Hawking and the Mind of God

I woke up this morning to the news that, according to Stephen Hawking, God did not create the Universe but it was instead an “inevitable consequence of the Law of Physics”. By sheer coincidence this daft pronouncement has come out at the same time as the publication of Professor Hawking’s new book, an extract of which appears in todays Times.

It’s interesting that such a fatuous statement managed to become a lead item on the radio news and a headline in all the national newspapers despite being so obviously devoid of any meaning whatsoever. How can the Universe be  “a consequence” of the theories that we invented to describe it? To me that’s just like saying that the Lake District is a consequence of an Ordnance Survey map. And where did the Laws of Physics come from, if not from God?

Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly a very brilliant theoretical physicist. However, something I’ve noticed about theoretical physicists over the years is that if you get them talking on subjects outside physics they are generally likely to say things just as daft as some drunk bloke  down the pub. I’m afraid this is a case in point.

Part of me just wants to laugh this story off, but another part is alarmed at what must appear to many to be an example of an arrogant scientist presuming to pass judgement on subjects that are really none of his business. When scientists complain about the lack of enthusiasm shown by sections of the public towards their subject, perhaps they should take seriously the alienating effect that such statements can have. This kind of thing isn’t what I’d call public engagement. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In case anyone is interested, I am not religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never –  explain, such as why there is  something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way,  if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

No doubt this bit of publicity will increase the sales of the new book, so I’ve decided  to point out that I have  written a book myself on precisely this question, which is available from all good airports bookshops. I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention. If you think this is a cynical attempt to cash in then all I can say is

BUY MY BOOK!

I also noticed that today’s Grauniad is offering a poll on the existence or non-existence of God. I noticed some time ago that there’s a poll facility on WordPress, so this gives me an excuse to try repeating it here. Anything dumb the Guardian can do, I can do dumber. However, owing to funding cuts I’ve decided to do a single poll encompassing several topical news stories at the same time.


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45 Responses to “Hawking and the Mind of God”

  1. I actually really agree with your sentiments. I read he gives an example of how M-Theory can explain the origin of the universe. Fine, and lets pretend for sake of argument that M-Theory is correct. That, to me, still begs the question: who or what or ..?.. decided the universe should be made of strings in the first place? Or in other words, we can establish the universe follows a set of rules but can we ever know why those were the rules of all possible rules chosen?

    Anyways, even if my above comments resemble gibberish, just know I enjoyed your post.

  2. Physics is an experimental science. As the very nature of the supposed supernatural means that it cannot be subjected to experiment I also fail to see the purpose in dragging theology into physics (or physics into theology).

    As Einstein said: “It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few individuals for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate, and the contrast between the popular assessment of my powers and achievements and the reality is simply grotesque.”

    It is sad that whilst Einstein remained humble and disliked receiving special treatment even at the height of his celebrity – turning down the opportunity to be Prime Minister of Israel and instead publishing his political views in a series of excellent books and essays one of which is available here (http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/Einstein.htm) – Hawking seems to have embraced his following and made a series of bizarre pronouncements not just on God but also on Extraterrestrials.

  3. > I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal.

    Of course it’s possible for religious beliefs to be consistent with science, but in actual practice, an awful lot of people hold beliefs that contradict science.

    Also, consistency by itself does not make a belief system interesting or justified. It’s possible to invent silly, obviously false belief systems that are nonetheless self-consistent. But belief systems are only worth believing in if they are justified by the available evidence.

    The reason justification matters is because of the decisions we make in our lives. If we believe false things, we will make worse decisions. In order to make the best decisions, our beliefs need to be in line with our information.

  4. once Feynman was invited to give a lecture on the impact of physics upon society. at the start he said: I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.
    it seems that many of the physicists-contrary to Feynman-are not well aware of this fact

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Did I miss something here. This isn’t an article by the Chief Rabbi it just quotes a couple of sentences from him –

      “But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science”

      “Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation”

      both of which, I my opinion, are as devoid of meaning as anything Steven Hawking has had to say.

      Any while we are talking of strange coincidences, I see that Lord Sacks has a Rosh Hashanah broadcast to plug. Monday night BBC 1 in case anyone is interested (also available on BBC iplayer).

    • telescoper Says:

      Right. I should have said “response” rather than “article”.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Oh, they are quotes from an article he did write in the Times today. I’ve read it but can’t link to it (paywall).

      It’s a masterpiece in using 1000 words in a national newspaper to say nothing at all.

      “God…created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive”

      “Science takes things apart, religion puts them together”

      They are words but what on Earth do they mean.

      It’s not even that I disagree, you have to understand someone’s position to do that, which means they have to, at the very least, make a stab at explaining it.

    • telescoper Says:

      “It’s a masterpiece in using 1000 words in a national newspaper to say nothing at all. ”

      Isn’t that what journalism is?

  5. This was soooo cool! and the followup comments were on target. Good work, all of you, especially the fellow who quoted Feynman. I sometimes wonder what Richard Feynman would think of the current crop of Pinkers, Hawkings, Dawkins and Dennets?

    I suspect he would only shake his head with disgust and say something like ‘the stupid philosophers have finally taken over’.

    Steve

  6. well as someone who is both interested in science and religion, i don’t really see a problem with what stephen hawking is saying. i mean, the pope says there is a Creator, and nobody is really up in arms about it. i mean, not even the muslims are attacking the vatican. he has 1.2 billion members in his church. the doctrine of the church claims he is christ on earth, and that he is infallible, i find this many times more repugnant than stephen hawking’s claim that God need not be in order for the Universe to be. The interesting thing about this is that hawking isn’t even trying to state it as a fact, he is just suggesting it is as a possiblity, whereas God-believers take their belief in a deity as fact. it’s beyond faith anymore. faith is not a bad word. to believe in something that is empirically unverifiable is a virtue. furthermore, i think it should be stated for the record that there are many who don’t believe the bible is *entirely* metaphorical. there are many who still cling to the belief that the bible or the koran is a scientific document. young earth creationists are out there, and though the pope might not be one, he is certainly repugnant for the doctrine of infallibility. hawking is probably speaking out against creationism because he is concerned about society at large. belief that everyone is going to be rescued by a deity is a dangerous belief for the long term survival of the species. it basically renders any hope of transcending reality to zero if the vast majority of the people is waiting for an imaginary deity to return and rescue them.

    • Mehdy Shaddel Says:

      Hawking said: “God didn’t create the universe. it is inevitable consequence of the laws of physics.” when there is no universe-as far as we know-there is no such a thing called physical law. nobody has a problem with the first part of his statement. it is the second part that seems dumb.

    • I don’t care if Hawking believes in God or not, I am appalled at his suggestion that something came from nothing. Or from the ‘Law of Gravity’ which can do no useful work until it has something to work on – which brings us right back to the original ‘something came from nothing’.

      You can cover it as deep as you like in mathematics, it is still absurd.

    • “belief that everyone is going to be rescued by a deity is a dangerous belief for the long term survival of the species.”

      A perfect example. I just heard on NPR the other day that a fellow scientist believes that the religious urge grew out of evolutionary pressure on groups to remain honest when no one was looking – thus giving them the advantage over other presumably dishonest clans as they could cooperate more effectively.

      Bloody hell, will you atheistic gits at least get your stories straight?

  7. >> Physics is an experimental science.

    Is it? It is a natural science, yes, but it is more than an *experimental* science.

  8. The problem with this kind of story is the Joe-public think that we hang on every word uttered by Hawking (and I continually get asked why we haven’t given him the Nobel Prize). It’s kinda sad really.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, as Sean Carroll said yesterday if Hawking said he liked ice-cream that would probably make front-page news.

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    When Hawking did mention God, in an earlier work, he effectively used the phrase “the mind of God” as a metaphor for the laws of physics. That is not the kind of god that theists (of any religion) understand by the word.

    Hawking’s reply to the question “where did the Laws of Physics come from, if not from God?” would be that he expects there is only one possible set of physical laws that are mutually consistent. To which my response is: You are really suggesting that there is only one mutually consistent set within the class of laws that you are considering; but a creator God has a choice of a much wider class.

    The Feynman quote above is spot-on.

    Seidos: You won’t find papal infallibility in the New Testament, and many followers of Christ, ie members of his church, do not accept it.

    Most of the time I find my belief in a Creator God to be in harmony with science, and this does not surprise me because I understand the same God who ordained the laws of physics has inspired the scriptures which I accept. There is a clash, however, over miracles. (I do not agree with liberal Christian theologians who seek to ‘re-interpret’ these accounts away.) At this point you have to choose. It is not in doubt that any god who set up the laws of physics *can* violate them; the question is whether he does…

    Anton

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Can the setting up of the laws of physics be found in the Bible? Proverbs 8 puts words in the mouth of a principle called chokmah in the Hebrew, which is translated as wisdom. This principle “was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began” (8:23) and was “the first of all God’s works” (8:22), acting as “a craftsman at his side” when God “marked out the foundations of the earth” (8:29-30). Clearly the laws of nature are part of the chokmah principle. Chokmah is translated as ‘wisdom’ because Proverbs 8 indicates that it also involves moral laws, which humans would be wise to live by.

    In this passage wisdom is portrayed explicitly as having feminine characteristics, calling people to gain her and recognise her beauty. This explains deeply why scientists see beauty in the workings of the creation. Perhaps it also explains the copious sexual metaphors used by such Renaissance thinkers as Francis Bacon for the (then) novel project of learning nature’s innermost secrets.

  11. I’m quite surprised that nobody has yet mentioned Oolon Colluphid.

  12. Bryn Jones Says:

    I am concerned about a circularity in the argument when scientists today attempt to address the issue of whether the Universe was created by a God.

    Science works on the assumption that the natural world and Universe work on the basis of fundamental natural laws, rather than by direct divine intervention. The magnificent success of this approach when attempting to analyse and predict everyday phenomena shows that the assumption is very likely indeed to be correct when dealing with normal phenomena.

    However, some of the theories devised to attempt to explain the fundamental laws of physics and the origin of the Universe have been constructed with a Universe like our own as a natural consequence. Given that these theories are speculative and ill-constrained by observation or experiment at present, that they are able to explain an origin to the Universe without the need for God says nothing.

    I agree with Peter’s comment that science and religion are essential orthogonal: they mostly deal with different issues in different ways.

    While the writing of Prof. Hawking is always interesting, the media have a tendency to treat it as the word of God.

  13. littlebigfeat Says:

    A most interesting debate.

    I believe that as scientists we strive to understand the universe and that we can only do that within the limits of our experimental expertise. As human beings we strive for a similar understanding but our minds are far more capable than any experimental apparatus we are able to build else where does our creativity come from?

    As Bryn Jones very succintly pointed out, there is a beautiful circularity to the argument that “the big bang is an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics” but I guess even the Times readers aren’t immune the bovine excrement of those who have forgetten what they are searching for. I guess his publishers have an excellent marketing team!

  14. Garret Cotter Says:

    All,

    Isn’t there some confusion here?

    I admit I haven’t read Hawking’s latest Bull 🙂 and I’m not sure I’d learn much if I were to.

    A genuinely *supernatural* creator-God is a matter of personal faith. On this I agree with Peter’s orthogonality argument; this is just a re-statement of Gould’s NOM. Some people see one, personally I don’t, simply on the grounds of the infinite regression/prime cause argument.

    But a higher being who *intervenes* in our world is absolutely subject to scientific enquiry. No?

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Seconded.

      and it’s almost a relief to see this has been acknowledged above

      “There is a clash, however, over miracles”

      Yes. I would say so.

    • Not the higher being, no. The effect he has on our world, yes. Especially if he made it.

      The seeming problem with miracles was handily dealt with, at least for me, about sixty years ago with a book called, appropriately enough, ‘Miracles’. Written by CS Lewis, I believe. The difference between a miracle and an ordinary event is that the miracle cannot be traced backward causally. In other words, we can see how normal events come to be by tracing their predecessors back as far as we can. But a miracle is a lot like the First Cause, and just as rare.

      And as Lewis pointed out, they only happen where things are already ‘interesting’ in the Chinese sense and about to get worse. You really don’t want to witness one, because it means you are about to be involved in, as Will Smith called it in ‘Men In Black’, ‘some next-level sh*t’.

      Not a lot of fun, if the accounts can be believed.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Centurion: As an adult convert to Christianity from secularism (which has its axioms ie is a faith, albeit non-theistic), and also as a physicist, miracles were a very big issue for me. As a convert it was great to understand at last *why* the laws of physics were beautiful; but it went against 15 years of high-quality training to accept that those laws might be broken. I think I was assuming – wrongly – that all of physics was thereby negated. Certainly I never accepted the liberal Christian view that the accounts of miracles were ‘myth’ – by which liberal theologians mean ‘false’ but are not honest enough to say so. An example is Peter walking on water and sinking as his faith wavered (Matthew’s gospel, ch.14); this cannot be squared with science.

      In his book ‘Miracles’, CS Lewis points out that ‘after all’ we do not know the laws of physics with certainty. I am not happy with this get-out: the last word on quantum gravity has yet to be written, but who believes that Peter’s water-walk will be compatible with it? I don’t. And the point of the story is that it was amazing even to people who had no scientific training, 2000 years ago. Lewis had to make big changes to the core chapter (ch.3) of ‘Miracles’ after suffering a rare loss in debate, to Elizabeth Anscombe the philosopher (and Roman Catholic). He nevertheless does a good job of demolishing David Hume’s argument that it is always rational to disbelieve in miracles.

      Anton

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Garret: You wrote “A genuinely *supernatural* creator-God is a matter of personal faith… Some people see one, personally I don’t, simply on the grounds of the infinite regression/prime cause argument.”

      Causality is tied up with time. But what if God created time?

      Anton

    • The ‘laws’ are not inviolate – meaning they are not laws in the legal sense and immovable in nature. They are our description of the way things do, in fact, work – based on repeated observation.

      I think firstly that many (not all) of the miracles are miracles of causality – such as the Virgin Birth. But even walking on water does not disturb me – first of all, we have seen that whatever God does, nature accommodates. And our laws, that is, our descriptions of the behavior of things we have seen, are based on repeated observation. But most (not all) miracles have happened only once. Not much to base science on, and to be fair no one I know of actually tries.

      But walking on water? I have actually seen people walk across live coals, know folks who have recovered completely from lethal diseases and have a son who saw – and laughed with – his grandfather mere hours after that old man passed away on the other side of the planet.

      Walking on water is admittedly hard to imagine given our current understanding of physics. It may never seem possible. But then I think of what flying must be like to a creature which lives in two dimensions, and I get a glimmer of what Peter’s feat must have been like.

      They weren’t ignorant back then – they may not have been aware of the Law of Gravity, or the mathematics used to describe it, but they knew darned well if you jumped in the water, you sank.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Anton

      If you disagree with these liberal Christians when they affectively say that some miracles are false, could you give us some examples of ones you think are true?

      Resurrection?
      Virgin Birth?
      H20 –> C2H5OH?

      Steve

      Steve

    • I feel I should clarify the situation by pointing out that I am not the Peter that can walk on water. That is, of course, Mr Beardsley.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Centurion: the laws of physics are inspired by repeated obervation, but they are more than consistent with such obervations – they predict how all matter will behave. Jeremiah (33:25) speaks of them, referring to “the fixed laws of the earth and the heavens.” To me, miracles are not indications that these laws need scientific correction, but indicators that these laws are not the last word.

      Incidentally I have walked barefoot across glowing coals myself – specifically to show that there is nothing supernatural about it. But I have no problem believing that supernatural miracles do go on. Perhaps they go on less often than the mediaevals believed but more often than modern secularists beileve.

      Anton

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Peter

      I know you’re not an experimental physicist, but when was the last time you tried? 🙂

      Steve

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Steve: All of the ones you quote. The basis of reading any passage is to see what it meant to its intended audience, who for the gospels were Greeks and Jews of 2000 years ago with no special education. So the miracles mean what they say. Liberal theologians claim that the gospel accounts were extensively reworked from the original accounts by ‘unknown redactors’ who had a supernatural agenda. But there is no mention of this process, or of any names, in recorded church history, which extends back into the era in which these redactors supposedly worked; also, the accounts were originally written down specifically to freeze the information and prevent the large-scale version of Chinese whispers which gave rise to the Greek myths. The early church wanted the truth, and the accounts were written by eye-witnesses or people who interviewed them, and were written by people who believed they were dealing with a holy God and dare not make up stories about him. There was no question of making alterations for purposes of political gain, as the church was persecuted at this time. And we have many fragments of the gospels in early letters etc which are consistent up to the 97% level, with most of the discrepancies being due to “and, “but” etc.

      Anton

    • Anton:

      I believe we are in agreement. As for miracles, even Lewis had his doubts, acknowledging that many, perhaps most, were coincidence or wishful thinking. Something along the lines of the ’embarrassing supporter’. He wished to deal only with the ones which did not, in his estimation, fall into that broad category.

      Of the walking on water, Lewis wrote:

      ‘…we see the relations of spirit and Nature so altered that Nature can be made to do whatever spirit pleases. This new obedience of Nature is, of course, not to be separated even in thought from spirit’s own obedience to the Father of Spirits. Apart from that proviso such obedience by Nature, if it were possible, would result in chaos: the evil dream of Magic arises from finite spirit’s longing to get that power without paying that price.

      ….I do not know how radically Nature herself would need to be altered to make her thus obedient to spirits, when spirits have become wholly obedient to their source. One thing at least we must observe.

      If we are in fact spirits, not Nature’s offspring, then there must be some point (probably the brain) at which created spirit even now can produce effects on matter not by manipulation or technics but by simply the wish to do so. If that is what you mean by Magic then Magic is a reality manifested every time you move your hand or think a thought. And Nature, as we have seen, is not destroyed but rather perfected by her servitude

  15. […] why am I boring you all with this rambling dissertation? Well, it  brings me to my other post – about Stephen Hawking’s comments about God. I don’t want to go over that issue […]

  16. Steve Jones Says:

    It is interesting because I’m not all that sure you think miracles are indeed miracles, they are just physics that we haven’t discovered/ don’t understand yet.

    Richard Dawkins (I know you’re not a fan) has used the word Perinormal to describe such things.

    Watch this brief discussion with James Randi – are you sure this isn’t what you are talking about. Were aeroplanes “miracles” before we understood about drag etc. could “defy” gravity?

    • Be sure that I think miracles are miraculous: they fit in different categories and are not simply ‘things we don’t understand – yet”.

      We know how cells are built and something of how they work – but the difference between one that is alive and one that is dead? Structurally, no difference (at first). Then things change rapidly. We don’t know why, and I don’t think we ever will, but I don’t call that a miracle. Not the same thing Lewis was describing, anyway.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      “We don’t know why, and I don’t think we ever will”

      I do hope no one involved in cell biology is reading, they might be a little depressed by your assessment of the state (and future) of their field.

    • Ha! No way. They are not looking to replicate life (though some are, according to this old Discover mag I have) but rather understand how it works to better craft drugs and cure disease. Or so I suppose.

      You don’t have to understand the metallurgical requirements of the engine block of your car in order to successfully drive it to work, eh?

      The cellular biologists of the world can sleep easy.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Centurin: Don’t take the “God-of-the-gaps” line that miracles happen by means that science has yet discovered. If you do, then as science progresses you will be disappointed. Miracles are beyond science and forever inexplicable by it. Even though we do not know the laws of nature definitively today, I do not believe that science will ever be reconciled with (for example) the account of Peter walking on water. Such things are quite rare, however, because God doesn’t often have higher priorities than running the material universe in an orderly way. We should be honoured that when he does so, it is for our sakes.

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    Centurion: I of course meant “Don’t take the “God-of-the-gaps” line that miracles happen by means that science has NOT yet discovered”. Oops…
    Anton

  18. Well if there is a God that seems reason enough to stay as far from organized religion as possible. If there is no God then that is still sufficient reason to stay away from religion even if not as compelling. So if I ever stand before God’s judgment I will do so as an atheist. I like my odds compared to the average believer.

  19. We are discussing from a long time whether God created the universe or not but i never seen anyone talking about who is God? To believe in God or not aleast we must know who is God? Have any estabilished religion or scientist ever explained who is God? What God did or can do is another question and What is God another?

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