It’s a bit pathetic to pick a fight with a dead guy, isn’t it? However, less than a month ago Stephen Hawking’s posthumously published book Brief Answers to the Big Questions came out. Question one: “Is there a God?” Answer: “No.” First sentence: “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.” That is true, in certain corners of the enlightened West, but is it necessarily a good thing? Does it necessarily mean that Science is answering the questions that used to be the province of religion well, or correctly?
This book, or at least the first chapter, irritates me. Why? Because I have a Christian faith and a scientific education, and it is effectively saying that I am wrong and/or stupid to have both. Why else? Because the book is propaganda for a rapidly growing religion: Scientism. Brief Answers to the Big Questions, like The Grand Design before it, is good science, bad philosophy, and very bad theology. And somebody needs to point this out.
Hawking isn’t around any more to argue back with me (not that he would have ever paid any attention to a blog post like this anyway), but I am sure there will be an internet furore around his book made up of atheists applauding it and people of faith replying to it, so I would like to add my own small voice to this sea of chatter and the ongoing conversation about God, science and faith.
DISCLAIMER: In case it isn’t obvious, I am not a recently deceased world renowned celebrity quantum physicist (lately my blog posts all seem to start with disclaimers). I am, however, a high school philosophy teacher, which makes me more qualified to talk about philosophy than Stephen Hawking is. I also have an Oxford doctorate in theology, which makes me much more qualified than Stephen Hawking to talk about theology. Anything else? Well, my grandfather was a nuclear physicist, my Dad is a scientist and I got an “A” in A-level Physics. So there.
The problem with Hawking’s chapter on “Is there a God?” is that in it he explains with great clarity and characteristic wittiness some very complex ideas from quantum physics and then illogically deduces some huge philosophical and theological conclusions from them, making some grave category errors on the way. He wanders away from territory in which he is extremely authoritative and knowledgable (science) into areas where it is clear that he does not understand what he is talking about (philosophy and theology), about which he knows very little. In this way his writing in this chapter is much like Richard Dawkins’s attempts at philosophy and theology in, for example, The God Delusion.
In this post I will explain why I think he is wrong.
Here’s the short version (there’s a more developed summary at the end of this post too):
In his chapter, Hawking makes some basic philosophical-theological assumptions which he just takes for granted and for which he has absolutely no evidence: he just blindly assumes them.
These unfounded assumptions are:
Assumption 1. Science will eventually be able to answer all meaningful questions.
Assumption 2. The ‘laws of nature’ have never, can never, and will never be broken.
Now let me discuss what he says in some detail by quoting Hawking and then showing where I think he is making errors in reasoning:
I will quote quite a lot of Chapter One of Brief Answers to Big Questions here, so that if you are reading this you are effectively reading that chapter too. If anyone, such as the publisher, cares about this, all they have to do is get in touch with me–though to be honest I read most of this while standing in a bookshop, and if anything I think this post could only help the book’s sales rather than hindering them.
€“Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers [than religion, to the big questions], but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
This is patronising caricacture. For example, I am part of a religion, and I also trust and understand science (up to a point). And there are plenty of scientists who are religious, including some very famous and influential ones. Some surveys have indicated that the majority of scientists are not religious, granted, but are they really nonreligious for scientific reasons, and since when did something become true or untrue simply because of the number of people that believe it? Or should we just believe there is no God because a lot of scientists don’t believe there is a God? Believing something because lots of highly regarded people say it, rather than because of being convinced of it for oneself based on evidence? Hmmm…what does that remind me of? Oh yes, one of the worst aspects of institutional organised religion!
“I do not want to give the impression that my work is about proving or disproving the existence of God.”
If this were all Hawking had to say on the matter, there would be no issue to write a polemical blog post about. However, he does later give the strong impression that he is trying to disprove the existence of God. Read on…
“My work is about finding a rational framework to understand the universe around us.”
As is the work of religion in its truest form and certainly of religious philosophy and theology. Look at the work, say, of theologian (and former atheist scientist) Alister McGrath, philosopher Alvin Plantinga or biblical scholar N.T. Wright and you find religious theologians and philosophers trying to find a rational framework to understand the universe around us–in his own way, even someone like the 20th century dogmatician Karl Barth is trying to do this!
“For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God.”
I can’t speak too well for other religions, but Christianity has never taught that (for about twenty centuries). In the gospel of John, for example, Jesus says of a disabled man born blind “neither this man sinned, nor his parents”.
“Everything can be explained another way [rather than by reference to God], by the laws of nature.”
Here I think we see our first glimpse in the chapter into the heart of Hawking’s belief system, and his second assumption above laid bare. All of his cards are on the table here. The trouble is, as Hawking later in the chapter even seems to acknowledge, the so-called “laws of nature” are a description, not an explanation, of the way the Universe is. All they do is codify, in our human language, the ways that the Universe very often and continually appears to us to behave. That is a description. It is not an explanation of why the Universe behaves in those ways–so there is one part of “everything” that they do not have explanatory power regarding: themselves.
“If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed.”
Exactly. This is a belief. To believe that these laws are always obeyed, and always have been and always will be, is unscientific and is an article of blind faith–because the spirit of scientific enquiry always keeps an open mind to anything at all happening, including these laws being sometimes broken, and modifies its observations and predictions accordingly. There is no way of checking if these laws are always obeyed because we do not have the entirety of the operations of the Universe available to us to investigate scientifically, in the past, present or future. And they may, for all we know, have not been obeyed at some point(s) in the past, not be being obeyed somewhere in the world that we can’t observe right now, and stop being obeyed tomorrow. So Hawking is quite right to say that he “believes in” these things; he takes them on faith, and I do not think he has good enough evidence to support this particular belief. This is the un-established Assumption 2 that I mentioned above.
This is the religion of Scientism: believing in Science, so that Science has taken the place of God. It is a belief system, a kind of faith, without evidence: the worst kind of belief system. Science provides no reason for why the laws of nature are as they are. Where did the laws come from? Science also provides no reason or for why they could never be broken. It is possible that they could sometimes be broken by a being who brought them about, to serve as evidence for the existence of that being.
“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.”
Another interesting concession, but what seems like a muddled one to me. I don’t see how saying the above is more of a definition of God than an argument for his existence. The religious person is not saying that the laws of nature are identical with God, but rather that God could have brought them about. So the question is no longer “Why is there something rather than nothing?” but more specifically “Why are there laws of nature rather than nothing?” A Christian suggestion is that the existence of a reality which operates according to the elegant, mathematically mappable laws of nature could be a clue that those laws were invented by an intelligent mind.
“The universe is a machine governed by principles or laws–laws that can be understood by the human mind.”
Indeed. What a beautiful piece of luck! Might this not be a suggestion that a human-like mind is behind the existence of the universe? Or is it a wonderful coincidence that the universe can be understood by the human mind? It’s so lucky that we’ve evolved to be able to comprehend it and mathematically map its movements (rather than recasting it in our own image according to the configuration of our brains which structure how we experience it). Doesn’t the “understandability” of the Universe point rather to the existence of something like a human mind being behind the Universe, rather than it all being the product of blind chance? (Cue debate about the anthropic principle.)
What’s more, the belief is that there are principles/laws which govern the universe at all times is, once again, just that: a belief. Does it have evidence supporting it? I find the language here highly interesting: The word “govern” is anthropomorphic and implies agency, as if these laws were realities that existed independently of the universe and decided how to run it. Which they are not, according to any kind of science.
“It’s these laws of nature–as we now call them–that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all.”
What?!!! How could the laws of nature possibly do that? The laws of nature are still part of the universe–part of everything that exists. In fact, they do not have an independent existence of their own; all they are is description of how things in the universe tend to behave. They are not an explanation of the universe at all. And we can still legitimately ask: Where did the laws of nature come from? Why are they as they are? Science has no way of explaining those things or answering those questions. This is the province of religion–this is one of the boundaries where science and religion both meet and diverge.
“The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present, and future.”
Actually, we know some of the past and the present and the idea that the laws will continue to work like this in the future is, again, an article of faith. There is no reason why they have to. If they do, Science has no way of explaining why they do.
“What’s important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal.”
At the risk of repeating myself, this idea would be important, but it is also completely unprovable by science.
“The laws of nature cannot be broken–that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too. If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: what role is there for God?”
Look at the language again: “accept” based on what evidence? Hawking might as well have written “believe” again. And the answer to the question “What role is there for God?” is that God can create the laws of nature, even if they do happen to be fixed (which they aren’t necessarily).
“When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, [that there is a personal God] seems most implausible.”
Words like “vast” and “insignificant” are words that the universe can’t use to describe itself, but belong to the vocabulary of a species that is advanced enough to describe it and feel a sense of awe in the face of it. Far from eliminating the idea of God, the fact that we are even here, and even able to invent words like “vast” and “insignificant” to talk about the universe and ourselves, could suggest that there is a personal God who arranged for us to turn up and to be able to think and understand things a bit like he can.
“The one remaining area that religion can now lay claim to is the origin of the universe…”
Another concession. But a meager one, and a flawed one. Here are some other areas that religion can lay claim to: the purpose of existence, reasons to be ethical towards others, art, miracles, historical evidence for religion, powerful religious experiences. Religious people do not usually believe in God just because they believe the universe needed to have been created by someone! When I’ve read Hawking, I’ve often wondered if he ever realised this.
“I have no desire to tell anyone what to believe, but for me asking if God exists is a valid question for science. After all, it is hard to think of a more important, or fundamental, mystery than what, or who, created and controls the universe.”
The “for me” is extremely telling. It all depends on what your starting points are for understanding the scope and purpose of science. For me, “fundamental mystery” is the realm of philosophy and theology, not science: Science finds answers to the mysteries that we can solve in this lifetime; philosophy and religion offer reasons in support of answers to the mysteries that we can’t (yet?).
“I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science. The basic assumption of science is scientific determinism.”
Another cards-on-the-table moment. At least Hawking admits that scientific determinism is an assumption here.
“The laws of science determine the evolution of the universe, given its state at one time. These laws may, or may not, have been decreed by God, but he cannot intervene to break the laws, or they would not be laws. That leaves God with the freedom to choose the initial state of the universe, but even here it seems there may be laws. So God would have no freedom at all.”
What sort of an argument is “he cannot intervene to break the laws or they would not be laws”? This is entirely question begging! (A phrase philosophers use to mean an argument uses circular logic). Hawking assumes that the laws can never be broken (Assumption 2, above), and then argues that the laws can never be broken on the basis of this assumption. Which makes the rest of what he says in this extract nonsense.
“Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you just need three ingredients.”
Incidentally, the three ingredients are energy, space and the laws of nature, by the way. What I want to ask here, though, is who is doing the universe-making here? Who is baking the Universe cake? The anthropomorphisation of science? God?? Stephen Hawking???
“Space and energy were spontaneously invented in an event we now call the Big Bang.”
‘Invented’ is such an interesting word! Invented by who?
“We can use the laws of nature to address the very origins of the universe, and discover if the existence of God is the only way to explain it”.
Ok, this is where Hawking really gets into the nitty gritty. Let’s pay close attention.
“If the universe adds up to nothing [i.e. can spontaneously arise because of the laws of nature], then you don’t need a God to create it.”
This is the new insight that Hawking claims to be offering since he wrote The Grand Design. But here’s the thing: Where did those laws of nature, from which the Universe spontaneously arose, come from? They either just existed, or God created them. Both are options: their existence is still unexplained by science.
“Did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur?”
Now we’re talking! That’s the question I want to ask too.
“I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation [for where the laws of nature and this the Universe came from] than a divine creator.”
But science has no explanation at all! How can a total absence of an explanation be compelling?
“The universe created itself.”
Created? There’s that anthropomorphic language again.
“You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.”
In find these sentences utterly dogmatic and that they betray the mind of an author who is ignorant of a good deal of philosophy and theology. Even my sixth form philosophers can explain that many religions think of God as eternal, in other words atemporal or outside time. God does not need to be within time to be believed in or to exist. What’s more, just because we do not observe a time-bound God creating the laws of nature that produced a universe doesn’t mean that the existence of one cannot be reasonably inferred from features of that universe.
“Do I have faith? We are each free to believe what we want…”
What I find funny is that according to scientific determinism we are not free to believe what we want! We are un-freely determined to believe certain things according to the laws of nature. Unless Hawking allows that quantum indeterminacy in our brains can account for “free will” (I’m not sure if he did or not).
“..and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God.”
Now we get to the real heart of the matter, but a lot more needs to be said in order to unpack this sentence. Unfortunately Hawking just leaves things here. But that sentence is doing an enormous amount of work–books could be written to substantiate it and to argue with it: that this is the simplest explanation has not been demonstrated here. Because: Where did the laws of nature come from? Granted, a philosophical principle such as Ockham’s razor (‘the simplest explanation involving the least number of explanatory entities is usually the right one’) might suggest that just leaving things at “the laws of nature” might be the simplest explanation of the origins of the Universe, leaving out the one ‘extra’ entity of “God”. But does this principle, which appears to apply to causal explanations of phenomena within the universe, also apply to the whole of the universe itself? Furthermore, viewed another way, God (whom some theologians spend great amounts of time explaining as ‘simple’ in nature) is a simpler explanation for the origins of the universe than the complexities of the laws of nature. And we may still ask: Where did the laws of nature come from?
Either the laws of nature are just there (in Bertrand Russell’s famous words, “the Universe is just there”) and that’s all there is to be said about the matter, or there was a God who created them who is just there. Either way, there is mystery. Both atheist scientist determinists and religious people (some of whom are scientists too) have to deal with mystery. And it could very well be the case that the laws of nature were created, and that their creator has put signs, wonders and clues into his creation to point towards his existence, primarily by entering into his creation himself, dying and rising again. You may disagree. But please do not think that the explanatory possibility of God has been eliminated just because science can now explain how a universe could spontaneously arise from the laws of nature. The laws of nature still need to be explained by the mystery of God, or they are themselves a mystery. Both are valid options.
One more thing on this. Hawking says that because the laws of nature are as they are, the universe can “spontaneously create itself from nothing”. But all the laws of nature are is descriptions of how the universe frequently operates. Therefore, there actually has to be a Universe in order for laws of nature to be operant. All it means to say that there were laws of nature at the origins of the universe is that as soon as the universe began to exist, we can hypothesise, it was behaving according to certain laws. But how are we to know that those laws existed “before” the Universe came to exist i.e. when there was “nothing” for them to operate on? What was there for them to apply to? How can we know that the laws of nature predate the existence of the universe when there was nothing observable to show they existed, except the eventual appearance of the universe? Better, I think, to say that the instant the universe appeared from nothing it was operating according to certain laws which can model how something can appear from nothing–it makes no sense to say that those laws could have existed independently prior to the appearance of the universe. So it still makes sense to ask where the universe, and those laws, came from. Maybe someone will explain to me that I am wrong on this one, but I find this to be another fallacy in Hawking’s reasoning.
“No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust.”
There is evidence for an afterlife, and to decide in these pages whether it was reliable or not Hawking would have to consider it here, which he does not do at all. And the evidence does not fly in the face of everything we know in science. Because science is very good at describing how nature very frequently behaves, but it has no way of proving that nature must always behave in this way all of the time. Dead bodies do not usually rise to suggest that there is an afterlife, granted, but they have done sometimes, and in particular they did in the case of Jesus Christ, who demonstrated there was an afterlife by dying and being raised again from the dead, as has been historically documented. Not everyone will be convinced by the evidence, but please at least examine the evidence–don’t just dismiss it because of blind faith in Scientism.
In summary, here are some more accurate and even briefer answers to some of the big questions which Hawking examines:
Did the Universe spontaneously appear because the laws of nature are as they are?
Quite possibly, as we now have a scientific theory that explains how this is possible.
Do we yet have any ways of explaining why it is that the laws of nature are as they are or where they came from?
If there is a God, could he have created the laws of nature to be as they are?
Yes. And arguably a “God” is a simpler and more elegant fundamental starting point for explaining everything that is in existence than the laws of nature are.
Is there any scientific evidence that the Universe must always operate according to certain laws that can never be broken?
No. All we see is that the Universe very frequently follows these laws. But there is no reason why it should always do so, and there are well substantiated reports of it sometimes breaking these laws. It could be possible that a being who created these laws of nature could sometimes break them in order to provide evidence, signs and clues of his existence for those who are willing to believe in him.
Is there a God?
Maybe. (I believe it, based on evidence.)