Stephen Hawking has touched off a Big Bang, and his publishers couldn't be happier. But just like the original Big Bang, Hawking has created an explosion out of nothing.
In his latest book, the famed physicist says, "Because there are laws such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself out of nothing. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going."
Hawking's statement is no big deal. It's not original, it's not certain, and even if true it's no threat to authentic faith.
Hawking may have abandoned the dappled language of his previous utterances for the harsh light of atheism, but there's nothing new in what he says -- not even for himself. Way back in 1988, when he published his first popular book, A Brief History in Time, Hawking held much the same views. He just didn't happen to mention God at the time:
There are something like ten million million million million million million million million million million million million million million (1 with eighty zeroes after it) particles in the region of the universe that we can observe. Where did they all come from? The answer is that, in quantum theory, particles can be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle parts. But that just raises the question of where the energy came from. The answer is that the total energy of the universe is exactly zero.
Hawking was far from the first scientist to declare that it is unnecessary to invoke a supernatural creator to explain the Universe. Way back in 1783 Pierre-Simon LaPlace improved on Newton's gravitation mechanics and eliminated the requirement of an occasional supernatural shove to keep the planets in orbit. Years later, when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte asked LaPlace why he had not mentioned the Creator in his treatise, the scientist coolly replied, "I had no need of that hypothesis."
Since then, the history of science has been a steady march away from the supernatural. Darwin eliminated the need to invoke a designer to shape life's many variations. Plate tectonics supplanted an angry God as the rational explanation for earthquakes. Genetics rather than Genesis best explains variations in human skin color. And so on.
Those who feel the need to shore up their faith with mysteries in nature stand on an ever-shrinking archipelago of the unexplained. They cling to what is derisively known as God-of-the-Gaps theology. Their island chain is down to three main enigmas: the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, and the origin of the Universe.
Science has all but solved the first question. We may never know exactly how the first chemical replicator got going or how it encased itself in a cell, but the general territory is clearly taped. The spontaneous creation of amino acids, RNA, and lipids have all been demonstrated in the lab. With Nature's ability to perform billions of chemical experiments a day for billions of years, it's no real mystery at all but more of a search through a humongous haystack.
The origin of consciousness remains a knotty problem, but one that is clearly organic. You can alter consciousness with drugs, switch it off with anesthetics, and watch it tragically fade away in Alzheimer's patients. Moreover, every attribute of consciousness, even self-awareness, has been demonstrated to exist in other animals. It hardly cries out for a supernatural explanation.
The third problem is the one Hawking addresses. In line with most cosmological physicists today, Hawking believes that our Universe -- the huge, galaxy-studded bubble we inhabit -- is just one of countless such bubbles that form spontaneously and with random configuration. Since he calculates the sum of positive and negative energy in our Universe to be zero, there is no constraint on the void to produce an infinite number of such bubbles.
Imagine a deck of cards. If you shuffle at random, you could deal out cards all day and never see a royal flush. To see them come out in perfect series order, from low to high, one suit after the other might take more than a lifetime. Yet, if you dealt forever, you'd be guaranteed to see the perfect series order not just once but an infinite number of times. That's the Hawking argument for the world we live in. To call it the Hawking argument is to give him excess credit, however, for many other scientists have made the same assertion.
Is it true? Maybe. It is a reasonable extrapolation from incomplete evidence. However, there may be other explanations that have yet to be explored in a scientific manner. Two things are certain. The evidence clearly shows that the Universe we inhabit is not the handiwork of an omnipotent, perfect Creator. Whatever the true explanation, the traditional interpretation of Genesis makes no sense. There are just too many inefficiencies, extravagances, and plain bad "design" for that to hold. If you're not aware of just how bad an intentional designer would have to be to produce the world we live in, let Neil deGrasse Tyson enlighten you:
The other certainty is this: authentic faith does not depend on traditional creation stories. "Faith" is a vague term, but I suggest it has two essential characteristics: it is a belief that ultimately some good will come of it all, and while its components may be reshaped by evidence it is a belief that transcends the evidence. In short, people who feel that such and such scientific claim must be false or their whole religious belief system will collapse don't really have faith. They have a membership in a particular ideology.
Ideologies come and go. Faith is an enduring characteristic of most human beings. I have, in various essays, suggested ways that faith might be empirically true. I won't reiterate them here. Let me instead close with these thoughts:
* Every single word of what Hawking now says might be true, and yet something wonderful may yet happen.
* Beyond all doubt, God exists -- in the minds of his (or her) followers. Whether God is more than a belief is itself a question of belief, but that belief makes a difference in our world.
* The future is not wholly determined, and to the extent that we control our destiny, our fates depend not on pure reason nor on pure faith, but on just the right intertwining of the two.