Still trying to understand what Stephen Hawking meant …

… when he said, “We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those Societies most likely to survive. We assign them a higher value.” Even the interviewer, it turns out, didn’t know what he meant, and has been trying to find out.

No, we weren’t the only people who wondered what Hawking was talking about in his odd response to the first question (of the six permitted) in a recent interview with the Guardian’s Ian Sample. Our commenters offered various thoughts. Sample was puzzled too, and wrote, by way of clarification (May 16, 2011),

Professor Hawking's talk is entitled "Why are we here?". With my first question I hoped to get his view on why the answer might be valuable to us. Put another way, I wondered what humanity gains from knowing how we came to be here, specifically at the level of detail that might be described by M-theory, the underlying idea that incorporates string theory. Plenty of obvious answers come to mind, but I wanted to hear Hawking's thoughts on the issue. Here is the answer Professor Hawking gave: "The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those Societies most likely to survive. We assign them a higher value."

So Sample offered a suggestion:

To me, it feels as though he is referring to the idea that there are many possible universes and that we can use Darwinian ideas of natural selection to work out which might be most hospitable to life as we know it, and because they are habitable in some sense we value them more highly. That's my best guess, but I have minimal confidence in it being right. I will do my best to clarify the answer this week.

If Sample’s guess is right, that would put Hawking in Lee Smolin’s “universal Darwinism” camp:

“It seemed to me that the only principle powerful enough to explain the high degree of organization of our universe—compared to a universe with the particles and forces chosen randomly—was natural selection itself. The question then became: Could there be any mechanism by which natural selection could work on the scale of the whole universe?” In other words, natural selection (the outcome of law acting on chance), lurking in a black hole, organizes a complex universe, excruciatingly fine-tuned for life. Smolin does not claim that the black hole spouts millions of them. Alternatively, he is attracted to the idea that the universe organizes itself: “I believe more in the general idea that there must be mechanisms of self-organization involved in the selection of the parameters of the laws of nature than I do in this particular mechanism, which is only the first one I was able to invent. ”

Is this where Hawking really wants to be? Like clouds in our coffee, all these other universes. UD News has tried several Internet searches but has not been able to come up with the answers Sample promises. Is it possible that Hawking, who has beat motor neurone disease for 49 years, was just having a “midlife moment”? Happens to everyone who should live so long. If you’re not famous, you’re lucky. People are not looking for great wisdom from you and often don’t notice. (Note: Hawking’s interview was principally famous for his denial tht there is life after death. See here for a response.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.