Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God (1996)

Antony Flew

 

Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time [1] has been a record breaking best seller. A note in his later collection, Black Holes and Baby Universes [2] reveals that A Brief History remained on the bestseller list of The New York Times for fifty-three weeks, that as of February 1993 it had been on The Sunday Times best seller list for 205 weeks, and that translations into 33 languages other than English had already been published (p. 29). Also in that later collection, Hawking remarks parenthetically: "In the proof stage I nearly cut the last sentence in the book... Had I done so, the sales might have been halved."[3] To appreciate that sentence it is necessary to read the whole paragraph with which the earlier book concludes:

However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God. (p.193)

Since this Brief History has achieved such an enormous circulation, and since the author believes that this has in large part been due to the book's actual or supposed theological implications, these surely deserve some critical examination. But the fact that he came so close to deleting that final sentence suggests that he himself was not very interested in such possible implications. Certainly he fails to make any of the distinctions needed for their fruitful discussion.

For instance: if there is a true answer to "the question of why it is that we and the universe exist" it can only be because, as a matter of fact, the universe was and/or is caused to exist by something outside itself. Even if that is indeed the case it still does not necessarily follow -- as is too often and too easily assumed[4] -- that such a cause must be a personal God capable of harbouring purposes in creating and sustaining us and the universe which we inhabit.

Many of the greatest scientists of earlier centuries -- Michael Faraday, for instance -- believed that all natural laws, and not only the yet to be discovered most fundamental, provide insights into the mind of God. For these natural laws were and are, in their view, the principles upon which God designs and controls His universe.

For them, and presumably for most of Hawking's readers, the word 'God' refers to an hypothesized omnipotent, omniscient, incorporeal yet personal Creator; the traditional Mosaic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This conception of God needs to be, but here is not, sharply distinguished from that of Einstein; which, I suspect, is for at least part of the time that of Hawking. Einstein was once asked -- to settle an argument -- whether he believed in God. He replied that he believed in Spinoza's God.[5] Since for Spinoza the words 'God' and 'Nature' were synonymous Einstein was, in the eyes of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, unequivocally an atheist.[6] It was in this Spinozistic understanding of the word 'God' that Einstein protested against quantum theory "The Lord God does not play dice." And it is in a similar way that we have to interpret his statement, now inscribed over a fireplace in Fine Hall in Princeton University: "God who creates and is nature is very difficult to understand, but he is not arbitrary or malicious."

I. WAS THERE A BIG BANG BEGINNING?

Suppose now that having made this distinction we proceed to ask what if any evidencing reason Hawking has provided for believing that the universe was and/or is caused to exist and to have the characteristics which it is observed to have by a God in the first and more traditional and popular of the two understandings distinguished. Despite that concluding sentence in his first book the answer in that book appears to be "None at all." It was in 1981 that he first entertained "the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation" (p.128). This possibility he has now come to believe is the actuality; an actuality which "has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe"(p. 158):

So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end, it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator? (pp. 156 - 157)

The suggestion embodied in that concluding rhetorical question cannot but appeal to the ungodly. Yet, however congenial that conclusion, anyone who is not a theoretical physicist is bound to be tempted to respond, like some character from Damon Runyon's Broadway: "If the Big Bang was not a beginning, still it will at least do until a beginning comes along."[7] It seems that Hawking himself would have at least some sympathy with such a response. For he says, "An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!" (p. 10). And on the same page he goes on to say:

Hubble's observations suggested that there was a time, called the big bang, when the universe was infinitesimally small and infinitely dense. Under such conditions all the laws of science, and therefore all the ability to predict the future, would break down. If there were events earlier than this time, then they could not affect what happens at the present time. Their existence can be ignored because it would have no observational consequences. One may say that time had a beginning at the big bang, in the sense that earlier times simply would not be defined. (p. 10)[8]

The consequence, therefore, seems to be that, even if it were to be allowed that the universe as we know it began with the Big Bang, still physics must always remain radically agnostic: it is physically impossible to discover what if anything caused that Big Bang.

In writing that "an expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job" (p. 10), and elsewhere also, Hawking writes as if for him, or perhaps it is only for his readers, the problem is: not to discover whether there is sufficient or even any evidencing (as opposed to motivating) reason for believing in the existence and activities of a Creator; but instead to find some suitable cosmological employment for a God already known or believed to exist and to be active. So once Hawking is persuaded that, since the universe had no beginning, there is no room for God to serve as a First Cause "in the beginning," he starts to look elsewhere for suitable Divine employment.

This distinction between two conceptions of the problem is of crucial importance. For it is only in so far as you believe that you have sufficient evidencing reasons rationally to justify your believing in the existence and activities of God that it becomes reasonable for you to hypothesize that your God caused the universe to exist and the Big Bang to occur. Absent such a prior belief, physicists choosing to speculate about the nature of the possible but physically unknowable cause of the Big Bang would be bound to seek for a cause of the kind which they and their colleagues have discovered to be operating within the knowable Universe. Just about the last idea which would ever enter such unprejudiced heads is that of creation by an omnipotent, omniscient, incorporeal, personal Being. And, even if they did entertain such an idea, they would surely hesitate to add to it the idea that the Creator acts as a partisan within the creation, favouring some kinds of conduct and penalizing others.

Although of the greatest importance, this last point is almost always overlooked. The reason, surely, is that almost all those who have ever essayed to seek evidencing (as opposed to motivating) reasons for believing in the Mosaic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have themselves been raised among what Islam knows as "peoples of the Book"? Men and women raised in such environments have been, and most of us still are, prejudiced by the prophetic teachings of generations of parents and pedagogues, of priests and rabbis, of Imams and Ayatollahs, into accepting without question or surprise a conception of the hypothesized initiating and sustaining cause of the Universe as an omnipotent, omniscient, incorporeal yet personal Being who is at the same time a partisan approving and rewarding some sorts of human behaviour while disapproving and punishing others. But, to anyone who was for the first time and open-mindedly entertaining the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent Creator, it would surely appear obvious that everything that occurs or does not occur within a created universe must be expected to be precisely and only what its Creator wants to occur or not to occur. Certainly we are all members of a kind of creature who can, and cannot but, make choices between possible alternative courses of action. But an hypothesized omnipotent and omniscient Creator must be presumed -- absent any supernatural revelation to the contrary -- to ensure that we all are such individuals as will freely choose to make all the choices which we do freely choose to make in whatever senses that Creator wants those choices to be freely made.

In this perspective we may see the achievement traditionally attributed to Moses as possessing a truly world-historical significance. For it was he who is supposed to have produced the God of Mosaic theism by an extraordinary marriage of a limited, finite, tribal god with an omniscient, omnipotent Creator. Although hugely fertile that was nevertheless a case of theological miscegenation. Tribal gods are naturally devoted to the values and the best interests of the tribe. That, after all, is what they evolved to become. But it is equally natural to characterize a or the Creator -- as it is said that some Indian thinkers unprejudiced by any Mosaic commitments do characterize a or the Creator -- as being, essentially and in the nature of the case, "beyond good and evil."

II. SO WHY DOES THE UNIVERSE EXIST?

At the very end of A Brief History of Time, as we have seen, Hawking does momentarily transcend the austere agnosticism which would seem to be the appropriate stance for physicists who do not assume that they have been vouchsafed some supernatural revelation. For he there entertains the possibility that one day everyone may be able to play an informed part in "the discussion of the question why it is that we and the universe exist" (p. 193). This possibility will, he believes, be realized "if we do discover a complete theory. For such a theory should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone" (p. 193). But, as he has said before:

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?... Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him? (p. 192)

We can get some further light on the mind of Stephen Hawking, if not of God, from his later book Black Holes and Baby Universes. There, in his interview for Desert Island Discs, he said that after all his theoretical work "You still have the question: why does the universe bother to exist? If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question" (p. 159).

Indeed you can. But it is important to appreciate how little has been achieved by this verbal manoeuvre. You have simply stipulated that the word 'God' is to be equivalent to the expression 'the cause of the existence of the Universe'. And this verbal manoeuvre does nothing to establish even that there actually is or was a cause of the existence of the universe, much less that that cause was and is the Mosaic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

It can be illuminating here to refer to Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.[9] For in Part I of those Dialogues Philo, who is usually taken to have been for the most part the mouthpiece of Hume himself, suggests that:

where reasonable men treat these subjects the question can never be concerning the being, but only the nature of the Deity. The former ... is unquestionable and self-evident. Nothing exists without a cause; and the original cause of this universe (whatever it be) we call God. (emphasis original)

Philo is thus making the same suggestion as Hawking: the word 'God' is to be defined as referring to the putative cause of the existence of the universe. Having defined the word 'God' in this extremely non-committal way, Philo would have had to allow that this God too would require a cause of its existence, and that cause also a cause of Its existence; and so on to infinity. But, if people believe either that the universe had a beginning and that the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was the First Cause of that beginning or that the universe had no beginning and that God was and is and will be the First Cause of its existence, then they should dismiss the question "Who or what made or produced God?" as uncomprehending and improper. For their God is by definition the uncaused First Cause of everything else; a Being uncreated, eternal and without beginning.

In a lecture given in 1987, and printed as Chapter 9 of Black Holes and Baby Universes, Hawking said that "science...cannot answer the question why does the universe bother to exist," and confessed "I don't know the answer to that" (p. 90). But, if the universe had no beginning, why should we assume that there must be or have been a cause of its existence, even if neither Hawking nor anyone else knows what it was? Hawking himself, as we have seen, went on to argue in A Brief History of Time that if, as he now believes, "the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have no beginning nor end, would simply be. What place then for a creator?" (p. 157). But what place then for any other kind of cause? Why should we not simply accept the existence of the universe, as theists simply accept the existence of their God, as being itself the ultimately unexplained and inexplicable brute fact?

It is important here to recognize that any explanatory system has ultimately to end in something which is not, or some things which are not, themselves explained. This is a consequence which follows from the essential nature of explanations why something, which is in fact the case, is in fact the case. Suppose, for instance, that we notice and are puzzled by the fact that the new white paint above our gas cooker so quickly turns a dirty brown. The first stage is to discover that this is what always happens, with that sort of stove, and that kind of paint. Pressing our questioning to a second stage we learn that this phenomenon is to be explained by certain wider and deeper regularities of chemical combination: the sulphur in the gas fumes forms a compound with something in the paint, and that is what changes its colour. Driving on still further we are led to see the squalor in our kitchen as one of the innumerable consequences of the truth of an all-embracing atomic-molecular theory of the structure of matter. And so on. At every stage explanation is and has to be in terms of something or some things which, at least at that stage, has or have to be accepted as unexplained brute facts that is just how things are.

The conclusion, therefore, is that until and unless he can find sufficient evidencing reason rationally to justify him in believing that the universe is created and maintained by a personal Being having a purpose in so doing, Hawking ought to adopt the position which Hume in deference to Pierre Bayle called not Stratonian but Stratonician atheism. This position is named for Strato of Lampsacus, who was next but one after Aristotle as Director of the Lyceum. Strato's contention was that the existence of the universe and the subsistence of whatever may be discovered to be its most fundamental laws ought simply to be accepted as the explanatory ultimates for which no further explanation is either necessary or possible.

Notes

[1] Bantam, 1988

[2] Bantam, 1993

[3] Ibid, p. 33

[4] "Perhaps the simplest and most psychologically satisfying explanation of any observed phenomenon is that it happened that way because someone wanted it to happen that way." Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions, Basic Books, 1980, p. 97.

[5] A. Sommerfeld, "To Albert Einstein's Seventieth Birthday", in P.A. Schilpp (ed.) Albert Einstein': Philosopher Scientist, Harper Torchbooks, Vol. 1,1959, p.103.

[6] For a statement of his reasons for this atheism, see his Out of my Later Years, Thames & Hudson, 1950, pp. 26 - 27. For most of those later years Einstein was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association.

[7] See Damon Runyon, Runyon on Broadway, Constable, 1950.

[8] An earlier generation, tutored by P. W. Bridgman's"', The Logic of Modern Physics, Macmillan, 1948, would have said that expressions supposedly referring to such earlier times could not be given operational, physical meaning.

[9] The standard edition is that by Norman Kemp Smith. This was originally published by the Oxford University Press in 1935, but reissued with a Supplement in 1947 by Thomas Nelson in Edinburgh.

"Stephen Hawking and the Mind of God" is copyright © 1996 by Antony Flew.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 Internet Infidels with the written permission of Antony Flew.

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