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Does Stephen Hawking disprove the divine?

A generation or so ago, our universe was thought by many scientists to be a closed system that had neither beginning nor end. The existence of the cosmos was regarded as a “brute fact” and needed nothing to produce it.
The modern theory of the “big bang” changed all that.
Big Bang cosmology posits a formative event some 15 billion years ago. From an extremely hot and dense state, our ever-enlarging universe has since cooled and expanded so as to form at least one habitable outpost — Planet Earth.
If the universe did have a beginning, though, it becomes not only reasonable but also unavoidable that we would ask how that beginning was generated. In asking the question, we have left physics (i.e., how nature works) for meta-physics (i.e., why nature exists at all).
This is the point at which a theist might call attention to a traditional and powerful Cosmological Argument for God’s existence. If the material universe has not existed forever, the possibilities are limited. Either it somehow called itself into being or was brought into being by an eternal Creative God. From Plato to Aquinas to Darwin to Davies, this very reasonable argument — if not intuitive insight — has been offered.
In his book “The Grand Design,” released in September, Stephen Hawking gives an alternate answer: “As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously 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.”
Hawking insists the “laws of gravity” and “quantum theory” explain how something comes from nothing. But gravity cannot be defined without mass, and quantum theory accounts for certain interactions between energy and matter. Both have demonstrated value for understanding how existing things function; neither has obvious value to account for the origin of those things.
Hawking and his co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, posit a “multiverse theory” that our known universe is only one among uncounted billions of universes. Given countless universes where all possibilities are ultimately realized, the fine-tuning that allows life just as we experience it on Planet Earth is bound to occur. They would not call it “pure chance” but the sort of inevitable good fortune that most likely has occurred in other possible universes outside our experience.
Any physicist or philosopher will tell you there is nothing groundbreaking here. The multiverse theory (basically, countless universes where all possibilities are ultimately realized) is hardly new at all.
Neither is it especially convincing. The theory of multiple universes with different laws of nature and life forms (“alien creatures” of science fiction) is altogether speculative and un-evidenced. If they do exist, we are still left with the question of the origin of “deeper laws of physics” that would allow separable universes to operate under non-uniform principles.
From this highly questionable assumption, Hawking and Mlodinow proceed to give their answer to the interrelated issues of (a) why there is something instead of nothing, (b) why human life in particular exists, and (c) why the particular set of laws we seek to understand through science governs our universe.
On their view, infinite possible universes make it inevitable that some universes would have the fine-tuned constants, improbable anthropic properties, and chance events that would allow the existence and evolution of self-reflective human life.
Groundbreaking? Hardly. Plausible? You be the judge.
The notion of “spontaneous creation” that Hawking invokes has been discussed for centuries. Before Lister and Pasteur, it was a theory believed widely in both biology and physics. After their work, it was abandoned as unscientific and unworthy of being taken seriously — except as necessary to solve the problem of the ultimate origin of life without God.
No one should think that ultimate questions such as Hawking raises are too profound for “ordinary souls” to contemplate; they are central to defining oneself and deciding on the value and meaning of one’s life. Neither should we pretend that a claim such as “something can come from nothing” or “life arose spontaneously and inevitably produced intelligent human life” is somehow plausible because spoken by a brilliant physicist; both are undemonstrated theories that deny the more obvious and direct conclusion of a Grand Designer.
If there had ever been a time when absolutely nothing existed, nothing could exist now. Since something clearly has existed forever, you make the more intuitive, reasonable, and consistent-with-experience choice: Personality or matter? Intelligence or gravity? Creative God or quantum mechanics?
To say the least, the following statement remains both reasonable and defensible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
RUBEL SHELLY, a longtime minister and author, is president of Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Mich. He earned a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.  

  • Feedback
    An outstanding essay by an old friend and brother in “UNITY.”
    I am preparing for an adult class at FCCN scheduled for Jan-Mar.
    Title “Science and the Bible: God, The Author of Both” Dr. Shelly’s essay provides many references for the class.
    Thank You, Ken
    Ken McFelea
    First Christian, Newburgh, IN
    Evansville, Indiana 47714
    October, 27 2010

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