Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hawking, Dickens, And Spontaneous Combustion

Stephen Hawking now says that the laws of gravity were enough to bring the universe into being -- which would have been the first instance of spontaneous combustion. For us old-earth Bible-interpreters, this is big news. Since the publication of his A Brief History of Time, Christian adult education teachers who found no essential conflict between the big bang and Genesis have been able to say that the great British astrophysicist himself was willing to concede the possibility of Someone throwing the great switch.

That Hawking has changed his mind, as disconcerting as it may be at first to the Bible study teachers, just means that he has chosen to insist that "science is on his side in order to make his case for the imagination." Oops. Sorry, that's what Brooke D. Taylor says about Charles Dickens in the September 2010 issue of Dickens Quarterly.

See, the 19th century's greatest English writer believed in spontaneous combustion, too, and used it in his novel Bleak House to dispose of a character named Krook. Krook had been hoarding papers which held the key to a legal case that has been grinding along for decades. Two characters who come looking for him find -- well, you could say that they find evidence of a sacramental reenactment of the scientist's vision of the beginning of the universe, a mass for rationalists:
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is--is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here!
That's Krook's burnt remains that are "here," not God. As Hawking now insists about the universe, no one had to light the fuse in Krook's grubby little room. It just happened. Really, it happens all the time. As he assured his readers in the preface of Bleak House, Dickens had studied the literature.

All these years everyone has thought him a bit daft on this narrow point. Seeking to rescue him, Brooke Taylor concludes:
In the end, most of us agree that, for literary purposes, the scientific accuracy of Spontaneous Combustion doesn't matter. But Dickens argues for the scientific authenticity of this manner of death because a world in which fact and feeling are irreparably divided is a tragic and frightening place.
Maybe that kind of fear helps us understand why the mystery of God can be such a challenge or an affront to the rational mind. For Hawking and those who are most pleased by his latest assertion, it actually seems less preposterous, or perhaps less frightening, to say that they know what occurred 14 billion years ago at a point in-- well, somewhere, than to accept the possibility that a living but persistently invisible source of ultimate meaning and benevolence is present right now, right here. The very idea of a power they can't fully explain must make them want to explode.

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