Did the universe create itself?

Many atheists—including Stephen Hawking—suggest that it did. John Lennox offers a rebuttal.

Stephen Hawking was a world-renowned physicist, cosmologist and a professor at Cambridge University. He was also an outspoken atheist. In his recent bestseller, The Grand Design, Hawking asserted that science has supplanted God as the explanation for the universe. John Lennox has published a short book titled God and Stephen Hawking as a rebuttal to that claim. A mathematician and scientist himself, Lennox contends that science is not at odds with religious belief. In fact, he argues that our increasing knowledge of the universe has made belief in God more rational, not less.

Read on for key insights from God and Stephen Hawking.

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Hawking should stick to science because his philosophy is sloppy and self-defeating.

Scientism is the view that science is the only legitimate path to knowledge and to solving the world’s problems. When Hawking boldly asserts that “philosophy is dead” and that science is now the shining light that will guide us forward, he gives science more credit than it is due, and he is overlooking some basic and blatant contradictions. For example, the assertion “philosophy is dead” is itself a philosophical statement; it is certainly not a statement of science. Without realizing it, Hawking has relied on philosophy to reject philosophy; he is hacking at the branch on which he is sitting.

Reductionism—a view Hawking adopts and defends—is the belief that the material universe is all there is and that all phenomena can be explained as part of a cause-and-effect chain within the physical realm. On this view, the supernatural is excluded, and experiences of love and joy are reduced to no more than moments of intense chemical release and neurological firings. Hawking echoes the sentiments of Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, that truth itself is simply “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerves.”

Like scientism, extreme reductionism devolves into self-contradiction. If truth is reducible to neural behavior, how could we come to recognize it? Isn’t it just a coincidence of idiosyncratic brain activity, a random accident? On reductionism, our brains could not be expected to produce rational thoughts. We could have no confidence in their connection to truth. This conundrum is known as Darwin’s Doubt. Darwin famously wrote, “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of a man’s mind, which has developed from lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”

Hawking’s scientism and reductionism are both self-refuting, so how does he get away with it? Why isn’t his philosophical sloppiness being challenged? Part of the reason is society’s high opinion of science and the aura of authority that seems to follow scientists. Hawking, being among the greats in the scientific community, has been elevated to the point where his claims and arguments often go unquestioned. But no truth claims are exempt from examination, and a bad argument is a bad argument, even if it comes from a renowned scientist.

Instead of advancing sound arguments, Hawking attacks straw men and presents false dilemmas.

Hawking has a tendency to create false dilemmas by presenting supernatural explanations in weakened form (a straw man). For example, Hawking argues that ancient Greek scientists were the first to negate superstitions like belief in gods. He’s correct that they rebelled against the concept of gods, but what they rejected was quite different from the God of Christian theism. Hawking can easily dismiss a lesser view of gods, who emerge within an eternal universe, but the monotheistic view of God as an all-powerful, eternal Creator is harder to shake. He is not a feature of the universe, but the Uncaused Cause of the universe. His existence would be an elegant explanation for the Big Bang and the universe’s fine tuning for life. Hawking’s retort, “Well what created God then?” shows that the idea of God that he rejects is a weaker form, reminiscent of some ancient polytheism.

Another set of false alternatives is Hawking’s pitting God against the theory of the multiverse. Hawking acknowledges the breathtaking array of factors that had to perfectly coalesce—and continually coalesce—for life to be possible. Even he finds it difficult to describe the universe without using language that implies intelligent design. But instead of appealing to God as the explanation for the universe’s remarkable fine-tuning, he appeals to the multiverse. The multiverse theory maintains that our universe is just one of many others—perhaps an infinite number of others—so it was all but inevitable that a universe would eventually emerge that allows for life. We are not special; we are just the natural, eventual outcome of cosmic probability. Of course, in attempting to rebut God as the force behind a finely tuned universe, Hawking creates other problems for himself. For instance, if there is such thing as a multiverse, how did it come into being? If there is a multiverse, perhaps it is also finely tuned, in which case a Creator would remain a viable, economic explanation. It is also important to acknowledge that the multiverse is highly speculative, with some critics suggesting that it creates as many problems as it solves. 

Advances in science do not undermine belief in God because God is not an explanatory alternative to science.

Like many other materialists, Hawking charges theists with simple-minded belief in a "God of the gaps”—that is, a God who fills in the gaps in our knowledge by providing an explanation for all the things we don't yet understand. Of course, as science progresses and knowledge increases, there will be fewer and fewer gaps for God to fill. From Hawking's perspective, it's only a matter of time before all the gaps are closed and God is no longer needed to explain anything.

Unfortunately, this misguided view fails to accurately represent the theist’s concept of God. To see why, consider the following illustration:

Upon seeing a jet engine for the first time, a primitive man who's never encountered advanced technology or engineering might be tempted to believe there was something magical about it. He might think there was some supernatural spell, or spirit, that powered the thing and made it run. Of course, he would be wrong. If he began to learn physics and started picking the machine apart, he would come to understand that there was nothing magical about it. Physics and chemistry could provide an exhaustive account of its function.

But would it then be reasonable to conclude that because one understands the mechanism, one need not postulate a mechanic? Would complete knowledge of how the engine works give us cause to deny the existence of an engineer? Of course not. That is because the engineer (in this case, Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine) is not a competing explanation for the machine's function—he is a complementary explanation. A full account of the jet engine involves both mechanism and agency. Without Frank Whittle, there would be no mechanism to explain. Thus it isn't possible to squeeze him out of the gaps as we learn more about the mechanism. As the agent behind the mechanism, he was never in those gaps to begin with—to place him there would be to commit a category mistake.

Yet that is precisely what Hawking has done; he has committed a category mistake by pitting God against science as if they were competitive explanations. This is but one more false dilemma. The thoughtful theist does not believe in a God who only fits in the gaps, plugging the holes in our understanding. Rather, he believes that as knowledge gaps are filled, God's existence becomes even more apparent. He is the agent behind the matter and mechanisms—He is the reason it all exists in the first place. The more we understand the mechanisms, the more we admire the mind of the mechanic.

The claim that science and religion are in conflict is refuted by the existence of eminent Christian scientists.

It is worth noting that the first scientists (e.g., Newton, Galileo, and Kepler) were Christians. Newton was not concerned that science would lead people away from Christian moorings. In fact, he saw scientific discovery as a means to point people to the existence of God. There are also many contemporary, renowned scientists who unblushingly submit that there is a God who created the universe. For example, Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, sees science as a faith-strengthener—not a faith-destroyer. Hawking, Dawkins, and others hold that any scientist worth his salt will see God as a man-made myth, but their argument is undermined by the fact that there have always been accomplished scientists who have professed belief in God.

The suggestion that science and religion are in conflict is unconvincing from a philosophical standpoint as well. Wittgenstein understood the “deception of modernism” that Hawking seems to have lost sight of: the laws of nature can describe rules and regularities of the world, but they cannot explain the world. Science answers the how questions but cannot answer why questions. There is only a conflict when science overreaches its boundaries. When kept in their respective spheres, the physical and the metaphysical dovetail nicely.

Inductive inference is preferable to abductive inference, but Hawking conflates the two.

Science tends to approach questions inductively; that is, scientists draw general rules from particular occurrences. They test variables and measure outcomes in repeatable experiments. When the outcomes are extremely consistent, then a law is established to account for the pattern. For example, all things being equal, if you drop an object it will do just that: drop. This gave rise to Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity, that there is a force that pulls objects toward the Earth’s center.

Induction is valuable because it allows you to test a theory by conducting an experiment and observing the outcome. There are other aspects of science that do not afford us the luxury of repeating experiments. Sometimes we have to make an inference about a particular, unrepeatable event. These inferences are called abductions. The Big Bang is a prime example. We cannot recreate the Big Bang in a lab—to provide a sufficient account for it, we must make the best inference we can based on the evidence we have at hand 13.7 billion years later.

By their very nature, unrepeatable events do not lend themselves to the same degree of testability as recurring ones. Detectives have a similar conundrum because they cannot recreate the scene of a crime. Sherlock Holmes is famous for his “elementary deductions” based on the clues at hand, but it would be more precise to call his conclusions “elementary abductions.”

Abductive inference does not carry the same weight as induction, but Hawking implicitly assigns the same weight to abduction when he speaks about the possibility of a multiverse to explain the fine-tuning of the universe, or M-theory to explain away a Creator as being behind the universe’s origin. Both the multiverse and M-theory are highly speculative. A God who created the universe and sustains the myriad conditions needed for the flourishing of life on Earth is a far simpler, more elegant explanation than a multiverse. Such speculative theories are untestable and complicated. Notably, they fail to meet Hawking’s own criteria for a good explanatory model. They also fail to qualify as scientific. Even many atheists dismiss M-theory and the multiverse as untestable, metaphysical speculations.

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