Stephen Hawking’s Discovery Channel presentation, Did God Create the Universe?, premiered on American television last night, and I took notes. The production values were high and the content was interesting.
The program consisted of six segments of about 8-10 minutes each, divided by commercial breaks. The hour-long special was followed by a thirty minute panel discussion with two physicists and a theologian (Sean Carroll and Paul Davies were the physicists; John Haught was the theologian). There were also some brief video clips of three other physicists responding to Hawkings’s ideas about God, the most well-known being Michio Kaku.
Segment 1 (the first ten minutes): The film began with a reflection on two ways of approaching eclipses of the sun, the take-home question being the following: when you think about natural phenomena, will you be a Viking or a Greek scientist? This was illustrated by dramatic depictions of sky-gazing Vikings (picture them unshaven and passionate in animal skins) contrasted with the sky-gazing ancient astronomer Aristarchos of Samos (picture him considerably calmer and cleaner, standing alone).
The Vikings, you see, mythologized eclipses, imagining them to be the result of a sky wolf moving through the heavens. They responded accordingly, gathering together to shout at the wolf whenever he appeared. This, they believed, would make him go away. The Vikings, therefore, not only misinterpreted what an eclipse is, they also committed a correlation-causation fallacy whenever one appeared (imagining that shouts at the wolf’s shadow caused the eclipse to go away).
The Vikings are a trope for the religious masses of mankind. They gather in passion-driven hordes, imagine the gods responsive to their collective cries, and mythologize and misinterpret their experiences.
Stephen Hawking wishes people would stop doing that.
Cut, therefore, from the pathetic Vikings to rational, brave, and independent Aristarchos. He is depicted solitary on a beach looking up into an eclipse and contemplating it (like Stephen Hawking contemplates the sky from his wheelchair). Aristarchos concluded something very different from the Vikings about eclipses: he decided that they were governed by natural processes, not the activity of gods. He also drew a surprising conclusion from what he observed: the earth is a sphere and the moon goes around it, sometimes blocking the sun.
Take-home message: the cosmos is a machine, and the things that occur in it are best presumed to be lawful, never supernatural, in nature.
Cut to a commercial for wrestling on Pay-Per-View.
Segment 2: This portion opens with Stephen Hawking applying the Viking vs. Aristarchos analogy to his own condition: some might interpret Stephen Hawking’s confinement to a wheelchair as punishment for his nonbelief in God. That would be a Viking-style conclusion. Hawking, however, sees it as a natural phenomenon. That’s an Aristarchos-style conclusion.
Cut to a tennis court. Here, people are not in wheelchairs, but hitting balls with rackets. Tennis is introduced to illustrate a distinction: there are humans’ rules and nature’s rules.
Tennis intermixes both. Court size and net height, for example, are determined by humans, and these can be changed if humans agree to do so.
But tennis is also subject to nature’s rules, and they are of a very different order. Once the tennis ball leaves the racket, immutable physical laws—laws that are unvarying, independent of us, and true for all places and times—take over completely and determine exactly where the ball will land. The laws governing ball behavior are based on gravity, momentum, etc. No gods need apply to help anything along.
Tennis balls constitute a segue to depictions of Galileo looking through his telescope at some other balls: the moons orbiting Jupiter. Galileo, we are told, surmised (like Aristarchos) that the earth, in addition to being a planet with a moon, is also a planet that orbits the sun.
This view was a no-no because the pope didn’t agree. Galileo’s reward for his unapproved scientific speculation was trial by Catholic authorities, narrow escape from execution, and (ultimately) house arrest.
He died nine years later.
The take-home message of segment 2: natural laws are invariant and can suck, but they still have to be obeyed. There’s no escaping them, and there’s no praying or wishing them away. Human laws can suck too, but we can change those. We don’t have to, for example, hinder the work of scientists by putting them on trial and consigning them to house arrest for religious heresies.
Remember that because, in the next segment, Stephen Hawking is going to set out his case against God, turning the tables on Him. God Himself will be on trial, and it will be up to us to render judgement on whether Hawking succeeds in plausibly consigning God to house arrest; that is, to marginalized irrelevance.
Talk about Galileo’s revenge!
Segment 3: The metaphor at work in this segment is that of the cookbook: what ingredients are required to cook up a universe? Hawking highlights three key things: matter, energy, and space. This leads to a discussion of Einstein’s conclusion that matter and energy are really two sides of the same coin, and so you just need two key ingredients to make a cosmos: energy and space. By thinking about energy and space, we can address the question of whether God created the universe.
But first there is a commercial for Geiko car insurance.
Segment 4: This segment starts with Hawking recounting a bit of his biography as a child growing up in post-World War II England where his father would frequently say the following:
You can’t get something for nothing!
Au contraire, says the adult Stephen. He interprets the laws of quantum physics as permitting whole universes to come into existence out of nothing. He reasons thus: Since the laws of physics require the existence of negative energy as well as positive energy—and quantum laws are probabilistic—you can get positive energy simply by balancing it with negative energy.
Protons, for example, pop in and out of existence from the vacuum of space all the time. But they are accompanied by anti-protons. So long as things balance out to zero, you can get these fluctuations from nothing.
Hawking’s metaphor in support of this idea is that of hill and hole. If you build a hill on a flat plain, then you will have to dig a hole of equal size. So long as you dig a hole of equal size, you can have your hill.
And here’s the kicker: Hawking says that space is the plain where our energy hills and holes are balanced out. In other words, space is a vast store for negative energy, and not just a store for what we see and experience. Space balances out positive energy with negative energy.
If the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a god to create it.
Cut to soup commercial. But who can eat? Hawking has just told us the universe adds up to a big nothing, and has dispatched God.
Segment 5: The metaphor for this segment is the chain of causation. Imagine a river. What makes its conditioned existence possible? Rain. And what makes the rain’s conditioned existence possible? The sun evaporating water from oceans, turning it to clouds. And what makes the sun possible? Hydrogen. And where did hydrogen come from? The big bang.
And where did the big bang come from? Well, here we get the conclusion on which Hawking hangs his atheism: the itsy-bitsy thingy that hopped out of the quantum void and that banged started off smaller than a proton. So, if protons can hop out of the quantum void for no obvious reason, then why couldn’t our cosmos have done the same?
That’s Hawkings’s reasoning. The quantum laws just are. Collectively—perhaps as a supersymmetry—they constitute the sole unconditioned reality (the one reality not conditioned upon anything but itself). These laws operate on probabilities, and make all conditioned realities go. (A conditioned reality is a reality made possible by the meeting of certain conditions. A horse’s existence, for example, is conditioned on cells; cells are conditioned on molecules; molecules on atoms, etc).
In short, for Hawking, all chains of causation and condition ultimately trace to physical laws and quantum fluctuations, the greatest quantum fluctuation being the big bang itself. And, since time also begins with the big bang, there was no prior time for God to brood over the surface of the deep (as Genesis 1 imagines God doing), or to do anything else for that matter.
Take-home message: just as a dramatic event like an eclipse is in fact not a miracle, but is governed by physical law, so the big bang, though a dramatic event, is also not a miracle, but governed by physical law.
Segment 6: The last segment is shorter than the previous five, and basically just sums up: no one created the universe and no one directs our fate. There is no God, no heaven, no afterlife. Don’t shoot the messenger. Have a nice day.
A few highlights from the post-episode panel discussion: Physicist Sean Carroll was most in accord with Hawking’s way of thinking, suggesting that, so long as a person’s belief in God doesn’t actually posit God doing anything in the physical universe—such as performing miracles—then Carroll doesn’t really care if she or he “goes crazy” with religious speculation. Paul Davies agreed with Carroll that miracles are things that are “ghastly” for a rational person to posit.
Michio Kaku, via a video feed, thought Hawking’s conclusion exceeds the evidence, and predicted that, a thousand years from now, people will still be debating the God question (because it’s not ultimately answerable by science).
John Haught, the theologian on the panel, got to the gist of the divide between Hawking and religious believers with this comment:
Either you have an unexplained God or unexplained laws.
Physicist Paul Davies expressed a similar sentiment:
That’s where the mystery lies: the laws.
I’m inclined to agree with Haught and Davies: the God question comes down to whether you believe the laws of physics just happened of themselves (or not).
I think the author of Proverbs 8:22-31 might have achieved a more correct intuition than Stephen Hawking about the source of nature’s lawfulness and ultimate rationality, which he called Wisdom:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: when he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: then I was with him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.
If Stephen Hawking is wrong in his surmise of the God question, it is in stopping the chain of causation one step short, making the unconditioned reality the laws of physics, not God. If God exists, S(he) is the unconditioned reality behind what are, in fact, the conditioned physical laws of the cosmos. That is, the existence of the physical laws are conditioned on the existence of God. Without God as the unconditioned reality grounding conditioned reality, nothing—including the laws of physics—would exist at all. This is the ontological step that divides the intellectual theist from the intellectual atheist.
Is that last ontological grounding step necessary?