September 20, 2011

Stephen Hawking vs. God

This past weekend I led a retreat at the ASU Newman Center. It was an apologetics retreat called God is Real and I hope to use it to teach Catholics that science, philosophy, and history can provide good evidence that God exists and that he has revealed himself in the person of Christ. I’ve been busy in the last few weeks preparing for the retreat as well as a talk on God’s existence that I gave at the Newman Center last Thursday. But since that is over, I’ve had a chance to view the recent Discovery channel show Curiosity and their first episode “Did God Create the Universe?" hosted by Stephen Hawking. Hawking is a world-famous physicist, but most people know him as “the smart guy in a wheelchair who sounds like a computer.” 

So how would I summarize the show and Hawking’s view on God? Basically, “religion was something stupid people used to explain the universe, but now science has answered everything and we don’t need God. In fact, God couldn’t have made the universe even if he tried.” . . . Okay, let me make a few points:

 Vikings, Greeks and Christians

If religion were a person, its character was definitely assassinated during this special. The show (through high-production value cut-scenes) shows vikings screaming away a wolf god trying to devour the sun (their primitive explanations of solar eclipses) and Christians rejecting commonsense views of the world (like heliocentrism) because they didn’t fit with their theology.
This gives the impression that religious people appeal to God in order to explain everything while non-religious people are more thoughtful and correct.

First, why not give Christians some credit. They did not believe that natural phenomenon were controlled by “the gods” like the vikings did, but instead that God created the universe out of nothing and allowed it to operate under natural laws that could be discovered by human reason. Indeed, St. Augustine considered it scandalous if Christians were ignorant about science. He writes,
"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters . . .” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20 -- 408 A.D.)

Second, the view that the earth is at the center of the universe came from the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, and was not necessarily a Christian doctrine, though it became one when Christian theologians tried to accommodate the views of Greek philosophers into their theology.  The special also brought up the whole Galileo affair, which is ably handled by Catholic Answers.

Hawking then claimed that at a 1985 conference in Rome, Pope John Paul II told him and other scientists in attendance that they should explore the beginning of the universe, but that the ultimate origin of the universe was “off limits” because that is where God specially acted. Naturally, Hawking defiantly rebuffed this directive. I don’t know exactly what the Pope said to Hawking, but I will agree with the late Blessed Pope John Paul II that what happened during the beginning stages of the universe are physical questions that physicists can answer (like in Steve Weinberg’s book The First Three Minutes). However, the matter of how the entire universe came to be is a metaphysical question that philosophers should handle because that question lies outside of the scientific method.   

Though I do respect his brilliance, I find it arrogant that Hawking thinks science can answer everything, which is a philosophical position (and not a scientific position) called scientism.  Of course, science helps us learn about the world and gives us premises for philosophical arguments, but it is self-refuting to say that ALL truth can be discovered by the scientific method because there is no experiment that can validate the claim “truth can only be verified by the scientific method.”

Did God Create the Universe?

This is the standard argument I use to give evidence that God created the universe, the kalām cosmological argument. It goes like this:

1.     Whatever begins to exist must have a cause for its existence
2.    The universe began to exist
3.    Therefore the universe had a cause for its existence

What fascinated me about the show is that the easiest premise to attack is premise two. This would involve the skeptic claiming that the universe had no beginning. Indeed, that was Hawking’s strategy in A Brief History of Time and The Grand Design where he claimed his and James Hartle's model of the universe’s beginning (The 1983 Hartle-Hawking No Boundary Proposal) demonstrates that there was no single moment of time for the universe to "begin" in, and hence it never “began to exist.” But in the show Hawking defended the standard model of the Big Bang originating from an infinitely dense singularity. This model was originally created by Friedmann and Lemaitre . . . Fr. Georges Lemaitre . . . a Catholic priest. Oh wait, I thought religion never contributed to our understanding of the world.


Hawking then advances three arguments in defense of an atheist beginning for the universe.

1.     "The universe's positive energy and negative energy “add up to nothing” so God isn’t needed to create the universe because it is the 'ultimate free lunch'" (a phrase Hawking didn’t bother to attribute to American cosmologist Alan Guth).
a.    Nothing and “a universe of equal negative and positive energy” are not the same thing. Hawking uses the example of a man digging a hole and making a hill at the same time, but that is a terrible example because something (an agent, or the man) is needed to transform flat ground into a hole and a hill, and the same is true of transforming "nothing" into "the universe."

2.    "Quantum physics shows us that sub-atomic particles can pop into existence out of nothing so it is not true that everything needs a cause" (an attack on the first premise of the kalām argument).
a.    First, our universe is incomprehensibly more massive and stable than a quantum virtual particle that appears and disappears, so some other mechanism needs to be proposed for the universe's sudden appearance from nothing. 

      b.    Second, the quantum vacuum is not “nothing” (see the picture to the left). It is a field at a very low energy level that can fluctuate (like how foam fluctuates on the surface of the ocean). If this is how our universe came to be, then why don’t we observe more universes emerging from quantum vacuums in big bangs today? 


c.    Furthermore, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem shows that a quantum vacuum could not have existed forever if it existed in a universe with average positive expansion. So even if our universe did emerge from a quantum vacuum, the vacuum itself would still require an explanation. 

d.    Finally, Hawking’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is just one of at least TEN interpretations that could also be correct. While some interpretations, like the Copenhagen interpretation, include uncaused events, others, like the interpretations offered by David Bohm, are fully deterministic and do not resort to uncaused causes.

3.    "Time did not exist at the big bang, so no cause is needed because causation only applies in time. In addition, God could not have created the universe because 'he had no time' in which to make it. "
a.    The cause of an event does not have to be temporally prior to an event in order to be the event’s cause. The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant uses the example of a heavy ball leaving an impression in a pillow. Imagine that the ball has been lying on the pillow for all eternity. There has never been a “time” when the ball has not caused the pillow to be indented, but the ball is still the material cause for the indentation. In this case, the cause and effect are simultaneous. Likewise, the cause of God creating the universe and the effect of the universe coming into existence are simultaneous events that happen in time and still have a causal relation. 
b.    God can still cause an event in time (like the Big Bang) even if he acted in a timeless state. That is because God is not temporally prior to the universe, but logically prior to it. Consider the following argument:

1.    All men are mortal
2.    Socrates is a man
                                    3.    Therefore, Socrates is mortal

       All of these premises are true at "the same time" and the argument would still be true even if it existed in a realm where there was “no time.” But notice that the argument only works if premise 1 comes “before” premise 2. That is because premise 2 derives its meaning from premise 1.   We say premise 1 is logically prior to premise 2 in order for the argument to work. But it is not temporally prior, even though we say premise 1 comes “before” premise 2.  Likewise, God existed “before” the universe in the logical sense, but not the temporal sense.

In conclusion, Hawking ended the show with perhaps the oddest musing an atheist could have given. He said, “No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.”

Wait. There can’t be a "grand design," without a grand designer. And if there’s no God, who are you giving gratitude to for the universe? And what is there to appreciate? 

If God does not exist, then our species will eventually go extinct, or the sun will explode, or the universe itself will lose all of its energy and be reduced in billions of years to a cold, lifeless state called heat death. All of our achievements will be as futile as building a sandcastle at low tide. No matter how elaborate and beautiful the castle, the indifference of nature will destroy it and it will be like it never existed. New Atheist Richard Dawkins writes:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” -- Richard Dawkins, "God's Utility Function," Scientific American (November, 1995), p. 85

That’s not a “grand design” with which I have “gratitude.” 

In closing, I am thankful for the work of Fr. Robert Spitzer and especially William Lane Craig for helping me learn material to counter this kind of error. I will leave the final smack down of Stephen Hawking to one Albert Einstein. Boom!

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