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Stephen Hawking: Great Scientist, Lousy Theologian

Writing within the confines of his areas of expertise, Hawking was readable, funny, informative, and creative. Not so when he was writing about theology and God.

Pope Francis greets British theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, during an audience with participants attending a plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2016. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

Stephen Hawking was a great theoretical physicist and cosmologist, perhaps the most important since Einstein. It is only right that his remains have been interred alongside those of Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. He was, furthermore, a person of tremendous courage and perseverance, accomplishing groundbreaking work despite a decades-long struggle with the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease.

And by all accounts, he was man of good humor with a rare gift for friendship. It is practically impossible not to admire him. But boy was he annoying when he talked about religion!

In the last year of his life, Hawking was putting the finishing touches on a book that is something of a follow-up to his mega-bestselling A Brief History of Time. Called Brief Answers to the Big Questions, it is a series of short essays on subjects including time travel, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the physics that obtains within a black hole, and the colonization of space.

But chapter one is entitled simply “Is There a God?” To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention to Hawking’s musings on the subject the last several years, his answer is no. Now, to anyone involved in the apologetics or evangelization game, this is, of course, depressing, since many people, especially the young, will say, “Well, there you have it: the smartest man in the world says that God does not exist.”

The problem is that one can be exceptionally intelligent in one arena of thought and actually quite naïve in another. This, I’m afraid, is the case with Stephen Hawking, who, though uniquely well-versed in his chosen field, makes a number of blunders when he wanders into the domains of philosophy and religion.

Things get off to a very bad start in the opening line of the chapter: “Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion.” Though certain primitive forms of religion might be construed as attempts to answer what we would consider properly scientific questions, religion, in the developed sense of the term, is not asking and answering scientific questions poorly; rather, it is asking and answering qualitatively different kinds of questions. Hawking’s glib one-liner beautifully expresses the scientistic attitude, by which I mean the arrogant tendency to reduce all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge.

Following their method of empirical observation, hypothesis formation, and experimentation, the sciences can indeed tell us a great deal about a certain dimension of reality. But they cannot, for example, tell us a thing about what makes a work of art beautiful, what makes a free act good or evil, what constitutes a just political arrangement, what are the features of a being qua being—and indeed, why there is a universe of finite existence at all. These are all philosophical and/or religious matters, and when a pure scientist, employing the method proper to the sciences, enters into them, he does so awkwardly, ham-handedly.

Let me demonstrate this by drawing attention to Hawking’s treatment of the last issue I mentioned—namely, why there should be a universe at all. Hawking opines that theoretical physics can confidently answer this question in such a way that the existence of God is rendered superfluous. Just as, at the quantum level, elementary particles pop into and out of existence regularly without a cause, so the singularity that produced the Big Bang simply came to be out of nothing, without a cause and without an explanation. The result, Hawking concludes, is that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

The first mistake—and armies of Hawking’s followers make it—is to equivocate on the meaning of the word “nothing.” In the strict philosophical (or indeed religious) sense, “nothing” designates absolute nonbeing; but what Hawking and his disciples mean by the term is in fact a fecund field of energy from which realities come and to which they return. The moment one speaks of “coming from” or “returning to,” one is not speaking of nothing! I actually laughed out loud at this part of Hawking’s analysis, which fairly gives away the game: “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.”

Well, whatever you want to say about the laws of science, they’re not nothing! Indeed, when the quantum theorists talk about particles popping into being spontaneously, they regularly invoke quantum constants and dynamics according to which such emergences occur. Again, say what you want about these law-like arrangements, they are not absolute nonbeing. And therefore, we are compelled to ask the question why should contingent states of affairs—matter, energy, the Big Bang, the laws of science themselves—exist at all?

The classical response of religious philosophy is that no contingency can be explained satisfactorily by appealing endlessly to other contingencies. Therefore, some finally noncontingent reality, which grounds and actualizes the finite universe, must exist. And this uncaused cause, this reality whose very nature is to be, is what serious religious people call “God.” None of Hawking’s speculations—least of all his musings about the putative “nothing” from which the universe arises—tells against this conviction.

May I say by way of conclusion that I actually rather liked Stephen Hawking’s last book. When he stayed within the confines of his areas of expertise, he was readable, funny, informative, and creative. But could I encourage readers please to take him with a substantial grain of salt when he speaks of the things of God?


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About Bishop Robert Barron 162 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

35 Comments

    • Big bang from nothing? Absolutely against the logic. There is a Great Order in the very beginning of every thing. Hawking would be knowing better as he finally meets the Destiny…in sha Allah

    • It’s not an assumption. It’s evidence which is totally missing in any religion. There is no evidence of what your religion has been hammering onto everyone for centuries. It’s a total lack of facts, of evidence which have been replaced by irrational, dogmatic and authoritarian statements together with the violent suppression of any form of enquiry and investigation. That’s why science continues whereas religions are fading away (not too fast, unfortunately). Take care. Karl.

      • Karl, the theological implications of the Big Bang were enormous. If time, space, matter and energy – the natural Universe – had a beginning, then that had to be reconciled with two facts:

        From nothing, nothing comes.

        Anything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.

        Genuine nothingness (in terms of the absence of natural realities) couldn’t have brought forth the natural Universe. Ever. If there was ever genuine nothingness, that nothingness would be eternal. Yet the Big Bang happened. It had to have had a cause. Its cause couldn’t have been a natural reality because natural realities are what began to exist. Those capable of rational objectivity will conclude that a supernatural reality must have caused the Big Bang.

        The opposition to the Big Bang theory of some scientists who reached this rather obvious conclusion was based on philosophical grounds, rather than on evidence against it. As Arthur Eddington put it: “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of Nature is repugnant to me … I should like to find a genuine loophole.” (Nature, 1931, vol. 127, p. 450) The corroborating evidence for the Big Bang has become overwhelming since 1931.

        Even so, to this day, scientists who are zealous adherents of atheistic scientism are desperate to find Eddington’s loophole. Hawking, whose writings once sounded rather open to theism, in his A Brief History of Time, for example, mentions the ratio between the masses of the proton and the electron as one of the many fundamental numbers in nature, and comments, “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.” Yet in the end he revealed his devotion to atheistic scientism in his The Grand Design, where he asserts that “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”

        How dumb is that? The laws of physics are in reality nothing more than our precise descriptions of how nature consistently behaves. They are not anything in themselves. When there was just nothing, there was nothing to be precisely described; there was no “law such as gravity” to cause the Universe to create itself from nothing.

        Dr. Robert Jastrow, was the first chairman of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Committee, the Chief of the Theoretical Division at NASA, the founding director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and was also a Professor of Geophysics at Columbia University. Karl, you will enjoy this excerpt from his book, God and the Astronomers, where he comments on the Big Bang theory:

        For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

      • Karl,
        Catholicism has evidence for many things that it asserts such as the existence of God. This evidence, though, is not scientific. On the other hand, science isn’t equipped to deal with the great issues of life. Rather, science is at the service of philosophy and theology.

      • If the “evidence” one seeks is in the measurable, material world only, spiritual reality will always elude you. As for religion disappearing, the opposite is actually the case. Atheism has no “stating power” at all. Without religious faith, there is no hope, courage, or willingness towards self-denial, and ultimately, no desire to reproduce. Atheist “cultures” die out for lack of sustainable birth rate. The materialistic West is on a path to extinction.

  1. wow! What’s going on? A prelate (of the new church of the material occupiers of the Holy See) doing apologetics? And even good! And, he’s even a Bishop! This gives hopes!
    There is hope that there is still somebody holding colored title of Bishop and being in good faith (sincerely believing that he’s in communion with a Pope) which, combined with the common error of people, when he’ll realize the hierarchical “switch” occurred after Pius XII death, reject the false hierarchy, and its errors and heresies, and acknowledge the vacancy of the Holy See, would give him ipso facto the power of jurisdiction as an actual Residential Bishop to make canonical monitions to the entire “hierarchy” (including the 6th “king”) and restore the Papacy later, with those who will convert, via imperfect council!
    All the best, Bishop Barron, this is no small task, this is a feat of biblical proportions. May the most holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great and powerful Saint Joseph, Saint Michael Archangel, Saint Pius X, St. Elijah, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, Your Guardian Angel, and all Angels, Saints, and purgatory souls help you, to be the hero of the final times, to be the hero who will be remembered for ETERNITY by the holy saints and Angels of God in heaven, as the liberator of the Church, a Star who will shine bright the day of the final Judgment, making demons shake like dry leafs under a tornado, by the Grace of God and His Glory!

    • “What’s going on? A prelate (of the new church of the material occupiers of the Holy See) doing apologetics? And even good! And, he’s even a Bishop! This gives hopes!”

      He’s been around for a while, actually. A few books and some acclaimed video series, etc. Also wrote a book on Aquinas…

  2. Pretty pathetic world we live in. The Catholic Church spews the same rhetoric Donald Trump spews. Your views are as one dimensional as his are. I know your “moderator” will edit this comment out. The Catholic Church’s walls are much higher than the wall Trump could ever build. Have a nice day 😂

  3. As a rule, I’ve found good philosophers to be fairly ignorant of science and good scientists to be fairly ignorant of philosophy.

    It’s rare to find a mind that is good at both.

  4. In layman’s terms Hawking would have it that a “God” above is an imaginary projection of the human mind rather than that the universe, instead, is a projection—a creation ex nihilo (from nothing)—from God’s infinite power and creative love. Hawking theorizes that there is no “nothing” before the front end of stuff, no need for a physical beginning. By mathematics Hawking intends a “fundamental logic that does not allow for ‘nothing’.”

    One need no longer ask the ground-floor philosophical question, “why anything rather than nothing.” Where science once proved that maggots do not spontaneously appear in rotten meat, does it now propose that the emergence of the entire universe is, what, spontaneous?

    Hawking proposes that knowing how things change is “to know the [very] mind of God.” Other scientists might vigorously review and possibly refute the math equations and then this remarkable conclusion. As for non-scientists, the lens and mind of Shakespeare, for example, still counts as much as the Hubble telescope: “To be or not to be, that is the question” (Hamlet).

    A particle physicist (William Oerter) concludes his work with this quotation from a colleague: “[I think] that as we learn many additional facts, we will also come to comprehend more clearly how much we don’t know—and, let us hope, learn an appropriate HUMILITY.” The string theorist Brian Greene suspects that even cosmology may have its outer limits: “Maybe we will have to accept that certain features of the universe are the way they are because of happenstance, accident, OR divine choice”.

    Excerpts from my book: A GENERATION ABANDONED (Hamilton Books, 2017).

    • Peter,
      I agree that something can’t come from nothing. However, if something where to come from nothing, it would certainly be a haphazard universe without laws and order. But scientists observe the Universe with incredible order. Therefore, the Universe did not come from nothing but from God.

  5. Perhaps Stephen Hawking was looking for a miracle for his illness and to hopefully recant once healed. But no miracle came. He must have been so disappointed of “scientifically” testing God’s initiative to heal him.
    To his mind he probably thought that it would have been God’s only chance to prove his so called existence. What a sad way to die.

  6. Not convincing. Science replaces religion for the reason Hawking indicated. Before Newton God kept the sun and planets in orbit around the earth. Copernicus, i believe, said it was the hand of god although there was some argunent that he delegated it to angels. Newton blamed the Plague and the Great Fire of London as a punishment for wickedness. Jenner put paid to that. For 500+ years science has reduced the necessity for God and that process is continuing.

    • Edward,
      Science can never replace religion just as religion can never replace science. Science is circumscribed to studying only the material universe: religion pertains to God’s relationship with Creation. These are two different disciplines.

    • Considering that the Big Bang Theory was proposed by Father Georges Lemaitre (who also derived Hubble’s Law before Hubble) and that Catholic priests and laymen have long been contributing to scientific progress for 700+ years, it appears more to be the case that science just can’t get it done without God’s followers. As to your scoffing at the notion of the “hand of God”, G.K. Chesteron indicated quite rightly (in Orthodoxy) that what appears as scientific law to us might just be a happy “monotony” of recurring activity to a tireless and eternal God.

  7. “Hawking’s glib one-liner beautifully expresses the scientistic attitude, by which I mean the arrogant tendency to reduce all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge.”

    There is no other kind of knowledge. All religions are belief, faith, devotion, but never knowledge. Knowledge, by its very definition, implies empirical proof of the sort no religious or spiritual awareness can ever provide.

    It’s the subtle difference between KNOWING something you can prove, measure, replicate, and understand, and having FAITH in God who is beyond human measurement or comprehension.

    • Anonymous – what you have overlooked is the knowledge also is just one form of belief besides opinion and faith. Knowledge gives us belief through direct observation and not all knowledge is scientific such as when I “know” that the red mustang ran a stop sign because I was standing only ten feet away (and just in the way that the Apostles “know” that Jesus healed the paralytic man because they observed it). Opinion is belief formed on what is probably true (although most opinions today are based on whim). Faith is belief formed by trusting in what another person tells you is true, because that person is trustworthy. When we trust in divine revelation (especially in what Jesus tells us) we can believe it with the certainty of knowledge because He is completely trustworthy. Further, without faith as form of belief, I would have to call your observation of the mustang running the red light just your “opinion”, since I did not see it happen and I do not count you as trustworthy. Further, without faith (trustworthiness) very little “evidence” could ever being given in juridical matters.

  8. As I look at the magnificent night sky with the expanse of trillions of stars and planets I find it impossible to think that God was not involved. What I find intriguing is that God focused on placing man only on earth. After careful thought I believe God made a mistake because man is destroying the planet. Scientists recently released a paper that said, in part, that if man does not change activities that are causing global warming the earth can only sustain life, as we know it, for two decades.

    I did not know that Hawking was an atheist, but as a scientist I understand.

    • “After careful thought I believe God made a mistake”

      Do you actually read what you’ve written? You think that God made a *mistake,* and that you know better than He does? And yet you blindly accept what a group of scientists wrote, even though other scientists disagree.

      Incredible.

      • Leslie, I just saw your reply. There are many tragedies that history has shown. Some say “how could he be a loving God and let the world wars occur and the holocaust occur? If he is a loving God how could he possibly condemn the entire human race with original sin based on flimsy evidence of bad fruit from a special tree?

        Yes, God is all omniscient and loving, but it still intrigues me.

  9. Hawking made the same mistake as his fellow scientist Richard Dawkins. He assumed that because he was an expert in one field of science (as Dawkins is in biology), he would automatically qualify as an expert in all fields of science, wisdom and philosophy. This is absurd as assuming that a structural engineer is well qualified in giving psychiatric treatment or marriage counseling.

  10. One thing science can never do: prove that there is no God. It may prove that my concept of God is false, but that would only prove that my concept was false, not that there isn’t a God.

    And since the scientist can never prove there is no God, then it follows that not believing in a God, is also an act of faith.

  11. How is it “only right” that this atheist’s remains have been interred at Westminster Abbey, further desecrating it (like so many former Catholic sites in England in the aftermath of Henry VIII’s schism)?

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