Stephen Hawking and Knowing the Mind of God

If I want to understand why my closet door becomes difficult to open and close when it gets cold or how it is that a plant can convert light energy into chemical energy, I call a scientist. I do not open up my Bible to look for an answer. I do not email my parish priest. This fact alone distinguishes me and most of the rest of us from pre-modern humanity. We now understand the universe as a network of material causality, structured by the impact of material objects upon each other, like billiard balls crashing against one another on a pool table. This is not, of course, how sophisticated scientists think of the world. They have moved beyond the 17th century notion of nature as machine. Just ask a physicist about subatomic particles and quantum mechanics. We poor laymen have yet to catch up with the physicists and perhaps never will.  But we are all moderns in that we no longer look to a supernatural being to explain why things happen. We have no need for that hypothesis, as LaPlace told the Emperor.

If science can explain, at least theoretically, all that happens in the physical universe, does this mean that we may now jettison God? Many have jumped to this conclusion, including the famous physicist Stephen Hawking. In his best-selling book A Brief History of Time, Hawking proposes that if one day scientists are able to provide a unified field theory that would comprehend the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, then the existence of God becomes irrelevant: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” Hawking concludes his book with this oft-quoted paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God. [my emphasis]

I read A Brief History of Time within a year or so after it was published. I still remember my initial reaction to the passages quoted above: “Hawking doesn’t understand the Christian God at all. He’s resurrecting the watchmaker of deism.”  Hawking is convinced that once we fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the world, then the existence of God becomes unnecessary. As Carl Sagan observed in his introduction to the first edition, there will be left “nothing for a Creator to do.” Not only will we know why everything in the world happens as it does, continues Hawking, we will also know “why it is that we and the universe exist.” We will know the mind of God. Science becomes religion and physicists its great high priests.

Hawking’s claim is breathtaking. One does not expect a genius of the first rank to make this kind of metaphysical blunder, yet he does. He has brought the Creator into the world and reduced him to a natural agent, existing on the same plane as the world. And once scientists have discovered the holy grail of the unified field theory, it seems only natural to eliminate God from our equations. Time to give the divine watchmaker a retirement watch and send him on a well-deserved holiday in the south of France.

Diogenes Allen accurately diagnoses Hawking’s blunder—a confusion of transcendent and creaturely causality:

According to the Christian doctrine of creation, the creation of the universe is not an event in the past which is over and done with, so that once the universe is created, it runs on its own without the need for any divine activity. God’s creative agency is continuous. The view of nature as self-sufficient, once it is created, a view that was held by many intellectuals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is not the Christian view of creation. Our sciences take the existence of the world for granted and study the relations between its members. Should we seek to given an account of the relations between A, B, and C, we might find that C regularly results from the Actions of A and B. It would be correct to say that A and B cause C. But it is perfectly compatible with this to say that C is caused by God, because for A and B and C to exist and to be causally related, God’s creative agency must be operating. The scientific account of their relations simply takes their existence and nature for granted. Divine creative activity and a complete scientific account of the relations between the members of the universe are compatible. … God’s creative activity in sustaining the universe is precisely the same at the present moment as it is at every moment of the universe’s existence. According to the Christian doctrine of creation, whatever exists, whenever it exists owes its existence to the continuing creative activity of God. (Christian Belief in a Postmodern World, pp. 46, 48)

While it may seem to Hawking and others that every time science solves one of the mysteries of nature the explanatory function of God diminishes, this is to misunderstand what it means for God to be transcendent Creator and what it means for the world to contingently exist. “The nature of God’s creative activity,” explains Allen, “is a mystery now just as it was from the very earliest days of modern science and will remain so. This is because none of the kinds of causality which exist between members of the universe, such as sexual generation, mechanical impact, chemical reactions, or transformation of energy from one form to another, is the creative relation between God and the entire universe” (p. 48).

Perhaps one day science will be able to provide a “theory of everything.” On that day Christians will rejoice and praise God. And God will remain the unfathomable Mystery that he eternally is and ever shall be, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

(Go to “Double Agency”)

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23 Responses to Stephen Hawking and Knowing the Mind of God

  1. MisterDavid says:

    ‘If I want to understand why my closet door becomes difficult to open… I do not email my parish priest. This fact alone distinguishes me and most of the rest of us from pre-modern humanity.’

    I think you underestimate pre-moderns. Some of them believed in the priesthood of all believers 🙂

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    • Karen says:

      Interesting, though, that the NT believers still accepted the authority of the Apostles and the overseers/bishops and presbyters they appointed. These were those who were charged with presiding over the congregation and the Eucharist in a locale, teaching and resolving disputes over questions of doctrine and practice (see Acts 15). There was a hierarchy in the NT Church–it was not every man for himself–which is chaos, not ordered community. Orthodox still believe in the priesthood of all believers, but that doesn’t negate the “priestly” role of the presbyter/bishop in the congregation either. See here for an Orthodox perspective:
      http://glory2godforallthings.com/2013/10/09/the-priesthood-that-never-was/

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  2. whitefrozen says:

    His recent thoughts on the laws of nature and gravity (from ‘The Grand Designer) were pretty worthless, honestly. Smart guy, terrible philosopher.

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    • pancakesandwildhoney says:

      Agree. In his The Grand Design he claims that philosophy is dead and, then, on the next page, starts doing philosophy with his model-dependent realism.

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  3. John Moore says:

    If physics demonstrates that the universe is “completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge,” that means the world doesn’t contingently exist at all. It means the world itself exists necessarily, and God does not exist – necessarily or otherwise.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I disagree. Science cannot prove, one way or another, the ontological dependence of the universe. That is beyond its purview. It doesn’t matter what kind of empirical evidence might come to light. It doesn’t matter if we should discover that the universe has always temporally existed. It doesn’t matter if we should discover infinite multiverses, or whatever. Science cannot speak to the philosophical-religious question of God’s creation of the world ex nihilo.

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    • pancakesandwildhoney says:

      Hi John, I see where you are going, but I don’t think that quite follows. Contingency just means “could have been otherwise” and necessary just means “could not have been otherwise” more or less. The Universe would still not have the explanation of its existence in itself, even if the Universe was eternal and self-contained it would still depend upon a necessary being for its sustainment, because it is contingent, that is, it could have been otherwise.

      Necessary existence renders nonexistence impossible, and I don’t think we can say that the universe’s nonexistence is impossible.

      God bless

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      • John Moore says:

        If the universe has no boundary or edge, that applies to both space and time, which means the universe has always existed and did not begin to exist. That’s how I was thinking about the term “contingent” – the world is contingent because God created it and it began to exist, but God is “necessary” because he has always existed.

        Why do you think our universe could have been otherwise? Why must there be any explanation for the universe at all? If the universe has no boundary or edge, it has always existed and its non-existence is impossible.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          But that is the ontological point and question, John. It doesn’t matter if the universe lacks boundary or edge. It doesn’t matter if it has always existed. It is still possible to think of the universe as having never existed—at least so theists believe. Why this universe rather than nothing at all? This is a philosophical question, not a scientific question. Atheists, of course, tell us that the question is meaningless; but theists believe that the universe poses the question. It poses the question not because of anything science has demonstrated or might demonstrate. It just poses the question—and perhaps answers it in mystery.

          Please note: I am not advancing an argument from intelligent design or anything like that. I agree with David Hart that all such arguments are deeply flawed (see The Experience of God).

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        • Assuming the universe has always existed in time (and that’s a contestable point, given, it seems to me, that anything finite must be contingent – unless you want to include a whole infinite panoply of universes bubbling from interaction between branes as some versions of string theory posit), I’m not certain contingency is irrelevant.

          We do not simply arbitrarily stop at God and say the buck stops here so to speak. The reason God is where the buck stops is because by “God” we mean that utterly simple, unbounded Ground at which all things must stop by definition. To say “universe,” do you mean the present universe with different types of atoms, spatial folds, stardust, etc. or simply some kind of infinite arena without differentiation? If the latter, then why the differentiation at any given moment if for eternity before there had been simplicity? At It seems to me that anything complex and differentiated must derive from simpler things – indeed, requiring something akin to forms, patterns, qualia, or laws separated from matter to give those differentiations. Complexity in itself seems a type of contingency, requiring contingency, just from experience. Even in that case, we seem left with two things – matter and qualia which must be united under a higher and more simple Being which is both Form and also a source of matter but also not material. It’s not so much scientific as philosophical, but I think there is a human tendency to insist on unities behind pluralities – which is one the primary instinct of science. Is this instinct misleading?

          If we want to call the “universe” at some point utterly simple, uniform, and without true matter, then at what point are we no longer talking about the universe but rather “being-ness” behind it, “beyond being” [in terms of particular existent things] and becomes semantics?

          Athanasius made a similar argument against the Epicureans when he said that if the universe existed by chance we would expect the universe to be, as he said, all hands and all feet – speaking metaphorically of the universe as a complex “body” as Aristotelians did. I am not confident this unity by reason alone has to possess all the qualities that Christians associate with God although Aquinas, I think, could draw a number of interesting conclusions about it. What I am saying is that the universe, even if it theoretically existed forever, still needs a simple Ground.

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        • pancakesandwildhoney says:

          No, the world is contingent because it does not have the reason for its existence in itself and because it could have been otherwise. Contingency is indifferent to whether the universe had a beginning or not, because even if the universe is eternal it would still require God to keep it in motion or sustained. Contingency just has to do with being dependent upon other things and ultimately upon a necessary being. Or, if one prefers, contigency has to with something that could have been otherwise.

          “could have been otherwise?” Because there is nothing logically contradictory about this universe not existing and some other universe existing instead.

          “there be any explanation for the universe at all?”
          So, the universe is unintelligible? That seems to be a slip into irrationalism.

          Because there is nothing logically contradictory about this universe not existing and some different universe existing instead. Another point is that my being able, without contradiction, to think of the universe not existing is enough for it not to be a necessary being.

          Moreover, a necessary being must be a maximally great being if you disagree, then maybe you can answer this question: what being’s essence involves its existence without that being being the being that theists refer to as God?

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  4. John Moore says:

    Wow, so many great points. I’ve been philosophizing all day. Here’s just one question I want to ask you guys: Why do you say it’s possible to think of our universe as not existing? I think it’s a logical contradiction because if the universe did not exist, we could not think at all.

    Atheists claim they can think of God as not existing, but you will argue that’s a logical contradiction, right? I still don’t understand why the universe as a whole is different from God. Yes, that’s my answer to your final question, pancakesandwildhoney. The universe as a whole is the being whose essence involves its existence.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I briefly touch on the apprehension of contingency in my article on Jerry Coyne.

      I personally believe that apprehension is intuitive and contemplative. Whenever we find ourselves asking why the world exists or what is the purpose of our lives, we are apprehending the universe in its radical contingency. If the world was obviously necessary, in the strong philosophical sense, I don’t know if these questions would even arise in human consciousness. What is it about finite reality that provokes these kinds of questions?

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    • pancakesandwildhoney says:

      Hi John,

      If we weren’t here, then of course we couldn’t think about these things. However, I don’t need absolute nothingness, so to speak, for my argument to work I just need to be able to think about a different universe existing–a better, worse, with unicorns universe existing and so on. So, this universe, our universe, would be non-existent and some different universe would be the universe that exists. There is no contradiction here. To clarify, every possible world is different from all the other possible worlds in an infinite number of ways, okay? But a necessary being is something that, by its nature, is unchangeable, because a necessary being has absolute ontological independence. A necessary being’s nature and all that logically follows from it cannot be different in different possible worlds. You can think of this universe not existing because you can think of some better, worse, one with unicorns, different universe existing. You cannot do that with a necessary being because the idea of it involves its actual existence. It is impossible to conceive of a necessary being not existing, which is why the universe fails as one. I can think of a better universe.

      If someone says that, they are confused about what is being said, I am afraid. For instance, some properties do and some properties don’t have intrinsic maximums. So, no matter how wonderful you make the universe, I can conceive of a more wonderful universe. The greatness of universes is like the greatness of numbers in this respect. There is no greatest natural number, for no matter how large the number you choose, I can always conceive of one twice as large. On the other hand, the properties of a necessary being, which must be a maximally great being because to be necessary means that a thing’s essence involves existence (alternatively, that the idea of it involves existence) However, there is nothing conceivable, the idea of which involves existence, other than a maximally great being. (To see this, try to think of some thing which exists in all logically possible worlds (i.e., is a necessary being), and which isn’t identical to what the Theist refers to as ‘God?” The universe does not work here.), seem to have intrinsic maximums. For example, we can define perfect knowledge this way. For any proposition, an Omniscient being knows whether it is true or false. An Omnipotent being can do anything that is logically possible and so on it goes. This is why we say a necessary being is one for which nothing greater can be conceived. You cannot “make greater” omniscience or omnipotence.

      “The universe as a whole is the being whose essence involves its existence.”

      The Universe does not exist in all logically possible worlds i.e., is not a necessary being. In some other possible world/universe unicorns exist. In the actual world/universe they don’t. Horses exist in the actual world/universe. In some different possible world/universe they don’t. Remember, a necessary being or entity must exist in all logically possible worlds. The universe cannot be a necessary being, because the universe does not have unicorns and it does have horses and so on. That is, the universe could be different, which means that it is contingent.

      *Possible worlds are just how things could have been or might have been.

      God bless

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      • John Moore says:

        Good point about numbers. You can conceive of a more wonderful universe, just as you can always think of a number larger than any number I might name. Since you can conceive of the thing, furthermore, you say it’s logically possible.

        This demonstrates our different attitudes toward mathematics. I suppose you have a Platonic or Aristotelian idea that math is real in its own right. On the other hand, I take the modernistic view that math is just a way of viewing reality. And our view is always different from actual reality.

        Perhaps our universe is really the only universe, and perhaps our universe could never have been different in even the slightest detail. Maybe if there were unicorns, that would set off a logical chain reaction that would end up making the universe completely absurd and impossible. Have you worked out all the logical ramifications of your imagined unicorns? It could be like that “butterfly effect” where one tiny change has catastrophic consequences.

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        • pancakesandwildhoney says:

          Hi John,

          It is not just me thinking it up that makes it a logical possibility. It is that I am allowed, without contradiction, to think of something better that makes it a logical possibility. There are various kinds of possibility and with varying degrees of stringency, although the issue is a bit too complex for a comments section. To give you a taste, it is, for example, scientifically possible, though not technologically possible, for me to travel around the world in a minute. It is mathematically possible, though not scientifically possible, for me to travel round the world in a microsecond (It is scientifically impossible because it would mean violating the physical law that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.) On the other hand, it is not even mathematically possible for me to travel round the world infinitely many times in an hour, provided that my speed is constant. It is mathematically possible for me to travel round the world infinitely many times in an hour by doing so that first time in half an hour and then doubling my speed after each circuit. In other ways this is not possible. Exactly which these other ways are is a matter of deep philosophical controversy. However, that may be, it is natural to suppose that there does eventually come some one, minimally stringent, kind of possibility which covers all the others and which is the special concern of logic. Thus, for example, it is absolutely impossible–we might say, logically impossible–for me to travel round the world and not do so at the same time.(Of course, epistemic possibility would only complicate this further.) And this sort of possibility, which is extraordinarily difficult to give an adequate account of, or even agree on whether various problematic cases are instances of it, is the sort of possibility I am referring to. For example, it is logically impossible for today to be Wednesday if tomorrow is Saturday. As for the case at present it is contradictory and, therefore, logically impossible for something to be both contingent and necessary. The Universe, as I have shown, can be thought to be other than it is, so it cannot, on pain of contradiction, be necessary. In other words, for something that could be other than it is it could not be not other than it is on pain of contradiction. It is logically impossible. That is all I mean when I say it is logically impossible for the Universe to be a necessary being.

          I am not sure what my view of mathematics has to do with this. It is just a simple rule of math that I can always double any natural number. I was just using that particular example as an analogy for showing how I can always conceive of a better physical, dependent thing. Of course, even though I am not a Platonist or Aristotelian, in the mathematics of number, there are many laws that do seem to assert the existence of things; for example, “There exists exactly one number y such that x times y equals x, whatever number x may be.” This sort of law definitely appears to assert the existence of something (the number 1), so the law cannot easily be understood in a hypothetical sense, as the geometrical laws can be. But what sort of existence is involved? With what sort of reality does this part of mathematics deal? Is the existence statement to be understood in some fairly literal sense, or must it be understood quite figuratively? Just food for thought.

          Perhaps, you are right, but it is logically possible that it could be otherwise than it is, and that is all contingency is. Since it is logically possible that the the Universe could be otherwise than it is, the Universe cannot be a necessary being. The rest of the comment is beside the point and completely ridiculous. I am talking in hypotheticals here. Moreover, I am only doing what I am logically allowed to do. Nothing more.

          God bless

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        • pancakesandwildhoney says:

          Oh, and one other point, possible worlds do not contain contradictory states of being like round squares or 2+2=5. There is nothing contradictory about the existence of unicorns.

          God bless

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  5. noteworthy-the other day when i had mentioned the turtle argument-i had found that hawking was the guy who had formulated it.

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  6. I attended a conference of Christians in the Sciences this summer and discovered that there are things in the Bible that scientists are looking at with great curiosity. For example, Genesis 1 indicates that creation became more complex as a result of binary sorting, distinctions or separations: light/dark; waters above/waters below; dry land/seas; sun/moon; etc. It is noted that binary features signaled the greater complexity of the Cambrian Explosion. http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2013/07/does-binary-feature-signal-greater.htm

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    • Your blog link says “anthropology”. As an anthropologist in training right now (working on a B.A. in religion and a B.A. in history), I can attest that the creation story in Genesis has quite a bit to do with anthropology. The extra-Biblical stuff you’re adding to it, has nothing to do with anthropology though.

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