Stephen Hawking and the creation of the universe

I should begin by saying that I haven’t read Hawking’s book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, and I probably won’t. But the way it is being hyped in the media, social and mainstream, suggests that what he is claiming, which is nothing novel, is that we have finally done away with God. From what I have seen, that is not the case, although it’s possible the authors believe it is.Physicists tend to be a bit fast and loose with the “G” word. I suspect this is because physicists – especially cosmologists and theoretical physicists – think that what they are engaging with involves a direct line to reality, and that this is as close to God as one may get in this life. So Hawking, Paul Davies, and even Einstein all used the phrase “the mind of God“, causing no end of confusion.

Let’s presume for the moment that they aren’t really talking about God, but about the ultimate nature of the world. Certainly, that is what Einstein meant. So what is it that Hawking and ghost think they are denying? The key term here is “deism”.

In the scientific community, it is all right to believe in God if by that you mean something like a divine watchmaker, who wound up the world and let it run, and physicists are now finding out what the inner mechanisms are. God is a creator in the sense that the reason there is something and not nothing is that God made things. The things work according to the rules of the universe God made. This goes back to Aristotle’s notion of a Primum Mobile, a “first cause” or “first mover” (in older texts, movent).

Aristotle’s argument is this: motion is something that must be caused, because nothing moves of its own accord. The heavens move eternally, and so there must be something that is moving them, imparting all motion to the rest of the universe. Now, Newton inverted Aristotle (actually, a number of predecessors did, but Newton put it most clearly), so that motion is the default, and a change of motion needed a cause, but still, assuming that the universe was static at first, you need a prime mover to get it all going. [Contrast this to the Epicurean myth in which all was in motion from the start, and a random swerve caused collisions that ended up causing all of us. They had a purely mechanical account of causation, apart from that swerve.]

So prime mover became first cause, and that led rather directly to the development of deism in the 18th century as the default view of an educated person, especially a scientist. God was the geometer, the clockwork maker, who set up the conditions from which everything evolved (in the traditional sense of “unfolded”). Laplace, who famously said of the role of God in an orbital stability problem, “I have no need for that hypothesis”, proposed a “Demon” that, with sufficient cognitive ability, could predict everything from a knowledge of initial states and the laws of physics.

In the 19th century, though, something happened. No, not Darwin, although Darwin showed that apparent design could be explained in terms of undesigned and unguided processes. What happened was the development of complex mathematics which showed that complex things can have simple causes. Now we found ourselves trying to unify the sciences down to simple rules of physics. All was well until we hit quantum mechanics and its apparent indeterminacy. The notion that a God was needed to set things in motion became, rather quickly, a problem. Laplace’s Demon was now unnecessary.

But quantum mechanics soon had a resource to address the problem: the appearance of particles by random chance, the so-called quantum foam. Particles can come into existence at random. If I read the reports of this book properly, the view here is that this is true of the entire universe. It may have popped into existence at random.

Suppose it is true? What is shown to be untenable or unnecessary? Is a God unnecessary? Not in the sense used by physicists generally, but that’s metaphor and we can ignore it. What God is excluded? Well, it’s the traditional primum mobile. The God who created things at some initial time, applied the match to the blue paper, and retired to a safe distance.* That God is defunct, because the universe is not at all like a clockwork mechanism. This needs no physicist to tell us that (okay, it does, but I’m being cultured here!).

Can we come up with a deist god that is consistent with the modern physics? One way is called “block universe” theory, and I have discussed this before. Any deity that is not themselves bounded by ordinary causal relations and time is able to set up a universe that does things causally even if that universe is unpredictable within spacetime. But this is rather more like the traditional theist God, only without all the intervention. In losing the Laplacean deist god we find ourselves back with the Augustinian-Thomist deity. If you think it matters. I’m a block theorist for other reasons than theology, but the option is there if you need it.

A universe that can “create” itself is a state of affairs that is actualised, and may very well be actualised by a deity that desired it. The notion of cause has been so stretched and modified that it is almost unrecognisable, but there is nothing I can see that is self-contradictory about it, and so I conclude that Hawking, if he’s being reported correctly, has disproven a view of God that had currency solely among scientists and philosophers who were still Enlightenment thinkers.

Now somebody will tell me that the book is more subtle and interesting than that. Which is what these posts are for…


* This used to be written on fireworks when I was a kid. The blue paper was the fuse. Clearly, kids didn’t always retire to a safe distance, which is why we can’t let off fireworks these days. Guy Fawkes The terrorists won.

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