Some of the thinkers most opposed to theories of design are also the most preoccupied with it. Richard Dawkins wrote The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence for Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Stephen Hawking’s recent book was titled simply The Grand Design. The two books share common purposes: to explain and defend theories answering vital questions (biological diversity for the one, the entire physical universe for the other); and to show that their theories render God unnecessary and therefore nonexistent.
When Dawkins wrote The Blind Watchmaker he was an engaging writer (I can no longer say that of him, sadly), and the book was a sparkling read. His obvious broad-ranging intellect set me up to expect a truly challenging close, when he would finally get around to revealing (per the subtitle) why the evidence for evolution reveals a universe without design. When he got there, though, I was truly disappointed. I wondered, “Is that all he has to offer?” The book’s argument could be summed up as, “Here is how life could have come to be if there were no God. Therefore there is no God.” As Alvin Plantinga noted later (the link is no longer available), even if the premise were true, there’s quite an embarrassingly large jump from there to the conclusion. I could have come here by walking; therefore I did not drive. If that’s a valid argument, then Dawkins’s might be too. (Need I point out that it isn’t?)
Hawking’s book, too, is engagingly written. The first hundred pages or so felt like a pretty quick read. The second half (it’s only 188 pages long) gets more challenging, but I think most educated readers would still find be able to follow his treatment of the physics, as far as he intended it to be followed, at least. It’s on a par with other popularizations in the field, and considerably less challenging than his Brief History of Time.
He has made the same embarrassing leap from premise to conclusion that Dawkins has made, though. Let us begin with his premises, for better scientists than I have raised doubts about their truth. John Lennox said bluntly that Hawking is wrong. Science journalist John Horgan thought Hawking might have been playing a joke (or perhaps gunning for publicity and sales). Hawking rests his hopes on M-Theory, a complicated patchwork of mathematical theories that might someday unify the other so far mutually snobbish fundamental physical theories into one happy family—though Hawking doubts even M-Theory will ever be completely unified itself. Its predictions, such as they are, remain almost completely untested, and the most significant of them will probably never even be testable.
But let us grant him the benefit of the doubt on that. He still makes the same embarrassing leap that Dawkins made (and an even worse one besides). On page 180 he writes,
Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balance by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. 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 torch and set the universe going.
In this light it’s worth going back to the very beginning. The book begins,
We each exist for such a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe…. people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? …
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.
The torch theme appears in both of these excerpts, though I would not want to infer too much from that. I am more interested in how he began: “We each exist for such a short time.” Stephen Hawking is a man aware of mortality. He has lived much longer than expected. About two weeks ago I helped with the funeral of a 41 year-old friend whose battle with ALS began only about four years ago. Hawking was diagnosed with the same disease around 1963.
Few men or women have ever displayed such an intense desire as Hawking has to explore the whole universe. He is among the most highly regarded scientists of our era, with a cosmic scope to his curiosity, by which he opened up unexpected realities of those most mysterious cosmic objects of all, the black holes. He has found science to be enormously powerful, and philosophy to be dead, in the pursuit of the truth of ultimate reality. “Philosophy is dead” is for him an intentional overstatement, I’m sure; he averts to philosophical discussion several times in this book, including a fascinating foray into questions of scientific realism vs. anti-realism, and some less clear-sighted ruminations on free will.
Still, one wonders what caused him not to see Philosophy jumping out of its presumptive grave and kicking fresh clods of dirt over his own arguments. For, as much as Hawking is a genius for the ages, he seems to have missed two crucial points. One of them is “nothing.” He never says quite what he means by “nothing,” except that from it, the universe had the capacity to create itself. Now, this is not “nothing.” It is perhaps neither matter nor energy, but it is at least potentiality of some sort; and potentiality is not nothing. What it might be is something that philosophers and scientists might debate for ages to come, but it strains reasoning to suppose that in the end they would agree, “well, okay, then this universe-creating potentiality turns out to be quite absolutely nothing after all.” No, whatever it is, it is something. So in saying that nothingness can create something, he jumps a step. Where did the kind of “nothing” he has in mind, the kind that has this vast potentiality in it, come from?
Others have asked the same question in a more specific sense.If there is something in the laws of the universe that allow it to create itself (as Hawking suggests), then where did those laws come from? Suppose Hawking is right as far as he goes; he does not go back far enough.
And then let us be as charitable as we could possibly be, setting aside every doubt, every presumption we might attach to Hawking’s theories of the universe’s ability to self-create. Then what he has done is nearly the same thing Dawkins did: “Physics shows that the universe could have created itself. Therefore there is no God.” His atheism is not as strident as Dawkins’s; he never says outright, “This proves there is no God.” He’s letting the rest of the world draw that conclusion for him; and my sense is he did that on purpose. The leap from premise to conclusion, however, (even if the premise were true) is far too great.
Hawking’s intent might have been less than that: the universe could have created itself; therefore certain arguments for God are undermined. I wish he had stated it that way. It would have been a more interesting book. He would have had to deal, however, with the full force of those arguments, especially those having to do with a First Cause. I am quite sure—without taking time to review them all here—that they would stand up. For as much as he might be trying to say so, he doesn’t really mean the universe came from nothing. It still came from something. Or Someone.
(Also posted at First Things: Evangel)