Commentary: Stephen Hawking’s junk science atheism

Commentary by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

World-famous physics professor Stephen Hawking is making waves and headlines by claiming in his new book, The Grand Design, that God is not necessary to explain the existence of the universe because, in his words, "as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing."

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," he adds. "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

Although the book is not yet available to the public and only a few paragraphs have been quoted in the commercial media, it appears that Hawking is playing the same game he played in his celebrated work, A Brief History of Time, which established his fame in the 1980s and has sold millions of copies worldwide. He takes theories that he admits are unproven, then uses verbal sleight of hand to begin treating them subtly as fact. Even worse, however, is his method of spinning ludicrous philosophical conclusions from such theories, implying that they simply follow from the science.

Hawking makes hay out of the theory of the "vacuum fluctuation" to imply that matter can simply spontaneously appear, created out of "nothing." A vacuum fluctuation is an event in which the forces of nature manifest themselves briefly as "virtual particles," so briefly they cannot be directly observed, and then disappear. Such theoretical entities seem to be well supported by experimental evidence. However, physics has not abandoned the principle of the conservation of mass and energy, and the "nothing" that such particles receive their mass from is in fact something very real, known as "vacuum energy," which permeates all of space.

"Quantum cosmologists," such as Hawking, have made a cottage industry out of speculating that events like vacuum fluctuations could result in the creation of entirely new worlds, although they have no direct experimental proof of such events occurring. This is in keeping with Hawking’s general obsession with highly theoretical constructs that have little hard data to support them. He has, for example, spent many years theorizing on the properties of black holes, entities whose very existence remains unproven. This is why, despite his great fame and unquestioned ability, he has never received the Nobel Prize in physics.

In his latest bid for publicity, Hawking appears to be employing his usual shell-game verbiage to imply the "spontaneous" appearance of the physical world, with Nothing itself as a creator. His theory emphasizes vacuum fluctuations, but it apparently slips his mind that the law of conservation of energy remains an axiom of physics. He defines "nothing" in a very peculiar way — apparently the energy of the vacuum is "nothing." Moreover, Hawking cites two particular "nothings" to justify his something-from-nothing theory, which are the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics (the laws governing microphysical particles). He says that these laws make such events possible. Are gravity and quantum-physical laws "nothing"?

Hawking’s current statements are similar to those he made in his Brief History of Time, where he tried to imply that the universe came out of nothing because research suggests that the positive and negative energy of the universe balance each other out. Gravity, which is an attractive force, is understood as "negative energy," and the expansive movement of the universe is seen as "positive energy."

Of course, if you add together a negative number and positive number whose absolute values are equal, you get zero, but so what? Are we to conclude that because these two variables sum to nothing, that they had their origin in nothing, or perhaps that they don’t even exist because they cancel each other out? If so, how could one place them as terms in the equation in the first place? Hawking never bothers to answer basic questions like that, apparently hoping that his naive and sympathetic audience won’t ask them.


Selective science?

While making selective use of new and untested theories to make his case, Hawking conveniently forgets to mention that the most commonly-accepted interpretation of quantum physics has a tendency to dramatically undermine his position. That interpretation is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), popularized by Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr. The CI postulates that particles don’t really exist until they are observed — they only exist in a potential way, as probabilities. Indeed, if one is to take the ultra-empiricist position that Hawking takes, in which perception and reality are naively equated, this is the most logical conclusion one can draw from modern quantum physics, which uses probabilities to address the trade-off between the precision of our knowledge about the location and momentum of particles.

However, if it is true that particles don’t exist until they are observed, then human beings themselves would not exist, and therefore the whole universe would not exist, unless there were a non-physical observer outside of the universe causing it to exist. This is one reason that some physicists who initially embraced the CI because it dovetailed with their empiricist worldview, have backed away from it. They don’t like the conclusions it tends to lead them to. The non-physical observer outside of the universe, causing it to exist by observing it, sounds too much like God.

Not surprisingly, Hawking has rejected the CI in favor of another, less popular interpretation called the "many worlds" interpretation. According to Hawking’s own review of the book, he applies this interpretation of quantum physics as if it is something that flows out of the science itself, rather than being an unproven (and currently unprovable) supposition that is rejected by large numbers of physicists. He then uses this fanciful theory, which claims that every quantum event spawns new, alternate universes where all possibilities are realized, to reject the strong anthropic principle, which argues that the fine-tuning of the universe suggests the existence of a Creator. Hawking argues that with so many parallel worlds, one is bound to be friendly to life, and so no further explanation is needed.


Natural science vs philosophy and religion

However, the errors in Hawking’s thinking run deeper than the inconsistencies and speculations in his use of modern physics. They imply a fundamental misunderstanding about the differences between the natural sciences and the sciences of philosophy and theology. While the natural sciences can give answers to questions about the precise nature of physical objects and their behavior, they cannot answer questions about the origins of the physical world itself, which is an area addressed by metaphysical philosophy, theology, and religion.

In fact, Hawking openly characterizes his new book as a challenge to philosophy itself, claiming that modern physics is capable of answering all of the questions addressed by the philosophic sciences, thus rendering the latter obsolete.

The absurdity and arrogance of such a proposition is immediately obvious when one considers that physics and other physical sciences don’t have non-physical reality as their subject matter. Physics studies physical things. It doesn’t study purely abstract concepts according to their nature, like the formal sciences of logic, mathematics, and geometry – which are ironically sciences on which physics depends. Physics therefore cannot tell us about the origin of all physical things, which would take it to an extra-physical realm outside of its own sphere of competence.

Hawking’s incredible naiveté and ignorance about the nature of philosophy and its relation to the natural sciences becomes evident when reading his Brief History of Time, which makes embarrassing blunders about Aristotle, even claiming that he denied the validity of the senses (he is famous for affirming the opposite). However, Hawking’s seemingly total ignorance about philosophy also leads him to breathtaking errors in reasoning, which would inspire pity in the reader if it weren’t for the fact that he will never be held accountable for them.

Hawking and his fellow-travelers want to attribute the beginning of the universe to physical laws, while ignoring the issue of their source. A law is a concept, a principle, it is not a physical thing. How do such laws exist without a lawgiver? How do concepts exist without a mind to conceive them? If so, where and how do they exist? Are they floating around in the mythical ether?

More problematical is the very existence of things that do not exist by their nature. There is nothing necessary about the laws of physics as we find them, nor the physical objects of our universe and their properties. We can conceive of an infinite number of possible universes, each with their own set of laws, objects, and internal conditions. So why does this universe exist and not others? If others exist, why do they exist instead of not existing? This is known in philosophy as the contingency problem, and it is one that physics cannot begin to answer. The finite things of our world do not exist by any internal necessity. Therefore they must depend on something else for their existence, and ultimately all things must depend on a being that exists by its very nature, that exists per se. Christians, Jews, Muslims and others call that being God.

Other philosophical problems arise with Hawking’s belief in "spontaneous," uncaused events. Although the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is a fundamental element of quantum physics, requires scientists to use theories of probability and "randomness" when creating mathematical models of the physical world, this does not translate automatically to the conclusion that the world is truly, metaphysically random, and lacking in design.

Randomness is a meaningless concept without a preexisting probability function to define it, along with rules and objects to which it applies. Moreover, randomness itself is only a way of dealing with a lack of complete knowledge about a set of circumstances, much as we deal with a deck of cards that has been shuffled. The idea that the world could be the product of some primordial "randomness" and fundamentally uncaused is absurd on its face, and flies in the nature of science itself, which is the study of causes and principles. If the existence of the universe can be "random" and uncaused, so can any event that takes place within it, which would utterly eliminate science, and the ability to rationally understand the world we live in.

Hawking’s thought is symptomatic of the disciplinary hubris that often overcomes academics, especially physicists and other practitioners of the natural sciences, who forget that their respective fields are, after all, limited. The natural sciences in particular seem to attract large numbers of people who are convinced that only physical reality exists, despite the massive edifice of arguments that have been raised against such a worldview for over 2,300 years by philosophy and theology. They are often laboring under the most primitive kinds of philosophical errors, especially empiricism, a long-refuted doctrine that lives on only in the naive minds of otherwise brilliant scientists, whose myopic vision of the world drives them to great achievements in their own fields, while leading them to utter failure in answering the great questions of life.

Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife whom he left to marry his young nurse, probably put it best when she said of her husband, "Stephen has the feeling that because everything is reduced to a rational, mathematical formula, that must be the truth. He is delving into realms that really do matter to thinking people and, in a way, that can have a very disturbing effect on people — and he’s not competent."

Unfortunately, this brilliant physicist and incompetent philosopher is likely to have quite a disturbing effect on our already confused society, unless other, more responsible physicists raise their voices. Let us hope they do.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Religion and Science: Conflict or Harmony?

Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in May 2009 for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, reports Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Francis S. Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project, discussed why he believes religion and science are compatible and why the current conflict over evolution vs. faith, particularly in the evangelical community, is unnecessary. Collins, an evangelical Christian, talked about his path from atheism to Christianity and his belief that science provides evidence of God. He cited the Big Bang theory and the fact that the universe had a beginning out of nothing. He added that the laws of physics have precisely the values needed for life to occur on earth and argued that would seem to point to a creator.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the religion correspondent for National Public Radio, discussed how the brain reacts to spiritual experiences. She talked about the current debate over whether transcendent experiences are merely physiological events or whether they reflect encounters with another dimension. Bradley Hagerty said she believes that “God is a choice,” that people can look at scientific evidence and conclude that everything is explained by material means or that they can look at the universe and see the hand of God.

To read the event transcript, click here.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


The passing of the infamous Abortion Law Reform Bill by the Victorian Legislative Assembly marks a day of shame in the history of human rights in the State of Victoria, says Ken Orr, the spokesperson for Right to Life New Zealand Inc. The first duty of the State is to protect the right to life of all of its citizens. It has a special duty to protect the lives of the weak and defenceless in society. The State has an overwhelming interest and duty to protect the lives of its future citizens. The unborn child is a member of the human family and is the weakest and most defenceless member of society. The Bill also denies the personhood of the unborn child. We should remember that it was the denial of the personhood of the Negro that gave the world slavery and the denial of the personhood of the Jew that gave us the holocaust. It is the denial of the personhood of the unborn that is giving us the abortion holocaust.

Human rights are conferred by our Creator, not by the State or by the community. The unborn child is a bearer of human rights. At conception the unborn child is conferred with an inalienable right to life. and should be accorded the respect due to the human person. The passing of this Bill entails the State withdrawing its legal protection for the human rights of the unborn child. It is now no longer a crime to kill an unborn child. This is a violation of the rights of the child. It is also a violation of the human rights of the mother who has a right to have the protection of the State for herself and for her child. The Bill is thus an attack on the dignity of women and of motherhood. The Bill is falsely touted as an empowering victory for women, it is not, it represents further oppression. A woman distressed with an unplanned pregnancy deserves from the community love, compassion and help, not assistance to destroy her child.

The Bill will encourage the further exploitation and abuse of women. Studies have linked abortion to increased substance abuse, suicide and psychiatric ill health. Studies conducted overseas reveal that 64% of women who have an abortion are coerced by the father of the child, family and friends. This Bill will further encourage men to coerce women into having an abortion against their will with threats of abandonment and violence in order to reject their responsibilities for the mother and the child they have fathered.

The Bill is also a violation of the conscience of doctors. The Bill makes it obligatory for a doctor whose conscience is opposed to abortion to refer the women seeking an abortion to another doctor who is prepared to destroy the child. The unborn child is a patient; a doctor has a duty to do no harm and maintain the utmost respect for human life from the moment of conception. This Bill is a threat to the lives of the unborn of every other State and New Zealand.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Backlash erupts against Christian opponents of proposed constitution.

QUITO, Ecuador, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Catholic authorities report death threats and several acts of vandalism of church property in response to church opposition to several articles in Ecuador’s proposed new constitution.

In the port city of Guayaquil, a group of people were reported to have entered a chapel, grabbed the eucharistic host, tore it apart, spat on it and stepped on it.

That vandalism was reportedly the third that has occurred in recent weeks as frustrated supporters of ruling socialist party Alianza PAIS lash out at the Catholic Church for criticizing their newly-proposed constitution. Similar desecrations were reported in recent weeks at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Nobol and the Church of the Holy Supper in Guayaquil.

Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Guayaquil has received numerous death threats, as has pro-life leader Amparo Medina, who recently received a dead rat inside of a shoebox with a note attached that read “death to pro-lifers.” In addition, the president of the Never Impunity Movement (Movimiento Impunidad Jamás) has called for the archbishop’s arrest and “preventative imprisonment” because of the church’s opposition to the constitution.

María Morán Bajaña, the movement’s president, said that the church’s campaign was a step back in time and was an improper role for church leadership.

The Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference said that the church would not officially campaign against the document but would alert the Ecuadorian people to several provisions that it called “non-negotiable.”

In particular, church officials have said that they disagreed with provisions that could allow for abortions and homosexual unions as well as the concentration of power in the president’s hands.

The national assembly that debated the new document’s 444 articles had wrestled with those topics for weeks, weighing possible outcomes if the church decided to openly oppose it and call for a “no” vote in the referendum. Pro-life groups had demonstrated in front of the assembly hall as the issue was debated.

The church chose, however, not to officially campaign against the constitution but to raise its concern about some of the articles, as well as call for education in churches about the controversial issues. Nearly 90 percent of Ecuadorians consider themselves Roman Catholic.

In “themes such as abortion, the family, education and religious liberty, the bishops of Ecuador decided to discuss those points in the light of pronouncements by Pope Benedict XVI,” said Archbishop Arregui, president of the Ecuadorian Bishops’ Conference.

Arregui criticized the draft document, saying the language on abortion is ambiguous. He said that the new constitution did not clearly define life as beginning at conception nor denote family as consisting of a man and a woman, but rather allowed for non-traditional family types.

“A union between homosexuals is not a family,” Arregui argued.


Religious Freedom

Protestant leaders have also lined up in opposition to some of the document’s provisions.

Pastors Francisco Loor and Nelson Zavala have charged that at least 200 of the constitution’s articles are “immoral.” They also challenged President Rafael Correa’s description of church opposition as antiquated.

Government officials, including Correa, have sharply criticized church leaders for their position and accused unnamed priests of disseminating erroneous information in sermons about the documents.

“This is a constitution that defends life,” Correa said. “The text is clear. The rest is simply ignorance or bad faith to keep on playing the games of those groups who want power.”

Augusto Barrera, coordinator between the Executive and the Constituent Assembly, said, “It is not true that the constitution favors abortion. It undoubtedly and clearly protects life and establishes protection and care from the very beginning, that is, conception.”

He also accused the church of being linked to opposition organizations that opposed Correa and his friendship with leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Correa also has questioned the church’s position concerning religious liberty in the document.

“The new constitution recognizes a person’s right to practice, keep, change or profess his religion in public or in private and to share it with others,” he said.

Arregui said the church is concerned about freedom of religion and the right of the church to operate freely.

“We will not enter into a discussion with the president nor limit our right of free expression, including the expression of our religious beliefs,” he said. “We will work to influence the Christian conscience about these issues. Each citizen is free to make his own conclusions about how they ought to vote.”


Indigenous Deity

In addition, the mention of an indigenous deity, Paccha Mama, in the proposed constitution has contributed to the rift between Ecuador’s president and Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders.

“We are worried that this invocation of an Incan deity, the Paccha Mama [Mother Earth], a divine being, among the indigenous groups is a worship of Paccha Mama,” said Pastor Loor, who leads an Assemblies of God church in the port city of Guayaquil.

“To include it in the constitution is to return to a time hundreds of years ago when fire and air were worshipped.”

In addition, Pastor Loor charged that the inclusion of Paccha Mama contradicted the new document’s reported secular nature.

The new constitution, which was approved by an elected assembly in late July and will be voted on in a national referendum on September 28, notes in its preface, “We, the sovereign people of Ecuador, celebrate nature, the Paccha Mama, that we are a part of and that is a vital part of our existence.” The document’s chapter on the rights of nature says, “The existence of nature, or Paccha Mama, where we reproduce life, has the right to be respected.”

Carlos Pilaminga, one of the representatives to the constitutional assembly of the indigenous political party Pachakutik, charged that Protestants and Roman Catholics do not understand the “indigenous vision of the cosmos.” Paccha Mama, he said, is not a deity but “is an eternal space where we live and of which we are a part. Pachakamak is our creator, what the Catholics call God and the evangelicals [Protestants] call Jehovah.”

“Our evangelical brothers do not comprehend our religiosity and spirituality,” Pilaminga added.

The constitution has been controversial in Ecuador and internationally because it is seen as consolidating the president’s power over various branches of government, including the banking system and the courts. The document also allows Correa to run for additional terms.

Recent polls have indicated that the constitution is growing in favor but still has not gained enough support to be approved. Ratification would need 50 percent-plus-one vote of those participating in the referendum.

Report from Compass Direct News