William Carroll, one of the most subtle Thomists currently thinking about science, metaphysics, and faith, has put up a characteristically clear and lucid analysis of Stephen Hawking’s claim that modern physics has shown that we don’t need God to get the universe going.
As Carroll observes, “Many cosmologists who now routinely speak of what happened “before the Big Bang” think that to reject some original Big Bang is to eliminate the need for a Creator.”
But what does it mean to create? Carroll continues: “They deny the need for a Creator because they think that “to be created” means to have a temporal beginning. In such a scenario, accepting or rejecting a Creator is tied to accepting or to explaining away an original Big Bang.”
Hawking makes exactly this assumption. “You might remember,” writes Carroll, “Hawking’s famous rhetorical question: ‘So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?’” The problem, Carroll notes, is a conceptual mistake. “Creation, as a metaphysical notion,” Carroll points out, “affirms that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause.” This differs from the usual meaning we give to creation, which involves shaping or altering or initating something.
The natural sciences seek to explain these kinds of alterations or creations. They as their subject, Caroll continues, “the world of changing things: from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally finite, they remain processes.”
As do all scientists, Hawking thinks in terms of processes governed by the laws of physics. He points out, for example, that the laws of physics make it possible for the universe to initiate itself, and for it to have no boundary or edge.
But at a conceptual level this way of thinking is quite different from the usual way that theologians and philosophers approach the question. Creation, in the metaphysical sense of the word, Carrol observes, “is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material. When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not mean that there is a change from “nothing” to ‘something.’”
If we keep this distinction in mindthe distinction between a change of state, even a change from what physicists call “nothing” to the something of our present universe, and to be the source of existence as suchthen we can see the error that Hawking makes. As Carroll points out, we “find Hawking telling us that it is not necessary ‘to invoke God . . . to set the Universe going.’ But creation does not mean ‘to set the Universe going’-as though some change occurred at a putative beginning. To deny such a change, as Hawking does, is not to deny creation.” The explanation of the difference between the two senses of “create” that Carroll gives ought to be clear to anyone. Indeed, I must admit that I when I read Hawkings’ précis of his book, The Grand Design , in the Weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal , I was flabbergast.
Hawking has a reputation for being very smart, but he seems to be invincibly ignorant when it comes to metaphysics.
And not just ignorant, but also intellectually irresponsible. Consider the opening lines: “According to Viking mythology, eclipses occur when two wolves, Skoll and Hati, catch the sun or moon. At the onset of an eclipse people would make lots of noise, hoping to scare the wolves away. After some time, people must have noticed that the eclipses ended regardless of whether they ran around banging on pots.”
Christian and Jewish theologies do not think that God “caused” the world by grabbing primeval matter and spinning it like a pot. On the contrary, the doctrine of creation out of nothing was formulated precisely to rule out mythological views of God’s power over finite reality. God is not bigger and better than everything else. God is entirely transcendent over and other than everything else.
Apparently, Stephen Hawking thinks it is unnecessary to inform himself about what Christians and Jews (and Muslims, for that matter, as well as various philosophical schools) actually think about God and creation. Robert Sokolowsi’s book, The God of Faith and Reason , is not obscure, inaccessible, or out of print, and within its pages an intelligent college freshman can come to grasp the logic of the classical doctrine of creation.
In the end, Hawking on theology reminds me of ill-informed fundamentalists and their efforts at creation “science.” There’s no actual interest in the a broad engagement with the challenges of understanding, just a mulish push to make what one already understands into the key for understanding everything else.