BELIEF in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe, the Archbishop of Canterbury said last week. He was responding to Professor Stephen Hawking’s assertion, in his new book, that there is no place for God in theories of the creation of the universe.
The Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, Professor Hawking argues in The Grand Design, co-written with the American physicist Leonard Mlodinow. The book suggests that M-theory, a type of string theory, could be the “holy grail” that would explain everything in the universe.
Professor Hawking contends: “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 touchpaper and set the universe going.”
Dr Williams told The Times that belief in God: “is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question why there is something rather than nothing.”
The Bishop of Swindon, Dr Lee Rayfield, a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and a former science lecturer, told the BBC’s Newsnight that Professor Hawking was “not saying anything devastatingly new”. He said that Professor Hawking’s suggestions were “a reworking of the God-of-the-gaps argument”: seeing the world “like a jigsaw puzzle and you find out a bit more about the way the universe works, and as soon as you’ve got another piece of puzzle you know everything.”
Dr Rayfield proposed another way of looking at the universe, which sees “knowledge as a circle”. “You expand the circle, but there’s still more things that are unknown.” He said that “questions of meaning, of purpose, of existence, the very biggest issues of identity, aren’t solved by physics.”
The former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, suggested in a letter to The Daily Telegraph that it was right to ask where the laws of the universe came from. “The universe has . . . produced intelligent observers such as Professor Hawking who can reflect on its nature and birth. As I understand him, the professor claims that gravity brought everything into existence. But again, where did that come from? On what was it acting? Nothing plus nothing cannot equal something.”
Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, rejoiced that Professor Hawking was now “administering the coup de grâce”. Darwinism, he said, had “kicked God out of biology, but physics remained more uncertain.”
But the Revd Dr Alister McGrath, Professor of Theology Ministry and Education at King’s College, London, and author of The Dawkins Delusion?, welcomed the continuing discussion. Asked by Jon Snow, on Channel 4 News, whether The Grand Design had re-ignited the debate on the existence of God, Professor McGrath said: “A publisher said to me the other day that if you want to sell a book, make sure it’s about God and it rubbishes God. I’m not sure he’s rubbishing God at all, but we have to be aware that there is a sort of cultural climate within which this debate is taking place.”
He reflected: “I don’t believe in God because of this string-theory stuff, I believe in God for other reasons. But then I look at the picture of the world that natural science is disclosing, and I see a timely resonance and chiming in of what the science has to say and what I believe.”
The Anglican evangelist J. John took issue with the perception that Professor Hawking had moved from belief to atheism as a result of his latest research. He questioned whether Professor Hawking had ever been a believer in any real sense of the word, despite the throwaway comment about the possibility of “knowing the mind of God” which concluded his earlier book, A Brief History of Time (1988).
J. John said on Tuesday: “His god was an academic answer to an astronomical puzzle and no more. So his denial of God in his most recent book is hardly a backtracking from faith, but rather a shifting of position on what is a purely intellectual debate.
“Hawking is a very brave man in his confident belief that the creation of the universe does not need God. He is saying that he understands how, 13 or so billion years ago, this unimaginably vast and complex universe came into being. Given that serious astronomical research is barely 300 years old and has been conducted only on one small planet in a tiny corner of just one galaxy, one might feel that a somewhat greater degree of humility would be appropriate.”
Speaking on Premier Christian Radio, the Revd Dr Rodney Holder, of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, said that Professor Hawking had “put God back on the agenda as a debating point in the pubs, clubs, and radio programmes up and down the country”. The idea that the universe could create itself from nothing was “deeply paradoxical”.
“Generally, when physicists talk about the universe creating itself from nothing, they’re not really talking about absolutely nothing: they’re talking about quantum fields acting on some kind of space time, quantum fluctuations, whatever it might be, the latest version of string theory . . . very complicated things; so it’s never really creating out of nothing.”
Nikolai Segura, a physicist and member of the National Secular Society, told Premier Radio: “I don’t think that stating that there is no God involved, or no need for a God involved in the creation of the universe, is a view that science can have, far less a view that science does have . . . so scientists need to be . . . very careful about stating views outside of science, lest they be reported as a scientific view.”
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