Has Hawking Explained God Away? God, Physics and the Beginning

Saints and Sceptics

Some naturalists have argued that the progress of science has worked to strip away God’s role in the world. Cosmologies in which the universe does not have a beginning seem to undermine the doctrine of “creation ex nihilo”; some cosmologists have even claimed that our universe could spontaneously have begun to exist out of nothing (Krauss, 2013). Multiverses are used to explain the order and structure of our universe, removing the need for a designer.  This article examines such arguments by examining the popular writings of Stephen Hawking.

1. The Hartle-Hawking Model

According to the standard big bang hypothesis, the universe came into existence a finite time ago. The overall theory within which the hypothesis is formulated is general relativity. The standard big bang hypothesis says that the universe emerged from singularity at which  the space-time curvature was infinite and matter was compressed to an infinite density.  We cannot continue to apply our   relativistic cosmological theories beyond this point because equations break down when a physical theory contains an infinite quantity. Stephen Hawking categorically states that at the initial ‘singularity’ the laws of physics break down

A singularity may be regarded as a place where there is a breakdown of the classical concept of space-time.  Because all known laws of physics are formulated on a classical space-time background they will break down at a singularity.  This is a great crisis for physics because it means that one does not know what will come out of a singularity. (Hawking, 1976, p.)

The big bang hypothesis does , then, provide empirical evidence for the claim that the universe began to exist.

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However, general relativity may not be applicable to the very earliest era of our universe. Davies notes a “rule of thumb” used by physicists. If a theory has no inbuilt unit of length there is no way to predict when the theory will break down., Newton’s gravitational constant G can be combined with Planck’s constant h and the speed of light to make a quantity with a unit of length known as the Planck length  which is about 10-33cm. Dividing the Planck length by the speed of light we get the Planck time which is roughly 10-43 seconds. Davies notes that “..the Planck time serves as a warning: we should not trust general relativity when extrapolated to within one Planck time of the origin” (Davies, 2006, p.86).

Einstein’s general theory of relativity fails to take into account the quantum fluctuations which must be present in any physical process involving gravity; therefore  general relativity cannot be extrapolated in an unmodified form to predict what will happen at or below the Planck length. Quantum fluctuations also affect our measurements of time. The simplest way to define a unit of time is to measure the interval it takes for a swinging pendulum to complete a full oscillation. However, we cannot measure the precise location of the pendulum (Lidsey, 2000, p.118-119). The terms “space” and “time” do not have an adequate physical meaning below the Planck limit because neither can be measured.

Such considerations led to the development of quantum cosmology…

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Has Hawking Explained God Away? God, Physics and the Beginning – Saints and Sceptics