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Has Stephen Hawking Eliminated God? – Pt 1

September 6, 2011

Has Hawking Eliminated God? – Post 1

        According to Hawking in his book, The Grand Design, “It is the laws of physics and not the will of God that provides the real explanation as to how our universe came in to being. “The Big Bang” he argues “was the inevitable consequence of these laws”. Hawking adds, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing”. Hawking’s grand conclusion is that spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. It is why the universe exists, why I exist, why anything at all exists. Because of this theory, it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. Now over the years, other scientists have made similar claims. They maintain that the awesome sophisticated complexity of the world around us can be interpreted solely by the basic stuff of the universe such as Mass/Energy, or the physical laws that describe its behavior, like gravity.

          Hawking’s book begins with the bigger questions that have been asked over the ages. Such as how can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all of this come from? Did the universe need a creator?  When a scientist as well known and respected as Hawking asks these questions, his readers imaginations inevitably begin to roll in anticipation of hearing a world class scientist give his insights on some of the profoundest questions of philosophy.

         Hawking adds that, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy. But philosophy is DEAD(my emphasis). It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result, scientists have become the torch bearers of discovery and our quest for knowledge”. Is such a dismissal of philosophy warranted? I imagine that his fellow professors at Cambridge have asked this same question. This type of a statement constitutes that Hawking in particular has not kept up with philosophy and ironically does not appear to realize that his own book is largely concerned with philosophical questions.

       Okay so where to start……

  • Hawking’s initial statement that, “philosophy is dead” is in itself a philosophical statement. The view that science is the “torch bearer of discovery” is not far removed from the philosophical view of scientism – the view that science is the only way to truth. This conviction is also a characteristic of the secular movement known as the “new atheism”. Although it is often called new atheism, their ideas are only new in the way that they are aggressively presented rather than in their intellectual content. For any scientist, let alone a science superstar like Stephen Hawking, to disparage philosophy in one hand and at once adopt a self contradictory philosophical stance at the other, is not the wisest way to begin a book.

Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar pointed this out long ago in his excellent book, “Advice to a Young Scientist”. He says, “There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and his profession particularly when no declaration is called for, than to declare that science knows or will know the answers to all questions worth asking. And to declare questions that admit a non-scientific question is somehow a non-question or pseudo-question that only simpletons ask and the gullible only profess to be able to answer”. Medawar goes on to say that, “the existence of a limited science is however made clear by its inability to answer child like elementary questions having to do with first and last things. Questions such as, how did everything begin and what are we all here for? What is the point of living?”

This idea of science having its limits is very important. I say this as a person that is very passionate about science and teaching science. The following is one example:

  • Let us say that my mother was kind enough to bake a cake. I invite my nobel prize winning readers to come in and inspect my mothers cake and to tell me as much as they can about it. The chemist will tell me about the elements involved and the biochemist will come up with something as well. The physicist will reduce it to its elementary particles such as quarks and leptons etc… After gathering a wonderful scientific analyses of this cake I ask the scientists one more question before they go. I ask them why did my mother make the cake? As I ask this question my mother begins to grin because of course she is the only one that knows that answer. It is here evident that unless she reveals her reasons for baking her cake, we will never know. Not even the most profound types of sciences including the scanning of her brain could reveal the answer to us. Is this not obvious? And even when she does reveal her reason to us, we would use our own rationality to see if what she says make sense to us. This is a simple illustration that sheds some light on a contemporary confusion that somehow revelation is anti-reason. We use our reason on the world about us, the cake, and we also use our reason on what is revealed to us by my mother. This issue of observation and revelation is one that comes from the earliest of science. Back then, scientists believed in two overarching all encompassing “books”: the book of nature(observed) and the book of God’s word(revelation). These scientists used their reason on both of them because both could be regarded as sources of information. Although this is a very old issue, it is fought in much of the same way today.

        Francis Collins, a well known and highly regarded American physician-geneticist, states that “Science is powerless to answer questions such as why did the universe come in to being, what is the meaning of human existence, and what happens after we die”. It should be clear that there is no inconsistency with being a scientist at the highest level, passionate about the subject, and recognizing that science has its limits. In fact, many scientists will confess that part of the power and success of science is because it limits itself to a certain grid of questions.

 Hawking not only has an inadequate view on philosophy, but also on gods/God.

          He writes that, “Ignorance of natures ways led people in ancient times to invent gods to lord it over every aspect of human life.” He then says that, “This began with ancient greek thinkers like Thales of Miletus 2600 years ago. It was around that time that Thales first developed the idea that the world can be understood, that the complex happenings around us couldbe reduced to simpler principles and explained without resorting to mythical or theological explanations.” This thinking of a “mythical god/God” began the long process of replacing the notion of the reign of the gods/God with a concept of a universe that is governed by the laws of nature and created according to a blueprint that someday we may learn to read.

Is Hawking trying to get us to fall for the old trick of rubbishing religion by rubbishing a primitive concept of God?

     Deliberate or not, he is confusing the gods or a god with the all powerful and all knowing God that created everything that we see and don’t see and all that we know and don’t know. This inevitably will lead him to a view of god known as the “God of the Gaps” who can be displaced by scientific advance. An example of the “God of the Gaps” is that at one time in the past we thought that thunder was the “voice of the gods”. This idea held until we studied electricity and air movements and so on to where now there is no need to posit God. That is to say that as science advances, God retreats until he eventually disappears.

      I should say that this view on God is not the view held by Christianity or any of the other two monotheistic religions today. Nor is he the god/God of the deist who lit the paper to start everything to then retire to a vast distance. God, if exists, would be instead the author of the whole show. He would be the one who holds everything as we know it perfectly in balance and sustains it. Without God, there would be nothing for Hawking to study…

      Personally, science in no way drives me away from God as it does others. Just as the admiration that lies behind a genius of a work of art or engineering increases as one studies it, the more I understand and learn the bits and pieces of what God has created, the more I admire God. The two do not need to be mutually exclusive..

For instance:

  • When Sir Isaac Newton first discovered gravity he did not say, “Ah! Now I do not need God! No! In fact he wrote the most brilliant book in the history of science, the “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, hoping that a thinking person as a result of it would one day come to believe in such a deity. 
  • It was in that same spirit that James Clark Maxwell, who according to Einstein is second after Newton in the history of science and a towering intellectual figure, had his coat of arms carved in the main door of the laboratory with these word; ‘Great are the works of the Lord sought out by all those who take pleasure therein’. Were these great scientific thinkers confused?

Let us now get to some of the conclusions found in the Grand Design. First is this conclusion: “That because there is a law of Gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing”. The first question to ask Hawking in this case is:  What does he mean by nothing?

  • In his statement that “there IS a law of gravity” he points out that something already exists – gravity. Is gravity nothing? If Hawking is using the term nothing in its original philosophical sense of the word, non-being, than there is indeed something very strange going on here. On the face of it, this central concept in his book, Hawking is simultaneously saying that the universe has both been created by nothing and from something. I should also add that when physicists speak about nothing, they often appear to be in a quantum vacuum which is manifestly not nothing. Hawking even alludes to this when he writes that, “we are a product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe”.

It is hard for me to imagine that all of this work came from the result of nothing…

Lets now move on to the second part of his statement that, “the universe can and will create itself.”

  • In a more basic form we can take this example: If we say that X creates Y, ordinary language would tell us that we are presupposing the existence of X to bring Y in to existence. This is simply what X creates Y means. 
  • However if we were to say that X creates X, we are presupposing the existence of X in order to account for the existence of X. This is obviously contradictory and logically incoherent even if we set X equal to the entire universe as Hawking seems to be doing. To submit that the existence of the universe can exist on account of itself is simply and utterly false and not science.

It is probably not common is science to find one single statement with two distinct levels of contradictions in them. Hawking seems to have invented such a statement.

Contradiction number three from the book, “The Grand Design”, is his notion that the law of gravity explains the existence of the universe.

  • Since the law of nature by definition surely presupposes the existence of the nature it purports to describe, how can it also create it?

In the beginning of Hawking’s book he stated that, “philosophy is dead”. So far we have seen three obvious contradictions in just a few of the books statements. Because of this I believe that it would be fair to think that after reading Hawkings book, philosophers might be tempted to comment by saying that “This is what comes from saying, philosophy is dead”. My next post will go in a bit deeper and discuss concepts brought up in Hawking’s book such as M-Theory and the Multiverse theory. I hope that you have found this post both informative and useful in your search in knowing our Grand Designer. Peace and if you prefer – God Bless.

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