Saturday, September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

Perhaps you’ve read that Stephen Hawking claims in a new book that God is not needed to explain the existence of the universe. If you haven’t, here’s a link to an article on the subject. (It’s curious that the story is in the entertainment section of ABC’s website...)

From the article, it’s unclear what Hawking’s real view is. He says in his book, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” I’m no physicist, but the notion of a universe literally creating itself out of nothing—with or without the help of gravity—seems absurd. Gravity can act on stuff that is already there, but is Hawking claiming that gravity can create stuff ex nihilo, initiate a Big Bang, and generate a universe? I find that hard to believe—not just that it’s true, but that Hawking thinks it is.

Maybe when Hawking says that God isn’t needed to explain the existence of the universe, he means that gravity will inevitably take “stuff” (whatever there is in the chaos prior to the Big Bang) and create a universe with it. But if that’s right, we still need to explain the existence of the stuff that gravity acts on (to say nothing for the existence of gravity itself). A sensible explanation is that God created the stuff, and is in that sense needed to explain the universe—even if gravity, rather than God, set off the Big Bang.

What is Hawking’s real view on this? Perhaps his book will clear it up. Suffice it to say that to the classic question in metaphysics—Why is there something rather than nothing?—I think God provides a better answer than gravity.


Cartesian said...

Here is something interesting about gravity : “Conjectures and refutations”, chapter 3, part 3, by Karl R. Popper

About Newton:

… This explains that he did very deeply feel the unfinished character of his theory, also the necessity to consider gravity. “That Gravity, writes Newton (See the letter to Richard Bentley, 25th of February 1692-3 (so 1693); see also the letter of the 17th of January.), is innate, inherent and essential in matter, in such a way that a body can act on an other at a distance […] is for me a so huge absurdity that I believe that a person a minimum competent in philosophy will never can fall in this error.”

A bit further:

“Nonetheless, Newton was an essentialist. He did devote some important efforts in order to search for an ultimate explanation for gravity which could be acceptable by trying to deduce the law of the attraction from the hypothesis of a mechanical thrust, only type of causal action admitted by Descartes because the only one which can be explained by the essential propriety of all bodies, extent. But he did not succeed in it. And we can be sure that if he did succeed, he should have considered that his problem did receive its final solution and that he did find the ultimate explanation of gravity…”

But this is true that to think about different ways to explain gravity can help to have some good ideas about other things, even if what is considered is not the final solution for gravity.

Wheelz said...

Is this a VanArragonian way of affirming some version of the Cosmological Argument?

Ray said...

I am quite fond of the cosmological argument. As I see it, there are three ways to explain the existence of matter (the "stuff" that exploded out in the Big Bang): 1. It didn't come into existence--matter has always existed, and there is no explanation for it. 2. God, or some necessarily existent being, created it. 3. It came exist out of nothing, with nothing causing it to exist. (I'll ignore another way, which says that matter eternally but depends for its existence on God.) Only the first two seem like legitimate options to me. And of course I prefer the second to the first, since to my mind it would be bizarre if matter, whose existence is clearly contingent (surely there could have been no matter), nonetheless has always existed and that's all there is to say about it.

At the same time, cosmological arguments, which typically depend on some version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), have their problems, too. Reading Peter van Inwagen's Metaphysics has persuaded me that a PSR needed to establish (2) has the unfortunate implication that there are no contingent facts and that everything that happens is necessary. So I wouldn't want to stake my faith on the PSR. Still, option (2) above seems to me enormously more plausible than (1), even if I'm not sure how to put that intuition into an argument that would swing all naturalists over to my side.