This is not a review of Stephen Hawking’s A Grand Design, which I have not read in full yet, but rather a reflection on the crossroads of belief and fact. One theme prevalent throughout much of science fiction is the conflict over differing views of the universe between believers and scientists. Unfortunately, this contrast is often shown as part of a dichotomy as if it were an either/or choice and not a natural blending of the spiritual and the physical. Stephen Hawking’s recent work lines up with this oppositional perspective using the tools of science to probe into the questions of God, faith, and creation as if they can be answered with experiments and mathematics.
From Hawking’s perspective it seems that the entire validity of God and thousands of years of religious belief rest on whether our current scientific understanding of the creation of the universe has any room, or rather, any need for God. Ignoring for now the obvious scientific problem of trying to understand a transcendent God ultimately outside of space and time Hawking also relegates God to the unknown parts of our universe as if our further understanding pushes God away instead of revealing his handiwork in all its grandeur and beauty. This understanding ultimately casts God solely in the role of a watchmaker creating the universe and then letting it run on its own.
In his new book Hawking has come to the conclusion, based on new theories and equations that describe the first moments of the universe, that the universe no longer needs a creator to have been created. Hawking writes, “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.” I cannot hope nor do I wish to challenge Hawking’s mastery of physics and mathematics, but I do challenge his interpretation of his findings. He may be able to explain through physics how our universe may have come into being, but he has not answered why we are here. Science is fundamentally blind to the moment before creation. From our current understanding of the moment of creation anything before it would have existed outside of our perspective of space and time and is pure conjecture based not on science but on faith.
The other main point that Hawking uses to challenge the existence of God is that because planets orbiting other stars have been discovered the Earth and humanity are far less special on a cosmic scale than we previously thought. Here Hawking seems to be operating under the belief that since the Copernican Model of our solar system, which correctly placed the sun at the center of our stellar system, was published in 1543 the ignorance of living in God and faith has been slowly whittled away by fact and reason. However, this is also a matter of belief and interpretation. While some Atheists, and unfortunately some Christians too, believe that scientific discoveries about our world are victories for reason and defeats for religion I have never understood this view.
While we must always be careful of the few scientists out there who are actively trying to interpret their findings to disprove God, they are I believe not the majority of scientists, and science at its core is a tool to understand our universe and our place in it. It is a twisted faith that can be eroded away simply because true science brings us closer to understanding our universe and the laws that govern its workings. It is not fundamental to Christianity that the Earth be the center of the universe, nor does Christianity hinge on the size or age of the universe. Frankly, to an infinite God any size universe is small in comparison. It is short sited to reject observation and true science and to confuse true revelation and belief in God with an incorrect understanding of the world. For instance, Georges Lemaître, an astronomer and catholic priest, first proposed what became known as the big bang theory. Before this theory many physicists rejected the idea of the universe having a beginning in time, but now this theory is very widely excepted by most scientists and believers. Contrary to popular belief the Catholic Church and many other denominations and religious institutions were quick to accept the big bang theory based on both the scientific evidence and their faith.
Throughout his work Hawking explores and then counters the Rare Earth theory, which fundamentally says that since we seem to be on a planet that is perfect for us therefore God must have created it for us. Everything from the laws of physics to the age of the universe to our physical location in our universe, galaxy, and solar system is imperative to our ability to live here. This is an interesting argument for God and is very attractive just because of the incredible odds of our universe being able to sustain life. For instance, if even one of the fundamental forces were tweaked just the smallest fraction in their relative power our universe would be completely inhospitable to our kind of life. However, this is ultimately a dangerous theological argument as a foundation to faith because as Hawking shows it can be partially explained away by showing other Earth-like planets.
Furthermore, Hawking goes even deeper and posits that our life bearing universe was inevitable anyway due to the multiverse theory, which predicts an infinite number of parallel universes. In most of these universes life would never develop due to differing laws of physics which would create, among many other variations, a universe that would be too spread out so that carbon atoms would never be created or gathered together for us as the basic foundation of all physical life. However, even though an astronomical number of universes would remain eternally dead, in some universes life would be certain and therefore our being here is inevitable. All of this circular reasoning really doesn’t get us anywhere and I don’t think it will change too many minds about the existence of God.
I believe that the existence of other earth-like planets and stars similar to ours makes perfect sense in a God created universe. While I do not pretend to understand the numerous potential reasons for such a large universe I do know that in order for us to exist we need at least a 10 billion year history of stars creating carbon in their cores and depositing stardust, the very essence of physical life, across the universe. Now because this process takes billions of years across intergalactic distances planets and earth-like stars must crop up in many other places other than right here. It would be a strange and chaotic universe if all of the heavier elements created in the supernovas of our past were exclusively brought here for our use. Now as I said I do not plan to speculate here on possible alien life or planets with earth-like environments, (we’ll save that for another time) but the apparent fact that there are other earth-like planets in the universe makes sense to me as both a part of God’s design and the workings of the fundamental forces of nature.
Here is the central reason why Hawking’s creatorless creation doesn’t ring true to me: For me religion at its heart is a leap of faith. Pure reason cannot arrive at an answer concerning God. In my mind all of nature and our place in it suggests the existence of God, but obviously that is only my perspective of nature. Many scientists and rational thinkers now and in the past have looked at the same evidence and arrived at an atheistic solution. When it comes down to it we must look within ourselves and at our world with our hearts. We must avoid the many distractions of the modern world and seek silence to find our God who Nathan Mitchell describes in Worship as, “elusive yet explosive, hidden yet revealed, absent yet accessible.” No matter how hard we look if we don’t believe, or more accurately won’t believe, we will never find God under a microscope or in a starry night. But if we take that small yet giant leap of faith then we will begin to see God all around us and within us.
The answer to faith is not science, rather the opposite is true: the answer to science is faith. In a reenactment of a famous debate, between G.K. Chesterton and Clarence Darrow, Chesterton is quoted as saying: “All thinking begins with assumptions that cannot be proved. In logic we call these axioms. The real skeptic has nowhere to begin because he must doubt everything and so he sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe. Reason can only be built on faith and that faith is the foundation of our civilization.” I choose not to live in a bottomless universe and I make the choice every day to found my reason and experience of the world on faith.
In closing I do not mean to attack Hawking in this article and I respect him both as an individual and as a scientist. I simply wish to point out the incongruity in a scientist “disproving” the existence of the transcendent infinite God that we worship simply by observing and understanding the laws of the universe. The beauty of the universe and God’s continuing work should be understood through physics and math not destroyed by them. I hope and pray for a time when faith and science are again correctly viewed as harmonious and not opposing methods of viewing the world.
P.S. Numerous other articles about Hawking’s new book can be found on the Internet. The articles I quoted from are here: