God vs. Stephen Hawking
If you’ve resisted all of my previous recommendations to acquire and actually read this or that book on apologetics, but would, nevertheless, like to consider yourself “well-read,” then get yourself a copy of John Lennox’s book, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? It’s only 87 pages long, including the preface.
Lennox is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Hawking is a physicist at the University of Cambridge, and so the debate seems appropriate to the long term rivalry between Britain’s two most prestigious academic institutions.
Lennox critiques Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, which is intended to convince you that there is no such thing. In Hawking’s view, “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.”
Hawking’s desire is to understand the nature of reality, where everything came from, whether the universe needs a Creator, and whether humankind can actually answer such questions. Since Stephen is such a smart and famous guy, a world-class physicist, he gets attention when he opines on subjects that are outside the purview of science.
Admitting that such foundational questions belong to the realm of philosophy – not his field of expertise – Hawking asserts, “Philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Lennox notes that at Hawking’s own university (Cambridge), philosophy has a long and prestigious history. My quick scan of the U of C Philosophy Department’s web site shows a substantial list of faculty, research fellows, teaching staff, and graduate students. I wonder whether they didn’t get Hawking’s memo that they’re all walking dead folks.
Lennox is right when he observes that “Hawking’s statement about philosophy is itself a philosophical statement. It is manifestly not a statement of science: it is a metaphysical statement about science. Therefore, his statement that philosophy is dead contradicts itself. It is a classic example of logical incoherence.”
Albert Einstein believed in the value of teaching the history and philosophy of science to physicists, writing: “So many people today, and even professional scientists, seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees, but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is, in my opinion, the mark of distinction between a mere artisan and a real seeker after truth.”
Lennox accuses Hawking of scientism, the view that science is the only way to determine truth, a scam often promoted by the so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. One reason I am writing this blog is that I’ve noticed that even non-scientists, including Christians, although not specifically guilty of scientism, often disparage philosophy. It’s not philosophy that should be trashed, but rather bad philosophy, just like bad science (evolution, global warming) or bad economics (socialism, for example). Should all science be trashed because some fudge their data, because some publish unwarranted conclusions bought and paid for by unscrupulous sponsors, because some serve only a political agenda (global warming comes to mind)?
So what is science? It’s a collection of methods employed to make sense of our environment, from the microscopically local to the cosmological. Science must be grounded in experiment, using sensors (including eyes, ears, photodiodes, galvanometers, etc.) to observe and measure what actually happens in our reality. Specifically, photons impinging on a sensor produce a current; consistent calibration produces confidence that the data are believable; statistical inference produces trends which are correlated with a theoretical prediction; the experiment is repeated under varied conditions to bolster confidence in a hypothesis, hopefully summarized in mathematics, so the results can be extrapolated to related scenarios. If the hypothesis survives much testing, let’s call it a theory.
This is all just a sketch, of course. Science done well leads to engineering of devices or structures or medicines that are useful. The subject is limited to what can be observed within our own environment, not a science fiction universe with arbitrary laws enabling warp drives and hand-held gigawatt death rays that somehow don’t fry the hand holding the ray gun. In addition to a tight grip on reality, science – at every step in the process – assumes rational thought, the elementary laws of logic (If P then Q; P: therefore Q). Implicitly, the practice of science assumes that it contributes to purpose and meaning in life, and depends on honesty and integrity to inhibit bad science. Purpose, meaning, and integrity, along with logic, are not subject to experimental science. Science is built on their foundation, not vice-versa. Furthermore, rational thought itself – as I have written many times and is a jaw-dropping argument that you should use in 121 evangelism with an atheist – cannot, in principle, be determined by brain chemistry. What’s the difference between a rational, logical idea and mere nonsense, if what comes out of your mouth is just the result of brain chemistry? In fact, is there a YOU in there, if the next thing you say is just acoustic noise provoked by brain chemistry?
Rational thought is foundational to science. Science is built ATOP rational thought. It owns science. You don’t start with science to explain rationality. You start with rationality to invent scientific methods. In a discussion on science and religion in 1930, Einstein said that our human sense of beauty and our religious instinct are “tributary forms in helping the reasoning faculty towards its highest achievements. You are right in speaking of the moral foundations of science, but you cannot turn round and speak of the scientific foundations of morality . . . Every attempt to reduce ethics to scientific formulae must fail.” Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman got it, too: “The sciences do not directly teach good or bad,” and, “Ethical values lie outside the scientific realm.”
In short, Hawking and other physicists, including lowly ones like myself, are akin to trained auto mechanics. We can analyze and fix the car, but we didn’t create the car. Furthermore, any auto mechanic who declared that the car came into existence without design, that it arose from literally nothing, would be called an idiot. At the very least, he would be speaking about matters beyond his expertise.
Peter Medawar, Nobel Laureate in Physiology (1960), in his book Advice to a Young Scientist, wrote: “There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare . . . that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions which do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or ‘pseudo-questions’ that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer . . . The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as: ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’”
Lennox is a Christian, although not a young-Earth creationist, citing Scripture, particularly Moses and Jeremiah, who warned against worshiping false gods, against deifying the sun, moon, stars, or other bits of the creation. Hawking promotes his atheism by insisting that we should reject God as revealed in the Bible, just like ancients eventually rejected various gods who personified bits of nature, who imagined that the earthquakes, storms, and other events in their experience were merely the act of some local god. Mysteries in the physical world were explained by invoking little gods, gods of the gaps of their understanding of their physical environment. Hawking and others claim they want to de-deify nature, that the Christian God is merely a God of the gaps.
What they misunderstand is that Moses and the prophets (and Paul in Romans Chapter 1) were about the same business, rebuking the idiocy of ascribing events to the petty whims of localized gods, gods who allegedly reside within this present world. In contrast, God, the Creator revealed in Scripture, is separate, beyond, distinct from His creation, the Cause of all of creation and the laws that define the normal physical operation of our world’s existence. Moses and the prophets warned against the introduction of ‘gods’ into a previously monotheistic culture! Polytheism was and is a perversion of the original worldview based on belief in the One Creator God.
Lennox quotes Werner Jaeger, from his book, The Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers: “If we compare this Greek hypostasis of the world-creative Eros with that of the Logos in the Hebrew account of creation, we may observe a deep-lying difference in the outlook of the two peoples. The Logos is a substantialization of an intellectual property or power of God the creator, who is stationed outside the world and brings the world into existence by his own personal fiat. The Greek gods are stationed inside the world; they are descended from Heaven and Earth.” Hawking therefore confuses God with ‘gods.’ He simply does not understand – or deliberately misunderstands – the Biblical nature of God, who is not a God of the Gaps, not someone who can be displaced simply by scientific advance. As Lennox summarizes, “God is not a God of the Gaps but the author of the whole show . . . Without him, nothing would be there for physicists like Stephen Hawking to study.”
One of Hawking’s main conclusions is: Because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing. Wow. Lennox suggests that Hawking should have studied a bit of philosophy, which includes training in the art of definition, logical analysis, and argument. Specifically, does Hawking really mean ‘nothing’? But apparently a law of gravity exists in this ‘nothing.’ More so, he must assume that gravity itself exists, because an abstract mathematical law has ‘nothing’ to do. And so Hawking simultaneously asserts that the universe came from ‘nothing’ and from ‘something.’
But when physicists talk about ‘nothing,’ they often mean a quantum vacuum, which is not nothing at all! Hawking also writes: “We are a product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe.” But a quantum vacuum presumes an already existing universe with laws already in operation, laws which describe ‘stuff’ that also exists.
When Hawking says “the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” he has made a self-contradictory assertion. If ‘X creates Y,’ X must exist first. But if ‘X creates X,’ we presuppose the existence of X to account for the existence of X. Nonsense! This isn’t science. It’s bad philosophy. And so in one brief statement, Hawking contradicts himself twice. The nothing turns out to be something and then something creates itself. Yet there is a third bit of nonsense here. A law of nature, by definition, is merely a description of a process that already exists, a process involving stuff that already exists. Laws, whether legal or scientific, are human constructs. Without planets (or stars or elementary particles) there are no Kepler’s laws of planetary motion or Newton’s laws to calculate the orbits. There may be a property of an existing universe that will prescribe such orbits once matter exists, but that property must be part of an existing ‘something,’ an existing universe.
Hawking ascribes creative power to physical law, but laws are not agents. God is an agent – a personal agent – and, therefore, a causal explanation for the existence of the universe. Physical laws are descriptions of what goes on within said universe. Laws can be termed ‘explanations’ for what goes on, but cannot, in principle, be thought of as explanations for the existence of what is described.
Lennox: “Suppose we replace the universe by a jet engine and then are asked to explain it. Shall we account for it by mentioning the personal agency of its inventor, Sir Frank Whittle? Or shall we follow Hawking: dismiss personal agency and explain the jet engine by saying that it arose naturally from physical law? It’s not a question of either / or. It is self-evident that we need both levels of explanation in order to give a complete description.” Similarly, the laws of biochemistry explain the moment-by-moment metabolic processes in biological organisms. But such laws do not create poplars and pandas.
Nonsense is nonsense even when expressed by famous scientists. In contrast, Sir Isaac Newton did not say: “Now that I have the law of gravity, I don’t need God.” He wrote Principia Mathematica, the most famous book in the history of science, with the hope that it would “persuade the thinking man” to believe in God. Indeed, the more a thinking (and honest) man explores the wonders of creation, from cellular processes to cosmology, the more awe he should have for the brilliance of the Architect of it all.
More so, what about the Why questions? Why did Frank Whittle invent the jet engine? If you don’t know, should you conclude that Whittle never existed? Atheistic scientists want to define science to exclude all why questions. That way God can be excluded from consideration: no purpose, therefore no God. All these fools have accomplished is to limit science so that TRUTH cannot be found. And yet they claim that science can find all answers. Which is it? It is only their determined atheism that prevents them from finding God.
Such debates are not new. In William Paley’s famous treatise, Natural Theology, he writes of a person who has just stumbled upon a watch, who would be dismayed to hear someone try to convince him that “the watch in his hand was nothing more than the result of the laws of metallic nature. It is a perversion of language to assign any law as the efficient, operative cause of any thing. A law presupposes an agent; for it is only the mode, according to which an agent proceeds: it implies a power; for it is the order, according to which that power acts. Without this agent, without this power, which are both distinct from itself, the law does nothing; it is nothing.”
Lennox: “The sun rises in the east every day, but this law does not create the sun; nor the planet earth, with east and west. The law is descriptive and predictive, but it is not creative . . . Newton’s celebrated laws of motion never caused a pool ball to race across the green baize table.”
Paul Davies, another atheistic physicist, reveals that these are heart matters more than head issues when he admits that “it is much more inspiring to believe that a set of mathematical laws can be so clever as to bring all these things into being.”
The laws of arithmetic (1 + 1 = 2) can explain that if I put $1000 in my bank account today and another $1000 in tomorrow, how I will have $2000 in total. But the laws of arithmetic will not, by themselves, put any money in my account. If I wait around for math to make me rich . . . how stupid. Yet this is the logic by which the “brights” – the term the New Atheists use to describe themselves – declare solved the existence of galaxies, stars, planets, petunias, paramecia, and people.
What is Hawking’s answer to the fine-tuning question, the incredible combination of physical constants and initial conditions that must be satisfied in our universe for life to exist? His faith is in the multiverse, which embraces a variety of potential scenarios such that our universe is just one of a zillion cubed, and we live in the one that got lucky. Simple logic intervenes even here, though. Even if this desperate fantasy were true, the multiverse doesn’t exclude God. It just makes the problem more severe for the ‘something out of nothing’ crowd. Who made the multiverse? What are the rules and who invented them to account for the diversity of universe types and when and how they spring into existence? Is the multi-verse fine-tuned? Since all multiverse ideas are purely speculative, what does science have to say about them, since they are not subject to observation and experiment? This goes way beyond science and even way beyond philosophy, into the realm of fantasy. After all, in an infinite multiverse you would expect to find unicorns and fairies, goblins and trolls . . . at least somewhere.
Indeed, some views of the multiverse insist that since it is infinite and infinitely varied, it follows that everything that can happen does happen in one or more or a sub-infinite number of universes. And so, as I’ve written before, in some universe right now(!), Captain Kirk is battling Klingons and in another, Frodo is climbing Mount Doom. Yet Hawking criticizes Christians for believing in miracles!
(Christian) philosopher Alvin Plantinga observes that if every possible universe exists, then in one of them God (of the Bible) must exist, since His existence is logically possible. It follows that since God is omnipotent and omnipresent, He must exist in every universe, and so you may as well conclude that there is just one universe, of which God is Creator and Sustainer.
Lennox describes how String Theory and its extension, M-Theory, are purely speculative ways to create mathematics to describe a purely speculative multiverse. Once again, mathematical equations – constructs of the mind (or brain chemistry?) – do not have the power to create material universes. “Allow for” and “describe” are not in the same class as “create.” Lennox laments that such games are “attempts to get rid of the Creator by conferring creatorial powers on something that is not in itself capable of doing any creating – an abstract theory.” Moreover, Paul Davies says of M-Theory: “It is not testable, not even in any foreseeable future.”
The only question to me is whether these most admired advocates for pointlessness are self-deceived or deliberately lying. Such elementary errors in logic! Is it possible that they can be accidentally illogical, even after careful edits while writing their books? Can’t the editors at the publishing companies think straight?
Roger Penrose, a well known mathematician and theoretical physicist, commented on Hawking’s book: “The book is a bit misleading. It gives this impression of a theory that is going to explain everything; it’s nothing of the sort. It’s not even a theory.” Penrose also mentioned that M-theory was “hardly science.”
Why do people buy into bad philosophy? Well, it’s difficult for most of us to think that well-respected, smart guys can get basic ideas so terribly wrong; worse, that they might be dishonest. This is partly why lying politicians can be so successful. Surely, she wouldn’t lie about such issues! She seems so sincere! Ultimately, though, worldviews reside primarily in the heart. The mind generates whatever rationale is required to keep the heart content. If one’s heart despises God, despises accountability and moral limitations, a book like Hawking’s will bolster resolve to deny Truth. Such resolve prevents critical analysis which would reveal Hawking’s bad philosophy as nonsense, and life in the flesh can proceed without the conscience getting in the way.
Scientists are people. Surprised? The ‘best’ ones are more clever in math or in devising instrumentation, or in fund raising, or in communicating winsomely in the publishing marketplace. All humans, including scientists, have well-established worldviews that filter what they observe, in what they spend time thinking about, and whether they even listen to someone with an opposing view. Over 40 years ago, when I first started doing 121 evangelism, knocking doors, talking to folks on the street, I discovered that everyone is a philosopher, whichever end of the Bell Curve they call home . . . everyone has a worldview which they figure is closer to reality than his neighbor’s.
Lennox dispenses quickly with the Hawking retort (also used regularly by Richard Dawkins) that if you declare that God is the Cause, then you must determine who created God. If that argument were valid, it can be reflected promptly. If gravity or quantum fluctuations created the universe, then who created gravity or quantum fluctuations? Or, in everyday life, if you claim that a particular skyscraper had an architect, then you must show who created the architect. No, if it is obvious that a painting was created by a painter, then we are sure of the painter’s existence, even if we know nothing about him.
More significantly, the atheist’s specious objection reveals an utter lack of understanding of the Biblical revelation of God, who is self-existent, independent of and the Creator of time, space, and matter. He had no Creator. He is the ‘I AM’ from eternity past through eternity future. Can we get our heads around that, given our oh-so-finite temporal and spatial existence as tiny little human beings? Of course not, but that’s just an honest admission of our limited scope in understanding and experience. My smallness and finiteness actually gives me an encouraging hope, that God is so big and so indescribably awesome that eternity future will never allow boredom, that I will never see the end of the story.
Since science is limited, how can we find out the rest of TRUTH? Well, everyone knows the answer to that! If I want to know WHY my wife just spent the morning cutting and sawing out in the garage, I can ask her . . . she was fixing a valued chair. Thus, revelation can supply purpose, intent. Historical eyewitness accounts can provide information from before our time, and so we can evaluate the reliability of the Gospel accounts, the history of the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Archeology exists because we recognize design in artifacts, in tools, in pottery. We infer design even when we find a penny or a paperclip lying in the road. Forensic science allows justice to be delivered even when there are no eyewitnesses. A bullet-ridden corpse is not explained away by natural physical and chemical processes.
In such forensic or historical matters, which will not be repeated in an ongoing experimental process, the procedure is called “inference to the best explanation,” or “abductive inference.” Every time we watch a detective mystery, we use such thought processes – not random brain chemistry – to infer ‘who done it.’ The existence and present form of the universe, along with the origin and spectacular features of biological life, allow a certain inference to the best explanation, far more reliable than a slam-dunk jury verdict for a mere life vs. death decision, that God exists and He has a purpose for what He fashioned. Revelation and history assuredly indicated that God’s will and purposes are given to us through the Bible. Finally, your personal experience can validate TRUTH beyond all doubt. Simply seek Him, humble yourself, repent from your sins, call out to Him – the Lord Jesus – for mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. He will answer your prayers, transform your heart, and introduce you to – not just a worldview in perfect sync with reality, but – Himself . . . Creator, Savior, Father, Elder Brother, and Friend for this life and for eternity.