Not long ago, prominent scientist Stephen Hawking came out with a book and in it declared in so many words that God was no longer necessary to explain the origin of the Universe. To be specific, he states:
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing, . . . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.
This claim is fascinating for several reasons, most notably because it would suggest science now purports to be an authority on the unseen. If Hawking means by nothing what it commonly means, which is nothing, then it would stand to reason science has found a way to explain phenomena beyond the limits of the observable Universe.
Science of course has no ability to do so. By its definition, it concerns itself with applying rigorous logic and careful observation to the world around us. And by the world around us, we mean the physical Universe. Science therefore cannot provide an explanation, at least responsibly, that invokes something beyond the physical, whether that be God or “nothing.”
We might argue that “nothing” is not essentially a metaphysical thing. Nothing is nothing. It does not exist beyond; it simply does not exist at all. That may be true, but neither is “nothing” something in the observable Universe, and so God and nothing share this in common.
But this does raise the question: What does Hawking mean exactly by “nothing” anyway?
In defense of Hawking, and contrary to representation by the press, Alan Boyle of Cosmic Log explains:
If Hawking is saying merely that something can arise from nothing willy-nilly, that’s not much of an explanation for the origin of the universe. What he’s actually saying . . . is that when we study the universe’s origins, we have to work our way back from the present, rather than assuming there’s an arbitrary point 13.7 billion years ago when Someone pressed the button on a cosmic stopwatch. And when you look at it that way, the universe looks more and more like a quantum phenomenon, in which a multitude of histories diverge [and] space and time fizzle out, so it can’t be said that there is a time before the big bang – just as you can’t say that there is something north of the North Pole.
So by nothing, Hawking does not mean exactly nothing — sort of. But before we go on, it is important we break down what Boyle is saying, especially for those not familiar with recent scientific history.
Let’s start with his mention of the “assumed arbitrary point 13.7 billion years ago when Someone pressed the button on a cosmic stopwatch.” Boyle is referring to the beginning of the Universe widely held by most scientists. But it is important to point out that this beginning point is anything but arbitrary. After all, far be it for the scientific community to assume a beginning of the Universe, let alone that Someone started it. The goal of science is to explain the world by natural processes, not create points beyond which there is no scientific explanation. And true scientists would be the last to arbitrarily suggest one.
In fact, at one point in the not too distant past, it was widely accepted that the Universe has no beginning at all, that it has always been the way it was, essentially eternal. So why would scientists now hold a beginning-of-the-Universe view?
The answer is modern scientific discovery. Scientific evidence now rather conclusively suggests that the Universe is expanding. This poses a problem to a belief in an ageless Universe, because if it is expanding, it must be expanding from a common point, and if ones goes back far enough in time, there must have been a time when the Universe was not expanding from, but actually occupying, that single point. This would suggest the Universe had a beginning. So the idea of a beginning to the Universe roughly 13.7 billion years ago was not arbitrary: It was scientifically necessary.
The idea of a beginning to the Universe raises questions. For example, if the Universe has a beginning, what existed before it (the proverbial “nothing”)? And what caused it to expand in the first place? Naturally, such questions have potential metaphysical ramifications.
Nonetheless, many scientific explanations have been put forth to attempt to explain the beginning of the Universe scientifically. And Hawking’s latest book is just one in a long line to do so.
According to Boyle, Hawking’s beginning of the Universe can be described as “a quantum phenomenon” in which “space and time fizzle out” and also “a point like the North Pole” before which nothing existed, not because there was nothing, but because it does not make sense to say there was. It also involves the idea of many possible universes or “many histories” which apparently all diverge at this same point. If this seems to be rather confusing and almost gibberish, it is because to some degree it is. What I mean is it is one scientist’s attempt to explain the Universe’s beginning, or rather “point of singularity” using scientific processes only.
You have to remember that Hawking is a scientist, and his task is to provide an explanation where the math works, not necessarily one to which the evidence, or even common sense, strongly points. He is trying to answer the question, “What else could account for this point in the past besides supernatural intervention?” The essence of his answer is as follows:
- Time is not constant. I won’t go into this except to say that based on Einstein’s efforts, it has been shown that time can speed up or slow down, if you will (a crude explanation but it will suffice.)
- If time is not constant, then it is at least conceivable that there is a point beyond which time does not even exist, i.e. it just “fizzles out.”
- It is possible that the “point of singularity” suggested by scientific evidence is just such a point. That is, the point in the distant past is not only where all of the Universe was contained in a single point but also a point beyond which time itself ceases to exist.
- If this is so, then — and this is the key point — nothing exists before that point because time does not exist. If time does not exist, asking what happened “before” does not make sense. This is the proverbial “north pole” beyond which is nothing north.
- Gravity is apparently the cause of this hypothetical condition. Because gravity has been shown to affect both mass and time, gravity could be the force to explain the point of singularity and both time and space’s expansion. It is as though gravity is on a pendulum swing: At one extreme, space and time are collapsed into a single point, and somewhere between the other where space and time are fully expanded, is us, in the present.
- Therefore, we no longer need Something to have started the Universe, because the “beginning” we see is not really a beginning: It is just the northern-most point of gravity’s pendulum swing.
Now when such an explanation is pitched, the key thing is to wade through the credentials and reputation of the person and ask: Is there anything of substance here? In the scientific world, the question to ask is: What new scientific evidence led to this theory? As Dr. William Craig points out, there is “nothing of scientific substance” that is new in Hawking’s latest book since his classic A Brief History of Time published several decades ago. He has simply pitched an explanation of what might have happened based on scientific principles and a lot of philosophical speculation. And if it is at all attractive, it is not so much for its compelling evidence as it is in giving contemporaries troubled by the philosophical implications of a beginning permission not to think about it. Instead of finding refuge in an eternal universe from the perspective of time, they now have permission to find refuge in an eternal universe from the perspective of gravity.
All said, this speaks volumes to the real reason I wished to reflect upon this topic which is this: In our time, science is given such over-arching authority on matters of truth that the line is largely blurred between scientific discovery and ultimate reality, as well as scientific findings and speculation, so much so that when someone from the scientific community wanders into the realm of pure philosophical conjecture, we do not even notice (nor, apparently, do they).
In Hawking’s case, he posits a rather elaborate explanation for how we might explain away the thorny issue of an inevitable beginning, and we walk away thinking he has made a new discovery that God is no longer necessary. But as mentioned above, this is not the first time the scientific community has held that God is unnecessary. The previously-held belief in an eternal Universe did that already. This latest effort is just a way of maneuvering around the current scientific evidence and preventing it from pointing to a supernatural cause. From this perspective, it is less historic finding but rather a small event in the overall progress of science in its adherence to providing explanation without invoking a supernatural source.
But we have become so over-confident of science’s accomplishments that we have lost sight of its limitations. We have forgotten that science is only one branch of philosophy and, as mentioned, concerns itself with, and is thus limited to, the study of the natural world through careful observation. It does not deal with topics of a metaphysical nature, nor can it. It cannot determine for example the right and wrong of a situation, nor can it provide a formula for beauty, nor prove or disprove any reality that exists beyond the physical limits of our existence. Yes, it can provide the knowledge to manipulate matter and energy and fashion it to our advantage, even in the form of a rocket and send it to the moon. But it is not qualified, even designed, to answer such questions as the purpose of our existence, the question of eternity, or fathom the deep stirrings of the human heart.
The problem is, failing to understand this distinction places us at a marked disadvantage when it comes to matters of faith, and discerning what is ultimately true. In our next post, we shall further explore the philosophical underpinnings of science and attempt, so to speak, to put it in its proper place.