Sunday, February 20, 2011


According to one of the greatest mathematicians of our time, “there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality.”* What Stephen Hawking means by this is that we are all limited in our perception of reality. He compares all of us to a goldfish living in a bowl with curved sides. Gazing out, the fish has a distorted view of reality. He points out that if the goldfish had sufficient time and brain-power, it might be able to work out a series of laws that describe the way things appear from inside of a fish bowl. We, on the outside of the bowl would find these goldfish descriptions of the world overly complicated and would simply point out that the fish lives in a bowl and cannot see reality in its true form. Hawking says, “might not we ourselves also be inside some big goldfish bowl and have our vision distorted by an enormous lens. The goldfish’s picture of reality is different from ours, but can we be sure it is less real?” Hawking then suggests that we might be living unknowingly inside a virtual reality created by intelligent computers as described in the science fiction film, The Matrix. He adopts a view which he calls “model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations.”

Now I suppose it is not surprising that a mathematician would come up with a mathematical way of describing the universe. But that is just it, it is a mathematical description of the universe. The greatest strength of his argument ultimately makes it weak in explaining the hows and whys of the universe. For, his is just one way of seeing the universe as is the goldfish way of seeing the universe. He certainly can develop such a model and use it to describe the universe as he sees it. Where he strays too far is in saying that his is the only way to view the universe and that philosophers and theologians have nothing to add to the story. His mathematical models have great predictive value for describing how electrons, protons, neutrons, and quarks function in the universe. He would like this same model to predict how the universe came into existence and why the universe came into existence. Here his model is less helpful. Just as the goldfish in the fish bowl cannot be sure of the reality of her world-view (even if she could create models that described her observations), neither can Hawking be sure of the reality of his world-view. It is equally as possible that his model works inside of the universe (or even inside the multi-verse that Hawking goes on to describe) and also inside a greater, over-arching, plan of a creator God. Here is precisely where philosophy, theology, and epistemology come into the discussion. Despite what physicists and mathematicians might think, mathematics is not the only valid tool of inquiry or description that we can use to understand our universe.

*This and other quotes in this article are from Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010, p. 39-43.


Ron Krumpos said...

In "The Grand Design" Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics...the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate but never completed. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

E=mc², Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

Keith Shields said...

Thanks Ron, after reading The Grand Design I am still not sure how much confidence Hawking and others put in M-String Theory. He seems to be holding it very lightly until something better comes along. You have created an interesting analogy. Is your e-book available for the general reader?

Ron Krumpos said...


Yes, it is at - 88 pages plus lists of mystics and three bibliographies - and it is free.