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Hawking is not far from God

08 September 2010

His hypothesis is closer to theology’s than he realises, argues Keith Ward

THE comment by Stephen Hawking in his new book, The Grand Design (Bantam Press), that physics has no need of God has caused a stir in the media. It is, in fact, not particularly surprising. Car mechanics has no need of God, but that does not suggest there is no God. There is no reason why physics should deal with God.

But Professor Hawking does mis-state what orthodox Christian, Jew­ish, and Muslim theologians assert about God. He seems to think, for example, that they think of God as “lighting the blue touch-paper” to get the universe started. They are also supposed to think that the whole universe, with its billions of stars and galaxies, was created just for the sake of human beings.

It is a pity he thinks this; for it makes him fail to note the amazing positive convergence between tradi­tional theological beliefs about God and modern cosmological beliefs about the origin of the universe.

The Christian doctrine of creation is not that God sat about for ages wondering whether or not to create a universe, then one day decided that he would, and started it off. The doctrine of creation, as it is found in Augustine and virtually all other significant theologians, is that the whole of space-time is dependent upon a non-spatio-temporal reality.

If God brings time into being, God does not do so in time; for time does not exist until God brings it about. The timeless reality of God timelessly generates the whole of time and space. God can generate many different space-times, and Augustine mentioned this possibility in The City of God.

It follows immediately that God cannot be conceived as a person who thinks, wonders, and decides. There is a proper place for such talk, but it is crucial to understanding tradi­tional theism to see that “God” names a timeless existent, and thus such terms will not apply to God in the same way as they apply to humans.

The first strand of a doctrine of creation is that a timeless reality exists, and from it one or many space-times arise. I think modern cosmo­logy makes such a hypothesis intel­li­gible, and ironically it even forms part of Professor Hawking’s hypothesis that this cosmos arises from a non-material and non-temporal realm of “laws” that generate physical and temporal real­ity.

The dependence of a universe upon some non-spatio-temporal reality beyond it is not considered by theists to be an unconscious, undir­ected process. The dependence is one of causation through intention — God knows, and brings about, the cos­mos, non-temporally, for a reason. Such knowledge would be very unlike human knowledge. It would be a non-temporal knowledge of a range, perhaps of the complete range, of possible universes.

Professor Hawking supposes that the laws of nature somehow exist apart from any actual universe, and they bring the universe, and many other universes, too, into existence. This, however, is a very problematic hypothesis. That does not mean it is false. It just means that it is by no means a clear, definitive solution to the problem of origins. In my view, it is much less clear than the God hypothesis.

The main problems with the Hawking hypothesis are these: in what sense can laws of nature exist “before” any universe, when they seem to be more like purely con­ceptual mathematical descriptions of how an actual universe behaves? How can a set of laws, of mathematical concepts, bring anything physical into existence? What could ensure that the laws will govern what occurs in every possible universe, in ad­dition to the very complex balance of forces in the supposed quantum vacuum from which universes originate?

That quantum vacuum is very far from being “nothing” in the normal sense of a lack of any existent reality. It is a very precise balancing of complex energies, at least as complex as the existence of the physical uni­verse, and its properties are neces­sarily much less well known than the properties of our physical universe.

I am not raising these problems to show that a naturalistic account of the genesis of the universe is im­possible or irrational. I simply want to show that, however appealing it is, it is deeply problematic and has not completely resolved questions about the origin of the universe. It has, in fact, done the opposite; for it shows that such questions are real, im­portant, and yet probably scientific­ally unresolvable.

A theistic account of the origin of the universe is, of course, also prob­lematic, but no more so than the Hawk­ing account. For theists, it is more attractive than the naturalistic account, for the following reasons.

It seems intelligible to say that laws of nature do pre-exist the phys­ical universe, because they exist in the mind (the non-temporal conscious­ness) of God as principles that God can apply to some physical universes. The basic physical forces of our universe are brought into being by God, who will ensure any such uni­verses are law-governed (if God so chooses), and God will not create more universes than are required to realise the divine purposes.

Most importantly, each created universe will exist for a reason — a goal of great value for the sake of which a universe is created. That reason is most unlikely to be the existence of Homo sapiens. But it may very well be the genesis of intelligent life, perhaps in many different forms and degrees, which can understand and shape the physical universe to some extent.

In fact, the Hawking hypothesis and the God hypothesis are deeply convergent. Both suppose that this universe originates from a supra-temporal realm that is intelligible and conceptually beautiful.

The main difference is that theists believe that there is a reason and goal for the existence of the universe, and therefore also for each human life, and thus that the universe is originated by something conscious and mind-like. This is a real differ­ence, but it is not about whether there is a person outside the universe who is needed to start it off.

The Hawking hypothesis is very much closer to the God hypothesis than he thinks. Physics does not need God, but God explains very well why physics works.

The Revd Dr Keith Ward is a former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford.

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