Visualization of the universe created by the Argonne National Laboratory. AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Argonne National Laboratory.

Trillionths

In a review of Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design (subscription required), physicist Steven Weinberg criticizes Hawking for concluding that "we have no free will":

[Hawking] attributes the illusion of free will to the fact that a human being contains about a thousand trillion trillion particles, so that as a practical matter it is impossible to predict what people will do.

This is a sign, says Weinberg, that Hawking "overestimates the ability to answer deep philosophical questions." (Meanwhile, practical souls may wonder how many particles will disappear in a good weight-loss program--"I am down to 999 trillion trillion particles," etc.)

Elsewhere, fellow physicist Brian Greene, while being interviewed about his book on "multiverses," suggests that "our 'everything' [i.e., our universe] may be just one enormous expanding bubble in a gigantic cosmic bubble bath of universes." Some find this uncomfortably large and seek refuge in our own cozy universe, our neighborhood. NASA helped us in January with reference to an object that traveled 13.2 billion light years to reach the Hubble telescope. It is "the most distant object ever seen in the universe."

Just as Weinberg, an assertive atheist, believes that science cannot answer deep philosophical questions, Gelernter observes this:

For many in the world, religion can provide meaning. Why are we here? What's our purpose? But for explaining physical processes, science alone has proved to be our most trustworthy guide.

If all the numbers from Weinberg and Gelernter are staggering, we might go in a cozier direction and look in on an infant--or part of an infant, her brain. David Brooks, writing on the conscious and unconscious mind, gives us a little peek inside one. Quoting a Caltech scientist, Brooks reports the following:

We have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eight-first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe.

Give that kid a second second and you will start getting into real numbers, real possibilities.

Brooks goes on to explain how "flourishing" takes place in the face of all the complexity:

It happens sometimes while you're . . . listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God's love. And it happens most when we connect with other people.

Many religious people believe that their response to challenges should be proving the existence (or disproving the nonexistence) of God. But on the crucial bridge where scientists and religious thinkers meet--a place in which we all have a stake--the most promising dialogue occurs when all sides know their limits and thus are able to transcend them, being humbly lost in wonder, content with but curious about mystery, and ready to re-engage what the provinces of scientists and theologians have in common.

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Comments

It is so comforting to think we are special...

...and I truly believe we are not. The invention of God is humans' desperate attempt to cope with the reality of our mortality made known to us only by our accidental achievement of consciousness. Oh well.

I've read 2 of Brian Greene's

I've read 2 of Brian Greene's books and one of Hawking's and aside from the occasional inserted religious viewpoints, they are amazing! I love reading books like those because it just goes to show how amazing God is. No matter what happened at the beginning, God started it all!

BIg Bang

Current mathmatical models (singularity events in an inflationary model universe) seem to indicate our universe was created by a singularity event outside of time and space- which to me sounds alot like a creator a.k.a. God. Hawkins has been trying to disprove such for years and he has now reached the point of making assertions with no rigid mathmatical proof. It sounds like he wants to be a climate "scientist".

Bleh

You had me until the last sentence. Then you lost me. Climate science is a science and it is sound.

Sound Science?

Oh really?

Suggest you take look at ice core samples, such as the ones they drilled in Russian Siberia. Strange thing: the cores indeed show that C02 is related to temperature, but C02 concentrations always FOLLOW temperature increases--not the other way around, as the Climate Crazies claim.

Oh, and by the way: evaluation of the ice cores IS science...

Big bang

With all due respect, big bang, while science continues to disprove claims made by religious leaders throughout history when humans knew even less about the heavens - the recognized religions of the world have done what to prove gods existence? Well, they have started wars; exiled and damned outsiders; and killed more innocent humans than the meteor that killed the dinosaurs...the burden of proof is not on science to proove there is no god - it lays with the "faithful" who claim a guy is watching over us from heaven because they read some ancient book....

Lost in wonder!

Stephen Hawking - poor man does not know everything. I don’t either. I am sure he knows more about physics than most folk I know. When it comes to philosophy, religion etc. I would look elsewhere. We shouldn't waste energy and time discussing what he knows and he doesn't! There are six humans out there with six billion versions of philosophical conclusions! Then, imagine the rest of the universe.

Marty mantra is helpful : we own up our limits and with humility attempt to transcend our little backyard of knowledge and wisdom.

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