Tonight I finally got around to watching Discovery TV’s “Did God Create the Universe” featuring Stephen Hawking, which initially aired a couple of months ago. I expected the program to be tendentious and it was, but I hoped it would be challenging, or at least interesting. Sadly, it was neither.
Hawking begins the show with a now all-too-familiar theme of the new atheists. Religious explanations must recede before the ever advancing triumph of science. We see a boatload of Vikings terrified by a solar eclipse, which, they believe, is caused by the wolf god eating the sun. The Vikings bang their spears against their shields and scream at the sky, and when the sun reappears they are greatly relieved. The message is unmistakable — unless you believe the universe popped into existence spontaneously from nothing, you are as as ignorant as a Viking barking at the sky trying to scare away the wolf god. There is no in between.
Hawking says the laws of nature tell us if we need a God, and then he says the laws of nature are a “description of how things work.” Certainly one of those statements is true. As I have argued a number of times over the last weeks, a law of nature is nothing but an “observed regularity,” a phrase equivalent to “a description of how things work.” How does a description of how things work explain God? Doesn’t the fact that things always work according to the description itself need to be explained? In other words, the laws of nature do not explain themselves. The fact that such laws exist at all is not logically necessary. Neither is it logically necessary that the laws that do exist should have the values we observe them to have. Hawking just skips right past these questions as if they are non-issues that need no explanation. He seems to believe that the laws of nature are indeed necessary instead of contingent as they obviously are.
Hawking says that physical laws are universal and cannot be broken. He seems to think that these statements are scientific statements when they obviously are metaphysical statements. Karl Popper wrote: “This is the reason why strictly existential statements are not falsifiable. We cannot search the whole world in order to establish that something does not exist, has never existed, and will never exist.”
Hawking’s statement that physical laws are universal is not falsifiable because we cannot search every place in the universe to test it. For the same reason his statement that physical law are inviolable is also not falsifiable. Do not misunderstand me. The statements may or may not be true. The point is that their truth cannot be established by means of science. Astonishingly, Hawking does not appear to understand the nature of his own metaphysical commitments. Indeed, he does not seem to understand that they are metaphysical commitments at all.
Hawking then gets into the nitty gritty of his argument. He says that you need only three ingredients to make a universe: space, mass and energy, and since Einstein proved that mass and energy are equivalent you really only need two ingredients: space and mass/energy. He then asserts that space and mass/energy were spontaneously created at the big bang. He says that we can have the universe for free; it is the ultimate “free lunch.” The universe “created itself.”
Of course these assertions are a logical absurdity, because from nothing comes nothing. Hawking recognizes that viewers are not just going to swallow such outlandish assertions whole. So he attempts to dress his absurdities up in a scientific veneer.
First he says that the universe has both positive and negative energy and the total amount of positive energy is equal to the total amount of negative energy. Then he says that if the energy in the universe adds up to nothing, you don’t need God to create it. He attempts to illustrate this concept with a metaphor of a man digging a hole and using the dirt to make a hill. The hole and the hill are exactly equal and cancel each other out. Hawking does not seem to understand that the metaphor better shows why his conclusion is false. Yes, the hole and the hill are exactly equal (if we grant the assertion that negative and positive energy are equal; itself a debatable proposition). Nevertheless, the fact that two things when combined net to zero does not mean the two things are nothing. The fact that we can speak about them as “things” means they are not. And it is that existence that must be explained, which Hawking does not even begin to try to do.
Next Hawking turns to quantum mechanics. He asserts that at the quantum level subatomic particles pop into existence from “nothing.” At the time of the big bang the entire universe was as small as a subatomic particle. Then he makes this leap: If subatomic particles can leap into existence from “nothing,” the universe also popped into existence from “nothing” at the moment of the big bang when it was as small as a subatomic particle.
Here’s the problem with Hawking’s assertion. You will note that I put scare quotes around the word “nothing.” I did this because subatomic particles do NOT pop into existence from “nothing.” They pop into existence from the quantum vacuum, and the quantum vacuum is not nothing. This is from Wikipedia: “According to present-day understanding of what is called the vacuum state or the quantum vacuum, it is “by no means a simple empty space”, and again: “it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty void.” According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence.”
Hawking is fudging here. The issue is the classic question from Leibniz: “Why is there something instead of nothing.” “Nothing” does not mean the quantum vacuum. It means “nonbeing.” In other words, Hawking’s entire argument rests on an equivocation between the quantum vacuum (which he calls nothingness) and true nothingness defined as “non-being.” Hawking does not even attempt to explain how being can come from nonbeing.
Finally, Hawking states that time itself came into being with the big bang and from this he concludes there is “no possibility” that a creator exists because the concept of a “before” the big bang is meaningless and therefore there was no time in which a creator could act. Of all of Hawking’s arguments, this one is the most facile. Is it really possible that he does not understand that no theist believes God created the universe “in time”? By definition God exists outside of time.
Hawking is a pretty smart guy no doubt. But with this show he proved that even smart people can say stupid things when they are out of their depth, and when it comes to metaphysics and even simple theology Hawkings is in way over his head.