Hawking and God: physics gives what it gives

Hawking and God: physics gives what it gives

Author: Santiago Collado González. Deputy Director of group of research Science, Reason and Faith (CRYF) of the University of Navarra. Director of research of the Ecclesiastical School of Philosophy of the University of Navarra. Physicist and Doctor in Philosophy. Professor of Philosophy of Nature.
Published in: ReligionenLibertad.com
Date of publication:3 September 2010

available also about this topic an interview on Radio Inter and an interview on 98.3 Radio

In the considerations published by "The Times" based on some quotations from Hawking's book and, supposedly, on what is contained in that book, one can appreciate an overlapping of planes in which some scientists who defend, mainly, thesis materialists, but not only these, have been involved lately.

The two levels I am referring to are the properly scientific one, on the one hand, and the one corresponding to a rationality that is not limited to what the scientific method can provide.

There is no such thing as "the" science

There are several sciences, with their own methods, and not a single science. This fact, which is sometimes forgotten, shows that, in fact, the phenomena that each science deals with cannot be reduced to a set of laws that can only be obtained in one of them, such as Physics, for example.

The famous theory of everything aims to unify in a single theoretical framework the quantitative predictions that physics can make in relation to the four fundamental forces of nature.

Some, in an illegitimate way, seem to suggest that such a theory could explain the Universe in all its phenomena and processes. This is a completely unjustified leap. Rather, what we need is to develop a variety of disciplines with which to approach the scientific knowledge of the different realms of reality.

The Philosophy: an "extended rationality" useful for explaining reality

There are dimensions of the physical world and of what is properly human that demand, in a very clear way, an expanded rationality that we could call philosophical.

To try to explain the reality of freedom, love, duty, etc., on the basis of material interactions would be like going back, albeit with a very sophisticated mathematical apparatus, to maintaining thesis similar to those of the Greek materialists such as Democritus, Leucippus or somewhat later Epicurus and Lucretius.

In fact, even within physics, the legitimate claim to explain all physical phenomena by means of a set of fundamental laws is highly contested. It is not peacefully accepted, for example, that thermodynamics is reducible to statistical mechanics: the notion of entropy presents a difficulty in achieving this.

It is surprising that a scientist like Hawking, with recognised merits, should make such confusions.

Multiverses against God?

Hawking seems to present a god who is conditioned by the laws of nature, not the Creator God of those laws. It is curious that the hypothesis that God could only create a single world, a conclusion that seemed to follow from the Aristotelian view that dominated the universities in the 13th century, was condemned by the Bishop of Paris Tempier in 1270 as incompatible with the omnipotence and greatness of God.

The current hypothesis of the existence of multiverses does not constitute a threat to faith (although it would, of course, challenge reflection on some theological questions).

Moreover, in Christian doctrine there is no claim to exclusivity in relation to man. In fact, even the existence of other intelligent beings called angels is part of the revelation! Regarding them, Thomas Aquinas said that it was consistent with God that there should be an immensely great issue .

Spontaneous creation? That's neither physics nor logic

According to The Times, Hawking states in his book:

"Since there is a law like the law of gravity, the Universe can and does create itself out of nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why something exists, rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist".

Let us answer clearly that seeing the laws of the Universe as an explanation of its self-creation has no rational or empirical basis.

In fact, to speak of "spontaneous creation" is contradictory. Physics deals with the behaviour of the subject in all its states: as particles or as energy of different subject. When the expression "spontaneous creation" is used in physics, the physicist is usually referring in reality to a simple transformation of a material nature. A physicist cannot speak of "creation from nothing", as Christian faith can.

In Christianity, God is the author of laws, He does not merely use pre-existing laws to organise one or several universes.

More habitable worlds, less God?

According to the Times journalist "Hawking writes that the first shock was the confirmed observation in 1992 of a planet orbiting a star that was not our Sun". And quotation his book: "That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions - the single Sun, the fortunate combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass - much less remarkable and much less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed simply to please us humans.

It seems that, according to Hawking, the existence of God depends on the probability of the existence or non-existence of a world like ours.

However, God's own thing is not to fine-tune the parameters so that we can exist, but to create. And creating is a free and loving gift of God. This can hardly be explained by physics and probability-based arguments.

Then, to combat the "anthropic principle" (which, in principle, favours theistic positions) he turns to the thesis of the multiverse, that there is an infinity of universes.

The thesis of the multiverse is in reality no more than a mere mathematical hypothesis. At the present time, it has no experimental confirmation, nor can it be falsified, that is to say, it is not scientific. It only seeks to remove specificity from our Universe.

The order we see in the universe - the force of nuclear attraction, the speed of expansion of the universe - is so improbable, seems to follow such an incredible coincidence, that the only way to explain it without approaching deism is to propose that there are an infinity of universes, so many that, by probability, one has the astonishing conditions we have. It is the only way for some to explain the fine-tuning of the physical constants of the Universe, without approaching theism.

But, let's insist, today multiple universes are not a scientific thesis .

Is being human simply being a "collection of particles"?

The third sentence of Hawking's book, which The Times is reporting on, states:

"M-theory [a series of "theories of everything" using strings] is the unified theory that Einstein hoped to find. The fact that we human beings - who are fundamentally mere collections of fundamental particles of nature - have come so close to understanding the laws that govern us and our universe is a great triumph".

The same Hawking who claims that we are a mere collection of particles later admits that we come to understand "ourselves". How can a collection of particles achieve "that great triumph" while remaining just that: a collection of particles? We will be at least something else, not just that.

Physics gives of itself what its method allows it to give. There will always be questions that will remain outside its scope, questions that this "collection of particles" is continually asking itself: the meaning of existence, of life and death, etc... Physics does not answer these questions, which are real and important questions.

Extraterrestrials do not bother Christianity

Finally, Hawking seems to suggest that if there were many planets like Earth, with intelligent life, Christianity would be disproved, or at least in trouble.

The reality is that whether there are more or fewer planets with or without intelligent life is not directly addressed by the Church's magisterium, but Christianity has never denied this possibility.

In fact, the Catholic teaching about angels is a manifestation of the Church's openness to the existence of intelligent beings different from us. Simply put, if there were more intelligent races in the cosmos, there would be some theological questions about the uniqueness of Christ's redemption (do they need redemption, would Christ be their redeemer, how would that redemption come to them, and so on) that would need to be addressed. But they do not affect the teachings about a Creator God.