Monday, September 6, 2010

God is Simply Irrelevant

God did not create the universe, famed British physicist Stephen Hawking proclaimed last week.

In the flurry of the publicity run up to his new book, The Grand Design, to be released Sept. 9, he does some serious dismissing of the Almighty, declaring him/her/it irrelevant. The point is, famed theoretical physicist Hawking says, that our universe followed inevitably from the laws of nature – not divinity.

But, prey tell, just where did those laws come from, Professor Hawking?

For me, the most amazing aspect of this book is the furor that his theory has – sorrycreated. As an Eclectic Wiccan, I welcome all science theory, as well as any and all other opinions of a metaphysical nature. I love the open discussion about our universe, planet, and all creatures on it. I have no interest in convincing someone else that my view is the view, or that the way I perceive the Goddess and God are the only way to do so. Thus, I happily accept those who reject everything! Long may knowledge, curiosity, reasoning, and creativity rein!

It is perhaps a bit ironic for Hawking to make God redundant after granting him/her/it a celebrity cameo at the end of his multi-million selling A Brief History of Time. In his famous conclusion to that book, Hawking wrote metaphorically that if scientists could find the most fundamental laws of nature, "then we should know the mind of God."

Hawking now suggests that the search for this particular Holy Grail is over, now that scientists have come up with a type of theory, known as M-theory, that may describe the behavior of all the fundamental particles and force, and even account for the very birth of the universe. If this theory is backed up by experiment, it might perhaps replace all religious accounts of creation – in Hawking's capacious mind, it already has.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to...set the Universe going," Hawking writes.

Despite having previously argued that belief in a creator was not incompatible with science, he now concludes that the Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics , that there is no need to invoke God to set the Universe going.

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something," he concluded.

In his new book, Britain's most famous physicist sets out to contest Sir Isaac Newton's belief that the universe must have been designed by God as it could not have sprung out of chaos.

Citing the 1992 discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun, Hawking wrote, "That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings."

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going," he adds.

The book was co-written by U.S. physicist Leonard Mlodinow.

Hawking’s book is already the number one bestseller at Amazon, and has triggered a firestorm of criticism from the usual and some unusual suspects in the U.K.

The head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, asserts that "physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing."

He added, "Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence."

Williams' comments were supported by leaders from across the religious spectrum in Britain. Writing in the Times, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, "Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation...The Bible simply isn't interested in how the Universe came into being."

The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, also agreed, adding, "I would totally endorse what the Chief Rabbi said so eloquently about the relationship between religion and science."

Ibrahim Mogra, an imam and committee chairman at the Muslim Council of Britain, was also quoted by the Times as saying, "If we look at the Universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror."

Hawking was also accused of "missing the point" by colleagues at the University of Cambridge in England.

"The 'god' that Stephen Hawking is trying to debunk is not the creator God of the Abrahamic faiths who really is the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing," said Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.

"Hawking's god is a god-of-the-gaps used to plug present gaps in our scientific knowledge. Science provides us with a wonderful narrative as to how [existence] may happen, but theology addresses the meaning of the narrative," he added.

Fraser Watts, an Anglican priest and Cambridge expert in the history of science, said that it's not the existence of the universe that proves the existence of God.

"A creator God provides a reasonable and credible explanation of why there is a universe, is somewhat more likely that there is a God than that there is not. That view is not undermined by what Hawking has said."

Hawking's book – as the title suggests – is an attempt to answer "the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything," he wrote with a wink and a nod, quoting Douglas Adams' cult science fiction romp, "The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

His answer is "M-theory," which, Hawking says, posits 11 space-time dimensions, "vibrating strings...point particles, two-dimensional membranes, three-dimensional blobs and other objects that are more difficult to picture and occupy even more dimensions of space."

He doesn't explain much of that in the excerpt, which is the introduction to the book.

But he says he understands the feeling of the great English scientist Isaac Newton that God did "create" and "conserve" order in the universe.

It was the discovery of other solar systems outside our own in 1992 that undercut a key idea of Newton's – that our world was so uniquely designed to be comfortable for human life that some divine creator must have been responsible.

But, Hawking argues, if there are untold numbers of planets in the galaxy, it's less remarkable that there's one with conditions for human life. And, indeed, he argues, any form of intelligent life that evolves anywhere will automatically find that it lives somewhere suitable for it.

But the Bishop of Swindon, Dr. Lee Rayfield, counters arguing science, "can never prove the non-existence of God, just as it can never prove the existence of God. Faith is a matter that's outside that.”

"But as I look at the universe, and as many people who are much more understanding of cosmology than I, and mathematics, as they look at it, through the eyes of faith, they see a universe which is still very coherent with what we believe about God and His nature," Rayfield said.


Here’s Professor Hawking’s description of his new book in his own words from the Amazon website:

How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? Over twenty years ago I wrote A Brief History of Time, to try to explain where the universe came from, and where it is going. But that book left some important questions unanswered. Why is there a universe – why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator?

It was Einstein’s dream to discover the grand design of the universe, a single theory that explains everything. However, physicists in Einstein’s day hadn’t made enough progress in understanding the forces of nature for that to be a realistic goal. And by the time I had begun writing A Brief History of Time, there were still several key advances that had not yet been made that would prevent us from fulfilling Einstein’s dream. But in recent years the development of M-theory, the top-down approach to cosmology, and new observations such as those made by satellites like NASA’s COBE and WMAP, have brought us closer than ever to that single theory, and to being able to answer those deepest of questions. And so Leonard Mlodinow and I set out to write a sequel to A Brief History of Time to attempt to answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. The result is The Grand Design, the product of our four-year effort.

In The Grand Design we explain why, according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence, or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. We question the conventional concept of reality, posing instead a "model-dependent" theory of reality. We discuss how the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence, and show why quantum theory predicts the multiverse – the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. And we assess M-Theory, an explanation of the laws governing the multiverse, and the only viable candidate for a complete "theory of everything." As we promise in our opening chapter, unlike the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life given in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer we provide in The Grand Design is not, simply, "42."


The science-religion debate has been going on since science was born, centuries ago. Until relatively recently, it seemed to have quieted down, but now Hawking and others have brought it back into the limelight. It's striking that the scientists who contribute most vociferously to the arguments work in the field of evolutionary biology and fundamental physics. These, at least superficially, appear to be the territories where science and religion can make conflicting claims, leading us to ask which has the better case. But are they alternatives? Is there really any serious argument between the two?

Science and religion are about fundamentally different things. No religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations, but this happens to most scientific theories, at least in the long run. Science advances over the wreckage of its theories by continually putting theoretical ideas to experimental test; no matter how beautiful a theoretical idea might be, it must be discarded if it is at odds with experiment. Like any other human activity, science has flaws and does not always flow smoothly, but no one can seriously doubt the progress it has made in helping us understand the world and in helping to underpin technology.

A useful characteristic of a scientific theory is that it must be possible, at least in principle, for experimenters to prove it wrong. Newton and Darwin, two of the greatest theoreticians, both set out ideas in this way, putting their heads on Nature's chopping block. In Newton's case, at least, his ideas have been superseded after proving inadequate in some circumstances. Unlike many religions, science has no final authority; the Royal Society, the U.K. academy of sciences, expresses this neatly in its motto, "Take nobody's word for it."

No religion has ever been set out in terms of scientific statements. This is why scientists are able to mock the claims of religions but have never been able to deal a knock-out blow: in the end, a religious believer can always fall back on a faith that does not depend on verification.

The most famous atheist scientist of our times is the fearless Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion set out to discredit religion once and for all. For him, it was Darwin's theory of evolution that dealt the fatal blow to religious belief. Powerful and eloquent though it was, religion continues to flourish, and scientists (albeit a minority) continue to go to church, just as Galileo, Newton, Faraday and others have done in the past. Religions will survive so long as they steer clear of making statements that can be shown to be factually wrong.

Interestingly, the type of science done by Hawking (one of the leading theoretical physicists of modern times) has an almost religious ring to it. He and his colleagues are trying to find the patterns in the basic fabric of reality – the mathematical laws that govern the workings of nature at its finest level. There is plenty of evidence that these laws hold good all the way back to the beginning of time, which is how scientists have put together an extremely detailed and well-tested theory of the Big Bang, the first few minutes of the universe. The Large Hadron Collider will soon be reproducing, at will, the conditions in the universe within a billionth of a second of the beginning of time.

This has led writers to invest these experiments with a theological significance. The distinguished experimenter Leon Lederman labeled the Higgs particle, being sought at the Collider, as the God Particle, with no good reason except as a hook to promote his book, which he named after it. Yet these experiments will tell us nothing about God. They will simply steer us towards an improved theoretical understanding of our material universe, ultimately in terms of principles set out in mathematics.

Yet this is where religion can sneak back into the picture. Einstein, to the frustration of many of his colleagues, was fond of referring to God when he was talking about the laws expressing the fundamental harmonies of the universe. As Dawkins rightly stresses, it is quite clear that Einstein did not think of God as a white-bearded benefactor capable of interfering with the functioning of the universe. Rather, Einstein followed closely the views of the philosopher Spinoza, for whom the concept of God is an expression of the underlying unity of the universe, something so wondrous that it can command a spiritual awe.

Einstein's views were largely shared by his acquaintance Paul Dirac, the greatest English theoretician since Newton. Dirac, like Newton and Hawking, held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University. For Dirac, the greatest mystery of the universe was that its most fundamental laws can be expressed in terms of beautiful mathematical equations. Towards the end of his life, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dirac often said that mathematical beauty, "is almost a religion to me."

As a young man, he was an outspoken atheist, drawing his colleague Wolfgang Pauli to comment, "There is no God and Dirac is his prophet." Decades later, in 1963, Dirac was happy to use theological imagery: "God is a mathematician of a very high order." He was speaking metaphorically, but we know what he meant. Yet I think it is misleading, especially when talking about science to non-specialists, to play fast and loose with the idea of God.

Hawking's view appears to be that the belief in a God-created universe can be supplanted by a belief in M-theory, a good candidate for a fundamental theory of nature at its finest level. Experts assure us of the potential of this theory and I for one am quite prepared to believe them.

One problem with the theory is that it looks as though it will be extremely difficult to test, unless physicists can build a particle accelerator the size of a galaxy. Even if the experimenters find a way round this and M-theory passes all their tests, the reasons for the mathematical order at the heart of the universe's order would remain an unsolvable mystery.

Even religious scientists – and there are still a few – never use the God concept in their scientific work. Perhaps it is time for a moratorium on the use of the concept in popularizations, too? This would avoid mixing up scientific and non-scientific statements and put an end to the consequent confusions. I think it wise for scientists and religious believers to keep out of each other's territory – no good has come out of their engagement and I suspect it never will.

But this is naive. The science-religion relationship, in so far as there is one, continues to be a crowd-pleaser. 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.


Hawking was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge for 30 years, and has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors including, most recently, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His books for the general reader include the classic A Brief History of Time, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, The Universe in a Nutshell, and A Briefer History of Time. He lives in Cambridge, England. His website is

Mlodinow is a physicist at Caltech and the bestselling author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives, Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, and Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life. He also wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation. He lives in South Pasadena, California. His website is

— Danu’s Daughter

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