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Stephen Hawking’s Creation Confusion

by William Carroll

September 8, 2010

Scientists have begun to doubt whether there was a “Big Bang.” But in claiming that this disproves the existence of a Creator, they confuse temporal beginnings with origins.

“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God . . . to set the Universe going.” Such is the affirmation of Stephen Hawking found in his newly released book, The Grand Design. It is not unusual to hear a distinguished scientist make the claim that the universe and everything about it is, at least in principle, exhaustively explicable in terms of contemporary science. In his famous book, A Brief History of Time (1988), Hawking did admit that perhaps a god was needed to choose the basic laws of physics and that, accordingly, if a grand unified theory of scientific explanation were at hand we would come to know “the mind of God.” Now Hawking thinks that, more broadly, we can do away with an appeal to a creator, at least as he understands what ‘to create’ means. Citing a version of contemporary string theory, known as “M-theory,” Hawking tells us that the “creation” of a great many universes out of nothing “does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god.” Rather, these multiple universes “arise naturally from physical law.” Ultimate questions about the nature of existence which have intrigued philosophers for millennia are, so he claims, now the province of science, and “philosophy is dead.”

Hawking’s new book invites us to think again about what it means “to create” and what, if anything, the natural sciences can tell us about it. The assertion—which is broadly philosophical and certainly not scientific—that the universe is self-sufficient, without any need for a Creator to explain why there is something rather than nothing, is the result of fundamental confusions about the explanatory domains of the natural sciences and philosophy. What is often being affirmed is a kind of “totalizing naturalism” that eliminates the need for any appeal to explanations which employ principles that transcend the world of physical things. Whether we speak of explanations of the Big Bang itself (such as quantum tunneling from nothing) or of some version of a multiverse hypothesis, or of self-organizing principles in biological change (including appeals to randomness and chance as ultimate explanations), the conclusion which seems inescapable to many is that there is no need to appeal to a Creator, that is, to any cause which is outside the natural order.

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