[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Stephen Hawking, probably the most famous scientist in our world, made the global headlines last week with his upcoming book, “The Grand Design.” Here, as the media reported, he has proposed a new theory about the origin of the universe – a theory that makes God “unnecessary.”
This argument, in fact, is not that new. We have continued to hear it from the time of Laplace, who famously noted to Napoleon that he had no need for “the God hypothesis” to explain the origin of the solar system. Since then, many scientists have embarked on a mission to find natural explanations for the natural world and push the divine out of the picture. The more we understand the natural laws that govern the universe, according to this view, the less room remains for supernatural agents such as God.
The God hypothesis
Needless to say, this whole Laplacean paradigm delighted the atheists and made them believe that science was on their side against theism – which they saw as an irrational, if not delusional, belief in the unknown. But there was a crucial point that they often missed: The scientific effort to make God “unnecessary” would work only if the theists were trying to “prove” God by finding “gaps” in the natural world that look inexplicable through natural phenomena.
That argument is indeed a risky one, for what looks inexplicable today might be explained tomorrow. As the “gaps” in our knowledge are filled, in other words, “the God of the gaps” argument, as it is known, can lose face.
Consider, for example, thunderstorms. If a theist argues, “God brings down the lightning from the sky,” and means this as a supernatural intervention into nature, then he is in trouble. The scientist will soon show him how electricity works in the atmosphere and how the sudden bolt of light comes down just naturally.
However, “the God of the gaps” argument is not the only way to see the world through a theistic lens. The theist can rather see the whole natural world as a manifestation of God’s creativity and majesty. In this view, God is the creator of the whole natural world but not a supernatural interferer. He is not in competition with natural laws; he acts through them.
When theism takes such a naturalism-friendly view, it has nothing to fear from natural explanations for natural phenomena. Science does what it does, and atheism and theism becomes just two different ways of interpreting it.
But this is all about how the universe works. When we start to discuss how the universe came to be, we enter into a different zone. Here, theism is much stronger than atheism, thanks to two major arguments.
The first one is “the cosmological argument.” It comes from the Big Bang theory, which indicates that the universe came into existence some 13.7 billion years ago. This ultimate “beginning” has led some scientists to conclude that the Abrahamic doctrine of “creation ex nihilo” is quite plausible.
The second argument for theism is “the design argument.” It comes from the Anthropic Principle, which reveals that the universe that we live in is amazingly “fine-tuned” for intelligent life. The chance of having such an incredibly hospitable universe by accident is so low, that it compelled ex-atheists such as Anthony Flew, British philosopher, to accept an “Aristotelian God.”
The laws of the gaps
Now, let’s go back to Dr. Hawking. Apparently, what he tries to do in his new book is to refute the cosmological argument – that the beginning of the universe points to a Beginner.
And he does it in a most interesting way: by presuming that natural laws preceded the universe and brought it into being. “Because there are laws such as gravity,” he confidently says, “the Universe can and will create itself out of nothing.”
But there is a crucial problem here. We know gravity’s existence thanks to the scientific method: We can test and observe it. Yet there is no way to test and observe (and even to calculate) the “time” before the universe. (We can’t even calculate the very first moment of the universe, called “Planck time.”)
In other words, when Hawking posits “laws such as gravity” that existed before the universe, he is speaking of faith, not science. He, in a sense, is filling the gaps in our knowledge with the metaphysical laws that he believes in.
Those laws, he seems to believe, have existed since eternity, created both matter and time out of nothing and designed the fine-tuned universe that we know – just like what “God the Creator,” according to traditional monotheism, has done.
What Hawking does, then, is really just rename what most other people call “God.” You can do this in a million ways. “I don’t believe in God,” you can say. “I rather believe in a giant universe-creating machine, which itself is uncreated.” You can even fantasize about a “flying spaghetti monster,” as some smart alecks have mockingly done.
For my part, I stick to tradition, and revelation, and keep on calling the creator of the universe “God.”
As for Dr. Hawking’s “theory,” I have respect. Every faith, after all, deserves some.