Hawking to Believers in God: Go Back to Your Homes…Nothing to See Here

You might have heard that prominent Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking has released a book arguing that the “latest advances in cosmology explain why the laws of the universe seem tailor-made for humans, without the need for a benevolent creator.” I can’t help but picture a confident member of the authorities (Hawking) calmly telling the crowd (those who believe in God) gathering at some scene of commotion (church, etc.) to disperse: “Go back to your homes folks. Nothing to see here.”

Well, perhaps. Though let’s just say I have my doubts. Since it evidently came out today, I obviously haven’t read the book. But a few comments still might be in order.

Hawking is the latest in a long line of people pronouncing that God is effectively dead or discredited based on one argument or another. None of these claimants, however, has carried the day conclusively—or anything close to it. Will Hawking finally be the one to have done so? As they say, past results don’t indicate future performance. But they do suggest that panic isn’t exactly in order for those of us who believe in God.

A related but more specific point: whenever someone from the hard sciences makes a claim like this, it tends to feed the pervasive mythology that scientists are uniformly convinced on scientific grounds that belief in God is misplaced. Those well-credentialed scientists that argue otherwise are overlooked or ignored. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how other cosmologists, physicists, and the like evaluate Hawking’s argument. I’m by no means a close observer of these fields, but I’d be willing to bet there will be those within them that challenge not only his conclusions but also the science he believes to lie behind them.

Finally, there are already indications that Hawking may be swimming in waters outside of his academic expertise. In a statement published in numerous outlets before the book’s release, Hawking said this:

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.

Along with the appropriate caveat about needing to see the rest of the book, James Anderson has offered an initial response. A few excerpts:

In the first place, I have to assume that Hawking is speaking loosely when he says that “the Universe can … create itself from nothing” because taken literally the idea of self-creation is just plain incoherent. Something can only create if it already exists (where ‘already’ indicates logical rather than temporal priority). Nothing does not have the power to create, or to do anything else for that matter, because nothing is quite literally no thing. So the universe could only create itself if it already existed; but if it already existed, it would have no need to create itself! As I say, I have to assume Hawking doesn’t literally mean what he says. But then it’s not obvious what he really does mean.
………
Surely the laws of nature — the law of gravity included — presuppose the existence of the natural universe. If there were no universe, to what would the laws of nature refer? This is one reason why I find it prima facie implausible that the law of gravity or any other physical law could even in principle explain the existence of the universe. The laws of nature presuppose the existence of nature, just as the laws of Scotland presuppose the existence of Scotland.
………
If Hawking thinks there is some law or principle that explains the very existence of the universe, he must have in mind a metaphysical law rather than a physical law. Unless I’m much mistaken, the law of gravity is a physical law. It appears that Hawking intends to leave behind physics (a subject on which he is eminently qualified to speak) and enter the realm of metaphysics (a subject on which he has no particular expertise, so far as I know). It’s more than a little ironic therefore to find Hawking declaring on the very first page of his new book that “philosophy is dead.” If philosophy is dead, why is Hawking now turning his hand to philosophy? No, philosophy is in very good health, despite its frequent mistreatment at the hands of scientists.

You can read the whole thing here. In the meantime, you might not want to go home just yet. There just might be something to all the commotion after all.

HT: Justin Taylor

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