Stephen Hawking His Atheism
Science reporters are creating sensationalist headlines about Stephen Hawking claiming there is no God. His new book has a title, The Grand Design, that sounds theistic but in fact claims that God is not necessary because our existence is a consequence of the law of gravity.
The headlines like PhysOrg’s “God did not create Universe: Hawking” or the BBC News quotelet, “Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe” are misleading because this is not a new position or discovery by the ALS-afflicted physicist, but more of a restatement of his beliefs elucidated in his 10-year-old best seller, A Brief History of Time. Roger Highfield in New Scientist says, “Hawking hasn’t changed his mind about God.” In fact, his beliefs are as old as Einstein’s, and Spinoza’s, who believed that whatever we mean by “God” is just a restatement of the laws of physics. Einstein famously said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” Hawking told Highfield, “If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.” One thing that is new is that Hawking appears to have abandoned the hope that mankind would come up with a “theory of everything” as promised in A Brief History of Time.
Craig Callender, writing for “Culture Lab” at New Scientist, had perhaps the most nuanced coverage of the latest Hawking-atheism claim. Reviewing The Grand Design, Callender was doubtful Hawking had achieved his goal of removing a personal, intervening God from the universe. For one thing, Hawking appears to have cast his dice on M-theory, a future hope for a reality that is only partly glimpsed by various string theories. M-theory can also mean the set of all current string theories. For another, Hawking’s confidence relies on an unknowable multiverse. Callender elaborated,
M-theory in either sense is far from complete. But that doesn’t stop the authors from asserting that it explains the mysteries of existence: why there is something rather than nothing, why this set of laws and not another, and why we exist at all. According to Hawking, enough is known about M-theory to see that God is not needed to answer these questions. Instead, string theory points to the existence of a multiverse, and this multiverse coupled with anthropic reasoning will suffice. Personally, I am doubtful.
Take life. We are lucky to be alive. Imagine all the ways physics might have precluded life: gravity could have been stronger, electrons could have been as big as basketballs and so on. Does this intuitive “luck” warrant the postulation of God? No. Does it warrant the postulation of an infinity of universes? The authors and many others think so. In the absence of theory, though, this is nothing more than a hunch doomed – until we start watching universes come into being – to remain untested and untestable. The lesson isn’t that we face a dilemma between God and the multiverse, but that we shouldn’t go off the rails at the first sign of coincidences.
Calendar’s critical thinking was refreshing from the other articles’ regurgitations of the Hawking view, but he failed to identify what he meant by “the rails” that he thinks Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow got off of. Where do the rails begin? Where do they end? What direction are they headed? How does one know that one is on or off?
Even more alarming, Calendar asserted that Hawking’s position risks perspectivalism – an anti-realist ontology that asserts multiple independent views of reality are possible, each one model-dependent, each one hopelessly incomplete. “This radical theory holds that there doesn’t exist, even in principle, a single comprehensive theory of the universe,” Callender explained. “Instead, science offers many incomplete windows onto a common reality, one no more ‘true’ than another.” This philosophy, he warned, leads to “an alarming anti-realism” that would seem to preclude any defensible position by Hawking or anyone else, because “not only does science fail to provide a single description of reality, they say, there is no theory-independent reality at all.” Indeed, it sounds indistinguishable from postmodern relativism. What may be true for Hawking would not be true for you or me, so why even do science?
Hawking’s assumption that laws of nature will produce guaranteed results may be vulnerable to falsification, undermining much of his world view. The Economist printed an eye-opening story that suggests the fine-structure constant, itself dependent on several physical constants, may vary from place to place in the universe, contrary to the assumptions of most physicists for centuries. If so, it has other consequences – that measurements of the universe’s age and distance scale might also vary, and that humans might occupy an even more privileged location in the cosmos than previously acknowledged. Sounds like a “Grand Design” beyond Hawking’s limited view. For more of a taste on what cosmologists can and cannot know, see the debate about dark energy theory in New Scientist, “Void that is truly empty solves dark energy puzzle.” (If you thought a void was empty by definition, it takes a theoretical physicist to provide the necessary circumlocution.) Surprises in cosmology in just the last decade should make it seem dubious that any living cosmologist has a firm grip on reality.
You may have noticed that we added a long-overdue “Philosophy” chain link. Many of our entries over the past decade have needed this tag. Perhaps some day a volunteer can help add it to the back issues where appropriate. It will include philosophy of science, history and sociology of science, and related topics that do not necessarily invoke theology (though it is arguable that philosophy, logic and reason themselves cannot be isolated from the presupposition of an all-wise, independent, immutable Mind). A good lecture series that explores perspectivalism as a running theme in the history of science and philosophy is the Teaching Company product Science Wars by Steven Goldman (see Resource of the Week for Dec. 19, 2009).
A simple principle can make you wiser than Stephen Hawking. Not necessarily smarter, but wiser. It’s the ability to spot the self-refuting fallacy and its relatives: arbitrary beliefs, begging the question and unargued presuppositions. While Hawking was busy typing away on his speech synthesizer telling us God is out of a job because the laws of nature will do all the work, he was invoking mind, reason, logic and intelligence. None of those are laws of nature. They deal in the rational realm of concepts. What’s more, the concept of a “law of nature” is loaded with questions begging for answers: are laws of nature decrees of God, or mere observed patterns in experience? In what realm do laws of nature exist, and how do they impress their will on mindless reality? What do we mean by the fine word “nature” in the first place? Hawking cannot employ a concept he cannot justify.
Even more devastating to Hawking’s view is that he started with something – laws of nature and a multiverse – instead of nothing. Then he had the gall to tell us it explains why there is something instead of nothing. The late Francis Schaeffer reminded his students that theists can turn the tables on atheists who love to invoke the “Who made God?” argument by pushing back on the “something” that they typically presume already existed: e.g., where did the laws of nature come from? Where did gravity come from? Where did the multiverse come from? Schaeffer insisted that secularists cannot tell us that the universe came from nothing unless they mean nothing nothing: no laws, no fields, no quantum energy, no categories, no mind, no evolution – really nothing. He would illustrate it by drawing a circle on a blackboard and announcing that within the circle was everything that is. Then he would erase the circle. Stephen Hawking’s failure to go all the way back is the latest incarnation of the “Get your own dirt” joke (see Humor Page).
Once again, Hawking and his followers cannot defend their world view without stealing goods from the Judeo-Christian smorgasbord. One cannot get something from nothing nothing, and if something material pre-existed, it cannot be eternal by the law of entropy. Also once again, the evidence for creation (suggested by their “anthropic reasoning” and Callender’s amazement at our luck at being alive, as if “pure dumb luck” constitutes a scientific explanation) is overwhelmingly evident to everyone. For all his brains and education, therefore, Stephen Hawking is a fool (“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”) for ignoring the abundant evidence for God (Romans 1:16-22). A fool is arbitrary or inconsistent, or both. As such, a fool can prove anything, and therefore can prove opposite things. That’s what fools do (see Alice in Wonderland and 04/26/2010). If you understand this, and are therefore wiser than Hawking, help him and his followers gain some wisdom. How? Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Pray also for Stephen Hawking. The Lord has been longsuffering with the poor sophoxymoroniac (02/02/2008 commentary), whose disease normally would have taken his life many years ago. Pray that he will see the light in time. Wouldn’t it be great to imagine him fully restored to perfect health in heaven?