Knowing the Mind of God with Stephen Hawking

billiards_zps8ec57f92.jpg~original.jpegIf 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 you 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 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 Pierre-Simon LaPlace told Napoleon.

If science can explain, at least potentially, 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 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. [emphasis mine]

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.” The English cosmologist 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 stunning. One does not expect an intellect of the first rank to make this kind of metaphysical blunder. He has reduced the Deity to an agent existing on the same plane as the world. Clearly he has never read Thomas Aquinas. Given such an understand­ing, it makes perfect sense to eliminate a Creator from our equations. Time to give the divine watchmaker a retirement timepiece 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 that every time science solves one of the mysteries of nature the explanatory function of divinity 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 scientists will discover the holy grail of unified field theory. On that day Christians will rejoice and praise the divine Creator who has brought into being a cosmos of captivating intelligibility and enchanting beauty. Yet on that day the mind of God will remain as unfathomable as it always has been and always shall be, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

(27 January 2014; rev.)

(Go to “Double Agency”)

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6 Responses to Knowing the Mind of God with Stephen Hawking

  1. Lamb says:

    Hawking is way behind the times. What he’s talking about has already been accomplished, eons ago. Here’s a koan about it:

    The First Principle

    When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle”. The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a mastepiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

    When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which the workmen made the large carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticise his master’s work.

    “That is not good,” he told Kosen after his first effort.

    “How is this one?”

    “Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.

    Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

    Then when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now this is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction: “The First Principle.”

    “A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.

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  2. Pretty Lamb says:

    If discovering an obscure fact about the stars or subatomic particles is supposed to diminish our belief in God, then I suppose whenever the ancients discovered something about their cows or donkeys they also felt less of a need to believe in God. After all, if God is not immediately creating the milk in the cow’s udder, what need is there for a God?

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  3. exciting to see you re-republishing this series father. This was one of the first series on your blog that I stumbled across and it utterly blew my mind. Some of your best work. Looking forward to seeing what additions and revisions you make!

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  4. Milton says:

    Is “bodied” supposed to be before “forth” in the final paragraph?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. George Domazetis says:

    Perhaps these few remarks may be helpful; Science attempts to provide explanations or descriptions believed to encompass the universe. It may appear, however, that ‘mega-knowledge’ is sought to enable a human being to attain to a complete understanding of the phenomena and its objects, and this may provide an intellectual perception, or inference, that objects behave according to some principle or, objects are required to be as they are by a ‘something within them’. This search for an explanation of everything, or a universal, arises from a human being’s intellectual questioning and doubting.

    A scientific law is an articulation, or combination, of words and symbols, to provide meaning of the world of objects to human beings. We may reason that the universe is lawful in some way and we may eventually completely understand it. Such an outlook appears from those who may seek comfort from an ideal, suggesting that the universe and our understanding of it will finally be totally reasonable. Instead, the essential question in natural studies is the intelligibility of nature – how is it that human reason and intellect can access natural phenomena and realities? One response to this question is the attribute conferred to humanity by the image of God.

    It has been suggested we may see the mind of God in the universe, but discussion of the meaning of the word God negates such a view. The impact of the vast universe on the human senses, however, may be overwhelming, as we seek to understand it. Rather, the glory of God proclaimed by the silent beauty may lead us to wish we could share, and be a part of, such splendour. The Universe in all its splendour points to its Creator’s Glory, and similarly to the beauty that is found in the Law of God.

    Currently astrophysics consider the origins of the Universe. The difficulties of evolutionism are sidestepped by the notion that the Universe is anthropomorphic. The scientific method requires theory to be tested – in this case, tests are performed using particle accelerators to obtain data on the particles that constitute the Universe. These tests rest on theory devised by physicists and are mathematical expressions that encapsulate the thinking of physicists and mathematicians. The limitations of language have been mentioned when considering the meaning ‘God’ and concluded that all godly attributes are singular and human language was insufficient to give full meaning. The Universe, however, is accessible to human sense, and it appears reasonable to assume that a language such as mathematics would be sufficient when examining the Universe. Quantum physics generally commence with a mathematical equation to describe a system. A human being cannot be above the world, in a privileged position that transcends the Universe, and analyse beginnings and ends of the totality of what can be known. The scientific method does enable us however, to examine physical reality in the Universe and dispassionately draw conclusions from our observations. If physicists conclude the wave equation may be expressed as the sum of the forces in the Universe and these are measured in some way, then in theory such an activity conforms to the scientific method. If astronomers observe galaxies that provide light that has travelled for an enormous amount of time, and from this obtain an age for the Universe, this too is reasonable (it may be inferred that postulating such an age includes a beginning). However, if scientists perform mathematical calculations and conclude that these observations lead to errors that are so large that under ordinary circumstances such results would, according to the scientific method, must be considered speculative. Otherwise, we have the situation found so repugnant to scientists, in that irrational dogma replaces reason in the physical sciences. These scant remarks serve to indicate the limitations of the physical sciences and the laws of these sciences are relevant only to the physical reality accessible to the human intellect.

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