Tonight’s the premiere of Curiosity on the Discovery Channel, featuring Stephen Hawking talking about cosmology and God, followed by the “Curiosity Conversation” panel that I’m on along with David Gregory, Paul Davies, and John Haught. Hawking’s hour-long show is scheduled for 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific, and will then repeat 3 hours later (11E/8P). Our half-hour panel discussion follows immediately afterward — you do the arithmetic.
There’s a lot to say about these shows, and in particular there’s a huge amount that we didn’t have time to say during the panel. So as I sit in front of the TV, I’ll be live-blogging along by adding updates to this post. This will be the early show, so the fun will happen 8pm-9:30pm Eastern. Hey, Nathan Fillion live-tweets during Castle, so why not me? There is also a chat going on at the Discovery site.
The main attraction of Hawking’s program is not that he has disproven the existence of God. Certainly I don’t think he’s going to be changing the minds of many religious believers. His argument is essentially that the universe is self-contained, and doesn’t really have “room” for God (nor any need to invoke a creator). It’s very easy to wriggle free of that conclusion, if you are inclined not to accept it.
But “changing people’s minds” isn’t the only reason to talk about something, even about controversial issues. Religion, like sex and death, is one of those topics where it’s very difficult to simply have a dispassionate discussion without making people uncomfortable. It can happen within a group of similarly-minded people, of course, but once a wider range of views gets involved, it’s hard to maintain comity. (Comedy, on the other hand, is pretty easy.) I don’t mean everyone has to agree — just the opposite. We should be able to talk about things we completely disagree on, while still maintaining level heads.
That’s why I think this episode of Curiosity is potentially important. It’s a forthright statement of a view that doesn’t often get aired in American media. Even if nobody’s mind is changed, simply talking rationally about this issues would be a step forward.
Pre-show update: I should note ahead of time that I was not wearing a tie. Haught, Davies, and Gregory were all wearing ties. But Hawking wasn’t. Maybe atheists don’t wear ties? (Although I’m pretty sure Jesus never wore a tie, either.)
Start: We begin with a disclaimer! These are Stephen Hawking’s opinions, not those of Discovery.
4 minutes: I hope the analogy here is clear. “People who believe God made the universe are kind of like the Vikings shouting at the Sun to stop a solar eclipse.”
8 minutes: Snark aside, the message here is a fundamental one. Nature obeys laws! Something that’s certainly not a priori obvious or necessary, but a really profound truth.
14 minutes: I wasn’t able to find an independent confirmation of this story about Pope John XXI condemning the idea of “laws of nature.” (It’s true that he did die when the roof collapsed.) Presumably this refers to the Condemnations of 1277.
20 minutes: The universe is a big, messy, complicated, and occasionally quite intricate place. On the face of it, the idea that it’s all the working-out of some impersonal patterns of matter and energy, rather than being constructed by some kind of conscious intelligence, is pretty remarkable. (But true nonetheless.)
27 minutes: Hey, a tiny ad for Discovery Retreats!
28 minutes: Hawking says Einstein might be the greatest scientist ever. He has long favored Einstein over Newton, I’m not sure why. Hawking appeared on an episode of Star Trek: TNG, where he was a hologram playing poker with Einstein, Newton, and Data. He actually wrote the script, and Newton doesn’t come off well.
36 minutes: Ah, negative energy. Depends on what you mean by “energy,” but this isn’t the venue to get overly technical, obviously. Roughly, matter has positive energy and gravity has negative energy. That’s hopefully enough to help people swallow the crucial point: you can make a universe for nothing. There isn’t some fixed resource, out of which we can make a universe or two, before we hit Peak Universe. There can be an infinite number of universes.
41 minutes: People on Twitter are asking why Hawking doesn’t have a British accent. He easily could, of course; voice-synthesis technology has come quite a way since he first got the system. But he’s said that he now identifies with that voice he got years ago, and doesn’t want to change it; it’s identified with him.
47 minutes: Okay, here’s the payoff. He’s saying that generally we’re used to effects being caused by pre-existing events. (The first step toward a cosmological argument for God’s existence.) You might think that a chain of causation takes you back to the Big Bang, which then requires God as a cause. But no! The Big Bang can just … be.
50 minutes: The point of the black hole discussion is to get to the idea of a singularity, a conjectural point of infinite curvature and density. The Big Bang, in classical general relativity, is also a singular moment. But classical GR isn’t right. We need quantum gravity. Hawking believes that quantum gravity smooths the singularity and explains how there was no pre-existing time. (At least in the TV show, unlike A Brief History, he doesn’t start talking about “imaginary time.”)
56 minutes: Ultimately Hawking’s argument against God is pretty simplistic. He assumes that if God created the Big Bang, God must have existed before the Big Bang, but there was no “before the Big Bang,” QED. It’s easy enough to simply assert that God doesn’t exist “within time” (if that means anything). It would have been better (IMHO) to emphasize that modern cosmology has many good ideas about how the universe could have come to be, so there’s no need to rely on a divine creator.
58 minutes: Final thought from SWH: no life after death! Enjoy it while you’re around, folks. An important message.
Panel discussion starts: Forgot to mention that Paul Davies has shaved off his moustache. Disconcerting.
4 minutes: Also disconcerting: watching myself on TV. Hate it. But I persevere for the greater good.
5 minutes: Here’s Michio Kaku, not saying very much.
7 minutes: Jennifer Wiseman and I were actually grad students together! She’s good people, even if we disagree about the whole God thing.
9 minutes: I come out in favor of basing purpose and meaning on reality. But I’m pretty sure a longer remark was cut off there. Arrrrgh! Nothing nefarious, we intentionally recorded a bit more than they had time to show. But enormously frustrating that there was so little time.
13 minutes: Not sure why we kept talking about the multiverse. Hawking didn’t bring it up, did he?
17 minutes: I thought a lot of what Haught said was not even really trying to argue in favor of God’s existence, but simply expressing a desire that he exist. “God is the grounding of hope” isn’t evidence for God’s existence.
22 minutes: Haven’t said anything completely silly yet, so that’s good. But so little time…
27 minutes: Always time for more Michio!
30 minutes: Arrrrgh again, this time for real: in the live conversation, I had the last word and it was a pretty good one. In the televised program, not so much. Had to end wishy-washy.
Thanks for tuning in. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have the time for a real conversation? But big ups to Discovery for hosting the panel at all — it’s a rare event on TV.