October 12 - Don't deny the inventor.

Don’t deny the inventor

            In the opening ceremony of the summer Olympics Sir Tim Berners-Lee enjoyed a starring role. He appeared in the midst of the ceremony and was recognised for his work as the inventor of the World Wide Web. Few things have had a greater impact in recent years than the Internet and it was gratifying to be reminded that the key figure in its development was a Brit.

            Let me engage in a little nonsense in order to make a point. Suppose we were to explain the existence of the World Wide Web to someone. If I were to say ‘the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee back in 1989 when he was working at CERN near Geneva’ then that would make a degree of sense to you.

            However, if I was to say, ‘the World Wide Web came into existence as a consequence of the outworking of the laws of the universe’ you would feel I was missing something, and certainly denying Berners-Lee the recognition he deserves.  Yet this is exactly the kind of thing a number of atheists are arguing in relation, not to the World Wide Web, but to the universe. Most notable among them is the famous physicist Stephen Hawking. In his recent book, ‘The Grand Design’ (co-authored by Leonard Mlodinov) he argues that the universe came into existence merely as a result and consequence of physical laws, and as such does not need a creator to explain its existence. To quote him, ‘M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.’

            Hawking makes what is called a category error. He confuses things which differ. Tim Berners-Lee is a personal agency (who can make things happen), whereas a physical law is just… well … a physical law. A law describes something, it doesn’t do things. When Isaac Newton came up with his famous laws of motion, he was describing, for example, the movement of balls around a snooker table. But you can’t have a game of snooker with a physical law; they don’t cause anything to happen, they just describe what is happening. The equation F=ma (the formulation Newton’s second law) describes the relationship between the mass m of an object and its acceleration a. But that equation will not pot a ball for me. You need an agent like me holding and using a cue to do that. An equation has never competed in the Snooker World Championship at the Crucible in Sheffield. Stephen Hendry, Ronnie O’Sullivan and co. are not likely to be coming up against an equation.

            It is certainly the case that, to return to the World Wide Web, we can analyse how it works scientifically. There are ways of describing how it works - the software that governs its operation, the electronics of the hardware used to access it. That would form the basis of a good scientific description of the World Wide Web. But to insist that, having described the Web scientifically, we can deny the existence of Tim Berners-Lee would be odd. In fact it would be stupid. Both explanations are needed. Berners-Lee invented the Web, but we can also describe its operation by scientific means. The two are not mutually exclusive, as Hawking and others would like to believe. The Web can be scientifically examined because Berners-Lee invented it.

            Let me give another example. Let’s be patriotically Scottish. James Watt invented the steam engine. You and I were taught that at school. Jolly good for James Watt. The college in Kilwinning is named after him, to honour his genius. If you studied mechanical engineering perhaps you would learn exactly how steam engines work. But just because you would then be able to describe how Watt’s invention works would not then call James Watt’s actual existence into question.

            Science explores how the universe works, but ultimately cannot answer why the universe is there; why there is something rather than nothing. For my own part, I am convinced that the universe is here, able to be described scientifically, because of the Creator God. And He has left His fingerprints all over it, if we are prepared but to open our eyes.

            I write this somewhat reluctantly, having spilled ink before in response to those who seek to hijack science to support their anti-religious tirades, but having read Hawking, and knowing the celebrity status he enjoys, I feel in my bones that a TV series is likely to follow. So now you know. Don’t bother watching it.

            Yours wearily

            Martin Thomson

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