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.