Hawking Strikes Again

I hesitate to go back to Stephen Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, as the press coverage at the time was immense and many people followed it closely. But his recent blast on film against religion (extract from new documentary previewed on Channel 4 Evening News on 16 September 2013) encourages me to revisit the subject.

One of the big issues the book has thrown up is that it pushes people to decide between science and religion for their understanding of the universe, rather than holding the two together. While atheists mock theists, many Christians may be driven to treat science with contempt.

Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon introduced the idea that God has revealed himself in two books – the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, the works of God and the words of God, observable truth and revealed truth. The danger of closing one book and reading only the other is destined to lead to a truncated understanding of both God and nature. The Christian understands that all truth is God’s truth. We cannot turn a blind eye to areas, where there are solid grounds for believing that something is true. If it is true, it is on our side.

However, it must be admitted that the truths of neither Book are entirely self-evident. What appears to be clear, may prove misleading – in science and in Scripture.

A Humble Approach to Knowing

I studied science at a time when there was a great deal of confident talk about ‘proof’ and scientific ‘certainty’, despite Hume’s insistence that ultimate proof only exists in terms of mathematics. A revolution has happened in the past fifty years. Philosophers (Popper et al) have challenged the confidence of scientific methodology. Verification is not as simple as we thought. We have rested on assumptions that are unsustainable. Memory is not a reliable indicator of the past – as my wife keeps telling me – and sense perception is no guarantee of objective reality. We cannot even be sure we are not hallucinating. Furthermore scientists are not always honest and may distort the truth, even unwittingly, for their own personal agenda. Logical positivism has consequently shifted towards a more critical realism.

We have had to learn that we are not the detached, honest, objective observers we thought we were. Rather we see through coloured lenses. We come to the laboratory bench and to the library table with ‘baggage’. Our prejudices and our blind-spots, our limited intelligence and mistakes, our honesty and integrity must all be taken into consideration.

This is evident in medical research. Sometimes the enthusiasm of the researcher has led him to falsify the results. Sometimes that focussed zeal – and you need a great deal of enthusiasm to embark on an exhausting research project – limits the searching questions that you ask. When the paper is published, you can be sure no-one else has thoroughly checked all your figures, sweated to determine your bias or wrestled with all the other ways the data could be interpreted. If five researchers put their names to a paper – and everyone is keen to get his name on published research – it may well be that only one or two of them have carefully studied all the findings. We then have the problems of bias from those who financed the research and from the publisher who placed it in his journal. Why did he publish this paper and not that? Some factors – conscious and unconscious – influence these decisions.

We have to draw reasonable conclusions about the world we live in, or we will find ourselves in a fantasy world.

We might also ask why a publisher chooses to publish one book and not another. It is quite evident that a book with Hawking’s name of the front is going to do very much better financially than one with a less famous name on it. (A Brief History of Time sold 6 million hardback copies. Mine cost £15, which was a lot of money in 1988.)

There is no doubting Hawking’s enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it isn’t just for science. He also appears to be enthusiastic for self-publicity. Some scientists have ventured the opinion that his book, The Grand Design, contained little, or indeed nothing, that was new and if it was not for his name on the cover, it may well have been difficult to get it published.

Neither is he immune to prejudice. Those closest to him confirm that he has been an atheist for years, as his recent statements on camera laid bare. He is hardly an honest broker in that department.

Being Open to Truth

It is in the nature of science to be sceptical. The hard questions must be asked and ‘truths’ embraced cautiously and provisionally. However there is no place for cynicism or wholesale dismissal of science. We have to draw reasonable conclusions about the world we live in, or we will find ourselves in a fantasy world.

To close the Book of Nature, as some do in their outright denial of evolution, is to opt for a divided view of truth and a failure to marvel at the wonders of the way we are made.

Studying the Scriptures is not always straightforward either. Most of us have changed our minds about the meaning of key passages over the years and are by no means certain how some statements should be interpreted.

So both the scientist and Bible scholar must approach their tasks with a good deal of humility and insight into their own weaknesses. Truth is tentative. We deal with probabilities not certainties. In both science and religion, we are called to walk by faith – trusting in our inadequate understandings of both observed and revealed truths, rather than in any final ultimate ‘knowing’. “Now I know in part…” wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12).The flipside of knowledge is ignorance and the other side of faith is always doubt. Our understandings in this world are destined to be partial.

In the Beginning, Gravity…

Hawking is certainly capable of making mistakes. The gist of his thesis is that the universe is self-generating – an inevitable outworking of the laws of physics. “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing.” (p.180). It is at this point that his statement that "philosophy is dead" (p.5) is so evidently mistaken. Physical laws, such as gravity, are expressions of the relationship between existing entities. If you have not got any existing entities, it is very difficult to see how you can have a relationship between them. It is rather like talking about love in the absence of persons. It does not exist as an abstract idea.

If you have not got any existing entities, it is very difficult to see how you can have a relationship between them.

Hawking’s book cannot explain where gravity or quantum mechanics came from.

Philosophy might also have helped Hawking think beyond the simplistic question of ‘who created God?’ as though that settled anything (p.172). The relative merits of an uncreated first cause over against an infinite regress of causes are not so easily rubbished. Offering spontaneous creation out of nothing presents us with a third option. A cynic might well argue that they are all patently absurd, but he will be hard put to bring a fourth possibility to the table.

Is M-Theory Science?

Hawking’s bias is also shown in his enthusiasm for M-Theory, a unifying theory of superstrings. Many physicists do not share his views. Some point out that the theory can never be verified and if that is true, it fails the first criterion of empirical science. The final sentence in the book is this: “If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have found the grand design.” His Brief History of Time, of course, concluded that we would then know the mind of God. Now he prefers to speak of a design without a designer.

He leaves us then with the impression that scientists are ‘on the case’ and that any day now M-Theory might be verified. That of course is not true at all or he would presumably have delayed writing his book until he had something compelling to report. Prof. Russell Stannard suggests, “A particle accelerator capable of probing M-theory would, it seems, be the size of the galaxy.” So that shouldn’t happen any time soon! Cosmologist Paul Davies has commented that “The theory is not testable, not even in any foreseeable future. For this reason, M-theory gets a lot of flak from within the physics community.” Physicist Peter Woit has written a book on string theory, entitled, Not Even Wrong. He says it could easily turn out to be vacuous idea that doesn’t predict anything. John Butterworth, a particle physicist at University College London who is engaged in experimental research at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, also believes that M-Theory could not be tested. He said “All scientific knowledge is provisional but it lies on a spectrum from very solid to very speculative. M-Theory is highly speculative.”

None of this is to say that Hawking’s book is not worth reading. It is a particularly lucid account of the discoveries of modern physics and is written for people with no background in science. The book itself is not long and is nicely bound, presented and illustrated.

The penultimate chapter, called 'The Apparent Miracle', is particularly effective. If any chapter is worth reading in isolation, this one is. It describes the astonishing fine-tuning of the universe. “Our universe and its laws appear to have a design that both is tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration. That is not easily explained and raises the natural question of why it is that way.” (p.162)

The fine-tuning of the universe definitely needs explaining, and the reasons are graphically set out. But Hawking and Dawkins both opt for the multiverse theory to explain it. This can no more be scientifically verified than the existence of God himself. As such, it falls outside the remit of legitimate scientific ideas.

In a recent statement, Hawking ignored the fine-tuning question completely. He was asked to explain how the universe came into existence all by itself, and wasn’t this an arrogant assertion rather than an exciting discovery? (Times Magazine 21 September 2013).

A brilliant design – yet without a designer? I think Hawking ought to read his own penultimate chapter again!

In his reply, he said, “The only place where people might invoke the hand of God is the Big Bang, the beginning of the universe. Is it arrogant to assume that the laws that hold elsewhere also hold at the beginning of the universe? This implies the universe creates itself.”

But it is not just the matter of creation out of nothing, a creation without a creator, staggering concept as that is. It ignores the problem that the ‘something’ that came out of nothing, is this sort of something, finely-tuned at the outset to a mind-boggling degree, as though it somehow anticipated the development of intelligent life. A brilliant design – yet without a designer? I think Hawking ought to read his own penultimate chapter again!

The End of Science?

There are those who feel that science may be going as far as it can go, in understanding the origins of the universe, at least in terms of theoretical physics. There are at least three major limiting factors. One is economic. The cost involved in creating the apparatus to test some recent theories is increasingly unaffordable. For instance, the Large Hadron Collider had a budget of 9 billion US dollars. The apparatus to test M-Theory would apparently make it look like a pea-shooter in comparison! The second limiting factor is intellectual. It may just be beyond the ability of human comprehension to reconcile quantum theory with general relativity, a view Sir Martin Rees has put forward. Perhaps we would need the mind of God to understand it. A third limiting factor to which Hawking has previously referred, regarding Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, is the intrinsic difficulty of trying to understand a system while being inside it and part of it. We would need to stand outside the space-time universe to completely understand it. And that we cannot do.

So humanity may well have to come to terms with irresolvable mystery concerning the origins of the universe. We then have to take a choice. Compared with an infinite regress of causes or a spontaneous creation out of nothing, an uncaused first cause may continue to be the most intellectually satisfying option. As the philosophers would say, this is a necessary being. And that has big implications for everyone.

Related Articles

Peter May 'Fine Tuning the Multiverse Theory' and 'Responding to the Goldilocks Enigma'.
For links to a number of reviews, comments and responses to The Grand Design, see 'Stephen Hawking and God'.

© 2013 Peter May
This article is a revised version of an article first published in the Newsletter of the European Leadership Forum.