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Who Lit the Blue Touch Paper? God, Hawking, and the Big Bang

3 February, 2011

If you are interested in science and religion then it will probably not have escaped your attention that Stephen Hawking, arguably the most famous scientist in the world, has recently written a new book (co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow), entitled The Grand Design. A number of commentators highlighted the physicist’s supposed shift in thinking from a position that theoretically left the door open to the possibility of there being a creator (when he hinted in A Brief History of Time that scientific developments might help us to “know the mind of God”), to now saying that a deity is no longer needed as an explanation for the universe, because the physical laws of nature themselves can explain how everything here began. Although his earlier reference to a creator was almost certainly meant in a metaphorical sense, this latest work leaves the reader in no doubt about his position, as he says “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going”.

What, then, should Christians to make this latest pronouncement? Is this, as some of the marketing has suggested, yet another nail in the coffin of religious belief or is there more to this than meets the eye? The most obvious problem with attempting to answer this, is that most people are completely out of their depth when it comes to trying to understand or evaluate this kind of science. Theoretical physics is a specialized and complex discipline that few have grasped and even the terminology itself is alien to most people. The Grand Design, for example, relies upon M-theory, a so-called “theory of everything”, which postulates that the building blocks of sub-atomic particles are vibrating “strings” that operate in eleven separate dimensions. If this all sounds a bit complex, you may or may not be reassured by the often-quoted saying that “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Given the nature of the discipline, therefore, it is extremely important to exercise a great deal of caution when trying to evaluate the work, although fortunately there have been a number of responses from both religious and non-religious academics alike.

One of the statements in the book that has provoked the greatest reaction is the claim that

Philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

John Lennox describes this as “scientistic hubris”, whilst William Lane Craig suggests that

The professional philosopher will regard their verdict as not merely condescending, but also as outrageously naïve. The man who claims to have no need of philosophy is the one most apt to be fooled by it.
William Lane Craig

Although no one would deny that spectacular advances in our understanding have been made by science and, importantly, that these do sometimes confound the philosophers, the main problem with this suggestion, argues Craig, is that the most important conclusions of The Grand Design are themselves philosophical. He suggests that the reason behind this sleight of hand is that it allows the authors “to cloak their amateurish philosophizing with the mantle of scientific authority and so avoid the hard work of actually arguing for, rather than merely asserting, their philosophical viewpoints.”

But, he continues, the problems go deeper than this, because the authors are claiming that ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.’ The first issue with this statement is that they are clearly not referring to “nothing” as we would understand the term, but are instead meaning a quantum vacuum. If it truly were nothing, says Craig, then it could not be constrained and there would be no more reason to expect a universe to pop out of it than, for example, a bicycle. Nor does the work, therefore, address why there is something instead of nothing. The second problem is that the statement is logically incoherent. Lennox points out that it is all very well to state that X can bring Y into existence, but they are instead making the tautological argument that Y is in some way responsible for the creation of itself.

Another issue with this is that they are offering a false set of alternatives, it is either God or the laws of physics. Lennox points out that this is a category mistake akin to asking us to choose between Frank Whittle and the laws of physics, in order to explain the jet engine. This would be an error, because there are two levels of explanation that are both needed, agency and mechanism. The latter, such as the laws of nature, may be able tell you what will happen if you hit a snooker ball across a table, but, as Lennox explains, they won’t create the table or the cue in the first place. As Rowan Williams has stressed, “Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.” Instead, as Lennox points out, “atheist scientists are forced to ascribe creative powers to less and less credible candidates like mass/energy and the laws of nature.”

Nevertheless, even if you were to find a “natural” explanation for the process, this would not rule out God, as Alister McGrath pointed out on Channel 4 news. He stressed that if you emphasise the importance of the laws of nature then:

You are really inviting the obvious question of where did these come from, why are they so reassuringly fine-tuned to values that led to the existence of life? That itself requires explanation and therefore the debate is just shifted back one step.
Alister McGrath, Channel 4 News

Furthermore, the idea that scientific developments render the explanatory power of a creator redundant is based on the assumption that believers adopt a “God of the Gaps” approach to science. This is when you invoke God to explain the things you don’t understand (such as how life began, for example) and, therefore, as scientific knowledge advances there is less and less to ascribe to the power of a deity. Although there are certainly some who may adopt this kind of approach, it would be misleading to suggest that most Christians believe because of what they don’t know, rather than what they do. Similarly, it is therefore incorrect to claim that you have to choose between science and God, or that one side has the evidence and the other relies on blind faith. This is especially pertinent when addressing The Grand Design, because, as Roger Penrose pointed out on Premier Christian Radio, M-theory is hardly even science. He argues that it is better to view it as “a collection of ideas, hopes, [and] aspirations.” This is because “it’s not even a theory” and “the book is a bit misleading in that respect. It gives you the impression that here is this new theory that is going to explain everything. It’s nothing of the sort.

Rather than this representing mainstream science, therefore, Jim Al-Khalili points out that critics of the theory “have been sharpening their knives for a few years now”, because it is untestable experimentally. So it is certainly premature to be putting too much weight on the idea, especially as Hawking himself admitted on Larry King’s TV show that he’d like to be able to travel forward in time to find out whether M-theory is indeed a “theory of everything”.

The New Scientist perhaps summed it up best, therefore, when it concluded, “Until there is empirical evidence for M-theory, Hawking’s suggestion that it has all the answers is just a matter of faith.

So why have such grand claims been made about the book? Craig points out that, in terms of content, the book actually doesn’t even contain much that Hawking has not already said, nor does it deal with many of the criticisms that have been aimed at his earlier theories. Perhaps the most conspicuous omission, he suggests, is the failure to deal with Roger Penrose’s argument (in The Road to Reality) that if the Many Worlds Hypothesis for explaining the universe is correct, then it is far more probable that we should be observing a much different universe than what we do.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a doctorate in physics to work out that any marketing department worth its salt would realize that emphasizing that God is not required as an explanation for the universe would help to create controversy and that this would inevitably translate into the sale of books. This is not to cast any doubt on the motivations of the authors, who are certainly trying to ascertain the truth, but when it comes to marketing, as Graham Farmello points out “It seems to be a fundamental law of PR that the God-science debate is a sure-fire source of publicity. Always welcome when one has a book to sell.” Alister McGrath confirmed this on Channel 4 News when he said that “A publisher said to me the other day that if you want to sell a book make sure (a) it’s about God and (b) it rubbishes God.” He went on to stress that he wasn’t convinced that The Grand Design was trying to do this, but that “we have to be aware that there is a sort of cultural climate within which this debate is taking place.

Being alert to the wider context is certainly wise advice when it comes to evaluating the claims of anything that is written (or said, for that matter). Though not speaking about this title, Roger Penrose mentioned on Premier Christian Radio, that there are lots of ideas that are passed off as “science,” and that it is not uncommon for books intended for a popular readership to over-simplify the ideas or to over-play the significance of a particular finding or theory.

It is, however, certainly safe to say that The Grand Design is a brilliant attempt to try and answer some of the most interesting questions about life but, as Craig argues, given the “desperation and/or irrelevancy” of their preferred ways of escaping the strongest arguments for God “their book turns out to be quite supportive of the existence of a transcendent Creator and Designer of the cosmos.” Lennox, therefore concludes, that “Hawking’s fusillade will not shake the foundations of an intelligent faith that is based on the cumulative evidence of science, history, the biblical narrative and personal experience.

For a more comprehensive response to The Grand Design see the newly released God and Stephen Hawking by John Lennox (published by Lion Hudson).

The ideas represented in this article have been heavily influenced by the following sources:

Author Biography:

Simon Wenham

Simon Wenham works primarily as a Research Coordinator for John Lennox. He also oversees the Zacharias Trust’s Pulse magazine and is currently studying part-time for a history DPhil at the University of Oxford.

Read more posts by Author: Simon Wenham

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