Is Stephen Hawking Right About God?

09/13/2010 08:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Philip Clayton, Ph.D. Ingraham Professor, Claremont School of Theology; speaker and blogger on the future of faith

Not only is Stephen Hawking one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, he also enjoys a mystique perhaps rivaled only by Albert Einstein. As Time once commented, "Even as he sits helpless in his wheelchair, his mind seems to soar ever more brilliantly across the vastness of space and time in order to unlock the secrets of the universe."

Hawking's recent comments on God have thus unleashed a torrent of attention. In his forthcoming book, The Grand Design, he comments, "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."

If you know Hawking's work, these comments won't surprise you. Of course, he does conclude his Brief History of Time with the claim that if we could discover the fundamental laws of nature, "then we should know the mind of God." No religious faith underlies this statement, however. The book as a whole argues that God plays no essential role in understanding the physical universe.

In fact, Hawking's recent pronouncements about God echo the famous comment by the eighteenth-century successor to Newton, Laplace. The emperor Napoleon is said to have asked him, "But where is God in your physics?" Legend has it that the physicist Laplace responded, "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis."

One can even find the story that explains Hawking's attitude. At one point he was invited to Rome by the Jesuits for a conference on cosmology. In his technical paper he explained the view for which he is famous, known as the Hartle-Hawking hypothesis: although the universe has a finite age (it has not existed forever), there is no t = 0, that is, no first moment of time. If there is no "moment of creation," there is no place for a Creator.

Shortly after delivering his talk, Hawking and the other physicists were invited to an audience with the Pope. The Pope, he reports, told them that "it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God." Hawking quips, "I was glad then that he did know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference."

It seemed to Hawking that the Pope was warning physicists away from the very questions where they could make the greatest progress. To accept that warning and to stay away from these questions would be to sell out as a scientist. It is as if, at that moment, Hawking resolved to have nothing more to do with the God idea. Or, to put it more carefully: he began to use the idea of God as shorthand for whatever would be the final physical theory about the origin of the universe.

Four Possible Answers

Now the $64,000 question: was he right? Cal Thomas gives a simple response on FOX News: scripture says, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" So "if Hawking thinks it's all foolishness, isn't that evidence he is perishing?" For many of us, however, important questions of this sort require some rather deeper reflection. Consider the following four possibilities:

First, Richard Dawkins could be right. Shortly after Hawking's conversations with the press, Dawkins hosted his own "webchat" on the topic. His interpretation was predictably much harsher than Hawking's own: "Darwin kicked [God] out of biology, but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace."

As always, Dawkins' hyper-critical construal of religion brings out the offensive squad for the Religion Team. The second option is that Dawkins is totally mistaken; physics does have need of the God hypothesis. The arguments are legion: the basic physical constants are "fine-tuned" for the emergence of life, which is firm evidence of God's providential ordering of the cosmos. The regularities of natural laws can only be explained by God's character and purpose. The fit between human cognitive capacities and the natural world -- for example, our ability to do mathematical physics -- is proof God meant us to recognize Him in the natural world. In short, advocates claim, the more physics advances, the more evidence there is of the existence and providential care of God.

Hawking's third option falls somewhere between the first two. Science can only work when no questions are off limits. The explosive advances in science over the last centuries have removed physics' dependence on theology. In particular, cosmology supports the "weak" anthropic principle (any universe we find ourselves in must be conducive to the evolution of intelligent life) but not the "strong" anthropic principle (this universe was designed to produce us). Quantum cosmology -- using quantum physics to explain the origin of the universe -- eliminates the need for any external "push" to get things started. Instead, quantum fluctuations, followed by a period of extremely rapid expansion ("inflation"), might be sufficient by themselves to explain the origin of the universe. And finally, Hawking and friends maintain, if an infinite number of universes in fact compose one "multiverse," any biophilic features we observe are merely the luck of the draw in this particular universe. No inferences can be drawn about divine creative intent.

God and Mystery

But there is a fourth position. The truth is, recent developments in science do make conclusions about God more difficult. But do they really render the God hypothesis superfluous?

Here I would push back against Hawking. Religion that would block or control the growth of science should be resisted. But it's simply not true that science has dissolved any role for mystery. As it advanced, twentieth-century physics actually expanded the place for the unknown. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle expresses limits on how fully we can know both the location and momentum of a particle, and the speed of light represents an absolute limit for the speed of information exchange. Limits of knowledge are not excuses for shutting down scientific inquiry and replacing it with answers based on scriptural authority. But they are profound reminders of how much we don't know. Amazing advances in scientific knowledge lie ahead of us. But nothing in the history of science suggests that our knowledge will be limitless. Indeed, Stephen Hawking has been one of the great voices reminding us of this fact.

Richard Dawkins may wish to use Hawking's comments to define science as the arch-rival of religion. Returning the compliment, religious commentators proclaim death to science in the name of religion. Careful observers will note that Stephen Hawking's language has been more irenic. Still, he continues to proclaim that progress in science rules out any notion of God.

But here the great physicist overreaches himself. When believers use claims about God to handcuff science, they act wrongly. But no such conflict is produced when we recognize that deep mysteries lie beyond the limits of scientific knowledge. Religious faith has its origins here, beyond the bounds of empirical demonstration. To declare this region empty of the divine is as much an act of faith as it is to find God here.