the mind and body of Beethoven), merely because the physicist’s submission of its harmonies to Fourier analysis has revealed none of this. But this is just the kind of thing Hawking and many other cosmologists are doing with respect to the universe itself.
Ignatius Insight: Hawking also states, "Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Although we are puny and insignificant on the scale of the cosmos, this makes us in a sense the lords of creation." Any idea what he means by "lords of creation"?
Dr. Grove: Hawking, in such remarks, commits two of the same fallacies that those benighted medievals are so often (but mistakenly) accused of: first, appealing to something entirely unknown in order to explain something known (i.e., “other universes” to explain our own – as if we could know anything whatsoever about universes, or histories, disjunct from ours). And second, though only incidentally in the quoted remarks: basing an essentially metaphysical statement ("we are puny and insignificant”) on a merely quantitative or geographical premise. If medieval man was wrong to anchor his ontological significance to his perception of being at the center of the world, how much more foolish are the moderns who base their claims of human insignificance on our being nowhere in particular?
As for Hawking’s curious phrase, “lords of creation” – well, it could be seen as evoking the Genesis description of man as the steward of all things – but also, perhaps, the sinister Baconian idea of “power over nature” which pretty much launched the scientific revolution and a good deal of natural devastation and environmental exploitation as well. Certainly we are lords, in the sense of being intellectual creatures uniquely capable of knowing our Creator through knowledge of all things in the created world.
Ignatius Insight: If you could ask Hawking a question or two, what would you say?
Dr. Grove: It’s a little embarrassing – Professor Hawking’s recent effusions are so wanting in insight that one suspects a mind coming undone. But I might ask him whether he can point to a single mathematical formula, in his or any other cosmological system, that even hints at the multivalent reality of Love. The greatest tragedy in his life, by far, would be to cease loving because science, his science, doesn’t support that.
Related Ignatius Press, Insight Scoop and Ignatius Insight Links:
• Intelligent Project Website
• Stephen Hawking should first consult a young child, then a dictionary, then...
• Creation | Adrienne von Speyr | From The Boundless God
• Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
• The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
• The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
• The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
• Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker
• The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
• Creation, Salvation, and the Mass | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.