Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, has received a lot of press, and much of it seems to be focusing on the claim that God is not necessary for the universe to exist. What is interesting about this press coverage is two-fold; one, that many people seem to mistake exactly what it is that Hawking is claiming and two, they overlook that he has made the same claim for over twenty years now.
Back in 1988, Stephen Hawking wrote in A Brief History of Time, “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason: for then we should know the mind of God.” But it is clear that he only meant “God” in a metaphorical sense, because that same year he told Der Spiegel, “What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.” There you have it: what is today being called Hawking’s new claim is actually a more thorough explanation of claims he made over twenty years ago!
In 2002, he told Reason magazine, “We shouldn’t be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics.” Here he has clarified that “god” for him is metaphor, or at most a pantheistic god (a god that is identical to the universe), such as that believed by Spinoza or Einstein. Although he told New Scientist in 2007, “I’m not religious in the normal sense. I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” Here sort of verging on deism (the idea that God created the world, but then never returned to it).
Okay, so maybe Hawking wavers a little bit with his wording on God and his religious views. He is not a theologian, but a scientist, and his science has stayed remarkably consistent. He is also not a philosopher, as he starts his book by saying that “philosophy is dead… has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” [Hawking: 5] And that is just simply not true, as philosophers of science or language will tell you.
But his real claim is a scientific one. The universe or multiverse “does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.” [Hawking: 9]
Hawking knows that life can only exist with every little thing being perfect: the temperature, the atmosphere, the distance from the Sun, etc. “Many people would like us to use these coincidences (that the universe exists in just such a way as to support life) as evidence of the work of God.” [Hawking: 163] While it is true that any of a number of minute changes in physical law would not be conducive to human life, it does not mean that a creator is necessary or even suggested. Different physical law could have given rise to different life. Or, no life could have been created at all. We have to think of it like this: the universe exists as it does, therefore we can exist. Instead, we tend to think: we exist, therefore the universe must have been this way. To think as we do suggests we think that the role of the universe is to support human life. Why do we think we are so special?
“Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation.” [Hawking: 165] But today, we know why things are as they are. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” [Hawking: 180]
History has been shifting in a materialist direction for centuries, and Hawking is but the latest big name. Once, God reigned supreme, as evidenced by the words of Thomas Aquinas: “It is clear that (inanimate bodies) reach their end not by chance but by intention… There is therefore, an intelligent personal being by whom everything in nature is ordered to its end.” Some people today may accept “intelligent design”, but the basic statement Aquinas makes here is discredited: we know objects are moved by inertia, gravity and other forces. We can predict with great accuracy where they will travel, without any need for intent or chance.
Hawking, along with Richard Dawkins, have continued the line of thought (scientific determinism) begun by Laplace (1749-1827) who believed, “Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God.” [Hawking: 30] They also owe a debt to LaMettrie, who went against Descartes’ dualism and called man nothing more than a machine. Extreme at the time, a great many people today accept this — modern medicine relies on the fact that the human body is physical and had interchangeable parts.
Although Heisenberg had spoken out against determinism after developing quantum theory, Hawking feels the two can coincide just fine, we just have to accept determinism in a new form. “Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.” [Hawking: 72] He also accepts that brains are physical, so there is no place for the “will” in science.
Hawking returns to his “dead” philosophy when he says, “if the answer (to life’s big questions) is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God.” [Hawking: 172] To avoid this, we can avoid asking who created the universe by simply saying the universe is and always has been. As I had laid out in another article on the topic of Ockham’s Razor, if we can explain the universe as either always existing or created, the former is the more succinct and likely answer. Hawking seems to follow this line of reasoning, though in his own terminology.
“One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist,” says Hawking. “But science makes God unnecessary. The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator.” And this is the key: Hawking does not say that God does not exist, but merely that He need not exist. While one may wonder where God fits in to a universe that is governed only by physical laws, the important thing here is that God remains the great unknown.
Conclusion, and Question
Hawking has reduced the amount of the universe that God has to play with, a scientific venture that hs been going on for some time. And, for the most part, he is probably right: science does explain more each day, giving us less “need” for God. And yet, he cannot rule out God completely, because God is a such a being that we cannot truly know Him empirically. But then, he makes some claims that should shock even scientifically-minded amateurs:
“Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing. But a whole universe can.” [Hawking: 180] Why? Why can the universe violate the “nothing is created or destroyed” principle, and why can universes expand faster than the speed of light, as he claims elsewhere? He does not go into depth on this, and for me, it throws his whole argument into question. Surely we do not wish to bring God back in if we do not have to, but can such seemingly anti-physical law statements be made with such a cavalier attitude?
The science and religion debate is not dead (and neither is philosophy).
Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design Bantam Books, 2010.