September 15, 2010 in City

Vestal: Spitzer talks faith, science on King show

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In the cultural fight between faith and science, there’s a new name on the scorecard: the Rev. Robert Spitzer, former president of Gonzaga University.

Since he left GU a year ago, Spitzer has been working on a project to reconcile science and faith as president of the Magis Institute for Reason and Faith in Irvine, Calif. He’s got a new book out and is wrapping up a documentary on physics and faith.

And he found himself on “Larry King Live” last Friday, a featured opponent of the most famous super-smart man in the world, Stephen Hawking. Hawking has attracted a lot of attention lately for his new book, “The Grand Design,” in which he argues that modern physics make it possible to say the universe spontaneously created itself – no God necessary.

Spitzer, as you might imagine, disagrees.

“The physics in the book is great,” Spitzer said in an interview. “It’s humorous. It’s delightful. It’s put in an accessible way. I have not a scintilla of complaint about the physics. But every single metaphysical claim sandwiched between those chapters – they’re all arbitrarily asserted and they can all be arbitrarily denied. … I’m sorry to be so harsh, but I just don’t think he did the job.”

Spitzer didn’t directly debate Hawking on the show, but sat on a panel following a brief interview with the famous physicist. He and Deepak Chopra – the holistic healing “guru” who peddles the idea that aging is reversible, among other things – were there to represent faith. With his Roman collar and scholarly demeanor, Spitzer acquitted himself as the sane, smart one, compared to the pink-shirted Chopra’s muddled, feel-good vibe.

Hawking’s book focuses on M theory, which is an extension of yesterday’s theory-du-jour, string theory, about the fundamental nature of the universe. M theory unites several string theories, proposes a universe with 11 dimensions, and is considered by some as a possible “Theory of Everything” – a system that brings together the major theories of physics under one scientific roof.

Hawking doesn’t say there is no God, just that science can explain the universe without one.

On the teeter-totter between faith and science, I sit on the science end. But I’m occasionally taken aback by the claims of some modern physicists regarding God and the prospect of perfect knowability. If scientists want to argue that faith has no place in science – which is all right with me – they ought not invite faith to the party only to dismiss it.

What’s refreshing about Spitzer is his commitment to reconciling the two. His belief isn’t threatened by knowledge. Spitzer is a science geek with a deep faith – he’s all about studying the Big Bang, quantum physics, space-time geometry, and finding the possibilities of transcendence therein.

“I’m, like, hyper pro-science,” Spitzer said. “I am as fascinated by M theory as Stephen is. … It’s beautiful. It may well be the candidate that will be the theory of everything.”

Spitzer’s Magis Center has the goal of explaining “the consistency between science and faith in contemporary astrophysics.” He’s also founded an institute for teaching organizational ethics to corporations.

In addition to his book, Spitzer has worked on a documentary titled “In the Beginning,” which includes interviews with eight physicists who differ with Hawking on the implications of current cosmology.

Spitzer’s differences with Hawking focus on the meaning of “nothing.” Hawking says the universe created itself out of nothing.

“Gravity and quantum theory cause the universe to be created spontaneously,” he told King.

Asking why this is so, he said, “is like saying, ‘Why is 2 plus 2 4?’ ”

Spitzer said a nothingness that includes the law of gravity isn’t true nothingness – the question of how nothing became something remains open to the possibility of a creator.

This argument – that something cannot come from nothing – has been a sometimes glib response of Big Bang doubters and other religious critics of modern physics. But Spitzer is not one of those. He is truly questioning what “nothing” means, and it’s hard to argue with him, in large part because of the baffling, counterintuitive nature of modern physics.

In this case, the “nothing” in question is a kind of void where matter pops into and out of existence constantly, the book’s co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, said on the show. In any case, the physicists’ idea of nothingness is not the same as Spitzer’s.

Spitzer says he liked Hawking’s previous point of view, which left open the question of what breathed life into the universes. Understanding matter and energy, he said, won’t fully explain human life.

“Human beings by nature just want to make the most out of their lives,” Spitzer said on the King show. “They want to know who they really are at the deepest level, whether that be empirically obvious or not. Perhaps there is something more to human beings than merely physics or M theory. Maybe we’re capable of unconditional love or unconditional goodness.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com.

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