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.
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
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