Did the universe as we know it merely come into being by itself from a quantum-level change in an existing one?
I’ve been putting off blogging about Stephen Hawking and God. Mainly this is because I feel that the latest pronouncements splashed across the front page of the Times last week (no link as I don’t want you to have to pay News Corp a pound to read it) were more about stirring controversy to increase book sales than any new ideas on where and how God “fits in” with the universe.
Of course, by ignoring the story for a while I’ve been able to read a lot of the excellent and not so excellent commentary. The Church Mouse blog was among the best of the religious responses, pointing out that:
Here’s what Hawking said in 1989:
What I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began. This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary. [Stephen W. Hawking, Der Spiegel, 1989]
Compare the quote from 1989 with the one which has caused the headlines today:
“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 anyone can spot a difference, please let Mouse know.
To those of us that are sci fi fans, the multiworlds model which Hawking cited alongside laws such as gravity as making God “unnecessary” is familiar. Basically the idea is that for every “decision” at a quantum level, a parallel universe is created in which the other “decision” was taken.
It features in Doctor Who – not just in the obvious case of “Pete’s World” where the cybermen come from, but also in multiple explanations of things going on (Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s doctors both use it as an explanation – the tenth doctor refers to it in the episode “School Reunion”). Terry Pratchett’s famous “trousers of time” is another example this theory being used in a really understandable manner.
I’m not going to take on Hawking on the physics. As the Church Mouse says: “if you try to claim you know more about the science of creation and the big bang you will instantly make yourself a laughing stock. And nothing that Hawking has said rules out the possibility of God“.
It is that latter part that I think merits a bit more thought.
Of course, if it is taking the decision (consciously or quantum-ly) that creates the new world, then Hawking has a point – it does indicate that a creator god would not be needed to make each parallel world just pop into existence – infinite, multiple worlds spinning off through all time and space of a multiverse. And getting your head around this is not easy. It slightly makes me think of another Terry Pratchett quote: “Nothing good ever follows the word multiple” (Guards! Guards!)
The responses from the religious community, at least the less fundamentalist parts of it, has been relatively measured. Most follow the Church Mouse’s rule. Most also pointed out that while theories of how the universe came into being were interesting, they did nothing to answer the fundamental question of “why” it came into being.
The Daily Mail (I know, rare for me to comment on their more sober reporting) quoted:
Dr Williams said: ‘Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe.’
He told The Times: ‘It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.’
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and one of Britain’s top imams also joined the condemnation. Lord Sacks said: ‘Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation… The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.’
And the apparent head of the religion of atheism, Richard Dawkins, was quick to embrace Hawking as one of his kind of people. Many comments abounded in the blogosphere, probably not direct from the man himself, saying that just as evolution left no space for God in biology, Hawking left no space for God in physics.
Dawkins did say in the Times that asking “why?” was nonsensical and that “stupid questions” did not deserve to get answers.
Interesting – the entire spirit of scientific inquiry is on the basis of asking “why” such-and-such is and trying to find the mechanics behind it.
Ah, but then this is metaphysics, not physics, and because it is unprovable and therefore cannot be tested by scientific means, the question is outside the self-defined belief system that says that science is all, and therefore not a valid one…
Um, am I alone in thinking that Dawkins’ atheism is not just about following Darwin’s principles but fast becoming a science-based faith in its own right…
“God is a delusion. … Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles – except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand.” (Introduction to “The God Delusion”).
(another tenet of this belief: knowledge at present is ok until a better theory is available and a theory to explain each thing and everything will eventually be found)?
But I digress.
If what you believe in is a “God of the Gaps“, that God is the explanation until each gap is filled in with a plausible scientific explanation, then perhaps Hawking’s bid to increase his book sales is problematic.But it seems to me that the answer “it can and inevitably does create itself” is unsatisfactory. From what? Where did those things come from?
By answering the question of where did everything come from with what seems to be “it has always been something”, we are essentially opening ourselves up to a broader question: yes, the universe as we know it may be the inevitable result from a decision taken somewhere in a parallel universe probably at a quantum level and therefore may have been spontaneously created but how did it all get going in the first place?
After all our observations are that there are patterns of apparently infinite complexity (such as never-ending fractals) but is it reasonable to conclude that they have just “always been” or “just are”?
We’re trying to answer the idea that “something came from nothing” (ex nihilo creation) by saying that what we have always thought of as the beginning point isn’t. So where did what spontaneously created itself come from?
God is of course the Occam’s Razor explanation for all of this…
But now I’m in danger of straying into the territory that the Church Mouse wisely recommended steering clear of…
So where do we go from here?As I’ve said in previous posts where we go from here comes back to the person of Jesus – if he was who he said he was, and did what we think he did, then all of this discussion is so much ephemera, an interesting diversion on God’s tools when we should be living better, supporting the poor and needy and building our relationship with God through prayer, praise and celebration.
The bible does not use scientific language or mathematics to describe how God made everything, and does not take a view on cosmology, life on other planets (all God’s children too?) etc. etc.
We shouldn’t expected it to- it is after all primarily the story and user’s manual for God’s relationship with his chosen people that turns out to be all of us – and Jesus seems to have had more personal, pressing priorities to communicate concerning something that Richard Dawkins does not actually believe exists: our souls.
A final thought: in other scientific spheres, the ideas of science fiction have so captured the imagination that we have Star Trek communicators in our pockets, and I look forward to the pain-free instant surgical laser of Star Trek: The Next Generation or any of the time travel or teleportation devices we see (but note the warnings on these technologies that sci fi also holds…).
Ideas of good science fiction always inspire, helping us to find the room to adapt for usefulness and become science-fact.
But I’m afraid most of us will have no idea what Professor Hawking’s maths equations that show the possibility of the multiverse that leaves no space for God actually mean and whether he’s right, and I’m struggling to see how they can be adapted for the good of everything except for further development of scientific atheism’s faith position. But perhaps that’s not the point.
But then, to paraphrase the Times editorial, if we were to know “how God did it”, Stephen Hawking is one of the very few people on earth that would understand how it was done.
Good night, and God bless