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Knowing the Mind of God: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking


Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?  What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions.  Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun--or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.  Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

This is the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I read the book in college, I think when I was 19, and his follow up Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years later.  Hawking was already iconic among my high school friends--we were all sci fi and science geeks.  And I was in a phase where I had a deep fascination in cosmology and theoretical physics (I read most of the works of Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).  

And this was the time when I was being drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.  

Since childhood even up to this morning when I was listening to the radio one thing has been guaranteed to make me nauseous--the thought of why anything exists at all and yet the idea of nothing existing makes no sense.  Rationality breaks down and my head and stomach spin.  And yet these limits of scientific and philosophical quandary drew me inexorably on.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures further into the realm of philosophy and even theology and spirituality.  If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God?  The book ends with a  most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just 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 would know the mind of God.

The "mind of God" here should be understood in the Platonic sense--the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic.  Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God.  From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience.  Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea (Paul Davies argued that physics is a surer path to God than religion, for similar reasons, and even named a major work The Mind of God).

But the problem with the God of the theoretical physicists, as with the God of the philosophers, is that they aren't describing Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But, that discussion is for another time.

As my philosophical education advanced, I realized more of the flaws in Hawking's philosophical understanding of science (many scientists lack a philosophical understanding of their discipline), though looking at my marginalia, I already had some objections to simplistic understandings.  I don't think a theory of everything is possible, and one reason is that his understanding of the laws of physics can't survive philosophical critique.  Consider Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that “Rendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force."

But it is still a grand hope and something to aspire to.  And Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason."  Though it may just be that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas.  I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.

BTW, here's an excellent obituary by Roger Penrose.

Multitudinous Self

A good essay on the self, defending a realist position that is a development of William James.  An excerpt:

The multitudinous self is based on the psychologist Ulric Neisser’s account of the self, laid out in his paper ‘Five Kinds of Self-knowledge’ (1988). Neisser encourages us to reevaluate the sources of information that help us to identify the self. There are five sources, which are so different from one another that it is plausible to conceive each as establishing a different ‘self’. First there is the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.

Total Eclipse

Re-read the Annie Dillard essay "Total Eclipse" this morning. Worth the read.

Here are the final lines:

One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.

It Was Glorious

And then it was total and the small crowd gathered on the village green exclaimed in wonder and our son looked up and pointed and squealed and said "The moon."

Plan A was hatched long ago--to go to Kearney for the weekend and visit our friend Tarae.  But this spring we finally got around to booking, there were no open hotel rooms.

Plan B was to head south from Omaha with friends to one of the small towns.  Weeks ago I had researched and presented a variety of options.  Then the weather forecasts got worse and worse for southeastern Nebraska.

We met for brunch on Saturday and made our plans.  We'd head west from Wahoo on highway 92 in order to get past the clouds.  We'd stay north, hoping to avoid much of the traffic.  St. Paul would be our planned destination, though we might stop elsewhere or keep traveling depending on the conditions.  We'd pack a picnic and just drive.

On Saturday we learned that Michael's dad was driving up from Oklahoma City and might try to meet us somewhere, though he ended up watching it in a small town in Missouri.  My sister and her family were coming from Shawnee with plans for St. Joseph, Missouri.  On Sunday, when they were halfway to St. Joe they decided the weather forecast there was too risky and made a last minute change of plans for Grand Island, where they somehow found a hotel room.  The turned northwest and spent the entire day driving.  Yesterday we were only thirty miles apart but never saw one another.

"Let's leave early," John said.  "We'll be over at 7 a.m."  So we awoke at six and finished the packing we had begun the night before.  We ended up running late and didn't depart till shortly after 8.  The traffic heading west from Omaha was constant, but not too bad.  There was a long line of cars on 92 but all going the speed limit or faster.  At every major highway a few would turn south.

As we drove we enjoyed mostly clear skies, but could see the massive cloud cover to the south over the path of totality.  Toward the north was crisp and clear.  Every time we stopped for a potty break the convenience stores were packed with other eclipse travelers, including people from all over.

When we got to St. Paul Sebastian played on the playground at the city park while we discussed whether to stop there or continue south west.  I wanted to stay because it was a good, big park where Sebastian could enjoy himself. But I was outvoted.  We continued on to Dannebrog, Nebraska's Danish capital.


On the small village green we spread our picnic blanket beside the gazebo.  About forty people were gathered there, mostly locals but a handful of folks from across the country.  The Danish Bakery across the street was open.  The firehouse had opened their restrooms to the public.  Children played and dogs sniffed each other and photographers set up tripods.

Most folks were quiet, eating lunch, chatting with family and friends, and occasionally stepping out of the shade of the trees to look up at the sun and moon with their eclipse glasses.  Eventually the crescents formed through the shade of the trees and everyone began to marvel.

The temperature began to drop, the light was similar to dusk, the cicadas began to make their evening noise.  Someone exclaimed they could see Mercury, and we all looked in that direction.  Everyone began to quiet down and get in their perfect spot.  Sebastian sat in my lap.

Then, totality, and the small crowd exclaimed their wonder.  Sebastian looked up and pointed and squealed and said "The moon."

What glory.  The solar flares and the corona.  What glory.

Then our puppy pooped and before some girls who were running around stepped in it, I grabbed a poop bag and collected it.  Humble action in the midst of glory.

And then the moment passed.  And we eventually returned to our picnic chairs.  There was a hushed awe and joy to the crowd. Eventually groups began to pack up and leave, and we waited till the moon had completed its journey over the son, resting in the wonder before beginning our return trip.

Everyone else in my car napped as we drove home.  At Osceola the traffic was bumper-to-bumper.  I worried that we'd be hours getting home if it stayed like this, but it opened up again after Shelby.  At every highway intersection some headed north and others from the south joined our line. 

It bottled up again at Wahoo because of an accident.  Then at Yutan it took us 30 minutes to go 5 miles, so I decided to try a detour and headed north on dirt roads to the next highway, which was fortunately completely free of traffic.  We crossed the Platte at Valley and got home around six p.m.

What a joyful, beautiful day.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of ConsciousnessOther Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did not enjoy this book as much as I had anticipated. It does lend support to the view of the mind I already hold. I think it was too analytical and not poetic enough. I had expected more of the latter I guess.

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Great Plains Geology

Great Plains Geology (Discover the Great Plains)Great Plains Geology by R.F. Diffendal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this enjoyable book in the bookstore at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in the panhandle of Nebraska while on our recent vacation. That night during my insomnia I began it and have been snatching bits and pieces since.

After helpful introductory chapters, the bulk of the book is a series of descriptions of prominent sites throughout the plains. This makes it a good travel guide as well. A handful of those sites we had seen on our trip.

The three most interesting things I learned reading the book--

1) The Black Hills was a single dome uplifted at the time of the Rocky Mountains uplift and then weathered down to create the peaks and valleys.

2) At Scottsbluff National Monument is not an uplift. The "original" floor of the plains was the top of the bluff. The plain lying far below is in fact erosion from the Platte River. The author said to stand atop the bluff and realize the unimaginable amount of sediment that has been washed down river and ultimately to the Gulf. Maybe Louisiana was made from Nebraska?

3) The Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico and Texas are ancient coral reefs. Carlsbad Caverns is the remnant of those reefs.

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