Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Stephen Hawking Challenges God
(This essay was posted to the Zoo Torah mailing list. To subscribe to this list send an e-mail to email@example.com.)
The relationship of science to religion is always a hot topic, but it became especially fiery in the last few days with the announcement of a new book co-authored by legendary physicist Stephen Hawking. “Stephen Hawking Says God Did Not Create The Universe” is the incendiary headline in many news outlets. His new work, The Grand Design, co-authored with Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, seeks to give a scientific explanation for our remarkable universe which writes God out of the picture.
Although always an atheist, Hawking had previously given more room for those who believe in a Creator. In his bestselling (albeit usually unread) A Brief History of Time, Hawking acknowledged that even if an all-encompassing set of scientific equations for the universe is discovered, it does not necessarily account for the universe’s existence: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
But in his latest book, Hawking strikes a different note. In a September 3rd adapted extract that appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the title “Why God Did Not Create the Universe,” Hawking and Mlodinow claim that “as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing.” They further argue that many theories in modern cosmology predict the multiverse model—that “our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws.” A small number of this multitude of universes allow for the formation of life, and we inhabit one of them. Accordingly, there is no need to look for a bigger explanation for our universe. Is this true?
There are several ways in which science is employed to give rational support for belief in a Creator. (I will not be including the anti-evolution arguments of the Intelligent Design movement, to which I object on both theological and scientific grounds.) These do not automatically direct us to the God of the Jewish faith, for they do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the designer possesses the attributes that we ascribe to God (as opposed to those ascribed to God by Aristotle and others). Nevertheless, they certainly greatly enhance religious belief and help ground it in a rational foundation.
One way in which science supports belief in God is that the laws of science themselves require a lawmaker. As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out, it is “a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered… It is not at all natural that ‘laws of nature’ exist, much less that man is able to discover them.” Einstein, no believer in a conscious God, nevertheless often expressed amazement at the comprehensibility of the universe. As historians of science have shown, the idea of looking for such regularities in nature was an outgrowth of monotheism, which proposed an underlying unity to creation. When the scientific revolution picked up momentum, many forgot its roots. But as science advanced, discovering relatively simple equations that govern phenomena across the universe, many physicists have begun to ask where these laws came from. Even if Hawking is correct that the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing, that they somehow breathe fire into themselves, he has not explained how these laws themselves came to be legislated.
The second way in which science is employed to give rational support for faith is that were the laws of nature to be different in the slightest way, our universe would not be possible. Some famous atheists such as Douglas Adams dismissed this argument, claiming that it is like a puddle marveling that its hole in the ground is exactly the right shape for it. But this entirely misses the fact that our universe is not any old universe, but rather an amazing universe that allows for the formation of such complex phenomena as matter, planetary systems, life, and intelligence.
Hawking attempts to address this with the multiverse model, claiming that since there is a multitude of universes, of course some of them will be of an extraordinary nature. In response to this, it is first important to note that the multiverse model is entirely speculative, with no actual evidence whatsoever. In an article appropriately entitled “Outrageous Fortune,” which marveled at the unlikely and fortuitous nature of our universe, the leading scientific journal Nature pointed out that “there are no apparent measurements that would confirm whether we exist within a cosmic landscape of multiple universes, or if ours is the only one.”
But let us suppose that it is indeed the case that there are an infinite or very large number of universes, which would mean that some of them possess remarkable characteristics. Would this mean that Hawking has successfully made his case? Others point out that it means no such thing. As renowned physicist Paul Davies once wrote in The New York Times, “The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.”
As we enter Rosh HaShanah, the festival marking the new year and the creation of the universe, we still have reason to marvel at our universe—at its nature, and at the laws and possibly meta-laws governing its nature. In the words of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch: “Each discovery in the natural sciences only confirms the fundamental truth first set forth by Judaism: There can be no thought without a thinker, no order without a regulator, no law without a lawgiver, no culture without a creative spirit, no world without God and no man without the gift of free-willed morality.” Shanah tovah!
(For extensive further discussion of all these ideas, see my book The Challenge Of Creation, available in Jewish bookstores worldwide and online at www.zootorah.com)