Opinions Expressed in "Rants," while informed by Catholic doctrine, are merely the opinions of the author.
Fr. Catfish vs. Stephen Hawking - God or No God
Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s smartest man, doesn’t believe in God.
I saw him on the news the other day, making this controversial statement to a reporter. He’s given entire lectures on how there is no need to believe in God.
When someone as smart as him says there’s no God, it can be pretty startling, even challenging to the rest of us. Maybe he’s right! we start saying to ourselves.
Or maybe he’s wrong.
Einstein was wrong a few times, about Quantum Mechanics, about his Cosmological constant. Hawking likes to remind us of Einstein’s errors, every chance he gets. So maybe he can be wrong too.
To start of, when Hawking is talking about God, he’s talking about God AS CREATOR. He’s not talking about other ideas of God, as the one present and active in the history of Israel, as the God who made the bullets miss Jules in Pulp Fiction, etc. He’s also not arguing the historicity of some guy named Jesus in Nazareth.
He is referring to the age-old argument for the existence of God: “If there is no God, where did everything come from?” We’ve all considered this argument before, and its essentially a simplified version of Aristotle’s proof for the existence of God (later high-jacked by St. Thomas Aquinas): that all change, all motion, all reality, needs to have been caused by something. So there has to be a God.
Not so, says Hawking. Because for him, the question, “Where did everything come from?” is one that science can answer, without any need for a “God” to be present to start everything off.
So what is his argument? Well, I’ll try to explain it as simply as possible, but there’s going to be a point when you are going to say, “I don’t get it.” That’s okay – just trust me – the math, at least, is right. Just as I don’t understand how my computer works when I turn it on, I know SOMEBODY does, and that’s good enough.
His argument goes back to methods of examining what most people call the “Big Bang,” the moment as which the universe seems to have sprung into existence. And there is significant evidence to suggest that this is exactly what the universe did, by the way, just in case you were asking yourself this right now.
The Big Bang explanation of the expanding universe seems to imply that the universe started from a single point in space and time – this is the conclusion most would draw from the fact that the universe continues to expand.
But hold on, Hawking says, and rightly so. An initial condition that is a single point isn’t the only possibility that can lead to a universe like the one we live in. The universe could also have started out as a finite sized object and then began expanding. This is also a mathematical possibility.
And he and another guy named James Hartle suggest another possibility, that the universe’s initial expansion (here’s the heavy part) can be described mathematically as coming from a smeared out mixture of space and time, called “quantum fuzz” by most scientists, where space cannot be distinguished from time (unlike in our present universe), and because of this smearing, there doesn’t need to be an actual moment at which the universe began. This is called the “no boundary” proposal for the initial state of the universe. In such a case, the universe can be said to have always been here, as long as there has been time anyway, and it simply comes into being on its own.
So, science can explain the existence of the universe we live in, without needing to ask the question “but where did it come from?” and therefore without needed to answer that question by recourse to an external agent to CAUSE it: ie. God.
“God then becomes unnecessary,” Hawking argues. We can explain the existence of the universe without him, so, why believe in God?
And I think he’s wrong. I’m going to make an attempt at addressing why I think he’s wrong, and any physicists out there that disagree with me are welcome to challenge.
But I should re-state my position – its not that he’s wrong – its just that his position isn’t as strong as he is making out that it is.
1) The Hawking/Hartle “no boundary” proposal relies on the assumption that quantum mechanics (which is only successfully described microscopic systems) can be applied to the entire universe. This has yet to be demonstrated. Their theory also depends on a combination of Einstein’s relativity theory and Quantum theory – these two theories have not been successfully integrated as yet.
2) Hawking is saying that science DOES explain the universe without the need for an external agent, i.e. God, to initiate it. But this is not so. The fact that science CAN explain it, using one of several different possible theories, doesn’t imply that science DOES explain it. In fact, in saying that science DOES explain the universe, he is choosing one of the three possible classes of solutions, the “no boundary” solutions, over the other possibilities. And why is he choosing that one? Because he wants a solution that doesn’t require a God, that’s why. He is MOTIVATED to choose this solution over the others because he is biased by his BELIEF that there is no God required to explain the universe.
The fact is, the “no boundary” solution is no better than the others – in fact it suffers several MAJOR drawbacks – that “quantum fuzz” as described above has never been observed, and that any evidence that could lead one to choose this option over the others is currently impossible to find.
GOD has no physical evidence to support it either; this is true. But then in concluding if there is a God, one CAN consider other personal forms of evidence as well – drawing a conclusion on the choice of possible theories, one CAN be motivated by personal EXPERIENCE – this is different from personal belief (as in Hawking’s case) in that this experience is based on an external reality, not just a feeling. It may not be an OBJECTIVE ONE, granted, but it’s better than Hawking’s prejudiced motivation for his choice.
It would have been more logical to say: science proposes a number of possible initial conditions for the “big bang.” Some imply no need for any external agent (no God), while others suggest unanswered questions that MIGHT suggest there is the need to look beyond physics and nature itself for its explanation.
Really, Hawking's argument is nothing new at all – even Aristotle believed the universe to have always existed, and to be essentially self-contained.
What is new is that the initial conditions for the “no-God, no boundary” solutions are so bizarre and difficult to conceive in human consciousness that, while mathematically and physically acceptable, they’re as fantastic as any religious explanation. I think that’s interesting.
Stephen Hawking describes himself as a scientific “positivist.” This means that any scientific theory that is POSSIBLE must be considered as REAL until proven otherwise. However, his positivism excludes God, because God is by definition SUPER-natural, and therefore unphysical. However, even a positivist must consider the possibility that there could be LIMITS on human understanding of the physical universe.
So, that’s my argument. Like I say, I don’t think Stephen Hawking is wrong, per se. He is right about one thing: belief in God CANNOT be based on God’s being the only explanation for existence. This is why I will always contend that one’s faith must be developed through a relationship with God, not just a scientific or logical demonstration of God’s inevitability.
But neither can one conclude that there is NO God on the basis of an explanation of the universe that doesn’t need God, especially when that explanation is as flimsy has his is. Such explanations are nothing new in the world of science anyway– they’ve been around for centuries. The only definitive conclusion one can make about scientific progress is that the universe presents itself to us with increasing sophistication and unfathomable mystery: the more we think we know, the more we realize we don’t know anything. Perhaps this itself is a peek into the nature of that which we would have traditionally called “Our Creator.”