The recent explosive reaction towards Stephen Hawking’s latest book about the origins of the universe rivals that of the Big Bang itself. Twenty years ago, in “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking famously posited that if science one day discovers a theory for explaining the universe’s creation, “we would know the mind of God.” Last month, however, Hawking released “The Grand Design,” a work in which he claims that science has finally uncovered this theory but has kicked God out of the picture in the process.
In response, an extraordinarily prominent group of religious leaders—including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi of England, and the committee chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain—have blasted Hawking for what they claim is an overreach of science into the realm of religion. As the Chief Rabbi of England put it, “Even great science tells us nothing about G-d…Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation.” While Hawking does sometimes transgress the limits of science in “The Grand Design,” however, Hawking’s larger argument stays squarely in its proper realm, and if anything these religious leaders are overstepping their bounds by impinging on it.
M-theory, Hawking explains, posits that there exist myriad universes parallel to our own. Our particular universe is hospitable to life not because it was fine-tuned specifically for us, Hawking argues, but because it just happens to be a universe in which life could develop. We, in a sense, struck lucky. In addition, he says, although matter cannot normally appear out of thin air, negative gravitational energy can counterbalance the positive energy necessary to form things. “Because there is a law such as gravity,” Hawking writes, “the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
Whether this actually makes any sense is another question entirely (I won’t pretend to understand theoretical physics, even if Hawking does dumb it down quite a bit in his book). But the point is that if M-theory does hold true, it would explain the apparent orderliness of the universe and its creation ex nihilo without appealing to a deity.
Occasionally, Hawking overinflates the importance of this scientific accomplishment. At the beginning of the book, for example, Hawking implies that M-theory can provide us not only with an explanation of the universe’s origin but its meaning and purpose as well. Existential questions have always been “questions for philosophy,” Hawking writes, but “philosophy is dead,” and “scientists have become the bearers of the torch in our quest for discovery.” Clearly, however, physics is no substitute for metaphysics. Science may explain how the phenomena in the universe around us work, but it can never delve into the true mysteries of existence since it is ultimately stuck on the “how.” Theology and philosophy are the disciplines that bridge the gap between our search for meaning and what we can deduce in a laboratory.
Still, however, M-theory (assuming its coherence) fits into a larger framework of how scientific progress has helped shape religious belief over time. Although Hawking’s detractors would like to believe that religion is limited solely to questions of value, virtually all religions over the course of history have made factual claims also. And some of those claims fall directly under the purview of science.
Consider, for example, the following two beliefs traditionally held by some monotheistic religions: “There exists a supernatural force called God upon which all existence is dependent,” and “God created the universe six thousand years ago over the course of six days.”
The first claim would fit the paradigm espoused by the bishop, the rabbi, and the imam. Because this is a metaphysical statement, science has no place in determining its validity. Hawking’s critics are reacting to his book as though he has challenged a claim like this—that is, by arguing that M-theory completely precludes God’s existence.
But Hawking does no such thing. All he argues is that M-theory makes God’s place in the universe’s creation redundant.
Enter the second claim. Technically, science can never totally disprove a statement like this one either. But it can make it exceedingly unlikely. So unlikely, in fact, that most mainstream religious leaders today have reinterpreted their theologies in light of scientific discoveries. The universe may have been created in more than six solar days because the Bible says that the sun and moon were created on day four. Life may have been formed by natural selection over millions of years, but God implanted a soul within man after his evolution. Now that yet another scientific challenge has come to the fore, the burden rests on theologians once again to decide how it affects a long-standing religious belief—this time, that a deity is needed to explain the universe’s creation at all.
Great science, then, can tell us plenty about God. Although religion grapples with deep questions of the human experience in a way that science can’t, religion needs science as a method of understanding the extent of God’s relationship—if it exists at all—with the universe. Spiritual leaders and thinkers, therefore, ought to use “The Grand Design” as a framework for getting closer to the transcendent splendor that they seek, instead of burning Hawking at the stake for simply doing his job.
Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House currently studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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