There’s no denying that Stephen Hawking is intellectually bold as well as physically heroic. And in his latest book, the renowned physicist mounts an audacious challenge to the traditional religious belief in the divine creation of the universe.
According to Hawking, the laws of physics, not the will of God, provide the real explanation as to how life on Earth came into being. The Big Bang, he argues, was the inevitable consequence of these laws “because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
Unfortunately, while Hawking’s argument is being hailed as controversial and ground-breaking, it is hardly new.
For years, other scientists have made similar claims, maintaining that the awe-some, sophisticated creativity of the world around us can be interpreted solely by reference to physical laws such as gravity.
It is a simplistic approach, yet in our secular age it is one that seems to have resonance with a sceptical public.
But, as both a scientist and a Christian, I would say that Hawking’s claim is misguided. He asks us to choose between God and the laws of physics, as if they were necessarily in mutual conflict.
But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.
What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine.
That is a confusion of category. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up. The jet could not have been created without the laws of physics on their own—but the task of development and creation needed the genius of Whittle as its agent.
Similarly, the laws of physics could never have actually built the universe. Some agency must have been involved.
To use a simple analogy, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion in themselves never sent a snooker ball racing across the green baize. That can only be done by people using a snooker cue and the actions of their own arms.
Hawking’s argument appears to me even more illogical when he says the existence of gravity means the creation of the universe was inevitable. But how did gravity exist in the first place? Who put it there? And what was the creative force behind its birth?
Similarly, when Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for “the blue touch paper” to be lit to “set the universe going”, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?
Much of the rationale behind Hawking’s argument lies in the idea that there is a deep-seated conflict between science and religion. But this is not a discord I recognise.
For me, as a Christian believer, the beauty of the scientific laws only rein-forces my faith in an intelligent, divine creative force at work. The more I under-stand science, the more I believe in God because of my wonder at the breadth, sophistication and integrity of his creation.
The very reason science flourished so vigorously in the 16th and 17th centuries was precisely because of the belief that the laws of nature which were then being discovered and defined reflected the influence of a divine law-giver.
One of the fundamental themes of Christianity is that the universe was built according to a rational , intelligent design. Far from being at odds with science, the Christian faith actually makes perfect scientific sense.
Some years ago, the scientist Joseph Needham made an epic study of techno-logical development in China. He wanted to find out why China, for all its early gifts of innovation, had fallen so far behind Europe in the advancement of science.
He reluctantly came to the conclusion that European science had been spurred on by the widespread belief in a rational creative force, known as God, which made all scientific laws comprehensible.
Despite this, Hawking, like so many other critics of religion, wants us to believe we are nothing but a random collection of molecules, the end product of a mindless process.
This, if true, would undermine the very rationality we need to study science. If the brain were really the result of an unguided process, then there is no reason to believe in its capacity to tell us the truth.
We live in an information age. When we see a few letters of the alphabet spelling our name in the sand, our immediate response is to recognise the work of an intelligent agent. How much more likely, then, is an intelligent creator behind the human DNA, the colossal biological database that contains no fewer than 3.5 billion “letters”?
It is fascinating that Hawking, in attacking religion, feels compelled to put so much emphasis on the Big Bang theory. Because, even if the non-believers don’t like it, the Big Bang fits in exactly with the Christian narrative of creation.
That is why, before the Big Bang gained currency, so many scientists were keen to dismiss it, since it seemed to support the Bible story. Some clung to Aristotle’s view of the “eternal universe” without beginning or end; but this theory, and later variants of it, are now deeply discredited.
But support for the existence of God moves far beyond the realm of science. Within the Christian faith, there is also the powerful evidence that God revealed himself to mankind through Jesus Christ two millennia ago. This is well-documented not just in the scriptures and other testimony but also in a wealth of archaeological findings.
Moreover, the religious experiences of millions of believers cannot lightly be dismissed. I myself and my own family can testify to the uplifting influence faith has had on our lives, something which defies the idea we are nothing more than a random collection of molecules.
Just as strong is the obvious reality that we are moral beings, capable of under-standing the difference between right and wrong. There is no scientific route to such ethics.
Physics cannot inspire our concern for others, or the spirit of altruism that has existed in human societies since the dawn of time.
The existence of a common pool of moral values points to the existence of transcendent force beyond mere scientific laws. Indeed, the message of atheism has always been a curiously depressing one, portraying us as selfish creatures bent on nothing more than survival and self-gratification.
Hawking also thinks that the potential existence of other lifeforms in the universe undermines the traditional religious conviction that we are living on a unique, God-created planet. But there is no proof that other lifeforms are out there, and Hawking certainly does not present any.
It always amuses me that atheists often argue for the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence beyond earth. Yet they are only too eager to denounce the possibility that we already have a vast, intelligent being out there: God.
Hawking’s new fusillade cannot shake the foundations of a faith that is based on evidence.
Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. For further resources see www.johnlennox.org
Reprinted by permission from The Schwarz Report, November 2010. First published in London Mail Online, September 3, 2010