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Has Stephen Hawking Made God Unnecessary?

Stephen Hawking and Pope

A few weeks ago, Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture at the California Institute of Technology titled "The Origin of the Universe," and you’re likely to have heard about it because, according to mainstream media outlets, Hawking has put God out of a job. In an article headlined “Stephen Hawking lays out case for Big Bang without God,” NBC News describes the presentation:

Stephen Hawking began the event by reciting an African creation myth, and rapidly moved on to big questions such as, Why are we here? He noted that many people still seek a divine solution to counter the theories of curious physicists, and at one point, he quipped, “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?”

It’s somewhat annoying that Hawking implicitly uses the argument “Some religious explanations are silly (such as myths about gods laying eggs that become the universe), therefore all religious explanations are silly.” Surely he would know that Cal Tech is the site where Fr. George Lemaitre discussed the first incarnation of the Big Bang theory seventy years ago with a skeptical Albert Einstein (who felt that the idea of the “beginning of the universe” smacked too much of religion).

Fr. LemaitreFr. Lemaitre firmly believed in following the scientific evidence where it led, and this did not exclude God from his view of the universe. The NBC News article also describes Hawking as claiming that Pope John Paul II told scientists visiting the Vatican to study the universe but not the beginning of the universe since that is "holy" (this claim is also found in Hawking's A Brief History of Time, 120). There's no way to verify that this exchange took place because Hawking claims that it was said in a private audience. My money is on the Pope telling the scientists that there is a difference between studying the scientific question of the beginning of the universe and the philosophical/religious question of the origin of the universe, something Hawking apparently fails to grasp.

If Hawking wants to exclude God’s creative activity from the beginning of the universe, he’s going to need a pretty good argument. Does he have one? Unfortunately, this particular NBC news article is short on specifics. The articles says only that Hawking believes that a variant of string theory proves that multiple universes can come into existence from nothing and one of those universes will, by chance alone, have the physical properties necessary for life to emerge.

The problem with appeals to string theory is that the theory is as malleable as pizza dough and is almost impossible to empirically verify. Famed Cal Tech physicist Richard Feynman, whom Hawking mentions in his talk, said, “For anything that disagrees with an experiment, [string theorists] cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say, ‘Well, it still might be true’”(quoted in Lee Smolin. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, 2007, 125.)

Lee Smolin, whose cosmology influenced Richard Dawkins’s proposal to explain away God in his 2005 book The God Delusion, writes, “The scenario of many unobserved universes [in string theory] plays the same logical role as the scenario of an intelligent designer. Each provides an untestable hypothesis that, if true, makes something improbable seem quite probable.”

The other problem with Hawking’s proposal is the answer to the question “How did the universe begin to exist from nothing?” The metaphysical principle “out of nothing, nothing comes” would preclude an entire universe emerging from nothing through a singularity. The NBC article is confusing because Hawking’s preferred model for the beginning of the universe (the Hartle-Hawking “no-boundary” model, pictured below) does not include a singularity.

Hartle-Hawking model

The model has a beginning but it has no beginning point or boundary to the universe’s past. Asking what occurred before the beginning of this model is like asking what is north of the North Pole (time just goes in the other direction just as once you reach the North pole you start to go south).

The model simply exists without a beginning event that needs an explanation. The problem with this model is that Hawking relies on imaginary numbers, or the square root of negative numbers, for the time variables in order to preserve a purely spatial representation of the beginning of the universe. While imaginary numbers are helpful in abstract mathematics, it becomes absurd to measure a real entity such as the flow of time using something like “3i” minutes. Even Hawking admits that this is something of a mathematical trick and that “when one goes back to the real time in which we live . . . there will still appear to be singularities” (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 144).

Hawking may have one alternative proposal for the beginning of the universe, but does he have any argument against the idea that God created the universe? The article alludes to one when Hawking makes the joke which Augustine first made about “what was God doing before he created the universe?” Augustine answered the question by noting that before creation there was no time so God was not “doing” anything within a temporal realm.

In other venues, such as the television show Curiosity, Hawking uses this observation as a springboard to argue that time did not exist at the Big Bang, so no cause is needed because causation only applies in time. According to Hawking, since all causes operate in time, not even God could make the universe while he exists timelessly.

However, the cause of an event does not have to be temporally prior to an event in order to be the event’s cause. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant writes, “The greater part of operating causes in nature are simultaneous with their effects...If the cause had but a moment before ceased to be, the effect could not have arisen.”

To understand this, consider a hammer smashing a window. In this case, it is clear that the hammer is swung before the window smashes; the window doesn’t smash before the hammer hits it. However, if the cause (or the hammer moving through the air) disappeared even a microsecond before it touched the window, then the effect would never happen. Instead, there has to be a moment where the cause and effect “overlap” and both happen at the same time. Likewise, the cause of God creating the universe and the effect of the universe coming into existence are simultaneous events that happen at the first moment of time.

Stephen Hawking is a brilliant expert in the area of physics, but just because someone is an expert in how one part of reality works does not mean he is an expert in how all of reality works (or what is called metaphysics). Hawking's claims in this area should be reviewed carefully and not taken solely on his scientific authority.
Originally posted on the Catholic Answers blog. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Reuters)

Trent Horn

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Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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  • Alberto Quagliaroli CM – Italy

    It seems to me that can be added this about the problem of before and after. The problem of "if God had made the universe there was necessarily a before and an after" makes no sense, because, among others arguments: time is relative, logic is relative and God is the only absolute for definition.

  • ateo

    We do not need a philosophical/religious beginning. Hawking did not fail to grasp it, he pointed out how it is not necessary.

  • Prof. Georges Lemaître (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lema%C3%AEtre ) did the most significant cosmological work of the early 20th Century, by reversing the observations of expanding space-time to hypothesize an early time when all the mass-energy of the Universe was in a very small volume. He called it "hypothesis of the primeval atom" but due to unfortunate sarcastic criticizers it later became known as the "Big Bang." This is unfortunate because it leads people to think it is like an explosion, whereas the observed expansion is one of space-time itself, rather than an explosion of mass-energy into existing space at progressive time.

    Physicists work on models that are consistent with observation, but our current observation (of the microwave background radiation) only take us back to about 300k years after extrapolated time zero. Prof. Lemaître took pains to remark that his theories did not have a theological component. There simply is no theological implication of what we do know about cosmological origins, that does not rise higher than a "gap" argument.

    So much is speculation because we don't have ways to test the most advanced theories at this time. However, we are learning that empty space is filled with virtual particles and that there is a difference between physical nothing and the old idea of metaphysical nothing. Things do come from physical nothing, and our ideas based on what we think can't happen have to be revised. (see more at: http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com/2012/02/physical-nothing-v-metaphysical-nothing.html )

  • "Hawking believes that a variant of string theory proves that multiple universes can come into existence from nothing and one of those universes will, by chance alone, have the physical properties necessary for life to emerge."

    By the same argument, one of those universes would have a God who is the Creator of all the Universes (Multiverses) and so includes our own. ;)

  • Unnecessary? Yes. Proven to be uninvolved? No. From there the argument has to move on to other things, such as present-day evidences or appeals to Occam's Razor.

  • Al

    In listening carefully to his lecture,he asserted that his model of the universe, having no boundary, simply is, very religious! In other words the universe is self existent having no need of a cause, one of the characteristics of God. Unfortunately, the God of Hawking's imagination is a materialist god. The problem is that all of the beings in this universe, it's parts and pieces, are contingent material beings; it is a then a self existent system of contingent beings, which is a logical impossibility. Alternatively, any assertion that things simply come into existence out of nothing, without cause, is also an absurdity...being comes from non-being for no reason and without cause. The world view of Plato-Aristotle-Augustine-Aquinas still stands, philosophically, logically. Hawking's view is no more of a challenge to that view
    than the discovery that the earth was a globe rather than a flat surface.

  • Scott McPherson

    You state that it’s annoying Hawking implicitly uses the argument that “some religious explanations are silly, therefore al religious explanations are silly”. Having actually read the full lecture (www.hawking.org.uk/the-origin-of-the-universe.html) rather than a news summary, I don’t see him doing that. Although you are entitled to your opinion.

    I don’t see him excluding God from his view of the Universe either, although in past works he certainly has. The mainstream news knows what headlines people will click on however, so I expect that is where the bent of the NBC article came from. As far as I know, he doesn’t have any argument against the idea God created the universe. He just thinks God is not necessary.

    Strangely enough he didn’t mention string theory, although of course this could have been added in the actual lecture (although I doubt it – he can’t make off the cuff comments without programming it into his speech synthesizer). He has talked about it a great deal in the past. I agree with you on string theory by the way – it still might be true, but right now it is more pure math than science.

    You state that it becomes absurd to measure a real entity using imaginary numbers. Note they are essential in quantum mechanics, which has been experimentally verified many times, so they work. They may just be a side effect of how we do math. Also, they are used to measure real entities – antimatter.

    And while you state he may be a brilliant expert in the area of physics, it is good to realize that he has been famously wrong a number of times. Assuming something is correct because Hawking says so is making an Argument from Authority, which atheists have to be careful of.

  • John Diller

    Hawking is quoted: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing ... " (http://abetterhope.blogspot.com/2010/09/stephen-hawking-gravity-made-us.html)

    Reading quotes, and articles of how Hawking gets the Universe bootstrapped without God, my impression is the general algorithm is start with a MultiVerse, that contains an infinite number of "empty universes" to each "empty universe" randomly assign its "laws of physics".

    If a particular universe contains a law of gravity within its laws of physics, then it may create something out of nothing and no longer be empty. [adding further observations, that are not necessarily from Hawking] ...

    If a large number of physical constants (that were randomly assigned to that initially empty universe), agree to about 100 decimal places of just the "right" values, then that universe may also develop life.

    Before I dissect the argument further, can anyone confirm or correct the description I have made? Is this similar to how others read Hawking?

  • Jose John Perayil

    Mass and Gravity is a reality for the Science, There is a question to
    be answered '' What made Mass became a 'matter' of life and light ?
    There is something in the Universe that is the opposite of the
    properties of Mass, that is Spirit.
    Mass attracts mass is Gravity whereas Spirit empowered Spirit is
    Anti-gravity. The cause of anti-gravity is Anti-Mass ,that is
    the Spirit. The Similarly Spirit is having ever expanding property
    which is the cause of Space,Light and Life. Mass possesses an
    anti-space property and Decreace in space increase in density. Spirit
    is creating Space and decreases in Density. Both properties are
    opposed and complimentary to each-other for the time being within the
    span of life.

    is what universe is
    Expanding in one side in the form of Light and Life ; and the other
    side Converging to Black holes and death. Those who are in the
    negative direction in the universe ,
    going away from God -The ultimate Perfection , is a negative thinker
    and they are the foolish people according to the Bible, they simply
    say there is no God , Like black hole philosephers. They won't
    understand the world of Spirit, Light and Life moving towards Heaven
    and in Heavenly relemes,

    as those who are like Albert Einstine focused on Light and dreames
    and desire for God “

  • Jesse Jimenez

    LOL ........... how do u know anything but here is a theory

  • Jesse Jimenez

    whats the temp in hell

  • Jack

    I loved these two points: "a hammer smashing a window" and "The metaphysical principle “out of nothing, nothing comes”". The basic thing I do note from many atheistic statements is deny, deny, deny, and then define God using empirical method. Lovely post.