Friday, August 12, 2011

Hawking's God is Too Small: A Review of "Curiosity: Did God Create the Universe?"

It’s no secret that the “media” portrays a great deal of tension between matters of science and matters of religion. Controversies draw attention, and attention brings in money. So, when Discovery Channel announced that their new show “Curiosity” would open with the question “Did God create the universe?” I can’t say I was surprised. Nor was I surprised that famed physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking would answer that question with a resounding “no”. My curiosity, if you will, came from how he would come to this inevitable conclusion. So, without further ado, here is my review of “Curiosity: Did God Create the Universe?”
The show begins, not with the Big Bang, nor natural laws, nor any allusion to the beginning of the universe, but rather with a tale of Vikings who, upon seeing a solar eclipse, believe that the wolf god Fenrir has eaten the sun. So, they raise their weapons and shout fiercely in order to scare the wolf god away. Minutes later, the sun returns as a result of their war cries, or so the Vikings in all their lack of scientific knowledge believed. Fast forward to an ancient Greek philosopher astronomer named Aristarchus who also observed eclipses. While the religious Vikings had used a deity to describe an eclipse, Aristarchus sought a more scientific route. He concluded that lunar eclipses were the result of the earth blocking the sun’s light from the moon, and solar eclipses were the moon blocking the sun. Hawking then describes Aristarchus as “liberated by this discovery”. Hawking then tells more stories of a Pope who was afraid of scientific discovery, only to be crushed by a roof that fell because of gravity, and (of course) Galileo being marked as a heretic for his heliocentric solar system (neglecting to emphasize that Galileo kept his religious beliefs despite his condemnation).
But what do solar eclipses have to do with the creation of the universe? Well, nothing really. What it really is is an attack on any kind of “God of the gaps” theory, or “if we can’t explain the event, it must be God”. Hawkings tries to rid his viewers of the idea that we need a deity to explain how the universe works. Indeed, he says, “each discovery moved us further from the need for a God.” However, the episode is not about how or what makes the universe work, it’s about who or what made the universe exist in the first place. Apparently this did not bother the creators of the show. In fact, it takes 20 minutes of the episode for the word “origin” to be even mentioned. The entire first part of the episode is devoted to making people believe that religion is unnecessary and actually inhibits human understanding of the universe. The only real argument against theism I can give Hawking credit for is a single underhanded jab at miracles. Hawking says that natural laws are immutable, and concludes that “if laws of nature are fixed, where does that leave God?” and leaves the matter at that. At face value, it seems like just another way that religion and science are separate; however, if we consider the argument seriously, we see that it is not an issue of whether God exists or not, but an issue of whether or not miracles happen. Reformulated, it goes like this: If the laws of nature are immutable (cannot change), then they cannot be temporarily suspended. When a miracle occurs, the laws of nature are temporarily suspended. Therefore, miracles do not occur. Never mind that this by no means a new argument and has been challenged (I would say successfully) since the days of Hume.
The next 10 minutes of the program leads up to the entrance of the Big Bang, first talking about the “Cosmic Cookbook”. “To create a universe”, Hawkings begins, “you only need three ingredients: matter, energy, and space.” All of which you can pick up at your local grocery store. I kid, of course, but you can see that if you still believe in God at this point in the show, His creation has thus been trivialized to be made up of the cosmic equivalent of sugar, flour, and milk. Hawking then explains that matter and energy are essentially the same thing because of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (E=mc2). So, the universe is actually made up of "only" two ingredients: energy and space (sugar-free is all the rage anyway). Interestingly enough, Einstein was forced to accept the existence of a divine creator of the universe by his own scientific inquiries. This, of course, was not mentioned. That said, this trivialization was somewhat undercut by the sweeping CGI footage displaying the vastness of the universe.
It’s not like the program needed fluff to fill time and keep audiences interested. These are some of the most complex theories in science and instead of poking fun at that abstraction we call “religion”, the time could have been spent to explain some of these theories and actually further people’s knowledge. Or is that not what scientific inquiry is about?
Finally, half way into the show, Hawkings starts his main argument. Well, actually three different arguments. All three revolve around the assumption that the universe spontaneously popped into existence out of nothing, and without cause.
So how can something come from nothing? The first answer Hawking gives is regarding negative energy. Hawking explains that the formation of the universe is a lot like making a mound of dirt in a field. You take your shovel and pile dirt on top of itself until you have your mound. However, you don’t only have a mound, but you also have the hole from which the mound dirt came. For every shovel of dirt in the mound, you have an equivalent amount of “negative dirt” in the hole. Likewise, the universe is made up of x-amount of energy and therefore x-amount of negative energy as well. (x)+(-x)=0 Thus, the universe is basically made up of a sum of zero energy, nothing. The theist quivers under the immense weight of mathematics and physics.
Dr. William Lane Craig, a notable Christian philosopher and apologist, wrote an article in response to Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s recent book The Grand Design. In the book, Hawking and Mlodinow describe the balancing of positive and negative energy in regards to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Craig concludes, “They are not even answering the same question.” Hawking’s terms in his answer are not defined the same as in the question. “Nothing”, in Hawking’s vocabulary doesn’t actually mean non-being, as described by the question “How can something (some thing/being) come from nothing (no thing/non-being)?”. What then does he mean by “nothing”? “Nothing”, for Hawking, is the balance of positive energy and negative energy, which is zero. But zero is not nothing (non-being). Zero is just the vacuum of negative energy, which Hawkings states is found in space, added to the positive energy found in matter. This doesn’t mean that neither of those exist, or even more absurd, that negative energy is also negative being (as we might conclude if “zero” means “non-being”). As Craig quips, “Like the philosophy student who, to the question, “What is Time?” on his final exam, answered, ‘a weekly news magazine,’ so Hawking and Mlodinow have avoided the tough question by equivocation.”
Hawking’s next argument as to how the universe came into existence ex nihilo comes by way of quantum mechanics. In the early universe (nano-nano-seconds after the Big Bang), the universe was the same size as the subatomic particles observed in quantum mechanics. These subatomic particles (protons, for instance) appear to pop out of existence only to reappear someplace else at seemingly random times. If such particles can pop into existence, why couldn’t the universe when it was a similar size?
First of all, there are many, many different theories regarding quantum mechanics (not to mention the many variations of string theory as well), so to say that Stephen Hawking’s version is correct is at this point in the study of quantum physics fairly speculative. For instance, not all scientists agree that sub-atomic events are uncaused (see David Bohm). This means that the universe was not necessarily caused to exist by means of a sub-atomic event alone. Ignoring that, however, Hawking’s argument still has a major flaw. Subatomic particles do not pop out of existence. Again there is a misunderstanding about what “nothing” means. Protons do not disappear out of being, but disappear within the fluctuating vacuum of energy.
Hawking’s begins his third and final argument with an explanation of a black hole. A black hole’s gravitational pull is so great that there is a point at which time itself stops. Just like a black hole, there was no time “before” the Big Bang. Thus, Hawking triumphantly concludes, there was “no time for a Creator to have existed…Looking for a cause is futile.”
Now, there are two things wrong with this as an argument against the existence of God. The first is very easy to see. Once again, it seems Hawking has trouble with definitions. If we define the “Creator” as existing within the confines of time and space, made up of matter, then yes, Hawking is correct in saying that such a deity could not have created the universe. If, however, we define the Creator as a Christian might (because the show is obviously aimed at Christianity), we find that out answer is very different. The Christian God is timeless and spaceless; non-physical. Time does not apply to Him, even when causing the universe to exist. Now, if Hawking were to argue that time is necessary for causality, there might be an actual argument to analyze, but instead he just pre-assumes naturalism (no supernatural beings exist) when dealing with this issue. As the title of this post says: Hawking's God is too small.
The second thing that makes this a failure of an argument against the existence of God is that it actually helps in arguing for the existence of God! If the universe had a beginning, which Hawking affirms and shows, and if everything that begins to exist has a cause, then it follows that the universe has a cause that must exist outside the universe (ie. physical reality)! This is what’s called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. A beginning of the universe is significant because there are many who try to claim that the universe is infinite or has existed for an infinite amount of time, and therefor there is no need for a cause. On the other hand, if the universe had a definitive beginning, then it also has a cause.
So, it turns out that despite Hawking’s conclusion from flawed arguments, the claim that God created the universe still stands. Really, Hawking’s arguments against God creating the universe didn’t fire me up as much as the first half of the show. With hardly any scientific substance for half the epsiode, I can only hope that future episodes of “Curiosity” won’t be so underhanded in what they are trying to show.

To see Craig's full article on The Grand Design, click here.
To watch "Curiosity: Did God Create the Universe": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

1 comment:

  1. Einstein was never "forced to accept the existence of a divine creator." Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The onus is upon you to prove a positive; not I to prove a negative.