Dr. Stephen Hawking's new book, “The Grand Design,” makes the bold claim that the universe “created itself from nothing” based on physical laws such as gravity, making God unnecessary for a self-created and self-unfolding model of the universe. However, two Catholic scholars trained in physics say his remarks misconstrue the real relationship between God and creation.
A Jesuit priest and scholar, former president of Gongaza University Fr. Robert Spitzer, says that Hawking's dismissal of God in favor of physics reflects fundamental confusions about the Christian concept of God, as the creator of all that exists-- both the physical universe, and the laws of physics which apply to it.
When this is understood, Fr. Spitzer said, Hawking's basic confusion becomes clear. Although Hawking talks about the universe “creating itself from nothing,” he is presupposing that this “nothing” somehow involved gravity and other fundamental laws of physics, Fr. Spitzer explained.
But principles such as gravity are not irreducible or self-evident axioms. Rather, they are non-physical laws which govern the ordinary operations of the physical world. Thus, the Jesuit priest stated, there is no comparison between a creation which unfolds and develops according to laws followed by matter, and Hawking's proposal of “spontaneous creation” from “nothing.”
“Let’s take the law mentioned by Dr. Hawking above – the law of gravity,” Spitzer wrote. “It has a specific constant associated with it and specific characteristics, and it has specific effects on mass-energy and even on space-time itself. This is a very curious definition of 'nothing'.”
“Now,” he continued, “if we rephrase Dr. Hawking’s statement in the above fashion, then he has clearly not explained why there is something rather than nothing. He has only explained that something comes from something,” by describing the development of a functioning universe on the basis of laws such as gravity.
Historically, many Christian theologians, as well as non-Christian philosophers, have argued precisely the opposite of Hawking's point: namely, that the laws of physics can only be ascribed to an infinite, intelligent and non-physical creator.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, explained to CNA on Friday how the preconditions for the universe's unfolding and operations were not a form of “nothing,” as Hawking considers them to be. Rather, he said, they are the conditions created by God for the ordering of the world.
“God is the reason why space and time and the laws of nature can be present for the forces to operate that Stephen Hawking is talking about,” he told CNA.
Hawking's dismissal of God, Br. Consolmagno said, was based not only on his incorrect designation of physical laws as “nothing,” but also on a failure to grasp the notion of God's transcendence. As such, he concluded, Hawking was really dismissing a kind of “god” in which Christians do not believe.
“The 'god' that Stephen Hawking doesn’t believe in, is one I don’t believe in either. God is not just another force in the Universe, alongside gravity or electricity. God is not a force to be invoked to . . . 'start a scene or two' and fill the momentary gaps in our knowledge.”
Rather, Br. Consolmagno said, “God is the reason why existence itself exists.”
This profound mystery, Fr. Spitzer said, was one which Professor Hawking was actually indicating, at the very same time he was attempting to dismiss it.
“In my view,” he concluded, “Dr. Hawking has not yet shown the non-necessity of this reality. Indeed, he implies it by assuming the existence of a beginning in his assertion about the universe coming from nothing.”