‘Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon.’ Fodor, J. ‘Why Pigs don’t have wings,’ London Review of Books, 18th Oct 2007

Monday, 6 September 2010

Hawking's book fails to disprove God

Back on 11 August I wrote on this blog about Stephen Hawking’s forthcoming book and how it was going to challenge God as an explanation for the universe. The national secular media have now caught up. On Saturday (2 September), the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph both carried exactly the same headline: ‘Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe’, and the rest were similar, e.g. ‘Stephen Hawking says universe not created by God’ (the Guardian).

The reason for all the publicity? The launch of the physicist’s book was only a week away. In the somewhat ironically titled ‘The Grand Design’ (doesn’t a grand design suggest a Designer, Stephen?), Hawking says: “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 light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

In his most famous previous tome, ‘A Brief History of Time’ (1988), the professor had left open the possibility of a divine plan behind the universe by saying: "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”

But now that he claims to have discovered that ‘complete theory’ of how everything works, he’s changed his tune. Perhaps he’s been listening to Richard Dawkins too much. However, only a day after the fanfare in the major papers, commentators in many of the same newspapers reacted with some scepticism of Hawking’s claim to have made God irrelevant.

The Daily Telegraph’s Graham Farmelo hit the nail on the head. Pointing out that Hawking’s ‘M-theory’ basically says that “our universe followed inevitably from the laws of nature”, Farmelo retorted: “But, we might ask, where did they come from?” And even if Hawking’s M-theory stands up to experimental testing in the future, “the reasons for the mathematical order at the heart of the universe's order would remain an unsolvable mystery.”

The Arcbhishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, told the press: “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." "Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing."

But the best reply came from Oxford mathematics professor, John Lennox. Writing in the Daily Mail, Lennox simply stated: “As a scientist I'm certain Stephen Hawking is wrong. You can't explain the universe without God.” While explaining that Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself is hardly new, Lennox believes it is a “simplistic approach” that has no logical foundation in science.

The mathematician points out that there is no fundamental conflict between the laws of physics and God, because “laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions. What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine. “That is a confusion of category. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up.”

Lennox describes only what any sensible believer in God, and any decent philosopher, has known for years, yet somehow the blind determination of atheistic scientists to find a scientific explanation that rules out God continues, regardless. I think it demonstrates their refusal to admit that logic is not on their side.

Hawking is no different. The existence of the law of gravity does not make the universe inevitable, because the law of gravity did not exist until the universe itself appeared. As Lennox says: “How did gravity exist in the first place? Who put it there? And what was the creative force behind its birth?”

For Lennox, the amazing design of the universe is something that boosts his faith rather than challenging it: “For me, as a Christian believer, the beauty of the scientific laws only reinforces my faith in an intelligent, divine creative force at work. The more I understand science, the more I believe in God because of my wonder at the breadth, sophistication and integrity of his creation. “The very reason science flourished so vigorously in the 16th and 17th centuries was precisely because of the belief that the laws of nature… reflected the influence of a divine law-giver." “One of the fundamental themes of Christianity is that the universe was built according to a rational, intelligent design. Far from being at odds with science, the Christian faith actually makes perfect scientific sense.”

Pointing to biology as well as physics as evidence for God, Lennox continues: “When we see a few letters of the alphabet spelling our name in the sand, our immediate response is to recognise the work of an intelligent agent. How much more likely, then, is an intelligent creator behind the human DNA, the colossal biological database that contains no fewer than 3.5 billion 'letters'?”

Finally, Lennox is convinced of Christianity not just by science but by the evidence of history, personal experience and human morality: “Support for the existence of God moves far beyond the realm of science. Within the Christian faith, there is also the powerful evidence that God revealed himself to mankind through Jesus Christ two millennia ago. This is well-documented not just in the scriptures and other testimony but also in a wealth of archaeological findings.

“Moreover, the religious experiences of millions of believers cannot lightly be dismissed. I myself and my own family can testify to the uplifting influence faith has had on our lives, something which defies the idea we are nothing more than a random collection of molecules.

“Just as strong is the obvious reality that we are moral beings, capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong… The existence of a common pool of moral values points to the existence of transcendent force beyond mere scientific laws.” The fact is that, in tackling the God question, Hawking has inevitably moved from hard, experimental science to conjecture and philosophical supposition.

As science author Antony Latham says: “M-theory… is very much a conjectural theory and other physicists are not happy with it… Even Hawking says: ‘People are trying to decipher the nature of M-theory but that may not be possible.’ None of it is based on observation and it is thus unproven.”

Latham adds: “Hawking does not seem to tackle the very important question of the 'First Cause'. The only recourse he and others might have is an infinite regress of causes into the infinite past. However it is easily proven (by mathematicians such as Hilbert) that there is no such thing as an infinite series of anything.” A mathematician of Hawking’s undoubted quality should have remembered that.

At the end of the day (or the universe), science can never be used to finally prove or disprove God, as even Dawkins has admitted. Science is the study of the natural, not the supernatural. It has the wrong tools for the job.
Andrew Halloway


David vun Kannon said...

Contra the headline writers and commentators (such as yourself), Hawking did not say he had disproved God. In the sentence you quote from him, he has only updated Laplace's famous dictum "I have no need for that hypothesis."

Toronto said...

1)Why can't the "uncaused first cause" be the effect we have described as gravity?

2)Why is it important that the "uncaused first cause" be what some people describe as God?

3)Why can't God be the ..result.. of the "uncaused first cause"?

4)If 3 was true, everything witnessed about God would be true except that he was not the first cause. Should we try to find out?

5)If we find out God was not the "uncaused first cause", what changes?

Lamont said...

I think your questions deserve an answer.

1) Why can't the "uncaused first cause" be the effect we have described as gravity?

Answer 1.
If gravity is an effect then it has a cause, so it cannot be the first cause.

2) Why is it important that the "uncaused first cause" be what some people describe as God?

Answer 2.
The first cause produces everything else; so it is creative. The creation of all things is a singular event and not the result of some natural process that is repeated over and over again. Only a free being can produce singular events, and only an intelligent being can produce singular events that have a purpose. Since the universe acts according to laws that make life possible, it seems to be the product of a intelligent being who designed the universe to fulfill that purpose. If indeed the universe was designed and created for a purpose that includes us, it is extremely important that we know exactly how we fit into that plan.

3) Why can't God be the ..result.. Of the "uncaused first cause"?

Answer 3.
It is not logically consistent to claim that a God who created all things according to His plan is in fact the result of some irrational process. Intelligence either exists eternally, or it has no cause and therefore does not exist. Since you exist and are intelligent, there must be an intelligent being capable of causing your existence; and that being is God.

4) If 3 were true, everything witnessed about God would be true except that he was not the first cause. Should we try to find out?

Answer 4.
# 3 cannot be true. If God is not the first cause then nothing said about God is true because God does not exist.

5) If we find out God was not the "uncaused first cause", what changes?

Answer 5.
Then we would know that there is no meaning or purpose to life; and that we are just highly evolved animals destined for extinction.

Bo Gardiner said...

Aren't you a little too quick on the draw to post an article with this title without actually reading the book?

Nevertheless, you're probably right the book does not disprove God. But it also does not mow my lawn. But since it set out to do neither, it seems rather deceptive to call it a failure in either regard.

Smath said...

The assertion that there must be a first cause has already been proven false. That's why Hawking said philosophy is dead. The phenomenon of spontaneous creation has been scientifically observed (detected/measured) on the atomic scale as previously predicted by quantum mechanics. There's no need to invoke God any more.

Dissenters said...

Matter ans anti-matter are believed to pop into existence in the vacuum of space. But it is a mistake to think the vacuum is nothing. It has a minimum energy of hf/2.
Secondly, what is also required is intelligent causality, not just physical causality to account for the mathematical precision of laws of nature.

John said...

If something can truly come into existence for no reason i.e. a causeless beginning, then all scientists had better do the most honourable and logical act and give up the scientific project. Science depends on explanations built upon the metaphysical principle of cause and effect and it cannot operate if this weren't true.

Dissenters said...

A good point John. Metaphysically speaking, how does Hawking's view differ from belief in miracles? If matter can alter its state, or start to exist for no reason then why cannot matter come into existence or change its state under the will of God.

John said...

I may have misunderstood you, but at least miracles have a cause - Hawking's Grand explanation doesn't even have that.

Dissenters said...

Thank's John - that was really my point as well.

Anonymous said...

Great article. Thanks!

Lisa Aymont said...

Hello. Just to be up front, I'm not religious- I'm spiritual. I've just read Victor J. Stenger's "God: The Failed Hypothesis". For the most part I disputed what he wrote, but I admit I've been left with a few doubts about the existence of a divine Creator. I so appreciated reading this site; it has re-installed my intuitive belief that there is, indeed, an intelligent agent who has created this amazing universe. Thank you.

Daniel B said...

") Why is it important that the "uncaused first cause" be what some people describe as God?"

If there is (as there must logically be) a first cause that is transcendent enough to exist uncaused, it may or not fit any particular person's conception of "God".