Sunday, September 05, 2010

Gods Become Ever Less Necessary and Likely

[A slayer of gods.]

We ought to acknowledge the significance of Stephen’s Hawking’s statements that the “creation” of our universe did not require “God.”
“The Grand Design," which the publishers call Hawking’s first major work in nearly a decade, challenges Isaac Newton’s theory that God must have been involved in creation because our solar system couldn’t have come out of chaos simply through nature.

But Hawking, who is renowned for his work on black holes, says it isn’t that simple.

In his best-selling 1988 book “A Brief History of Time," Hawking appeared to accept the possibility of a creator, saying the discovery of a complete theory would “be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God."

But “The Grand Design’’ seems to step away from that.

It says that physics can explain things without the need for a “benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit."

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing," the excerpt says.
Now, I have not yet read Hawking's new book, so I cannot say I have the full context of the statements as reported. Yet, we know that these statements come from a man who understands the physics of the early universe as well as anyone. These statements reflect a measured conclusion established by decades of interaction with the relevant physical data and theories. These statements emerge from an informed intellect.

Sean Carroll has a neat explanation of Hawking's point:

Hawking’s statements seem not to rule out God or to oppose the idea of God. However, he seems to say that physical “laws” are by themselves sufficient to explain the universe, and that this explanation is available for all to see and consider. If so, then anyone who now wishes to claim that God was necessary for the universe better have an equally good explanation rooted in empirical data.

Hawking’s “beliefs,” as some of the indignant religious say, may indeed be incorrect, misguided, or hasty. I am not claiming that Hawking is “right,” and this is not the important point. The important point is rather that now the arena of the debate is at the level of physics. Hawking claims to have a physical model of the universe’s birth. This model works fine without a creator. From now on, sufficient counter-responses must also have physical models.

Hawking has just upped the empirical ante of the debate.

UPDATE: Uber-apologist William Lane Craig has a reasonable response, particularly for one who has not yet read the book.


One issue I have with WLC's response is his philosophical jockeying around, for instance, with the terms "nothing" and "non-being" Of course, he can hardly do anything else besides establishing philosophical concepts that reside "outside" the physical/mathematical description that Hawking may be discussing. But notice that WLC's concessions just keep pushing God back farther: If Hawking's "nothing" is not philosophical "non-being," WLC says, then why couldn't God have created that "nothing"? OK, well why do we need to postulate that God created it?

But go back to what I said before: WLC wants to make this a philosophical debate, but my sense is that Hawking's not trying to engage the philosophy. Rather, my sense is that Hawking is laying out the physical case. If WLC and others want to come at the physics with philosophy, that's their prerogative. They will of course succeed in re-assuring their followers that God is not yet impossible. However, that is going to be God's future, permanent home: not impossible. A good many of us have no reason ever to be in that neighborhood.


  1. Hawking claims to have a physical model of the universe’s birth. This model works fine without a creator. From now on, sufficient counter-responses must also have physical models.

    On the contrary as far as I know, you can't present nor fully comprehend the argument Hawkings has made and even if you could, I wouldn't fully understand it. (and most likely, Hawkings, if he is writing for the layman, is not laying out the full case). So it's not the level of physics at which this case is being presented. It is at the level of an appeal to authority. And considering not all physicists (some equal to Hawkings that I mentioned in the Bill Craig thread on string theory... which M-theory happens to be), that appeal would be fallacious.

    There are arguably 3 arguments that are affected by this. Kalaam cosmological argument (and I don't think all cosmological arguments fall in here), and to a lesser extent, the fine tuning argument and teleological argument.

    But I've never depended upon those arguments. I have sympathies for all of these arguments and they still have some use even if a tentative as of yet non-empirical (yes, M-theory currently is still untested) theory answers one and makes a couple of the others weaker (but still relevant- the fine tuning argument and teleological one).

    Science is still inept on many accounts in probing the question of God. As a universal standard for knowledge, it is still self defeating.

    Belief in God is still a reasonable conclusion and explanation for morality, for human significance and worth, for our spiritual nature and so on. In other words, belief in God is still useful for our understanding which is most central in what it is that makes us human.

  2. Hawking's claim absolutely is made at the level of physics. It's his conclusion based on his unerstanding of the physics. His phrasing could not be more clear on this.

    But I pointed out that there was a difference between claiming "God was not necessary" and "God wasn't involved." Nothing Hawking said ruled out God.

    What's changed, then? What's changed is that one cannot just blurt out that the universe proves God. One cannot just say that God was necessary for the universe to exist. That's all.

    Belief in God remains as "reasonable" as ever. I agree with you. But those reasons are getting ever fewer and they are already inferior to naturalistic ones.

  3. I agree with most of what you say.

    I understand that Hawkings argument is at the level of physics. And with other physicists and a few others who are competent, again, it is at that level. But For me, and I geuss for you and the vast majority of the world who cannot assess the case for M-theory, we are dependent upon his authority. But again, there are other authorities who disagree, Roger Penrose who has been a collaborater with Hawkings and writes authoritative physics books that physicists have a hard time wading through, and smolin who is a founder of Canada's Premier Institute of Physics.

    Is Hawking the world's smartest human? Maybe, but he still loses bets on physics with other physcists.

    I wouldn't say the universe proves God. I don't believe anything can be proved. But it's decent evidence, evidence with alternative explanations like M-theory, but evidence that contributes to many other reasons for the existence of God beyond what cosmology can tell us.

  4. Glad we can agree on much.

    Personally, I don't feel dependent on Hawking or anyone else regarding M-theory, quantum mechanics, heliocentrism, or anything else. Yes, scientists like Hawking, Penrose, and Susskind do the research and such. And yes, I cannot often comment on whether they have done their research properly or drawn totally proper conclusions from their data.

    Because of this, I don't take anything these folks say (or anyone else, for that matter) as the definitive truth. Hawking's statements will be supported and challenged by physicists, philosophers, and clergymen.

    We're in a state of perpetual learning, particularly about the amazing things that could possibly happen in our universe. This is a good thing.

    You talk about "reasons for the existence of God beyond what cosmology can tell us," but it seems to me that these are your personal reasons. They are the reasons you much prefer to believe in God's existence.

    But I personally have no such preference. I see less and less reason to give God/gods any thought whatsoever. I also think this is a good thing.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.