The posthumous release of Stephen Hawking’s new book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, playing off of the title of his bestselling A Brief History of Time, reminds us of much that endeared the physicist to our hearts and minds: his sweeping intellect, gift of explanation and simplification, self-deprecating humor, refusal to let physical challenges limit his life... and, of course, his insatiable curiosity. As Kip Thorne stated in his eulogy for Hawking at the interment of his ashes at Westminster Abbey: “Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions.”
But I confess much disappointment in his “brief” answer to the biggest question of all, “Is there a God?” It’s not just that we disagree in our conclusions, but that his reasons for rejecting the existence of God are so… weak.
First, he only considers the existence of God in an impersonal sense, equating God with little more than the laws of nature. Hawking reasons that as a “law of nature,” this “god” could not exist outside of time. Taken together, this “time-bound law of nature” means that he is not even grappling with God at all. Which means he is not grappling with the “big” question at all—namely, is there a personal Being who exists outside of space and time?
This severely curtails his attempt to answer the question at its most significant level and makes his rather glib response to whether God exists intellectually irrelevant. For example, in maintaining that whatever “god” there is must exist in time, Hawking concludes that “then there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in… Time didn’t exist before the big Bang so there is no time for God to make the universe in.” Yet the very definition of God, across almost the entire intellectual spectrum, is One who exists outside of space and time.
(One more example of why scientists make bad philosophers and even worse theologians.)
Second, he states that the three ingredients needed in our “cosmic cookbook” for a universe are matter, energy and space. Yet none of them existed before the Big Bang, which means you have to explain how “something” came from “nothing.” Where did the energy come from? Where did the matter come from? Hawking wants to make a case that “space,” at least, was enabled through a simultaneous production of negative energy. But even if one buys into this explanation, it does not answer the questions surrounding the genesis of energy and matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the questions still remain: Where did the stuff that got “banged” come from and who “banged” it?
Third, when speaking of the laws of nature he holds to so reverently, he never bothers to ask what is arguably the most important question about those laws: How did they come into existence? This is particularly important when trying to explain how “something” could come from “nothing” through the Big Bang, which Hawking attempts to explain through the laws of physics (unconvincingly, I might add, and in a way that raises more questions than answers). As Alan Guth, one of the leading physicists of our day at M.I.T. has written, even if you could come up with a theory that would account for the creation of something from nothing through the laws of physics, you’d still have to account for the origin of the laws of physics!
In the end, Hawking admits that we now know the laws that govern what happens “in all but the most extreme conditions, like the origin of the universe, or black holes.”
But it is precisely the questions – and mystery – surrounding those “extreme conditions” that consistently point to God. And why Hawking gives a very brief, but also very bad, answer to the biggest question of all.
And, sadly, now he knows it all too well.
James Emery White
Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions.
Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe.