Some people say that Stephen Hawking is the smartest man in the world, and doubtless he is a brilliant physicist. But when it comes to metaphysics he has said some silly things. Consider his famous universe-from-nothing quote: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
Read that statement again. It is gobsmackingly stupid. First, as we have discussed before, the statement “because there is something the universe can create itself from nothing” is self-referentially incoherent.
But more importantly consider this. The statement appears to confer causal agency on “gravity.’ But what is gravity? It is a “law” of nature. What is a law of nature? It is an observed regularity that has been modeled mathematically. Last time I looked, observed regularities do not cause things to happen. They are descriptions of what happened, not explanations of how it happened. And what is the source of the mathematically modeled observed regularity that we call gravity? We have no idea*
Why does water flow downhill? It does no good to say that “gravity” makes it run downhill. Gravity is not a causal agent. It is an observed regularity. Saying that gravity makes water rundown hill is the same as saying “every time we looked water ran downhill and that is why water runs downhill,” which, of course, is no explanation at all.
Chesterton knew better:
All the terms used in the science books, ‘law,’ ‘necessity,’ ‘order,’ ‘tendency,’ and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, ‘charm,’ ‘spell,’ ‘enchantment.’ They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched.
*Actually, we have a pretty good idea. I mean scientists doing science have no idea.
UPDATE: In a comment Tim unpacked some of this issue nicely:
I am somewhat familiar with the text from which Chesterton was quoted and find it unfortunate that following recent OPs concerning evidence that our critics haven’t taken a closer look at what Chesterton wrote.
Consider the Ethics of Elfland (Chapter 4 of Orthodoxy) and you will discover that upon closer inspection of Chesterton’s thought, one might claim that he himself was a “mountain of evidence”, a claim that I think he would happily and fullheartedly support.
It always seems to go this way: the closer we look two claims like these, Hawking’s and Chesterton’s, they at first glance (and I do mean the most cursory of glances) seem to favor Hawking. You know, gravity is scientific, the universe is scientific, causes, effects. . .
We can have nothing of the word bewitched and cast it off as an Edwardian relic. As the scrutiny becomes more focused, though, we see that it is the “unscientific journalist” who is making sense.
Critics say that Chesterton was too prolific to be called a great writer, but this is wholly unfair, especially when we see all that he has to put forth and set in context in such a short space. I implore the doubtful reader to explore The Maniac, The Suicide of Thought and The Ethics of Elfland (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) to see the greatness of his thought (and his writing as well). Chesterton was referencing the thought of McCabe, a materialist, but as with all great and timeless writing it persists today for Hawking:
He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.
One last note on Chesterton, I am currently making some notes on Orthodoxy, and just for fun began challenging myself to find at least one sentence or phrase per paragraph that was worthy of underlining; it is a happy little excursion and, with a bit of humor and latitude, easy to find a most suitable candidate sentence in practically every one. Ok, try THAT for any other writer!
Materialists! Tell us about the workings of the “inner synthesis”, was GKC blowing smoke? or was he simply and plainly correct? And . . . game over.