Stephen Hawking, who has been summering at the Perimeter Institute not far from where I live, has recently co-authored a new book of popular science called The Grand Design. I have not read it, but I have been intrigued by some of the responses to it that I have seen. The commentary has generally circled around a claim that Hawking makes, to the effect that modern cosmological theories have done away with the need for a Creator. He writes:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
(Out of context, this may sound like an odd thing to say. Briefly, the ‘gravity’ to which Hawking is here referring is a theory of quantum gravity in which quantum fluctuations of space-time could produce a universe like ours.)
By now we are quite accustomed to hearing churchmen and scientists make statements that reveal their misunderstanding of one another’s domains, and Hawking’s claim has nothing, apart from the fame of Hawking himself, to distinguish it in that regard. It so happens, however, that several interesting rejoinders to Hawking have appeared, and they have seemed to me worthy of notice.
A good explanation of why Hawking is not making sense comes from William Carroll, writing at The Public Discourse, who clarifies what is meant, in Christian theology, by ‘creation':
Creation is not primarily some distant event. Rather, it is the ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all. Creation concerns the origin of the universe, not its temporal beginning.
To be fair, among the most famous lines in all of Scripture is the very first: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, and to speak of a beginning, especially in a passage structured by the passing of days, is naturally to speak of a temporal beginning. Christians have always done so, and denial of the eternity of the world is a mainstay of Christian belief. But to speak of creation in the beginning is not to preclude the ongoing creation of which Carroll speaks. Creation refers to an act by which things are given being, and the theological point of the doctrine of creation is to affirm that the universe does not have its being from itself — not in the beginning, and not now.
This kind of claim takes place on a plane that is distinct from the plane of explanation accessible to the natural sciences. In consequence, to say that God is Creator does not mean that there does not exist a correct scientific description of the origin and evolution of the space-time manifold that we call home. The two levels of explanation are complementary:
To say that God is the complete cause of all that is does not negate the role of other causes which are part of the created natural order. Creatures, both animate and inanimate, are real causes of the wide array of changes that occur in the world, but God alone is the universal cause of being as such. God’s causality is so different from the causality of creatures that there is no competition between the two, that is, we do not need to limit, as it were, God’s causality to make room for the causality of creatures. God causes creatures to be causes.
Therefore to say, as Hawking does, that a scientific theory of cosmological origins contradicts the religious concept of a Creator is simply a non sequitur. By the same token, Christians must be careful about drawing theological conclusions from empirical cosmological data. Even if God is the ultimate origin of all material reality, it does not follow that the Big Bang is that ultimate origin.
The most puzzling thing about Hawking’s position, however, is what on earth he means by ‘nothing’ in his statement above. His ‘nothing’ seems suspiciously like ‘something’. Stephen Barr, a particle physicist and commentator on issues in religion and science, unpacks Hawking’s ‘nothing':
The “no-universe state” as meant in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. This no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.
In other words, the ‘creation from nothing’ that Hawking is attempting to describe is, from his point of view, a physical event like any other, governed by a pre-existing physical order. It does not really get at the questions of origins at all. The really interesting question, even if Hawking’s theory were right, would be where that pre-existing order came from.