Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Stephen Hawking's Unscientific Atheism and the Dubious Idea of Nothingness

When the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking died last March at the age of 76, he was the most famous scientist in the world.  He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, which was the position once held by Isaac Newton.  The picture of Hawking in his wheelchair--a brilliant mind in a body almost completely paralyzed by motor neuron disease--had become an iconic image of the scientist, comparable to Albert Einstein's face.  Hawking's ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey between Newton and Charles Darwin.

In 1988, Hawking's first book--A Brief History of Time--became an international best-seller.  When he died, he was working on his last book, which has just been published--Brief Answers to the Big Questions (Bantam Books, 2018).  In such books, written for a popular audience, we can see Hawking trying to shape popular culture to conform to his understanding of modern science.

Crucial to that project is his answer to the first Big Question in his new book--Is there a God?  His answer is No.

Hawking's atheism was troubling for his first wife--Jane--because she was a devout Christian.  (Charles and Emma Darwin faced a similar struggle, which I have written about here and here.) This and other problems in their marriage are thoughtfully depicted in Jane's published memoir of their life and in the movie based on her writing--The Theory of Everything.  The actor playing the part of Stephen--Eddie Redmayne--received the Academy Award for Best Actor, and he writes the Foreword to Brief Answers.  The movie is well worth watching.  I watched it for the first time a few months ago while flying across the Pacific from Australia to the U.S.  Here's the trailer:

Although Hawking insists that his atheism is dictated by science, his atheism is actually unscientific, because his reasoning is fallacious and unsupported by empirical evidence.  He fails to see that modern science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, because there is no scientific way to resolve the Reason-Revelation debate.  And so he also fails to see that a modern liberal regime shaped by the Scientific Enlightenment must foster the intellectual freedom of thought about the Reason-Revelation debate, while also fostering the practical freedom of association in forming religious communities.

Consider this first paragraph in his first chapter of Brief Answers:
"Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.  Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from?  Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything.  The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms, or eclipses.  Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science" (25).
The claim that people "cling to religion" only because they "do not trust or understand science" is false.  Lots of prominent scientists--from Newton to Francis Collins--have been religious believers.  Newton thought that his Principia Mathematica supported the design argument for the existence of God.  In his "General Scholium" to the Principia, he declared: "This most beautiful system of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. . . . This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler."  Biologists like Francis Collins and astrophysicists like Owen Gingerich have affirmed theistic evolution in arguing that God can act through the natural causality of Darwinian evolution.  Darwin himself recognized this position (taken by people like Asa Gray) as intellectually defensible.  Darwin was an agnostic, but he was not an atheist, because he could not see how science could completely refute theism.  I have written about theistic evolution (here  and here) and Darwin's agnosticism (here).  Hawking is silent about all of this, and so he does not explain what is wrong with scientific theism.

Some scientific theists have argued that the scientific idea of the Big Bang--the idea that the whole universe arose from nothing about 14 billion years ago--points to God, because only God could have created everything out of nothing.  On the contrary, Hawking argues, science can explain how the universe arose from nothing without any need for God as the Creator.  Here's Hawking's reasoning in Brief Answers:
". . . What could cause the spontaneous appearance of a universe?  At first, it seems a baffling problem--after all, in our daily lives things don't just materialize out of the blue.  You can't just click your fingers and summon up a cup of coffee when you feel like one.  You have to make it out of other stuff like coffee beans, water and perhaps some milk and sugar.  But travel down into this coffee cup--through the milk particles, down to the atomic level and right down to the sub-atomic level, and you enter a world where conjuring something out of nothing is possible.  At least, for a short while.  That's because, at this scale, particle such as protons behave according to the laws of nature we call quantum mechanics.  And they really can appear at random, stick around for a while and then vanish again, to reappear somewhere else."
"Since we know the universe itself was once very small--perhaps smaller than a proton--this means something quite remarkable.  It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature.  From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded--a place to store all the negative needed to balance the books.  But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur?  In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang?  I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator."
"Our everyday experience makes us think that everything that happens must be caused by something that occurred earlier in time, so it's natural for us to think that something--maybe God--must have caused the universe to come into existence.  But when we're talking about the universe as a whole, that isn't necessarily so.  Let me explain.  Imagine a river flowing down a mountainside.  What caused the river?  Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains.  But then, what caused the rain?  A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapor up into the sky and made clouds.  Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine?  Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process.  So far so good.  Where does the hydrogen come from?  Answer: the Big Bang.  But here's the crucial bit.  The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang.  Nothing" (33-35).
 Notice the incoherence in Hawking's reasoning here.  He claims to explain the origin of the universe from nothing, but his explanation actually assumes that the universe originated from something!  On the one hand, he says that "nothing caused the Big Band."  But on the other hand, he must appeal to "the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur."  He must assume at the origin of the universe the reality of the laws of quantum mechanics and of quantum vacuum states.  That's not nothing! That's something!

Hawking falsely assumes the possibility of absolute nothingness.  Since human beings have no experience of absolute nothingness, whereas all of our experience confirms the being of things, there is no empirical evidence for absolute nothingness.  Even the very idea of nothingness as a product of the theological imagination pondering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is dubious, because in the absence of any empirical evidence, I doubt that people even understand what they are saying when they ask why the world arose out of nothing.

Hawking might have responded to this objection by asserting that the scientific theory of the Big Bang shows that we have scientific evidence of absolute nothingness, because the theory tells us that before the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, the universe did not exist.

But there are lots of problems with this interpretation of the Big Bang theory.  First, there is disagreement among cosmologists as to whether the Big Bang was a "singularity"--a sudden appearance of space/time and physical laws from nothingness.  Some believe the Big Bang was a lawful emergence of the present universe from a previous one, although then we confront the problem that the theory of multiple universes is not open to empirical observation and testing.

The second problem is that if we see the Big Bang as a singularity, then there was no time prior to the Big Bang, and therefore there were no earlier moments of time in which nothing existed.

The third problem is that if we use the principles of quantum mechanics to infer that the universe arose from nothing as a quantum fluctuation, then we assume (as Hawking does) the existence of quantum mechanics, which is not absolute nothingness.

Finally, any interpretation of the Big Bang as something coming from nothing can only be a work of wildly speculative imagination without any basis for empirical testing.  Notice that in offering his theory of how the universe arose from nothing without God, Hawking does not propose any way to empirically test his theory, because in principle it is not testable.  If science requires testing theories against empirical data, then Hawking's theory is not science.

The failure of Hawking and others to offer a scientific explanation of how the universe arose from nothing without any need for God's creative activity has been interpreted by some Christian apologists (like William Lane Craig) as indicating that the Big Bang actually proves scientifically the existence of God.  But that is not true, because the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not a scientific idea at all since it is not open to empirical testing.

This was understood by the first cosmologist to propose a Big Bang theory of the universe--the Jesuit priest Georges Lemaitre.  When Pope Pius XIII in 1951 pointed to Lemaitre's Big Bang theory as scientific evidence for divine creation of the universe from nothing, Lemaitre criticized the Pope for failing to see how his scientific theory had nothing to do with the Christian doctrine of creation.  Lemaitre explained that the theory of the Big Bang is not a theory of how the universe could arise "from nothing," but rather it is a theory of how the universe could have arisen from what Lemaitre called a "primeval atom," or from a hyper-dense sphere of cold matter, disintegrating through radioactivity into an expanding universe, or from what some people called "the cosmic egg."

Lemaitre thus separated the scientific theory of the universe's origin from something and the religious doctrine of the universe's creation from nothing.  Here Lemaitre was in agreement with Thomas Aquinas, who declared that "It is by faith alone do we hold and not be any demonstration that can be proved, that the world did not always exist. . . . that the world began to exist is an object of faith, but not of demonstration or science" (Summa Theologica, I, q. 46, a. 2).

I have elaborated some of these points in previous posts herehere, and here.

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