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Blog

Talking Hawking and God

By James Dacey

It hasn’t even been released yet but the media is awash with commentaries about Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design. People are jumping on the astrophysicist’s assertion that we no longer need a God to explain our existence because M-theory – a unified version of string theory – can now explain how the universe emerged from the vacuum.

“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,” writes Hawking in an extract from The Grand Design, published yesterday in The Times.

“M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity. For these reasons, M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite – and this is yet to be proved – it will be a model of the universe that creates itself. We must be part of this universe, because there is no other consistent model.”

But the backlash from certain religious spokespeople has already begun, including the chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, who wrote an accompanying opinion piece in the The Times warning of the dangers of overvaluing scientific knowledge. “There is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science,” he writes.

The story was also covered in detail last night by the UK’s Channel 4 News (see video above) who hosted a discussion between Jon Butterworth, a particle physicist at University College London, and Alister McGrath, the chair of theology, religion and culture at King’s College London.

McGrath, a Christian theologian who previously studied physics at the University of Oxford, unsurprisingly points out that M-theory may hold all the answers to all fundamental questions. “All [Hawking] has done really is to simply move things one step into the distance…where do all these laws come from given they are of such importance?” he asks.

Butterworth, a self-professed atheist, agrees that M-theory is far from a grand unified theory of everything, but questions the need for a deity to fill in the gaps to reveal the origin rules of physics. “Whether you find it helpful to label the primary cause as God or some form of ‘pre M-theory quantum vacuum’ doesn’t really have much impact on our understanding of the universe to me, and it doesn’t really have much impact on my life as far as I can see.”

The Grand Design is published on 7 September.

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29 comments

  1. John Duffield

    What’s rather slipped by unnoticed with all this is that there’s absolutely no scientific evidence for M-theory, the anthropic principle or the multiverse. These are speculative hypotheses with as much supporting evidence as heaven and hell and sweet baby Jesus. I’m surprised George Ellis didn’t pick this up. Compare and contrast with general relativity, which predicted the double-Newtonian deflection of light, and was vindicated within three years. String theory has been going for forty years now, and there’s still no evidence.
    Hawking has “done a Dawkins” to engineer controversy and double his book sales, and meanwhile perpetuate “The Trouble with Physics” and attempt to impose a consensus that leaves competitor theories out in the cold. In essence we have a diversionary battle between two interest groups trying to tell us what to think. One is religious, the other is quasi-religious, because both camps are totally lacking in evidential support. And meanwhile what with threatening budget cuts, there’s a danger that real physics is going to hell in a handcart.
    The “law” of gravity has got nothing to do with the early universe. Gravity occurs when there’s a variation in spatial energy density, usually caused by a concentration of energy tied up as matter. In the early universe there was no such inhomegeneity, and gravity didn’t stop the expansion of the universe. And what’s with this spontaneous creation? That’s just another non-answer. It reminds me of the old recipe for the spontaneous generation of mice. A piece of soiled cloth plus wheat and 21 days, and voila! Creating a whole universe is rather similar, Hawking would have us believe, but with fewer ingredients? Oh come on. This isn’t science v religion, this is M for moonshine.

    • Lankylight

      I like what you say John, it’s the untanted, unbiased spirit of Physics. Physics is a brotherhood, like bikers, so it’s funny how so many of us are really convicted that God exists and yet we have to tread on egg shells. Also, that’s why these forums descend quickly into “higher purpose” dabate…(now I am doing it, snap out of it…Jesus is Lord! Phew, pinned my colours to the mast that time. Now back to these deep sea proteins that appear to be using quantum coherence).

  2. Stephen Hawking has been recently in the news for suggesting (if I properly understand him) that the universe could have originated without the assistance of God. Given his own sad condition, I can’t help wondering if he feels he could similarly get by without the assistance of God himself…

  3. jac maclean

    I picked up a copy of Hawking’s ‘Brief History of Time’ one time and coming across ‘…there must be a singularity of infinite density and space time curvature…’(p97) it seemed to me that to use the meaning of the word ‘infinite’in the context a finte universe, and now it appears, perhaps an infinity of them, rhetorical self promoting grandiosity it may hav been but since science needs some coherance of philosophy in front of it, science in the naive sense it was not. Anyway, since ‘Time’ in my opinion is an artefact not an objective reality, I put the book aside to pick up at another time.
    If the universe(s)can emerge from teeming, fecund, nothingness then this can only be relative nothngness since we can cant know what we are incapable of knowing. Unless that is, like Hawkings,et al, you have the omnniscience to know that as well (and keep God the right wing in their no place).

  4. Kasuha

    The main point is, science does not disprove God. It just shows us that phenomena which we meet in our physical world can happen without God’s intervention.
    I would hate if this turned into another “science vs God” war. No, there should never be such war. In fact, many scientists believe in God and they do good science. Both science and God are here to improve our life. There are people who can live without science and there are people who can live without God – but too many need both.

  5. jjeherrera

    Understanding the origins of the Universe and Life are two questions that fall into the pitch of science, and they will probably be answered in its realm, regardless of the existence of God. However, then there are questions that fall out of the pitch of science, such as what is the reason of the existence of the Universe and the existence of life. That’s where I think we still need God.

  6. JHobbs

    Hmmm, so much “faith” in M Theory and a lack of reasonable proof. No offense to Hawking, but he has made mistakes before (entropy destruction by black holes). I believe he relies a bit too much on theoretical grounds in making final judgments and not enough on physical proof. Still, he has a point in stating his judgment that “God” is just not required to explain a creation scenario of the universe which he offers. Its his view and he has a right to discuss it. As far as science vs “God”, really there’s no need to link the two. “God” for many may fall into the ancient wisdom category that helps humanity know how to behave and live their lives to productive end regardless of the actual origin, and/or scientific validity, of the “God” concept. Fact is many, many people NEED “God”. So let them have “God” under their own belief of its creation. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive, but rather serve different purposes.

  7. Rik

    That M theory cannot yet be verified is less significant than its inclusiveness. If anything, it is the framework for thought that is most significant.
    I’d be much more skeptical if Stephen had come out saying he needed to invoke divine intervention to make his equations work.
    As an agnostic, I think atheists have crossed the line in declaring a “dis-belief”. Why waste your time – oops I did by writing this comment.

  8. anonymous

    Perhaps there doesn’t have to be a creator, but 100% proving the existence or nonexistence of one is not going to be easy.
    There’s a limit of what you can prove.
    Say for example, I create a computer simulated universe, with its own physics rules and so on (which could be very different from the rules “outside” where I am).
    Within that universe there does not have to be any evidence of me at all. But it does not mean I do not exist.
    I could even make copies of that universe, and run them separately at different times, make changes and so on. Then particular universe could appear to be billions of years old but have only just been started.
    The math people might be more familiar with such concepts of not being able to prove certain things even if they are true.

  9. Chuck

    Hawking’s conclusion is an opinion backed by unobservable claims. He is much smarter than all of us but He will never have a fraction of the knowledge of God. I pity him that he cannot open his heart and experience the incredible power of the living God. Very sad.

  10. TBK

    @anonymous (comment #8)
    I would just like to point out that god (or creator) as a concept is unfalsifiable (i.e. even if a god/creator were not real, people could move the goalposts by saying we don’t know enough to assert its non-existence). Therefore, it is impossible to prove that it doesn’t exist, even if it is true.
    That being said, the reason why many don’t believe in god is because they are not the ones needing to back up a claim. Because –although it has been pressed and pressed that there indeed is a creator– there hasn’t been evidence for a god or gods (especially a specific god or set of gods) there is no compelling reason to believe in one.

  11. Most Christians accept that instead of the first humans being created directly, they instead came into being through evolution, and were thus the indirect result of an earlier creative act. If that is accepted, I don’t see how it is a significant threat to religious faith to have God create the space-time continuum and let matter and energy be created indirectly, coming into being as the natural result of a vacuum fluctuation.

  12. In physics exists a particular item, called Fourier transform. It appears at multiple locations, such as in Helmholtz decomposition theorem, which splits electrostatic from magnetostatic fields, in the relation between canonical conjugate observables and as an operator that has harmonic movements as eigenfunctions. It is abundantly present in optics and electronics and in many other technologies. The actual list is much longer. The Fourier transform has a very interesting property. It transforms something with a very local presence into something that is widespread and vice versa. With other words it may convert something with a universe wide presence into an individual in the conjugated presentation. Since to a large extent, the universe seems to form its own creator, there is a natural/physical/mathematical way to relate the universe to the individual who by many is seen as The Creator. This individual has been given many names. This interpretation can even give angels and our soul a physically based interpretation. One thing must be left; this creator is not a caring and loving individual. It comes closer to the way evolution controls the live of existing objects.
    So even when M-theory proves to be correct, it does not deny the presence of a Creator. The way He creates is incredibly brilliant. However we must review our idea of His personal characteristics. His way of caring for his creatures is not very human.

  13. Ashwini Kumar Lal

    I beg to differ with Stephen Hawking’s recent announcement that God did not have a hand in cration of the universe. My disagreement with the learned scietist’s contention is substantiated by the fact that given any number of combinations of the basic building blocks of life viz., amino acids, nucleotides, sugar,and phosphate,etc., life has never been created in any of the laboratories the worldover. Science just remains clueless about how life first developed on our mother planet and elsewhere in the universe. Hitherto,life has not ever evolved from inanimate(non-life)objects. This is suggestive of the evolution of life having bearing on the existence of some supernatural force, whom we rever as ‘Almighty’ or as ‘God’.
    Moreover, Hawking wrongly refers to the ‘Big Bang Model’ as the viable explanation for origin of the universe.The said model is highly controversial with number of inconsistencies (the redshift controversy being the most hotly debated controversy) brought to the notice of the scientific community by the leading researchers in the field from time to time.It is ironic that the mainstream cosmologists have remained indifferent to accept the cosmological realities despite several loopholes with the said model.The article titled “Big Bang Model?
    A Critical Review” posted on the internet at the website:http://vixra.org/pdf/1005.0051v8.pdf
    highlights prominent loopholes with the Big Bang model.
    Ashwini Kumar Lal, New Delhi

  14. robertpmc

    It’s easy to prove that “God” does not exist. “God” is a concept of man, as is any deity. The abundance of various and diverse “Gods” is all that’s needed to prove the non existence of “God”.
    There are countless “Suns” in the universe. We call them “Suns” as central to countless solar systems. Ipso facto, “Sun” is what we call them all and they cannot be simply what we call them. If some higher authority of the whole of the universe exists, we have never “known” it, but given that unknown a name…”God”.
    What we can prove is that man has always badly needed “God” or a “God”, and that’s a different ballgame.
    “God” is the scapegoat for man’s arrogant assumptions.
    “If I’m wrong, “God” made me and made me to question.”
    Human decency is much more valid than any “God”.
    Call me heretical if you will, but in the doing so, you highlight your own arrogance.

  15. john polasek

    From the title of his new book, “The Grand Design”, (Orlando Sentinel Sep. 3, 2010) Steven Hawking is entirely impressed with the design (of the universe), but the dominant theme in his book is that you don’t need a designer, “all you need is a Big Bang”. He should be asked to explain DNA, the code that defines who we are. Each human cell has a DNA molecule that stores 3 billion exquisitely arranged base-pairs, comprising 25,000 genes (http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/faq/faqs1.shtml). These intelligently rearrange themselves with each generation. It is not possible to explain how this (and other) brilliant arrangements would result from just a Big Bang. He is a quantum physicist starting to believe in the quantum fables, and he is out of his element. He’s just looking for a windfall from another populist book containing(his secret)no formulas.

  16. Jimbo

    Just glanced at the new hardback yesterday. Its quite low brow, intended for general audiences, & much less sophisticated than his `Nutshell’ book. This is to make firm contact with the common reader, curious about the universe, but still fondling god in their hip-pocket.
    It’s wonderful that our caveman-like obsession w/religion has been argued by the most prominent physicist on the planet to be cosmologically irrelevant, as are most such fables in the old testament. If one doubts the old, wait til you get to the new !
    Most cosmologists are atheists for a good reason, as are a majority of physicists, and a poll conducted by PT on American physicists, & one by PW on European physicists is begging to be done, compared, and shared with world. If Hawking is talking about the scientific irrelevance of religion, should’nt we all be ? Who better than an ALS survivor, who remains steadfastly atheist.

  17. Duwayne Anderson

    We have *never* “needed” a god to explain our existence. We have only had gods because of an evolutionary predisposition towards superstition.
    The “god” hypothesis (it doesn’t begin to qualify as a theory) makes not predictions, lacks internal consistency, and has never explained any aspect of our existence in a non-tautological way.
    Duwayne Anderson
    Author of “Farewell to Eden: Coming to terms with Mormonism and science”

  18. Santino Barile

    All you smart people seem to forget one thing. M-theory didn’t just come about because a bunch of Physicists looked up at the sky and decided that it felt right, or that it was the only thing that made sense. There has been many years of research that went into this. What boggles my mind is how vehemently the religious, and semi-religious among you are willing to attack Hawking and his theories, but no one wants to do the same to religious beliefs which, may I remind you, have more holes in them than any scientific theory. So, if you are willing to criticize something because of it’s lack of evidence and even go so far as to caution the public in believing untestable theories then we should do the same to religious beliefs which cannot be tested and have no evidence whatsoever to back them up. And don’t tell me that it is faith based. That’s complete poppycock. You can only have faith in the RIGHT religious belief. So, which one is the right one??? How do we find that out?? Where is the formula for that?? Where is the mathematical proof that God exists?? At least M-theory has that. Can you test for God? Can you test for M-theory or substantiate it on any level?? We cannot prove God exists and Hawking cannot prove M-theory exists. So in all fairness, throw them both out and start again, but don’t criticize a physicist for being rational.
    One more thing. Please do not criticize a theory for not having enough evidence to back it up if you are religious. It is the most disgusting display of hypocrisy, and makes you look really dumb.
    One more very elementary thing. How come the laws of physics cannot spring from nothing, but a creator can??

  19. Jim

    Just glanced at the new hardback out yesterday, & its quite low brow, intended for general audiences, & much less sophisticated than his `Nutshell’ book. This is to make contact with the common reader, curious about the universe, but still fondling god in their hip-pocket.
    Its wonderful that our caveman-like obsession w/religion has been argued by the most prominent physicist on the planet to be cosmologically groundless, as are most such fables in the old testament. If one doubts the old, wait til you get to the new !
    Most cosmologists are atheists for a good reason, as are a majority of physicists, and a poll conducted by PT on American physicists, & one by PW on Euro physicists is begging to be done, compared, and shared with world. If Hawking is talking about the scientific irrelevance of god in the creation of the universe, should’nt we all be, & broadening the discussion as well ? Who better, than an ALS survivor who remains steadfastly atheist.

  20. Ali Ahd

    How we can accept a theory that contradict
    with our observations and experiments or we do not able to veri ed it as a base of our belief .
    I just read this new mathematical physics model able to unifying all physics forces law and able to explain all physics puzzles by proofing the god existence.
    A map to Uni ed Grand Model for space time,
    particles, elds and universe builded on a trial mathematical
    physics interpretation of the holy Quran creation story
    http://maher2100.tripod.com/Thesis.pdf

  21. Gordon Roesler

    The progress of science since Newton has been marked by such events as these: observed phenomena, which had no previous mechanistic explanation and called on divine operation, suddenly being explained in a mathematically clear, testable way. Kepler was searching for a divine explanation of planetary motion that involved the five regular solids; Newton instead provided the central force explanation. Kepler’s failure and Newton’s success do not seem to have caused a crisis of faith. Why should the current discussion? Kasuha’s comments are completely on point.

  22. rl dwyer

    The statement “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” is so fundamentally unsound, it begs an explanation. If there was nothing in the Beginning OR gas as is posited, either way: How can gravity do its work? You need 2 bodies attracting each other for gravity to perform; a core entity. To claim that nothing can “attract” nothing into a “spontaneous creation” — then physics as we know the science has to be abandoned, and an explanation of how the above could possibly take place in a sequential manner has to be forthcoming; i.e., an actual envisioned sequence of events. Until then, for logic to prevail, Gravity cannot be the culprit for creation. It simply did not have any purpose UNTIL that “something” came into being.

  23. Tom of the Sweetwater Sea

    Hawking is a physicist, not a theologian. I will read his book to find out why he has settled on M-theory as fact. I shan’t worry about his views on god.
    Tom

  24. Sukraachrya

    Scientists and the so called theists have always been at loggerheads, but it is true that science has advanced much through questioning simple things that were taken for granted and the inexplicable ones known only to God. How can anyone say that religion teaches how to live? In fact more people have been killed in wars conducted in the different names that we have given to God. Why can’t people come to terms with the fact that these are names that we have given to Nature who is the Supreme Creator? Her Writ prevails throughout the Universe without exception, and science is a method to understand this Law.
    The Buddha based his philosophy on the vacuum, saying that we came from nothing and will go back to nothing. This was almost three thousand years ago, when the concept of zero was just bearing fruit, and had not yet been incorporated in mathematics. The traditionalist count his philosophy among atheism. Now we know for fact that particles can be created from vacuum fluctuations. All who investigate scientifically, from Epicurus to Galileo, Laplace, Darwin and numerous others, get into trouble with the establishment, but that is no matter for discouragement, only an incentive to dig deeper

  25. Yogendra Joshi

    I have serious doubts about the ‘knowability’ of the ‘ultimate’ truth. Our very success, particularly in the field of science, using the method of collecting observations, systematic analysis thereof, and a bit of intuition and element of ‘plausibility’ have made us to believe that we can know everything. As far as the ‘beginning’ is concerned, the question what ‘before’ that would remain unanswered. You may just say ‘before’ has no meaning! But that itself is not convincing to all.

  26. Dr. Sanford Aranoff

    Prof. Hawking said the world is like a goldfish bowl. Just as the fish knows only the bowl, we only know what we see. Hawking simply does not understand what science is, for him to make such a statement!
    A science theory is based upon mathematics, which is a collection of arbitrary fully consistent statements. The theory must also agree somewhat with observations and experiments. The fish does not understand mathematics, as mathematics is a human creation, and so the fish does not have a scientific understanding of the world.
    General Relativity is a valid theory, as the mathematics is consistent, and many observations (not all) agree with the theory. Quantum mechanics is also a valid theory. However, these conflict, as the mathematical assumptions are different. We can live with this conflict, as relativity deals with large objects like planets, and quantum mechanics deals with small objects like atoms. Currently, it is impossible to measure the gravitational force between two atoms, and so we cannot make an experiment to determine which theory is correct.
    Hawking speaks a lot about the nature of the universe. Here he is out of his league. There is currently no theory of cosmology, that is, there is no consistent mathematical framework that agrees with observations. The reason is that current theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics conflict with each other, and both are needed for a correct explanation of cosmology. All discussions of cosmology, such as the Big Bang idea, are hypotheses, that is, guesses, not rigorous scientific theories. We must be careful not to confuse theories, which are rigorous explanations, with hypotheses, which are guesses hopefully paving the way to a theory.

  27. Ashwini Kumar Lal

    Readers may like to refer to the review article titled “Origin of Life” published in the peer-reviewed European journal, ‘Astrophysics & Space Science’ (2008, Volume 317, Issue 3-4, pp. 267-278), e-print of which is archived at arXiv as http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0907/0907.3552.pdf for current status of scientific research in the inter-disciplinary field of ‘origin of life’.
    Ashwini Kumar Lal

  28. Ken

    Critical thinking boils all such discussions down to making assumptions, scientific, religious or otherwise. Every view of existence makes some kind of assumption(s) or belief(s). Until proven differently any assumption is as valid as any other.
    God is one convenient assumption as is vibrating strings. Neither have been ruled in or out and remain assumptions.
    Science is a journey; one that is rather ‘reductionist’ at the moment. Religion is broad brush with no formal proof. Why they must be at odds with each seems odd to me. Science’s journey leads to deeper and deeper understanding of how the universe works. Religion’s journey, at least to me, can help lead our social lives providing deeper and deeper emotional comfort.
    Human beings are neither robots or protoplasm. Our complex nature can better be severed with multiple belief systems, applying each in moderation to help us in our personal journeys.

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