Stephen Hawking is in the news today. The title of this post is the headline of an article about the man in today’s Guardian newspaper. Similar headlines abound elsewhere, with the entire front page of the Independent newspaper being devoted to Britain’s most famous scientist.
He’s in the news because in his latest book, The Grand Design, co-written with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow, he states that we will soon be capable of understanding the laws of physics that lie behind the Big Bang, and that we will thus be able to eliminate any need to invoke a god to explain the genesis of the universe. Hawking states that the answer may well lie in a version of string theory known as M-theory (Invoking God is sometimes known as G-theory).
I think that there’s a flaw in the logic here. Not necessarily in Hawking’s logic mind you (I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know what he actually says – it’s not published until next week), but in the logic of the newspaper reports. It’s not true that if science comes up with the explanation for the Big Bang it will eliminate a need for God. There is no need for God to begin with, whether we understand the Big Bang or not. It seems to me that even if we never manage to understand the ultimate laws of physics that lie behind the universe we still have no need for God whose primary role seems to be to tidy up the lose ends.
What’s more, I expect that unravelling the laws of physics and explaining the Big Bang won’t dent the faith of believers in any way at all. Why would it? They will quite reasonably simply ask “Who created these laws of physics, if not God?” (On this point, I’d personally argue that the ultimate laws of physics are probably incredibly simple, while any God must by definition be incredibly complex, so invoking a complex God to produce some simple laws of physics actually produces more problems than it solves.)
The newspaper reports tell me that the book sets out to contest Sir Isaac Newton’s belief that the universe must have been designed by God as it could not have been created out of chaos. That expression – created out of chaos – which I assume is lifted from the publisher’s press release, is a little misleading. Newton himself may have thought that the universe was created out of chaos, but I think that nowadays it’s more commonly thought that the universe was much more likely to have been created out of something that’s altogether more simple than chaos – it was created out of the unimaginable simplicity of nothing at all. You can’t get less chaotic than that.
As Hawking states: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” In other words, something just popped into existence, and from there on in there was no stopping it. That was when the complexity and the chaos began.