God and Dr. Hawking

In a recent statement, the physicist Stephen Hawking, contradicting his previous pronouncements, said that the universe could have appeared from the mere spontaneous interplay of the laws of physics, without any intervention of a Creator God.

The time when the declarations of physicists were heard as divine decrees is gone. Today their statements arrogate to themselves a super-divine authority, judging and suppressing God himself.  And they do not content themselves in doing this in the sphere of pure theoretical considerations: they extend their jurisdiction to the whole domain of social existence, demanding that education, culture, and law be molded according to their scientific world view, under the penalty of their being convicted for acts of fanaticism and crimes against the democratic state.

Yet, at the same time, the signatories of these decrees brag about their exemplar epistemological modesty, swearing to practice the constant review of their own beliefs and never to impose on anyone any definitive scientific truth, which, they admit, does not even exist.

The coexistence, in the same brain, of such overwhelming presumptions and such a candid feeling of critical restraint should be enough to show that something is not working well in that brain.

First of all, we rarely see one of these pontiffs of knowledge displaying any consciousness of the distinction between the real world and the object studied by their specialized science.

The “universe” Prof. Hawking refers to is not that of general human experience but an abstract one, the universe as it is known by the science of physics.  Neither Prof. Hawking nor any other scientist of his area can offer us the least proof that the universe of physics is “real.”

In point of fact, there is no thornier problem for all of them than that of the ontological statute of the particles studied by the most developed and most precise branch of science, quantum physics. They know a lot, almost everything, about these particles, but they do not know what they are or in what sense the word “reality” could be applied to them.

The very fact that the presence of the observer modifies their behavior has led many of those scientists to the most extreme speculations on the subjective—or “spiritual”—character of the entire physical universe. When we do not know whether a thing exists within the mind, outside of it, or in both these places at the same time, and when we do not know—assuming this latter hypothesis to be true—the location of the connection that binds together both aspects of this thing, we must recognize that all we know about it is its appearance.

The universe of physics is a system of appearances, of “phenomena,” which coincides with the real world in some respects but differs from it in others.  To ask whether a system of appearances could have appeared by itself, or whether it would need a God to create it, is not only an idle speculation but obviously has no bearing on the question of the origin of the real world.

When Prof. Hawking says that “the world” could have appeared by itself, what he means to say is that “his” world—a certain system of phenomenal appearances, considered only in its abstract internal constitution (and supposing this constitution is entirely known, which is still far from being true)—“could” be conceived, with no logical contradiction, as the spontaneous result of the working of its own laws, without the intervention of an external element.

To say this is practically to say nothing—not even about the pure system of appearances as such. This is only the statement of a logically possible proposition about a group of hypotheses.  To transform this into a conclusive statement that “God did not create the world” is a sort of rhetorical hyperbole that borders on insanity or pure and simple charlatanism.

No serious scientist has the right to ignore the almost insuperable difficulties interposing between the laws of quantum physics and any statement, as modest as it may be, on the nature of reality in general.  The first of these difficulties is that quantum physics is not even sure as to the statute of reality of the objects that it studies.

To make things worse, Dr. Hawking is not even talking about quantum physics. He is talking about the Big Bang, a theory that draws on contributions from quantum physics but does not have a thousandth part of the credibility that, within its limits, quantum physics undeniably has.

In strict terms, what Dr. Hawking said is that in theory the Big Bang could have been caused by the spontaneous action of the four forces that make it up, with no external help. Even supposing that this statement is strictly true (I have no condition to confirm or deny this now), the following problems would remain:

(1) If there are forces that preceded or determined the “Big Bang,” then the Big Bang itself is not “the origin of the world” but only of a certain stage of its existence.

(2) Where did the four forces come from: out of nothing or were they created?

(3) That something may happen in theory does not prove that it has necessarily happened.

(4) We do not even know whether the Big Bang happened or only may have happened.

Translated into the language of logic, professor Hawking’s declaration means: “There is a possibility that other possibility may be causa sui and not the result of a third possibility.”  Very nice! But it does not tell us anything about what really happened.  And it does not answer at all the most decisive question in the history of philosophy, thus expressed by Leibniz: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

No matter how competent he may be in his field of studies, Dr. Hawking frequently behaves as a show-biz star, impressing the audience with spectacular statements which become even more spectacular when, one year later, he denies them with that same air of certitude with which he first uttered them.

Olavo de Carvalho is the President of The Inter-American Institute and Distinguished Senior Fellow in Philosophy, Political Science, and the Humanities.

The opinions published here are those of the writer and are not necessarily endorsed by the Institute. This article was originally published in the Brazilian newspaper Diário do Comércio on September 13, 2010, and translated from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota.

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