This week Stephen Hawking delivered a lecture at the California Institute of Technology titled "The Origin of the Universe," and you’re likely to have heard about it because, according to mainstream media outlets, Hawking has put God out of a job. In an article headlined “Stephen Hawking lays out case for Big Bang without God,” NBC News describes the presentation:
Stephen Hawking began the event by reciting an African creation myth, and rapidly moved on to big questions such as, Why are we here? He noted that many people still seek a divine solution to counter the theories of curious physicists, and at one point, he quipped, “What was God doing before the divine creation? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?”
It’s somewhat annoying that Hawking implicitly uses the argument “Some religious explanations are silly (such as myths about gods laying eggs that become the universe), therefore all religious explanations are silly.” Surely he would know that Cal Tech is the site where Fr. George Lemaitre discussed the first incarnation of the Big Bang theory seventy years ago with a skeptical Albert Einstein (who felt that the idea of the “beginning of the universe” smacked too much of religion).
Fr. Lemaitre firmly believed in following the scientific evidence where it led, and this did not exclude God from his view of the universe. The NBC News article also describes Hawking as claiming that Pope John Paul II told scientists visiting the Vatican to study the universe but not the beginning of the universe since that is "holy" (this claim is also found in Hawking's A Brief History of Time, 120). There's no way to verify that this exchange took place because Hawking claims that it was said in a private audience. My money is on the Pope telling the scientists that there is a difference between studying the scientific question of the beginning of the universe and the philosophical/religious question of the origin of the universe, something Hawking apparently fails to grasp.
If Hawking wants to exclude God’s creative activity from the beginning of the universe, he’s going to need a pretty good argument. Does he have one? Unfortunately, this particular NBC news article is short on specifics. The articles says only that Hawking believes that a variant of string theory proves that multiple universes can come into existence from nothing and one of those universes will, by chance alone, have the physical properties necessary for life to emerge.
The problem with appeals to string theory is that the theory is as malleable as pizza dough and is almost impossible to empirically verify. Famed Cal Tech physicist Richard Feynman, whom Hawking mentions in his talk, said, “For anything that disagrees with an experiment, [string theorists] cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say, ‘Well, it still might be true’”(quoted in Lee Smolin. The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, 2007, 125.)
Lee Smolin, whose cosmology influenced Richard Dawkins’s proposal to explain away God in his 2005 book The God Delusion, writes, “The scenario of many unobserved universes [in string theory] plays the same logical role as the scenario of an intelligent designer. Each provides an untestable hypothesis that, if true, makes something improbable seem quite probable.”
The other problem with Hawking’s proposal is the answer to the question “How did the universe begin to exist from nothing?” The metaphysical principle “out of nothing, nothing comes” would preclude an entire universe emerging from nothing through a singularity. The NBC article is confusing because Hawking’s preferred model for the beginning of the universe (the Hartle-Hawking “no-boundary” model, pictured below) does not include a singularity.
The model has a beginning but it has no beginning point or boundary to the universe’s past. Asking what occurred before the beginning of this model is like asking what is north of the North Pole (time just goes in the other direction just as once you reach the North pole you start to go south).
The model simply exists without a beginning event that needs an explanation. The problem with this model is that Hawking relies on imaginary numbers, or the square root of negative numbers, for the time variables in order to preserve a purely spatial representation of the beginning of the universe. While imaginary numbers are helpful in abstract mathematics, it becomes absurd to measure a real entity such as the flow of time using something like “3i” minutes. Even Hawking admits that this is something of a mathematical trick and that “when one goes back to the real time in which we live . . . there will still appear to be singularities” (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 144).
Hawking may have one alternative proposal for the beginning of the universe, but does he have any argument against the idea that God created the universe? The article alludes to one when Hawking makes the joke which Augustine first made about “what was God doing before he created the universe?” Augustine answered the question by noting that before creation there was no time so God was not “doing” anything within a temporal realm.
In other venues, such as the television show Curiosity, Hawking uses this observation as a springboard to argue that time did not exist at the Big Bang, so no cause is needed because causation only applies in time. According to Hawking, since all causes operate in time, not even God could make the universe while he exists timelessly.
However, the cause of an event does not have to be temporally prior to an event in order to be the event’s cause. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant writes, “The greater part of operating causes in nature are simultaneous with their effects. . . . If the cause had but a moment before ceased to be, the effect could not have arisen.”
To understand this, consider a hammer smashing a window. In this case, it is clear that the hammer is swung before the window smashes; the window doesn’t smash before the hammer hits it. However, if the cause (or the hammer moving through the air) disappeared even a microsecond before it touched the window, then the effect would never happen. Instead, there has to be a moment where the cause and effect “overlap” and both happen at the same time. Likewise, the cause of God creating the universe and the effect of the universe coming into existence are simultaneous events that happen at the first moment of time.
Stephen Hawking is a brilliant expert in the area of physics, but just because someone is an expert in how one part of reality works does not mean he is an expert in how all of reality works (or what is called metaphysics). Hawking's claims in this area should be reviewed carefully and not taken solely on his scientific authority.