Stephen Hawking Versus God

The news outlets are abuzz with reports of some provocative claims made in Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design, which is due for release on Tuesday. For obvious reasons I haven’t yet read the book, so I don’t know the broader context of his claims or how he supports them. However, since the claims in question have been widely quoted, and several folk have already asked me about them, I’ll offer a few tentative comments (with all the necessary caveats assumed).

Here are Hawking’s statements as reported by the Telegraph (and by numerous other outlets):

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.

In the first place, I have to assume that Hawking is speaking loosely when he says that “the Universe can … create itself from nothing” because taken literally the idea of self-creation is just plain incoherent. Something can only create if it already exists (where ‘already’ indicates logical rather than temporal priority). Nothing does not have the power to create, or to do anything else for that matter, because nothing is quite literally no thing. So the universe could only create itself if it already existed; but if it already existed, it would have no need to create itself! As I say, I have to assume Hawking doesn’t literally mean what he says. But then it’s not obvious what he really does mean.

Hawking is apparently suggesting that the law of gravity (perhaps in conjunction with other physical laws) explains why the universe exists rather than not. But how could this be? The law of gravity is one of the laws of nature. Philosophers have spilled much ink over what a “law of nature” really is (see this article for an overview) but it seems that at a minimum a law of nature such as the law of gravity describes how the natural universe operates, typically in terms of the mathematical relationships between quantifiable physical properties in a closed system. (Just think of paradigmatic cases of laws of nature and you’ll see what I mean.) But if that’s the case, how could there be laws of nature without nature itself? Surely the laws of nature — the law of gravity included — presuppose the existence of the natural universe. If there were no universe, to what would the laws of nature refer? This is one reason why I find it prima facie implausible that the law of gravity or any other physical law could even in principle explain the existence of the universe. The laws of nature presuppose the existence of nature, just as the laws of Scotland presuppose the existence of Scotland.

But let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the laws of nature could in principle explain the existence of the universe. The laws of nature, to all appearances, are contingent laws. In other words, it seems they could have been different than they in fact are. The speed of light, for example, could have had a higher or lower value than it does, in which case the mathematical relationship between energy and mass would have been different. The very fact that we have had to make empirical observations of the universe in order to discover the laws of nature only underscores this point. The law of gravity presumably couldn’t have been known a priori, that is, without actually investigating how nature operates. So what’s the significance of this traditional understanding of the laws of nature? Just this: even if the contingent laws of nature could explain why the contingent universe exists at all, the underlying philosophical question would only be pushed back a step. Why are the laws of nature the way they are and not otherwise?

One obvious way for Hawking to avoid this objection (given that he wants to steer clear of any theistic explanation) would be to claim that the laws of nature aren’t contingent after all, but logically necessary; they simply couldn’t have been otherwise. If Hawking really has proven that the laws of nature are logically necessary, that would be a stupendous scientific breakthrough: a dead cert for a Nobel prize. But then why didn’t he publish it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal rather than a popular science book  (as The Grand Design appears to be)? Furthermore, if the laws of nature really are logically necessary then our knowledge of them couldn’t be based on empirical observation (despite what we’ve always thought) because empirical observations cannot in principle establish necessary truths (such as the laws of logic and the laws of arithmetic). Our observations can only tell us what actually is the case and not what must be the case.

If Hawking thinks there is some law or principle that explains the very existence of the universe, he must have in mind a metaphysical law rather than a physical law. Unless I’m much mistaken, the law of gravity is a physical law. It appears that Hawking intends to leave behind physics (a subject on which he is eminently qualified to speak) and enter the realm of metaphysics (a subject on which he has no particular expertise, so far as I know). It’s more than a little ironic therefore to find Hawking declaring on the very first page of his new book that “philosophy is dead.” If philosophy is dead, why is Hawking now turning his hand to philosophy? No, philosophy is in very good health, despite its frequent mistreatment at the hands of scientists.

I wonder whether these latest claims by Hawking are an extension of what he proposed 22 years ago in his bestseller A Brief History of Time. There he suggested that if certain (non-standard) numerical values are plugged into the equations describing the earliest stages of the universe, a “temporal singularity” can be avoided — which is just to say that the universe would have had no beginning, no first moment. Perhaps in his latest book Hawking is further developing this argument. We should note, however, that even if the universe had no first moment, its contingent existence would still invite explanation. Arguing that the universe had no beginning goes nowhere toward explaining why it exists. As Thomas Aquinas recognized long ago, even an eternal universe demands an explanation for its existence if it exists contingently.

It would be surprising if Hawking’s latest book made no reference to his earlier theories. But according to his own summary of the book’s thesis, he and his co-author (Leonard Mlodinow) lean heavily on quantum-mechanics-inspired multiverse theory, according to which our universe is but one among many (perhaps infinitely many) sibling universes. Multiverse theories have been doing the rounds for decades now, so it doesn’t sound as though Hawking is offering anything very innovative here. Moreover, the objections to multiverse explanations for the fine-tuning of our universe have been well rehearsed, not least the criticism that there is simply no credible empirical support for the existence of a multiverse. It’s no secret that such hypotheses are constructed precisely to avoid recourse to theistic or quasi-theistic explanations. They are, in short, religiously motivated rather than empirically motivated.

In any case, it’s unclear how a multiverse explanation could provide a satisfying answer to the question at hand, namely, why our universe exists at all. If the existence of our universe is explained by the existence of the multiverse, the problem (once again) is only put back a step. Why then does the multiverse exist at all? Unless the multiverse is thought to enjoy necessary existence (as God does, according to classical theism) the philosophical question stubbornly persists. Yet if the multiverse is just another kind of physical entity (albeit a very fancy one) it’s hard to see how it could exist necessarily. Physical entities are paradigm cases of contingent entities.

So for all these reasons, I’m very skeptical indeed that Hawking has discovered a purely scientific and naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe: an explanation that needs no recourse to divine creative action. Add to this the obvious fact that Hawking is an A-list celebrity scientist with a certain reputation to maintain. But we shall see. I’ll probably try to read the book when I get some time to do so, but until then I’ll be interested to read the first batch of critical reviews by those who genuinely understand the philosophical issues involved. Unfortunately even the best physicists aren’t immune to embarrassing themselves when they turn their hands to metaphysics — and they’re most at risk when it comes to religiously controversial topics.

27 Responses to Stephen Hawking Versus God

  1. jamesagibson

    Just curious: do you think Hawking will be grouped with the new atheists?

    • James,

      If this article correctly captures what’s distinctive about the New Atheists (and I think it does) then Hawking shouldn’t be grouped with them. My take is that Hawking is a knee-jerk naturalist who will always prefer any non-supernaturalistic explanation no matter how problematic (hence these latest claims) but he’s still a serious scientist and deserves to be treated as such. Apparently this latest book argues at most that God is not needed to explain the existence of the universe; in other words, an undercutting defeater for cosmological arguments. But that’s not a positive argument for atheism.

      So I don’t think he should be grouped with them. But whether he will be, particularly by a media insensitive to such nuances, remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me, but I hope he has more sense than to allow himself to be associated with them.

  2. Granting the same caveats about not reading Hawking, and kind of apart from what you’ve raised here, his reference to physical laws creating a universe out of nothing and so doing away with God, would seem to run into other problems of the sort raised by Foster in The Divine Lawmaker.

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  4. I am not the smartest guy in the world, but to say that a physical law like the law of gravity makes it inevitable for the physical universe to come from nothing is, well ,just a little mind numbing. This may be one of the worst ideas since Richard Dawkin’s comment that God would have to be really really complex to create such a complex world. I think we should start a “special school” for the “Metaphysically Challenged”.

    Just a thought,

    Blake Reas

  5. G. Kyle Essary

    Most scientists say that “natural” laws are merely descriptive and never justify their reliance on induction beyond it’s pragmatic value.

    Hawking here seems to be saying that the laws of gravity have an ontological value, and are “real.” I’d love to hear how he justifies this claim. I’ll read the book once it comes out in a couple of days, but if his “philosophy is dead,” comment is any indicator, I fear we are all going to be rather disappointed with his justification.

  6. Wouldn’t you have to be omiscient to prove that a law of science is an ontologically necessary law? It seems to me that you would have to have an exhaustive knowledge of all aspects of nature, because one unobservable fact could change the law. Just saying…


  7. His ideas don’t really help him much.

    We now have a modern scientist saying everything came into being from nothing. Reminds me of R. C. Sproul’s book “Not a Chance.”

    Great post.

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  9. andrewmarcvs


    “… his reference to physical laws creating a universe out of nothing and so doing away with God, would seem to run into other problems of the sort raised by Foster in The Divine Lawmaker.”

    Can you expand or, alternatively, do you have a book review?

    • Andrew,

      I don’t have a book review out (yet :-). Here’s from the back cover:

      The Divine Lawmaker: Lectures on Induction, Laws of Nature, and the Existence of God by John Foster (Oxford University Press) presents a clear and powerful discussion of a range of topics relating to our understanding of the universe: induction, laws of nature, and the existence of God. He begins by developing a solution to the problem of induction-a solution whose key idea is that the regularities in the workings of nature that have held in our experience hitherto are to he explained by appeal to the controlling influence of laws, as forms of natural necessity. His second line of argument focuses on the issue of what we should take such necessitational laws to be, and whether we can even make sense of them at all. Having considered and rejected various alternatives, Foster puts forward his own proposal: the obtaining of a law consists in the causal imposing of a regularity on the universe as a regularity. With this causal account of laws in place, he is now equipped to offer an argument for theism. His claim is that natural regularities call for explanation, and that, whatever explanatory role we may initially assign to laws, the only plausible ultimate explanation is in terms of the agency of God. Finally, he argues that, once we accept the existence of God, we need to think of him as creating the universe by a method which imposes regularities on it in the relevant law-yielding way. In this new perspective, the original nomological-explanatory solution to the problem of induction becomes a theological-explanatory solution.

  10. It seems to me that the simple defeater for this claim, as presented, is that gravity only matters if you have matter to act on. It is the interaction of matter. How does gravity help you in an absolute vacuum, in “nothing nothing”?

    Perhaps he is trying to appeal to his earlier theory with the idea that the universe can continuously contract close to the singularity and then expand again, but as you pointed out, we are then left with either an infinite regress or the cosmological argument.

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  12. Greg, yes, email it to me please! I have only read half the book, then I put it down for some reason and I haven’t picked it back up yet . . .you know how that goes (or maybe you don’t).

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  17. danjohnson67

    “Furthermore, if the laws of nature really are logically necessary then our knowledge of them couldn’t be based on empirical observation (despite what we’ve always thought) because empirical observations cannot in principle establish necessary truths (such as the laws of logic and the laws of arithmetic). Our observations can only tell us what actually is the case and not what must be the case.”

    James, this argument probably won’t work in the philosophical world after Kripke — a lot of philosophers (including me) accept Kripke’s examples of necessary truths that can be know a posteriori, and even by empirical investigation. Examples from Kripke are “Hespherus is Phosphorous,” “Cicero is Tully,” and “Water is H2O.”

    Here is another example of a necessary truth known a posteriori, one that only a theist (and not all of those) will accept: “God exists.” I don’t know this a priori (because the sense of deity isn’t quite the same thing as a priori knowledge), which means I know it a posteriori, by experience. (That’s not, of course, to say that I know it by inference or by my senses.)

    I think much of the rest of what you say is spot on, and I agree that the laws of nature are contingent (and that it is hard to deny this), but I don’t think this particular epistemic argument is going to work.

    • Dan,

      Thanks for the comment! You raise a very good point. I also agree with Kripke that there are some necessary truths that can (indeed must) be known a posteriori, such as the examples you cite. The point I was making in the quoted paragraph doesn’t contradict Kripke, so far as I can see, although I admit I could have expressed it more precisely (and while Kripke was lurking in the recesses of my mind as I wrote that paragraph, I didn’t want to delve into more technical issues, given the expected readership).

      My point was really that empirical observations can’t establish the necessity of necessary truths. Kripke’s examples are all identity claims. My suggestion is that while empirical observation can tell us that X is the same thing as Y, we only know that X is necessarily the same thing as Y by virtue of our a priori knowledge of the necessity of identity (i.e., if X = Y then necessarily X = Y). So Kripke’s examples turn out to be a combination of a priori insight and empirical observation; but the net result, of course, is a posteriori knowledge (because of the unavoidable empirical element).

      I suggest that something similar goes for our knowledge that God exists (although one might quibble about your definition of a priori in that context). We may not know a priori that God actually exists (if the s.d. doesn’t count as a priori); but our knowledge that God necessarily exists must depend on a priori knowledge (e.g., an Anselmian inference from the concept of God). It’s one thing to know a truth that turns out to be necessary; it’s another to know the necessity of a truth.

      In any case, I think my point still stands with respect to the laws of nature, because even if they were necessary truths, they wouldn’t be relevantly similar to Kripke’s examples (they don’t take the form of identity claims) or to your theistic example. They would presumably be akin to mathematical necessities. But as Frege and others have shown, mathematical truths cannot be known by empirical observation.

      So while I admit that I glossed over Kripkean considerations, I don’t think they derail the point I was trying (but perhaps failing!) to make. Still, I may just be horribly confused here. If so, please set me straight!

  18. danjohnson67

    James, you certainly aren’t “horribly confused.” You’ve made an interesting point; I haven’t thought much about the distinguishing features of necessities that are known a posteriori. You are right that Kripke’s examples are identity claims (either for individuals or natural kinds), and your idea that you know the necessity of necessary truths a priori, even if you know the necessary truths themselves a posteriori, is interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that in the literature; you might be on to something!

    The God case is still hanging me up though. I believe that God is a necessary being, and I take myself to have good reason to think so. But I definitely don’t believe it on the basis of an a priori inference from my concept of God. I believe it by virtue of inductive evidence about the nature of necessity and by reasoning about the sort of power that God has. Does that involve a priori reasoning whenever it touches on the notion of necessity? I’m not sure.

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  22. When Hawking says, It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going and everything comes from nothing, then we are to be careful and serious to pass a comment on his argument. First of all we are to know, is there any physical law in his hand that can prove nothing can produce something? If has ,then all the debates will turn into an another dimension. But if it is a metaphysical thinking of Hawking then many question will arise against it. We want from a scientist proven theory not a philosophical thinking as he uttered philosophy is dead. Let us wait and see actually what he says in his book,The Grand Design.