I published this piece here a few years ago, but I was thinking about Stephen Hawking the other day, and it came back to me. I have always admired Hawking, not just for his genius, but for the way he overcame a debilitating disease through his personal courage and determination, and contributed so much to our knowledge. I think it is worth repeating for newcomers to the blog. Those of you who have seen it before can move on.
One of my Christmas presents this year was a book from my daughter, Julia. She knows my interests, and made an excellent choice: Stephen Hawking’s final work, titled “Brief Answers to the Big Questions.”
The first chapter is an appropriate subject for this blog. It is titled “Is There A God?” Hawking, who died last year, was a superb cosmologist and astrophysicist, so his conclusion is, not surprisingly, a resounding NO!
The preface, titled “Why We Must Ask the Big Questions,” is an autobiographical sketch of his life. His early studies of star evolution, and the collapse of dying stars into black holes, led him to what he called “a eureka moment” when he realized that the singularity at the center of a black hole, where space and time come to an end, could also explain the singularity that was the source of the Big Bang. The important point he makes is that before the Big Bang, time did not exist.
In answering the question about the existence of God, he first addresses the question religious believers ask: “How can scientists explain the origin of the Universe? Science cannot show how something can be created out of nothing. Only God can do that.” I will have more to say about this in my conclusion below, but first I will sketch out Hawking’s answer.
He starts with a blunt statement:
I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.
First, he identifies the three “ingredients” that make up the universe; energy, matter and space. But, as Einstein showed with his famous equation, E = mc2, energy and matter are just different forms of the same thing. This reduces the list of ingredients from three to two. So where did all this space and energy/matter come from? From the Big Bang, of course, but the singularity that preceded it had no energy/matter or space! How can this be?
This is where religionists say that God comes in. He created the energy and space ex nihilo…from nothing. They (some of them) buy the Big Bang theory, but say it was all God’s doing. Hawking begs to differ. He says we can use the laws of nature to address the very origins of the universe.
The answer lies, according to Hawking, in the idea of “negative energy.” To illustrate it he offers the following analogy:
Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make the hill, he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to build the hill. But of course, he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.
When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.
So where is the negative energy? Hawking says it is space itself. He says that according to the laws of gravity and motion, space is a vast store of negative energy.
Before you dismiss this as nonsense, he warns, you need to understand the underlying mathematics. I do not, and I doubt if anyone who reads this knows enough about the math to dispute him.[i]
And then he drops the hammer:
So, what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.
But that is only part of the question that religionists ask. The other part is embodied in The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA)[ii], a logical syllogism popularized by William Lane Craig (WLC). It claims that there must be a cause for the Big Bang. And since no scientific cause can be shown, the only “logical” conclusion is that God did it.
Of course, this is a false dichotomy. The Universe could have other alternative origins, or it might not even have an origin. It may have always been here. That is no less plausible than the idea that God has always been here. Hawking’s answer goes back to the theories of Einstein, and his insights into how space and time are interspersed in what he called a “space-time continuum.” The Big Bang was not just the beginning of energy/matter and space. It was also the beginning of time.
As Hawking says:
Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, so there was no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking directions to the edge of the Earth. The Earth is a sphere that doesn’t have an edge, so looking for it is a futile exercise.
So much for WLC and the KCA.
What has always struck me about the arguments of WLC and other Christian apologists is that they are engaged in what I would call “special pleading.” Their strategy to justify the existence of a creator is equivalent to the designers of a crooked board game. They establish a set of rules that all the players must follow…in this case, the laws of science and logic. And then, when everybody is playing the game, they introduce a new player, whom they identify as the designer of the game. But this player is not required to follow any of the rules! Furthermore, this player is invisible. And then, the designers, who are, of course, religious leaders, declare that the new player, God, is the winner of the game.
Children often make up imaginary characters who can do magical things.
Religions do the same.